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linear logic

December 31, 2009 at 5:00 am

So, I am working on finally, finally, finally building the long-awaited & much-discussed web store for secret door projects (and friends). This means spending a lot of time in the spot seen in the photo below, & breaking my brain somewhat trying to wrap it around the linear logic of the computer.

my drawing desk, taken over by the computer.

As a high schooler in the early 90s, I was psyched to be the only female-bodied person in the (somewhat smelly) computer room learning QBasic & other simple programming languages. I got a lot of encouragement for being there: I was the ‘token’ that everyone was proud of. Computers weren’t my strength — but the logic was really intriguing to me, I had a lot of determination, and with good concentration & good explanation, I could eventually figure it out and make some cool things happen.

I now know that it is a rare delight to find someone who has a) the capacity for a deep understanding of a logical language, and b) the patience to give a thorough explanation of how it works. Sixteen years later, as I struggle with computer-programming-type things, I constantly see the calm & gentle face of my ninth-grade computer teacher, Matt Zipin, next to me, and hear the soft tones of his voice going over something with me (probably for the second or third time).

There is nothing in the world like an amazing teacher.

Now, lacking a patient and logical person to explain things, I find myself driven only by my determination, and guided only by various how-tos and written instructions (freely available but sometimes cryptic). It’s not hard in itself, all the elements are simple enough (I think), but the issue is that I must move forward in linear ways in order to make any perceptible progress.

Today I finally made a list of what my goals are for the store, in programming and in style, what I need to accomplish to satisfy myself that the site is good. As I was doing so, the realization rushed over me that this kind of computer work feels the same as the last stages of working on a print. When I’m almost done with the transparencies for a print, I write down very specifically what I have to finish before they will be ready to shoot, usually by color / transparency:

  • blue:
    • finish sky/cloud details
    • reflections on metal
  • brown:
    • tree trunks
    • scratch out texture in roofs
    • fix mistake in large “L” (ink)
  • etc.

…something like that. Then I move through the list, checking things off as I go, forcing myself to work on the next thing on the list, adding more items if necessary, until they are all done. That type of concentration is unnatural to me, and it can be pretty grueling.

That comes only at the end, though — through most of my working process I am jumping around from place to place on the drawing, then from transparency to transparency, returning to the drawing, pencil to ink to rubylith and back. Sometimes I’ll tell people that I like the strange connections that get made by those jumps; “the way of working creates the nature of the work”, “it builds upon itself”, etc.

That is bullshit, though, because ultimately that is really just how my brain works — I don’t have another strategy. When I’m drawing or working in that stage, the hand-tool-eye-paper-brain combo takes its own paths and I kind of follow along. It’s peaceful, intense, focused, and spaced-out all at the same time. After a couple of hours I look up and: “Hey! There’s a drawing! Sweet!” I’ll lay out some aspects of the composition ahead of time, but I don’t plan ‘how to draw it’ in advance: because I can’t.

(I can’t make a preliminary outline for a piece of writing, either, to save my life — I have to write a bunch of stuff, move it around, edit it, re-read a bunch of times, etc. Only then can I pull together what the complete sense is, and consciously refine the form around an idea.)

drawing made in new orleans, partly in the rain!
drawn on the street in new orleans: begun on a rainy day, finished on a clear one.

This jumping-about method doesn’t really work when approaching a numerically logical system, nor, especially, when approaching the construction of such a system. There’s room for a little bit of what Jacob calls “being a clicker”, messing around and seeing what happens. That’s usually what I do mostly… and this can offer eventual results (like the current form of this website)… but it takes a long time. And in dealing with an actual programming language — not just markup code and stylesheets — it might not actually ever work.

Last spring, struggling with setting up a janky wordpress plugin on a website for somebody else, I was in tears in frustration with myself at my inability to understand what was going on. A friend who was advising me said, “I mean, come on Jean, go easy on yourself! PHP is a high-level programming language: you can’t just expect to look at it and immediately understand what’s going on.” At the time, I was furious and felt that he was belittling me.

Thinking about his words now, as I tangle with PHP again (still with no training or real logical background, but maybe with a little less insecurity) I realize that he was right: that is exactly what I am doing. Why? Because that is what works for me in the other work that I do. I look at the drawing or the image or the building in front of me — I learn as much about it as I can, seeking out all the corners and details and information available in a non-linear way, making multiple intuitive connections — I make lines and shapes and marks and notes — and something coherent (and possibly even beautiful!) appears.

I look at it, and it sorts itself into an order that tells me what to do with it and how to do it.

As the architect John Hejduk says, “The lead of the architect’s pencil disappears. Where does it go? Then a line appears on the paper.” It is undoubtedly magical. It’s what I’ve done all my life. It’s the most prosaic motion; of scratching the pencil over the paper, of feeling the ends of boards with fingertips to ensure that they are cut to the same length. I have no idea how it works.

Can I work with PHP in the same way? How much patience do I have to approach it in a strictly linear fashion? And… is it worth it to discipline my brain to a completely different way of thinking, when I am already “good” at something else?


The answer to the first question is probably “No, not really”. The answer to the second question is, “Don’t forget to eat and make sure to get enough sleep”. And the answer to that last question has gotta be “Yes”… or else I wouldn’t be still sitting here in front of the computer.

My ninth-grade self is super proud of me.

[hey! jean! writing this has been a lovely and somewhat comforting digression, and has helped you sort it out a little… now get back to actually dealing with what you are trying to get done!]


  1. In scientific programming class we used a 5 step method to get us to our programs.
    First was problem solving – figuring out what we wanted the program to do and defining the issues that could arrive.
    Then we would build an algorithm of how the program would solve the problem.
    then we’d write the pseduo code using the control structures and methods of programming
    Finally we’d replace this with actual code to get the working program.

    This helped take the frustration of the hard to understandness of the programming away and help us to focus on the logic of what we were doing.

    I don’t know if that helps at all but that’s my perspective on programming.

    Comment by Sarah — December 31, 2009 @ 12:46 pm
  2. Sarah! yes! thank you so much for passing this on. it totally helps. writing down the issues lets me see the whole picture so much more clearly. so yeah, now I’m at step 1 or maybe step 2. and since I’m using wordpress, there are lots of examples available for step 5, the code writing… but I just have to figure out how to put things to work in their proper place… fun!

    ps. snow day!

    Comment by jean — December 31, 2009 @ 3:48 pm
  3. Hey Happy New Year, any chance I’ll get my letter in the coming one?? LOL! Just teasing, it would be more fun to actually meet, maybe on summer break?

    Comment by deb — January 2, 2010 @ 11:52 pm
  4. […] I have learned a lot about wordpress & php in the past month; not entirely, but partly, by “looking at it and figuring it out”. it’s been […]

    Pingback by Secret Door Projects » idea appetizers — January 28, 2010 @ 7:05 pm

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