April 2012

Volume 27 Number 04

Don't Get Me Started - Poetry of the Geeks

By David Platt | April 2012

David PlattI was trying to explain neutrinos to a non-scientist the other day, in response to the faster-than-light claims being made (and since disproved). She wasn’t grokking my explanations at all. I finally conveyed the way neutrinos pass through matter without interacting by quoting John Updike’s poem, “Cosmic Gall” (bit.ly/fhFrQj):

At night, they enter at Nepal
and pierce the lover and his lass
From underneath the bed—you call
It wonderful; I call it crass

Sometimes only poetry can explain science, and technology, too. In Rudyard Kipling’s poem, “McAndrew’s Hymn” (bit.ly/htBITe), the Scottish chief engineer of a steamship cries aloud for such an aid to laypeople’s understanding: “Lord, send a man like Robbie Burns to sing the Song o’ Steam!” We geeks could benefit from that.

Being geeks, we mistakenly believe that we’re normal; that our users resemble us. That produces terrible software, and not much better poetry. I doubled over with laughter at “The Girl Who Dreams in ADA” (bit.ly/yf1X22, credited to one Martin J. Carter). But I’ll bet Antonio Carlos Jobim loses very little sleep worrying that it will replace his classic, “The Girl from Impanema,” and not just because he’s dead:

Fingers dance the Keyboard Samba
Like lines of code are goin’ out of fashion
And each workstation
*    On compilation
*    Goes Argh

I doubt that my own composition, “I’m Just a Two-Bit Programmer on a 16-Bit Machine” (to the tune of “Stuck Inside of Mobile with Those Memphis Blues Again”), gives Bob Dylan many sleepless nights, either—even if I did get it published in the “Journal of Irreproducible Results.”

We geeks do better writing haiku, perhaps because we respect intelligence most when it’s exercised in the face of constraints. Here I salute the late Simba, who wrote the April Fools’ edition of this column last year (msdn.microsoft.com/magazine/gg983482). You can see the Canadian influence, as I’d just returned from a gig in Toronto:

My cat pressed ‘Reset’
Now she’s a tennis racket
No more fur balls, eh?

The canonical haiku was written by Seth Schoen, to give the DeCSS DVD decryption algorithm the First Amendment protections due to artistic speech (bit.ly/fuhwA). This is just a tiny excerpt from his 456-triplet masterpiece, maintaining the 5-7-5 meter throughout:

*Now help me, Muse, for
*I wish to tell a piece of
*controversial math,

for which the lawyers*
*__of DVD CCA
*don’t forbear to sue:

that they alone should*
know or have the right to teach
these skills and these rules.

I love reading Dr. Seuss’ “Fox in Socks” to my daughters, even now, but I can’t help adding a little technical spice. If Dr. Seuss had been a technical writer, he might have produced something like this; it’s scary as hell how quickly my girls memorized it and can chant it:

If a packet hits a pocket on a socket on a port,
And the bus is interrupted as a very last resort.
And the address of the memory makes your floppy disk abort,
Then the socket packet pocket has an error to report!

Now that computer usage has become mainstream, mass-market artists have gotten into the act, or at least tried to. Jimmy Buffett seems to be still scratching his head with “Flesh and Bone” (bit.ly/xIjsN2):

I’ve got words but no processor
I’ve got feelings but I don’t know DOS
so I just have to go back to BASICs
to try to get my point across

Don Middlebrook, leader of the bands Living Soul and the Pearl Divers (http://www.donmiddlebrook.net/), has a better handle on it. His song about online dating, “[You Can’t] Download Love,” asks: “What if he’s a geek, and you click save instead of delete?” Tropical rocker Jeff Pike is up to the minute, with his breakaway ballad, “There’s an App for That”.

I’ll give the last word to David Pogue, technology critic at The New York Times. He also writes spoof songs, such as “The Bill Gates Song” (to the tune of “Chestnuts Roasting on an Open Fire”):

And so we’re offering this simple prayer,
To Bill and all his MS grunts:
Since we all follow any standard you write,
Make it good, please,
Make it good, please,
Make it good, please, just once!

David S. Platt teaches Programming .NET at Harvard University Extension School and at companies all over the world. He’s the author of 11 programming books, including “Why Software Sucks” (Addison-Wesley Professional, 2006) and “Introducing Microsoft .NET” (Microsoft Press, 2002). Microsoft named him a Software Legend in 2002. He wonders whether he should tape down two of his daughter’s fingers so she learns how to count in octal. You can contact him at rollthunder.com.