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August 21, 2006


Ownership is a very important concept, a concept which you will need to master before you can become a fully-fledged computer architect. You might think that you don't need to learn about ownership, that you already know everything there is to know about ownership; and you might be right, but most people don't really understand the importance or the nuances that ownership carries with it.

If you had siblings as a child, or if you have children, you're probably aware of the toy tugging that goes on. This is an example where the ownership of a resource is in dispute and where each party is attempting to resolve the problem by pulling the hardest. Not only does this form of resource allocation take a lot of time and effort, it also has the tendency to break the resource and leave at least one of the parties in tears.

There may be readers who believe that ownership is not necessary, that people should be able to share naturally. This is what we tell our children: share your toys, Archibald, it's nice to share. Why is it nice to share? Why do we need to share? These are the questions that the child might be asking of the parent. Often it is not necessary to share. Why don't you share your house with the neighbor, mom? Why don't you share mom with your best friend, dad? Little does Archibald or his father know, she already is being shared.

As long as humans wish to be in control, they will desire to own things. It is possible for humans to operate in a state of complete surrender, in which no control is necessary. In this state it would be possible to operate without the concept of ownership. However, most people choose to have some level of control in their lives, so ownership is necessary.

If you couldn't own anything, imagine what would happen. You might wake up in the morning, look out of the window, and find that the car has gone. Nathaniel P. Guthrie from down the road decided that he wanted to go on a tour of Germany and so he took the car. What do you do now?

Ownership is obtained and retained through negotiation. The difficulty of obtaining ownership can vary greatly. The whites were able to have the Native American Indians sign over the land in the United States because the Indians couldn't understand why anyone would want to own land; they felt that the land owned them. Perhaps this was simply a result of them not having discovered farming. Perhaps, however, there isn't any net value in owning land. Why would you want to be restricted to being in one place forevermore, to be unable to move with the weather and the seasons?

If you don't negotiate for ownership, then some terrible things can happen: a Boeing 747 might fall from the sky because a resource inside one of the fly-by-wire control chips was taken away from one process by another; that resource might be a little circuit that performs multiplications.

It's a little like being carjacked while traveling at eighty miles per hour: not only will you loose your car but you will also probably get run over or at least receive some quite severe scrapes on your arms and legs. It's much more preferable for the carjacker to wait until you reach a service stop and then offer an ultimatum: give me the car or I'll shoot you.

Such a choice is clear-cut and easy to make. Some might choose death, but at least there is a choice and a chance to recover; to get a taxi, buy another car, or enjoy a Burger King meal, if that's even possible.

What is ownership? It is a promise, a promise to deliver something. Ownership changes through negotiation just as promises can be renegotiated. Everything is owned. Is your body owned? Are you a slave? Yes: you must brush your teeth or they will rot. You must feed your stomach or you will starve. Your body is owned by time and by an environment which erodes it and draws energy from it through temperature differentials, randomly placed solid objects, and a system which insists on growing apples in South Africa which could perfectly well be grown in the United Kingdom.

You can ignore ownership; you can think: I own this chip, so it will work without me worrying about ownership; it will work just as my duvet sits on my bed without my intervention and my cherios lie dormant in the kitchen cupboard while I nestle contentedly under the duvet. But these are not duvets and cherios, these are little gremlins: living, breathing, moving, automata that do useful things while you are drunkenly crawling back from the nightclub pretending to be a panther, wearing only your underpants and your girlfriend's bra.

Yes, this tiny piece of silicon has millions of these little gremlins in it. Actually, I prefer to think of them as things more akin to children; millions of children, what a thought. There are millions of children and millions of toys. There are so many kinds of resources that need to be shared: computational units, scratch-pad storage, buffering. These little kids need some guidance.

It's okay you expectant parents: you need not fear; this is more than a Bradley Natural Childbirth Class. Though you have millions of children, you create them as you wish; you have total control. Why not create them in your image: as perfect as you are.

While you are sitting in a large bath full of bubbles with a bottle of champagne and a woman named Chloe, your little kids are out there, tens of millions per chip, on hundreds of millions of chips, creating the visual, auditory, and perhaps one day olfactory, gustatory, and tactile, experience of a three-inch-diameter, titanium-tipped, armor-piercing rocket ripping through the Kevlar-knapped outer skin of an Apache attack helicopter, wounding the pilot and rendering the control system, which you also designed, inoperable.

"Mayday, mayday!" He shouts, as if that's going to help him. And how much more wrong could he be: it's the middle of October. The blades swoosh past your face as they slow down and begin to sag, no longer held taught by centrifugal force. The massive vehicle, like a teetering elephant, leans to one side and begins to drop from the sky. It lands in a crumpled heap and detonates, sending an ear-splitting explosion laterally in all directions.

Isn't it lucky that it's just a simulation. You can go back to sipping your champagne now. But you see, sloppiness in ownership issues does cause real crashes. When your screen goes blue and you have to switch your computer off, or when windows gets really slow; that's more often than not caused by ownership confusion.

To summarise: everything is owned by something, and before ownership changes, a negotiation and a bilateral agreement is necessary. Anything less will result in hangs and crashes, and cost at least one-hundred-million dollars in lithiographic mask rework, scrapped silicon wafers, lost market opportunity, and the salary of dozens of fire-fighting design engineers.

"I like this!" — Kitty


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