Irish Roots


June 2nd, 2014

Attack of the killer apostrophes

John Grenham

People who have never done any computer programming tend to think of it as a mysterious art only to be performed by anointed priests of the great god Mathematics. It's not. At its root, coding is just the simple giving of an order to a computer: sit up; beg; roll over.

To be sure, the accumulation of tens of thousands of these orders can make things very complex and adding conditions to the orders magnifies that complexity: only sit up and beg if I scratch my nose twice. But complexity is not mystery. The kind of intelligence required to follow it is very narrow indeed, a long, long way from the wisdom of priesthood.

This much said, coding can be genuine fun, at its best intensely absorbing in the way only a really good puzzle can be, part building clockwork toys, part deciphering dead languages.

And for someone like myself who has struggled for years with the recalcitrant opacity of historical records, there is real personal satisfaction in helping to digitise those records and making them transparent.

Why go into all of this? Last week, the part of the Irish Ancestors website that produces maps showing the locations of households of a particular surname in mid-nineteenth century Ireland (see http://bit.ly/1jwKP7E for an example) began to do odd things. Brennan would display properly, but not Ferguson. O'Brien no, Walsh yes. Plenty of Corkerys, but not a McNamara in sight.

After much tearing of hair and gnashing of teeth, I eventually discovered what the problem was: the apostrophe in "O'Briensbridge".

The moral is that software is deeply, deeply stupid, in the way only an insentient object can be stupid. Sometimes complicated, certainly, but complicated like a brick wall.

If there's any consolation, I now know how to defeat the coming takeover of the software robots. Just shower them with apostrophes.


Comments and suggestions are welcome, to irishroots(at)irishtimes.com.

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