I wrote the piece below for
Dr Dobbs. This was once a respected
and densely informative print magazine for
home microcomputer hobbyists, born
in 1975 as
dr. dobb's journal of Tiny BASIC
Calisthenics & Orthodontia
(subtitle: Running Light Without Overbyte).
When I started blogging for it in 2008, it
was online only, and a few years later, it ceased
publication altogether. The piece explains
how, through spreadsheets, I discovered sarouels and Moroccan
colours. Saaibestrijding is the blog
by Paul Tieman that I wrote about in my last post but one.
1. Ugly and uncomfortable "business clothing" often worn by non-hackers.
Invariably worn with a "tie", a strangulation device that partially
cuts off the blood supply to the brain. It is thought that this
explains much about the behavior of suit-wearers. Compare
2. A person who habitually wears suits,
as distinct from a techie or hacker.
Definition of suit
... it was the central theme of my artwork that made
me curious about, for example, the custom of lots of
western men to wear ties around their neck. An extremely
weird habit if you think further about it.
From the introduction to
Paul Tieman's Saaibestrijding
2002, I went to a conference about spreadsheets in
Cardiff. Now, the first modern spreadsheet was created
in 1979. Since then, technology has made spreadsheets
look much nicer, but it is still hard to build
reliable software with them. That's one of my
research interests, and that's what our
conference was about.
So to emphasise how bad spreadsheets still are,
I found a retro clothing shop, bought a pair of
extremely flared 1970s bellbottoms, and with marker
pens and fluorescent yellow card given me by the
shop's owner, made a lapel badge reading Spreadsheets
have not evolved since flares were
‸last in fashion.
Readers whose teenage daughters don't habitually
drag them to empty out their credit cards in
New Look every weekend are
reminded that it was the early 2000s when flares came into fashion for
the second time.
Ever since then, certain conference delegates have regarded
my dress sense with apprehension. In 2008, it was hot,
so I wore shorts. With the result that before
the 2009 conference, one delegate asked me not
to do so again; and another even
waved a pair
of emergency black trousers
before me as I started my talk, just in case.
"We want businessmen as well as academics", I was
told, "and must show a professional image".
Which was a shame, because I was in Paris, it was
the week northern Europe had a heatwave, and
trousers were itchy and sticky. Besides, when it's 31
degrees in an un-air-conditioned lecture theatre,
wouldn't you prefer someone lightly clad in
short cotton to be sitting beside you,
rather than a besuited gent oozing
sweat from every wool-covered armpit and
After the conference, I explored
Paris. I happened to see a man wearing
a pair of those very baggy trousers worn also
by North Africans, and — approximately —
by Aladdin and his genie. With memories of
lecture-room sweat, and because they looked
so comfortable, I asked where to buy
them. "New Zealand", he said. That was not
useful. "And Morocco". That was.
Because Paris has Moroccan shops
in Barbès, behind Gare du Nord.
So I Metroed over there, and bought a pair
in a shop — number 5, I think —
in Rue Caplat.
The trousers delivered as much comfort
as promised by their look. They turned out to
le sarouel: French doesn't share
the English obsession with pluralising
V-shaped objects such as trousers, glasses,
scissors, and tongs. Actually, the name
with salwar in Indian salwar kameez.
Because they feel much freer than normal
trousers, and are cut in a way that doesn't
wrinkle so much and thus stays smart,
I found I like sarouels and have bought others
a shop I found at 71 Golborne Road in London.
But I suspect that wearing one
to my conference would be even less
welcome than wearing shorts.
Which is funny, because ergonomics
is important, and one aspect
of ergonomics is comfort.
Another is maintenance.
I once spent three months
travelling from Oxford to Oxford
via Berlin, Bucharest (and Transylvania and
Bucovina and so on), Sofia (and Plovdiv and Koprivshtitsa ...),
Athens (and Thessaloniki and Delphi ...),
Münster, and Amersfoort.
Along the way, I helped a friend
install Lisp at Bucharest University,
gave a talk to the Bulgarian Academy of Sciences
about teaching Artificial Intelligence,
and worked on document cataloguing with Prolog
in Athens. I carried or wore
shorts, a red and a blue and a green
Marks & Spencer
T-shirt, a thick cotton lumberjack shirt, and a
Body Shop Ice Blue Shampoo
for hair, body, dishes, and clothes.
I did have to cover my legs for admission to the painted
monasteries of Bucovina; but that was religion.
The Lisp and the Prolog did not
require me to lug long trousers around
Philosopher A. C. Grayling suggests that
yet another aspect
of ergonomics is fun, or colour, or exuberance.
In an essay on Depression
from his book The Meaning of Things,
"Let us love winter, for it is the spring
of genius," said Pietro Aretino; and only
an Italian could say such a thing. In the
far north, where humans first undoubtedly
went not for love of cold and dark, but
to escape the danger of other humans,
the sunless months are long and many.
to be true that humanity's first home was
hot, strongly lit, riotous
with vivid tropical colours and luscious
scents; what deep instincts
are forced to lie dormant in a silent
world of snow, where night never ends?
So, if you were managing 30 programmers
in the drizzly gloom of a November 3:30pm,
with yellow leaves falling and bus windows
all steamed up, would you really want them to
dress all in black, grey, and brown?
I'd prefer the inventiveness of Paul Tieman's
And I'd leave the sumptuary laws
to the Roman emperors hogging their Tyrian purple, and
the Victorian idiots who ridiculed Amelia Bloomer
for wearing trousers. In other words,
I'd let my programmers wear shorts
and throw away their ties.