I had such fun. Though I’m never, ever, livecoding half an unwritten talk in an Emacs window again.
You want proof?
Also. I’m not dead, I’m just writing a book on Higher Order Coffeescript for O’Reilly and I alternate between bouts of horrid mental block and massive splurges of disorganized content where everything seems to be more important than everything else.
Today is Alan Turing’s 100th birthday. I’ve been thinking about him lately, in particular about a story that demonstrates the perils of working with genius.
The story goes that, when Turing was working with the Manchester Baby (the first stored program computer ever built. Just) a colleague wrote the first ever assembler which would turn (relatively) human readable assembly language and turn it into the ones and zeroes of machine code that the machine could actually execute. He showed it to Turing, who blew up at him, ranting that using the computer to do ‘trivial’ jobs like that were a massive waste of expensive computer time.
The problem with working with a genius, from the point of view of more ordinary mortals, is that the genius has only a very rough idea of what is actually easy, and what is only easy to them. From today’s vantage point, when computers are as freely available as they are now, the idea of not letting the computer do the shitwork for you seems utterly ludicrous – programmer time is more valuable than computer time.
What’s less obvious is that the same was true in Turing’s time (when there was precisely one computer) too. It only takes one programmer to make a mistake in translating from assembler to machine code and run a job that, for instance, gets stuck in an infinite loop and you’ve probably wasted more computer time (and programmer time) than if you’d just run it through the assembler in the first place. Turing didn’t see that, because the process of translating from symbols to binary wasn’t something that he found particularly complicated. To him, what was needed wasn’t more and better tools, it was more and better Turings.
I’m not entirely sure that I believe the story (and I can’t remember where I heard it, so it may be a phantom of my memory). It certainly doesn’t chime with the Turing who was instrumental in mechanising the shitwork of finding the days rotor settings so that Enigma traffic could be cracked. The history of Bletchley Park is a story of building better and better machines to do the dully repetitive jobs that humans find so hard to stick to and which machines excel at.
The “Just write code without bugs in the first place” school of programming is alive and well today. It’s not my school though. I’m very much an exploratory coder. I like to have tests to show me the way and to keep me honest so that I don’t go breaking things when I change this bit here. I’ve customised my editing environment to help me as much as possible. I have a nasty habit of writing bare words that I should have quoted, so I have a keystroke that shoves the last word into quotes for me. Another keystroke will align all the broad arrows at the current level of nesting. I’ve got snippets set up that fill in standard boilerplate when I start a new class, a huge list of common spelling mistakes that get autocorrected while I’m not looking and an expanding list of other little helpers that I need to write when I get around to it. Automation lets me go faster, make more and better mistakes and recover from them faster. I am a of little brain and I want all the help I can give myself.
I’m not sure that Turing would be in the same camp as me.
Here’s the thing though – Turing was, definitely, a genius. But his paper “On Computable Numbers, with an Application to the Entscheidungsproblem” (the one that gave the world the Turing Machine) has a bug in it. In fact, it has two. The first is obvious enough that I spotted it when i read the paper for the first time. The second bug is rather more subtle (but still fixable. It’s okay, the field of computing is not build on sand).
I love that The Paper – The one that’s the theoretical basis for the modern world (first publishd 75 years ago, round(ish) number fans) – has a bug. It gives me a strange kind of hope. Fallibility gets us all – even people who have saved the world. I think we should celebrate the humanity as well as the genius. Turing was, by all accounts, a very odd fish, but the world is undeniably richer for his contributions.
So, let’s raise a glass to the memory of Alan Turing tonight, marathon runner, gay icon, saviour of the world and the pleasantly fallible inventor of the modern world. Not a bad CV, when you think about it.
Apparently I’m wrong about it being Turing who didn’t like the assembler but Von Neumann (another genius). See below for details. And phew! How nice to find that a hero doesn’t have feet of clay.
Two bulls were grazing at the bottom of the big pasture, when the farmer let a load of heifers in at the top gate.
“Hey,” said the young bull to the old, “What do you say we run up there and fuck us a couple of heifers?”
“Well,” said the old one, “You’re welcome to do that if you want to, but I plan on walking up there and fucking all of them”.
I’ll leave any interpretation up to you.
I’m a wee bit late writing this because it’s mostly about my summer trip to the Swannanoa Gathering at Warren Wilson College near Asheville, North Carolina. It just so happened that YAPC (Yet Another Perl Conference) was held in Asheville this year, the week before the gathering’s Traditional Song Week. Well, I’m a perl hacker. I sing traditional songs. My employer was paying for me to attend YAPC and were willing for me to extend my stay in America by a week. It was a no brainer really.
YAPC was bloody good this year. Perl 5 development is moving forward and the community is buzzing because of it. Lots of “… and we’re hiring” slides. And that’s before we get to the pleasure of catching up with friends that I only see online most of the time. If you’re working in any field that has grassroots conferences associated with it, I can’t recommend attending them highly enough.
On to Swannanoa
At Swannanoa, I met Sheila Kay Adams and immediately switched my schedule to spend as much time singing with her as possible. Sheila’s a seventh generation ballad singer from the Sodom Laurel community in Madison Count. Her “grannie Berzil” Wallin remembered Cecil Sharp coming to Madison County and collecting songs from the family.
Pedigree in singing shouldn’t matter, but it turns out it does. Sheila grew up in a community which was changing, but which still had old ‘love songs’ as an important part of how it understood the world. Today, not so much. People still relate to the world and understand it through songs, but the songs are more likely to be contemporary. Lyrically, many of the love songs that Sheila and her family sing could have been written yesterday, but their performance is radically different from contemporary style. One voice, unaccompanied, a style that requires the listener to concentrate on the song rather than any aspects of production. Not something you’re going to dance to at your wedding, say.
Sheila’s classes, on Meeting House Songs (more later) and her Ballads class with Bobbie McMillon were just wonderful; I won’t forget in a hurry the sound Bobbie singing “A conversation with Death” as a thunderstorm grumbled across the campus in the background. Spine tingling stuff. Sheila’s description of how she learned songs “knee to knee” has been helpful too. The way it would work was that the teacher and student would be sat out on the porch, often doing some chore or another, and the teacher would sing the first verse of a song. The student would sing it back and the teacher would sing the second verse. The student would then sing the first two verses then the teacher would sing the third verse and the student would sing the first three verses and so on, until the student was singing the whole song back to the teacher. A time consuming process to be sure, but it works.
I know this because I learned Pretty Saro from a recording of Sheila’s late husband Jim Taylor, using a variant of the method, “knee to CD” if you like. I’d play the first verse, hit pause and sing it back, play the second verse, pause, repeat the first two… and so on. And in very short order I had the words and tune (up to a point; I listened back to that recording again recently and I’m singing a different tune now) and could start the process of actually learning the song, which involved singing it it lots, listening to other recordings, singing it some more and then taking the song out and trying it out in front of audiences and listening to what works and what doesn’t. I’ve never really finished learning a song; this recording is a snapshot. I hope you enjoy it.
I sometimes think that I should have published the lyrics to Child of the Library with a bibliography. The references in the second verse are all obvious to me, but I’m a white middle class English boy who grew up around boats. My childhood reading and yours may not intersect all that much.
The Walkers and the Blacketts
Also known as the Swallows and Amazons. Swallows and Amazons is the first ‘big’ book that I can remember reading for myself. We were in Cornwall, holidaying at the same place my mum’s been going to since she was a kid. Mum was reading Swallows and Amazons to us, and it was great, but I was impatient to find out what happened next, so I took the book to bed with me and read it for myself. I haven’t stopped yet. Swallows and Amazons was the book that opened my door to reading for pleasure. It opened up a way of looking at the world too. I can’t imagine who I’d be if I’d never read any Ransome.
The Pevensies are the family in The Lion, The Witch And The Wardrobe, the first of the Narnia books. I have a slightly troubled relationship with these books now. I really don’t get on with C. S. Lewis’s view of the world (I once hurled a taped reading of The Screwtape Letters out of the car rather than listen to another word of the bloody things), but I wasn’t reading between the lines when I was nine. I was just loving the stories and the images they put in my head. And what images…
Simp, the Canine Cannonball
What do you mean, you’ve never read Cannonball Simp? You poor thing!
Cannonball Simp, by John Burningham is the library book for me. Back when I was 4 or 5, I would walk with my dad from Regent’s Square to the Doncaster Central Library every Saturday morning, with three books clutched under my arm. I’d hand them over the counter, receiving in exchange 3 buff cardboard library slip holders. I would then go over to the childrens’ books section and pull out three new (to me) books and take them to the counter. The librarian would remove the slip from the library bookplate, place it in one of my surrendered holders and stamp the slip and the bookplate with the date, three weeks hence, by which the book must be renewed.
Well, that’s how it worked until weekend I came back with Cannonball Simp. I loved it. I didn’t want to take it back because I hadn’t learned it yet. Sure I could ‘read’ along with Dad – I knew all the words by then – but the pictures were another thing entirely. They were beautiful. They still are.
That’s when I learned of the magic of ‘renewal’. Instead of handing the book back, I showed it to the librarian and said “I’d like to renew this, please,” and instead of giving me my library card back, they just stamped the book and slip with a new date. Wow! It was like I owned the book.
I don’t know how many times I renewed that book. I’m afraid I don’t remember the words any more. But I still remember the pleasure that it gave me.
Galadriel the Fair
On the last day of junior school our form teacher, Miss Rees, wrote a long list of books on the board and asked us to copy the list into the back of our exercise books. She said that these were books we should try and read. I don’t have the exercise book any more and I remember very little of the list. I do remember that I’d already read some of them. And I remember The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings. Oh boy, do I remember The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings.
Terry Pratchett said that if you’re a 14 year old boy and you don’t think that The Lord of the Rings is the best book ever written then there may be something wrong with you, but if you’re 28 and you still think it’s the best book ever written then there’s definitely something wrong with you. I was that 14 year old boy. I stayed up all night reading it. I fell asleep reading it. I read the appendices. I worked out how to write my name in Elvish script. I even read The Silmarillion and thought I enjoyed it. I can still recite some of the poetry. In Elvish. I’ve forgotten the words of Cannonball Simp, but get me going with “A Elbereth Gilthoniel…” and I can just about reel off the rest of the poem. What’s wrong with me?
By the time I was 28, LotR wasn’t the best book ever written. I’m no longer sure that there is such a thing as “The Best Book Ever Written”. Still, if you haven’t at least read The Hobbit you should take steps to rectify matters. Or wait for the Peter Jackson movie.
The Daughter of a Pirate King
Paddington the Bear
Once I’d learned that reading for myself was pure pleasure, I read anything and everything I could find in the library and I discovered Michael Bond’s Paddington Bear. Paddington was a well meaning young bear from Peru who was found, wearing a duffel coat and a label reading “Please look after this bear”, at Paddington Station by the Brown Family. The Browns took him in immediately, named him Paddington after the station and… ‘hijinks ensue’.
I would be quietly reading these books to myself when some episode or another (“Baked Elastic”; the Russian ballet dancer; the wobbly table…) would cause me to laugh out loud and my brother would demand to know what was funny and made me read whatever it was aloud to him. I have to confess, I resented this, but not enough to dent my enjoyment. The Paddington books are made of joy.
Or… what I did this summer.
Summer as been frantic. Mostly joyous, but frantic.
I had talks accepted at both YAPC and OSCON. Because YAPC was in Asheville, and the Swannanoa Gathering Traditional Song Week fell the week after YAPC, that meant I flew out to Asheville for an intense fortnight of Perl community engagement followed by a week spent singing myself hoarse and being blown away by Sheila Kay Adams’s singing and her stories of mountain life and listening to future stars like Sam Gleaves and inspiring activists like Saro Lynch Thomason. I could write entire posts on every one of those, and that’s before I get on to the magic of watching the sun go down and the fireflies come up from the grass of the Warren Wilson College’s natural amphitheatre. Magical so it was.
On the last night of the gathering, there was a student showcase. Of course, I sang Child of the Library. Rather embarrassingly, I skipped a verse, but the response was great. Several people came up to me afterwards and told me their library stories and, I hope, went home with a determination to help protect their libraries.
What with flapping about the unwritten talk, and the 10 minute gap between them, I didn’t really worry overmuch about the Perl lightning talks. It’s been my practice to sing a lightly massaged version of Lou and Peter Berryman’s very splendid song A Chat With Your Mother with tailored verses about different language communities and various Perl luminaries. I had decided to retire it, but at YAPC I came up with a snide verse about myself and another about Larry Wall, so it felt renewed enough to be worth singing this year as well. I ended up singing Child of the Library again.
The response was phenomenal. I’ve been singing it for long enough now that I know it gets people. Hell, when I was writing it, there were verses that were hard to sing because they got me and I was choking up as I tried to sing them. But the lightning talk got a standing ovation. Again people were telling me library stories and I found that the UK isn’t the only country with local governments stupid enough to consider closing libraries, it was happening in the US too. So, fired up by that response, I went to see Sarah Novotny and begged her for five minutes on the OSCON stage before the closing keynote. Bless her, she let me have it.
Pics, or it didn’t happen!
I have proof too! The main stage at O’Reilly events has serious video equipment pointed at it. Because it’s important that people get to see serious talks about known bugs and exploits in wetware. Because my performance wasn’t on the schedule, and I didn’t have a video release all signed and ready to go beforehand, it’s taken a while to get the video available. But last night, that changed, so here I am, in all my corpulent glory. Enjoy. And please, spread this video as far and as wide as you can. Libraries are important.
Here’s a revised version of A Child of the Library.
Whenever I learn a new song, there’s a period of making it “mine”. This happens as I sing it out to different audiences and find out which bits work, which bits are hard to sing and all the other little details that you only find out when there’s a living, breathing, listening and (hopefully) singing audience in front of you.
It turns out that the same things happens with songs I’ve written.
The biggest stumbling block of the original version is the last line of the first verse:
My wife met Pippi Langstumpf, I met Paddington the Bear
Someone on the comment thread suggested:
Heidi, Pippi Longstocking and Paddington the Bear
Which is fine, except that means singing ‘PIPpi LONGstockING’, and I’m not happy with putting the emphasis on the WRONG sylLABles if I can possibly help it. In the revised version, I think I’ve cracked it. The line is now:
The daughter of a pirate king and Paddington the bear
Which is much easier to sing and follows the rest of the verse by being a more oblique reference to the character. If you know who Pippi is, then it’s obvious who I’m singing about. If you don’t, then maybe I’ve piqued your curiosity.
The first recording also had two slightly different tunes for the verses, this version has settled on just the one.
And, for people who care about that sort of thing, this was recorded with a click track at 110bpm rather than speeding up over the course of the song, which should make life a little easier for anyone taking part in Rabid Gravy’s project to remix and rerecord different versions of the song.
If you’re concerned about Library closures, a good place to start is Voices for the Library. If you’re on twitter, you might also start following @ukpling. If you’re not concerned about library closures, why on earth did you read this far, and what kind of excuse for a human being are you?
This is by Chris Manners, a Yorkshireman who I met when we were both exiled in Essex. The commute into London from Essex was made so much more bearable if we managed to share it with Chris and Tim Blyth. The day Chris moved back home was a day of mixed feelings, we were sorry to lose his company every but delighted for him too. As well as being good company, Chris is an accomplished singer, guitarist and, as this song proves, songwriter. I’m very pleased that he’s given me permission to record this.
So, on Saturday, the opening line, and pretty much the entire tune, of a song banged on my head as we went to our local Library to fill our boots with books and generally get with the “Save our Libraries” message. Here it is. Sing it out. Sing it loud.
A Child of the Library
I’m a Child of the Lib’ry, it made me who I am,
It taught me about freedom and the fellowship of Man
A sea of story waits for you behind the lib’ry door,
Don’t say we can’t afford them any more.
The Lib’ry’s where I made some friends I’ve known my whole life through
The Walkers and the Blacketts and the Pevensies so true.
Simp the canine cannonball, Galadriel the fair.
The daughter of a pirate king and Paddington the Bear
I’ve travelled South with Shackleton and all his gallant crew
And to the African interior that Mary Kingsley knew
I’ve rode the trackless prairie where the bison used to roam
An travelled round the Universe, not half an hour from home.
And as I grew the libr’y fed my curiosity,
All there for the asking. All of it for free.
It’s there I found the stories that I couldn’t find at home.
It’s where I learned I was myself and not my father’s clone.
So make friends with your library, don’t let it fade away.
Teach your kids the lib’ry’s where you go on Saturday.
Don’t let the bastards tell you they will cost to much to save
While they’re shovelling our taxes down the hole the bankers made
So make a stand for the lib’ry. Stand up while you can.
Stand up for your freedom. Stand for your fellow man.
Ignorance is never bliss, don’t close the lib’ry door.
For a lib’ry lost is lost forever more.
Lyrics © 2011 Piers and Gill Cawley
Music © 2011 Piers Cawley
Licenced under a Creative Commons BY-NC-SA License.
Anyone who sings this is a friend of ours.
Notes and Updates
Mike Whitaker has worked out a set of chords for this, if you’re happier singing with a guitar. Frankly, instrumentation scares me, I’m much happier singing unaccompanied but I realise I’m in a minority on this.
When you sing it, try making the song your own by changing things to suit your own. Julie Chilton’s posted an alternate first verse in the comments, but the world is the mollusc of your choice.
The ‘I’ in the song, isn’t quite me and it isn’t quite Gill either. Most importantly, both of us grew up in houses where no book was out of bounds. Our fathers used to take us to our respective local libraries (Lewisham for Gill, Doncaster Central and then Bawtry for me) every week or so on a Saturday morning. As soon as I was old enough, I’d ride my bike from our home in Scrooby to Bawtry with a carrier full of books hanging off the handlebars. Bawtry is currently in the crosshairs of Doncaster’s idiot mayor – the bloke who suggested getting kindles for everyone instead – along with 13 other libraries in the district.
There’s a revised version of the recording with additional notes at: http://www.bofh.org.uk/2011/04/04/a-child-of-the-library-revised, or just press play:
August 9th 2011
I’ve updated the lyrics here to reflect what I sing now. A few of the clumsier bits have been fixed. Hopefully there will be video from my performance at OSCON 2011, which has the ‘right’ lyrics.
Open Ears, Open Mind, Open Mouth. Music Making Made Easy
Our bodies are the most versatile and sophisticated musical instrument we know. From the complexities of making at beat with our hands and feet to the surprising simplicity of harmony singing, we are all of us musicians.
Musicmaking isn’t some kind of sophisticated profession that requires the intervention of gatekeepers and techno priests. You don’t need autotune, you don’t need a record label, you don’t need drums, a guitar or anything else but your hands, feet, ears, brain and mouth to make music that will satisfy you for the rest of your life.
By the end of this talk I promise that, unless you are one of a tiny, tiny minority of people, you’ll not be tone deaf, you’ll be damn near pitch perfect. And you’ll have a song in your head that, unless I have seriously misjudged the people who come to OSCON, you’ll want to teach to everyone you know.
Come along. Clap your hands. Stamp your feet and sing. What have you got to lose?