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!


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.


Apologies for the long absence. I will try to blog more often in 2014, but I can’t promise a return to regular service. My MSc is becoming far too demanding now.

It’s not the workload exactly, though that is… not insubstantial. It’s more that as it continues, the course lays greater and greater emphasis on teamwork. We had a project to complete in every module last semester, and now we are facing into the most important one of all. Known, with unnerving simplicity, as the ”The Major Project”, it is effectively our Masters thesis.

Can you imagine that, those of you who have postgraduate degrees – thesis by team? Your group assessment of Sylvia Plath’s earlier work? Your collective opinion of mediaeval Italian prosody? Weird.

And for me, alien. I simply have no experience of working in teams. I am a loner – to the point at times of social dysfunctionality. I’ve always been self-employed, generally liaising only with an editor, often being left entirely alone to do my art thing.

I’ve never even played team games. Sure, they try to make you in school. But you notice what they forget? To tell you how. It’s like you’re meant to be born knowing the rules of soccer or whatever. So sport as I understood it largely meant standing in the cold, wondering what the hell was expected of me. Occasionally a crowd would thunder in my general direction and, yes, then there might be some instructions. But even these would tend to be lamentably short on detail and clarity.

Idea note_20140102_024447_02

While I’m here, can I mention something else to sport-obsessed educators? Children don’t learn teamwork from adult-size sides. Eleven or fifteen kids is not a team. lt’s a pack.

Thanks in part to this misguided introduction to cooperation I was a pretty hopeless team player at first – and especially, leader. You know the saying “I never ask my people to do something I couldn’t do myself”? My variation was to never ask anyone to do a thing I hadn’t done already. But I think I’ve learned to relax and trust people more.

Which leads me back to my point. Working for myself, I can justify taking a break in all sorts of ways. Maybe I need it, maybe I deserve it. Maybe I just feel like it – I’m the boss after all. Now compare that to a teamwork situation where not only my own degree, and hence my future, depends on the work I put in, but the futures of three or four other people. That’s a whole different standard of pressure.

So between now and the end of June, I guess I’m going to be keeping it pithy.

Three Billion In Change

Bank Dance

All This Needs Is a Soundtrack By Loituma

Are we not the sharpest-dressed protesters you have ever seen? We’re at the launch of a new commemorative coin – face value, €15 – an event we found more than ironic on the day that the Dáil debates a budget designed to exact from the poor the money promised by the rich to the rich. Unemployment benefit is being cut. Children’s allowance is being cut. Respite support for carers is being cut – this last so obscenely cruel to the vulnerable protectors of the even more vulnerable that I strongly suspect it was put in the budget just to make the other cuts seem politically acceptable.

All of this, basically so that we can make the latest €3.1 billion of payments to the people whose reckless lending destroyed our economy. Yes seriously, we continue to reward the rapacious, wilfully short-sighted, knowingly unsustainable lending that led to 2008. Though we cannot afford it, though we will never be able to pay back the enormous sums our banks went bust owing, we continue to try – by means of attacking the unemployed and impoverished. This is not the function and duty of a state.

Ours was a restrained, even polite protest today. The only real way to tell us from the people who were invited was that we wore less make-up. I’d come directly from an exam in project management. There my wearing a suit had been cause for comment, but I think it gave me a real psychological advantage. No one else did the management exam dressed like the manager.

Whether it was this or the intense preparation I put in, my least-favourite subject turned out be probably my best exam. If it had a fault it was that I spent more time than I really should have on a favourite question. This concerned people issues in “Agile programming”, a modern approach that requires the code-trolls to closely interact with clients. The people issues, they abounded; for the rest of the exam I kept going back to the answer to add new ones I’d thought of. Mixing people with coding skills and interpersonal skills together is not a business methodology, it’s the premise for The IT Crowd.

And that, incidentally, concluded my first semester. What a short strange trip it’s been. That in six months I could end up actually enjoying questions of personnel management theory… It’s some change all right.

State Of The Uni: ON

A picture of my college’s quadrangle from an absolutely fantastic angle that makes it look like a bucolic idyll and not on a campus crowded with many much less attractive modern buildings in the middle of a city and opposite a busy hospital.

I don’t want to speak too soon here, but… OK that is a barefaced lie. I do want to speak too soon. And so I will.

I’m going to be a scientist! Just like when people asked me what I wanted to be when I grew up.

Well to be precise I’m going to have an MSc. If I complete the course. But I have a place! That’s the main thing. They actually let me back into college. After last time.

It’s an MSc in Information Systems Management. I wanted something that would seriously augment my Web design and IT abilities. I liked this because it’s extremely practical; hands-on and skills-orientated rather than theoretical and talky, an interesting mix of art and technology and… well, business.

There, I said it. Business. My greatest fear. Now I must go face to face with that which I abhor.

All right, I am in business; I’m self-employed. But that’s just a way to be an artist without getting arrested as a vagrant. I’ve had as little to do with the business of business as I possibly could. Now, I’ll be studying “business situations”, whatever those are exactly. Thinking about business problems. Using business words…

But I reckon I’ll enjoy it if I approach it in the right way. I like having problems to solve, things to fix. This is real-world problem solving, using techniques and skills I enjoy. I might actually be good at it.

It will mean getting well outside my comfort zone though. I haven’t studied anything other than what immediately interested me, sat listening for hours at a time, even slept to a regular schedule, for over twenty years.

I’m sure this is going to be very good for me.


Time For A New Future

Bit Blobs
No idea what this is a picture of, but it looks pleasantly technological (Photo credit: Dr. Bleep)

Almost better today. I could bend to do up my bootlaces without wincing! Also a relative had an accident this morning that was properly painful – a broken shoulder – so that gives a bit of perspective. And I had to run to help, which I think finally showed my spine who was boss. It’s just unfortunate that the job I most need to get done right now involves shifting boxes of books up a ladder, through a small awkward trapdoor, into an attic. Eh… No, I’m not going to do that.

At least the injury has left me free for the other, less physical stuff I’ve been avoiding. The new website for an obvious one. At this point I have more or less persuaded Drupal to do what I want. It wasn’t easy – but it turned out in the end to be a hell of a lot easier than it was looking just a couple of days ago.

So next up there’s my college application. I haven’t mentioned this before but I’m working towards going back to do a Master’s degree, in what I’ll loosely refer to as new media technology. The reason I haven’t mentioned it is that I almost certainly won’t qualify for the course. I was thinking I’d maybe nonchalantly try, fail, and tell no one. But it is just too interesting not to write about.

Why would I fail, when I have a more than minimal level of relevant technical knowledge and creative ability – or mad skillz as I prefer to call it? Well, the course I want to do is a prestigious one, and competition for places is fierce. I’m 47 and gnarled, racing against lovely people in their 20s. And my primary degree is not up to the minimum standard they require, so I’m basically hoping they’ll somehow just make an exception. It’s a bit depressing really when you think about it. Describing it as a long shot would be like calling William Tell a fruit picker.

And say I did get it – how will I pay? How am I going to afford to even stay alive while studying full time? I do not have the first idea.

But if somehow I do qualify, it could be life-changing. So there will be a way.

My career so far has been entirely in publishing, but publishing is transforming out of all recognition. The last decade or so has been all about adaptation to constantly-changing technologies, constantly-changing possibilities. This is not a problem, on the contrary it’s made it a fascinating time to be involved. But adaptation is not enough anymore, I want more than just to keep up. I want to do a bit of the changing.

I’m Tired So Here’s A Few Links

The sea is full of weirdness

I’m going to have to change my policy of not going to bed until I get a post up, because that is keeping me awake till 6 a.m. every freaking morning. So forgive me if today’s is lower on original content, and higher on pictures of cats. LOLcats it seems are by no means a new phenomenon.

Yes, I need sleep.

Or here’s the good State of Tennessee demonstrating that it’s abstinence-only approach to sex education is really just fear and/or hatred of sex itself. They propose to warn teenagers against holding hands.

Visit this Facebook page! It’s science, but just the funny and weird bits – like this.

That’s it, I’m even out of random stuff drifting around my head. I’ll try to write something that’s actually about something later today.