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The Pattern on the Stone: The Simple Ideas that Make Computers Work

(The Science Masters Series)

4.04  ·  Rating details ·  590 ratings  ·  61 reviews
Most people are baffled by how computers work and assume that they will never understand them. What they don't realize—and what Daniel Hillis's short book brilliantly demonstrates—is that computers' seemingly complex operations can be broken down into a few simple parts that perform the same simple procedures over and over again.

Computer wizard Hillis offers an easy-to-fol
Paperback, 176 pages
Published October 8th 1999 by Basic Books (first published 1998)
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Scott Johnson
Jan 28, 2018 rated it really liked it
This is a weird one for me....

On the one hand, I'm not the intended audience. I understand how computers work more than most, that's literally my job to write the software that runs the internet.

On the other, I AM the intended audience, because I have zero clue how computers work on a hardware level.

On a mutant third hand, I'm not really the intended audience again, because I intimately understand the physics behind all of the individual components....complex impedence, inductance, breakdown vol
Chris Aldrich
Nov 22, 2015 rated it really liked it
Recommends it for: Biomedical and electrical engineering freshmen
I wish I had been made to read this as a senior in high school, or as a freshman in college. I highly recommend it to beginning electrical engineering and biomedical engineering students, as well as those interested in broad-based popular science.

It provides a great overview of the fields of electrical engineering and even some biomedical engineering, pulling together many of their interdivisional ideas while covering topics like Boolean algebra/logic, feedback control systems, biology, the brai
Ovidiu Neatu
Aug 16, 2015 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
A good preview of what computer science is about.
For a person who wants to join the field this may give a hint for paths you can chose from within the domain.
Mbogo J
Feb 07, 2018 rated it liked it
Daniel Hillis conceived of this book to explain the holistic view of the modern day computer, how hardware and software combine to generate the final products that we the users see. In a way he succeeded in explaining the concepts such that any person with minimal background knowledge on computers can understand.

My qualms with this book are more because of me rather than the book itself. I had picked this book in the hope that it will somehow explain to me how the logic gates and their operation
Feb 26, 2020 rated it really liked it
The Pattern on the Stone : The Simple Ideas that Make Computers Work (1999) by Danny Hillis is an excellent book by an important figure in computing history. If you're looking for an impressively short book to get an overview of how computers work this is definitely worth reading. 

Hillis starts from the ground up, describing how switches can be combined to perform more complicated operations. Then what programming does and how programming languages work are described. Hillis goes on to Turing Ma
Prashob M
May 02, 2019 rated it it was amazing
An awesome book on classic computer science from addition operation to inception of AI within 200 pages is remarkable feat and author's lucid writing style and concise content make it delightful read.
Feb 14, 2012 rated it it was amazing
I was very, very impressed by The Pattern on the Stone. Hillis explains, in terms that anyone can understand, how computers work from the most basic principals. A previous familiarity with any or all of the principals will make understanding easier, but is entirely unnecessary. There is no prerequisite to reading this book.

I will be completely honest: I don't think there is any one topic in this book that I had not already explored in other reading. However, I've never seen it all described toge
Rachel Smalter Hall
Sep 04, 2008 rated it really liked it
I was super excited to dig into this book and FINALLY understand everything there is to know about computers! It promised to be written for morons like me who didn't understand the first thing about input, output, and boolean logic gates. Transistors, what? Functional abstraction??? Anyway, I think I sort-of get it now. Hillis is pretty good at transforming all that linear engineer stuff into a narrative that I can grasp and understand. Nevertheless, it's all still a little bit hazy, and the las ...more
Chris Esposo
Mar 09, 2019 rated it really liked it
Though dated, this is a still-relevant high-level basic tour on the architecture of digital computers. It goes through the processor, memory, disk, and how computation is executed through these and other components. One big omission of detail is anything to do with circuit topology and gate-logics. Though, a good layman book on that is "The Engineer and the Logician", parts of which are fairly technical, and thus at a slightly higher level of difficulty with respect to written detail.

This book h
Mark Miller
Since I have a Computer Science degree, I found this an easy read. Nevertheless, I learned some things from it. I think only a basic understanding of CS, and high school math, is necessary to understand what Hillis talks about in it, which is a compliment to what he gets across.

I'd say this book is divided into two subjects:

First, what a computer is. Some satisfying things about it are he covers both analog and digital computers, what characterizes them, and the advantages of each, though he mos
Kenta Suzuki
Sep 26, 2017 rated it really liked it
This book is good for someone who wants to understand overall concepts of CS; hardware, software, algorithms, artificial intelligence. This book scratches the surface of these subjects and this does not go into depth. This book may not be for type of person who likes to study calculus with precise limit approach (meaning that clear and rigorous definition are better than fuzzy explanation to understanding) since there are lots of abstractions and analogy of concepts in this book which some peopl ...more
May 04, 2017 rated it really liked it
A nice short book explaining generally how computers work, from things like boolean logic, to how we build up complex architectures, to more advanced topics like parallel and evolutionary computing. I read this to see if it might be something my kids could read, or could be a general explanation for various people. I think if you're interested in computers, and want an easy to read explanation of the basics of how they work and a few other topics, it's a nice short read.
Mark Schulz
Not quite sure who is the intended audience for this book. Many of the explanations are quite short. If I wasn’t already a computer engineer I would have found some explanations left me a little in the dark. I understand that the book was intended to be short but I felt that a little more detailed explanation would improve the experience for the reader.

Would I attempt to write a book like this - no way. It is far too Duffy for me.
Mitch McKinnon
Mar 03, 2018 rated it really liked it
Shelves: ai
This book took familiar concepts and was able to explain them in terms that were not too complex. I was a bit (pleasantly) surprised by the advanced topics that it ventured into by the end and it's fun to read his perspective as we see some of these technologies becoming realized right now. Since the book was written in 1998, the age is definitely starting to show in some of the language used.
Jul 19, 2020 rated it it was amazing
Very informative and easy to read. It gives me an overall view about the theories of computation which made me appreciate computing advances more without the need to deal with technical jargons. It is a very good read for beginners who do not have any knowledge in this field and want to learn more and have a good overall picture
Omar Nuboer
Amazing explanation of building blocks that make a computer. I highly recommend this for anyone who does not have an information technology background but wants to learn. I read this book specifically before I start ramping up my coding self-education.
Nick Jones
Jun 16, 2020 rated it really liked it
Remarkably relevant for a tech book from the 90s. The concepts haven’t changed much since the 60s so it might be just as useful in 30 years as it is now. Excellent for somebody who doesn’t care to know the particulars of computer science and is happy with a general overview.
May 15, 2017 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: favorites
This is what an intro to computer science should be.
Oct 03, 2018 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
cool logic
Joni Baboci
A fantastic brief read describing the hardware and logic of programming. If I would have read this at 14, I probably would not be an architect today. Highly recommended.
Aug 12, 2020 rated it did not like it
Shelves: programming
In the first chapter, he writes about what a precocious child he was again, and again, and again, and again. That's more psychology than I want in a computer science book.
Huy Vo
Jul 13, 2017 rated it really liked it
Shelves: computer-science
This book is for people who have just got into computing or computer-related fields. After reading this book, you'll see the world as simple as an electrical switch with on and off buttons (say 1 and 0 in bits). For instance, a light can be either on or off (1 or 0). A house is either built or unbuilt. An idea could be either developed or undeveloped. You haven't thought of them as a same thing before? Well, me neither..but we'll change this.
The book will give you a deeper dig into more fascinat
Mar 09, 2017 rated it it was amazing
I think it is a marvelous introductory book to the field of CS. It guides you to a glimpse of a number of most tempting aspects of this subject, although it is not in-depth and detailed. At least it triggered my motive to study CS for at least 4 years in the university.
Greg Talbot
Jul 28, 2013 rated it really liked it
Our dependence on computers is hardly questionable. Email, social media, typing, and searching for information, it's hard to imagine going back to the old days.

Hillis is a book about ideas. Ideas about what computers are, some processes they are involved with, and the future of what computers can be.

Some of my favorite things from the book is how Hillis deconstructs what computers are. Using the simple functions - and, or, invent, he not only opens the doors to programming instructions and lang
After reading this, I think I should add a "logic gates" unit to my intro logic course, explaining the relevance of Boolean logic to the foundations of computer science. The opening sections of this book would be ideal for teaching undergrads that material. This also contains some anti-"What Computers Can't Do" disses if you're into that kind of thing.
Mar 16, 2018 rated it really liked it
A very interesting book. As Hillis points out in the intro, anyone reading Pattern on the Stone will likely already be familiar with most of the concepts involved, but his simple, elegant description of the basics of computing is never less than fascinating. The bootstrapping through layers of abstraction is particularly well-described, and this book marks the first time that I actually understood what would make quantum computing so powerful.

The only downside of this book is Hillis's random in
Senthil Kumaran
Feb 06, 2013 rated it it was amazing
Clearly written account on what is Computer Science. This is book is not about technology, but the concepts and ideas which make the computers work. While reading the first chapter itself, I recollected the Computer Built using MineCraft (Check the video in youtube if you did not know already) because it details about Computers built using sticks. It goes on to explain about Finite state machines, computer architecture, Programming languages and storage, error detecting and error correcting code ...more
Josh Friedlander
This is everything that popular science writing should be, and it's the product not of a professional writer, but of an engineer who clearly loves what he does. Full of clever, non-technical analogies and explanations that make you go "Ah, OK! That's what people mean by that term!" Also helpful is a warning before a tricky section, explaining that if you get lost you'll still follow the rest of the book. Hillis, a long-time AI evangelist, says some not very nice things about philosophers of mind ...more
Nayef Ahmad
Dec 30, 2015 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Lucid and concise. And there's no question that the author knows his stuff: in the 1980s, he pioneered the idea of massively parallel computing, which is now ubiquitous in supercomputers. Excerpt: "Of course, I had heard of Amdahl's Law [check Wikipedia]... yet I was certain, though I could not prove it, that Amdahl's Law did not apply to the problems I was trying to solve. The reason I was so confident was that the problems I was working on had already been solved on a massively parallel proces ...more
Jan 17, 2016 rated it really liked it
Provides comprehensive introduction about fundamentals in computer science. I still find this book too verbose for beginners, but concepts introduced are good starting point for further study and research. Could have been a better read if more real-life analogies and illustrations are provided for clearer explanation.

Some topics covered include the following:
fundamental abstraction, boolean, finite-state mechanism, programming, algorithms and heuristics, quantum computing, turing machine, etc.
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Goodreads Librari...: Correction 2 10 Aug 10, 2019 11:18PM  
Goodreads Librari...: Combine W. Daniel Hillis books 3 17 Aug 16, 2015 03:21PM  

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