Volume 33 Number 8
[Don't Get Me Started]
Sing in Me, Muse
By David Platt | August 2018
Sing in me, Muse, and through me tell the story
of that man skilled in all ways of contending,
the wanderer, harried for years on end
Of these adventures, Muse, daughter of Zeus,
tell us in our time, lift the great song again.
“The Odyssey,” Homer (c. 750 BCE), Robert Fitzgerald translation (1961)
I’ve just returned from keynoting a conference in Greece, explaining “Why Software STILL Sucks.” I love that country and its friendly, hospitable people. Still groaning under their own economic catastrophe, they risk their lives at sea to save drowning refugees (see nyti.ms/2K1jun9). I admire their contribution to Western civilization, and I’d like to share some of it with you. (Want me to write about your country? Invite me to your conference. I give great keynote talks.)
You have no doubt heard of the Muses (en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Muses). In classical Greek mythology, these nine goddesses are the source of inspiration in literature, science and the arts. They give us our English words for amusement, museum and even music. The smiling and frowning masks you see displayed in many theaters belong to Thalia, muse of comedy, and Melpomene, muse of tragedy. When you put on a CD or spin up Spotify, a nod to Euterpe (music) wouldn’t be out of place, or a tip of your shoes to Terpsichore when you dance to it.
Authors and poets commonly invoke their muses at the start of a work, as Homer does in the beginning of “The Odyssey” (quoted above). Some of our best geek writers do so via rigid poetic forms. Seth Schoen, in his superb 456-stanza DeCSS haiku (bit.ly/2JQRzXE, 2001), invokes his muse thus:
Now help me, Muse, for
I wish to tell a piece of
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.
Science fiction author Neal Stephenson opens his novel, “Quicksilver” (William Morrow, 2003), with a sonnet, from which I excerpt:
State your intentions, Muse. I know you're there.
Dead bards who pined for you have said
You're bright as flame, but fickle as the air.
Why rustle in the dark, when fledged with fire?
Craze the night with flails of light. Reave
Your turbid shroud. Bestow what I require.
Which muse inspires us software developers? Urania, muse of astronomy? Astronomy leads to navigation, and navigation to mathematics. She is often portrayed holding a compass. So Urania? Maybe. Calliope, muse of epic poetry, muse of Homer? She’s often portrayed holding a writing tablet, obviously an early iPad prototype. So Calliope? Maybe. The last project I was called in too late to save contained elements of both comedy and tragedy, so the electron/positron duo of Thalia and Melpomene? Maybe.
But software development is new, different from anything humans have previously done. We need our own muse. And she appeared to me, in a jet-lagged vision, as dawn broke over the wine-dark Aegean Sea.
Her name is Monomidene (Greek: Μονομηδένη), from the Greek words for one and zero, the atomic components of all our invocations. The nine original muses were daughters of Zeus and Mnemosyne, the Titan goddess of memory. And goodness knows, our programs consume more memory every year. But see Figure 1. She’s wearing the hat of a female senior officer in the U.S. Navy. Could Monomidene be the daughter of Zeus and Grace Hopper, a goddess in her own right? Scoff if you must, but I think Amazing Grace gave this industry more than just a COBOL compiler.
Figure 1 Monomidene, Muse of Software Development
Each muse carries the tools of her trade, such as Terpsichore’s lyre or Euterpe’s panpipes. Monomidene carries a flyswatter, obviously for crushing bugs, like her mother’s original in the Smithsonian Museum of American History (bit.ly/2yBHXLl). Also, a large mug of coffee, for all those late-night debugging sessions. What more could any programmer want?
Monomidene stands ready for your invocations. Tell me how she inspires you.
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.