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Where a Rose is not a rose…

By Phil Factor,

Today we have a guest editorial from Phil Factor.

There really is little justification for having a case-sensitive collation for a database. I can appreciate the need for such things within certain tables, where strings are held in languages that don’t inherit the mediaeval European tradition of capitals and lowercase. However, there is no need to apply this to database code itself, and there seems to be plenty of latitude in the naming of objects so as to prevent accidental collision. No, we have reached the current tradition of case-sensitivity in computer languages by a series of mistakes and missed opportunities.

I was on the phone, a while back, to a panicky member of the IT staff in a data centre. It was after midnight and the database for the main revenue-earning website was flat on its back. I ‘talked him through’ a series of operations to get the website operational. It was losing revenue for the company every minute that the site stayed off-line. I was dictating the SQL code to a guy who was a manager, and innocent of the mystic incantations that kept databases ticking over. It was pretty easy to do, except for the punctuation. I just thanked fate that it wasn’t Lisp, or even Perl. If the database had been case-sensitive, we’d never have managed it.

It got me thinking that Computer Science needs a new test for the suitability of a computer language for real work, in adverse conditions. Can you shout a routine out across a crowded room and have it keyed in, and successfully run, by a listener at the other side? Unless we can devise special sounds for curly brackets (open and close), semi-colons and maybe an altered intonation for upper-case, then many modern computer languages are doomed to fail the test. Could Python or Cobra survive the test, with their use of indents to denote blocks? I think not.

Should any computer scientist in the Cambridge area show the foresight and imagination to put his new revolutionary language to the test, I shall be in my usual spot in the Waggon and Horses Pub, communing with many willing volunteers.

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