September Diary
On the Sovereignty Caucus, Chris Christie, the existence of evil, and more.


John Derbyshire

The neighbors leading the service were Jewish. They had printed up the Kaddish, in both Hebrew script and a Latin-script transliteration. “We’re all going to say the Kaddish in Hebrew,” they announced.

I’m not Jewish, but as it happens I know the Kaddish. Well . . . Definition of “know,” there: I once memorized it in honor of a friend. This was back in pre-Internet days: I actually memorized it from a neat little chaplain’s handbook that I had picked up in a bookstore in Cape Cod back in the 1970s.

Along with memorizing the Kaddish, I read up on it, and learned the interesting fact that it is said not in Hebrew but in Aramaic. Perhaps by way of having had to swallow my dissent, I cornered the neighbor and pointed this out to him.

“No, no,” he insisted, “it’s Hebrew. Look, see! — Hebrew script!”

I was going to observe that many, many different languages are written with Latin script, so it wouldn’t be amazing to find languages other than Hebrew written with Hebrew script. I realized, however, that I had crossed some line. I backed away silently.

Afterwards I checked on the Internet. Yep, it’s Aramaic.

All right, it was kind of snotty. I can be kind of snotty. I like to get things right, though, and I hate to see other people wandering in error. (A little sneaky etymology there . . . )

The joy of coding. I took my first job as a computer programmer in 1969. That was of course about 40 years too soon. In the September 11 issue of New York magazine, Chris Beam has a fascinating piece on the bright young programmers — “coders,” they say nowadays — of Silicon Valley, “the last bastion of full employment” in a cratering U.S. jobs market.

The piece included the following touching little anecdote about Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg:

Zuckerberg doesn’t code much for Facebook anymore, the same way that Steve Jobs never hand-coded software for the iPhone. But, as the Groups team was adding the finishing touches to its product, Zuckerberg said he wanted to write a few lines. “Everybody was like, Ohhhh, Zuck’s gonna write code,” says Feross. Someone set up an easy bug for him to fix — adding a link to a picture, or something — and he went to work. Five minutes passed. Twenty minutes. An hour. “It took him like two hours to do something that would take one of us who’s an engineer like five minutes,” says Feross. It was like a retired slugger coming back for one last at-bat, for old time’s sake, and finding he’d lost more of his game than he’d reckoned. Still, he got props from Feross & Co. for getting his hands dirty.

Remember please that gnarled, stooped, toothless, snowy-haired Mark Zuckerberg is all of 27 years old. Imagine how I feel.

I’m still up for a little coding, though. I recently bought myself a new laptop, and found myself looking at Windows 7, my first-ever advance beyond XP. No prob: Everything’s upward-compatible, isn’t it?

Alas, no. My little suite of Visual Basic 6 programs that I use to do general massages, stats, and maintenance on my website no longer work. I’ve had to upgrade to VB 2010 and learn the .NET framework. Worth the trouble, and actually pretty neat — my .NET source code is half its VB6 size — but I don’t think I’ll be checking out the Silicon Valley job ads.

Instead, to push away the regrets, and as an antidote to Chris Beam’s piece, I think I’ll just re-read Half Sigma’s classic 2007 article on “Why a career in computer programming sucks.”