Nubbins: Blogging is to Coding as Coding is to Mathematics

Redmonk’s Steve O’Grady writes occasional posts titled, for example, “Friday Grab Bag.” Each is short and consists of series of brief discussions of topics, each of which he could of course expand into a complete post, but he publishes them just as abbreviated drafts, since his busy schedule and the priorities of being a Redmonk partner require that he give attention where attention is due, especially in these difficult economic times.

I now face the same problem.

I need to make coding my main passion, not blogging.

I’m going to adopt a similar strategy, though I will use the word “nubbins” instead of the phrase “grab bag.”

“Nubbin” is not a neologism, but an actual word. It stands for a small ear or corn, or an undeveloped fruit. I first heard it used by Jack Schwartz, when he spoke of “nubbins of code” as part of a particular compiler/translation process, by which he meant the translator would emit small sequences of code in an orderly fashion.

I have faced this problem before. About September, 1969, knowing that I had to finally undertake the arduous course of study needed to pass an oral exam so I could continue on the path towards a doctorate, I realised that I had to abandon programming, my great passion. I could not do both, for turning to coding as a relief from studying advanced mathematics would be a fatal trap. I also knew the call to programming would be a siren’s song, for I then made my living by coding.

So I took a self-imposed sabbatical from coding and became a part-time New York CIty taxicab driver for several months.

Driving a cab is a simple job, though it is arduous in its own way. You leave the fleet garage, work for a few hours, go back to the garage, and then go home. It’s a hard way to make a buck, but you do leave the job behind.

I can testify under oath that I never lay awake in bed at night wondering if I could have made more money going up 10th Avenue instead of 8th, because I forgot the Knicks were playing the Celtics at home, and thus traffic had been a nightmare near 34th and 8th.

In those days, before the advent of the internet, you had to be at the computer center to code. On more weekends than I can count, I would leave Courant late on a Friday comfortable that all the immediate problems had been conquered.

Then, on the subway home, and in some cases on the way to the subway station, I would suddenly realise that I had left a bug behind back in my office, and I would then be consumed trying to find the fix, knowing that the weekend was in part shot, for I would be thinking about that damn bug for most of the weekend.

I also recall many a time when I returned to the office after I had set out for home, to make just a quick fix, only to find it was tougher than I had thought. My wife soon got used to the variability of our dinner schedule, and I remain in her debt. [1]

Even worse was figuring out the source of the problem before I arrived home, as then I knew I would have to wait until Monday to fix it, and so would be delayed in the finding of the next bug.

I did pass the exam, in May of 1970, but that had a sad side-effect.

As I left the exam room, I said to myself that I now knew more of a variety of fields of mathematics than I would know for the rest of my life. Though I knew I was a programmer at heart, I did love mathematics, and I could foresee that theorem after beautiful theorem would soon be falling from my memory, as do the leaves from the trees.

I miss them still. Though I do remember the names of the most of them, I don’t have the proofs, nor the time to bring them back now.

I first became aware of this loss of memory after Richard Feynman’s very first lecture on quantum mechancs.

It was his most memorable lecture. He started by saying, “We have these little things called atoms that jiggle,” and then proceeded to lay out the essence of quantum mechanics in less than an hour.

I left the lecture hall at noon just KNOWING quantum mechanics. But as I began the journey down the Olive Walk to my job as a waiter at the Caltech Faculty Club I felt the edifice — like the Tower of Babel — start to tumble.

First I couldn’t recall why A had implied B, though he had convinced me it was true. Then I forgot the precise definition of A.

By the time I put on my white waiter’s coat the whole structure — all of quantum mechanics — had been left behind in nubbins of information on the Olive Walk.

But at least — if only for a few minutes — I did understand quantum mechanics. I really did.

Then again, what’s a quantum?

I’ve forgotten.


1. Being in debt to your cutie-pie is not a problem if on occasion you use a ploy that I have found to be quite effective:

I have yet to meet a woman who complained after her husband gave her something he had bought at Tiffany’s.

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