One in 1,000

One in one thousand.

That’s how many people die during an angiogram, according to the warning on the consent form I had to sign. This is a rather distracting thing to learn just a few moments before you undergo the procedure.

How dangerous exactly is one chance of death in a thousand? Well, it’s more than 160 times safer than Russian roulette. That sounds… good. On the other hand if one breakfast in a thousand was lethal, you’d be dead within three years. So breakfast needs to be way, way safer than that.

These are the thoughts that pass through your mind as you lie on a narrow operating table, while someone makes a hole in your wrist and slowly threads a fine tube up an artery in your arm all the way to your heart.

Now that’s quite a novel sensation. If I had to describe it in one word, the one I’d choose would be… wrong. Not painful as such, just… wrong. That is not a place where you should ever feel something moving. It was a challenge to stay calm. And yet you had no choice. If my breathing became more anxious and deep, it moved my heart too much. So I had to maintain even, shallow breaths while undergoing one of the weirdest sensations – and weirdest situations – of my life. They were injecting X-ray dye directly into my heart.

And that’s where it got really interesting.

“Of your three coronary arteries,” said the cardiologist, “two are fine. The third however is almost completely blocked, so we’re just going to pop a stent in there.”

Well, that’s quite a bit to take in at once. For a start I turn out to have heart disease, when I was still steadfast in the belief that I was having this (one chance of death in every thousand) procedure just to rule the possibility out. I was almost sure it’d turn out to be a duodenal ulcer or something. But it’s much easier to fool yourself than it is to fool medical scanning devices.

But the real headshot – they were putting a stent in now? Well I suppose it makes sense. I mean, as they’re literally here inside my heart already. Doing it again would raise the risk of death to one in 500, which clearly does not have enough zeroes after it. But… right now?

I know, when I was signing the consent form they did say something like “… and if we find a blockage we can insert a stent”. But I’m sure I didn’t hear the words “while we’re at it”. Unconsciously I’d expected some kind of consultation, with nice diagrams and maybe even counselling, before taking such a big step as having metal scaffolding inserted in my heart.

And maybe it was like that, twenty years or so ago when stents were new technology. But now they seem to be taken for granted. Hell they’re made in a factory down the road, by people I know personally. It’s all quite normal now, my head says. But my heart…

My heart was straightway overruled. It was a little painful – actually it felt exactly like one of the attacks of angina I had so easily dismissed as indigestion – but I am a cyborg now. Well, a slightly cyborg.

I’m writing this while recovering in the cardio-pulmonary ward. It’s all been very fast and a little unreal, but apparently I got here in the nick of time. If the doctor hadn’t sent me in just as soon as I described the symptoms, and if they hadn’t processed me through the system about as quickly as possible – just over 24 hours is not so shabby for heart surgery – I would almost certainly have had a heart attack. And probably sooner rather than later; that artery was 95% blocked.

But even the disease was sudden. The pain had only become a regular occurrence in the last two weeks, which is why I had put it down to gastric trouble induced by festival worries. Can heart disease really strike so fast, or were there earlier warning signs I’d missed, months or even years before? Things like the unexpected shortnesses of breath, sharp headaches after exertion, even the temporary memory loss I had two years ago?

I wonder how many of the various illnesses I’ve had in recent years were ultimately due to a heart under pressure. And in what ways I will now feel more well, thanks to a bit of metal in my chest. I look forward to finding out.

Apple Pay?

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Apple and their ilk – remember it’s not so long since Microsoft was Ireland’s favourite taxpayer – save billions a year simply by offering to create employment here. While it would seem to make a lot of sense for a small country to buy jobs at the cost only of tax revenue that it would not have received anyway, it’s a pretty Faustian pact. For a start, what Apple is offering is not actually that great – just a few thousand jobs, and not necessarily quality, high-earning ones that feed skills into the economy. (That 200 at the new giant data center? Mostly maintenance.)

But worse, we are aiding and abetting an act which even if not illegal (as the European Commission believes), is certainly immoral. Apple is just creating artificial transactions between artificial sections of its own corporation. On paper this makes profit in Ireland; in reality of course the only transaction that has occurred was on a spreadsheet in Cupertino. The service we are offering our corporate clients is basically to act as if this is all somehow legit.

In doing so we are not merely competing with other countries. We are helping undermine the legitimate ability of countries to tax. In this race to the bottom, the only winners are the wealthy. Minister for Finance Michael Noonan claims that taxing Apple now would harm our reputation. But which reputation – the one of being a pushover for a handful of jobs? The one of being a country that sides with big business against the interests of our neighbours and of democracy itself?

Consider what harm this does to the reputation we do want: of a knowledge-based economy that pulls in investment thanks to a talented and educated workforce. There is some truth in that on the ground; people are working hard here to innovate and create businesses. But we are providing the perfect opportunity for competitors to say “That’s all bullshit, companies invest in Ireland because it’s a tax haven.”

And it isn’t easy to gainsay that view, because there’s truth in it too. The more government policy depends on low tax for foreign investment, the less we need bother with the education and infrastructure that would otherwise be the lure. (And which, we might mention in passing, would also stimulate domestic business.) The story about talent and education becomes just shtick, a hollow patter to distract from the financial shell game.

And this devalues us; not just as a place to do business, but as a country and as a people. It devalues our talent. It devalues the Masters degree I worked damned hard for. Indeed it devalues the very companies that invest here, because obviously they’re in it for short term balance-sheet gains rather than a long term investment in place and people.

Low corporation tax has been a useful tool, but that’s all it was ever meant to be – a way to help us transition from being an underdeveloped and largely agricultural economy into a diversified social democracy. The tool has now outlived its usefulness. There is no future in being the Cayman Islands of the EU.

Hex Code

Well I suppose I’m a programmer now. Of all things.

It’s not what I expected, to be honest. I still associate the word with men in lab coats and bow ties in front of banks of flickering lights, doing arcane things at rattly teleprinter terminals. Something to do with rockets probably. Robots even. And punched paper tape!

Hippo

Punched paper tape was amazing, I used to collect discarded lengths of it from offices where my mother worked as a temp. Its perforated patterns are the perfect metaphor for the state of computing when I was a child. Pretty, delicate, clearly meaningful and yet profoundly mysterious.

These days? It’s writing really. You’re using language, a kind of language, to convey your intended meaning. Like much writing it’s part creativity, part drudgery and repetition. Long-separated senses of the word “hack” meet by surprise in a foreign city.

And like their natural counterparts, programming languages are a pretty diverse bunch. But you’ll hardly find two more different than the ones I just certified in – SQL and PHP. They’re like Choctaw and Chinese. Or more helpfully, Latin and English. One is (relatively) ancient, dusty and rule-bound, the other young and a bit anarchic.

Strangely though, it’s the old one that was actually designed to be English-like. And in the time of the lab coats I guess it seemed like it. A SQL command is called a “statement”, and is constructed much like a sentence:

Select roses, tulips from basket join bouquet where colour = "red"

Sounds almost like the real thing, doesn’t it? But…

Select camel, serendipity from D547 join moonslip where fandango = "buttocks"

…is equally meaningful. The resemblance to human language is superficial for a reason: In SQL there is only a handful of verbs, representing the very limited set of things you can do with items in a database. Its ‘nouns’ are little more than arbitrary labels. Real language is almost immeasurably more complex than that.

The thing that makes SQL seem completely unnatural though is its obsession with data types. These are important up to a point of course. You need to know what kind of data you’re dealing with, whether it’s numbers, “string” (which is what programmers like to call written words), dates and times, or more exotic stuff. You can’t add a word to a number or multiply a date.

But in SQL these break down into seemingly endless subtypes: For a number you need to know what the base is, whether it has a decimal point, if it’s positive or negative. With words it matters what the language is so that the right characters are used, plus you need to know what alphabetical order is for those characters, whether case is significant and so on. Dates and times are available in a mind-bending range of formats, depending on, say, whether you’re more interested in events since 1,000 AD or 1970.

Where it gets ludicrous is that there are still further subdivisions, into units of different size. (My favourite is called the Binary Large Object – or for short, BLOB.) The idea was to set aside only as much space as your data is going to need. If you have a column wide enough for six-figure sums and then enter numbers in the hundreds, you’re effectively saving blank decimal places to your hard disk. In the ’70s, disks were expensive. There was no room for empty space.

Compared to this, PHP seems like it was invented by hippoes. (I meant to say hippies there but I’m going to leave the typo in.) It’s just so… relaxed, skipping lightly over the very things that make SQL tedious. It seems to just guess what your data type ought to be. “You’re trying to add a number and a letter together? No problem, let’s see what happens.”

What makes it even more like human language though is the fact that it’s “Object Oriented”. This is a big idea so I’ll leave the details for another post, but suffice it to say that like real nouns, an object in OO programming is meant to represent something in the world. As such it comes with its associated “verbs” (known as methods) that represent the actions characteristic of that object. So the things that exist in your program have hidden powers that you can call upon if you know the right words. Cool.

Perhaps the best comparison then is not with different natural languages, but with different specialised jargon. Moving from SQL to PHP feels a lot like leaving contract law to take up alchemy.

I Get Certified

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I’m too wrecked to go out so I am having a small party at home. Here is my invited guest.

As of 5.15 pm today, I am an Oracle-certified MySQL developer!

Somewhere in the distance, a dog barks.

Yeah, OK. Boasts that you have to explain are not good boasts. For the last four months I have been studying hard for a qualification in something most people have never even heard of.

Which is a shame, because it is actually the secret language that runs the world.

But first, let me tell you about my day. This was… a tough day. Not only did I take a two and a half hour professional exam, I attended a two hour public meeting right after. The way it began though – well that was even worse.

You know when you know you’re doing something wrong? I mean, when the front of your mind thinks everything’s all right but the back of your brain is waving frantically to get your attention? The feeling you’re forgetting something that you decide to ignore. The nagging awareness that you probably shouldn’t blog while drinking a bottle of wine. Sometimes you know deep down that you’re making a mistake but it just doesn’t seem to reach the surface. So yesterday evening I was being very organised for my exam. I did all the little things, like making sure the car had petrol and water – even that the windscreen washers were working properly. Yet even as I did it I thought to myself: “You know, there’s a danger here. This is breaking my routine. If I break my routine to do all these checks, I could forget one of the important things I do routinely. Fortunately though, I haven’t forgotten anything this time.”

So I finished checking the windscreen washers and went peacefully to bed. Leaving the the car electrics switched on.

This morning an hour went on trying to charge, shove, and sometimes swear the battery back into life before I eventually got a jump start off a neighbour; hardly the calm and collected pre-exam preparation they recommend. Perhaps it was for the best though. Had I time I would probably have indulged in some last-minute panicky “study” as likely to confuse as to clarify. And the record shows I actually seem to do better in exams when faced with non-starting cars. It wasn’t déjà vu, this did happen before.

Outside the venue I met up with Nick and Diarmuid, two of the best students in the class, and was relieved to find that they seemed at least as nervous as me. Because we were (for no readily apparent reason) doing the exam in batches of three, we had feedback from those who sat it earlier in the day. The news was… mixed. On one hand, almost everyone so far had passed. On the other, they had all said it was harder than they’d expected. You can imagine which of those hands seemed more significant to three people about to walk into an exam.

Or about to try. We went to the front door only to find a sign saying to use the side door. We went to the side door only to find it locked. We rang the intercom, only to get an answering machine. I hope I didn’t actually leave the message that went through my head at that point.

But they let us in eventually, and when they’d done with mugshots and fingerprinting (well, almost) they sat us at the consoles. The exam is a computer-based, multiple choice affair not dissimilar to the driving theory test. Except instead of being about stuff everyone needs to know, it’s about stuff nobody in their right mind wants to even think about. I had a tense moment when the very first question was completely unintelligible to me, another when I came to one that, I will swear to my dying day, did not have any possible correct answer. But mostly I felt like I was doing OK. Afterwards Mark our tutor asked me on Facebook how it had gone. I said I thought I’d got about 3 in 4. When the results came through – in only about 15 minutes, mercifully – it transpired that I had 78%. The passing grade is 64. I am a Certified MySQL Developer.

Which is what, exactly?

It’s like this. Once all the important knowledge was kept in wise old people. That’s what the word “wizard” originally meant: Old guy who knows things. Later, with the invention of writing, far more information could be kept within books. But in this information age in which we’re living, the vast (vast vast) majority is kept in databases. They are the electric libraries, the quiet machines behind the scenes of every modern technomarvel. And that’s how I ended up here, basically. MySQL is as important to modern Web design as HTML itself.

And on the way home I attended a public meeting about technology and the arts, part of the campaign to make Galway the European Capital of Culture in 2020. Asked for suggestions on the theme of a digital city, I sketched out an idea for an app so spontaneously that it took even me by surprise. A good idea? I can’t tell. I was very tired by then. Some great ideas come when you’re tired, but so do some great hallucinations. I can only say that it’s simple – so simple that it has to be either brilliant or obvious. The difference, I guess, being whether someone else has done it already. Such is the fine line between stupid and clever.

But it would be great to do, I hope they take me up on it. And why wouldn’t they? I’m an Oracle certified database developer. That’s like a wizard from the future.

The Watch of the Future, Today (Not Today)

Charging a watch from a phoneFirst they unplugged your phone from the wall, rolled it up and stuffed it in your pocket. Then they took your camera off the shelf, shaved it down to the thickness of a playing card and slid that inside the phone. They crammed in your Walkman too. Your address book and appointments diary. Pager, torch, pedometer, radio, dictaphone, bookshelf, TV, PC, satnav, even your wallet now. In short, just about any piece of equipment you might want to carry around in your pocket finds itself inexorably sucked into the single über-device we still, for want of decision, call a phone.

There is a good one-word explanation for this: Synergy. All these functions share at least some and often many requirements – a visual interface perhaps, network connectivity, speakers, data storage, computational power of course. The user benefits greatly by not having to carry multiple versions of essentially the same hardware. Imagine how we’d rattle if we did. It wouldn’t be worth the effort or expense to make most of these things pocket-sized. Make them a function of a universal gadget however, and the synergies flow.

The one that really clinches it though is power. At first it may seem counter-intuitive to put all our electric eggs in one battery basket. When one goes flat, they all go. But consider the alternative: If all these things needed charging separately there would be one or more plugged in pretty much all the time, completely undermining mobility. The greatest synergy of all is that you can charge everything at once. In many respects what we’re really carrying around is a fantastic little power source with some peripherals attached to it.

With this in mind, it’s easy to understand why smart watches have never really taken off. They cannot as yet replace the smartphone, and carrying both means you duplicate many functions while adding few. Yet they have to be charged as often as phones or more, doubling your inconvenience for very little palpable benefit. While you might embrace one enthusiastically as the badge of an early adopter, it won’t be so long before you find you forgot to charge it. The simple fact is, you don’t need a smartwatch.

I’m sure the Apple Watch will be more successful than any that has gone before, but that isn’t saying much. It may serve as a status symbol – at those prices, it is hard to imagine what else it could serve as – but in its current form it’s another niche product like Apple TV, not the next Apple game-changer. Here’s why:

To ever be more than an expensive optional accessory to the smartphone, the smartwatch has to turn the smartphone into its optional accessory.

Note the word optional. The market-redefining smartwatch will have to do all the indispensable communication things – texts, emails, social media updates and, last but still not least, voice calls. But unlike the current Apple offering, it needs to do it without an attached smartphone. Otherwise it’s really more of a burden than a blessing. The smartwatch will be successful when it’s the one device you always want to bring with you. Your wrist is the natural place for that.

This will not mean the end for the unit we still call the phone. We’re unlikely to abandon such a convenient, multifunctional device while it still has irreducible advantages: A far larger screen interface, room for more and better sensors, more data, and of course much more energy. But we can reimagine the phone now. Specifically we can imagine it… without the phone.

If your watch can receive your calls and data, then the “phone” no longer has to be an always-on device. It can be more like a small tablet, used for apps, browsing, media and other roles that benefit hugely by the larger screen and greater processing power. But like a tablet it only needs to be powered up when you actually want to do those things, putting it in the class of devices with battery life measured not in hours but in days. And this introduces a very interesting possibility: it could act as a power bank to the watch. You’d worry a lot less about running out of juice on the road if your communication device could be topped up from its energy-rich companion. That’s not just a synergy, it’s symbiosis.

And this is not the only opportunity offered by taking the phone out of the phone. The limitations on the dimensions of your pocket device have always been dictated by its phone functions. Giants like the Galaxy Note 4 or iPhone 6 Plus push at the limits of what most people can comfortably use one-handed. Go much larger, and you cross the boundary of what fits into pockets. Shifting the communication function to the watch though means you no longer really need its companion to a be go-everywhere compromise. It can, literally and figuratively, be whatever your pocket allows. You could even have more than one of them – a slim one for tight pants and a big one for a bag, anything from a born-again flip phone to a workhorse device with a pen or keyboard. What the phone will evolve into is a set of optional extensions for your wristwatch. These may reproduce some of its functions and add others, but their essential purpose is to allow you to choose the best interface for the way you want to interact with it.

All this awaits the creation of a smartwatch that really is usable for voice calls and data, yet has battery life to last comfortably through the day. It’s a tall technological order, and the (first) Apple Watch certainly doesn’t achieve it. What it may achieve though – indeed, perhaps what only Apple can achieve – is an end to our culture’s resistance against talking into your wrist like a cartoon character. That alone would be a great stride toward the next mobile revolution.