Wednesday, August 29, 2007

Meeting William Gibson

Not many novelists bring out the fanboy in me, but Gibson is one of them. Neuromancer was, literally, the book that changed my life. It's why I decided to become a computer programmer.

In the summer of 1986 I was a disillusioned History student about to become a disillusioned History graduate. I had finished my finals, I had no job lined up and I had no idea what I wanted to do with my life. It was in this state of aimlessness that - inspired by an article by William Leith in the NME - I purchased Neuromancer. It was the first pure SF novel I had read in years and it was completely gripping. I can still recall the adrenal rush of the last few chapters, racing through them just to discover how the story ended.

I had read SF as an adolescent but discovering JG Ballard had derailed me: nothing else in the genre could quite match the intensity of his prose. At university I had read mainly non-fiction: there was so much reality to discover, it seemed pointless to read to stuff people had made up. When I was studying European heresy my tutor John Critchley advised me to read Umberto Eco's The Name of the Rose (I was chuffed to explain to him that the blind librarian Jorge of Burgos was a reference to Jorge Luis Borges, because that joke had passed him by). I also read Mishima because I did courses on both medieval and modern Japan, and he seemed appropriate. For light relief I read Italo Calvino's short stories and the Blandings novels of P.G.Wodehouse.

I realise that list probably makes me sound like an insufferable prick. But then I probably was an insufferable prick at university, so that's fair.

I'm not going to do a review here. I presume everybody who reads blogs has read Neuromancer. If that's not the case stop reading this right now and go read it. Like most SF it has dated but not as badly as some. Few SF authors have changed the world. My quasi-namesake Arthur C Clarke did, with his invention of the geosynchronous satellite, but largely his vision has not been realised. No lunar explorers have disinterred mysterious black slabs because there are no bases on the moon. Heck, nobody's even been to the moon for over thirty years. Whereas it's a measure of the impact Gibson's writing has had on the world that he has stopped writing SF and moved into regular fiction without any meaningful change of tone or subject matter. (I guess Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, Michael Dell, Larry Ellison and others have also had something to do with it).

Gibson's insight was to take the glamour which traditionally attached to spaceships and astronauts and transfer it to computers and programmers, who were - it's fair to say - not glamourous. At Exeter the Comp Sci students were pimply-faced youths in brown and beige, as boring as accountants. In fact, more boring: at least there were some girls amongst the accountancy students. Neuromancer changed that image by making computers cool, sexy and edgy. Which is why it has had such a profound effect on modern life. All over the world, pimply-faced youths in brown and beige set about immanentising a world in which computers - and by extension the people who worked with them - were cool sexy and edgy.

Neuromancer was Gibson's first novel. In 1986 it was a bit frustrating to discover that there wasn't anything else to read by him. I just had to wait until Count Zero came out. On the other hand it does mean that every few years there is a new novel to look forward to.

So today I joined the line of people to buy a signed copy of Gibson's new novel, Spook Country, at Forbidden Planet. I told him I was grateful to him for writing Neuromancer because it had directed me into a career in software development. His face crinkled with recognition. "Oh you're one of those guys," he said. Yep, I'm one of those guys.

Monday, August 20, 2007

Open World 2007

In the Comments section of Tim Hall's recent musing on the new two-tier ACE programme, Doug Burns said:

"Once you put together lost wages or fees, accommodation and flights, it doesn’t take long before this becomes a serious financial commitment. I wonder sometimes whether people who attend presentations whilst being on company wages and expenses really appreciate that."

What contractors sometimes fail to appreciate is that it isn't necessarily easier for permies, just different. We still have to ask the company to pick up the tab for our expenses (not to mention lost billing for us consultants), and the company reserves the right to say, "No, you cannot go". For some reason Open World is a harder sale than UKOUG. Perhaps our bosses think going to San Francisco might be more of a jolly than going to Birmingham....

Fortunately I have have some supportive managers at LogicaCMG and my business case has finally been approved. So I'll have to dig out that company polo shirt again.

Join Me at Oracle OpenWorld Connect!

Thursday, August 16, 2007

Oracle WTF is back!

Jubilation sweeps the blogosphere, or at least the small corner of it where Oracleers hang out. Oracle WTF is back in the hands of its rightful owners. Huzzah!

William and others (not least the WordPress groupies out there) might be amused by the news that Blogger's Anti-Spam bots recently managed to suspend one of Google's own blogs. At least we can see that the ASbots act without fear or favour.

Monday, August 06, 2007


Fake Steve Jobs has been channelling Larry Ellison over the weekend.
"I’m the guy who screwed IBM out of its own database business with its own technology. It was a beautiful thing. I invented Oracle. Maybe you’ve heard of it."

FLE has a pop at Sir Elton John and Marc Benioff; it's not often you'll see those two names in the same sentence.

Friday, August 03, 2007

Asking the right question

Many years ago, before I had even heard of Oracle the database, I studied the I Ching, a different kind of oracle. This book is one of the many products of the period in ancient Chinese history known as The Hundred Schools of Thought. Its authorship is ascribed to the legendary Yellow Emperor various legendary figures (see Chris Gait's comment below) but it is actually the collected thoughts and commentaries of various unknown seers. The text distils Taoism, Confucianism and other strands of Chinese philosophy into an esoteric instruction manual. It is organised into sixty-four chapters, each represented by a symbol consisting of six lines (hence called hexagrams). Each line is either Yin or Yang, and the different proportions of each type of line gives each hexagram its particular nature.

Consulting the I Ching requires us first to frame a question. We then employ a randomness-generating mechanism (such as flipping coins) to find which hexagram will answer our question. The commentaries on the hexagrams use imagery from nature, mythology and society to provide gnomic advice:

  • "The dragon that goes too high has regrets."
  • "When there is hoarfrost underfoot solid ice is not far off."
  • "Whoever hunts deer without the forester only loses his way in the forest."

We then have to apply these answers to our original question by translating the metaphors. So, if I am hunting a deer, who (or what) is the forester who can guide me through the forest? Perhaps I need to call off the chase until I have found a verderer.

Friends would occasionally ask me to "do" the I Ching for them, because they misunderstood the nature of the book. Although it is often described as a book of divination it is not a fortune telling device like horoscopes or tarot cards. It does not violate the principle of causality; its predictions can only come true if we behave in the way it suggests. A dragon who knows when to stop ascending will have no regrets. So I always told my friends they needed to have a question in mind before they flipped the coins (they didn't have to tell me the question, by the way). If there is no question there can be no answer.

So does it work? Well, the meaning of the answer derives from the interpretation of it in the light of the original question. A focused request such as "Should I take this new job?" is more likely to produce illumination than something vague like "Why am I unhappy?". But meaning is in the mind of the questioner. Sometimes the hexagrams seemed spookily appropriate to the question. Other times they seemed to have no relevance at all. On one occasion my interpretation of the chosen text differed sharply from the questioner's interpretation.

The I Ching has a world view and a specific definition of correct behaviour. But I don't think somebody has to be a practicing Taoist or believe in the literal existence of Yin and Yang in order to gain benefit from the book. Finding harmony between contending forces is a common idea. For example, here is an article by WTF's Alex Papadimoulis on striking the balance between hard coding and soft coding.

I don't do I Ching consultations any more. Now I just spend my time in the OTN forums instructing herberts like this and this in the art of asking questions properly. Different oracle, same old stuff.