Language is Miraculous

Words are spells. Incantations that conjure up pictures in the minds of other readers. They can make us forget our troubles and remember our triumphs. They can inspire laughter and tears, sometimes both at the same time. By some estimates the average person has a speaking vocabulary of about 5,000 words that they use frequently, a writing vocabulary of about twice that many. A college educated person probably has a vocabulary of around 80,000 words.

Some people hypothesize that it’s mankind’s use of tools that set us apart from animals. Yet we see many examples of animals using tools. I think it is our use of language that sets us apart. I don’t think it is necessarily beyond the ability of animals. I know my dogs and cat have substantial vocabularies of words they understand. And there are animals, like parrots and crows, that can be taught to speak. In the case of parrots, I believe they often actually understand what it is they are saying.

The important thing is that they don’t create language of their own accord. There is something about the way our brains are wired that causes us to create language even if we aren’t exposed to language as we are developing. William S. Burroughs introduced the concept that language was a virus from outer space. This was reiterated in a song by Laurie Anderson. I’m not sure it is that far from the truth. It certainly changed the potential for acheivement of mankind.

It was after the development of language, mythologized in the story of the tower of Babel, that man became capable of coordinating his efforts to achieve monumental projects like the pyramids, and other prehistoric constructions. Language allowed man to pass on what he had learned to his children giving them a head start in learning new things about the world around them.

Written language extended the influence of a man past the people that heard him speak on to future generations beyond the sound of his voice. The limit of his influence was bounded only by the durability of the medium that he wrote on and the persistence of literacy.

I suppose that is what concerns me most about the modern trend that I see of glorifying ignorance and the bland acceptance of illiteracy. I could easily see us falling back into a new dark age if this trend is not stopped by those of us that value our linguistic heritage.

Sweet dreams, don’t forget to tell the ones you love that you love them, and most important of all, be kind.

Progressive Web Apps

It is the nature of programming languages that they provide mechanisms for implementing behavior that was never imagined by the creator of the language. As programmers apply the language to various problem domains they imagine new and innovative ways to use it. Sometimes these new ideas inspire language designers to add features to the language to directly support these innovations. Sometimes they are inspired to develop entirely new languages designed specifically to support this new way of thinking about problems. Usually, this evolution of programming techniques is spurred by someone coming up with a name for the technique. Until then it is difficult for programmers to talk about it.

An example that comes to mind is a technique called AJAX that was first described by Jesse James Garret in a article called AJAX: A New Approach to Web Application on February 18 2005. It described how to use facilities that had been available in web browsers since around 2000 to speed up the display of updates on web pages. Once there was a name for the technique, it became a hot topic of discussion among all web developers over night.

A similar situation has just come to my attention. Alex Russell wrote an article on June 15, 2015 entitled Progressive Web Apps: Escaping Tabs Without Losing Our Soul. In it, he talks about the use of Service Workers, a type of Web Worker, more recently coined terms, to implement long running Javascript tasks that run independently from the threads that implement the display events of the browser allowing both threads to run without interfering with each other. The Web Worker technology had been discussed as early as 2010 by the Web Hypertext Application Technology Working Group (WHATWG).

I’m still getting my mind around what Progressive Web Apps actually are. It is clear that they are a blurring of the lines between a dynamic web application that lives in a browser and a native application that lives on the desktop. That desktop may be on a computer, a smart phone, or some other device.

I’m not sure exactly how but I have a strong feeling that Progressive Web Apps are going to become relevant to my career as a programmer in the near future. Now that the term exists, I can use it to find related articles and read up on applying it to the applications that I am developing.

Once again the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis, which asserts that language determines (or in a weaker form, influences) thought, becomes relevant in a discussion of computer languages as well as its applicability to natural languages.

Sweet dreams, don’t forget to tell the ones you love that you love them, and most important of all, be kind.