Monthly Archives: October 2011

Dennis Ritchie 1941–2011

Dennis Ritchie

Dennis Ritchie

Dennis Ritchie, the creator of UNIX and C, died last week at age 70. This follows only a few weeks after the death of Steve Jobs. I found it quite curious, however, that Jobs’ death was front-page news in most newspapers, while so far I’ve waited six days to see if I could see it in any of the newspapers I tend to read, without success. Did anyone happen to see this in their local newspaper?

It’s very curious why the mainstream media pounced over one death but were silent on the other. Ritchie has a much more significant impact on modern computing than Jobs does. UNIX is the direct descendent of almost every modern non-Microsoft OS. These descendents can be found in routers and servers all across the Internet, in Android phones, Mac computers, even in your TiVo. C is one of the widest-used programming languages ever. So why not pay more attention to Ritchie? One could argue that, if he hadn’t invented C and UNIX, someone else would have come and invented, say, PL/2 and MULTOS and the world would be more or less like it is now. Probably true, but on the other hand I’m sure someone would have invented something similar to the iPod and iPhone and iPad even without Jobs.

So maybe it’s just the “cool” factor and it has nothing to do with substance. It’s interesting where the priorities of the mainstream media are.

Earth: Population 7 Billion

The Earth, shown as a globe, from space.I saw a news article recently that stated that the population of the Earth is going to hit 7 billion in two weeks’ time. The emphasis of the article, however, was not so much on interesting statistics about population, but rather on birth control in developing countries, which seems to be a big thing now. This emphasis on birth control strikes me as at least a teeny bit imperialistic and hypocricital. How come there was no emphasis on birth control when the populations of developed countries were skyrocketing? If Europeans have more kids than they have space for, they can kick the natives off of other continents and live there, but you guys, no, you’ll just have to start acting responsibly.

Certainly attempts at population control aren’t the only imperialist activities that developed countries engage in. If you live in the developed world, you probably get your electricity from coal or nuclear or hydroelectric power plants, but attempts to make lives better in the developing world by building coal power plants or nuclear power plants or hydroelectric power plants are criticized as being too polluting or too risky or spoiling virgin rivers. Us, we’ll use whatever technology that we want, but you, you’ll just have to use technologies that don’t work too well. Another example is the use of DDT. In the past, developed countries have used this to eliminate their malaria problem. What if a developing country wants to use it now for the same purpose? Tough, it pollutes.

Let’s face it, most organizations, corporations, and individuals in developed countries are not really all that interested in bringing the standard of living in, say, Africa, anywhere near what it is in developed countries. The developing countries will have to do it for themselves. And, since many of them are not all that rich in natural resources, they’ll need all the human capital they can get their hands on. One illustration of what human capital can do can be found in the book The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind. It sounds like it might be a Stieg Larsson book, but it isn’t. It’s a true story about William Kamkwamba, who built a pair of windmills in his village in Malawi (to run a few lights and a pump for a well) from spare parts. Face it, this accomplishment didn’t raise the standard of living in his village to developed country status, but if Africa is going to become great, it needs more great minds like his. The only way to get more great minds is to get more minds, period. Africa needs all the people it can get.

If the developed countries don’t like that, they’ll need to start thinking in ways that benefit those in developing nations. Right now, there are real benefits for residents of developing countries to have children: They provide useful labour on farms, and they ensure a reasonably secure retirement. If we want people in developing nations to have fewer children, we’ll need to provide similar benefits. Are we going to start helping those people who responsibly only had a few children, and, due to their children having died, moved away, or whatever, are now indigent in their old age? Are there even any charities that support such people? Face it, pictures of old people don’t really tug at the ol’ heartstrings the same way that starving children do. However, this is the sort of thing that we need to think about.

If we don’t start thinking in those ways, the Earth’s population will rise to 8 billion, 9 billion, 10 billion, 11 billion, and so on. However, with the rise of human capital in developing countries, I’m sure that they’ll be able to solve the problems of rising population in ways that we in developed nations can’t. Certainly there are no other continents for them to move to. However, perhaps they’ll be able to find more efficient ways of using the space on the Earth that we already have, or of creating brand new places for people to live (maybe even in outer space? Who knows.), or of managing the problem in ways we can’t even think of yet. But we need those people.