Not That Kind of Writer

There’s this nice geeky T-shirt that says: “not that kind of doctor.” It’s designed for PhD holders, who arguably are the only people really entitled to be called doctors, but that usually aren’t (I’ve only been referred to as Dr. Marcelo once, actually), and in general don’t care about the title (except perhaps when booking a flight, in which case it can help getting a class upgrade — though it might cause disappointment if somebody gets sick in the airplane).

Similarly, there could be a T-shirt with the phrase “not that kind of writer,” meant to people that, while not being writers of fiction or non-fiction, do write for a living. And I argue they have an impact in our modern world that at least matches the importance of the writers of that kind.

I’m talking of computer scientists, applied mathematicians, software developers, and other professionals who write code.

Code is a funny kind of literary piece. It can be easily identified, regardless of the subject, due to the large use of indentation and different colors. Besides, writers of code prefer fonts whose characters have a constant width (otherwise indentation would be kind of useless).

Many paragraphs start with the words for, if, and while. These constructions are very important in telling the story the writer intends to be lived by the characters it’s aimed for: data. It seems boring, but data can refer to a wide range of interesting things: the color of a particular pixel on your computer screen, the balance of your bank account, the last book you ordered online.

A good writer of code, just like a good writer of that kind, is very concerned with syntax, semantics, and aesthetics in general. In the words of Francis Sullivan, “great algorithms are the poetry of computation.”

Indeed. Consider, for instance, the Fourier Transform story. It’s a story about how certain kinds of data, like audio, get decomposed in their frequencies. Until 1965, the length of the story increased too rapidly with respect to the size of the data. That year, James Cooley and John Tukey (by the time doctors, not of that kind) wrote a masterpiece poem, the Fast Fourier Transform, which makes that story much less tedious for their characters.

Writers not of that kind are often weird, socially awkward folks. Not of the kind that would impress regular writers, “liberal arts” people. But they are essential these days. If it were’t for them, there would be no space exploration, no mp3, no Angry Birds… And writers of that kind would still be using pens and typewriters (out of necessity, not just because vintage things are cool).

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