What the @*$!?

WARNING: Swearing will feature prominently in this post, as will a discussion of sexual material. Children, if your parents shout at you for reading this then it is officially YOUR PROBLEM. Okay?

I feel this may also be the place to apologise for missing a week of posts; didn’t stop writing them, did stop posting them. Don’t know why

Language can enable us to do many things; articulate our ideas, express our sorrow, reveal our love, and tell somebody else’s embarrassing stories to name but a few. Every language has approached these and other practicalities of the everyday life they are designed to assist in different ways (there is one language I have heard of with no word for left or right, meaning that they refer to everything in terms of points of a compass and all members of the tribe thus have an inbuilt sense of where north is at all times), but there is one feature that every language from Japanese to Klingon has managed to incorporate, something without which a language would not be as complete and fully-fabricated as it ought, and which is almost always the first thing learnt by a student of a new language; swearing.

(Aside Note: English, partly due to its flexible nature and the fact that it didn’t really develop as a language until everyone else had rather shown it the way, has always been a particularly good language for being thoroughly foul and dirty, and since it’s the only language I have any degree of reasonable proficiency in I think I’ll stick to that for the time being. If anyone knows anything interesting about swearing in other languages, please feel free to leave them in the comments)

Swearing, swearwords and bad language itself generally have one of three sources; many of the ‘milder’ swearwords tend to have a religious origin, and more specifically refer either to content considered evil by the Church/some form of condemnation to evil (so ‘damn’, in reference to being ‘damned’ by Satan), or to stuff considered in some way blasphemous and therefore wrong (the British idiom ‘bloody’ stems from the Tudor expression ‘God’s Blood’, which along with similar references such as ‘Christ’s Passion’ suggested that the Holy Trinity was in some way fallible and human, and thus capable of human weakness and vice- this was blasphemy according to the Church and therefore wrong). The place of ‘mid-level’ swearwords is generally taken by rather crude references to excrement, egestion and bodily emissions in general (piss, shit etc.). The ‘worst swearwords’ in modern society are of course sexual in nature, be they either references to genitalia, prostitution or the act itself.

The reason for these ideas having become sweary & inappropriate is a fairly simple, but nonetheless interesting, route to track. When the Church ruled the land, anything considered blasphemous or wrong according to their literature and world view was frowned upon at best and punished severely at worst, so words connected to these ideas were simply not broached in public. People knew what they meant, of course, and in seedy or otherwise ‘underground’ places, where the Church’s reach was weak, these words found a home, instantly connecting them with this ‘dirty’ side of society. Poo and sex, of course, have always been considered ‘dirty’ among polite society, something always kept behind closed doors (I’ve done an entire post on the sex aspect of this before) and are thus equally shocking and ripe for sweary material when exposed to the real world.

A quick social analysis of these themes also reveals the reasons behind the ‘hierarchy’ of swearwords. In the past hundred years, the role of the church in everyday western society has dropped off dramatically and offending one’s local priest (or your reputation with him) has become less of a social concern. Among the many consequences of this (and I’m sure an aggressive vicar could list a hundred more) has been the increased prevalence of swearing in normal society, and the fall of Church-related swearwords in terms of how severe they are; using a word once deemed blasphemous doesn’t really seem that serious in a secular society, and the meaning it does have is almost anachronistic in nature. It helps, of course, that these words are among the oldest swearwords that have found common use, meaning that as time has gone by their original context has been somewhat lost and they have got steadily more and more tame. Perhaps in 200 years my future equivalent will be able to say dick in front of his dad for this reason.

The place of excrement and sex in our society has, however, not changed much in the last millennia or two. Both are things that are part of our everyday lives that all of us experience, but that are not done in the front room or broached in polite company- rather ugly necessities and facts of life still considered ‘wrong’ enough to become swearwords. However, whilst going to the loo is a rather inconvenient business that is only dirty because the stuff it produces is (literally), sex is something that we enjoy and often seek out. It is, therefore, a vice, something which we can form an addiction to, and addictions are something that non-addicts find slightly repulsive when observed in addicts or regular practitioners. The Church (yes, them again) has in particular found sex abhorrent if it is allowed to become rampant and undignified, historically favouring rather strict, Victorian positions and execution- all of which means that, unlike poo, sex has been actively clamped down on in one way or another at various points in history. This has, naturally, rarely done much to combat whatever has been seen as the ‘problem’, merely forcing it underground in most cases, but what it has done is put across an image of sex as something that is not just rather dirty but actively naughty and ‘wrong’. This is responsible partly for the thrill some people get when trash talking about and during sex, and the whole ‘you’ve been a naughty girl’ terminology and ideas that surround the concept of sex- but it is also responsible for making sexually explicit references even more underhand, even more to be kept out of polite spheres of movement, and thus making sexually-related swearwords the most ‘extreme’ of all those in our arsenal.

So… yeah, that’s what I got on the subject of swearing. Did anyone want a conclusion to this or something?

What we know and what we understand are two very different things…

If the whole Y2K debacle over a decade ago taught us anything, it was that the vast majority of the population did not understand the little plastic boxes known as computers that were rapidly filling up their homes. Nothing especially wrong or unusual about this- there’s a lot of things that only a few nerds understand properly, an awful lot of other stuff in our life to understand, and in any case the personal computer had only just started to become commonplace. However, over 12 and a half years later, the general understanding of a lot of us does not appear to have increased to any significant degree, and we still remain largely ignorant of these little feats of electronic witchcraft. Oh sure, we can work and operate them (most of us anyway), and we know roughly what they do, but as to exactly how they operate, precisely how they carry out their tasks? Sorry, not a clue.

This is largely understandable, particularly given the value of ‘understand’ that is applicable in computer-based situations. Computers are a rare example of a complex system that an expert is genuinely capable of understanding, in minute detail, every single aspect of the system’s working, both what it does, why it is there, and why it is (or, in some cases, shouldn’t be) constructed to that particular specification. To understand a computer in its entirety, therefore, is an equally complex job, and this is one very good reason why computer nerds tend to be a quite solitary bunch, with quite few links to the rest of us and, indeed, the outside world at large.

One person who does not understand computers very well is me, despite the fact that I have been using them, in one form or another, for as long as I can comfortably remember. Over this summer, however, I had quite a lot of free time on my hands, and part of that time was spent finally relenting to the badgering of a friend and having a go with Linux (Ubuntu if you really want to know) for the first time. Since I like to do my background research before getting stuck into any project, this necessitated quite some research into the hows and whys of its installation, along with which came quite a lot of info as to the hows and practicalities of my computer generally. I thought, then, that I might spend the next couple of posts or so detailing some of what I learned, building up a picture of a computer’s functioning from the ground up, and starting with a bit of a history lesson…

‘Computer’ was originally a job title, the job itself being akin to accountancy without the imagination. A computer was a number-cruncher, a supposedly infallible data processing machine employed to perform a range of jobs ranging from astronomical prediction to calculating interest. The job was a fairly good one, anyone clever enough to land it probably doing well by the standards of his age, but the output wasn’t. The human brain is not built for infallibility and, not infrequently, would make mistakes. Most of these undoubtedly went unnoticed or at least rarely caused significant harm, but the system was nonetheless inefficient. Abacuses, log tables and slide rules all aided arithmetic manipulation to a great degree in their respective fields, but true infallibility was unachievable whilst still reliant on the human mind.

Enter Blaise Pascal, 17th century mathematician and pioneer of probability theory (among other things), who invented the mechanical calculator aged just 19, in 1642. His original design wasn’t much more than a counting machine, a sequence of cogs and wheels so constructed as to able to count and convert between units, tens, hundreds and so on (ie a turn of 4 spaces on the ‘units’ cog whilst a seven was already counted would bring up eleven), as well as being able to work with currency denominations and distances as well. However, it could also subtract, multiply and divide (with some difficulty), and moreover proved an important point- that a mechanical machine could cut out the human error factor and reduce any inaccuracy to one of simply entering the wrong number.

Pascal’s machine was both expensive and complicated, meaning only twenty were ever made, but his was the only working mechanical calculator of the 17th century. Several, of a range of designs, were built during the 18th century as show pieces, but by the 19th the release of Thomas de Colmar’s Arithmometer, after 30 years of development, signified the birth of an industry. It wasn’t a large one, since the machines were still expensive and only of limited use, but de Colmar’s machine was the simplest and most reliable model yet. Around 3,000 mechanical calculators, of various designs and manufacturers, were sold by 1890, but by then the field had been given an unexpected shuffling.

Just two years after de Colmar had first patented his pre-development Arithmometer, an Englishmen by the name of Charles Babbage showed an interesting-looking pile of brass to a few friends and associates- a small assembly of cogs and wheels that he said was merely a precursor to the design of a far larger machine: his difference engine. The mathematical workings of his design were based on Newton polynomials, a fiddly bit of maths that I won’t even pretend to understand, but that could be used to closely approximate logarithmic and trigonometric functions. However, what made the difference engine special was that the original setup of the device, the positions of the various columns and so forth, determined what function the machine performed. This was more than just a simple device for adding up, this was beginning to look like a programmable computer.

Babbage’s machine was not the all-conquering revolutionary design the hype about it might have you believe. Babbage was commissioned to build one by the British government for military purposes, but since Babbage was often brash, once claiming that he could not fathom the idiocy of the mind that would think up a question an MP had just asked him, and prized academia above fiscal matters & practicality, the idea fell through. After investing £17,000 in his machine before realising that he had switched to working on a new and improved design known as the analytical engine, they pulled the plug and the machine never got made. Neither did the analytical engine, which is a crying shame; this was the first true computer design, with two separate inputs for both data and the required program, which could be a lot more complicated than just adding or subtracting, and an integrated memory system. It could even print results on one of three printers, in what could be considered the first human interfacing system (akin to a modern-day monitor), and had ‘control flow systems’ incorporated to ensure the performing of programs occurred in the correct order. We may never know, since it has never been built, whether Babbage’s analytical engine would have worked, but a later model of his difference engine was built for the London Science Museum in 1991, yielding accurate results to 31 decimal places.

…and I appear to have run on a bit further than intended. No matter- my next post will continue this journey down the history of the computer, and we’ll see if I can get onto any actual explanation of how the things work.