A Suitable Blog

At a little over 590 thousand words and spanning 1,349 pages, Vikram Seth’s A Suitable Boy is almost-certainly among the top ten longest single-volume English-language novels. It’s pretty fucking huge.

A Suitable Boy, seen from the edge
I’ll stick with the Kindle edition: I fear that merely holding the paperback would be exhausting.

I only discovered A Suitable Boy this week (and haven’t read it – although there are some good reviews that give me an inclination to) when, on a whim, I decided to try to get a scale of how much I’d ever written on this blog and then decided I needed something tangible to use as a comparison. Because – give or take – that’s how much I’ve written here, too:

Graph showing cumulative words written on this blog, peaking at 593,457.
At 593,457 words, this blog wouldn’t fit into that book unless we printed it on the covers as well.

Of course, there’s some caveats that might make you feel that the total count should be lower:

  • It might include a few pieces of non-content code, here and there. I tried to strip them out for the calculation, but I wasn’t entirely successful.
  • It included some things which might be considered metadata, like image alt-text (on the other hand, sometimes I like to hide fun messages in my image alt-text, so perhaps they should be considered content).

On the other hand, there are a few reasons that it perhaps ought to be higher:

  • It doesn’t include any of the content “lost” during the July 2004 server failure, some of which (like this post about Orange) were later recovered but many of which (like this post about Christmas plans and upcoming exams) remain damaged. It also doesn’t include any of the lost content from the original 1998/1999 version of this blog, only the weird angsty-teen out-of-context surviving bits.
  • Post titles (which sometimes contain part of the content) and pages outside of blog posts are not included in the word count.
  • I’ve removed all pictures for the purpose of the word count. Tempting though it was to make each worth a thousand words, that’d amount to about another one and a half million words, which seemed a little excessive.
A delicious-looking BLT. Mmm, bacon.
Another reason for not counting images was that it was harder than you’d think to detect repeat use of images that I’ve used too many times. Like this one.

Of course, my blog doesn’t really have a plot like A Suitable Boy (might compare well to the even wordier Atlas Shrugged, though…): it’s a mixture of mostly autobiographical wittering interspersed with musings on technology and geekery and board games and magic and VR and stuff. I’m pretty sure that if I knew where my life would be now, 18 years ago (which is approximately when I first started blogging), I’d have, y’know, tried to tie it all together with an overarching theme and some character development or something.

Or perhaps throw in the odd plot twist or surprise: something with some drama to keep the reader occupied, rather than just using the web as a stream-of-conciousness diary of whatever it is I’m thinking about that week. I could mention, for example, that there’ll be another addition to our house later this year. You heard it here first (unless you already heard it from somewhere else first, in which case you heard it there first.)

Annabel sitting on her daddy's knee and looking at sonograph pictures of her future baby brother.
Brought up in a world of tiny, bright, UHD colour touchscreens, Annabel seemed slightly underwhelmed by the magic of a sonograph picture of her future baby brother.

Still: by the end of this post I’ll have hit a nice, easy-to-remember 594,000 words.

Teaching Kids to Code – Why It Matters

The BBC ran a story this week about changes to the National Curriculum that’ll introduce the concepts of computing programming to children at Key Stage 1: that is, between the ages of five and seven. I for one think that this is a very important change, long overdue in our schools. But I don’t feel that way because I think there’ll be a huge market for computer programmers in 13+ years, when these children leave school: rather, I think that learning these programming skills provide – as a secondary benefit – an understanding of technology that kids today lack.

Computer program that asks if you're a boy or a girl and then says it likes that gender. Photograph copyright Steven Luscher, used under Creative Commons license.
Ignoring the implied gender binary (fair enough) and the resulting inefficiency (why do you need to ask two questions), this is a great example of a simple algorithm.

Last year, teacher and geek Marc Scott wrote an excellent blog post entitled Kids Can’t Use Computers… And This Is Why It Should Worry You. In it, he spoke of an argument with a colleague who subscribed to the popular belief that children who use computers are more technically-literate than computer-literate adults. Marc refutes this, retorting that while children today make use of computers more than most adults (and far more than was typical during the childhood of today’s adults), they typically know far less about what Marc calls “how to use a computer”. His article is well worth reading: if you don’t have the time you should make the time, and if you can’t do that then here’s the bottom line: competency with Facebook, YouTube, Minecraft, and even Microsoft Office does not in itself demonstrate an understanding of “how to use a computer”. (Marc has since written a follow-up post which is also worth reading.)

Children programming on laptops. Photograph copyright Steven Luscher, used under Creative Commons license.
If the can of Mountain Dew wasn’t clue enough, these children are coding.

An oft-used analogy is that of the automobile. A hundred years ago, very few people owned cars, but those people that did knew a lot about the maintenance and inner workings of their cars, but today you can get by knowing very little (I’ve had car-owning friends who wouldn’t know how to change to their spare tyre after a puncture, for example). In future, the requirements will be even less: little Annabel might be allowed to ‘drive’ without ever taking a driving test, albeit in a ‘driverless’ computerised car. A similar thing happened with computers: when I was young, few homes had a computer, but in those that did one or more members of the family invariably knew a lot about setting up, configuring, maintaining, and often programming it. Nowadays, most of the everyday tasks that most people do with a computer (Facebook, YouTube, Minecraft, Microsoft Office etc.) don’t need that level of knowledge. But I still think it’s important.

A 2-year-old using a MacBook. Photograph copyright Donnie Ray Jones, used under Creative Commons license.
A future computer-literate, or just another computer “user”?

Why? Because understanding computers remains fundamental to getting the most out of them. Many of us now carry powerful general-purpose computers in our pockets (disguised as single-purpose devices like phones) and most of us have access to extremely powerful general-purpose computers in the form of laptops and desktops (but only a handful of us use them in a ‘general purpose’ way; for many people, they’re nothing more than a web browser and a word processor). However, we expect people to be able to understand the issues when we ask them – via their elected officials – to make sweeping decisions that affect all of us: decisions about the censorship of the ‘net (should we do it, and to what extent, and can we expect it to work?) or about the automation of our jobs (is it possible, is it desirable, and what role will that mean for humans?). We expect people to know how to protect themselves from threats like malicious hackers and viruses and online scams, but we give them only a modicum of support (“be careful, and install anti-virus software”), knowing full well that most people don’t have the foundation of understanding to follow that instruction. And increasingly, we expect people to trust that software will work in the way that it’s instructed to without being able to observe any feedback. Unlike your car, where you may know that it’s not working when it doesn’t go (or, alarmingly, doesn’t stop) – how is the average person to know whether their firewall is working? You can find out how fast your car can go by pressing the pedals, but how are you to know what your computer is capable of without a deeper understanding than is commonplace?

A simple program in Hackety Hack.
I first started to learn to program in Locomotive BASIC. My microcomputer was ready to receive code from the second it booted: no waiting, just programming. Nowadays, there’s a huge barrier to entry (although tools like Hackety Hack, pictured, are trying to make it easier).

A new generation of children tought to think in terms of how computers and their programs actually work – even if they don’t go on to write programs as an adult – has the potential to usher in innovating new ways to use our technology. Just as learning a foreign language, even if you don’t go on to regularly use it, helps make you better at your native language, as well as smarter in other ways (and personally, I think we should be teaching elementary Esperanto – or better yet, Ido – to primary school children in order to improve their linguistic skills generally), learning the fundamentals of programming will give children a far greater awareness about computers in general. They’ll be better-able to understand how they work, and thus why they sometimes don’t do what you expect, and better-equipped to solve problems when they see them. They’ll have the comprehension to explain what they want their computer to be able to do, and to come up with new ideas for ways in which general-purpose computers can be used. And, I’ve no doubt, they’ll be better at expressing logical concepts in mutually-intelligble ways, which improves human communication on the whole.

Let’s teach our kids to be able to understand computers, not just “use” them.

“Uncle Dan”

A week ago, Ruth pushed a baby out of her body, completely upstaging my birthday and, incidentally, throwing all of our lives pretty much into chaos. Having gotten to the point at which she’d resigned herself to “being pregnant forever“, Ruth would have certainly been glad to have that stage over and done with, were it not for a long and painful labour followed by a torturous and exhausting birth.

JTA, Ruth, Dan and 'Tiny' in the delivery suite.
If Ruth looks like she’s about to die of exhaustion in this photo, that’s because that’s how she’s feeling.

There’s a lot that can be said about the labour: a 38-hour crescendo of Ruth gradually and repeatedly finding levels of pain and tiredness that each seemed impossible, until she reached them. But Ruth has suggested that she might like to write a little about it herself, so I shan’t steal her limelight. What I can say is that I didn’t – and I don’t think that JTA, either – appreciate quite how emotionally draining the experience would be for the two of us, as well. There was a strange sensation for me about twelve hours in: a sensation perhaps most-comprehensible by our friends who’ve done emotional support work. That was: after watching somebody I love so much suffer so greatly for so long, I felt as if I’d somehow begun to exhaust whatever part of my brain feels empathy. As if the experience of supporting Ruth had served to drain me in a way I’d never fully experienced before, like when you discover a muscle you didn’t know you had when it aches after an unusual new exercise.

Forcep-marks still visible, the newborn takes an extended nap in a crib alongside Ruth's recovery-bed.
Forcep-marks still visible, the newborn takes an extended nap in a crib alongside Ruth’s recovery-bed.

Of course, after the ordeal we got to take home a little bundle of joy, who continues – despite now having a perfectly fabulous name of her own – to be referred to as “tiny”, even though her birth weight of 8lbs 12oz (that’s about 4kg, for those who – like me – prefer to think in metric) doesn’t really make that a very fitting nickname! Nor the amount of damage she did to Ruth on the way out, which also might be ill-described as “tiny”! She’s also often referred to as “the poopmachine”, for reasons that ought not need spelling out.

Dan rocking the baby, in the sunlight.
I’m smiling, because I don’t yet know that, within seconds of this photo being taken, she’s about to fill her nappy.

My employer was kind enough to give me paternity leave, even though I’m not the biological father (JTA is; and he’s very-much still in the picture!). I’d looked at my contract and discovered that the wording seemed to imply that I was eligible, stating that I’d be permitted to take paternity leave if I was about to become a father, or if my partner was about to give birth, the latter of which seemed perfectly clear. To be certain, I’d wandered along to Personnel and explained our living arrangement, and they just had looks on their faces that said “we’re not touching that with a barge pole; let’s just err on the side of giving him leave!” As a result, we’ve had all hands on deck to help out with the multitudinous tasks that have suddenly been added to our lives, which has been incredibly useful, especially given that Ruth has been spending several days mostly lying-down, as she’s been recovering from injuries sustained during the delivery.

Tiny in front of the new beta version of Three Rings.
If only we had some kind of way to set up a web-based rota of feeding, changing and comforting the little one…

Despite everything, we and the rest of the Three Rings team still managed to push the latest version into testing on schedule, though fitting in time for bug-fixing is even harder than it would be were we at our “day jobs” during the daytimes! It’s not that our little poopmachine takes up all of our time, though she does seem to take a lot of it, it’s simply that we’re all so tired! For the last few nights she’s been fussy about sleeping, and we’ve all lost a lot of rest time over keeping her fed, clean, and feeling loved.

Ruth snuggles with her baby.
Who loves boob? Baby does! Also, everybody else in the house.

For all my complaining, though, what we’ve got here is an adorable and mostly well-behaved little bundle of joy. And when she’s not covered in poop, shouting for attention, or spitting milk all over you, she’s a little angel. And I’m sure you’ll all be sick of hearing about her very soon.