A Commonplace

What is a commonplace?




"Sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic."

Arthur C. Clarke

So I thought I had the house to myself last weekend. But periodically we have a house guest who is a student in Norwich and drops in to stay with us.

Like a lot of undergraduates, and most human beings, she's a big fan of television, but her tastes are slightly different from mine. So over the weekend I was treated to an episode of Sherlock (unwatchably dire), The Medicis (for fuck's sake find a plot) and the Dr Who Christmas special. The Dr Who was the best by far. And there was one thing about the Dr Who that really stood out for me. At some point he didsomething that looked like magic and one of his wide-eyed sidekicks (of which he has always had many) said something like "Wow! How did you do that?" And he answered "Skills."

Personally, I think skills is a brilliant answer to that question. Skills is an open, positive answer to that question. Skills says, things you can learn, things you could do. You could be like me. It's a much better answer than the standard and trite "Magic!" or the kind of thing dour response I can just imagine getting from my grandad Robinson - "Never you mind."

"Skills" says theres a book, there's a course, there's some training you can do, or if you're lucky, I might just teach you. "Skills" says I did something rather than I am something.

One of the first jobs I had as a computer programmer was at a defence research station high on the hill abover Portsmouth. I was working on a system that simulated a warship out at sea and the people who were driving the warship were sailors. The war games that they played were captured in text files.

The sailors were always a bit suspicious of us, they weren't really sure what it was that we did, but there were certain that we'd never seen combat (as most of them had in the Falklands war) and were doubtful that we were of any practical use.

One day I was sitting at a terminal in Faraday cage - a construction that prevents radio waves from getting inside it. This was necessary to protect our fragile brains (and more importantly I suspect the computing equipment) from the massive radar that were rotating on the roof of the building where we were pretending to be a ship Kevin came over to talk to me. Kevin was one of the friendliest of the ex-sailors, and always seemed cheerful. But not today.

"Hiya Kevin, how's it going?" "Not, good Mark, not good. I'm wondering if you could help me." "What's the problem?" "The boffins in Fareham have changed the ident on the radar. So all of our files are going to need to be changed to the new ident. I've spent all day yesterday doing it, and I've managed to change two of 'em and there's about 400 still to do! I was wondering if you knew of any way of doing it quicker."

It just so happened that, because there was actually very little to do in this research station above Portsmouth, I'd spent a week or so reading about something called regular expressions. This is a little piece of text that when typed into the write place in computer can take every occurence of one thing and turn it into another. It was literally the matter of a few keystrokes to solve Kevin's problem. Four hundred files, and every occurrence of something changed to something else.

I'll remember the look on Kevin's face for a long time. Skills.