Hic Harold Rex Interfectus est

Tom lent me the Game of Thrones to read recently. I enjoyed it thoroughly but I couldn’t help but think that – if you take away the thin veneer of magic and fantasy – it reads a lot like the history of my country. And how much more fantastic to read a true story?

So that’s what I am doing now.

I’ve had Hume’s History of England in three volumes on my iPad for a while (it’s free in iBooks) and I ploughed through Volume I in no time flat.

Every English schoolboy knows that history began in 1066 but my knowledge of what came before was very shaky. I knew some names -Ældward the Confessor,Ælthelred the Unready, Ælfred the Great and a whole bunch of other kings beginning with Æ – but I was a bit shaky on the dates and the sequence of events. In my memory, the shame of the Danelaw went on for centuries and I was pleasantly surprised to learn that it was only for one king and one generation. I was also surprised that Alfred was much later (and greater) than I remembered.

Really, after reading the history of the Saxon times, I wonder why there is any need to make up fantasy stories. There are at least 10 kings of that era that could have an epic movie of their own. Why are we all so fixated on Robin Hood and King Arthur when the true stories are so much more dramatic? Where are the movies about those forgotten heroes?

I’m loving Hume too. I had previously read Churchill’s History of the English Speaking Peoples (twice) and Hume shares with Churchill the endearing habit of making little pretence of objectivity. There are good guys and bad guys and Hume makes sure you know which is which. He even pulls off the neat trick of turning the Saxons from “them” – when the likes of Arthur are valiantly but tragically failing to keep them out – into “us” when we cheer on King Alfred’s miraculous victories.

I’ve often wondered about the them versus us thing in the context of Australia and the US. They talk of the first Australian explorers who made it to the red centre but those Australians quickly become British when Tasmanians are being hunted down and massacred. It’s odd when Australians and Americans do it and it was odd to witness the same phenomenon in myself.

Clearly, I identify with the Britons trying so desperately to fight off the Saxon horde but just a couple of hundred years later and we (the Saxons) are fighting off a new set of invaders. Funny how the Normans never became “us”.

Late last night I reached the Norman invasion and put my iPad down so that I could read it fresh today. The story was exactly as I remembered from Mrs Harris’s history class in 1977. The same charges. The same feints. The same tragic ending. It was a close run thing in Hume’s telling of the story. Odd too that I rooted for neither side. Harold got to where he was through treachery but he was, after all, one of us. William brought civilization to my country but it was a foreign civilization. I guess it’s best that he won but his victory feels like a defeat to me.

I leave you with Hume’s recounting of the end of the Saxon era while I move on to Volume II and the Normans and Plantagenets that I remember so well from school.

Thus was gained by William, duke of Normandy, the great and decisive victory of Hastings, after a battle which was fought from morning till sunset, and which seemed worthy, by the heroic valor displayed by both armies and by both commanders, to decide the fate of a mighty kingdom. William had three horses killed under him; and there fell near fifteen thousand men on the side of the Normans: the loss was still more considerable on that of the vanquished, besides the death of the king and his two brothers. The dead body of Harold was brought to William, and was generously restored without ransom to his mother.

Epilogue

Now that I have read about the brutality of William’s reign, I regret my former ambivalence and place myself firmly in Harold’s camp. Civilization, be damned.

Why not?

It used to be hard to find well-thought-out justifications for atheism. Most people I knew were atheists but didn’t like to talk about it much (probably because they didn’t know that most people they knew were atheists too). The only famous atheists were either the shouty, angry kind or weirdos. You had to go all the way back to Bertrand Russell’s Why I am not a Christian essay from 1926 to find something witty and well-argued. You can go read that if like – it is pretty good – but, let’s face it, Bertrand Russell was a bit of a weirdo.

Atheism got a big boost when the so-called Four Horsemen mounted their steeds and wrote the four books – God is Not Great, The God Delusion, The End of Faith and Breaking the Spell – that defined The New Atheism. It’s hard to recommend any of those books to someone who is not already pretty secure in their disbelief though and, of the four, only Richard Dawkins is neither shouty nor weird. They are all polemics of one kind or another.

A polemic is a variety of argument or controversy made against one opinion, doctrine, or person. […] The word is derived from the Greek polemikos, meaning “warlike, hostile”.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Polemic

The most interesting writings about atheism are personal stories – like Russell’s – that answer the question, “Why Don’t you believe in God?” Here are three of my favourite stories.

Ricky Gervais has a masterpiece in the genre in the Wall Street Journal today. Ricky has his eight-year-old self figuring out the answer.

But anyway, there I was happily drawing my hero when my big brother Bob asked,”Why do you believe in God?” Just a simple question. But my mum panicked. “Bob,” she said in a tone that I knew meant, “Shut up.” Why was that a bad thing to ask? If there was a God and my faith was strong it didn’t matter what people said.

Oh, hang on. There is no God. He knows it, and she knows it deep down. It was as simple as that. I started thinking about it and asking more questions, and within an hour, I was an atheist.

Wow. No God. If mum had lied to me about God, had she also lied to me about Santa? Yes, of course, but who cares? The gifts kept coming. And so did the gifts of my new found atheism. The gifts of truth, science, nature. The real beauty of this world. I learned of evolution – a theory so simple that only England’s greatest genius could have come up with it. Evolution of plants, animals and us – with imagination, free will, love, humor. I no longer needed a reason for my existence, just a reason to live. And imagination, free will, love, humor, fun, music, sports, beer and pizza are all good enough reasons for living.

Julia Sweeney turned her story into a monologue – Letting Go of God – that she performs on stage. Here’s the first act, performed at Ted.

You can watch a full performance of Letting Go of God on YouTube but be forewarned: in between the laughter, there will be tears. Keep a box of tissues handy.

The last story that I like to recommend is Bart Ehrman’s essay that forms the introduction of his book Misquoting Jesus.

When I was in seminary, I was taking a class devoted to the interpretation of the Gospel of Mark. At that time, I would have called myself a strong evangelical Christian. I thought the Bible had no mistakes. The first time I realized it did was Mark, Chapter Two. The disciples are walking through a grain field with Jesus, and the pharisees object to them eating grain because it’s the Sabbath. Jesus asks them if they haven’t read the passage in scripture when David went into the temple of God and ate show bread that wasn’t supposed to eaten. He says it happened when Abiathar was the high priest.

For the term paper, I decided to write on this passage; it contains a famous historical problem. The Book of Samuel says that Abiathar was not the high priest at that time; it was his father, Ahimelech. I wrote a 35-page paper explaining why this can’t be a mistake. It was based on the interpretation of the Greek words. The grammar is tricky in the passage. My professor was a very devout Christian, who I respected very much. He gave me an A on the paper but at the end he wrote “Maybe Mark just made a mistake.”

Even though it was a tiny little detail, it exploded the whole thing for me. Once I realized there could be a mistake in the Bible, I started finding them all over the place. The first thing it did was made me realize the Bible is not an inerrant revelation from God. It’s a human book with errors. I stopped being evangelical and became a liberal Christian. I eventually became an agnostic. There’s no way I would have leaped from fundamentalist to agnostic. It required a lot of transition. And the first thing to go was the inerrancy of the Bible.

Professor Ehrman is a little more scholarly than Ricky Gervais and his book is not a light read by any means. It’s a good read though, and examines the history of some famous bible passages – like the story of the woman accused of adultery – and when they were added to the bible.

What is, is now

Th FalconOne of the many books I am reading at the moment is The Peregrine by J.A. Baker.

It’s a bird-watching diary written by a man who (according to the intro) is in the last year of his life and decides to devote it to watching falcons.

The book is just day after day after day of falcons killing birds.

October 21st

Falcon killed a bird.

October 22nd

Falcon killed a bird.

October 23rd

Falcon killed a bird.

Every now and again, the falcon will fail to kill a bird or eat a mouse instead, but that’s pretty much the whole plot right there.

Why read such a book?

You might wonder.

The answer is language.

I read somewhere that Nabokov wrote Lolita to demonstrate that it’s possible to write beautifully even about a disgusting topic like child abuse. I think Mr. J.A.Baker had the same kind of idea in mind. Like a jazz quartet that plays the same phrase over and over for hours on end to see how many different ways they can say the same thing the author says “falcon kills bird” like The Grateful Dead improvise a solo.

Here’s a sample.

February 10th. This was a day made absolute, the sun unflawed, the blue sky pure. Slate roofs and crows’ wings burned white like magnesium. The shining mauve and silver woods, snow-rooted, bit sharply black into the solid blueness of the sky. The air was cold. The wind rose from the north, like cold fire. All was revealed, the moment of creation, a rainbow poured upon rock and shaped into woods and rivers.

[snip]

He hovered, and stayed still, striding on the crumbling columns of air, curved wings jerking and flexing. Five minutes he stayed there, fixed like a barb in the blue flesh of the sky. His body was still and rigid, his head turned from side to side, his tail fanned open and shut, his wings whipped and shuddered like canvas in the lash of the wind. He side-slipped to his left, paused, then glided round and down into what could only be the beginning of a tremendous stoop. There is no mistaking the menace of that first easy drifting fall. Smoothly, at an angle of fifty degrees, he descended; not slowly, but controlling his speed; gracefully, beautifully balanced. There was no abrupt change. The angle of his fall became gradually steeper till there was no angle left, but only a perfect arc. He curved over and slowly revolved, as though for delight, glorying in anticipation of the dive to come. His feet opened and gleamed golden, clutching up towards the sun. He rolled over, and they dulled, and turned towards the ground beneath, and closed again. For a thousand feet he fell, and curved, and slowly turned, and tilted upright. Then his speed increased, and he dropped vertically down. He had another thousand feet to fall, but now he fell sheer, shimmering down through dazzling sunlight, heart-shaped, like a heart in flames. He became smaller and darker, diving down from the sun. The partridge in the snow beneath looked up at the black heart dilating down upon him, and heard a hiss of wings rising to a roar. In ten seconds the hawk was down, and the whole splendid fabric, the arched reredos and immense fan-vaulting of his flight, was consumed and lost in the fiery maelstrom of the sky.

And for the partridge there was the sun suddenly shut out, the foul flailing blackness spreading wings above, the roar ceasing, the blazing knives driving in, the terrible white face descending, hooked and masked and horned and staring-eyed. And then the back-breaking agony beginning, and snow scattering from scuffling feet, and show filling the bill’s wide silent scream, till the merciful needle of the hawk’s beak notched in the straining neck and jerked the shuddering life away.

And for the hawk, resting now on the soft flaccid bulk of his prey, there was the rip and tear of choking feathers, and hot blood dripping from the hook of his beak, and rage dying slowly to a small hard core within.

And for the watcher, sheltered for centuries from such hunger and such rage, such agony and such fear, there is the memory of that sabring fall from the sky, and the vicarious joy of the guiltless hunter who kills only through his familiar, and wills him to be fed.

CSI-Monastery

The Name of the Rose is one of those books that I read at an impressionable age and was terribly impressed by it. I read it again a few years later and it was better still. It’s firmly in my top ten.

One of the bloggers that I follow has started a virtual book club – The Rose in Winter – and invited readers to revisit the book that has been called “the most popular unpopular book” with him.

This’ll be a new experience for me as I have never taken part in a book club or shared reading before (unless you count Jeff and I pair-reading 1984 to remind ourselves that 2004 was really not so bad) and I managed to boycott all my Eng. Lit. classes at school (loved reading, hated talking about it).

I really shouldn’t start another book until I finish one of the other 6 or 7 that I already have on the go, but I don’t think I can resist the challenge and I happen to have a copy right here. I even have a spare copy if anyone wants to come along for the ride.

précis: Sean Connery reprises his James Bond role in the guise of a mediæval monk and proto-scientist and solves a murder mystery that foreshadows the Reformation. No wait, that was the movie. The book is just like that but with more Latin and more Aristotle. The sex scene is even better in the book than in the movie but that might just be my fevered imagination infecting my memory.

Dare I risk another reading?

I have been here before. Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance went from life-changer to pretentious crap on a third reading, but I am willing to risk destroying another memory on the off-chance that the book is as enjoyable as I remember.

Betraying Lolita

Spoilers Ahead!
Before I read the book, I had always understood Lolita to be a sexually precocious teenage girl who seduces an older man.

In this scenario, Humbert is technically guilty but it’s still possible to have a little sympathy for him. It’s only our prudish modern society that frowns on sexual relationships between middle aged men and teenage girls. In classical times, they were celebrated as the very pinnacle of erotic love. Humbert was just unlucky enough to be born in the wrong era.

But Nabokov makes it very clear that this interpretation is absolutely mistaken.

Humbert himself, as narrator, describes how he is sexually attracted only to very young girls who have not reached puberty. It’s only in his perverted imagination that Lolita flirts back (she was asking for it, yer honour). Lolita is twelve.

During Lolita’s long imprisonment as Humbert’s sex slave, he rapes her repeatedly while persuading himself (and, in his role as narrator) the reader that Lolita is a willing and equal partner. When she refuses some of his more depraved advances, he bribes her by raising her allowance to two dollars (and later steals it back).

Lolita, the book, is a tale of child abuse, plain and simple and Nabokov makes no apologies for that. The story has no moral value and no moral lessons for the reader. It’s almost as though Nabokov is saying “Look! I am such an awesome writer, I can write this book about paedophilia and you’ll still enjoy it.”

I didn’t enjoy it.

A sucker for punishment, I watched the movie last night.

Jeremy Irons’ Humbert was still a depraved pervert but his Lolita was a more willing partner and much further into puberty than the girl in the book. It was easier to feel a little sympathy for this monster. The movie made it almost seem like a tragic story of forbidden love.

Maybe it’s the difficulty of reproducing the unreliable narrator device on film – or maybe it’s just harder to portray child abuse – but I feel that the movie betrayed the premise of the book in a pervion as depraved as Humbert’s. If the movie Lolita were as young as the book Lolita, there would have been outrage – as, I assume, the author probably intended.

The blog where I snagged the book cover captures the issue succinctly by comparing the various covers that have graced the book over the years.

Which of these books is about a man who preys on little girls?.

I think you’ll agree, it’s this one:

Sting may have struggled to resist the girl who stood too close, but the famous book by Nabokov is about a pervert.

10% of everything is not crap

I finished the book. A few of Bach’s points stand out as especially significant to my own life. But first, I want to talk about his story about his fellow testers at Apple.

At first I thought I would learn a lot from the other testers. There were more than 400 of them in my building. But talking to them revealed a startling truth: Nobody cared.
Almost nobody. In the first six months I worked at Apple, out of all the testers in the software testing division, I met maybe 10 who were also reading testing books. The rest muddled through without much ambition to master their craft. It was clear that catching the college kids would not be difficult, after all.

The pattern I experienced at Apple would be confirmed almost everywhere I traveled in the computer industry: Most people have put themselves on intellectual autopilot. Most don’t study on their own initiative, but only when they are forced to do so. Even when they study, they choose to study the obvious and conventional subjects. This has the effect of making them more alike instead of more unique. It’s an educational herd mentality.

This is almost right.

I have been thinking a lot, recently, about Sturgeon’s Law. Theodore Sturgeon is a science fiction writer who was once on a panel with with other writers from other genres. One of his fellow panelists threw out the observation that

90% of science fiction writing is crud

To which Sturgeon replied

90% of everything is crud

It’s usually quoted as crap rather than crud and, since it’s better to be useful than correct, I’ll go with that formulation.

Most people understand Sturgeon’s Law as a pessimistic observation of the rottenness that surrounds us: 90% of teachers are crap; 90% of software professionals are crap; 90% of restaurants are crap; 90% of beers are crap; 90% of tv shows are crap. But I prefer to think of Sturgeon’s Law as a strategy for avoiding hasty judgment in an unfamiliar domain.

If you are at the top of your game in software testing (or science fiction or beer drinking or whatever), you probably surround yourself with other people who think like you and have similar interests to you. When you compare your own circle (beer drinkers in Portland; historical fiction writers) with an unfamiliar circle (beer drinkers in Denver; science fiction writers), you are comparing the best of your circle with the average of another circle. That’s not a fair comparison because, if 90% of everything is crap, the average is crap too.

Sturgeon’s Law is about the 10% that is not crap. You have to go find the best before you decide that college graduates are all automatons or that beer drinkers in Denver drink piss or that video games are mindless (compared to movies) or whatever.

Some consequences:

If you are a liberal and all your liberal friends are smart, you need to go look for some smart conservatives before you pass judgment on conservatives as a whole.

If you are a responsible software tester, go look for some smart software developers before you decide that developers are irresponsible.

I could go on.

I have a hunch that this observation explains a whole bunch of phenomena: kids these days aren’t as smart as they were in my day; Women can’t change a plug; recent immigrants are stupid and lazy; and, of course, 90% of science fiction is crap.

None of this conflicts with Bach’s observation about his fellow testers at Apple or his advice that, with just little effort, you can be better than 90% of your co-workers. But it should make you pause before you decide that your group is better, in some way, than some other group.

One other observation and then I am done with buccaneering for a while.

Bach describes a strategy for learning that is very similar to my own. He talks about building a schema for a new topic before he goes about learning the details. I do that too.

When I am learning a new subject, I want to have a theory for what it’s about as a whole before I start learning the particulars. It’s a bit more iterative than that, of course: particulars help me understand the whole and the whole helps me understand the particulars; but my initial goal is to develop a theory for how everything hangs together rather than learn any particular detail.

I sometimes wonder if the people who study for exams miss this.

Having never studied for an exam (except my Latin O Level – I didn’t have a good theory of Latin), I don’t quite know how studying works. But I suspect that the studiers are trying to fill their heads with facts rather than build a skeleton understanding of the subject. It’s inevitable that they’ll forget everything almost immediately because the soft tissue of facts has no bones to cling to. If you have understanding, you can’t help but learn the facts as an accidental bi-product.

I have been trying to teach this to my son but, since he doesn’t study for exams either, he probably knows it already. I hope so. I expect he’ll turn out to be a buccaneer scholar too, even if he doesn’t know it yet.

Buccaneer Scholars Unite!

I just started reading James Bach’s Secrets of a Buccaneer Scholar. Buccaneer scholar is Bach’s term for someone who takes responsibility for their own education rather than having it handed to them by the authorities.

The book is an odd mix of autobiography and How To guide. The autobiographical bits have remarkable parallels with my own life right down to our reasons for learning harmonica and the kids we saved from certain death (I came across mine floating face down at midnight in the pool at Corton’s Holiday Camp with not another soul around).

A sampling of coincidences …

We both learned to program in BASIC from a book before we even had a computer to type them into. I used to write programs during French classes in a book under my desk and then type them in when I got home. I typed mine into a Zx81; James into an Apple II. I graduated to Z80; James to 68000.

James left home and school at 15. I waited until I was 16. We left for about the same reason – school was boring and we felt we weren’t learning anything. It took me several years though before I bluffed my way into my first programming job. I would’ve done it much earlier except I didn’t know it was an option.

Unlike James, I loved taking exams as a kid. It was a chance for me to excel at school without actually doing any work. In England, at that time, the only thing that counted towards your final grade was the exam at the end of the year, so I was pretty much able to do zero work for the rest of the year and still come top of my class. Sadly for them, American kids don’t have that option.

I should clarify what I mean by zero work. Like James, I was incredibly driven to learn. Apart from teaching myself to write software, I read lot of books – just not the ones my teachers wanted me to read. My dad got me a college textbook on organic chemistry for my 14th birthday. I read that several times.

Also like James, I excelled at antagonizing my teachers and was constantly in trouble at school. I also had an episode of failing exams on purpose.

The Navy had a very strict policy on throwing people out if they weren’t able to keep up academically. We had an exam every week or two for the four years of my apprenticeship. If you failed one, you were put on a Commander’s Warning; two got you a Captain’s Warning and so on as you worked your way up the hierarchy of shame. Each warning came with ever increasing ceremony (picture a military court and you’ll have the setting about right) and ever more impressive certificates of failure.

I got very good at getting exactly 49% (50% was a pass) but, on a surprising number of occasions, when I got my paper back, it had been altered to give me a couple of extra points and a passing grade.

When I received the final warning signed by the Commander in Chief himself, my Divisional Officer scribbled on a note “this beautiful certificate is even more impressive than the one you’ll get when you graduate”.

One more failure and I was out. But I blew it. I was so disenchanted with how low the academic standards were in the navy that I wanted to know if I could still pass a proper exam. A friend of mine was taking A-Level Maths and I went and asked if I could take it too.

The education officer explained how it was a two year course and no one had passed it in ten years and failures reflected badly on him and it was a waste of his time and blah blah. Somehow, I conned him into letting me take the exam without taking the classes.

A couple of days after I got my CinC Warning, I was pulled out of class and told to go see the Captain. I was not told why, but I assumed that I had failed my fifth and final exam and that the end of my career in the navy was imminent. Imagine my surprise when I learned that the Captain had called me out of class to give me my A-Level result personally. I had got an A.

It took them a couple of days to figure out that I was the same dude who had been failing all those exams. When they did, I was told in very plain terms that I would not fail any more exams or there would be serious consequences. In a couple days, I had hatched my new scheme: I would become an officer and exercise an officer’s option to resign…but that’s a story for another day.

Back to the book.

I am about three quarters through it already. I’m enjoying it immensely but it’s hard for me to recommend it.

If you are the kind of person to quit school at 16, you probably did that already. And you probably don’t need James’s lessons on how to learn.

If you are not that kind of person, you probably think of people like us as reckless fools. You are probably better off taking the establishment path to an education anyway.

Pious Fraud

I was determined to not like or even read Robert Wright’s Evolution of God but Kindle makes it much too easy to buy books.

Fortunately it is excellent.

Even shamans who got no fees or gifts might benefit from their work. Among the Ona of Tierra del Fuego, payment for service was rare, but, as one anthropologist observed, “one abstains from anything and everything” that might put the shaman out of sorts or irritate him. Moreover, in pre-agricultural societies, as in modern societies, high social status, however intangible, can ultimately bring tangible benefits. Ojibwa shamans, one anthropologist reports, received minimal remuneration, working for prestige, not pay. One of the symbols of religious leadership prestige was polygyny. Male leaders took more than one wife. In his classic study The Law of Primitive Man, E. Adamson Hoebel observed that, among some Eskimo, a forceful shaman of established reputation may denounce a member of his group as guilty of an act repulsive to animals or spirits, and on his own authority he may command penance. An apparently common atonement is for the shaman to direct an allegedly erring woman to have intercourse with him (his supernatural power counteracts the effects of her sinning).
So here is the pattern: in pre-agricultural societies around the world, people have profited, in one sense or another, by cultivating a reputation for special access to the supernatural. It’s enough to make you wonder: Might they, in the course of establishing their bona fides, sometimes resort to deceit? Was the average shaman a fraud” or, as one anthropologist put it, a “pious fraud”?

It Changed My Life – Book Four

When I returned from travelling around the world, I took a crappy job fixing avionics on planes at Heathrow Airport. Ooooooooooh how I hated that job. I quit after about three months with no idea of what to do next. Eventually, I narrowed it down to one of five things.

  • Six years in the navy had not cured me of my love of the sea. I applied for a job on a millionaire’s yacht based in Antibes.
  • I rather liked tropical islands. I applied for a job fixing satellite tracking equipment on Ascension Island.
  • I rather liked “abroad” in general. I applied for a course to learn to teach English as a foreign language (TEFL).
  • I had a tiny twinge of regret that I had not been to university. I applied to Cambridge.
  • I vaguely remembered that I had been good with computers as a lad. I applied for an adult education class in software engineering.

I didn’t really have a strong preference and decided to accept the first offer that arrived in my letterbox. Software engineering came in first so software engineering it was. I headed up to the East End of London for a five month course.

If you have ever been to Whitechapel, you will know that it is one of the poorest, crappiest parts of London and home to recent immigrants, gangsters and outcasts. Imagine a neighbourhood that has not changed one whit since Jack the Ripper’s reign of terror. That should help you picture the environs of my classroom.

If you have ever been unemployed in England, you will know that there is a prevailing threat that your benefits will stop unless you attend an endless stream of adult education classes. That should help you picture my fellow students.

Our instructor was a total nutcase. It was not clear that he had ever programmed a computer before but that didn’t stop him from having a sackful of forceful opinions about software engineering. Fortunately he only showed up for class about one day in four.

The Blind Beggar, WhitechapelMy fellow students were delighted. There was a pub next door and I got pretty good at pool. Winner Stays On was the prevailing convention and one of the highlights of my life was racking up for the first game at 11AM and not leaving the table until the pub closed at 11PM after thrashing all-comers including several shady-looking characters as the evening hours wore on and the bar filled with gangsters.

A few weeks into our course, the four of us who were not receiving unemployment benefits decided to complain about the lack of an instructor. The company that ran the course – fearing for their government funding – promised to find us a new teacher. They gave us a copy of The C Programming Language by Kernighan and Ritchie to help pass the time while they searched for the new guy.

I opened the book and, on the very first page, was the program that changed my life.

#include <stdio.h>
int main()
{ 
  printf("hello, world\n");
  return 0;
}

Our new instructor eventually showed up and tried to teach us ADA but I wasn’t interested. I already had my White Book. I had my passport to a successful career in software.

Kernighan and Ritchie

Two weeks later, I finished my first C program – an editor for sheet music that could playback the music you had typed in. Two months later, I had my first programming job [remind me to tell you about my first gig at Reuters]. Two years after that, I was managing a 12 person team building insurance software (Ultima is still on sale!). Two more years and I was working on Wall Street then, later still, Silicon Valley.

My story is not complete unless I tell you about the Women into Technology class next door or, rather, about Rita, a woman in that class and how we moved in together and… well… that’s a longer story and I’ll save it for another day…

Epilogue
The very day that I started my class, I received a letter from Antibes requesting that I fly down for an interview on that yacht but I’d already made my choice and I stuck with it. I wonder how my life would have been different if I had got on that plane?

It Changed My Life – Book Three

I bought The Golden Treasury of English Verse and a harmonica as my only mementos of civilization when I set off to go backpacking around the world. I’m not entirely sure why though because I couldn’t play the harmonica and I hated poetry.

By the time I got back, I was enchanted by both.

Being untutored in the arts, I was free to decide for myself what I liked and didn’t like even if what I liked wasn’t the right thing or it was unfashionable or whatever. That sentiment applied equally to my music playing and to poetry.

darwinOne night, in Darwin, during a bone-shaking thunderstorm, I heard someone playing blues harp in the other room. It was the most amazing sound I had ever heard come out of a harmonica and I went to investigate. There was an Australian dude a little older than me and we got talking.

He invited me to play a little too and he said words to the effect of “Wow! I have never heard anyone play the harmonica like that!”. I am still not sure if he meant Wow! That was great! or Wow! You suck!

Since I had no idea how I was meant to play it, I just played what sounded good to me. Same deal with poetry.

I jumped around all over the book and each poem launched me into a quest for more poetry like this. I had been force-fed Wilfred Owen at school but reading him of my own accord felt reckless, revolutionary. After six years in the navy, I had to read poetry to find out what war was about.

I have, again, no recollection of why I decided that I should learn The Rime of the Ancient Mariner by heart but I gave up after about 75 verses. I was heartbroken when my new team at work decided that Team Albatross was too gloomy for a team name. They must not have read Coleridge (or heard the song).

My tastes were eclectic (sorry, Dylan, that I made you learn For Whom the Bell Tolls for a recital) and after mini-expeditions with Kipling (Kim, The Man Who Would be King), DH Lawrence (The Rainbow, Lady Chatterley, Sons and Lovers, Women in Love) and a day trip or two with Tennyson and Betjeman, I settled on George Gordon Byron as my travelling companion and soulmate.

250px-George_Gordon_Byron,_6th_Baron_Byron_by_Richard_Westall_(2)I read everything that Byron had ever written and, for a short, mad while, I wanted to be him. I wanted to be the second mortal to swim the Hellespont; I wanted to so scandalize my wife on my wedding night that she would file for divorce the very next day (must’ve been a pretty successful night as it produced Lady Ada who also discovered the joys of programming); I wanted to seduce the wives, sisters, sons and mothers of prominent politicians, including the prime minister’s; I wanted to raise a private army and go liberate the Greeks from the Turks or to die trying – like Byron did.

Shelley and Keats travelled with us for a while, but neither thrilled me the way Byron thrilled me.

I haven’t read poetry for a long, long time – except to read old favourites to my daughter. My passion, like Byron’s life, was brief but intense.