Wednesday, November 17, 2004

Yes, we are all individuals!

I'm not.

Some people might say it takes a rare individual to realize that they utterly unimportant and ordinary. I don't think this realization is particularly rare. The reason people laugh at the guy who raises his hand and says "I'm not" in that scene from The Life of Brian is not just the incongruity of a single person standing out from the crowd by being the only one to say they don't stand out. Most people, I think, recognize at some level that we have all been in that crowd, that we are all in crowds of one sort or another at all times, and that Dennis (the "I'm not" guy) is right when he says he's not different. He's only saying what is true for any of us, and which we already know (but saying it with impeccable timing).

Then again, my friends tell me I am an optimist.

"True wit is nature to advantage dressed,
what oft was thought, but never so well expressed."
-- Alexander Pope

In broad strokes the actions of any of us are both incredibly predictable and completely inconsequential. People who know me well might be surprised to hear me say that, as I also believe strongly in the value of each human being (or other sentient entity), and in seeming contradiction to the above, the uniqueness of each person. But the difference is in scope. Each of these ideas (that we are unique individuals of great value and that we are interchangeable particles in history of no individual consequence) can be true as the same time of the same person, because they address different scales. On the scale of history I certainly do not matter. To proclaim otherwise would be hopelessly grandiose. Even limiting ourselves to the here and now I do not matter to such a large segment of humanity that, by any objective measure, I might as well not exist. Even the actions of the rich, powerful and famous will disappear into history. If Newton had died in childhood Leibnitz would have gotten credit for discovering calculus, and life would go on. Even those things which seem overbearingly huge to us right now are hiccups in history, and it will all be gone in the blink of an eye, as the Atlantic grows just a few meters wider.

However, there is another scale, the human scale of one to one interactions, with my friends, colleagues and even random strangers on the internet. In that tiny circle around each of us, we do matter and we are unique, important individuals. And, after all, we each live in a universe of our own, centered, by necessity, on ourselves.

People deal with this in different ways. Most of us, most of the time, just ignore the big picture, because, in the end, it ignores us. Periodically someone will be outraged that nobody around them 'realizes' how utterly banal it all is, they will rant and shout, or mope and groan, or perhaps take up 'mischief' (also known in some circles as 'wankerhood') in order to wake people up. And the raging individuals, too, are part of a crowd, gnashing their teeth and shaking their fists in unison.

There is no escaping your insignificance. A few decades as a single speck out of billions swarming over a mote lost in space. There's no significance in that, no matter what you do, if you insist on taking that kind of perspective.

But nothing requires you to take that kind of perspective. There is nothing more natural about looking at your life through a backwards telescope from the surface of the moon. The distance between your thumb and forefinger is just as natural a measure as any other, and the few hundred people you know are no less significant that the billions you do not. You are the center of the universe. There is no escaping your importance and responsibility.

This, too, is not a unique realization, but one that is useful to remind ourselves of from time to time.

Tuesday, November 16, 2004


It is a strange feeling to watch as a person describes being deliberately provocative, even rude, as a deeply important task taken up by the best and brightest in order to deflate the self-importance of others.

I have seen it, more than once.

The self-described 'troll' pronounces the vast majority of humanity (that is, one supposes, anyone who responds negatively to their prodding) 'sheep', dim-witted followers. The non-trolls are not smart enough, it seems, to see how important it is to be crass and disruptive for the sake of it, how pictures of naked women inserted randomly into a discussion of authentic reproductions of USAF flight jackets reveal the essence of the human condition, and, of course, too blind to have seen the human condition for themselves. In other words, the 'troll' vastly inflates their own importance, creating in themselves a perfect parody of that which they claim to defeat, and seemingly never realising that the reason they are reviled is not that they shine a burning light on uncomfortable hidden truths, but that they are tediously repeating the obvious, when they say anything at all.

This post is, of course, my own failure, justifying those 'trolls' in their sense of rebellion. I am one of those blinkered, close-minded guardians of conformity that they have set themselves against, and by rejecting their declaration of war as delusionary I only confirm, for them, the importance of their task. So I do it here, where at least it will do little harm.

Friday, October 22, 2004

At Least She's Honest

A conversation with my four-year-old daughter:

"I'm thinking about putting the laptop computer on top of that cabinet over there."


"Will you promise not to play with it and break it."

"No Daddy, I'm gonna break it."

Monday, October 18, 2004


Oh, yes, there is something I am a bit excited about. Cassini flies past Titan next week.

Maybe you, dear reader, are not excited by exploration of other worlds. I know a lot of people who aren't. But there is just something that moves me when I see a giant vista taken from a hilltop on a whole other planet. I hope Titan turns out to be more than just an orange haze. Maybe there will be fascinating shades of yellow and red haze as well! Woo hoo!

"Roger Houston, we're on the ****ing Moon!"
Standing on Mars

I love that stuff.

Mumble Mumble

Obviously I don't believe in regular blogging. It doesn't seem to be something that demands my attention very often. That, and work almost always drains my energy until I don't want to do anything at all after I get home.

Now, today, when I get home with a little tiny echo of a desire to talk about something, I find I have nothing to talk about. Not surprising really. I've been at work all day after all, and who wants to talk about that?

Thursday, August 19, 2004

Typhoon Season

I fly a fair bit, more than once a month. Today I took a flight to Tokyo. It has been exactly one week since the last flight I took, also to Tokyo, and like last week I'm flying back in the evening.

Today is also the third time that I've flown through a typhoon. I've never flown directly through one, of course, but through the edges. I remember the first time. I was right in the front of a jumbo jet, just behind the nose cone. I could hear the rain pelting the front of the plane as we punched through.

This time there was a chance that the typhoon would run right over us at exactly the time I was supposed to be taking off, or so it seemed when I looked at the Yahoo! typhoon tracking page, but apparently it decided to skip Fukuoka and head for Korea instead.

The wind was strong anyway. Low running clouds skudding across the sky. Is skudding a word? It seems like it should be, and it should describe what it was those clouds were doing. Anyway, they were skudding, and I happened to look out the window of the plane while we were waiting on the tarmac just in time to see another plane take off. As it rose into the air it suddenly turned, angling into the wind to keep on course. It seemed, for a second like it might lose the fight and be blown backwards, but of course it continued on, eventually disappearing beyond those skudding clouds.
That's not something you want to see happening to a passenger jet, especially when you're next in line.

Well, I survived. Our jet too jumped into the air and was grabbed, forcing the pilot to perform the same angling across the wind that I had seen. We also got to be shaken, pushed up, and slapped down. Down is the worst. It makes you grab the seat, which seems awfully flimsy as you are partially lifted out of it. Then you tighten your seatbelt for the tenth time.

The kids behind me didn't help either. They screamed. It was basically the kind of screaming you get on a roller coaster, but there was just a little bit of real fear, that maybe the plane was going to keep going down, because this roller coaster has no rails.

Eventually we got up into smoother air, although there were still a few moments when we got a shaking, just so we don't forget who's really in charge. Now I'm sitting here waiting for the flight home. Those clouds are still skudding. It's a good thing I like flying so much.

Wednesday, August 11, 2004

Random Thought

One of the real benefits of modern cellular phone technology has been to make all those people who wander around talking to themselves appear to be sane.

Tuesday, July 27, 2004

Multi-Mooned Menace

I've been thinking about moons. Maybe it has something to do with Cassini.

Anyway, I was looking up at our ridiculously huge moon and thinking about how, in fantasy and SF, every single freakin' planet has about six moons, purple and green and red, crowded together to make a nice picturesque backdrop and, by the way, make it absolutely clear that we are not on Earth. Ok, fine, you need some way to get that across. "This was not Earth. This was Kwaxaqikutuz. The huge triple moons spun balefully overhead, pouring reddish purple light over the landscape, which was not on Earth, no! It was Kwaxaqikutuz! Kwaxaqikutuz! The planet which hereinafter is referred to as Planet K!" You get the picture, I suppose, though probably you do not buy the book.

So, geek that I am, I think about moons and I wonder about how multiple moons have become visual shorthand for alien, especially given that a system with more than two objects of comparable mass is not stable. If I am not totally mistaken the tendency is for at least one of the objects to get thrown out of the group at some point. Only when there is a significantly larger central mass, and the satellites are far enough apart to keep from perturbing each other's orbits too much, do you get a stable system. But tiny moons like Phobos and Deimos are no fun at all.

On the other hand, maybe I'm imagining things. I couldn't find a good example of this kind of picture, and I googled for almost five whole minutes.

Time to Cut Down

Man, am I long winded or what?

Monday, July 26, 2004


Posted on Slashdot: Open Source Myths

I agree, in the main, with what he says in there. Indeed, points 1 and 2, concerning whether users of open source need to be willing to fix problems before they complain about them, are spot on.

However, point 3, where he talks about the costs of developing software, and how open source tends to undercut the ability to make money from software, makes me want to comment.
Here's the thing: Nothing is ever really, totally "free". There is always a price to be paid, even if that price is simply the breakdown of the marketplace and the ability to make money from your own software, that you developed with your own time and effort. If the culture doesn't support the idea of paying for software (and music, and movies, etc) in some way, then we are basically just denying artists and programmers the right to make money from what they do.
My comment is this: just because something is difficult, because you invest your blood, sweat and tears into it, still doesn't give you the right to make money from it. Maybe it should, in a perfect world, but it does not. The only thing that gives you a right to make money in a free market is producing something that other people are willing to pay for, and people are not always willing to pay for something simply because it was difficult to make.

I, personally, rail against this idea almost every day in my internal struggle to find the energy to get up in the morning and go to work. Still, I continue to conclude that there is no way around this basic feature of the market (not without some utopian communist system, which at the moment does not seem workable).

The problem is that people aren't willing to pay if there is a cheaper but good enough alternative. Open source can often be just that: cheap (as in free), and good enough. So what's a programmer to do? How can you make a living? The author offers an escape route in the next point, though he seems to have missed the significance:
I think it's true to say that while many Open Source projects are superior to their close-source counterparts (Apache being a prime example), it's also true to say that a closed-source approach to a problem can have some benefits. Some of these benefits include having a more focused direction for the team, given the fact that there is (usually) just one manager and team leader, firmer schedules and deadlines, tighter management, profit incentives, salaries and bonus motivations. While this can also be true for open source projects, the "design by committee" that goes on with community projects often results in a more bloated and less focused product that tries to be all things to all people. Also, sometimes a simple lack of funds on the part of the developer can hamper the development.
Closed source can be better. I happen to agree that this is possible. Closed source can produce a better, more user-focused product (I tend to see Apple as an example of this, rather than Microsoft...). I'll add another thing, closer to my own experience: closed source is good for integrated systems, as opposed to general applications, platforms, libraries and tools. The difference is focus.

(I'm not entirely convinced of this, but it seems a reasonably likely hypothesis to me at this point.)

So how does a programmer make money? You do it by making a better product. If you cannot compete against a gaggle of volunteers, then perhaps you need to reconsider where you are focusing your efforts. (Not much help if you are just a sub-human programmer, I know, but that's a different problem.)

The other thing that comes up is how free software will imitate any really good application. But is this really a new thing? Without free software it would be your competitors who imitated you, and they would charge less too, because they could just ape your program and avoid all that expensive R&D. You still end up with software becoming a commodity eventually. If you are looking for profit you have to constantly be searching for new markets (i.e. new applications and new users). This, incidentally, is why commercial software tends to suck, from a technical standpoint: perfectionism does not pay. By the time you get to the point of ironing out all the last few problems in your product, there is no money to be made in selling it. (Yes, that's a wild generalization. So is the rest of this screed.)

So, really, it's not a question of whether all software should be free, but more whether all software will be free or can be free. My feeling is that it will not and can not. Profit is a strong motivator, and companies will continue to be successful in making closed software in those places where open software is not good enough.

At least I hope so. I don't think I'd make a good burger flipper.

Friday, July 23, 2004

Human Culture

Elsewhere on the net, in the midst of political discussions which sometimes turn to anti-americanism (claims of, denials of, justifications of), someone posted this link, an example, perhaps, of anti-europeanism. I have to be honest. I didn't read the whole thing. There are some interesting points, but... it trudges. It plods. It is, in a word, dull.

There is a kernel of a good idea in there: pretty much everyone is provincial. Almost every day in Japan I hear on the news about dozens of people killed in some international transportation tragedy, only to have the report end abruptly with some variation of "no Japanese citizens were aboard." Oh, well, it's ok then. Later, I talk to someone in Canada and get to hear about the same thing, except there were a couple of Canadians involved, which makes all the difference.

So, right, it's natural, and not all that bad really, to try to find links with other people, and one of those links is shared nationality. But at some point, like when you take interest in Canadians buried in a landslide, but not Frenchmen, or Scots, or Tuvaluvalics, it begins to get silly.

But I'm getting away from my topic. Bruce Bawer's piece fails, for me, because, after noting that Europeans are just as prone to nationalistic blinkering as Americans are so often accused of being, it immidiately retreats to chest thumping about how great America really is. Yes. America good. Super country. Wonderful people. Great cultural values. Independent thinking. Liberty. All that.

But. But, "the arsenal of democracy, and the center of humanity’s common culture"?

The U.S. may have been the first and most enthusiastic of modern democracies, but it is not the only one. The behavior of the U.S. in defense and support of democracy internationally is not, as far as I can see, substantially different from that of other western nations. Self interest, a bit of idealism here and there, sometimes misinformed or misdirected, sometimes hesitant, sometimes over-eager. The main difference is not that the U.S. has some monopoly on the moral high ground, but that they are the biggest and baddest and the best of the western imperialist running dog devil freedom fighters for liberty and justice for all.

About that "common culture," I think Mr. Bawer made a mistake there, though I can understand why. This "common culture" he is talking about is a vague, nebulous thing. The U.S. is not the center of humanity's common culture. It is the center of American culture. American culture, in the form of TV, literature and music, gets exported around the world, but that doesn't change the fact that it is American culture. (That doesn't make it good or bad, just American.) A culture doesn't broadcast from a center, it has to be shared. And in the sharing it changes. Russians and Japanese and Americans and no doubt Tuvaluvalivians, play 'rock' music, and there are commonalities, but it's not all the same, and it is certainly not all American.

I'm not sure there is really much of a common culture. If there is, it is the one that mixes across boundaries. It is not something we can locate, or box up and sell. It comes from the places between places, no place, and all places at once.

Including America.

Exciting! New! Improved!

Not really, but I did fill in my profile.

Then I surfed the profiles of other bloggers using a feature that searches for people with the same music, movies, and books in their profiles. I found out that I am just like everyone else on blogspot, more or less, except not so interesting, and I like a couple of books and bands that nobody else does.

Have none of you freaks heard of the The Sugar Cubes!? Did I spell it wrong? Philistines.

Thursday, July 22, 2004

Hi Mom

I think I may link this blog from my homepage, so, actually, the bit about my mother stumbling across it is reasonably likely. This means that I won't talk about the slimy underbelly of this pit of sin and averice into which I have fallen. The crack house, the transvestite bondage group, the golfers, all of that is staying safely in the closet. Instead I will maintain my sweet facade and talk about whatever random thing interests me, as soon as I get around to it, which isn't yet, in case you hadn't guessed.

P.S. I don't actually golf.

Thursday, July 15, 2004



This is a test

This is a test of the emergency blogcast system. If this had been an actual blog, some boring and far too intimate detail of my life would be left here for my mother to stumble across and worry about.

How many blogs have started like that? Lots I bet. I could google™ it! ... Maybe not.

Is there a point? There is no point. Not yet.