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The Pattern On The Stone: The Simple Ideas That Make Computers Work (Science Masters) Paperback – 17 Sep 1999

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Product details

  • Paperback: 176 pages
  • Publisher: Basic Books (17 Sept. 1999)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 046502596X
  • ISBN-13: 978-0465025961
  • Product Dimensions: 12.7 x 1.1 x 20.3 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 4.7 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (3 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 646,087 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
  • See Complete Table of Contents

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Product Description


Peter Thomas, "New Scientist""This is the best book on computers I have ever read. Hillis takes us on a lightening tour of the fundamentals of computing.... Nowhere does [he] lose sight of the fact that what is important is not the detail of these issues, but the story that flows through them and rationality of thought that connects them." Dan Brekke, "WIRED""[Hillis'] conclusion is thoughtfully optimistic--and appealing even to a skeptic." Bill Brazell, "The Industry Standard"""The Pattern on the Stone" illustrates basic computing concepts with line drawings of Tinkertoys in various positions--a surprisingly helpful approach.... The book's gradual pace, low-tech design and gentle title are meant to bring hope to those who feel swamped by a tidal wave of computer-wrought change. And the approach succeeds, by showing the reader how humans, not magicians, discovered a few basic principles and built these amazing machines." "Publisher's Weekly""Hillis...provides an almost philosophical approach to the machine that has changed our lives.... [He] writes with the authority of an expert and the rigor of a logician.... A helpful and succinct volume." "Library Journal""Everyone has sorted socks and played tic-tac-toe. Hillis uses these simple examples and similar everyday experiences to explain the ideas that make computers work.... Highly recommended." "Kirkus Reviews""Here's a straightforward answer to the question every parent has been asked, and few can answer: How do computers really work?" "Booklist""A delightful all-in-one introduction to computer science." "Hartford Courant""An accessible, fascinating account of the fundamental processes that make computers tick." --This text refers to an alternate Paperback edition.

Book Description

Will computers become thinking machines? A scientist at the cutting-edge of current research gives his provocative analysis --This text refers to an alternate Paperback edition.

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When I was a child, I read a story about a boy who built a robot out of parts he found lying around a junkyard. Read the first page
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews

4 of 4 people found the following review helpful By Brennan Young on 3 Mar. 2003
Format: Hardcover
It's amazing that so many people use computers for hours every day without having the slightest ideas about the articulation within. At best, people may have changed a graphics card or added a hard drive. Maybe they installed something. Even without trying any of these things, there are some useful computer science concepts which really ought to be General Knowlege, but where would you learn them?

This short, easy to digest book is about the universal ideas behind computer and software design (so it won't go out of date for a while!). The stuff which operating systems try so hard to hide away from us, but which keeps popping up for no apparent reason. Why do the numbers 256 and1024 keep appearing? Why is compression less than pure magic?

I've been programming since the early 1980s, so I wondered how much I would learn from this book. I was thinking I could use it with my students (mostly artists and desingers). Actually, there are a lot of very elegant and simple descriptions here of stuff which I use all the time, plus many things I had no idea about (such as encryption). It's a voyage from the lowest levels of computer design - the nuts and bolts of switches and 'flow' up to entirely readable descriptions of parallel and quantum computing.

The only failing is that the people who should read this book probably wont, because they're scared it will go over their heads. (It wouldn't, but they might wonder why they need to bother with abstractions like these). Even if you think you know the basics, this book might surprise you with some refreshing perspectives and metaphors so you can explain yourself to others without their eyes glazing over.

Great for beginner programmers, curious tinkerers and an excellent little gift for a teenager with computer interests (if you're afraid your kid plays too many computer games, this book will make their game playing more meaningful).
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By Michele Filannino on 10 Jun. 2013
Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
A very good book: fascinating, inspiring and quite easy to read. I like it a lot. I suggest it to computer scientists (any sub-field).
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Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
This book is on the recommended reading list for anyone considering doing a degree in computer science. An interesting book
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews on (beta) 36 reviews
20 of 22 people found the following review helpful
Henceforth, computers shall tremble before me! 8 Aug. 2000
By Adam Rutkowski - Published on
Format: Paperback
In this book, Hillis has managed to cover all of the basics of how computers operate, from theory like Boolean algebra and finite state machines, up to applications of the theory like multiprocessors and their limits. He even manages to find space to discuss Turing's Halting Problem, and Godel's Incompleteness Theorem.
To fit so much information into such a small book, Hillis has minimised his explanations, to the point that I think a true newcomer to these concepts would have difficulty in following a lot of the details. The text has been designed so that not understanding parts of it will not greatly affect the understanding of the rest, however I believe the reader would have much less appreciation for how all of the ideas mesh together in this case.
Hillis has crafted a beautiful book, one that provides excellent insight into the workings of computer technology, and a slightly different approach to that taken by standard textbooks. While I don't think this book would serve as a substitute to a standard text, it makes an excellent companion book for anyone who is already partly familiar with the concepts covered.
25 of 30 people found the following review helpful
Good book, but the title is misleading 29 July 2002
By Boris S - Published on
Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
I believe the title is a bit misleading. If you want to buy this book to learn how computers work, STOP! and buy "Code: Hidden Language of Computer Hardware and Software" By Charles Petzold. (Because of the title/quotes on the book which suggested that this book will teach you "How Computers Work"... I gave it 4 stars--I almost made it 3! :) This book will cover how computers work only in the first two chapters.. and it covers the subject so abstractly and briefly--with a lot of gaps--that if you don't already know how it works, you probably will have a VERY hard time understanding...
Now, to the good stuff... this book is a GREAT intro for someone who has some fundamentals in CS, but would like to explore it a bit more.. or get interesting ideas--especially in the department of Artificial Intelligence.
Remmember one thing... althought it's meant to be a book for "newbies"... it really isn't... some of the concepts/terminology is complex... but as a whole it's a simple short book. To me it seems VERY simple because I already read a lot of books dealing with all this stuff beforehand... but I would imagine someone who hasn't had a lot of exposure may want to at the very least read CODE (as I've already stated). You will learn a lot from CODE! (BTW, I just read this book in about two days, after finishing CODE... so that can attest to it's simplicity... not too much depth.. but a nice intro to CS with a concentration on AI).
10 of 11 people found the following review helpful
Great for the neophyte, fun for the geek 19 Nov. 1999
By A Customer - Published on
Format: Paperback
Danny Hillis is known for his child-like approach to things. This book is a good example. I think it's a definate must read for the computer neophyte of any age (I'm buying several for people ranging from a teenager to my father-in-law). He introduces the *real* workings behind computers. Forget about RAM, bits, bytes and all that. Think about information flowing like water and computation performed with little gears. The long-term computer lover will find this book a quick, light, but thouroughly enjoyable read.
6 of 6 people found the following review helpful
An Inspiration for Worn-Out Computer Scientists 27 Jan. 2000
By Joseph Wetterling - Published on
Format: Hardcover
Daniel Hillis has a unique view of technology that many have called "child-like". In his writing, there comes through not only a deep understanding of the subject, but also a genuine interest and excitment. And the best part? Its contagious.
I've been a computer science major for several years, and, after reading this book, I realized that I'd forgotten why I first chose this profession. This book reminded me about how much fun, how interesting, and how varied working (playing?) with technology can be. Thank you Mr. Hillis!
8 of 9 people found the following review helpful
Insanely great 26 Jan. 2003
By An Amazonian - Published on
Format: Paperback
I took a one-year intensive detour into computer programming with the idea of becoming a programmer. The single best thing I got out of it was an acquaintance with this book. It is very short and perfectly clear, yet it is also the deepest reflection on computers I know of. I'm not alone in thinking this--writing in the eminent magazine New Scientist, the reviewer Peter Thomas called it "The best book on computers I have ever read." It seems quite fitting that in looking through others' reviews of this book I found it pressed eagerly both on complete novices and on computer science majors; it's that kind of book, profoundly simple.
The idea of the last chapter, Beyond Engineering, is one of the most exciting ones I've ever heard: let me summarize it briefly to entice you. Hillis thinks that we may not be able to design a true artificial intelligence because we may not ever be able to understand how our own decentralized brains work. (An artificial intelligence is a computer with a consciousness like a person's, like HAL in "2001".) Yet he thinks we can still create an artificial intelligence by simulating evolution--by imitating the same process that created us! We may be able to "breed" computers as smart as human beings without ever having to understand how we, or they, achieve the miracle of consciousness.
In the computer world, that's the kind of idea they call "sexy".
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