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.