Grep works.

I’m new at this, so forgive me if I’m sounding like a silver surfer who just discovered that ink cartridges cost more than the remarkably cheap printers they just bought, but lying in bed after only 4 hour’s sleep on Xmas morn, my hyper mind’s been currently obsessing on this: that writing a weblog’s making me think a lot about categorisation, and dangers of allowing post-hoc changes later. I suppose what librarians of the more ghastly kind who get fed up stacking shelves call “information choreography”. This is all rather beside the real point of this weblog, but think of it as laying out your pencils in a row before an exam I guess, and stretching your fingers before starting.
So don’t read this if you’re here to read about illness, gender or God. This is a sidenote, some chatter before I start.
It’s the post-hoc thing that concerns me most. You can’t reformat and recategorise paper diaries long after the ink’s dry, which may not be such a bad thing. On starting this thing, I’m tempted to create a lot of categories, and sub-categories, in which I can file entries multiply; so, say, this article might be filed under a master category “information”, a sub-category “technofear”, and also under another master category “blogging”. I might do this with a year’s worth of articles. Then one day I might feel that, given that I only have six articles under “technofear”, and the only ones I remember are about how people irrationally fear cloning, I’ll just rename the category “irrationality” and file it under a master category “belief”. Now, clearly I can review what’s in it, but you can imagine given a few permutations, it’ll get out of hand, beyond the pale and altogether not altogether.

So I guess I’m learning not to over-categorise, tempting though it is to do so: after all, the one thing you can’t do with a paper diary is slice through it via categories, and see how you felt 10 years ago about just, say, sheep-dipping in Shropshire in the early 1950s. So doing it this way is very tempting. But, as I’m trying to clumsily warn myself above, over-categorising could lead to the equivalent of, say, over-partitioning a Linux installation. Sooner or later your /var will fill up, and have to move /var/log to somewhere else and create an ugly softlink. You might never understand the irrational glow of pleasure that the above analogy is likely to be unintelligible to me 10 years from now. Best move on.
I’m selfishly worried about this kind of information rot – I don’t want to lose what I’ve written in here – I’ve wanted to write a diary/journal of some sort for years, have tried and failed, like everyone except Pepys, Boswell and Alan Clarke to do so on paper, and am trying again now online. I’ve felt at times it might save my life if I can just look back and see how I felt 2, 5, 10 years ago, and see how everything isn’t so frighteningly out of control. And I’ve found that the feeling (mirage as it may be) that I’ll be able to slice through, search and retrieve how I felt years later makes me feel like it’s doable. I’ve found that creating a pretty frame around my blank canvas before I start can help set my mode, and my resolve to do it, contrary to reason which says it should just be content. I forget, but I bet Boswell cared what colour his notebooks were, and what type of ink he used, so I don’t feel so bad about this.
But then, I suddenly find myself making a choice to do this say in Movable Type, version 3.wotsit, because it’s the current version, it’s the mostly widely used (right now) and my friend can teach me about stylesheets in it, even though, say, WordPress is open-source, and can allow me to email entries in more easily. I make a further choice to make MySQL the engine, rather than say SQLite or PostGres, because it seems like most people still use that. I’m vaguely aware of the possibilities of data export, conversion etc. I leave it at that for now and get on with it.
When I step back, this worries me a lot because, although most people’s weblogs are about their cats and their keyboards, I do believe they are of infinite worth, because they are also about their own selves. And what happens when Movable Type and WordPress are a funny memory from years back, and pulling data from a long-forgotten but suddenly cherished MySQL database is akin to trying to emulate those little TV ping-pong games on a super-computer, and a job for the dedicated geek? A paper diary suddenly seems like a futuristic, stunningly clever and simple solution to cross-platform compatibility.
Here’s why it matters. Five years ago, L and I went on holiday to France. I was ill, but it was a nice holiday. I might never be able to do this again.
I took hundreds of photos over two weeks, of early morning mist refracting Dordogne sunshine down rows of grape vines, of funny little french farmer who gave us a bottle of the strongest and sweetest Calvados I’ve ever tasted (and still have) that he distilled under his bed in his bedroom, and of L pulling funny faces. On the second to last day, I tried to extract the pictures from the (new! exciting!) digital camera’s flash card on L‘s laptop, and it wiped the lot.
It sent me spinning into one of the blackest nights for a long time: a symbol to me of futility, the hopelessness of hope at getting through a nice holiday relatively unmarred by the black dog of depression, tried as it did to snap at my heels, and the hopelessness of trying to freeze some nice memories of why life was worthwhile when I got back. I span into such a panic that night that the people in the room next door to us in the hotel rang the front desk.
The next day I felt so traumatised it was like I’d been run over by a truck. We were driving home, and I suddenly felt I had to do something not to let this ruin everything, for me, for L. So I took out my Psion – it’s something your grandparents used in the 20th century – and wrote down every day I could remember of the holiday, every photo I could describe in words. I drew little pictures and (I think, or was it another French holiday? – the calvados must have been Brittany) and added little multimedia clips of sounds we’d recorded. All this to try to subdue the storm in my mind, and save myself from the horrifying fear of hopelessness. It worked.
That Psion’s now sitting upstairs, and has sat on a desk for probably 4 of those years, rundown, and without a shadow of doubt with nothing on its internal flash. I remember trying for days to extract everything I could from it before I swapped it for the next shiny thing, and these holiday journals were the most important. And try as I might, I couldn’t extract them intact with those proprietary multimedia document attachments.
So that very important record of my life’s probably gone. I’ll have to look and see if I can find at least the text saved somewhere, now that I’ve mentioned them. But where will these words be in 5 years’ time? Even if I have them in some form, will I be able to read them in any chronological order? Click through to links, make sense of references to references? Paper diaries, or at least text files suddenly seem so appealing. I’ve never trusted databases. Grep, the most basic tool in the Unix world works so well, simply because it works on the simplest things: plain text. And you can’t really lose information from plain text files because all they have is… information.
As a final note, even reviewing my memory of that disproportionate response to losing those photos makes me ponder: I was just as prone (though less frequently victim to?) what I now call “panic attacks” then wasn’t I? I must have been: what I recall of my feelings in that hotel that night are the same as I feel now, when I fall. Particularly for those of us with poor memories, diaries are so important about teaching us about our present, through our past. Ramble over, but I must keep this up.

One thought on “Grep works.”

  1. This is to say that I have read this, and I think it is a very beautiful start; I am glad you are doing this, and it is for all the right reasons.. I can’t say more..
    “All measure, and all language, I should pass,
    Should I tell what a miracle she was.”

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