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An Ode to Code

By Martin Kihn | June 17, 2015 | 0 Comments

In case you missed it, Bloomberg BusinessWeek did something odd this week: launched a double issue consisting of a single, novella-length essay by a lone author, Paul Ford, a computer jock and writer based in Brooklyn, on a single topic. The topic is code.

What code? What angle? By any measure, Ford’s is an extraordinary essay — comfortable, written with wit and verve, comprehensive without being incomprehensible, persuasively poetic and deeply informative. Programmers may learn little, but this essay it not for programmers. Ford writes based on twenty years in web development, crafting PHP and Perl and Python and JavaScript (although he disclaims deep credentials in Java, still the most widely-used language). And we have no reason to doubt his self-characterization as a “middling programmer” who is “not smart enough to be rich.”

Instead, he’s delivered a bravura answer to the question: “What is code, anyway?

What is it? Ford frames his exposition within a made-up narrative about a nitwit Scrum Master confronting leadership at a company that might be Bloomberg Businessweek itself (but isn’t) about the need to revamp its website, backend, CMS, e-commerce engine, and so on. A typical story. The storytelling doesn’t do much more than give momentum to a semi-structured tour of the geography of code.

It has the feel of a guided tour: Look, there’s C! There’s Linus Torvalds! There’s the kids who bootstrapped Instagram on Django! There’s Django! And OMG, hold your nozzles, it’s PHP . . . and so on. If you’re the kind of amigo who’s never heard of Django (a Python development framework), it doesn’t matter: he tells you.

He tells you a lot, like: how apps are made, how the major coding languages are related to one another (turns out, a lot of them are written in C), where JavaScript came from and why it’s not Java, why machines care about semicolons, the difference between classes and methods and functions (those last two are synonyms), the best desks to use for coding, the virtues of Lisp, the difference between an IDE and a framework . . . actually, now that I’m scrolling through the thing after reading it, reminiscing on the experience, I’m realizing that Ford told me even more than I thought he did.

His style is deceptive: self-deprecating, at times improvy, with color-coded little footnotes and sidenotes that taste like those things they give you in fancy restaurants as a favor: it might be called breezy. The perfect style to translate an abstract topic into ideas in real motion.

What’s appreciated are the wry asides, frank anthropology of code culture, and Ford’s instinct to have an opinion. He quotes Torvalds, who built LInux and Git, in an online forum tearing C++ a new one (this quote seems to be in the print version only). Elsewhere, he tweaks Microsoft (“… name your ambiguous adjective, and Microsoft will sell something that delivers that to you …”) and PHP (“Reading PHP code is like reading poetry, the poetry you wrote freshman year of college”) and so on.

And Ford is refreshingly scathing on programmer culture and conferences, two sides of the same degenerate rockpile. It’s a sexist world he describes, one full of “primate dynamics,” which are directed both at women (“There has been much sexual harassment and much sexist content in conferences”) and at other (mostly male) coders. That rudeness you hear, the raised voices, interruptions, harsh threads on StackOverflow — apparently that’s just the conversational style of programmers. It’s seen as a virtue, in fact: “Blunt talk is seen as a good quality in a developer, a sign of an ‘engineering mindset’….” Ah, so that’s what it is.

Of course, I’m trying to get you to read the darn thing. It’s 48,000 words. I’d guess the typical best-selling novel is about 80,000 or so at 3X the price. (And no code!) Savor it on the Metro-North back to Bedford Hills tonight.

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