In any language, beauty's in the eye of the schemer

WHAT DO you think when you see the word "scheme?" It's not a fun word, is it? A scheme is a malevolent, selfish plan; to scheme is to be secretive, deceptive.

Well, in American English it is. In Indian English, a "scheme" is just a plan or a program. The Indian comic books I read growing up featured ads with young'uns going down slides and happily investing their allowances in Canara Bank's Balakshema Savings Deposit Scheme. I can just imagine a villain twirling his mustache at the thought of little kids' piggy banks growing fatter.

I bring this up because I see the word "scheme" often these days. Scheme is the name of a computer language I'm starting to learn. In case you thought I was a computer geek, some humility is in order on my part. Even authentic computer professionals don't know all the different languages you can use to make computers dance to your tune. And I don't even have that much geek cred; I'm culturally a geek, that's all.

Like so many kids, I dabbled with Logo in the school computer lab — that's the program where you make a turtle go left, right and in circles on the screen. And at home my dad, the Hindu priest, used BASIC to automate casting astrology charts. So I learned a bit of that as well.

Somehow my parents began to believe I'd make a good software engineer. Maybe that's because I'm Indian and I didn't show any inclination for medicine, so they pushed me toward the other stereotypical-for-a-reason career.

My first semester at UC Berkeley, I took a computer science intro class. CS 61A was for kids who knew they'd major. CS3 was the gentler "Are you sure you're ready for this?" class. That was the one I took, and the only class at Berkeley where I got a C. C-plus, to be exact.

I had no patience for debugging, which doomed me in a discipline that's 10 percent coding and 90 percent debugging. I disliked having to write for the pickiest of all audiences, the computer; at least English lets you decide where to put the comma. And I was a teenager in my first semester at college, learning how to think and act in a hundred different new ways, and this paradigm slipped by the wayside.

Now, as part of my personal re-education, I'm trying again. And I'm taking on the same language that beat me years ago. It's a variant of Lisp, which has been called "the only computer language that is beautiful" (novelist Neal Stephenson). And the name of this variant is Scheme.

Lisp has considerable status among programmers. Growing proficient in Lisp, the conventional wisdom goes, is like learning Latin or Greek; it teaches rigor and elegance in thought. It helps you grasp the essential patterns, challenges and creativity of programming a computer. A culture surrounds this language, as a culture surrounds any language, and the Lisp community is regarded as smart and snobby. Maybe coders as a whole regard Lispers as I regard particularly obnoxious geeks: infuriatingly smart and arrogant, as though they have discovered the true scheme of the world.

Or the schema of the world. "Schema" means "underlying structure" or "design." It's an intellectual word, not a fun, creative one. It's about knowing, not feeling. Mars, not Venus.

I need to understand that point of view. I want to understand coding to understand my future subordinates, and my friends, and my boyfriend, the consummate programmer. And I want geek credibility with colleagues. But I want to understand programming for its own sake, too, and to prove something to myself.

That first year at Berkeley, I didn't give my all in that CS class. I was trying to get my dad to understand I couldn't and wouldn't be a programmer. I know I could get it better now, because I enjoy and understand things more when I'm choosing to do them for their own rewards, or for my own goals.

Motivation feels refreshing and new. But deliberately structuring my life to achieve goals also feels off; my knee-jerk nonconformity doesn't know what to make of such a square lifestyle. Scheming to get what I want, even if it doesn't hurt anyone, defies spontaneity. Once you start seeing and manipulating the patterns of life, once you've bitten that apple, how can you ever go with the flow again?

Sumana Harihareswara writes for Bay Area Living weekly. You can write her at