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.
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.
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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