How To Program (Computers)


The only hard part of programming computers is you’re expected to make a computer program. And even that wouldn’t be so bad except for the expectation the program will work. There’s where programming falls down. Economists say this is from purely rational market motivations, because economists think it’s very important things result from purely rational market motivations and they’d feel awful if they ever found something that didn’t. In just the past month economists have identified purely rational market considerations behind how buses never run from anywhere anyone is to anywhere anyone wants to go, potato chips which resemble celebrities, the way that nobody has correctly identified sarcasm since 1986, the Balmer spectrum of Hafnium, and certain highly educated pebbles.

In this case, the economists have a point, and don’t think they aren’t all smug about it. Imagine you were a computer program that worked. You’d be put to work, likely at impossible times such as 5:15 am, instead of doing what you’d like. What you’d like would be trying to remember old cartoons you’re pretty sure you didn’t make up. To get to do what you want instead, you have to do the stuff you’re expected to do wrong.

And so programs have bugs. For example a program to alphabetize the boroughs of New York City lists “Queens” and then drives the computer off a cliff, causing a steam locomotive in 1908 to explode. This gives the program hours to establish that yes, Gary Coleman was an angel this one cartoon, and is he dead or was that somebody else? It also gives physicists something to argue over, and helps historians. These days the Haymarket Square Riot is understood to have been triggered by beta-testing of Microsoft Access 2016, with the real tragedy being that the upgrades could have been handled in a Service Pack. Also all the death.

Now to practical examples. Begin with a good software development environment. There are none. But there are neat packages which turn words different colors and send code flying all over tab stops. This is soothing to the eye. These development environments adapt their color schemes to the seasons. They’ll show more words in red and green around Christmas, purple and green around Easter, green and green around June, and so on. This way you can easily tell what time of year it is. It is too late in the year.

Let us use as demonstration the famous “Hello world” program, because that never demonstrates anything useful. This can be as simple as a line to the effect of:

System.out.writeln("Hello world");

As your development environment puts “System” in blinking blue and white, celebrating Greece’s Independence Day, you can compile and try running it. If it were to run, the program would justly fear being put to work by economists, therefore, we get a series of errors like:

  • Package ‘System’ cannot be found.
  • Thingy ‘out’ does not exist.
  • File cannot be found.
  • Function ‘writeln’ not defined in this context.
  • ‘System’ is a little fishy too.
  • We changed that ‘l’ to a lowercase ‘one’ to look better.
  • File cannot be written.
  • Not in that context either.
  • File cannot be read.
  • We’re none too sure about this ‘world’ thing either.
  • We’re pretty sure it’s nowhere near Greece’s Independence Day.
  • File cannot be.
  • Don’t think of bringing up that context either, that’s right out.
  • We want to punch an economist.
  • Does Greece even celebrate an Independence Day?
  • “Being” is an Aristotelean property inappropriate to the complex post-Alfred-Korzybski world.
  • “Hello” still feels slangy.
  • Put that context down, you’re getting fingerprints on it.
  • Development environment wants a hug.
  • Not from you.

More advanced environments may also be a little snarky about the alleged grammar of “Hello world”. Just try diagramming that sentence, see where you get. Turn off the prescriptivist settings, which could be found under Edit/Tools/Preferences/Checking/Grammar/Advanced, if you were using a different version of the environment from what you are, and from what every person offering advice on StackOverflow.com has.

Your environment might list what lines raise the objections. If you’ve programmed well enough, these numbers will have nothing to do with where the problems actually are, or with the number system. Go to any line you like, for example number square-root-of-seventy-A, which is blank. Comment out all the blank lines, then the non-blank lines, and soon you will trigger Wat Tyler’s Rebellion. Now step away and sulk until the office closes and that’s your work accomplished. And if you look in your hand you’ll see your card is the six of clubs. Am I not correct?

Another Blog, Meanwhile Index

Investor confidence was badly shaken by a 6:30 am work e-mail reporting that the water was perfectly safe to drink, bringing up previously unsuspected fears of the safety of the water and its drinkability, which is what they get for not leaving the e-mail until the middle of the day or something.

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An Open Letter To The Spider Building Its Web Across Our Side Door


Dear Spider,

I apologize for not addressing you by name, but we have yet to be properly introduced. I confess that after all this time passing through your ever-rebuilt web I don’t know how to get a proper introduction. We seem to move in different social circles. Perhaps some of the squirrels should know, but I admit I don’t know most of their real names either. We’ve just assigned them names for our convenience, based on their personalities or the ways they physically resemble Sir Patrick Stewart. In any case I trust that you are a spider and that you will understand my not knowing your name reflects only that I am ignorant, and ignorant of how to correct my ignorance.

I applaud your ambition in building this web across the side door. To snag either me or my love would be a tremendous accomplishment for you, and I understand the reasoning. With either — oh, let’s dream big, and say both — of us, it’s easy to suppose, your food needs would be met for ages. (I wrote “meat” there first, but erased it, because the pun is beneath me. You’ll notice I’m telling you about it, though. What must this say of me?)

This sort of great ambition is behind many of the world’s spider’s greatest accomplishments. It’s the sort of drive that led spiders to launch their first expeditions to the Moon. So it hurts that while I credit you for the bigness of your dream I feel I have to bring up the flaws. Well, remember what happened after the first spiders did land on the Moon. There was that horrified “yeep” and frantic hand-waving, and twitching about by the Moon. This did the spider no good, and it’s part of why the Ranger 3 space probe missed the Moon entirely and crashed into a Wawa co-op parking lot in Millville, New Jersey. There it was taken to be a piece of “Googie” architecture and put on trial for heresy. While it was eventually cleared of monophysitism we can’t say the same about the spider. We have no idea what became of the spider and that’s got to be a warning sign.

I say this without meaning to be cruel, but, your web really is not going to catch either of us. I know you’ve been fed a lot of stories about how spider silk is incredibly strong stuff and they might make space elevators out of it. That’s an incomplete story; it’s strong under tension and as we walk in and out of the house we’re not putting your silk under tension. We’re putting it under … some … other kind of … look, the thing is they can’t make space elevators either, so trying to catch us in the doorway isn’t going to happen. We use the door too much and you can’t put up enough web to catch us in-between uses. All you can do is get web into our mouths and while that’s not stuff we want to be licking — again, no offense, it’s just not our thing — that only slows us down a little bit. It’s not getting us even a tiny bit captured.

I want you to know I’m supporting you in your spider-ness. So here’s something you could easily catch and eat. We’ve been having a problem with bugs getting into our bedroom. We think they’re called shield bugs. They’re big, about the size of a volleyball, slow-moving and pretty stupid by all evidence. They keep bonking into solid objects and operating local governments in Texas. They don’t seem interested enough in people, but we’re getting tired of catching and taking upward of forty of them out of the bedroom every night. Apparently nothing much eats them; why don’t you come upstairs and be the first in the neighborhood? They’re both big and very stupid; you could probably catch some just by announcing loudly that they were caught, and you’d have all the meals you wanted easily. I don’t mean to insult you by suggesting you should eat very stupid things. But I do think a full belly makes it easy to forgive slights. If you did something about the shield bugs you’d be better off, we’d be better off, and we’ll not say anything about the shield bugs.

I would have sent a closed letter but I don’t think this can wait until you’ve sealed the door all the way up. Trusting you will take all this advice in the helpful spirit it is intended, I remain,

That guy who keeps walking through your web like four times a day,

— Joseph

A Formic Retraction


My father, while professing to be amused by yesterday’s long-form piece, said he was disappointed that I wrote about an infestation of ants in his bathroom without talking to him first. I misunderstood the situation entirely and by writing first I passed along faulty information to you all. Let me set things straight.

While there are ants in my parents’ bathroom they are there as part of a work-study program for the county’s vocational high school. They’re learning the rudiments of insect-based electrical work, working on projects my father has wanted to get done but which he finds too fiddly now that he has only four arms to work with. They come out in the morning each weekday, under the close supervision of a licensed county grasshopper, and return to their homes after tidying up their work. Some of the advanced students hope to combine their electrical expertise with some business classes and open a self-service frozen yoghurt franchise on Bennett Mills Road. That’ll be exciting, especially the chocolate sprinkles.

Obviously, I regret the error, especially since they fixed the alarm clock so the radio picks up a station other than “85 dB static interrupted with off-tune quarter-notes”.