Tuesday, November 01, 2005

Which are the magical languages ?

Other Engineers are bad analogies for Software Engineers. This is well known to all programmers who have sat through some Computer Science, and is a cliché to build masters. We are probably bad analogies for them as well, and I wonder what The Engineers heard about us ? Hopefully some of it was good.

They are far more scientific than us, closer to the true knowledge that Science is really about disproving hypthoses. When they build something they take a good bash at testing it. These were the kids who took watches apart to make sure they worked. So the ones that don't blow up tend to work well.

I took a few watches apart, and put them back together, but I never could tell them how to do the ticking stuff, with the spring, and the winding, and the arrow, and it was all too much for me. But they wouldn't listen: too busy not ticking.

And years later I told a machine to

10 PRINT "Hello"
20 END

And the machines said "Hello" to me.

Unfortunately they spoke COBOL on a VAX 11750, so it was far more work to do very little than it should've been, albeit I had little enough to be saying then. And when our programs got big enough to have something to do, then the machine couldn't handle them all at the same time, so we left the machine reading them overnight. The next year we got a 386, network cards and Microsoft Unix, and we could write in the day time.

The struggle since then has been in trying to speechify about semantics, when all the machines could help with was sticking to a syntax.

Considering the ever-yawning gap between semantics and syntax you'd nearly think they were boring ! And you'd never guess that Python is closer to Parcel Tongue than to the Parrot Sketch. Because Parcel Tongue is a magical language, but the Parrot Sketch is funny.

Actually - I was wondering why all the Python IDEs and tools preferred snake logos to Terry Gilliam's toons. I think I just figured it out.

A magical language is used to construct the future, to create in the world through the power of the word. That's also what programming languages do, except our props aren't so good: wizards work with Flying Circuses, hackers got 1 and 0.

And so the meanings hacked into hardware so far have tended from the mathematical. Maths has always been fun but 'tis a wee elbow in the ribs to find out it is magical too. The magical languages allow us to place meanings into the world, where no one can hear them. Maths itself can be too liberal for daily use, so we structured our syntactical scaffolds to support several semantics. (Hey, you only have to read that once, I have to write like that all day, that one is nearly funny:)

A side-effect of being magical, is that it is obvious the language's meanings do not reside in its symbols. In expressing the meaning the first cast offs are the symbols, as they don't fit easily onto the tape of a Turing machine. So they are all inter-transalatable, and the reason for using one, over another, is how well it allows one to leave meaning in the world. This is the fitness that survives - programming languages do well when they are more easily used than last year's language. They are born into credulous culture, so once a better one is found it tends to take over the world until the next one, each used to make more meanings than the last. We don't really program better than we used to, but we sure do Moore of it. We are runing up the hill to fill an exponentiating bucket.

OTOH a mythical language is first used to cry, then scream, shout and smile oneself into others' larders, and hearts. Its meanings resonate on the strings between us, leaving as much mark on the real world as a note on a guitar - they leave Joe Strummer's fingers, and my ear re-creates a new version, with a remix due soon.


Notes:

Mythical Languages are more commonly called "natural languages", I use "mythical" because (a)resonance (b)they are used to create myths (unlike the magical languages).

Tonight's soundtrack was supplied by Alabama 3, but it is not quite loud enough, becuase I haven't re-generated the aural nerves since the concert in Vicar St on Sunday night. The best gig I have ever been to.

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