The Best Laid Plans

It’s hard to believe I haven’t yet posted about the Robert Burns (1759-1796) poem, “To a Mouse, on Turning Her Up in Her Nest With the Plough, November, 1785”. Written, obviously, in 1785. It’s one of my favorites, and as with some of my other favorites, due in part to one line, the immortal words: “The best-laid schemes of mice and men; Go oft awry.”

And don’t they indeed. God (or fate or chance or whathaveyou) laughs at our puny plans.

It’s a short poem, and I don’t have all that much to say about it, so I’ll also tell you about an interesting bug in the new WordPress Jetpack app that lets you game your own stats.

I won’t quote the whole poem. You can find the full text on its Wikipedia page (both in the original Scottish, which is beautiful, and an English translation). Burns is said to have composed the poem on the spot after actually destroying a mouse’s nest while plowing a field on his farm.

Speaking of the original Scottish, because it’s so beautiful, I will quote the relevant stanza (of eight) in the poem:

But, Mousie, thou art no thy-lane,
In proving foresight may be vain;
The best-laid schemes o’ mice an’ men
Gang aft agley,
An’ lea’e us nought but grief an’ pain,
For promis’d joy!

If I was the type of person who wore tee-shirts with sayings on them, I’d want one that said: “Gang aft agley!” It’s such a central and relevant statement about the human condition. The concept is widely expressed in the famous, if cruder, modern expression: “Shit Happens!”

Oh, man, does it ever.


I’m a total philistine when it comes to poems (and fine arts in general). Not just a philistine, but a cliche: “I know what I like.” But there is something about certain poems I’ve encountered over the years that I found profoundly affecting and which stayed ever with me. Even philistines can feel the power of poetry.

This one, for instance, no matter how many times I’ve read it, reaches me, chokes me up, and brings tears to my eyes. Just those first two lines, “Little, cunning, cowering, timorous beast, Oh, what a panic is in your breast!” Who among us hasn’t felt like that little mouse over plans shattered by a larger and apparently uncaring destiny?

In generating our compassion for and understanding of the lowly little mouse, Burns demonstrates why he is the national poet of Scotland and is revered worldwide. In eight six-line stanzas, he makes us not just feel for the mouse, not just recognize its needs and fears, but make them our own. It’s exactly why the poem has endured.

I hope you’ll take the time to read and absorb it. Perhaps it will become one of your favorites, too (if it isn’t already).


I’ll try to emulate Burns by keeping this short. I’ll just mention two things:

The most famous reference is probably in the title and subject of the John Steinbeck (1902-1968) novella, Of Mice and Men (1937). The story has been widely adapted, most famously into a stage play. The first film adaptation was made in 1939, only two years after publication of the story. That film stars Burgess Meredith and Lon Chaney Jr. and won four Academy Awards (back when that actually meant something). I recall reading the novella for a high school English class (these days, though, the language gets it challenged in some quarters).

Burns’s poem about a mouse, usually known as just To a Mouse, should not be confused with another poem by Burns, usually known as To a Louse (1786). As with his mouse poem, the louse poem has a longer title: “To A Louse, On Seeing One on a Lady’s Bonnet at Church.” It doesn’t equalize us with lowly beasts but equalizes us all in the eyes of an even more lowly insect. We’re all the same in the eyes of louse. (And probably also in the eyes of mice.)

[The first time I saw a reference to this poem, I thought the writer was being funny. But no, it’s an actual poem. Sadly, Wikipedia only quotes the last stanza, but you can find the full eight stanzas here or here (but without an English translation).]

§ §

Speaking of plans going ‘agley’ (but otherwise a change of topic) programmers know that, to paraphrase that modern expression, “Bugs Happen!” Writing any serious application is like writing a novel in which the logic of the story must be perfect and in which there can be no typos or grammatical errors. Programming is one of those professions (like airline pilots, surgeons, and others) where perfection is required.

Not that it’s actually possible, but it’s always the goal.

I spent over three decades writing code in a commercial setting, which may explain why I’m both hard on and disdainful of so many modern applications.

What I’ve long suspected is a major reason modern software is so bad: there was a time (and may still be) when many saw being a doctor or lawyer, not as a calling that burned in their heart, but as a way to make a lot of money. Fortunately for us, the education systems for both try to make the worst of them acceptably good. Likewise becoming an airline pilot (and many other professions). The road to becoming a professional is long and hard and seeks to weed out the worst and ensure a minimum standard for those who make it.

Being a programmer was likewise seen at one time as a way to make money. But truly, it’s a calling. As with doctors, pilots, and perhaps lawyers, it demands a certain level of innate talent. One has to love and understand the idea of designing and writing code.

Sadly, unlike medicine or the law or piloting a plane full of people, there are few standards or requirements for programmers. Anyone can call themselves a “programmer” and far too many sorely unqualified people do. When I was still working, we often hired temporary programmers from various organizations, and it was appalling to me how incompetent some of them were. Very few were doing it because they loved it. Or understood it.

If you wonder why so much software sucks, I think that’s why. It’s written by people who don’t know what they’re doing. I’m appalled by how bad some of the apps we use are.


Rant aside, I’ve said before that I’m rather underwhelmed by the developers behind WordPress. I’ve written before about some of the more irritating issues.

I will say that the “Happiness Engineers” — the online help staff and the buffer between users and developers — are pretty good. Very good in some cases. Interacting with them isn’t nearly as frustrating as with those on most other technical platforms (for instance Apple Support, which has put me in a state of never wanting to give Apple another dime).

The WordPress developers, though… I honestly don’t know what the problem is. They still haven’t fixed the CSV bug, which apparently was a known issue when I reported it months ago. It took them a month to fix the bug I reported about being unable to “Hide” an ad that appeared on the WP Admin Home page.

I really do wonder what’s the deal with the development staff. It is just one coder who comes in every other Tuesday for a few hours? Is there an emphasis on new features at the expense of bug fixes? Is it a matter of (mistaken) priorities? Are they overwhelmed with other bugs? Are they, in this day and age, unable to handle multiple platforms? Are they just not very good at what they do? Beats me.


Anyway, back on 3/17 I reported a bug I’d noticed in the new Jetpack app. The one that (forcibly) replaced the old WordPress app. The bug allows authors to game their own stats. To maybe build a fire under the developers, I thought I’d share it with you so you, too, can game your own stats.

In the Jetpack app, go to the Stats display (with the bar chart) and select a given post to display the stats for that post. Then select “Showing stats for: {post name} to view the post. For fun, in the upper-right corner, select the round arrow to refresh the post a few times. Exit back to your stats, and voila, you’ve bumped the stats for that post. Multiple times if you refreshed it. (It can take a minute or three for your stats to refresh.)

If you view stats for a month or a year you can select old posts and give them page hits for today. You may want to select View more at the bottom of the list to see all the posts for the time period. I’ve had some fun making old mostly ignored posts have lots of new hits. Note that the page hits only show up for the day on which you do this.

Also note that most ways of displaying a post in the app don’t bump the page hits. You have to find the post in your stats and view it from there.


What bugs me about all this (beyond the unwanted page hits just because I viewed an old post) is the lack of quality control. There apparently isn’t very good testing of most applications, let alone much user interface analysis. (Of course not. It’s not value add.)

For instance, while I like Amazon Music (or, at least, haven’t been irredeemably pissed off by it) I’m appalled that the Library > Albums view can’t remember my sort setting. (And why is sorting all albums by name, rather than by artist, the default anyway?)

I get the impression user interface design is poorly understood and all too often not well thought out. Designers should be required to use their designs. A lot. Constantly. I do like the Amazon Music service, but the app leaves a lot to be desired. For one thing, it’s really muddled about Favorites, Likes, and what I put in my library.

But that’s a post for another day.

§ §

Stay poetic, my friends! Go forth and spread beauty and light.

About Wyrd Smythe

The canonical fool on the hill watching the sunset and the rotation of the planet and thinking what he imagines are large thoughts. View all posts by Wyrd Smythe

6 responses to “The Best Laid Plans

  • Wyrd Smythe

    For one example of bad programming and taking forever to address the problem (or even understand it based on back-and-forth I’ve had with them), the merging-paragraphs issue I reported and documented in 2021 is still an issue.

    I’m not entirely sure they even consider it a bug despite that it also happens to comments entered in the WP Reader.

    That said, recently I’ve noticed better handling of comments, so maybe something has been done. I’ve also not noticed someone else’s post be mangled that way. (I did see one not too long ago, though.) I’m tempted to try not doing the preventative steps I apply to every post before I publish it to see if it’s still an issue.

  • Wyrd Smythe

    The last favorite poem (but one) I should one day post about is The Second Coming (1919), by William Butler Yeats (1865-1939).

    It has the famous line “Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;”, which is somewhat the same on a much larger scale as what Burns is saying about our best laid plans.

    I may fold it into an upcoming post about a book I’m working my way through, Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind (2011), by Yuval Noah Harari. The notion that ‘the center cannot hold’ applies very much to (and rather contradicts) what he says about empires. It’s an interesting book with some parts that really made me think, but the more I read of it, the less impressed I am with the author. (For one thing, he has a really weird definition of postmodernism. Certainly not one I’ve ever encountered.)

    • Wyrd Smythe

      The “but one” mentioned above refers to The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock (1915; usually just called Prufrock), by T.S. Eliot (1888-1965).

      It’s a weird poem, but I’ve always found it compelling and, despite not understanding it, somehow very engaging. I don’t know that I’m qualified to write a post about it. Maybe if I do some research and try to figure it out. It contains a number of lines you may have encountered in other works. Among them:

      “Till human voices wake us, and we drown.”


      “In the room the women come and go; Talking of Michelangelo.”

      Which I’m sure I’ve heard in a song lyric.

      Read it for yourself and judge.

  • diotimasladder

    I was about to ditto what you say about poetry in general and write about the one poem I love but don’t understand: The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock. Looks like you beat me to it! In fact, that’s one my husband and I have in common. One day as we were getting out of the car, I said something that made him start reciting the poem: “Let us go then, you and I, when the evening is spread out against the sky…” I think he was amazed when I joined in with, “Like a patient etherized upon a table.”

    Because we’re so romantic. 🙂

    God that poem is amazing.

    I will have to read your mouse poem! And try to game the system! Sounds like fun.

    • Wyrd Smythe

      Oh, cool to run into someone else who knows and loves Prufrock. What is it about that poem that’s so compelling. I don’t usually connect with surrealism, but something about Prufrock really does grab me.

      The bug I reported, where you can bump your own stats, is still there. Just tested it. I reported it on 3/17, so they’re coming up on one month.

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