Tuesday, December 19, 2006

Personal Responsibility? Not My Problem.

Programming is all about problem-solving, but so is most everything else in life, depending on how you look at it. I will always be grateful that I became a programmer, as it taught me to see almost every aspect of my life as a task, a set of requirements, and a set of problems to be solved. From my experience as a programmer, I have learned the science of problem-solving, and practice it at every opportunity.

Part of that process is the elimination of factors that do not contribute to the solution of a given problem or task. Anything which does not contribute to the solution of a problem is a waste of time and resources, both of which are finite. To spend time on a problem that is never solved is also a waste of time. Therefore, it is not logical to waste time and resources on thoughts or activites that do not contribute to the solution of a problem, as the very failure to solve the problem would become a waste of time and resources in and of itself.

In other words, take anything you desire, and consider the attainment of that thing a requirement. Consider the cost of solving the problem, and before you begin, make a determination whether you are able to solve it, and whether it is worth the time and resources necessary to solve it. If the answer is yes, commit yourself to the solution of the problem. Otherwise, you will be wasting time and resources that could well be spent on other requirements. Once that decision is reached, eliminate factors that impede the solution of the problem, and begin the task.

So, how does this all fit in with Personal Responsibility? Well, the process of analysis involves the factoring of resources and time with other "environmental factors." These are situations, circumstances, and events over which you have no control, and yet which affect the process. Notice that I mentioned this is part of the process of analysis, which is the preparation phase of any process, and not the execution phase. It is the phase in which all factors are taken into account, and a roadmap or plan for the execution of the tasks necessary to achieve the requirement(s).

Now, we usually think about the concept of Personal Responsibility as relating to ideas which have nothing to do with programming or problem-solving, such as the concepts of blame, fault, and success or failure. But that is simply not the case. In fact, the concepts of blame, fault, success, failure, and similar concepts are general enough to fit into the model of programming and the model of problem-solving (which are in fact the same model).

If we look at our daily struggle in life, our struggle to "succeed" in life, to overcome the various trials and tests we encounter, our ambition to succeed at whatever it is we want to do, as a series of problems to solve, we can apply problem-solving principles to these types of things with equally-useful results.

When we apply the process of analysis to our course of action in day-to-day life, certain common human traits and behaviors emerge as helpful, and as detrimental to that struggle. For example, we are all subject to the activity of looking backwards at our past life. In fact, this can be a useful aspect of analysis, in the same way that a military After-Action Review (AAR) is useful after a battle or other operation takes place. The purpose of this activity is to prepare for future similar activities by analyzing what went right, what went wrong, and why. It enables the individual or organization to review and/or modify plans.

It is important to note that an AAR is not a process of finger-pointing or blaming. It is purely analytical. The problem with finger-pointing and blaming is that it is not useful to the process of planning the next operation. In other words, finger-pointing, blaming, regret, and so on, are emotional reactions to something perceived. If, for example, I were creating a game which involved sprites moving on a surface, and the surface was black, and I had created some sprites that were black, a test of the game would reveal that the black sprites against a black background made them difficult to see. I could, on one hand, look at the sprites and make the observation "Those sprites are black. They are hard to see." If I were to stop there, I would have accomplished nothing. It would be more useful to make the observation that, because the sprites are hard to see, they should changed to a different color which would contrast against the background. At that point, I have formulated a plan to correct the problem, and any further time spent thinking about how black the sprites are currently would be of no profit whatsoever.

In life, we often waste mental and emotional resources by obsessing on things that are past. We hold grudges, and have poor opinions about people who have caused us suffering. However, this is not useful in determining what course of action we must take in order to succeed. It is more useful to think of people who have caused us pain in terms of how they may fit in with or affect our plan to succeed. Revenge, for example, is a useless endeavor. It embroils one in a task or set of tasks which satisfy no useful requirements. It may satisfy some emotional desire, but the question is, does the satisfaction of an emotional desire bring me closer to my life's goals? And so, looking at others with some sort of qualitative evaluation, and contemplating that quantitative evaluation is pointless. It wastes resources that could be used to achieve personal goals or requirements.

In this sense, blame, regret, and similar backwards-looking activities constitute an attention to environmental conditions over which we have no control. It is not possible to change the past. It is not possible to force another person to change their behavior. It is only possible to make decisions about what we as individuals will do in the present and future. Recognizing that is a part of Personal Responsibility. I have no control over anything except the decisions that I make now and in the future.

I may or may not be able to achieve my goals, yet I only have control over my own decisions. Therefore, my primary focus should always be on the decisions that I make now, and what decisions I will make in the future. When I conduct a personal AAR, I should be concerned only with what decisions I should make, how I might want to change my plan of action, based upon a review of what has happened, how I behaved in the situation, how enironmental factors affected the success or failure of that plan, and how I should modify the plan for the future, accordingly.

Similarly, this concept applies to our dependence upon other people or groups of people for our personal welfare. Humanity as a whole is a society. We are a vast network of individual human beings who have a variety of unique combinations of characteristics, properties, and personalities. We interact with the Human Race by interacting with those in each of our personal "subnets" of friends, associates, and acquaintances. We exchange resources and support one another to one degree or another. And to a varying extent, each of us is dependent upon various individuals and groups for support in the achievement of our individual requirements. There are precious few isolated individuals in the world who are not at all dependent upon one or more other human beings or groups of human beings.

Some of us seem to be more dependent for certain requirements than others, and this may in fact be the case. This is why there are entities such as charitable organizations and governmental organizations that attempt to meet these special needs. However, it is a mistake to think that any of us is entirely independent.

On the other hand, it is a serious mistake for any of us, regardless of our condition, regardless of our dependence upon others, to make the leap of assumption that we cannot achieve our goals/requirements without them. Note that I am not saying that we all can achieve our goals/requirements without the aid of others. I am saying that to assume we cannot is a mistake. In fact, a good plan of execution includes the factoring in of contingencies, changes in the environmental conditions in which we exist, which may require a change in the decisions that we make.

We have seat belts and airbags in our cars. This is not because we expect at some point to be involved in an accident. These things are built into cars because of the possibility that an accident may occur. When and if an accident occurs, we have a recourse, which enables us to avoid serious injury.

Similarly, in the process of development of plans in life, it is useful to plan for contingencies, situations in which certain resources upon which we seem to depend may change or cease to exist. It is wise to plan for the eventuality that such things will happen, because they often do, to each of us, in different ways at different times.

When I was in my late 30's I was very poor. At one time I had no job, no car, no money, and no place to live. But for a number of years I had been working on a plan to change my circumstances. I had discovered that I have an above-average ability to solve problems, that I had a proclivity to analysis, and realized that I was very good with logic and enjoyed solving puzzles of various kinds. I also realized that I was both fascinated with and good at figuring out how to use computers. So, in my spare time, after work in the evenings, and on weekends, I had been teaching myself programming.

By the time I had reached the bottom-most point of my neediness, I had also acquired a skill. I had an opportunity to pursue this new line of work, and took the opportunity. Before a year had gone by, I had started my own consulting business. A dozen years later, I lack for nothing.

In other words, I took Personal Responsibility for my situation. It was not a matter of blame, of making critical observations about myself, the government, my friends, or anyone at all. It turned out to be a matter of analyzing my own strengths and weaknesses, the environmental conditions of my life, and formulating a plan to achieve something better. After that, it was a simple matter of doing those things that I could do under the circumstances.

Note that I am not taking credit for this achievement. I am simply pointing out that I made the decisions that I was able to make, took the actions that I was able to take, and took responsibility for those decisions and actions. Logically, that was the only choice I could make which would have any effect on the outcome. In other words, to have wasted my time and resources considering anything else would have been counter-productive, and diminished the probability of the desired outcome.

To take Personal Responsibility is not a guarantee of success. Nothing in life is guaranteed. However, in the spectrum of probability, the best course of action to take is one which increases the probability of success. And because the only things that each of us has any control over are the decisions we make, and the actions we take, Personal Responsibility is logically useful. To dwell on anything over which we have no control is logically useless.

Monday, December 04, 2006

the beautiful hat or the ugly hat

There is a certain pâté de fois gras to the following somewhat ambiguous tale. In the original language, for example, it is often deliciously unclear who (or what) the subject of a given sentence is, to the point where the king might reasonably be confused (by the reader?) for his hat. These subtleties fall through the cracks, alas! in the descent to English, the hoodlum progeny of ancient Germanic ancestors. There is a certain Bratwurst, if it were, as it were, were it not, notwithstanding; the inescapable, though unintentional new emphases are nonetheless engaging. At least, in the brainmatting of this wistful nannyhammer. If nothing else, possibly a rejoinder to render unto Caesar and in the very least, humbly, a German koan. For your perusal. Ever humbly yours, Der Wiederschlaussen.


the beautiful hat or the ugly hat

by Friedrich Achleitner (translated by David Stiller)


1
the king is at the narrow door of his darkened house. he takes the yellow key out of the aristocratic pouch. that is the one. and that is an aristocratic pouch. he has the yellow key in hand. he will put the yellow key in the imprecise keyhole. he puts the yellow key in the imprecise keyhole. now the yellow key is in the imprecise keyhole. and soon the king will give the narrow door a push. soon the narrow door will be open. now he gives the narrow door a push. now it is open. now the king can peacefully put the yellow key back into the aristocratic pouch. the king puts the yellow key peacefully back into the aristocratic pouch. the king put the yellow key peacefully back into the aristocratic pouch. now the king steps into his darkened house. he stepped into his darkened house and the narrow door is once again locked.

2
soon the king will enter a cold room. the cold room has a narrow door. that is the cold room. the king entered the cold room. he steps to the excellent table. he will lay his beautiful hat on the excellent table. is his hat now on the excellent table. where is the queen. she is in another room. who is that. yes, that is the queen. her name is ann. this cold room has two narrow doors. that is one of the narrow doors of the cold room. that is the other narrow door of the cold room. and that is an important window of the cold room. and that is another important window. one window is open. the other is more important. the queen is not in the cold room.

3
the king came into the cold room. the king put his beautiful hat on the excellent table. people say this hat is ugly. an ugly hat. the ugly hat is unworthy of a king. o, this ugly hat of the king. the king went through this narrow door. he left the cold room. the queen comes into the cold room. she will see the ugly hat. she will go to the excellent table. she goes to the excellent table. she sees the ugly hat. what is that. the king’s ugly hat. when did she see it. she saw it while standing at the excellent table. she will take the ugly hat from the excellent table. she takes the ugly hat from the excellent table. she has the ugly hat in hand. she leaves the cold room. with the ugly hat, she left the cold room. she had the king’s ugly hat in hand.

4
those are green hooks. an ugly hat is on a green hook. it is the queen’s ugly hat. she puts the king’s ugly hat on another green hook. now the king’s ugly hat is also on a green hook. the king comes again into the cold room. he goes again to the excellent table. his ugly hat is no longer on the excellent table. he says. where is my beautiful hat. i put it on the excellent table. i put it right there. where is my beautiful hat. i do not have it. it is not here. where is it. queen, where is my beautiful hat. the queen will come into the cold room. she comes.

5
she says. here i am. the king says. where is my beautiful hat. she says. it was on the excellent table. i put it on the green hook in the other room. i put it right there. it is there. it is on the green hook. the king says. i will go into the other room. i will take my beautiful hat. he takes his ugly hat. did he take his ugly hat. he took it. he has it in hand. he left the cold room. as he saw the ugly hat, he took it from the green hook. he came again into the cold room. he had the ugly hat in hand. he gives the ugly hat to the queen.

6
he says. queen. he says. what is in my beautiful hat. the queen will take the ugly hat in hand. what is she taking out of the ugly hat. what does she have in her hand. money. she has money in her hand. it was in the ugly hat. which was on the excellent table. what did she see. she saw the ugly hat. but she did not see the money. she took the ugly hat. she put it on the green hook in the other room. the king then went into the other room and took his ugly hat from the green hook. who took it. the king took it. does the queen see the money now. yes, now she sees it. she says. king. how did this money come to be in the ugly hat.

7
i was walking on the street. the wind came and took my beautiful hat off my head. i went after that beautiful hat. as i took it in hand, i saw the money. the money was under that beautiful hat. as the wind came, it took my beautiful hat off my head. then it came down again. and the money was there. the beautiful hat was on the money. the money was under the beautiful hat.

Thursday, November 30, 2006

Time And A Word

The other day I was watching the movie "Equlibrium," which starred Christian Bale, and it wasn't bad at all. A bit like "The Matrix" in style, with a smaller budget, and a few cliches, but thought-provoking in different ways, and nicely done. Of course, Christian Bale was the best part of the film.

Anyway, it took me awhile to realize that several terms in the film were Biblical in nature. Bale's character worked for "The Tetragrammaton," which was overseen by a man called simply "Father." Suddenly at one point, I remembered where I had heard that term before ("Tetragrammaton"). Yes, I know, if I were younger it would have jumped out at me, but that's life.

In the Wikipedia discussion of the etymology of the Tetragrammaton, I noticed something I had not noticed before, which was the causality implicit in it, which has been some matter of debate. You may read the discussion fully, if you wish, but I do recall among the translations in English, the famous "I am that I am," which also seems to imply causality. This led me to further research on other names of God, such as Elohim (the paradoxically both singular and plural name), El, et al. ;-)

Anyway, I did some new research on the term, and came across this article and some very interesting links in Wikipedia. When, the other day, I was prompted at some point to revisit the term "logos," I couldn't help but see the connection in the original Ancient Greek meaning of the word:

"Logos in Greek means the underlying order of reality of which ordinary people are only unconsciously aware....Heraclitus also used Logos to mean the undifferentiated material substrate from which all things came:"

Note the implicit causality in this meaning of the word. This, combined with my other studies of theoretical physics, mathematics, etc., sparked me to remember such phrases from Jesus as "Behold, I make all things new." If time is but a dimension, and God transcends time, then He is both making, has made, and will make (to our understanding) all things "new" (or all at once). In a sense, it seems that the act of Creation is not something that happened long, long ago, in a galaxy far, far away, but has always been happening in the "here and now."

And of course, this also reminds me of one of my favorite tunes, "Right Here Right Now" by Jesus Jones:


A woman on the radio talked about revolution
When its already passed her by
Bob Dylan didnt have this to sing about you
You know it feels good to be alive

I was alive and I waited, waited
I was alive and I waited for this
Right here, right now
There is no other place I want to be
Right here, right now
Watching the world wake up from history

I saw the decade in, when it seemed
The world could change at the blink of an eye
And if anything
Then there's your sign... of the times

I was alive and I waited, waited
I was alive and I waited for this
Right here, right now

I was alive and I waited, waited
I was alive and I waited for this
Right here, right now
There is no other place I want to be

Right here, right now
Watching the world wake up from history
Right here, right now
There is no other place I want to be
Right here, right now
Watching the world wake up from history

Saturday, November 25, 2006

More Songs About Elephants and Food

The other day, having my own peculiar interest in elephants, while researching the subject, I stumbled across an interesting page of elephant jokes. Among these were the following:

How do you get three elephants into a taxi?
One in the front, next to the driver, and two in the back.

How do you know there's an elephant in your house?
There's a taxi outside with two impatient elephants.

How do you know if there's an elephant in your refrigerator?
There's a taxi outside it with two impatient elephants.

These excellent elephant jokes were reminiscent of one I had heard and remembered from my youth:

How do you fit six elephants in a Volkswagen?
Three in the front, and three in the back.

Upon reflection, I realized that there is a lesson buried in this seemingly illogical humor, a lesson in problem-solving. Problems often seem, at first blush, impossible to solve. Elephants are very, very large animals. At the time I had heard the joke initially, about 40 years ago, Volkswagens came in two distinct and distinctive types: The original Beetle, and the Bus. Neither of these was large enough to accomodate a single elephant. The Beetle had a time holding more than two people due to the smallness of the back seat area.

Of course, it wouldn't be an elephant joke if it made sense. An elephant joke, like a David Lynch film, doesn't seem to make any sense initially. However, to quote from one of my favorite films by David Lynch, "Lost Highway," "There's no such thing as a bad coincidence." Elephant jokes have an internal set of rules, unlike almost any other joke form. They do not follow the rules of ordinary jokes, but there is an internal logic, and a logical consistency in their illogic.

Okay, where am I going with this? Oh yes, something about problem-solving, and putting six elephants into a Volkswagen. Is it impossible to fit six elephants into a Volkswagen? No, not at all.

Do I see your eyebrows raising? Is this some kind of trick? No, it is not. If we apply the logic of analysis to the problem, we see that the first step is to accurately define the problem. The human brain is a remarkable device, capable of feats of perception and calculation that dwarf the capabilities of the most powerful of computers we have yet to create, and possessing intelligence that artifical intelligence can only mimic in clumsy and minscule ways. In fact, it is so vast and complex that it is somewhat unreliable. We have the capacity (by necessity) of being able to perceive only a portion of something, and construct an intelligent model of the whole, with more or less accuracy, depending on the circumstances.

In fact, it is not the thing itself that we perceive, but the model that we create in our brain. For example, driving down a "Lost Highway" late at night, we may see a small pair of bright lights at a distance, which move only a little, and yet relative to one another, they seem to remain in the same configuration. As we observe the shape and configuration of these lights, and their subtle left, right, up, and down movement, we begin to buid a model of a vehicle in our brains. Depending upon the visiblity and distance, combined with our experience in driving, and our knowledge of automobiles and similar human vehicle constructions, we may begin to fill in some of the details. We "see" a car, estimate its' size, speed and distance, perhaps even something about its' make and model.

As the lights begin to grow in size, we presume that the vehicle is approaching us. We estimate the time it will take before we will be in close proximity to the vehicle, and develop a navigation plan that takes the vehicle, its size, distance, and so on, and includes instructions for avoiding a collision.

The crux of the problem here is, when we get close enough, we realize that we have not been looking at the headlights of a vehicle at all, but a pair of reflectors on the rail along the side of the road. In fact, our model was flawed. Of course, we immediately revise the model and continue with the plan, taking into account the new parameters of the model.

The point I'm making is that, when analyzing a problem, we are presented with limited information, no matter how well the problem is explained to us. Because of the nature of the way we think, we are prone to make assumptions about the missing information. In the case of the elephant joke we are discussing, we envision in our minds a Vokswagen Beetle (old or new, depending on our life experience), and taking into account the context of the "problem" (an elephant joke), we also model six full-grown elephants, crammed into a tiny car.

The image/model we have created is undeniably humorous; it is ludicrous. And, with the proper sense of humor operating, most of us laugh at the silliness of the idea. Of course, some of us lack an appreciation for that sort of humor, and may grimace, look crestfallen, or respond in some other less-than-positive manner. But that is the exception, not the general rule.

However, looking at the joke as a problem to solve, while it may seem at first glance to be a ridiculous impossibility, that is only because of the assumptions we have made, due to the intent of the joke. Good analysis tends to minimize assumptions, a skill which is not easily acquired, because we are trained from birth to make assumptions, and for good reason. Our perception is, after all, limited. Our ability to make assumptions, to build working models that provide intelligent guesses about missing data, constitutes an important aspect of our ability to survive and prosper in life.

In fact, breaking down the "problem" into its' actual consituent components, with nothing added, no assumptions made, we are left with the following:

  • The goal is to fit six elephants into a Volkswagen.
  • There is nothing specific regarding the elephants in the requirement.
  • There is nothing specific about the Volkswagen in the requirement.
  • There is no specification that the vehicle may not be altered.
  • There is no time limit regarding the achievement of the goal.

Obviously, fitting six fully-grown average elephants into a Volkswagen Beetle is an impossibility. However, elephants, when they are born, are only 2 1/2 - 3 feet tall, and weigh in the neighborhood of 250 pounds. One could easily imagine fitting three of them into a Volkswagen Beetle.

However, the type of Volkswagen is not specified. One could almost certainly fit six infant elephants into a Volkswagen bus. I would not be surprised if, in fact, this has never been done.

But let's imagine that a Volkswagen bus is just a little too small for six infant elephants. Today, there are even larger Volkswagen vehicles made. And a Volkswagen bus could certainly be modified to accomodate six infant elephants.

In conclusion, while I have certainly spoiled the original joke, I hope that I have demonstrated some important skills necessary to successful problem-solving. First, don't walk away from a problem simply because it gives a first impression of being impossible to solve. Second, make as few assumptions as possible. Third, use your imagination to conceive of unusual solutions to the problem. Don't limit your thought, but take advantage of your ability to constuct imaginary models of a huge variety of types to choose from. There is no such thing as a bad idea. There are only ideas which are superior to other ideas. Even a seemingly ridiculous idea may spark thought that leads to a reasonable or achievable one.

Finally, be persistent. Persistence is a virtue that, along with patience, is often responsible for solving many apparently impossible problems. In fact, patience is possibly more important than persistence. Some, perhaps even most problems eventually solve themselves. And sometimes, perhaps most often, the best action to take in solving a problem is to do nothing, at least as a first step.

There's something about nothing...

Wednesday, November 15, 2006

Saline

Among swollen mirages and the further diffraction of exhaust fumes, hovering glints of windshield and fender shimmer like the chain mail sleeve of a drowned shark hunter, boiled in a thermal current. Sodden palm up, the lifeless arm hangs for miles, terminating in flashing orange barrels, stolid pylon digits that allow but a thin flux between thumb and forefinger. One vehicle at a time idles haltingly around the diesel generator, its clicking billboard (“left lane closed,” “merge right”), and the single roadside worker who boisterously pours asphalt. Beneath his filter mask, the curve of the worker’s cheeks increases. (Mischief!) And then—

A stocky police car boxes along the shoulder and totters at the elbow. When it rolls at last to a stop, opposite the direction of traffic, the driver’s door opens. A moment passes before the officer steps out, straightens his trousers, hat, and tie, admires his gig line, and says hello. The roadside worker holds still. Slowly, perhaps uncertainly, the officer turns back to his car, gropes one hand to the door and braces the other on the roof, then thrusts his head inside. The worker lowers his eyes to the steaming asphalt and feels his bowels lunge. Sucked by an internal undertow, he clenches his rectum and swallows. He rakes the burning grit.

After all, the worker is not employed by the city. He is conducting an amateur social experiment, which is how he presumes to explain it in the event of discovery. “It was inspired, your Honor, by the soda machine at work. It has been so hot lately … yet somebody taped a note to the buttons: out of order, as a joke. I won’t tell who. It was hand written, on notebook paper! And nobody bought a drink.” The worker has set aside five paychecks to rent the necessary industrial equipment. The fishnet orange vest—that, he already owned. There is not actually a pot hole. He desires only to see how far this will go.

The police officer reaches beneath his seat and pops the trunk. He moves to the rear, leans into the gaping cavity. His curse is audible in spite of the sporadic moan of traffic in low gear. After a full minute he gently closes the trunk and chuckles nervously to the worker, “I seem to have misplaced my baton. My … ah, traffic directing tool.” Each man looks the other in the eye.

Imagine this scene on film, the photographer having stepped back to encompass a vista of jellyfish clouds, tentacles drawing forth pollution, the sunken arm that flourishes though dead, the glitter of wetsuits—and in the foreground, framed low and a trifle off-center, two men in uniform (one soiled, the other spotless) whose faces reveal astonishment. But most epiphanies go unrecorded, and indeed, the keen flash that passes between these two men is a private affair. Without another word, through the saline solution of everyday living, each has recognized the other as a fraud. They revel in the bizarre coincidence, for it is a shared façade.

Pouring asphalt, the worker grins. The officer, donning a serious expression, directs traffic with his bare hands.

Epilogue: Near the end of the queue, the author of “Saline,” inconvenienced by traffic, has plenty of time to think. He has approached this story from more than one angle and considered pursuing alternative emphases. A minor change (if not irrelevant) introduces the officer’s character first. Another, perhaps stronger, follows the same plot but establishes both men as genuine representatives of their respective vocations, who nonetheless recognize each other as frauds.

Tuesday, November 14, 2006

Politics - Sound and Fury

The Game of Life

Life is not a game. But Life is like a game. That is, Life can be modelled as a game, depending upon the criteria for the model. For example, the word "game" is defined variously as "An amusement or pastime," "a competitive activity involving skill, chance, or endurance on the part of two or more persons who play according to a set of rules, usually for their own amusement or for that of spectators," and "anything resembling a game, as in requiring skill, endurance, or adherence to rules," as well as other nuances and variations of the idea. Perhaps a bit of etymology would be helpful. The word's English origins are apparently from the pre-Germanic prefix "ga" - meaning "collective," and "mann" - meaning "person." It implies a collective human activity, and has multiple derivations in modern English. However, it is in the sense of a "contest played according to rules" that I am interested in, for the purpose of this discussion.

It is in this sense that I want to model Life as being like a game. In fact, as a fan of role-playing games, I see that Life is much like a role-playing game, in which each of us has a role, or identity, and a quest, or a set of quests, goals, a set of requirements, if you will, that we endeavor to fulfill. Among the most common of these are simple survival, enjoyment, peace of mind, the acquisition of wealth (perhaps in the pursuit of other requirements, as wealth is more a means to a variety of ends, rather than the ends in themselves), acceptance by other human beings, sexual fulfillment, and a variety of less-common (but certainly common) goals/requirements, such as power, knowledge, physical strength, admiration, the acquisition of material goods, and so on.

At any rate, most of the goals/requirements that we seek are most likely sought in pursuit of the more basic and common goals/requirements that we all share. Indeed, some of the more unusual goals that are pursued by individuals most likely in some way originate from the most basic and common of goals that we all share. That is, at some point, we are almost (if not entirely) all diverted or distracted from the pursuit of the most basic of requirements by a subjective impression that some less common goal is a means to a more common goal, and the more common goal is eventually forgotten in the process. But that is the subject of another discussion.

Getting back to the Game of Life, we are left with, at the purest level, a set of goals/requirements which we seek to fulfill, an environment in which we "play," which forms the "rules" of the "game," a combination of unique gifts, abilities, talents, resources, and handicaps, and our own ability to make decisions, to strategize, etc., in pursuit of these goals. At times, the game seems competitive, and at others, it seems cooperative. At all times, it is a matter of making decisions in pursuit of some set of goals or requirments.

So, looking at Life as a game, society forms an environment with rules that we must navigate in order to succeed, whatever each person's individual idea of success may be. While many of these rules are not hard and fast, such as the influence of peer pressure, local customs, etc., there are rules that are determined by those whom we collectively place into positions of Authority, such as Kings, Presidents, members of Congress, Houses of Parliament, City Councils, Police, and so on. These Authorities operate under a set of rules that are generally referred to as "laws," and these rules are enforced by various sorts of threats to freedom, life, liberty, etc., such as fines, imprisonment, censure, exile, pain, and death.

To succeed in the game, one must successfully navigate the environment, exploit the rules to one's own advantage, and employ a strategy of action determined to obtain that which one desires. This is no small task, for human beings are exceedingly complex, which makes the environment complex, and the rules complex.

However, the best strategy in any game is to be aware of the environmental conditions, to be aware of the rules, to keep one's attention on the goal(s), to formulate a plan that prioritizes the various goals, recognizes the dependencies of goals upon the achievement of other goals in an organized manner, employs the situational influences, environment, rules, etc., to work the plan, and to be able to modify the plan accordingly, as the situation changes.

In other words, playing the Game of Life is a lot like the process of writing software. Writing software is originated by a set of requirements. As the developer studies the requirements, the developer must also be aware of the situational/environmental conditions under which these requirements must be met. The process of analysis involves identifying resources, such as time, manpower, money, etc., limitations of these resources, breaking the set of requirements down into manageable "chunks" or sub-tasks, identifying the conditions under which each task must be met, and prioritizing the tasks according to their dependencies one upon another.

Because of this, most programmers that I know of both enjoy and are adept at game-play, problem-solving, puzzles, mathematics, etc.

Now, every programmer is aware of, and dreads, those changes in the conditions and/or requirements that arise during the development process. These changes can have catastrophic effects upon the plans and procedures implemented, and certainly impede progress. Yet, they are painfully constant. As a result, every good programmer is adept at adjusting plans, planning for changes, and what we often term "workarounds," procedures developed ad hoc to surmount an unexpected and blocking change.

So, how does all this relate to Politics, and why the reference to that immemorable verse from William Shakespeare, from his play "MacBeth," here quoted more or less in full:

"Life is but a walking shadow, a poor player who struts and frets his hour upon the stage and then is heard no more. It is a tale told by an idiot Full of sound and fury, signifying nothing."

This quote is very much like many of the verses of King Solomon's book Ecclesiastes:

"All things are full of labor; man cannot utter it: the eye is not satisfied with seeing, nor the ear filled with hearing. The thing that hath been, it is that which shall be; and that which is done is that which shall be done: and there is no new thing under the sun."

Politicians are people who, for one reason or another, set out to change the rules of the game of Life, to enact new laws, occasionally to even repeal existing laws. They haggle over the equity of laws, the oppression of the poor, however "the poor" may be defined (since everything is relative), the need to punish "oppressors," whoever they may be identified as, and - oh yes, one of my favorite political phrases - "to level the playing field."

Yes, even Politicians seem to understand the Life is a game. They strategize amongst themselves, hold their caucuses and their huddles, and of course, in their own self-interest, make every effort to appear to be changing the world for the better. But what is the end of all this brou-ha-ha? Sound and Fury, signifying nothing.

The Game of Life continues; only the rules and conditions change. The goals of each individual quest change rarely. But ultimately, no one else is responsible for our lot in Life. No Politician has ever solved anyone's individual problems, made anyone but him/her self a success, and in fact, is merely another player in the game, seeking his/her own goals/requirements.

We seem to enjoy playing "The Blame Game." Oh, if it were not for this or that condition of Life, if only so-and-so would behave in such-and-such a manner, if only the Government would take over (fill in your favorite political cause here), or get out of (fill in your favorite political cause here) Life would be so much better."

Let me tell you something. If you're lost in the woods, your goal is to find your way out. Discussing the complex web of conditions and decisions that led you to the middle of nowhere is not part of solving the problem of being in the middle of nowhere. And changing the rules of a game is not going to make you any more likely to win at it. After all, when the rules of the game are changed, they are changed for everybody. Not only that, but changing one rule or condition has repercussions, unintended consequences, that affect many other conditions, and even rules that previously existed.

Ultimately, changing the rules of the game simply makes the game more difficult to play. One must be in a constant state of re-adaptation, constantly be revising one's game plan, changing the course.

So, am I saying that the solution to this problem is to have fewer politicians, or to somehow prevent any further changes to the rules and conditions of the Game of Life? God Forbid. First, that is a pipe dream; it can never happen. Second, it is an idea which falls into the very same trap of attempting to change the rules and conditions of Life in order to succeed.

Ultimately, success comes from discarding those thoughts and ideas that drain one's available mental, physical, and emotional resources, and to concentrate on the goal, as one did from the beginning, to adapt to changes in conditions, and to constantly be re-formulating the strategy for attaining one's goals.

The past cannot be changed. The future is in the process of creation. We are faced moment by moment with opportunities to make small decisions that can affect the outcome of our own personal Game. It is wise to ignore politicians and politics, or at least to look upon them as mostly entertainment. Yes, we often have political responsibilities to exercise, such as voting, and these small opportunities, like so many of the choices we make, have an impact on our individual outcome.

I cannot change your life, or make you successful. Neither can you change mine. We are responsible for those decisions that we as individuals make, and we experience the consequences of those decisions as individuals. This does not mean that we do not have responsibilities toward one another; we most certainly do. But, since I cannot make the decisions of others, and since I am responsible for my own success or failure, as is everyone else, my responsiblity to another does not imply any responsibility on my part for ensuring that the responsibilities of others are exercised with wisdom. We each have control over the decisions that we alone, as individuals, make.

By keeping this idea in mind, our mental, physical, and emotional resources may be freed up for more useful purposes, those things which we can do, in pursuit of our own goals, whatever they may be.

Friday, November 10, 2006

Help Me Somebody!

There's no escape from Him.
He's so high you can't get over Him.
He's so low you can't get under Him.
He's so wide you can't get around Him.
If you make your bed in Heaven He's there -
If you make your bed in Hell He's there -
He's everywhere!
Help me somebody!
- From "My Life In the Bush Of Ghosts" - Brian Eno and David Byrne
Beware of The God

Thursday, November 09, 2006

Who Is Mighty Abbott? A Twin-Turrent Scallawag

Ambiguity has a certain quality to it.

It isn't often that one has an opportunity to introduce a new literary form to the linguistic community, as it often seems that everything must have already been done. In fact, I can't even be certain that this is in fact, what I am about to do. If anyone knows of this literary form by some other name, please let me know. If not, I'd like to introduce you to the Phonemagram.

I'm sure that many of you are familiar with the Anagram, and the Palindrome. An anagram is a word, phrase, sentence, etc. formed by rearranging the letters of another word, phrase, or sentence. The word "evil" is an anagram for the word "live." A palindrome is a somewhat similar device in which a word, phrase, or sentence, when the letters are reversed, results in the same word, phrase, sentence, clause, etc. For example, one famous palindrome reads "A man, a plan, a canal, panama." I'm not sure of what value these sorts of literary devices are, but they can be fun.

The Phonemagram is a distant bastard cousin of the Anagram. In an anagram, the letters of a word, phrase, sentence, etc., are rearranged to form a different word, phrase, yada yada yada. In a Phonemagram, it is the phonemes of the structure that are rearranged. Like the anagram, the rules for a phonemagram are that all phonemes must be used.

Now, I've linked to the definition of phoneme for those of you who want to puzzle over its exact meaning, but in a nutshell, phonemes are the bits of sound that result from breaking a word apart into its constituent sounds. This is quite a bit different from the letters that make up a word. The same letter can sound completely different in the context of a word. But a phoneme will always sound the same.

The title of this post is a phonemagram for the sub-title. The sub-title of this post is "Ambiguity has a certain quality to it." By rearranging the phonemes, one can derive any number of more or less sensible phrases, such as "Who is Mighty Abbot? A twin-turret scalawag." Or, perhaps, "A brute awe as you, a metallic hag entity, eat us."

Which brings me to the next logical extension of the Phonemagram, which is the Phonemagraph. A Phonemagraph is a poetry form. The rules of it are (relatively) simple: The title of the poem is the basis for the poem. The poem has the same number of lines as the number of phonemes in the title, and each line of the poem is a Phonemagram of the title.

To date, I have only successfully written one such poem, with the help of my nephew, Jon Blalock, entitled "Giftless Christmas."

Giftless Christmas
by Uncle Chutney and Jon Blalock
Miss Rugs felt sick-
Girl stuff, sick mess.
Cuss lifts grimace-
Firm guts still sulk.
Smug self - Risk it!
Muster slick fig!
"Some fiscal grits -
Phyllis gets crumbs!"
Some Elf kiss grits,
Mugs if skirtless.
Sick, Meg flusters -
"Glyphs suck, Mister!"
Guilt miffs sucker,
Must fix gristle......

I would enjoy hearing of any other successful attempts at this admittedly, most difficult "art" form. I might even publish them, so that your work could be read by the tens of people who read this blog!

Remember that the rules are, but are only slightly subjective, as pronunciation may vary slightly from one dialect to another, and of course, it is poetry. But remember also that reckless drivers may lose their poetic license!

Saturday, November 04, 2006

Popular Quantum Mechanics

As I was going to Saint Ives, I met a man with the Mental Health Services Department. How many wives he had, I'll never know. But he was not wearing any pajamas. He did, however, upon hearing about my interest in all things scientific, recommend a movie to me: "What the Bleep Do We Know?" I liked the fellow, so I rented it...

I must mention to begin with, that I am a cinephile. Yes, I do obscene things to films. Mostly, I like to watch. In any case, of all the thousands of films I have watched, there were only 2 that I can remember walking out on after paying to see them. One was "National Lampoon's Christmas Vacation." The other was "What the Bleep Do We Know?". I don't remember exactly when I watched the first 15 minutes of "National Lampoon's Christmas Vacation," but it was when it was first released, and I was in a movie theater. Thankfully, I had only rented "What the Bleep Do We Know?," so I saved myself a few extra bucks.

The fact that the film was recommended to me by a man with the Mental Health Services Department tends to prove Einstein's statement regarding infinites: "Only two things are infinite, the universe and human stupidity, and I'm not sure about the former." I'm not sure where they got their so-called "scientists," but one of them was apparently Ramtha (J.Z.Knight).

The film was ostensibly an AOL-User-Level explanation of Quantum Physics. However, I never did hear anything about Quantum Physics, during the 30 minutes of the film that I did watch. I did hear a lot of references to Quantum Physics, but no actual science. Instead, I heard a lot of hair-brained presumptuous conclusions that were drawn from the lack of understanding that Science still has regarding Quantum Physics. The study of Quantum Physics is at this point still at the stage of Ten Blind Men examining an elephant. If The Man With a Wooden Leg Named Smith, or Richard Feynman were (still) around, one or both of them would straighten all of those so-called scientists out. The fact that one can make predictions about behaviors of something with a certain uncertainty does not indicate that one understands what one is observing. Any gambler can tell you the odds of rolling snake-eyes. Nobody can (yet) tell you why those odds are what they are. And anyone that pretends to tell you is a fool, or a con artist.

Science, like Religion, is a search for Truth, the ultimate nature of reality. It is a search for the underlying Principles that govern existence. And coincidentally, there are as many charlatans involved in the field of Science as there are in the field of Religion. These people are opportunists, taking advantage of the principle What You Seek Is What You Get, and luring the weak-minded into their orbit, in their own search for self-aggrandizement. And like everyone else, What They Seek Is What They Get. They do not get the Truth; they get a cult of worshipful followers.

What I mean is this: Everybody wants to know the ultimate nature of reality. However, most people are lazy. They are not willing to discipline themselves and accept the Truth regardless of how much it hurts. Therefore, they settle for less, because their desire to not work and discipline themselves is greater than their desire for the Truth. One of the hardest Truths to admit is simply "I do not know." Therefore, in both Science and Religion, there are those who are willing to supply a ready explanation for almost anything. From pseudo-Quantum-Physics to the Doctrine of Transubstantiation, explanations abound for things which are not yet explained, or those Truths that are the hardest to swallow.

I am going to go just a little deeper now, and discuss some of the particular ideas expressed in the film. Some of these ideas are quite popular, and even taken for granite (pun intended), but erroneous just the same. One of these was the idea that on a sub-atomic level, atoms are composed of extremely small particles in a relatively extremely large vacuum. Now, I suppose that depends on what one means by "particles," and what one means by "a vacuum."

The word vacuum is defined as "a space entirely devoid of matter." But what exactly is "matter?" The word matter is defined as "the substance or substances of which any physical object consists or is composed." But what is "substance?" The word substance is defined as "that of which a thing consists; physical matter or material." And so, like the science of Physics itself, we discover that even language is relative, because we have now come full circle, from defining the word "vacuum" as being relative to the absence of "matter," and "matter" as "substance," and finally "substance" as "matter." In the end, we have defined a way to talk about things of which we know absolutely nothing. We have a perfectly circular reference.

So, how about the word "particle?" The word particle is defined as "a minute portion, piece, fragment, or amount; a tiny or very small bit." Of course, this definition begs the question "a piece of what?" Why, matter, of course! In fact, the science of Physics is not so much about the ultimate nature of things, but about how to measure them. And measurement is always relative, as Einstein so eloquently pointed out.

So, where am I going with this? Well, first of all, doesn't it seem a bit ridiculous that the universe is composed almost entirely of nothing? Why, if it was composed of all of these separated particles with vast expanses of absolutely nothing surrounding them, how on earth would they have any influence upon one another? It shocks the senses to think of it. It sounds like magic. These "particles" would have to be entirely telepathic with regards to one another.

Don't get me wrong; there are good reasons for thinking in terms of "particles" and "vacuums" and these circular definitions of things like "matter." In fact, we owe a lot to the sciences, and the various disciplines of Physics in particular. We are able to interact with the universe more successfully and accurately as a result. That is, we are able to obtain those things we seek with greater success.The mathematics which describe Physics are accurate as far as they are able to go, and that indicates a degree of accuracy in the science itself.

However, it seems to me that we should constantly be aware that these words, and our thoughts themselves are not the things about which we think. They are simply conveniences, constructs which we use to communicate in our minds and with one another about these things. Which brings me to my second point, the discussion in the film of "uncertainty."

From the film, it would appear that all is uncertain, that uncertaintly opens up a realm of possibilities regarding life itself, consciousness, perception, and our ability to "create our reality." These sorts of ideas are pure rubbish. Heisenberg's Uncertainty principle is astounding in and of itself, with plenty of far-reaching implications, without having to encroach on the "macro world" in which we live. In fact, it purely relates to the sub-atomic level of things, and to the concept of measurement in particular. Now, before I continue, I want to make it clear that this does not imply that the sub-atomic level of things is irrelevant in the "macro world" - only that it is a specific realm, and that the conditions within that sub-atomic realm are necessarily different than the conditions in the "macro realm" of existence. Certainly, sub-atomic conditions have an influence, but that influence is not necessarily of the magnitude that is often implied.

In a nutshell, Heisenberg's Uncertainty Principle states that there is an inverse relationship in the accuracy of the measurement of position versus momentum of a physical object. On a sub-atomic level, this indicates that the position of a sub-atomic particle may be measured, but that if the position is measured, the momentum will not be known. Conversely, if the momentum of a particle is measured, the position will not be known.

That explanation is both simple and complex, depending on how you look at it. It is important first to understand what is meant by "position," and what is meant by "momentum," and these concepts in and of themselves are difficult to comprehend, because they involve 4 dimensions, the last of which is that mysterious dimension we call "time," a dimension unlike any of the other 3, in that it seems to travel in one direction only, and that is forwards. Of course, it is not time that travels, but we who travel in time. But I digress.

In order to understand Physics, one must necessarily include Time in all equations. For example, the classic Newtonian formula of F = ma (Force = mass * accelleration) necessarily involves time. Accelleration is the increase in velocity of an object over time. Velocity is the rate of change in position of an object relative to another arbitrary object over time. For example, one cannot describe the speed of a car without using time. If a car is moving at 50 miles per hour, this means that in the time span of one hour, a car will have changed its position relative to the earth's surface by 50 miles. So, while the number "50" suffices to communicate the speed of the car, the actual mathematical formula for the speed of the car is (50 * 1 mile) / 1 hour. Think about it. How does one divide miles by hours? And yet, the math holds true.

But, if one is measuring the position of an object, one must necessarily speak of the position of that object at a given point in time. Let me repeat myself: To measure the position of an object, one can only do so by measuring the position at a single point in time. The concept is not as simple as it sounds, because time is a continuum. It does not stop. It cannot be subdivided into distinct moments, for each of those moments can be subdivided infinitely into smaller and smaller segments. There is no such things as a "particle of time," any more than there is such a thing as a "particle of matter." It is a convenience, a means of thinking and communicating about the phenomenon. Yet, paradoxically, we continually seem to exist at a point in time which is constantly in motion. We are trapped as it were, between the "past" and the "future." There is no present; it is infinitely small. Yet, it is only in the present that we seem to exist, due to the nature of the way we perceive reality.

Let me give another example, that of taking a photograph. As you may know, to take a photograph, a light-sensitive medium is exposed to light for a brief period of time, determined by the shutter speed of the camera taking the picture. The "sharpness" of the photograph is affected by the length of the interval of time during which the shutter was opened. We see what seems to be a moment frozen in time in the photograph. But that is not at all what we see. We are seeing a brief interval of time frozen in the photograph. We are seeing the visual effects of a continuous interval of time in which light was allowed to bombard the surface of the film, and during that interval, everything in the photograph was in motion. Yet, if the shutter speed was quick enough, it looks for all the world as if we are seeing a single "moment" in time. On the other hand, if it were possible to open the shutter for the infinitessimally small point between the past and the future, what would we see? Nothing. No activity could have taken place, for motion cannot exist without time. Motion is the change in position that takes place during an interval of time.

Now, this all relates both to the Uncertainty Principle, and to the Wave-Particle Duality problem with which theoretical Physicists have been wrestling for many years. This problem is centered around the fact that, depending upon how one measures, a sub-atomic particle such as an electron or a photon will behave like a particle, a distinct "piece" of something, and a wave, a continuum in a medium which has mathematical characteristics of frequency and amplitude. Sub-atomic particles indeed seem to behave like either of the 2, depending upon how one measures them. That is, if one measures the frequency of a light wave, there is no position, as the position must change over a period of time, and therefore is unknowable. On the other hand, if one measures the position of a particle of light, theoretically, one must discard time, since the position will change with time, and if the position changes, the position is not known. Yet, it is sometimes convenient to speak of photons and electrons as particles, and sometimes convenient to think of them as waves.

This brings me back to the idea that atoms consist mostly of empty space. This is purely a crock of s**t. In fact, there is no such thing as empty space, since empty space is nothing, and nothing is the absense of anything, including space. The pure fact is, if there is nothing between this and that, this and that are in contact with one another, by definition. So, in fact, the fact that whatever is between electrons, protons and neutrons is not measurable does not imply that it does not exist. It simply implies that it is not (yet) measurable. There is nothing we know of which can perceive its existence.

These concepts are indeed difficult to understand, and theoretical physicists have been wrangling over them for decades now, without any final success, as of yet. Anyone giving serious thought to these ideas is likely to wind up dizzy. Anyone without sufficient discipline of thought is likely to go wildly astray, and at that point, they are no longer scientists; they are simply kooks. Which brings me back to the film (at last!).

This is a film filled with kooks. It was kooky to think that Quantum Physics could be explained to the average AOL User, Joe SixPack, or your average everyday couch-potato. Anyone watching this film is likely to be lured into some sort of New Age Cult, or simply confused and/or disgusted (I was disgusted). It was kooky for any of the people who apparently thought of themselves as "scientists" to participate in the making of the film, since it is patently obvious to any real scientist that these concepts are unresolved, paradoxical, and require years of discipline to understand at all. It was insane for anyone in the film to think that one might apply the concepts of Quantum Physics to life in the "macro world" in which we live, at least as far as its having some influence over our day-to-day life. These concepts are only applicable with any real influence on a sub-atomic level.

And so, we are left with a modern-day, quasi-scientific equivalent of a bunch of pajama-clad Hari Krishnas, dancing madly backwards in an airport, selling copies of the Bhagavad Gita to unwary travellers.

Now, if you'll excuse me, I have to throw up.

Tuesday, October 31, 2006

The Ten Blind Men, The Elephant, and The Man With a Wooden Leg Named Smith

I once knew a Man With a Wooden Leg Named Smith. How he got into my pajamas I'll never know. However, we were friends for a time, and in the course of things, he mentioned that he was once the king of a ficticious country. This struck me as a particular distinction, because there are many kings of actual countries, but this was the first person I'd ever known who was king of a ficticious country. Of course, he was no longer king of this ficticious country, as he no longer resided there, but he was happy to regale me with tales of his experiences there.

The name of this country was Deagolia, and it came by its name honestly. In the land of Deagolia, everyone was blind, except for one person, a wanderer who had come to Deagolia from unknown parts, known only as The Man With a Wooden Leg Named Smith. The blindness of the people was congenital; that is, everyone born in Deagolia was blind from birth. In fact, had it not been for the Man With a Wooden Leg Named Smith, the Deagolians would never have known that such a thing as Sight existed, for they had never experienced it, nor had they ever known anyone who had.

It was inevitable that The Man With a Wooden Leg Named Smith would become king, as he was the only sighted person in the country, and as Desiderus Erasmus once coined, "In the kingdom of the blind, the one-eyed man is king." Actually, The Man With a Wooden Leg Named Smith had both of his eyes, but that only meant that he had one to spare, in case anything should happen to the other one, as was the case with his legs.

In any case, before he was made king, it was quickly discovered that he had a perceptual ability that nobody else in Deagolia had, or had even been aware of, and he was often sought for advice concerning matters which were best resolved by a sighted person. For example, he was often asked to determine whether a person's t-shirt was on backwards. Oddly enough, it had never occurred to the people of Deagolia that a t-shirt could be worn backwards until The Man With A Wooden Leg Named Smith pointed out the fact to a few of them. They were also amazed to discover that there were images and text on some of these t-shirts, and that the text could be interpreted by The Man With a Wooden Leg Named Smith. Thus were the people of Deagolia introduced to a great number of new jokes and consumer products.

The story of how The Man With a Wooden Leg Named Smith became king begins when an elephant somehow wandered into the land of Deagolia, a land which had heretofore never seen an elephant, or even heard of one. In a land of blind men and women, you can imagine what a stir such an event might raise, as well as the inherent danger involved in having an elephant in the midst of a country full of blind people.

It was inevitable that someone would encounter the elephant, and sure enough, a group of 10 Deagolians who were walking down the Damascus highway were startled when the first man in the group walked straight into the elephant and fell flat on his back. Blind they were, but not deaf by a long shot. Being blind had made their remaining senses sharp and sensitive, and they all heard the muffled thud, and the sound of the poor fellow falling backwards into the dust.

"Good heavens!" the first man exclaimed, "Someone's built a house in the middle of the highway!" He slowly picked himself up and tentatively reached out in front of him. "Doesn't feel quite like anything I've ever heard of a wall being made of, but it's a wall, alright." His hands spread slowly and cautiously over the elephant's side. "Feels like some kind of hard leather. Must do a great job of keeping out the rain."

Another man walked slowly up to the elephant, and came across the trunk. "I don't know what you're talking about. This is no wall; it's more like a tree."

By this point, the other eight men were more curious than startled, and they all began to edge towards different parts of the elephant. As one of them approached it from behind, the elephant flicked its' tail. "Too thin for a tree, and not a wall either. It might be some kind of snake, maybe. I think it may have tried to bite me!" This remark frightened several of them, who drew back warily. The first one, still feeling the elephant's side, shook his head. "You all must be crazy. It's much bigger than a snake, a vine, or even a tree. And it's solid, but not entirely hard. I'm telling you, it's a wall. Some kind of building."

A fourth man ventured forth and felt the tip of a tusk. "Ouch! It's got some kind of giant thorns on it!"

Within a few minutes, they were embroiled in a spirited argument about the nature of their discovery. Most of them didn't want to approach the elephant, but one or two of them kept exploring the small areas that they had discovered, and reported with confidence their theories about the nature of the thing, ridiculing one another for their ignorance and lack of discernment.

It was at about this time that The Man With a Wooden Leg Named Smith walked up on the group. Now, The Man With a Wooden Leg Named Smith had never seen an elephant before, but he could certainly see, and although the Deagolians had no idea what sight was, they knew that The Man With a Wooden Leg Named Smith had a special sense which enabled him to perceive in some detail things that could not be felt, smelled, heard, or tasted, and at some great distance. They heard him coming, and recognized him immediately, due to the sound of his footsteps.

Rushing up to him, they immediately began to clamor for an explanation of what he saw. "We have encountered something strange, and possibly dangerous! What is it?" The Man With a Wooden Leg Named Smith looked at the animal, for he could immediately see that it was an animal, although he had never seen one quite so large in all his lifetime. "I do not know what it is," he replied, and began to walk slowly around the creature at a distance, wary of what such a large animal might be capable of if he were to get too close. The crowd of ten men followed behind him.

Finally, he spoke. Being a man who cared deeply about being completely truthful, he avoided making any guesses about the elephant, and told them as much as he thought they would understand, enough to ensure their safety. "I can tell you this much: It is alive. It is huge. And I would not want to get in its' way, or make it angry."

With these remarks, the group of men were somewhat relieved, as they had found someone in their midst who could see the creature and tell them something about it. They ran hastily back to their village and reported all of these events to the rest of the people. Each reported his own experience of the encounter, and what he had perceived. There was much confusion amongst the people when they heard the variety of perceptions that were related to them. However, there was complete agreement regarding the words of The Man With a Wooden Leg Named Smith, whom they had all come to know as a man who had an ability to perceive much more than they, and a man who cared deeply about being completely truthful.

That night, they had a meeting, and unanimously decided to appoint The Man With a Wooden Leg Named Smith king of Deagolia. And from that day forth, The Man With a Wooden Leg Named Smith ruled the land, which changed nothing really, in terms of his relationship with the people, as he was not inclined to wealth, or to exert control over people. But, to him, "king" was as good a title as any, and he was happy to be of service in any way that he could. He continued to provide whatever information his experience and perception afforded him when he was asked, and was called upon from time to time to resolve disputes among the people.

The elephant remained in Deagolia for many years, perhaps because there was an abundance of food which elephants like to eat there, and wandered from place to place, mostly without incident. The Man With a Wooden Leg Named Smith did his best to study the elephant when he could find it, being careful not to get in its' way, or do anything to make it angry. The people of Deagolia for the most part avoided the elephant in their fear of it, but its' constant presence in their land would not allow them to forget about it or ignore it completely. In fact, as time went by, some interesting social phenomena arose among them, regarding the elephant. But that is the beginning of another story. Perhaps one day I shall tell it.

Saturday, October 28, 2006

Complex Things are Made Up of Lots of Simple Things

Sometimes You Eat the Elephant; Sometimes the Elephant Eats You
This is actually a continuation of the series "Big Things are Made Up of Lots of Little Things." The title of this post is a correllary of that statement. The sub-title is a reference to the old riddle: How do you eat an elephant? (Answer: one bite at a time). It might also be compared with the old Elephant joke: How do you fit 6 Elephants into a Volkswagon? (Answer: 3 in the front, and 3 in the back).

As a programmer, I am often given a fairly large set of requirements for a software project. These requirements generally consist of an overall requirement and a set of features. For example, I was once given a set of requirements whose overall requirement was to provide a real-time visual picture of the environment in which a small aircraft was flying, in the cockpit of the aircraft, based upon GPS output, in 3 dimensions. In addition, there were a set of features. The visual output should also contain terrain information, aircraft information, and airport information. It should run on a laptop computer, running Windows Vista (code-named "Longhorn" at the time). It should use Microsoft Windows Communications Foundation (code-named "Indigo" at the time) to obtain various data over the Internet, using a satellite connection. It should display Flight Plan information. It should alert the pilot of impending terrain collisions. It should be configurable to display various combinations of these data, and various views of the aircraft. It should alert the pilot as to the location of the nearest airport, as well as the course heading to reach that airport, in case of the need for an emergency landing. It should display terrain elevation data in an intuitive, easy-to-read manner.

As you might imagine, this looked for all the world like a truly daunting task. I was given about a year to complete the project, and had no other developers working on it with me, except for a graphics developer who could create various graphics that I might need. So, here I was, facing the elephant, and getting indigestion just from looking at it. The elephant was looking hungrily back at me. I knew that one of us would eventually eat the other. I decided that I must eat the elephant, and not the other way around.

Thus began my process of analysis. Now, the word "analysis," as technical as it sounds, is not nearly so intimidating as it sounds. It sounds technical because it is most often used in technical disciplines, and that is merely because most technical disciplines involve working with complexity. To analyze the word itself, we can look to its' original Greek origins. In Greek, the word "analusis" means "a dissolving, or undoing," originating from the preface "ana-" (meaning throughout) and "luein" (meaning "loosen"). The literal meaning of the word "analysis" is to break down something "large" or "complex" into its' constituent smaller and simpler components. Big Things are Made Up of Lots of Little Things.

When one is given an elephant to eat, it is important to study the elephant first. It is not advisable to simply start eating; the task will quickly become overwhelming. One must formulate a plan. After all, one is not able to eat the entire elephant in a single byte (pun intended).

Now, the process of analysis is an iterative and recursive process. That is, one cannot subdivide the elephant into its' smallest manageable constituent components in one fell swoop. Rather, one makes increasingly smaller subdivisions, in a recursive loop. In the programming biz, this is often referred to as a series of "views" beginning with the 50,000-foot view, and progressively moving "downward" as the "chunks" get smaller.

You start with the whole elephant, looking at it from a vantage point at which you can see the entire elephant from all sides. It is not possible to see the entire elephant at this point, only the outside of it. But you can identify differentiated "parts" of the whole, and may start from there. It has tusks, a trunk, a head, a body, a tail, and legs. All of these are apparently different from one another. So, you move in with your machete, and make the first "virtual chops," separating the head from the body, the trunk from the head, the tusks from the head, the tail from the body, and the legs from the body.

Now you can move a bit closer, to examine the parts. You notice that the legs are similar to one another, both in terms of their shape and placement. Perhaps they may be treated in similar fashion, one to another. But what are the differences between them? Each has a knee and a foot. So, you chop each one in half at the knee and chop off the feet. You move closer, so that you can examine the components of each leg more closely. And so on.

Now, you move on to the head. But you think to yourself, those tusks look a bit simpler, perhaps I could give myself a break and deal with them first. Of course, you will have to deal with all of the elephant at some point, but you do have a choice as to the order in which you examine the parts.

Like the legs, the 2 tusks look almost identical. Unlike the legs, they are made up of a single piece each of a bone-like substance. You presuppose that the substance is indeed bone, and saw one in half to find out. It is indeed a bone-like substance, and it is virtually the same throughout. So, you see an opportunity to make a decision here, as further subdivision seems unnecessary at this point. How will you eat the tusks? After all, they are made up of a bone-like substance, and too large to fit in your mouth, much less your stomach. Looking at your tools, you decide that they may be ground into a powder, which can then be mixed with a fluid, and drunk. And that's one part of the elephant you have successfully analyzed. On to the next.

By this iterative and recursive process, the entire elephant is segmented and a plan for eating each constituent part is formulated. The only thing left to do is to implement the plan and start eating.

However, there is one last consideration to be taken into account. As you step back you see again that the elephant is huge, intimidatingly so, and you may even get a little dizzy by the thought of eating the whole thing. But it is not necessary to eat the whole thing. It is only necessary to eat each of the byte-sized (pun intended) pieces. The trick is to think only of the mouthful that is currently being eaten. So, in fact, we never eat elephants at all. Our lifetime is composed of very many byte-sized moments, and each moment is navigable in and of itself.

Interestingly, this very idea is expressed in the words of Jesus:

Take therefore no thought for the morrow: for the morrow shall take thought for the things of itself. Sufficient unto the day [is] the evil thereof. (The Gospel of Matthew Chapter 6, verse 34)

Thursday, October 05, 2006

Big Things are Made up of Lots of Little Things

Part 2 - E Unum Pluribus
The human body is made up of trillions (millions of millions) of cells. Each cell has the entire blueprint of the body imprinted in it's DNA. Each cell is individual, and maintains itself for the most part, feeding itself from the bloodstream, and carrying on whatever function it is adapted to as a result of its location in the body. Each cell starts out as a "Stem Cell," each of which is completely identical until it is located and assigned its "job" in the body, at which time it differentiates, maintaining the exact same DNA, but adopting subtle differences in its functionality according to its kind.
A human being begins life as a single Zygote, or perhaps more accurately as 2 cells, one sperm and one ovum, which unite to become a single cell. That cells divides into 2 identical cells, each of these divides into 2 identical cells, and so on, in a rather long (9 months) process which ultimately results in the phenomenon that we humans tend to call "a human being." Why do I say that we "tend to call" this a human being? Well, that is the crux of this post.
At a certain point in our human development, we begin to have organized thoughts, and we develop a sense of identity. We begin to learn to "work our peripherals," to put it into computer lingo, to learn which "buttons to push" in our brains in order to exercise our wills. We begin to formulate thought and ideas, and to differentiate between one thought/idea and another, to associate these ideas with the input that we receive through our senses.
Part of this process is that of associating ideas/thoughts with certain groups of input, to associate those input as belonging to a collective idea/thought, and to differentiate between that which is one collection, and that which is not that collection. Like computers, our mind is binary in nature. Like computers, we measure by differentiating between this and not this, 1 and 0, true and false. And like computers, we combine these binary identifications into complex constructs that enable us to compare, or to measure those ideas and thoughts.
Why do I say "measure?" Well, for example, how long is an inch? It is impossible to say, unless one compares it with something else. It is not possible to state the measure of anything without comparison, without differentiating between this and not this. Interestingly, and appropriately enough, the first thing that we tend to use for comparison is our own body. Of course, that is why the English language and system of measurement was originally based on a foot, which was originally the rather inexact measure of the human foot. In other cultures, you can find similar origins of measure. What do we consider to be "big?" Generally, anything larger than we are. And we generally consider "small" to be anything smaller than our body. But it is not my intention to go into detail about measurement in this post. I am simply introducing the idea that what we perceive and what is are completely different things, based upon the way we think.
Now, let's talk about the human race as a whole. Like the human body, it began as a single person, or rather a pair of people. You may scoff at this point, and make the mistake that I'm talking about the Biblical Adam and Eve, and though you would not be far from wrong, you would still be mistaken. What I'm talking about is (relatively) simple mathematics. Every human being came from a pair of human beings, which parented one or more children. Each generation contains more human beings than the generation before. And we know from our study of biology that it is impossible for any species of life to reproduce with a different species. Our study of history and archaeology indicates that the human race has spread out across the globe progressively, from some small area of the earth, somewhere in the Middle East, probably somewhere in the area of the world currently defined by general agreement as the nation of Iraq. And applying mathematical principles, it logically follows that at some point, there were only 2 (one male, and one female) of this species that we call "human" living somewhere in the world. To assume otherwise would indicate an unwillingness to believe that which is logically, mathematically, and scientifically demonstrable, a resistance to the idea, indicating a certain willful denial of what is logically true. How the first 2 members of the species were generated is certainly not known, and it is not my intention to delve into guesses and controversies about that in this post. It is merely my contention that a new species emerged sometime in the past, the human species, and that the human species originated with at most a pair or humans, or perhaps a pair of near-humans that were able to mate and produce human offspring.
Getting back to that point, these original members of the human species, like the cells in the body, began to reproduce themselves, and to organize themselves into a variety of groups which were differentiated according to their placement in the environment, and their relative placement to one another. Like the cells in the body, the human species became a complex network of interconnected humans, evolving means of supporting one another, communicating, and organizing themselves into identifiably separate collections. Over time, we began to build various consturcts like roads, and communication networks of ever-increasing sophistication and complexity, which, like the vascular and nervous systems of the body, provided our ability to remain connected, to cooperate for our mutual survival. Families evolved into tribes. Tribes evolved into states. States evolved into nations. And nations evolved into alliances of nations.
In fact, the entire world of humanity is interconnected, supporting and feeding one another, often, like the opposing muscular stucture of the human body, struggling and striving in different directions, producing strength. Like the human mind, our governing bodies are composed of various individuals that propose a variety of conflicting ideas and debate them in order to come to collective decisions that are carried out by collections of human beings. Within the individual human mind, we often debate opposing ideas in our thoughts, in order to come to a decision as to what we as individuals should do.
Like the individual cells in the body, each of us is basically self-sustaining, feeding ourselves from our immediate environment. The similarities between the macro-human (human race) to the micro-human (collection of cells) are astonishing. The human body even has the equivalent of war inside it, cells that defend against invaders from outside, and traitrous cancer cells inside. The human body is, in fact, in a constant state of struggle, a life-and-death struggle, which never ends until at last it is lost (on an individual level) by that phenomenon we call "death."
So, the question I propose here is, how many are we? It is my contention that although we, like the cells of our bodies, are many, we are also one. We are man, humanity. The thought construct that we call our individual identity is useful in some respects, but useless in others. And to thrive, it is necessary to recognize in what ways that idea of separateness is useful, and in what ways the idea of unity is useful.
For example, any cell in the human body that does not feed itself dies. On the other hand, any cell in the human body that feeds itself only is cancerous, and ultimately is attacked by the defense system of the body in a life-and-death struggle which determines the ultimate survival of the entire body. Of course, if the cancerous cells win the battle, all of the cells die, both healthy and cancerous. But it is the intention of the body to survive as a whole. It is the prime directive of our DNA.
It is my hope that these ideas will contribute to the survival of humanity, by sparking thought that tends to be balanced and healthy. Let us recognize, and not forget that we all share the same humanity, the same DNA, and the same essential goals, to thrive, to live, and that if the human race is divided beyond a certain point, if the network or mutual cooperation towards survival breaks down, it is not individuals alone that will perish, but the "body of man" that will be lost.
I am the egg man. They are the egg men. I am the walrus.
Koo-koo-ka-choo.