Sunday, May 22, 2005

Oddly enough, I think that I've gone to exactly the place in blogging where I hoped not to go. I'm free writing.

Damn it. Really, this isn't the time or the place for it, especially if I want to seem semi-serious about the whole thing. It's just that I haven't had to many ideas for essayable subjects. Perhaps I should be putting this sort of writing into a story or a novel or something (that thing that I really want to do).

This basically puts me at the same place that a vast majority of bloggers are at: self-indulgent forms of flattery. Look at me, I'm so good.

I'm not saying that about myself. Usually I describe it as total crap. Oh, maybe I'm being a bit hard on myself.

The last post I put up was just that. I was just trying to hard to come up with something to say in. In the end (since it was through multiple sittings), it merely meanders (albeit, briefly) through a start of one subject and a discussion of another. I probably shouldn't have even have posted it.

Ah, who knows.

Friday, May 20, 2005

More Transitions

Here's a great way to start out the summer: go back to work.

Kids have been doing this for years. Schools out and one needs a little more spending cash. It's that unfortunate catch 22 of the summer. To have fun you have to work.

Although, it seems that once schools out permanently there is actually more free time. Not having homework at night opens up an amazing amount of time. This, however, causes a problem.

Many young people (myself included) seem to have a lack of purpose. They lack drive. They need something to get them from this point A to some other point B with out going through all the strange, meandering points in between (like X, Y and Z).

The question is, where am I going with this? I ask myself that question all the time. I always thought that the older one gets the more clear things will seem. This is, of course, not true. It's one of those great truths, really. The stability and composure that many of our parents conjured really just masked their own insecurities as human beings. They did it all for our benefit. Amazing really.

It's difficult to mask these insecurities. Many time they sit on the forefront of our minds. Am I doing the right thing? Will people like me? Should I really have worn the pink shirt with the beige trousers or should I have gone with black?

The interesting bit is how we deal with these questions. There's two ways to answer them. First one can simple become paralyzed by the questions, continually answering them in one way and then the other. It becomes an infinite loop of yes or no, stay or go, pink or black. The questions merely reverse for the new answer.

Or we can simply accept our first instinct. We've made this decision and we should stick with it. Come what may, it's the path we've chosen: Yes I'm doing the right thing; who cares what they think; damn it, I look good in pink. Now what we're left with is waiting and seeing what the results of our actions are. Then there will be a new set of questions and with them a new set of answers.

So what does that leave for the summer? Just a set of questions about what to do with that little bit of time left over after we've earned a little bit of spending cash.

Minor Editorial Note: I do not, in fact, own a pink shirt. Not that there's anything wrong with it, but I just don't think it's my color.

Tuesday, May 17, 2005


I'm writing this on my new Mac PowerbookTM. I've finally made the switch. It's not all wine and roses.

I'm finding that there's a bit of a transition. In the back of my mind I new that would be the case. There's different key strokes, different button locations, different keyboard. The Software's all slightly different. The organization of things is very different.

Take, for example, the fact that there is no delete key. I don't mean backspace. I mean delete. You know, the one that deletes characters in front of it? I find that to be a highly useful key. I'm sure there's a way to do it. I just haven't found it yet.

But as a user it will be an interesting change. It's the first time in a while where I need to learn the fundamentals of the system again. There's a bit of joy that comes from discovering how to do things the quick way (like with a key stroke) versus the easier to find slow way (menu navigation).

It has me excited, though. As a developer, it has a lot to offer, mostly in the stability and performance areas. There's a lot of little places that I can get my feet wet. If I was ever so inclined, I could also help out porting existing open-source Unix applications to this platform.

That requires some interest and need for those applications, though. Otherwise I won't ever work on the projects. I've noticed that the best way to drive development is to write a tool that I need. Second to that is writing a tool that someone else needs (this is called business).

There will be a lot of tools that I'll need here in this new world, so I'll need to get cracking.

Friday, May 13, 2005

Points and Lines

Every now and then (sort of like my need to examine the state of my Religiosity), I need to sit back and look at why I'm doing this. It's been a few months now since I've started this blog, and so I thought I'd reexamine my purpose.

It seems like I've become an essayist. Somehow that doesn't seem quite right. I never thought about becoming an essayist. I never wanted to become an essayist. I never sat up, late in the night, gazing at the stars, and whispered into the darkness "I would like to write the Great American Essay."

What did I want? Well, I've always thought about becoming a novelist. Barring that, a screenwriter (OK, so who hasn't thought of that. I think my mistake - or success - in not becoming a screenwriter was despising LA and being unable to afford life in NY). There's a lot of glamour in the screenwriting business, or at least the fantasy of seeing your work up on screen.

There's a very similar desire to see a book on a shelf in a bookstore with one's name on it. Being a novelist really should be about telling a story. A story of a man. A radioactive, wait that's been done.

Ay, there's the rub. Much of it's been done before. Or at least that's how it seems. Perhaps it's just a bit daunting to get started. That blank page makes one both fearful, nervous, yet ready to fill it with words. Hopefully words full of meaning and theme and Great-American-Novelly-type things. In other words, a grandiose tale of men (and women).

It usually ends up being a page of crap.

That page of crap is important, as I've said before. That becomes the first draft and the house of ideas in which one can raise a story.

So here's where I put myself after these few months blogging. I find that the barrier to putting words down to be thinner, taking less effort to overcome. I can sit down and bang out an essay. It's usually crap but now I accept that part of it. The crap becomes part of ideas and elements that perhaps I can use later.

Now, as far as writing a novel goes, these ideas aren't necessarily worthwhile. There not even good. But, I have been leaving out my fiction ideas. There's two reasons for doing that. First, they haven't quite gelled yet. There's still some ideas of plot, character, setting, style, pacing and that sort of thing that needs to be worked out. Secondly, its a matter of having no idea where to start.

The essays are easy. Even if it's about something I'm not too knowledgeable about, I'll look it up. That's what many of the essays have been: short explorations of an idea. Fiction has to be made up entirely. Write about what you know, they say. If I did that, it would be terrible uninteresting. So I need to really figure out how to imagine people and places and situations, before I can sit down and write about them.

Lies are all in the details, and so is fiction.

Thursday, May 12, 2005

Astonishing Principle

There is a very strange informal scientific principle know as the Principle of Least Astonishment (also known as the Principle of Maximum Boredom). This principle states that "the explanation which is the least astonishing and which is the most boring is usually (but not always) the right one."[1]

Often one is using this principle when, upon coming to a conclusion, begin with the phrase "surprise, surprise, it turns out that..."

More often than not this principle is a very good starting point for prove things. Since you would be very surprised if it turned out to be incorrect, you already have a goal in mind. Sometimes actually proving that the assumption is true can be much more difficult.

Take, for example, the Fermat's Last Theorem[2]

xn + yn=zn

has no non-zero solutions for n > 2.

What's is wholely remarkable about this particular theorem is that it would have been incredibly surprising to find that it was false. But finding a correct proof of this theorem took centuries and the cumulative work of many mathematicians.

There is another application of the Principle, which lies in the software space. When there is ambiguity, the software should do the least surprising of the two actions. An example of the opposite of this is an instance where a dialog pop-up appears asking the user whether or not they're really, absolutely sure they want to do that. The user is given the option of yes, no or cancel. Clicking cancel exits the application.

Very surprising.

It's point in UI design is intended to guide a developer to make interfaces that are moderately intuitive. Given it's other name, it certainly sounds like it has very boring outcomes. However it's a good road to happy customers, which means the software producer will never be bored, racing down the highway in his fancy, expensive sports car.

[1] Absolute Astronomy Reference

[2] Fermat's Last Theorem

Friday, May 06, 2005

Classical Journalist

Whatever happened to the old-time journalist? Tie, crappy suit, typewriter. Did it all go out with the advent of the computer and under-arm antiperspirant?

I'm sitting here waiting to head off to a fancy dress thingy. So it makes me wonder, whatever happened to the suit at work? I know that people seem to think that having to dress in one particular way seems to disuade creativity. Why is dress so important to creativity? Is there a psychological impact to dressing the same (relatively) as everyone else.

Here's a little tidbit about uniforms in schools: Schools that have uniforms have lower incidents of crime. Kids are no longer have the distraction of the coolest clothes or shoes. There is no have and have-nots. Everyone is sporting the same dress style. Sounds communist? Not really. It actually improves the sense of community as well. Kids feel like they belong. Sounds like something kids need in that awkward stage of life.

There's also a dark side, so to speak. A study into sport team uniforms saw a statistical trend that the teams that wore black uniforms were more aggressive, more penalized (probably due to the higher aggression) and more feared (they're perceived as incredibly aggressive, so the opposing team should "watch out"). The most interesting point was that this is even the case when, in football, the players are wearing their home-team white. The authors of the study theorize that it's due to the primary color of the team (i.e. black), which is shouted by the fans.

They do concede that there is a tendency to recruit the more aggressive players for these teams. The Oakland Raiders are a great example, most recently with there acquisition of Randy Moss (formerly of the Vikings - go Purple).

But what about in the office environment? Here's an excerpt from an Psychology Today:Mar/Apr 95 issue (yet again):

Corporations that have bought into informality have looser hierarchies; people are more apt to call each other by their first names. Meetings are more conducive to free thought and risk taking. People's speech, posture, and manners change; they feel free to interrupt each other--circumstances more akin to brainstorming, observes [David] Morand, from Penn State.

This works well for software companies. Mainly because we're all a bunch of children. But for other corporations like
banks, insurance firms, and law offices, industries that thrive less on creativity than on routine, detail, and logic.

There formality works better, even if employees wish they could be a little more laid back. Formal dress codes generate sober attitudes and a cool social distance between workers. That same social distance is what makes it easier for your local bank officer to refuse a friendly customer like you a loan.
So, for now, those of us who don't mind wearing a tie will just have to either wait until for the second coming of 1950's IBM, or we'll have to just become bankers.

Another Brief Note on the Previous Post

I think I've satiated my need to discourse on the subject of religion, for now. It's one of those life long issues.

But I will be back to discussions of travel, music, and literature soon enough.

Schroedinger of the Divine

Note: This is merely the opinion of the author. It is based on his own personal religious experieces and musing. Any offence taken is your own damn fault.

Part I: Schpatz Goes Holistic

It seems like everyone I know is upgrading there computers lately. Some drastically, some incrementally. A friend of mine just wrote me about buying a new laptop. That's drastic. Another friend of mine just upgraded his graphics card. That's incremental.

I'm not sure which actually ends up being worse. I've found that if you upgrade one part, there's always something else that becomes the bottle neck. I upgraded the graphics card on my desktop a while ago. Now my biggest complaint is the processor speed. Everything seems a bit slow. So now I'm thinking I should get a new CPU. But that would work better with faster, new memory, which needs a new motherboard, which would have a new kind of graphics card interface...

You get the idea.

Oddly enough, with my laptop, I find that the slowness doesn't bother me. It must be due to the fact that I can't upgrade it. Sure, I might be able to add a little more memory, replace the DVD drive, but those things will only help a little bit. The only reason I'm looking to replace it is that it's starting to go. It's "like a military academy. Bit's of it keep passing out."[1]

Part of the reason for not feeling the need to upgrade the laptop is that I can't. I accept it as it is. There's an old prayer (Catholic, I think) the asks for the wisdom to accept the things that I cannot change, or something like that. This acceptance of what the laptop is has allowed my to use it with very little complaint.

The same sort of thing should be used in our interactions with people. We shouldn't try to change people. We can only be ourselves, and hope that, by example, people may change. That's always seemed to me to be the main point of Christianity. From a philosophical stand, the concept of "love thy neighbor as thyself" is to live an example to others. Love thyself means to accept yourself, faults and all. Therefore, one must do the same with others.

Accepting the things we can't change. This doesn't mean that people shouldn't fight corruption or injustice and that sort of things. These are things that can change. They just require more people, more ideas, more social power (i.e. masses) to enact that change.

People are, however, unchangeable. They must choose to change. They must enact the change themselves. They have to replace their own parts, and upgrade their own thinking.

It's choice.

Part II: Where am I going with all this

Every very now and then I get religion. Not in the "Praise Jesus!" sense, just that I start thinking about it philosophically and sociologically. I'm still trying to figure out if it has a place in my life.

This stems back to the fact that I went to Catholic School. Only through the eight grade, mind you, but long enough. I suppose though that is the only reason I even think about it from time to time. It's sort of embedded that sense of social connection that religion provides. As well as that guilt, but that's another story.

The other thing that it's done for me is that I still like all things Catholic. There's something exceptionally profound in all that pomp and circumstance, the ceremony of it all that gives it that feeling of the divine. I never get that from non-Catholic preachers (and I don't mean Lutherans or Anglicans; they seem pretty similar). Their's is more of a "spread the good word" sort of Christianity.

I've also developed an almost morbid fascination with it. When I travel abroad, some of the things that I enjoy seeing is the old (and I mean old) Christian relics and tombs. These things are so bizarre, so occult, that it makes Christianity seem almost pagan. In some ways it could be seen that way, when looked at from afar. Catholics (which, when I'm in Europe, I'll use Catholic and Christian interchangeably) worship and pray to saints, the Virgin Mary, Jesus, the Holy Spirit, and, of course, God. That's quite a pantheon.

I'm quite sure that I'm being a bit naive in my view of it all. I'm sure there are some very sound theological arguments for it all.

This is, of course, one opinion from years of very limited observations.

Part III: What's with all the God Talk

Religion has been a bit on my mind lately. I recently spent a weekend at my sister's in Dubuque. Any weekend spent with my family usually means a trip to church.

Now, I don't usually think about religion, unless I'm confronted with it. More often then not, I think about the humanity of it all. What I mean by that is that religion, in the organized sense, is built up by man. It's an arbitrary construction of rules, built around the shared idea that there is something greater than ourselves.

I don't discount the possibility that there is something greater than ourselves. Call it God, if you will. I'm an agnostic, that's certain. I've never considered myself an atheist. Just as the devout Christians, Muslims and Jews have faith in their belief in God, Atheists have faith in their belief that there is no God. This always seemed a bit strange to me. I've heard atheist sound just as fanatical about their beliefs as a fundamentalist.

Not entirely arbitrary. Every religion seems to have a bunch of similar rules. Don't kill people, for example (although there are often some exceptions to this rule, which in itself is a bit strange). These rules, I think are generated out of the social contract. The social contract of all societies has been to not get in the way of other people trying to get by.

I'm also not against the value of religion. There seems to be this built in need for human nature to feel connected.

There are three different theories on why religion exists (that I agree with anyway), all three of which are somewhat right.[2]

The first is from a French sociologist, Emile Durkheim. His definition of religion is as follows: “A religion is a unified system of beliefs and practices relative to sacred things, that is to say, things set apart and forbidden -- beliefs and practices which unite into one single moral community called a Church, all those who adhere to them.” [3] The sacred and the profane are two things that oppose each other. This creates a series of rites and rules around protecting the sacred from th profane. This collection of rites and the community of practitioners becomes a religion.[4]

The second is from a Romanian historian, Mircea Eliade. His notions are similar to Durkheim's – the sacred and the profane - but lack the deconstruction of religion into a merely sociological construction. Religion is based on “Timeless forms”[5]. Every religion is built upon the same set of underlying forms. Oddly, enough this concept, reduces all religions to a simple construction of these forms. He makes the point, though, that there is a fundamental similarity of the human condition across cultures.

The third is from a professor in Anthropology at Fordham University, Stewart E. Guthrie. Guthrie proposes that religion is a result of anthropomorphizing nature. This is central to the creation of religion. As for motives of things supernatural, it's attributed to the following:

“Uncertain of what we face,” he writes, “we bet on the most important possibility because if we are wrong we lose little and if we are right we gain much. Religion, asserting that the world is significantly human-like, brings this strategy to its highest pitch.” His ‘tendency,’ then, is, according to Guthrie, more a survival strategy than simply a proclivity.


If such wagers are correct, the payoff is large. In the case of religion and the belief that the spirits have wills, it means either eternal bliss of some sort or a relatively lower level of anxiety here on earth. Both options have their appeal.[6]

Basically, what he's saying is something very similar to Pascal's assertion about religion, which goes something like this: if I choose to believe in God, and it turns out to be false, I've lost nothing. If it turns out to be true, I've gained eternal rewards. On the otherhand if I choose to not believe in God, and I'm wrong, the rest of time will be particularly unpleasant.

These theories (and me coming to this conclusion after several hours of intense study) really describe different aspects of the same thing: the why of religion. As in everything societal, it is a question that's answer is wholly complicated and can't really be distilled down into one theory.

Part IV: Conclusions

Having done the slightest bit of research leaves me with a few questions on the subject of my own belief in God. Where does the Agnostic fit into all this? We're sort of stuck in the middle, a Schroedinger experiment of the divine, where God is in a state of both existence and non-existence. That is, until we open that box.

[1] The Hitchhicker's Guide to the Galaxy, Douglas Adams. I've been re-reading and watching the BBC series recently. Possibly in anticipation for the theatrical film. Possibly to completely ruin my viewing experience of the film, in order to have something to bitch and moan about for the rest of the summer blockbuster season.

[2] "Explaining Religion," Austin Cline

The Elementary Forms of the Religious Life, Emile Durkheim, 1912

[4] Summary of The Elementary Forms of Religions Life, Robert Alun Jones, 1986

[5] See [2]

[6] Review of Faces in the Clouds, a New Theory of Religion, Russell T. McCutcheon, 1994

Thursday, May 05, 2005

Brief Note on the Lack of Posts

I've been wrestling with some posts for the last week or so. I think they'll get merged into one longer post. They touch on some topics that I don't normally write about (religion, God, etc), and so I want to get them right.

Imagine that: me, editing.

Reluctant Expert

Everyone and their grandmother seems to be asking me questions about computers (well, at least my grandmother, anyway). It must be upgrade season.

Upgrade season happens every eighteen months. This is, I've read, the average time it takes for someone to become dissatisfied with there computer. At least this is true with the PC world, Macs are different.

There are several reasons for this. One is software related, the other is hardware.

Software bloat is one of the causes of dissatisfaction. Users aren't dissatisfied with the software, however. They're bothered by the way it runs on their PC. Software, through patches, feature creep, and the philosophy of jam-more-crap-then-the-other-guy, tends to require more CPU and memory over time. The programs are simply bigger. Take windows, for example. I've used the same set of software on my PC's for years (Java, a Java IDE, a browser, Civ III). Yet every OS upgrade has expected more and more from the PC. True, the applications have also required more (Java is notorious for being a memory hog), but it seems like some time could have been spent on performance enhancements for windows.

Games cause another level of software-related dissatisfaction. Games are the industry's cutting edge, in terms of pushing the envelop. The effect of this envelope pushing is that they bring along with them the need for the newest graphics hardware and CPUs. It's seems that every year, a game developer puts something out that finally requires the advanced GPU technologies that were developed last year. I've never recommended that anyone be on the cutting edge of graphics technology. Games are always six months to a year behind. But still, that's an upgrade that can be worth while, even staying behind the curve.

Hardware has it's own cause for needing upgrades: it breaks down. My brother-in-law's motherboard decided to do a little agricultural realestate deal recently. My laptop's starting to go. Both of these particular examples were very old, relative to the eighteen month curve. Here's where one needs to ask the same questions as one would with a car. When does it stop paying to upgrade, and just buy a new PC. For myself, I may replace the CD-ROM in my laptop, so I can put Linux on it (I'll still replace the whole thing, I just don't like old hardware to go to waste). For my brother-in-law, it was buy a new PC.

When all's said and done, I don't have a whole lot of knowledge about computers. I just work with them often and am not afraid of opening then up. This is where I get the expert status. It's not so expert. I've had worse luck with computers I've built myself (maybe there's some sort of infection from having it open for so long. Maybe I need to push antibiotics after the surgery...). They often fail faster and in more severe ways. Yet, people keep asking me questions.

Fancy that.