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 droid.
2. A person who habitually wears suits, as distinct from a techie or hacker. See pointy-haired, burble, management, Stupids, SNAFU principle, PHB, and brain-damaged.
Definition of suit from The Jargon File.
... 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 blog.
In July 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 tie-constricted neck?
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 be named le sarouel: French doesn't share the English obsession with pluralising V-shaped objects such as trousers, glasses, scissors, and tongs. Actually, the name derives from Arabic sirwal or سِرْوَال, cognate 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 from Fez, 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 bottle of 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 the Balkans.
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, he writes:
"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. Suppose it 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 Saaibestrijding. 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.