Humming along with the bass line of “Born to be Wild”
Playing on the radio at the laundromat
When I first fell in love with that tune
It wasn’t an old song
Nor was I an old man
With a grey beard
Washing my clothes
At a laundromat
Humming along with the bass line of “Born to be Wild”
Playing on the radio at the laundromat
When I first fell in love with that tune
It wasn’t an old song
Nor was I an old man
With a grey beard
Washing my clothes
At a laundromat
The introduction of a new paradigm in software development is almost always more properly a recognition and codification of principles that developers have honored intuitively for years, and the one I’m about to propose is no different in that regard. Developers of both end-user applications and software development tools have often observed that the consumers of their productions are likely to:
Developers have haphazardly employed a number of tactics to remedy these ills. I hereby propose a systematic strategy to insure that not one user goes astray, which I call Stupidity-Oriented Development (SOD). SOD includes the following helpful practices:
Make the usual things simple, and the unusual things impossible. Don’t think of this box as a prison, but rather “a fortress deep and mighty, that none may penetrate”. Users can’t hurt themselves if we only allow them to achieve certain things that we know in advance aren’t harmful. The best examples of this principle are graphical wizards that include only the options that are reasonable. Rather than rapping the knuckles of a wayward user with an error message, we simply make it impossible for him/her to perform the wayward act. If they express a desire to pursue an option contrary to our guidance, the correct response is: “that’s unsupported.”
It is axiomatic that the most frequent mistakes in software development are type errors. Not even highly-skilled developers can write so small a program as “Hello world” without trying to pass a
string where a
Microsoft.Playthings.World object is expected instead. Languages that employ SOD solve this problem with static typing — the developer must state the type of object expected, and then must also type the object that is passed using a compatible class. By forcing the developers to repeat themselves in this fashion, the compiler can check both statements for consistency, and stop them from pursuing their momentary insanity. In recent years, though, this safeguard has been increasingly threatened by a new laxity that goes under the name of type inferencing. This dangerous development sprints down the slippery slope of assuming that developers mean what they say.
Perhaps the single most SOD-like feature ever implemented on a large scale was Microsoft Office’s most famous assistant, Clippy. Clippy’s animation appealed to the playful tendencies of the human brain, and cheerfully offered to help the user do the things s/he should do, rather than what s/he wanted to do. Alas, Clippy was ahead of his time, and failed to achieve the unsurpassed popularity he deserved. Some analysts have attributed this failure to the work-related image of a paper clip, but later incarnations as a puppy, wizard, or genie did not fare any better. Perhaps if he were reintroduced as a Nyan Cat or Gangnam Style dancer, he might be better able to command user attention.
All of the above practices share a common theme: using well-designed silicon-based intelligence to guide and correct the inferior carbon-based intelligence that evolved purely by chance within human skulls. While not a perfect solution, it is the best we can do until the latter can be replaced totally by the former.
Today when I opened my browser, xombrero, and navigated to google.com, I saw the following doodle:
“What a fitting coincidence,” I thought, “since today is my birthday. I wonder whose birthday they’re really celebrating?”
When I hovered my mouse over the image to see its title text, I jumped out of my chair.
Of course I soon realized that since I was logged into my Google account, Google knew who I was and that today is my birthday. Still, it sort of gave me the creeps. One step closer to this.
I scurry between the oncoming traffic and the sidewalk that’s closed for construction as I continue up Jefferson Street. Then I spot the hospital ahead on the left. It’s the first time I’ve seen it since they discharged me almost a month ago. My sister and mother drove me home that day. I remember saying goodbye to Gail, my nurse. All the nurses in the Telemetry Unit treated me well, but Gail had been especially thoughtful. I’m glad that she was on duty that last day to handle my discharge.
One month ago today they stopped my heart to repair the mitral valve. Of course, they kept my blood pumping and oxygenated with a machine all that time, so I wasn’t really dead, but I like to think of myself as resurrected anyway. By any standard older than a century, my revival was nothing short of miraculous. Is it any less miraculous because we know how it’s done?
I’m walking from the ferry to the hospital today (a mile and a half, almost all uphill) to see my surgeon, Dr. Eric Lehr, for my one-month follow-up. That’s possible because of a minimally invasive approach that the good doctor employed. Instead of breaking the sternum, he used robotic arms to enter my right side and pass behind the sternum to operate on the heart. I was up and walking almost immediately afterwards, and back to work within a week. Now, I’m able to walk three to six miles every day, and feeling more stamina than I had before the surgery.
I got to meet the robot before they put me under. I have to admit that I didn’t find it as impressive as I had hoped. Just a big, grey machine with arms. And it doesn’t function autonomously, so it’s really just an extension of the surgeon’s hands. But I still like to say that a robot fixed my heart — it sounds so geeky.
Thanks to the ferry schedule, I arrive at the hospital forty minutes early for my appointment. I consider going to the cafeteria to eat something. Then an idea occurs to me. I walk into the gift shop and pick out a small arrangement of African violets. I take the elevator up to the fourth floor, then find the Telemetry Unit. At the desk I ask if Gail is working today.
“Yes, she is.” They page her.
After a few moments, her slender figure appears around a corner.
“Remember me?” I say.
It takes her a second, then she puts it all together. “You’re the one who has a son living in California, right?” My son visited for part of my stay. I can see what she remembers.
“Yes,” I reply. “The surgery was a month ago, and today I walked here from the ferry.”
“Over all those hills?” she asks, incredulous.
“Yes, and I don’t even feel winded. I have an appointment with Dr. Lehr, but I wanted to give you these and to say ‘thank you.’ You made my stay here a very pleasant experience.”
Gail begins to tear up, and then she hugs me. She apologizes for stepping on my foot in the process.
“It’s OK. Thanks again,” I say, and then we say goodbye.
About a year ago, shortly after my wife and I separated, I felt hopeless. I had felt hopeless for the last couple of years that we were together, too — and getting out on my own was a bit of a relief from that despair, but somehow finally making the break and living alone underscored my lack of meaning. I planned to drag my wretched corpse through the rest of my life and breathe a sigh of relief when death should come. Everything I had ever enjoyed in life seemed embittered by my failure in family life — a failure that proceeded not from random circumstance, but rather from deep flaws in my own character. That’s not to say that only I was to blame. But I allowed others to take me places I had no business going nor any power to sustain. What an idiot I had been. For how long!
I took one vehicle, she kept the other. She gave me all of “my” CDs — the definition of “my” being anything that she didn’t want. She kept my Grateful Dead, Cars, and U2. She gave me all the ones that we had not played since we got together — a small but significant indicator of the sickness of our relationship. She had always controlled what we listened to or watched on TV. Oh, I was free to enjoy whatever I pleased, as long as I didn’t mind being left alone to my depraved enjoyment of football, Jethro Tull, or Mahler. Because I did love her, I preferred to forego these other pleasures in order to enjoy her company. But that did not help to preserve our relationship after all.
Thus, I began to rediscover my old CDs that I hadn’t heard in 15 years. When my wife and I first got together, I had been listening to Joe Satriani’s “Time Machine” frequently, and I remember that the sustained note at the end of the primary theme in “Flying in a Blue Dream” seemed to ask me a question about my decision to move in with her. Now, after fifteen years, it was asking me that question again. I never realized that the muffled narrative at the beginning of that song says “sometimes they act like they still like each other, and sometimes they don’t.”
I discussed this new appreciation of music with my therapist, and noted that especially music without lyrics seemed able to speak to me in ways that nothing else could. I’m sure it has something to do with going beyond language to unlock the thoughts and hopes that I’ve managed to talk myself out of. I said to her that I had a couple of Bruckner symphonies still to rediscover (the 4th and 7th), but that I wished I had the 8th and 9th instead (which I once owned on vinyl) because they both seemed in my memory to ask questions without providing answers.
Nevertheless, I popped Bruckner’s Fourth into my car’s CD player. I didn’t remember much about that symphony. I hadn’t listened to it in about twenty years, because it didn’t seem to fit my state of mind back in the early nineties after leaving my first wife (yes, there’s a pattern here). When I had listened to it before, my first wife insisted that I keep the volume down because (like all of Bruckner’s symphonies) it gets loud in places. So the piece contains much that I had never heard, or only heard subliminally.
The fourth and final movement grabbed my attention. Its phrenetic shifts in tempo and volume convey an almost insane anger alternating with flights of grandeur that suddenly collapse like bipolar delusions. Eventually, the movement settles into a dark and hopeless theme that might be a funeral march. A beautifully sorrowful lament follows, but then melts back into the hopeless, resignedly angry repetition of the funeral theme.
“This is where I am,” I thought to myself. “This music speaks to me.”
The theme repeats, growing more emphatic. Suddenly, briefly, a major chord shines out. “What was that?” I thought.
Then, like a seed planted, that major chord begins a series that builds on all that has gone before, step by step. Unlike the earlier delusions of grandeur, these steps are gradual and believable. I could almost remember some of them before they happened, but still I would ask myself, “Can it really be?” and then find “It is!” This continues to a most glorious ending, as the tears streamed down my face.
“If such a thing can even exist in music, then perhaps there is hope.”
This was the first step.
“You staying out here, hon?” the waitress asks through the half-opened door onto the balcony, with a furrow in her brow that has “You’re nuts if you do” written all over it.
“Yes, I will,” I respond, “if I can find a table not too close to a speaker. I think this one will do.” I park myself by the railing, overlooking Front Street. Perhaps they call it Front Street because this is where Poulsbo presents its best Norwegian style in quaint storefronts designed to capture the imaginations and wallets of its visitors.
My waitress Alicia performs her duties well, despite shivering under the gray clouds. Her multiple piercings and streak of violet hair are executed with a confident restraint that renders them nearly conservative. She carries on a friendly conversation with me two minutes at a time whenever she brings more coffee. Her half-closed eyes and ambiguous smile as she displays her neck seem almost genuine.
I’m not the only person braving breakfast al fresco. Across the street a couple sits at a little table outside the coffee shop. Or rather, he sits — she improvises a short, exuberant dance and then remains standing. A minute later she notices me. She’s visibly shocked, then smooths it over as if she saw nothing. Undoubtedly, she thinks I’m a spy — for his wife or her husband.
Yes, that’s them all right — I walked up behind them yesterday on Fjord Drive. I noticed their behavior then: she, playful; he, wary. He looked back at me three times before they both stopped in silence and watched me pass — not answering my “good morning.”
She says something to him, and they leave nonchalantly with their coffees — he, glancing around every two seconds. So, they must have come to Little Norway for the weekend. Getting away from it all — but haunted by it still.
What a shame, I think to myself, that anyone has to feel guilty about loving another person. It’s odd how romance, so often idealized, is nevertheless bound up in the social fabric of mutual responsibility, expectations, and exchange. And somehow, even thwarting the system is part of the system.
As I walk back through the pub to leave, I say goodbye to Alicia. “See you again, soon!” she says, and leans back from the counter towards me as if expecting me to touch her. “Sure,” I smile, and leave — keeping my hands in my pockets. I had left her a good tip — generous, but not obscene.
A fly’s eyes
Multi-faceted, complex, and ugly
the right one clears, then they both disappear
A line of hieroglyphics, the heqa-crook
Nefertiti and a sphinx with Tutankhamen’s head
The sphinx, the sphinx
The riddle of the sphinx
Not a very clever riddle
Except for the third leg
Does the riddle have anything to do with it?
The old man with a staff
Brain partially exposed
Eyes falling out
Try to make him move forward, so difficult
No, don’t try
He suddenly turns to bones that collapse and clatter on the floor
I walk over and grab his staff
Then beat his bones to powder with it
I walk away with his stick
Humming a tune
Internet discussions often follow a predictable pattern. Mike Godwin observed that they inevitably seek out the lower ground of Nazi comparisons. Long before that, however, they descend through argumentum ad hominem, which is a way of saying “personal attacks” in Latin so you look smarter than the jerk you’re accusing of using them.
There should be an Internet Law (“law” as in “description of the inevitable”, rather than “imposition of the will of the state”), similar to Godwin’s Law, that says that whoever lets their emotions get the better of them and resorts to argumentum ad hominem automatically loses the debate. Perhaps there already is such a rule, but the trouble is that people have a hard time recognizing argumentum ad hominem. How many times have you seen a discussion like this?:
1337dood: Your idiotic ad hominem attacks carry no weight with me.
ieatbrainz: Ad hominem?!! Look who’s talking, calling me an idiot. I wasn’t attacking you personally, it’s what you *SAID* that I called stupid.
1337dood: Obviously you know nothing about logical argument. You’re just a sad and angry troll.
ieatbrainz: Well you’re just a self-important douchebag.
Both of our conversationalists have descended into personal attacks, while accusing each other of that offense. Obviously, we need a simpler guideline. I propose the URA Rule:
Any statement containing the phrase “you are a” (or its equivalent) marks the end of reasonable discussion.
If what follows “you are a” is less than complimentary, then we have an argumentum ad hominem. If it is neutral, then it is still a distraction from reasonable argument — perhaps it’s seeking to analyze the reasons why someone might pursue a line of thought, but it’s focusing on the speaker rather than the ideas under discussion. Even if it’s praise (e.g. “you are a god of philosophy”), we have left the debate hall and entered the temple of personality.
I call it the URA Rule instead of the “You Are A” Rule, for three reasons:
EDIT: Chad Perrin pointed out that personal attacks per se do not constitute argumentum ad hominem, but only if they are used as part of the argument. He’s right, but I still think they’re a distraction from reasonable argument.
The other side of the coin is when someone thinks you’re attacking them, when in fact you’re really attacking their argument. You can use this rule conversely in that case: you didn’t say “you are a” (or the equivalent).
On a Friday evening more than thirty years ago a group of ORU students gathered in Ben Williams’ dorm room for prayer. Such gatherings were not unusual on “Fellowship,” the name we gave to the orange wing of E.M. Roberts Hall’s 7th floor. Prayer gatherings were not unusual anywhere on the Oral Roberts University campus, for that matter — but what happened to me at this particular prayer session was indeed unusual.
I was born with Amblyopia, and had only blurry vision in my right eye. My parents took me to one of the best eye surgeons available, and I underwent surgery at age 3. I still remember the nurse putting the anesthetic mask over my mouth, and the bright lights and pungent odor of ethyl alcohol in the room right before they knocked me out. After the surgery, my right eye was kept shut until it healed. An old 8MM home movie shows my sister sitting beside me on the couch trying to wink like I could.
After my eye healed, I often had to wear a patch over the left eye to force me to use the right eye, and strengthen it. I hated that patch. It wasn’t a cool, black pirate patch with a rakish strap. No, it had all the charm of a big band-aid, with the same odor and stickiness. The feeling of it sticking to my face engendered a visceral loathing for sticky things that still bothers me.
My right eye did become strong enough to see clearly. But I still suffered from a strabismus, or misalignment, which prevented me from coordinating the pictures from both eyes into a three-dimensional composite. I quickly found that I could switch pictures at will, though, so I learned to compensate by rapidly switching the two pictures to eliminate illusions of flatness. However, I never used that technique to judge distance. Rather, I would observe the geometry of my two-dimensional image — for instance, how much floor was visible between me and the chair. That doesn’t work well for baseballs and other flying objects. My inability to catch and hit became a tiresome joke.
In the dorm room that night, Ben prayed for my eye, the other guys joining him. I opened my eyes, and I was looking out of both of them at the same time, but seeing one picture.
At first, I couldn’t believe it. “Uh, guys,” I said. “I can see out of both eyes!” They looked up at me, and they could see that my eyes were aligned. I could look into their eyes with both of mine, for the first time. Our prayer session ended with much thanksgiving, and generated quite a bit of excitement in our dorm and across the campus.
The next day when I awoke, I went to the mirror. My eyes were still aligned. I felt a sense of relief that it really was true.
Living with this new visual experience proved to be more difficult than I would have imagined. I was not used to a three-dimensional image, which was far more complex and imprecise (so it seemed to me) than a flat image. Reading was particularly hampered by the noise.
Months later, I began to notice that my eye would drift out of alignment again when I wasn’t thinking about it, and I would go back to seeing out of just one eye. But I could easily bring them back into alignment and stereoscopic vision if I thought about it. I didn’t tell my friends about this. They had been so edified by the event, that I didn’t want to bring them down at all by making it anything less than a complete healing. I realize now that I thereby did them (and me) a disservice.
I’ve found that I’m generally more comfortable seeing out of only one eye at a time. But I can still bring them together, with an effort. I do sometimes, just to remind myself what that’s like.
What actually happened to me on that night? I had never been able to coordinate my eyes before. We prayed about that, and then I could. Those are facts, as far as I’m concerned. But the causes are not so easily nailed down. It could be that my inability to align my eyes before was due simply to my strongly held belief that I couldn’t. Believing in a god who heals provided a “reasonable” (and highly emotional) basis for overcoming that mental hurdle. In the words of Jesus, “your faith has healed you.” That hypothesis aligns (excuse the pun) with my subsequent observations that visual coordination required an effort — an effort I didn’t even notice until the initial excitement wore off.
I’m not dogmatic, though. I’ve been through enough changes to know that how I view things today may seem ridiculously obsolete tomorrow. I don’t completely rule out the idea of a divine agent in this story, although in my current view of things that’s more of a choice of metaphor than a substantive difference.
At the time of this event, I called myself a Charismatic Christian. I believed that the Bible was the Word of God, and I studied it assiduously. I read up to thirty chapters a day in multiple translations. I majored in Biblical Literature, and studied Hebrew and Greek in order to be able to get at what the text “really” said. That’s how I found out several things. There is no “true” text. The Bible is highly fallible. Its writers didn’t think the way we do, and certainly not the way modern Christians do. The Bible is a human document that describes a human journey through an evolving mixture of religious beliefs. If there is truth behind it, it isn’t in the words themselves, despite the Hebrew penchant for confusing the two.
Thus, I now call myself a radical agnostic. Agnostic, to me, is different than Atheist in important ways. I’m not just a non-committal atheist. I don’t say “there is no god.” I think that question probably ends up being about definitions, which are after all metaphors (no matter how technically precise). Rather, I say, “I don’t know.” I prefix “radical” to that, because I don’t view this agnosis as a disability. Rather, I think it’s a key facility for remaining open to whatever knowledge and experience may come my way. It’s also a humble recognition that the three-pound meat computer in my head may not even be capable of the accurate representation of trivial things, let alone questions on the order of Life, the Universe, and Everything.
A new writer for [Geeks Are Sexy] who goes by JDO began a discussion about that one special geeky gift you remember from your childhood. When I was a kid back in the ’60s, we didn’t have all the cool gadgets that kids covet these days. A telescope, microscope, chemistry set, or walkie talkies were about as geeky as it got (all of which I received as gifts at one time or another). There was this one thing, though, that all my friends seemed to have when I was ten. It was so cool, and I really wanted one. But it was also quite expensive, and our family didn’t have much money. I didn’t dare ask for one, but I couldn’t help letting my desire for it be known.
My Dad always trained me to come when he called, without delay and without asking any questions. He drilled it into my head that if I hesitated and it turned out to be an emergency, someone could lose their life. The only legitimate response would be “Yes, sir!” uttered while complying. So one day when he said to me, “Come on, Son,” I followed him up the cinderblock steps from our house to our driveway at the top of the hill. He kept a large stack of lumber there, with which he had originally intended to fulfill my mother’s dream of a wrap-around deck for our house. But the deck never materialized. Instead, we stole pieces of this lumber for various projects over the years — a chicken coop here, rebuilding a staircase there — and I expected this day to begin with yet another such project.
As I reached the top of the stairs, I saw something in the driveway. Confusion and disbelief made it almost invisible — I had to blink twice to see it properly: a “Lil Indian” minibike, much like the one pictured at the bottom of this post. My face must have faithfully reproduced my shock and joy, because Dad laughed so hard that his cigarette fell out of his mouth.
I imagine that Dad got the bike for a good price. He knew everyone in our little town, and he knew how to call old favors to remembrance. But it meant a lot to me, much more than the bike itself, that Dad had gone to that trouble just to fulfill my wish.
Dad often supervised when my sister and I took turns riding the bike, especially at first. He’d take his turn, too. His 6’2″ lanky frame looked comical perched on the tiny bike, with his long legs sticking out on either side like a grasshopper. He’d reach underneath the seat and open the governor (a simple device on top of the engine that prevented the throttle from being opened past a certain point) so the little bike could exceed its usual top speed of about 40 MPH, and he taught us how to do the same. Dad seemed to enjoy this thwarting of authority. He despised all measures designed to protect people from their own behavior. Of course, we never wore a helmet or pads of any sort, and nobody got killed or even seriously maimed.
Our riding opportunities opened up when the Highway Department began building the US 29 bypass around the town of Gretna. The bypass began about a half mile before our house. They demolished the bridge and culvert over White Thorn Creek on the original highway just below our house, but they left about a quarter mile of pavement leading down to it intact for weeks before they began to lay the new grade. A couple of the neighbor kids would come over and we’d all take turns riding up and down that stretch.
The bridge demolition left so much debris that my sister and I could write things in it, and being pre-teens meant that we felt compelled to do so as impolitely as we dared. One day, I wrote something about my sister, then called her over to see. I planned to escape on the minibike as soon as her anger erupted. This seemed to work perfectly. She called out something offensive after me, and I looked over my shoulder to see her face while racing up the hill at full throttle. I hit a piece of debris in the old roadway and found myself under the bike. It wasn’t very heavy, but the muffler burned a nice patch on my thigh (I was wearing shorts), and a good chunk of meat was missing from my knee. I still have the scar on my knee, although it’s hard to make it out now forty years later. The Lil Indian sustained no damage.
After the Highway Department laid the grade and before they started paving, we could ride the minibike for miles on the grade all the way around Gretna and back. And after they built an access road for us, we could ride that for half a mile in each direction. I don’t remember in what manner we retired the Lil Indian from service. I only remember all the fun we had riding it, and that Dad enjoyed it as much as anyone.