It’s not exactly one of those birthdays that jumps out as you as being the epitome of red letter days. Now 42 was pretty interesting - it was the answer to the universe, even if the question only made sense in a distinctly odd base. It’s certainly not “The Big Four-O”, not even the rather milquetoaste 44 with its repeating integers. On the other hand, its a prime number, numbers which will occur with decreasing frequency as I get older. Whether such is indicative of odd phenomena, branch points in life, or are simply difficult to categorize in the grand scheme of things, I figure the year should be a strange one.
The last year prime year, when I was 37, was remarkable for several things. My youngest daughter was born on March 3, 2000, which meant that her third birthday was on 03/03/03. Not surprisingly, she’s showing a fascination with numbers and science and patterns at six - she thinks like me, alas, which means she’ll spend the next several years trying to figure out why the rules that everyone else takes for granted exist, and as such, find it far more difficult to readily fit in because she’ll have to understand the rationale for such rules in a world that is remarkably irrational.
Forty three is, as my father-in-law put it, an odd age. you generally know to some accuracy your strengths and your weaknesses. You have become what you will be when you grow up. You realize that your dreams of becoming a world-class artist, musician, or any other alternative path will likely never happen, and what’s more, you’ve come to understand both why and reached an acceptance of these facts. At forty three, you’re equidistant in your career from its beginning (assuming it starts at 21) and your retirement (assuming it ends at 65). Perhaps that has extended - certainly the boomers would prefer to believe that, but my suspicion is that the enhanced quality of life that seems to be so much a part of the self-help literature has more to do with accrued wealth than it does with significant medical advances.
I’m not an optimist here. I personally believe that the boomers have lived a privileged existence, one when energy was cheap, when housing was cheap, when significant advances in areas as diverse as computer science, biotechnology, materials science and the like all converged at once. Of course, I was at the very end of that cycle, born a few months before John F. Kennedy felt the assassin’s bullet, my own personal benchmark of the boomer generation’s end, just as VE Day was the more or less official beginning of that generation. It meant that in general the benefits that had accrued from the largest population boom had largely dissipated by the time it came around to me.
Perhaps this is why I have become as philosophical as I have - my own particular position as betwixt and between generations has given me foresight due primarily to having seen it all before - the extrapolations are not hard. Indeed, lately, I’ve been reading S.I. Hayakawa, one of the seminal figures of semantics and language, and have found surprisingly that words written first in the early days of World War II still have surprising relevance today, perhaps even more so than could be envisioned then.
Words are inextricably intertwined with thought, a concept that illuminates why programming in general and the discipline of XML in particular should touch so heavily on the philosophical domains. Semantics is more than just meaning - it is the way in which we map symbols to our interpretations of reality (and vice versa). Cripple or pollute a namespace - make it too limited, or too fraught with resonant (and potential hateful) meaning - and you will end up with a flawed reality.
Certainly practitioners of both marketing and propaganda are, or at the very least should be, aware of this. With marketing, you are attempting to create a set of symbols that not only stand for a product but that represent a desirable version of that product - either by touting the benefits of that product in comparison to its rival, or increasingly by touting the providers of those products as being trustworthy, sexy, cool, desirable. When have you seen an ad for Microsoft Office, or Intel’s processors? Chances are you haven’t, at least not directly - instead, you’ve seen chalk-marked imagery around school kids or guys covered in blue paint, and maybe, as an afterthought, a mention of a given product.
The product itself wasn’t important from the marketing standpoint - how much can you say about an office suite in thirty seconds, after all - but the symbolism, oh the symbolism! If you buy from us, if you give us your symbolic representations of wealth, we will give you and your children wisdom and intelligence and success. We will work magic, reach from the world of possibilities and extract from them the ones that will make your children what you want them to be. Behold our namespace, and know, by taking it in as your own, that you will partake of our deeper mysteries.
When Hayakawa was writing his first, ground-breaking book, Language in Thought and Action, we were, as a society, just beginning to explore the power of such semantic manipulation. Hitler’s name has become synonymous with propaganda, but Hitler’s ability to work with language was remarkably crude, the use of blunt hammers to inflame the passions of a country while hiding the political skullduggery occuring in the background. Sixty years has added refinements in that manipulative power to make it far more adroit, more targeted, more capable of being used as a scalpel rather than a sword.
A brand is nothing but a namespace URI for a company’s namespace, a bundle of semantics that extends beyond the shape of words and into the shape of symbols. As I look out the window, I see the Canadian flag flying, a red maple leaf against a white (and red bracketed) background. As a symbol it’s potent, and shapes the thoughts of the people under it as readily as the people shape their perspective of the counry around them. It is a symbol of a northern country, one where ice and fallen leaves are far and away the norm. It is a symbol of peace and tranquility, walking through a quiet woods on a late-fall day, a feeling of serenity wrapped around you. Brand Canada works surprisingly well because the semantic associations are, in general, those that appeal strongly to people who seek such tranquility and cooperative spirit.
Brand America, on the other hand, seriously needs to hire a new marketing director, because the symbolism and semantics are far more redolant of Hitler’s early days than they are of a sophisticated nation. War, crisis, terror, homeland security, bunker-busters, all terrain vehicles, patriotism, hate, militias, insurgents, traitors, border walls, ‘Bring em on!’,'You’re either with us or against us’ … you can practically see the distorted swastikas on blood-red banners, Centurian salutes, “Seig Heil” echoing from the building square, thousands of books blazing in the night sky - the fiery death of one namespace so that another, cruder and with far crueler words, can ascend.
My readers, gentle readers, you deal with words at a fundamental level, at a point down deep in the “stack” where such words exist in a pre-semantic fashion, dealing with the bindings and tools to provide for computers (and indirectly for people) a means of handling the semantics, to manipulate it to accomplish tasks far beyond what emerged “naturally”. Yet you who’s living is in words and namespaces and the very matrix where the mapmaker works also have a responsibility to show those who are not quite so close where the flaws in the code are, where the hacking is being done that is changing the very shapes of the thoughts in people’s heads.
I have talked, more than once, about the similarities between the computational semanticists, the XML gurus of this day and age, and the wizards of our imagination and the alchemists of our history. A wizard, a wise one, commands mystical power to alter and shape the realities of those people around them - something that most certainly describes the semanticists of today’s age - but also has both the wisdom to understand the dangers of such abuse and the ethical responsibility to attempt to stop the abuse of such powers by those who have “gone over to the dark side”.
I believe this transcends politics, although ultimately it is also fundamentally about politics. We, as stewards of these semantics, have let the language become polluted and divisive, have failed to challenge those who seek to foment hate and bring themselves material gain by subvertng the thoughts of others. I do not find any contradiction in the fact that one of the most vocal critics of the “mental pollution” of this day and age is Noam Chomsky, whose initial claims to fame were as a linguist and metalinguist, for he understands full well the power of language, symbolism and their effects on thought. There are few others, however, and it is perhaps extraordinarily important for us as semanticists (and programmers) to realize that neutrality in the face of such corruption is not neutrality at all, only cowardice. For others to dictate the symbols of the namespace is to cede power to them, and power ceded to the venal and avaricious is never a good investment.
So I ask you, gentle readers, to consider these words as I cut myself a slice of birthday cake. Perhaps forty three is not such a bad age to be after all - perhaps, in fact, it is that age when I must take up the staff, move beyond the lessons of my training and my journeyman period, and recognize that maturity is ultimately that point in your life when you recognize that there are responsibilities in your life that you must do, not because you are getting paid or it will make you famous, but simply because these things need to be done.