The Northern Spy: A conversation between Nellie and the professor
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The Northern Spy: A conversation between Nellie and the professor

By Rick Sutcliffe

Even before I heard the boots clunk on the table behind me I didn't need to turn around to know who'd dropped in.

Some people carry an unmistakable air about them. Besides, regular people knock, even though the door's always open. Not Nellie Hacker. She, BTW for the new reader, helped me found this column back in the day. Well, at least she doesn't wear spurs.

"Hi, Nellie. It's been a while since you popped by to see your old professor."

"Does it really matter?"

"It matters to me. It gets lonely here sometimes."

"Yer Calculus students either know they know too much, or don't know quite enough to know what they don't know, eh? What'ya working on?"

"My latest novel, Book One of The Throne. It's called Culmanic Parts. Just finished in fact and ready for some proofreader friends to look at it."

"That alternate history Christian SF stuff you write? Does it really matter?"

"Hey, Nellie, those who don't understand history, who don't get how choices in ethics, governance, and technology affect society..."

"...are doomed to repeat the same old mistrakes, and your alternate history is a way of sussing out the substance of the real thing. Yeah, I remember the mantra.

I can't imagine many people read your stuff. It's too christian for the hardcore SF fans, and to SF for most Christians.

True, but I enjoy writing it nonetheless. Besides, my book six of The Interregnum called The Builder that came out last spring is now available around the net and ought to be in paper soon.

What time period does the new one cover?

"Alternate Ireland's eleventh to early fifteenth centuries, the founding of the throne through the scientific revolution to the tall ship era."


"Enough, but not so much as to fence your range." I grinned. If there was anything Nellie detested it was romance novels.

"But unless you've changed a passel, no juvenile so-called 'adult' trash. What about technology?"

"Lots of industrial products. Ireland's tall ships have laser gun sights, and her navy develops breech loading rifled brass guns firing conical shells loaded with high explosives."


"Not till the seventeenth century. Got the Suez canal in the fifteenth though."


"Trafalgar in 1439 between Ireland and Spain, and Waterloo in 1441 between Ireland's allies and France's despot king."

"Sounds alternate enough all right. Email me a copy and I'll have a go."

I saved my file and turned around. Predictably, she was helping herself to the apples I'd brought from my home orchard to give my students (Northern Spys, don't you know) while sipping on a can of pop.

"Thanks for the root beer. Nice of you to keep some in the lab fridge, though you never did anything like that for the students when I was a lablet."

I frowned. "Lab's supposed to be locked."

"It was."

"High security electronic key."

She looked at me like I was an idiot, and I recalled the first time I met Nellie Hacker, when she planted her feet on my table like that, then announced out of the blue, "I can break into any computer in the world." Must have been circa three decades back. I'd believed her then, so had to assume that to her a door lock not only wasn't a challenge, it might as well not be there.

She stretched herself out and snatched up a printout from the table by her feet.

"This some of your research?"

"Yup. Working with a colleague on a new programming language."

"Anybody I know?"

"Doubt it. Name's Benjamin Kowarsch. He currently lives in France, works in Switzerland. Says he met me once in Germany or Austria, but I don't remember. Brilliant fellow."

"Modula-2 release ten." She flipped through the EBNF definition. "More like a dialect of an old one."

"Got some new features, though."

She summarized from her scan. "Blurring the lines between the built-in and the definable abstract data types. Translating macro hooks for I/O so every ADT can define its own. Prototypes for the built-ins so they can be changed. Even an interface into the compiler. Still has a simple syntax and semantics. Interfaces with other languages well. A few other goodies like generics. Looks powerful. No OO, but it scarcely needs it with modules this powerful. Got interesting possibilities. I'll write you a compiler when you're done. Be a nice little project." She tossed the printout back to the table, looking disinterested and sulky.

"You seem out of sorts, Nellie, if I may reuse a joke from the data structures and algorithms course."

"Thought all that math-related stuff was a waste back then, but I admit I use it every day now," she conceded, then adding, "Nah. I'm bummed about all the union stuff."

"What union?"

"At work. Some of the part-time boys in tech support are disgruntled with the boss, approached a union to organize them."

"Surely that doesn't affect you."

"They included us in the bargaining unit for the petition to the labour relations folks. Hardly any of us signed cards, but they still got their forty-five percent from the whole lot so there hasta be a hearing."

"Software engineers in a union? No more thirty-six hour days without overtime followed by two month vacations?"

"The model just don't fit us. It's the antithesis of agile programming. Imagine seniority as criterion for promoting a code slinger. Might as well do it for NHL hockey players. Gordie Howe would still be in there elbowing callow youth out of his way. Not that there's hockey these days because of their own union-management troubles, both sides wanting to run things their way. As if it mattered."

I had a mental picture of Nellie, locked out in a labour dispute and peddling her skills over in Europe for the duration. 'Course in her case, she'd likely make more money, not less. "Surely people get that unions, for all their usefulness in the industrial workplace, simply don't fit a white collar professional model."

"I know. Makes about as much sense as you professors being in a union, don't it? Our joint'll probably go broke, and I'll have to find a new job. Waste of time when I could be slinging code. There are better ways, sure as shooting."

I decided to change the subject, see if I could raise her out of her funk. "I see where Microsoft released Windows 8 this past week."

"Does it really matter?"

"Explicate your reasoning."

"I and just about every professional code bender I know produce apps for mobile platforms. Desktop systems are yesterday's news."

"W-eight runs on mobiles."

"That may be the only thing it has going for it, but I can't see it catching on with hoi polloi so we professionals aren't likely to be developing in it. Boss wants to, but word on the street is Windows is a corpse, just doesn't know it's kicked the bit bucket yet. Boss goes that way, the company's done for a different reason. A version eight is hurtin' late, has a sealed fate."

"That bad?"

"Can't see Microsoft or any of the PC desktop makers still being around in any way that matters five years out. 'Course, half a decade's too long term to say anything in this business."

"What about the new MS tablet?"

"Apple already had the MS Swiss clock cleaned. The iPad Mini may not be revolutionary tech, but it kills dead chances of somebody else muscling in to their market." She pointed the pop can at me. "There is no tablet market. There's only the iPad market. The Mini is just a niche filler in case anybody looked to get uppity, not important for its own sake. But it'll sell big time."


"Cheap imitation. Sells hardware well, but no one's writing apps for it, so no staying power. iCookie down Cupertino way has got nothin' to worry about from it."

"Not even the lawsuits?"

"Nah. Like all wars, they'll get tired of shooting at each other eventually and make up. Only people the better off when the gunsmoke clears will be the lawyers. Customer pays in the end. Ain't that exactly why in your novels it's a capital offense to practice law for money?"

"Hey. You remember some of what you used to type for me." I got back on track. "What do you suppose Apple's next big thing is then?"

"Maybe TV, maybe something radical for pros like me. Does it really matter? They'll sell millions anyway, and the cheap no-good imitations will be as half-baked as always, maybe worse. Apart from Cupertino, the hardware innovation scene's a dismal boot hill these days."

"The changes in their executive suite notwithstanding?"

"How can they matter, except to create a buying opportunity in Apple shares?"

My first sally having failed to raise her spirits, I tried another tack. "Any comments for my reader on the big election down south this month?"

"In the excited states? Does it really matter?"

"Why would it not?"

"All my models say it's a spang-on tie. Worst possible outcome."

"How so?"

"'Cause after the two sides finish beating each other to a pulp and divvy up the presidency, house, and senate two for one and one to the other, they won't be able to get a lick of governing done, and the economy's like to go into the toilet again. Whole trouble with elections like these, with both parties spitting in each others' faces instead of debating ideas, and promising a moon they know they can't hog tie and deliver, is they forget they got a country to run, whoever gets in. Dead tie means dead government. Any business run that way would be coffined in a year, three months if it was in tech. Be a durn sight better if one or the other outfit won clean and big."

"Which side?"

"Does it really matter? Governing is governing. Most of the time, it works best if the cardboard dummies who think they're running the show just stay out of the way of the wealth and job creators. That ain't like to happen nohow."

"You never did have a high opinion of government did you?"

Ignoring this, she polished off my can of pop, then made an enquiry of her own. "How's enrollment these days. I hear tell the university went through some tough times for a while."

"That we did, especially in computing. Fortunately there was enough flexibility around here to downsize the school to match the lower enrollment, or we'd have gone broke ourselves and all been out on the street. However, things are looking up. Last spring I signed up eight new math majors, and in the three days since next spring's signup started, I already have twenty-four people wanting Senior Geometry. Most ever by a long shot."

She grimaced, and I recalled that Nellie only took math when she had to. "Does it really matter? I mean, really. How relevant is anything Euclidian these days."

"As relevant as the non-Euclidian. Hey, Nellie. People have to learn logic somehow, and the various geometries offer one good way. What was it you always used to say about new programmers who couldn't logic their way out of a wet paper bag?"

She reprised almost absent-mindedly. "'You can lead your daughter to Horace but you can't make her think.' All right, point taken. Guess the visual learners could use some mental organizing, too. But I was more interested in the computing enrollment."

"Picking up. The 03-08 crash seems to be over, and first-year classes are almost back to where they were before that. Pretty soon we'll have enough for a full slate of upper level courses again. Other universities are experiencing the same thing." I turned her own question on her. "Does it really matter?"

She chucked her apple core past me and cleanly past my legs through the narrowest of windows and right into the wastebasket under my desk, spat a seed after it, then steepled her hands under her chin."When Twentieth Century Software Associates does go under either fer being hidebound by nonsensical workplace rules or fer pursuing the irrelevant, me and a few of the boys and girls are pondering starting our own company. Lousy economy as it be, there's still bags of money in writing apps for retail chains wanting a mobile online presence, custom security work, or decent point-of-sale software--as long as you're agile and quick.

"You'd be the president of course."

She looked askance. "'Not! I'd hire some dweeby business grad fer that. I don't do admin, accounting, installs, or tech support any more'n I do windows. I design and make stuff that matters, well at least that matters somewhat fer the time being. Did write a Bible reader app not long ago." She brightened. "We did a bang up job on that one. Now, that matters for a sight more than just the short term."

"Too bad you don't get more projects like that. Well, I don't do admin myself any more either. Stiffed others with all that."

"Good move. Yer well out of it."

"Planning to take on any other hands besides your initial crew?" I smiled to myself as I found myself falling into Nellie's wild west cow hand gunslinger patterns of speech. But, she had a point, whether she realized it or not. Today's high tech landscape does resembles those times, and Nellie is what they would have termed a fast-drawing top hand--on the right side of the law.

She got down to her real business. "We'd like to hire maybe twenty fresh-faced developer deputy wannabees over a two year span, train them up into becoming the real thing, and cash in big time on the low-hanging fruit in the commercial marketplace. That'll give us the freedom and finances to do stuff that does matter."

"Why recruit here?"

"At a Christian Liberal Arts University? Surprised you’d even ask. Your grads have depth, breadth, substance, versatility, and integrity to boot. They ain't any more hackers than I, never no mind my moniker." Nellie was educated--or I once more or less thought so--but she got even more slangy than usual when either feeling strongly about something or talking about herself.

"What's your timeframe? Given we're just getting our major in computing science re-established, it'll be another two or three years before we can supply that many to one company."

"Short term we incorporate, get our business plan up, find a few small contracts we can do on the side, keep working where we are till things fall apart there and we gotta move on--say medium term six months. Long term we work up the plan, find some venture capital and try on some midsize projects, bring in co-op students and interns from your seniors, make sure our systems are good to go. That takes us out maybe eighteen months plus. Very long term follows that, when we ramp up big time -- say two to three years."

"Why hire so many brand new grads?"

"After the dot com bust, and university enrollments dried up, eventually so did the supply of workers. Pretty hard to get any good hands these days, impossible if we ask for experience punchin' codes. Tell them we'll offer a signing bonus, plenty of perks."

"You're telling me now because…"

"Want first dibs when you got people again. Can't round them all up here, we'll hire from other schools, too. But yours graduate with more important stuff in their heads, and more code under their belts. I oughta know. That matters."

She slid her high leather boots off my table, got to her feet, and stuffed her hands in her jeans. That's about it, old boss. See you around one of these times. I gotta go rustle up some grub."

"Hey, Nellie, thanks for writing my column for me. It's been like old times."

But by that time she was already gone.

-- The Northern Spy

Opinions expressed here are entirely the author's own, and no endorsement is implied by any community or organization to which he may be attached. Rick Sutcliffe, (a.k.a. The Northern Spy) is professor and chair of Computing Science and Mathematics at Canada's Trinity Western University. He has been involved as a member or consultant with the boards of several organizations, including in the corporate sector, and participated in industry standards at the national and international level.

He is a long time technology author and has written two textbooks and six novels, one named best ePublished SF novel for 2003. His columns have appeared in numerous magazines and newspapers (paper and online), and he's a regular speaker at churches, schools, academic meetings, and conferences. He and his wife Joyce have lived in the Aldergrove/Bradner area of BC since 1972.

Want to discuss this and other Northern Spy columns? Surf on over to Participate and you could win free web hosting from the subsidiary of Arjay Web Services. Rick Sutcliffe's fiction can be purchased in various eBook formats from Fictionwise, and in dead tree form from Amazon's Booksurge.

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