March 2007
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Day March 22, 2007

A humbling programming experience

I’m working a short script to post-process some simulation data from TransmissionLab, and because the scripting language I know best is Perl 5, I’ve written a short Perl program. I’ve been writing Perl since early 1994, and from about 1997 through 2005 I was fairly expert in the language, able to build and maintain fairly large, object-oriented systems that were actually readable by others. I even knew a fair bit about Perl internals, could link a C library to Perl via XS, and followed the (interminable) Perl 6 development process quite closely.

But I realized today that I’ve completely lost my fluency in the language. I’m struggling to re-activate the parts of my brain that understand deeply nested hash tables, objects, and other Perl-isms. I had to look at the perl man pages today to remember bits about foreach loops and the “defined” function. It’s coming back, and the program works, but it’s been slow. I guess that’s what you get for not using a language in several years.

Java is a terrific language for object-oriented development (as is C#, if I were working primarily in Windows), but it does insulate you from a lot of fairly-low level issues, in favor of giving you higher level expression. This little program I’m writing basically just looks for and reduces rows of data from experimental replicates and outputs the reduced data set with error terms. Simple descriptive statistics, plus a bit of data structure work. But without the Collections library and some of the Jakarta Commons stuff, I really had to think about how to do this.

Guess it points out how you need to keep using skills in order to keep them sharp.

Some preliminary thoughts on “ultra-networked” politics: the 1984 anti-Hillary ad in perspective

The identity of ParkRidge47, the heretofore anonymous author of the anti-Hillary advertisement which riffed on Apple’s “1984” commercial, was revealed today as Phil de Vellis, a former staffer for Sherrod Brown and ex-employee of political web design firm Blue State Digital. Naturally, this whole episode has the media endlessly repeating the truism that “candidates have lost control over their message,” and pondering the shape of the 2008 Presidential race as a consequence.

I have no well-reasoned wisdom to offer on this particular issue, only my immediate impressions. It seems to me that political candidates have been steadily losing strong control over their message for a long, long time. Never, in the history of our republic, have candidates had exclusive control over their message. Pamphleteering and broadsides were augmented with whistlestop train tours, which were largely replaced by radio, now talk radio and cable TV, which was supplemented by — and now is growing to peer status – the Internet. By the 2004 election the blogs made it clear that the Internet was going to serve as more than a pure advertising medium, or organizing tool. It was perfectly clear, except possibly to a few of the campaigns, that the chaotic nature of the Internet was going to express a multiplicity of voices: some “ruly”, some unruly, some claiming attribution, others hiding behind aliases and seeking to agitate anonymously. Much early thinking on this phenomenon was fairly utopian: the Dean campaign and the contributors to “Extreme Democracy” are cases in point. More discussion, more voices, is automatically a good thing in a democracy.

But is it?