On Research Witchcraft

I’m a fan of Terry Pratchett. I re-read his novels frequently because each time, I find something new to consider. I was recently reading Lords and Ladies, which is part of the witches’ cycle of stories set in Discworld. This passage resonated:

Cottages tend to attract similar kinds of witches. It’s natural. Every witch trains up one or two young witches in their life, and when in the course of mortal time the cottage becomes vacant it’s only sense for one of them to move in.

Magrat’s cottage traditionally housed thoughtful witches who noticed things and wrote things down. Which herbs were better than others for headaches, fragments of old stories, odds and ends like that.

[…]It was a cottage of questioning witches, research witches. Eye of what newt? What species of ravined salt-sea shark? It’s all very well a potion calling for Love-in-idleness, but which of the thirty-seven common plants called by that name in various parts of the continent was actually meant?

The reason that Granny Weatherwax was a better witch than Magrat was that she knew that in witchcraft it didn’t matter a damn which one it was, or even if it was a piece of grass.

The reason that Magrat was a better doctor than Granny was that she thought it did.

Take a look at any github page, and examine the readme page. Strikes me, there’s a lot of the witches about these code repositories. The parallel isn’t perfect, but I feel rather like poor Magrat. For instance (and taken at random*):

Install PostgreSQL.

Install a Java Development Kit.

Install Git.

git clone https://github.com/overview/overview-server.git

Which development kit? What version? How many flavours of PostgreSQL are there? What do I do with that?  As I fumble towards dim understanding, I figure the folks who are building these things are more like Granny, and understand that any will do the trick, because they know what to expect and how to fix it if it goes wrong. Me, I need the right version the first time, because otherwise I’ll just make a hash of it – and I’ll have to teach it to someone! (Although I can git clone from git bash with the best of ’em – now!)

I don’t have the tacit knowledge of experience built up yet. There’s just so much to learn! Like Magrat, I can write it all down, spell it all out, and in doing so, I’ll eventually become like Granny, where it just flows.

I look forward to that day. But for now, I’ll keep engaging in my research witchcraft, figuring out the bits and bobs that those far more clever than me have devised, and reporting back what I’ve found.

*Well, not totally at random. It comes from the Overview Project who have taken pity on me (and others!) and have worked very hard indeed to simplify setting up a development environment for their text analysis server, ‘Overview‘. Thank you Jonathan and Adam! I’m learning a lot from chatting with these guys, as they shepherd me through the process. I’ll be posting on that process soon, pointing out some of the tacit bits I found I had to uncover in order to make it work. Their platform, conceived for journalists should also migrate its way into history & archaeology as I think we’ll find it very useful!

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2 thoughts on “On Research Witchcraft

  1. This is a great post, Shawn… I’ve been in the same space thinking about how to set up my EC2 instances. I hadn’t seen this github page. Thanks for sharing!

    1. 🙂
      I think we can also recognize, in Magrat, the roots of our own imposter’s syndrome, too!

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