Tom Pittman's WebLog

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2008 December 31 -- The Psychology of Persuasion

The prolonged dispute that brought a long friendship to its end got me thinking about the psychology of intellectual combat. Why do we attempt to persuade people? I guess I can only speak for myself, but these seem like universal ideas. What do you think?

Improve Their Life. If somebody is wrong and correcting their perception will make their life better, it is a good and noble thing to try to help them see the light. If they do not wish to be helped, and our efforts only drive them away, then continuing in this effort is counter-productive. Jesus said "Shake the dust off your feet" [on your way out the door]. In other words, have nothing to do with them. The Apostle Paul put it more bluntly: "Warn a divisive person once, and then warn him a second time. After that, have nothing to do with him." [Titus 3:10, NIV]

Validate My Opinion. If I'm unsure of an idea, one way to confirm (or deny) it is to try to convince somebody. If they buy into it, their opinion now confirms mine, as in "two heads are better than one." If they refuse, I might should think carefully whether I am in error. Truth is not determined by majority vote, but sometimes (all other things being equal -- which they are usually not) plurality offers a good first cut. And then there's politics...

Competitive Win. High-school and college debate teams learn how to apply forensic skills to win the debate independently of which side is right. Lawyers are also trained to win, as one of them once said: "If the facts are on your side, argue the facts; if the law is on your side, argue the law; if neither is on your side, just argue." This implies a zero-sum game, where there are winners and losers. Last week I pointed out that life is not a zero-sum game. My goal in persuasion is not to make a loser of the other person.

Domination. Forcing my opinions on other people establishes me as the "shot caller" or top dog.

In the case in point, my point of view is not particularly helpful in life. My former friend is siding with the majority. I just happen to think they are in error, but it's not a catastrophic thing that could damn their souls to Hell or get them killed. My position is socially more awkward than his, so I do him no favors by convincing him. After two years of debate, it's also obvious that neither he nor I am about to budge, so his contrary opinion neither contributes to nor detracts from my confidence. And I'm certainly not in it to win at any cost. Besides, my personality type favors letting the other person make the decisions -- unless it is a matter of Truth or Justice. Maybe he still wants to be my friend, but right now I think winning this issue is more important to him than our friendship or even truth. That's his problem, not mine. I have a more robust proof of truth than his opinion, and I have other friends. I certainly don't need to win.

sigh

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2008 December 30 -- Above My Pay Grade

I've been seeing (and hearing) this line more frequently lately, mostly in fiction (including movies). It usually refers to the level of responsibility for government workers in decisions having major repercussions, and it implies that higher-level managers are better qualified to make those decisions. I suspect we all know better, but the principle is reasonable.

Today I am continuing to fight the limitations of Linux, with the able help of one of my readers (David R) who knows more about Linux than I probably ever will. When I bought this computer, I seriously hoped to get up to speed by studying the system -- while modifying it to cure some of the problems that make Linux so unstable. Of course the Linux proponents deny such instability, unless you ask them for what I was asking for a year ago.

Despite is diminutive market share, I believe there are more jobs available to unix/Linux ("*x" for short) experts than Windows, mostly because the system is so archaic and hard to do anything in, it takes much more effort to do anything there (which translates into more people needed to do it). I thought maybe I could retrain myself to earn a piece of that action. Methinks I thought wrong. There are two reasons for that.

Don't Fight the Tools. After 24 years using and developing software on a far superior system, I just don't have the heart and patience for the limitations imposed by a command-line system. Everybody in the *x community loves the command line. It has its advantages -- none of them superior to what can be done in a GUI, but because *x already does those things, nobody bothers to make the GUI do them. Catch-22. The Mac did them. The Mac is dead. But it's not that hard to make those things happen again in a well-crafted GUI system -- or even in or on top of WinXP, which is not that well-done, but better than whatever is in second place (now that the Mac is gone -- OSX doesn't count, it's another *x).

Above My Pay Grade. Based on more than 40 years of working with computers and system software, I supposed that it would take me a few weeks to become proficient with the Linux system, so that I could build workable tools on top of it, thus to make it as usable as WinXP already is for me (in comparable time). I badly underestimated the ingenuity of thousands of "free software" programmers desperately trying for 40 years to protect their investment in an environment that forbids the usual forms of intellectual property protection. I once heard of a programmer who thought to protect his job by encrypting his code so it was totally incomprehensible. He was fired immediately, and his code was replaced by something more readable. 30 years ago I also thought like that, and wrote an copy-protection device for the demo version of a major program. 15 years later I was removing copy protection from commercial software. Today, when you buy commercial software, you are required to "agree" to an End User License Agreement (EULA) that, besides promising not to work, forbids you to steal or even look at the code, and it is enforced by law. The EULA can't stop the curious from looking, but it does make large-scale theft unattractive. Linux is "open source" meaning you are explicitly permitted to look at and steal it. The protection is achieved by making it almost impossible to get to it -- like those copy-protection systems which sane programmers now shun. This is where I am today.

I downloaded a newer version of the Linux kernel source to see if the display problems could be fixed. Everybody "compiles the kernel" but nobody actually does anything to it that a Windows user wouldn't do to their (closed) WinXP system to setup drivers for the hardware they have; the fact that Linux is compiled under the hood is as opaque as Windows. Anyway, I downloaded this file. It came with instructions, the the instructions had enough gaps in the explanation to make them totally incomprehensible to anybody but a unix expert (or an apprentice working under his direct supervision). In other words, "above my pay grade." I have a PhD in computer science, I can understand and do this stuff -- just not if it's "copy-protected".
 

2008 December 26 -- Pretty Darn Foolish

After seeing the cost of long-term care for my mother earlier this year, I decided I need to get more pro-active about seeking employment. Or else change my politics to a more statist deity. So I have been sending out resumes to every college faculty posting I could possibly qualify for.

One of the postings required applicants to collect their documents into "a single pdf file" sent by email attachment. My regular readers know the (not very) high opinion I have of Adobe and their products, but I thought maybe somewhere on the net I might find an explanation of the format, thus to write my own encoder. It turns out that it's now an international standard (the Adobe website claims that ISO accepted their definition pretty much unchanged), so I downloaded the spec. It was a PDF, which (not surprisingly) the Adobe reader on my computer could not read. The WinXP system I have didn't have a reader properly installed, but Lamex opened it, and helpfully offered to "print" it to PDF. This doubled the file size, but the new version was readable on my Mac.

I had the afternoon free, so after a couple of hours browsing through the document (PDF is very slow), and a few more coding up a quick program in one of the finest "Rapid Application Development" environments that ever existed (the now defunct HyperCard), I was able to turn plain text into a PDF that the reader on my own computer would accept.

It occurs to me that the Arizona State search committee might have been thinking of the PDF requirement as a technological gatekeeper ("any bozo who can't create a PDF is not qualified for our faculty"). I doubt they will realize it, but I did them one better.
 

2008 December 23 -- Cashier Check Fraud

As executor of my late mother's estate, it falls on me to dispose of her stuff. That includes a 97 Ford Escort (low mileage, a little old lady drove it to Sunday School -- literally :-) She thought she had a buyer for it, but when I asked him, he could not raise the funds. So I put a want ad in the local paper. It turns out that also went on their regional web site.

One of the callers was a little weird. I got this call at 1am from a fellow who said he was reading a teletype message to me, and I should speak slowly so he could type back. I am aware that there are such services for the deaf, but waking me up in the middle of the night? The only message was an email address. I wrote it down and sent off a reply the next morning.

"Lorabeth" responded in broken English, asking me to agree to accept her "US Certified Cashiers Check that is payable in any American banks in us dollars" from a courier, and then wire the excess shipping cost (also included in the check) to her transfer agent, who would presumably then come get the car and deliver it to her in Dayton, Ohio. I was to show good faith by pulling the ad.

Wiring funds costs something, so I went to the bank to ask how much. I also stopped at the newspaper office to see when the deadline for pulling the ad was. The local paper publishes two issues each week, and I had just missed the deadline for the next issue (which also controlled the web ads), so any good faith "Lorabeth" might be seeking there was more than a week away. She said she was in a hurry.

The banker expressed grave concern. It turns out that they get fraudulent "cashier's checks" all the time -- people just photocopy a good one, change the numbers, then pass it off -- so they now take up to six weeks to clear, which allows time for the unsuspecting victim to discover the charge on their bank statement and challenge it. The alternative is wire transfer, which when the funds arrive, there is no recourse. So I proposed to "Lorabeth" that she wire-transfer the funds to my mother's estate account, which was less of a risk to her than a legitimate cashier's check, and then we proceed from there.

If this is a scam, I presumably could be persuaded to deposit the bogus check, transfer the "shipping cost" funds to her bank account (which she can withdraw immediately), then when the check bounces, I'm out that much. She doesn't even need to fool with picking up the car. Thousands of used cars listed all over the country, so a scammer could make a tidy income from suckers who didn't ask their banker for advice.

Warning signals: "Lorabeth" is an American name, but the grammar errors were not the sort an English speaker would make. American Sign Language (ASL) is more like French than English, but the errors were not typical ASL. They are not even European. This person could be in Africa or India. Considering the time of the call, Asia is likely. Using a teletype translator conceals the foreign accent in the voice, but (sometimes to the consternation of my friends) I can detect stuff like that in text, too. Most people don't read carefully.

Also, the email message negotiating the terms contained no particulars specific to me or this car. "Lorabeth" could be completely illiterate in English, just copying and pasting the same message to every potential sucker. The email account was Yahoo, a known haven for spammers and bogus accounts of every variety.

Then "Lorabeth" was willing to pay my "asking price" plus $50 to pay for pulling the ad (which actually costs nothing), plus the courier fee (assuming it was a courier, not an accomplice), plus some unspecified transfer agent fee. I was asking (slightly more than typical) "$1900 or best offer" intending to take any reasonable offer before the end of the year, to avoid paying another year's license fee. "Lorabeth" could have paid substantially less money closer to home. Offering a higher price makes the offer more enticing to greedy people (who are the best suckers).

No one of these signals in itself is a dead giveaway, but "Lorabeth" (I have no reason to believe that is her real name, nor even that it is a female) did not reply further.

It was a scam. But for the grace of God, I could have been taken.
 

2008 December 22 -- Competition (Part 2)

One of my readers responded to  last week's post on Competition:
Blech!  I compete to win. Sometimes I'm not nice about it.
This is a very revealing insight. Competition is about winning. It is not nice.

I used to be very competitive, but much less so now. My essay "Winning the Game of Life" explains most of my growth away from that. Not too long ago I got into a debate on another topic of recent interest to me. Pretty soon it became clear that the other guy was arguing to win, not necessarily to discover the truth. At that point the whole discussion became uninteresting to me. The legal term is "Nolo contendere." I'm not going to fight this one. Let him "win".

Life is about Truth, not winning.
 

2008 December 16 -- The Boy Who Talks to Whales

It wasn't a particularly memorable flic, except that it had some interesting themes related to a discussion (now recently ended) on the subject of "relationships". My friend insisted that "a relationship is a connection." When I see the word in context -- including when this guy uses it -- the "connection" always turns out to be affirmational.

In this movie the "boy" (actually a middle-aged man) talked to the whales. Of course we have no way of knowing if they heard his mental telepathy -- he never actually said anything out loud, and sound does not carry across such great distances of air and into the sea, at least not as depicted in the story. But he affirmed the whales (so he said), loving them and all creatures. Apparently not including fish, because he had no problem going fishing (which kills the fish).

There was another class of people in this story, the whalers out there on the Pacific, killing whales. We never actually saw any of them, but they were an important part of the story.

Now, ask a Relationshipist (a person to whom "relationships" are highly important) which of these two characters, the hero who talks to the whales, or the whalers who kill them, which of them has a better "relationship" with the whales? A Relationshipist will almost surely tell you it was the fellow who talks to them, who projects affirming mental messages to them, nevermind that he never got close to the whales, never had any actual connection to them (except in his mind).

The whalers, on the other hand lived and breathed whales. They handled them, harpooned them, dragged them into their vessels, ate their meat and sold their blubber and oil. These fellows were strongly connected to whales, but it was all disaffirmational. That's not a "relationship" in anybody's thinking -- I doubt even my nemesis.

In case you were wondering, the story was fiction, "any similarity to actual persons is strictly coincidental." Real people can talk to whales all they want, but there's no connection; the whales can't hear nor understand you. But a "relationship" does not need to be rooted in fact.
 

2008 December 15 -- Competition

I have been sparring lately with a friend on the place of relationships in Christian faith, and it has sensitized me to the polarity between affirmation and truth. The Sunday School class party this weekend was particularly enlightening.

It was called "The Couch Game" and it was very engaging, very interactive. The class teacher is quite competitive, and his enthusiasm was infectious. The teams were well-defined, men against the women, and I suppose there is enough spousal rivalry at home to fuel a team spirit. The men won, but only because some of the guys unfairly disclosed information. The teacher later admitted to me needing "some corners knocked off."

The religion of American churches is affirmation, being nice. Competition is the one allowed exception, perhaps because your are still affirming your teammates; it's just the other team that you disaffirm. Some of the wives were incensed at the unfair tactics of the guys: they were being disaffirmed by it, and affirmation is a consummate Feeler (typically female) value.

The guys were reverting to their outside-church Thinker values. The "truth" in this case was "whatever it takes to win." They were telling the truth to each other when passing contraban information. "I like my computers," one of them said, inviting the player who was "it" to name me, the class computer geek.

There is no competition in the values taught in Scripture. Instead we are to prefer each other over ourselves. Truth is still more important than affirmation, but competitive games do not pit absolute truth against affirmation. The Couch Game can be played fairly without lying -- but then the women might actually win. The only "winning" promoted in the Bible is good over evil. If the other people are not opposing God, they are on our side. Jesus said so.
 

2008 December 12 -- Lamex, Part 2

It didn't take long to crash Linux dead. I'm writing this while waiting for the backup program to restore the partition from a recent backup -- in WinXP; Linux has no viable backup software that I know of. Nope, that one failed too, now trying an original backup...

This has got to be the most unstable, fragile system I have used in over 20 years. I'm seriously rethinking my plan to build MOS on top of the Linux kernel. The only reason for eschewing WinXP as the base system was my inability to turn off WinXP's access to the internet, but the system integrator simply deleted the internet drivers. That does it. I can write my own drivers for MOS, and WinXP will never know about it. Everything else I know how to take over, so my software completely controls the computer. That's all I wanted, and the only reason for choosing Linux was the supposition that I could recompile the system to cause the same effect (I fully control all access to the internet, so no viruses or malware can get through without my permission). The supposition may be flawed, and it's getting less attractive by the minute.

If I can get this thing back up, I may still go through the exercise. The alternative is to go back to the system integrator to get DeepFreeze installed in WinXP, and just throw away all the money I wasted trying to get Linux to run. I could have bought three more computers for the same price.

sigh
 

2008 December 2 -- The Dream

I always wondered about those places in the Bible where "God spoke to [whoever] in a dream." Maybe now I know.

I was dreaming this morning (I looked at the clock after I awoke, it was somewhere around 5am) about somebody who had written a novel. Maybe it was a romance novel; the author in my dream was a woman, but I couldn't tell you who. My sister reads lots of chick-lit. I looked at one of them sitting on her kitchen table, read the first chapter. I don't read that stuff when I have something better to do. Anyway, another woman came along and volunteered to write a prequel. I don't think things like this happen in real life, but this was a dream.

For some reason, I decided to do another prequel to the same novel. I was even going to work with the second author to make sure there was no conflict in the backstory. Then my dream morphed my prequel into a stand-alone romance novel, with its own sequel, something that would appeal to a geek, like Cryptonomicon.

Somewhere about the time the two novels merged into one, I gradually woke up and realized I could do this.

When I wake up in the middle of a dream, it's always because my dream got me into some kind of crisis that my subconscious can't handle -- like falling off a bridge or getting mugged, or an invention I created can't be done. This wasn't like that. I don't even remember waking up, just the growing realization that I had something that worked.

My regular readers will recall that I have toyed with the idea of writing a novel. Maybe the Snoopy complex finally got me. The really hard part will be getting the romance in the front end credible. I'm not a romantic, but I've watched them a lot, and I think I understand how they think.

A few months ago my friend Dennis was into reading fiction as a vehicle for theological ideas, and suggested it to me as an alternative to straight homily. I was composing "The God of Truth" at the time and inviting his comments, but he had a hard time getting into it. I understand the problem, but religion makes lousy fiction.

Today I actually think I might succeed. Maybe the Snoopy complex finally got me. "It was a dark and stormy night..."
 

2008 December 1 -- Vista Virus

My sister was complaining that her computer was bogging down and shutting itself off while she is trying to use it.

Sounds like a virus infection, I thought. I was right -- sort of.

I watched it happen. A little window popped up like those spam ads, announcing that the computer was installing new stuff and giving the option to postpone it. The option was a lie, it kept right on popping up and the thermometer kept right on growing, then programs being used began capriciously quitting, and the computer shut itself down.

The virus was Vista itself.

Whoever installed this fecal system set it up for daily updates. The computer bogged down every time she started it up, as it dialed up her online access, downloaded a bunch of unwanted updates, then rebooted to install them. She only uses the computer a couple times a week -- almost never after this virus took over the computer -- so every time she tried to use it, it was inoperable.

I tried to set it to look once a month, but no such option was offered. I settled for once a week and told her that every time she wants to use the computer she should turn it on and then go get herself a cup of coffee or wash the dishes or something time-consuming. After a half-hour or so, it might become usable.

When I use Windows (any version), I don't let it anywhere near the internet. The wisdom of that policy keeps thrusting itself upon me.
 

2008 November 29 -- Always Be Right

"Do you always have to be right?"

I took it as an accusation when she said it. I should have taken it as a complement.

Yes, I do always have to be right.

If I'm wrong about what opinions to express, people get mad at me. Like this time. If I'm wrong about what medicine to take or food to eat, I could get sick and maybe even die. If I'm wrong about what things to take with me or pay for, it could cost me a lot of money and I could wind up in jail. If I'm not right about what to believe, the error could damn my soul to Hell.

So yes, I do always want to be right.

But she was not criticizing my search for correct information. In this particular instance I was reporting on something I saw and explaining why I believed my own opinion over hers (she was not even there). Her real problem was the post-modern (and false) supposition that I was trying to run a power number on her. These people recognize that if person A is right and person B is wrong, then A has an edge over B.

This may be true, but I really don't care about it. It's not in my personality type. Anyway, the solution to finding oneself in B's shoes is to take those shoes off and put on A's shoes. In other words, BE right. That does not happen by browbeating the other party into capitulating, it happens by learning the truth and adopting it.

Truth is absolute. There is only one truth, and I don't own it. I can only seek it out and learn it. Everybody who wants to be right must do it the same way.

The post-modern view of reality is that there is no such thing as absolute truth, only different stories that people promote in a power struggle to dominate others.

The trouble is, nobody really believes that crock. There really is such a thing as absolute truth, and 2+3=5 is part of it. Anybody who goes into a store to buy a $2 item and pays with a $5 bill expects $3 in change, not $1 and not $4. It's an absolute, and everybody knows it.

Maybe I should reply instead to the question she asked with another question: "Are you referring to my quest for true information, or are you disclosing an invalid assumption about my interest in domination?"
 

2008 November 24 -- MacGyver Blowout

I finished the series.

As I noted three months ago, and unlike the fan-book mentioned at that time, there was never even a hint of immorality in the MacGyver TV episodes.

Until the final episode in the final series.

Then a MacGyver son shows up. Since he was never married, there was obviously some hanky-panky.

Far worse, this final episode subtly depreciates fatherhood. Here is this resourceful 19-year-old kid with all of the cleverness of his alleged father, whom he has never before seen nor even known his name, how could the father have instilled those values in him? The lame excuse on the program was that it's hereditary. I don't think so. Everybody is born with the same number of brain cells; the only difference is what you fill them up with. That's values, and it's taught -- or rather caught -- by osmosis from seeing those values at work in your father and choosing to adopt them. You can also see them modelled in other people, but the point of contact is much smaller, so it takes a bigger effort to adopt them.

So the kid's resourceful, MacGyverist single mother drags him all over the world while she pursues a career as investigative photojournalist... OK, it's fiction, but the very worst sort, glorifying the "feminazi" agenda. The real world doesn't work that way.

Real single mothers do not have time to develop a high-profile quality career without neglecting her kid(s). That's why single mothers are in the worst poverty of our culture. Why didn't she go to the father for financial help? It's his kid too! MacGyver had money, plenty of it, and photo-journalists don't. A real kid is going to wonder where his dad is, and develop resentment for not being involved.

The physics was bogus all the way to the end, where a "3000 psi" pressure wash unit had enough force and volume to levitate both MacGyver and son 20-some feet out of a ship's cargo hold -- with no control other than on-off, and no steering mechanism to keep them from spinning aimlessly on the floor. MacGyver used his broken arm (expertly splinted by his uneducated son) with the same skill and dexterity as his good hand, to remove the harness upon arrival on deck. Stuff like that.

It ends with father and son riding off into the sunset on their motorcycles, to get to know each other.

Fiction.

I still think the best of the series were the second and third seasons. The writers ran out of ideas after that.
 

2008 November 22 -- Come-Uppance

"Give me two weeks," I was telling linguists, "and I will give you Philippians in your language."

More conservatively, I was saying that getting a rough draft of the New Testament in a third-world language would take "3-6 months" in BibleTrans, the computer program I am developing to do that. After the New Testament has been fully encoded, of course; we only have Philippians and four chapters of Luke right now.

So far, all my prototype grammars have taken me two weeks or less with the linguist to get from start to credible translations of a few verses. Once the basic structure is in, additional verses involve little more than adding lexical rules for the new words. 3-6 months is an outside guess, based on this experience.

So I went to North Carolina this week to sit down with a linguist who translated the New Testament into a Pacific island language several decades ago, fully expecting him to be pleased with the result by the end of the week. I even studied up his printed reference material (dictionary, grammar) and tried a cut at the grammar on my own before going. The preliminary nature of the published grammar made it rather frustrating, as you can see in the notes I wrote as I went along (in the downloadable demo, run it and click the "Grammar by the Book" link). My frustration was only starting.

Everybody I had worked with to date had been supportive of my software project, and able to think in abstract terms of how to say something in their language. I knew of linguists who had a different perspective, but I always thought of them as "hostile" to machine translation, rather than unable to think in terms of what I call a "generative grammar" (that is, how to generate text in that language). The usual presentation of a grammar for previously undocumented languages is descriptive, that is, it describes the forms people use, but does not tell you how or why you would use them. Sitting down with the linguist, I always had to work their descriptive presentation into the generative forms my software needs. It's an interactive process.

By the second day this week I knew I was in trouble. There were a few (mostly minor) semantic errors in the encoding I was working with, so there is no way I can generate exactly the text of his New Testament, and I never intended to. But he kept thinking in terms of revising the existing text. It was a fixation I could not overcome. His was a very good translation. BibleTrans does not do very good translations, and never will. I will be ecstatic if it does something good enough for native speakers who know no Greek or Hebrew (and hardly any or no English) to clean up and make it sound natural in their own language.

We eventually got to the point where I could get lexical information for my translation engine, and if I'd had a whole two weeks to do it, I might get some translated text out by the end of the second week. The language is very complex -- possibly one of the most difficult in the world, but those difficulties are not that hard for BibleTrans; I just need to understand it. This man took several years of intensive immersion in the culture to learn it well enough to speak it, and I'm not going to become fluent in two weeks, five or six hours a day. The "mind meld" I was hoping for (and had experienced with other linguists) didn't happen. He began the session the first day deprecating his own linguistic skills. While he was a brilliant translator and a lifelong expert professional, linguistically we were poles apart.

I need to allow for that if BibleTrans is going to succeed. I don't know how. Yet.
 

2008 November 14 -- Lamex

It finally arrived, after 10 months. The reason it took so long is that the system integrator could not configure Linux to talk to the hardware. I paid extra for a smaller screen that exactly matched the projectors out there -- and didn't get it anyway. Nobody makes it. At least WinXP knows how to ignore the extra pixels and pretend it's only 1024x768; Linux can't. Linux also can't talk to the ethernet port (the vendor had to throw in a USP dongle) and the fax modem. He couldn't even do the fax with a dongle, so we gave up and went back to dual-boot, with all net access completely disabled (turned off, not even installed) in the WinXP partition. Not quite as secure as the air-gap firewall I have here on my desk, but close.

The idea was to use "DeepFreeze"+Linux to prevent malware from infecting the system, but that only works with an older version of Linux that can't see the new hardware. The screen is impossibly blurry.

The whole Linux environment is total anarchy. In a way that aids in protecting the user. Since no Linux system is compatible with any other, application software must be recompiled for every minor revision. Who could write malware for that? There are a few clusters, like RedHat and Suse and Ubuntu, but even those have no stability. You have to have exactly the right version, or nothing works. It's just plain lame.

Eventually I hope to tweak this older Lamex version so it can drive the screen at native resolution. I paid enough for that ability, but it's obviously going to take a lot of doctoring to splint up the tiny bone fragments back into something resembling what Windows has had for years and the Mac had since Day One. By the time I succeed, I'll probably be a Linux expert.

Yuck
 

2008 November 11 -- Change? What Change?

Now that some of the dust has settled, I think it's time to look at what the American people have elected. The winner campaigned on a platform of "change". I suspect that was less than true.

A couple years ago TIME magazine asked "Where are all the FDR Democrats?" My reply: They are alive and well, and one of them is in the White House. He only calls himself a Republican; his policies would make any Dem proud. Except they didn't like him before they looked at his policies. President Bush campaigned on promises to unify the country. As if. No change this time around. Obama claimed to be a unifier, but his past policies were far to the left of most Democrats. Maybe that is a change from the slightly left-of-center Bush. Or maybe Obama himself will change -- but I doubt it.

So it looks like the American people decided they liked the current sitting President, and voted for more of the same. Hardly a vote for change.

Not that the voters had much of a choice. The two candidates' platforms were as indistinguishable from each other as both were from the present President's actual policies.

Except for one thing: Civil rights. One candidate campaigned on a clear platform opposing civil rights for the people who need it most (because they are too young to speak up for themselves). He won. That is a change. It sucks.

This year excepted, most Americans really don't want Big Government meddling in their affairs. The last four -- five -- six (I lost count) -- Presidents all led a gridlocked government, immediately upon election, or shortly thereafter. None left office with Congress of the same party. Now, why is that?

So I wonder, how long will the honeymoon last for Obama, before the American people once again tie his hands with gridlock?

For most of the last 16 years I have said, "Half of the American people hate the current sitting President. The other half hated his predecessor." I don't expect that situation to change significantly any time soon.
 

2008 November 7 -- Without Remorse

I finished reading this Tom Clancy novel last night. Right near the end there was this sparkling quote [p.591], "Abuse was the weapon of the coward, and those who applied it knew the fact as well as those who had to accept it." I have long known that verbal abuse is the weapon of the person who knows he has run out of coherent and rational arguments. If you assume that refusing to admit defeat is cowardly, then these two notions overlap.

Otherwise I had some difficulty getting into the moral ambiguity of the hero. Clancy paints his unlawful activities in a very favorable light, but they were unlawful, and he needed a deus ex machina escape to survive for the next novel. That was rather unsatisfying.
 

2008 November 6 -- Weaponized Words

Words have two separate and independent functions.

The primary purpose of a word is to communicate meaning. Each word has one (or more) dictionary sense, an object or action or perhaps a quality of object or action, that it refers to. "Red" refers to a predominance of long-wave electromagnetic radiation (or reflection) in the visible spectrum; "blue" refers to predominantly short-wave, both usually as an attribute of objects perceived by their visible characteristics. "Box" refers to a rigid rectangular container for putting other things in; it also refers to the action of certain people when striking other people in pugilistic competition. These are dictionary definitions, the primary meanings of those words.

There is also increasingly in our society a trend to assign value to words, so that applying them as an attribute to other persons either affirms or disaffirms that person. "Queer" originally meant "unusual" and then (in reference to unusual sexual preferences) "homosexual", and from there it acquired a negative value.

Once a word has acquired a value, its primary function as a descriptor eventually ceases. To call somebody "queer" now never means unusual, but only a term of disapproval (except from another homosexual). "Housewife" formerly was an honorable profession, until the feminist movement assigned a negative value to it. Now we have euphemisms to replace the term.

Today I was reading an article in Rich Man's Pop Sci (aka WIRED) about a rather effective idea for catalogging the vast numbers of species in the planet based on a small segment of their DNA. The professional taxonomists understandably responded with Luddite fears: this mass-production effort appears to threaten their livelihood. It doesn't really, but people are not always rational when their income is at stake. Anyway, these hysterical nay-sayers chose a curious epithet to hurl as an insult to the so-called barcode promoters: "Creationist!"

The barcoders reported in this story (to the extent that it says) are Darwinists, one and all. The epithet therefore is not used in any dictionary sense of the word. Its sole (ahem, literally) value is to choose the worst possible damning insult to hurl at the barcoders.

I call this effort "weaponizing words," depriving the word of its primary communicative sense and using it only as a weapon to injure the other party.

Not always successful, I try to avoid intentionally weaponizing words. Insults (and its opposite, flattery, which is the same process but with a positive value) do not contribute to useful communication. However, a hostile encounter makes it entirely too easy to imagine that the other party is weaponizing, and to weaponize back. I believe that weaponizing words -- and ad hominem insults in general -- are an admission of defeat. The article only quotes the barcoders using scientific terms to describe their technology; their opponents are quoted mouthing (and writing) insults. Of course readers have no way of knowing if this reflects reality or is editorial bias -- which is why one should never trust the science in WIRED articles -- but the difference is remarkable.

Understanding the meaning of sentences on the basis of the dictionary sense of the words takes thinking, and thinking is hard work. Determining whether a message is hostile or affective on the basis of the values expressed in weaponized (or flattering, as the case may be) words is much easier. Doing so quickly probably confers substantial survival benefit (a good Darwinist insight, even for non-Darwinists ;-) by triggering more quickly an appropriate fight-or-flight response when called for.

Some of us prefer to rise above our base natural instincts, and do the hard thinking. Civilized -- and Christian -- values call for laying aside our weapons and treating each other respectfully. It does require substantial effort.
 

2008 October 31 -- Relationshipism

On this, the not-quite 500th anniversary of Luther's 95 Theses, I offer a new challenge in the same spirit of Luther's original. Roman Catholic theology had outgrown its basis in Scripture, and Martin Luther called it back. Today his heritage (Protestantism) has again outgrown its basis in Scripture.

I call this new deviant form of Christianity "Relationshipism" because its proponents want to insist that "Christianity is a relationship, not a religion." When I ask them for Scriptural support for this idea, they do not mention John 15:4. I would have expected that one, but if this is such a central teaching of the Bible, it's only one verse out of more than 30,000. "It's all through the Bible," they say. Chapter and verse, please. Then they get silent.

Perhaps a dozen verses, if you push them hard enough, could be about relationships. A larger number mention some kind of relationships incidental to what they actually teach, but it's not what they are about. For example, if I wanted to tell you what computers are all about, I might mention a keyboard or a mouse, but those are peripheral to what computing is all about. The computer is not a keyboard, it is not a mouse. They may be connected to the computer, but they are essentially irrelevant to what the computer does.

The Apostle Paul makes an analogy between parts of the body and various spiritual guifts. The parts of the body are connected to the Head, and it is the Head (Jesus Christ) who tells them what to do. An ear does not cease to be part of the body if it cannot see like the eye. The point of the chapter is not connectivity, not relationship, but function. Some people were insisting that everybody had to speak in tongues, and Paul is saying "Wait a minute, the Body needs different functions. Some people do this, some people do that, but God decides, not you or I."

Christianity is all about God. It's not about me, not about warm fuzzies somebody calls "relationships", but God. God is Holy. God is God; you and I are not gods. God decides what is true and what we should do and believe, and if we don't like it, that's tough. It really is, eternally, but that's not the point.

The pastor of the church I attend, like most pastors in America, is a relationshipist. However, he is rather more honest than most, and he reads his Bible. Several times in the past year his sermon was essentially what I just said, "It's all about God." This pastor apologizes a lot when he preaches this topic, because it is not Relationshipism. It doesn't fit with what Relationshipists want to believe. It is what the Bible teaches, and he knows it. Most Christians in America don't.

Relationshipists, like Catholics and Mormons, confess Jesus as Lord and believe in their hearts God raised him from the dead. So like Catholics and Mormons, they are "saved" by the Apostle Paul's definition [Romans 10:9]. Correct theology is not a ticket to Heaven -- if it were, all of us would be lost -- only the finished work of Christ on the Cross does that. But if Jesus is Lord, wouldn't you want him to define what is important for us to believe? I think so.

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2008 October 27 -- Thinker/Feeler Distinction

Over the last seven years, I have been slowly coming to the realization that the churches in America are run by and for the exclusive benefit of MBTI Feelers, which I am not. As a result of this growing awareness, I have numerous postings and essays dealing with the problem (some of them linked below).

From time to time I get responses to my postings. Two are most common, both from Feelers, sometimes both from the same person. Thinkers mostly do not respond, I suspect because my web site is openly Christian and Thinkers know they are not welcome among Christians. The one exception came from an anonymous student at a Christian college who did not want to be identified. I can't say I blame him. Some people also assume incorrectly that Feelers have emotions and Thinkers are smart. That's just ignorance of what the distinction is all about.

One Feeler response is to treat my reference to Feelers as derisive. That would be inaccurate. God did not make me a Feeler. God also did not make me a musician nor an athlete. Those are noble things to do; I'm just no good at them. Just because I'm not one does not mean I look down on them. However, the economic and political culture we live in, and the very nature of Feeler values, makes the label "Feeler" seem disaffirming to Feelers, as explained in my study of the differences. Feelers tend to discover disaffirmation, even when none is intended.

The other common response is to deny the Thinker-Feeler distinction, perhaps claiming it's a gray scale with people somewhere in the middle, or else to claim to be "objectively tested" as Thinker while demonstrating the values of a Feeler. Since these values determine the outcome of decisions where Truth and Justice are in conflict with Relationships and affirmation, it's pretty hard to be somewhere in the middle. Either your decision favors Truth, or it preserves Relationship. If there is a middle ground, then the value is not being exercised.

October is Clergy Appreciation Month. At the chuch I attend they decided to show their appreciation for the pastor's services by cancelling one of the services and replacing with a potluck. If that makes sense to you, you are smarter than I am, but this is the same church that cancelled church on Christmas day. Whatever. Anyway, they wanted this to be a surprise, which is pretty hard when the pastor considers himself responsible for running the church. I overheard one of the leading church ladies tell somebody "I lied a lot." She didn't seem very remorseful. Why? The surprise was deemed to be affirmational, and her values made that more important to her than telling the truth. Even in church.

That same evening I was rather less resourceful at concealing the surprise from the associate pastor. I think that is because perpetrating a surprise is by nature a form of deception, and I value truth. I wasn't trying to mess up their surprise, and I later went to him to apologize for my gaffe. His response was rather astonishing: without actually saying something untrue, he clearly tried to deceive me into thinking I had failed to spoil the surprise for him. This is a pastor! He is highly respected for his intellect. Yet here in a church context, his value system supported affirmation over truth. I didn't need affirmation -- at least not that kind. I screwed up, and I was apologizing. Forgiveness would have been sufficient, but most people do not understand Biblical forgiveness. So we get affirmation instead. The Feeler value, pure and simple.

Did you ever notice that in the Original Sin, Adam chose a Feeler value (relationship with Eve) over a Thinker value (the truth of the Commandment not to eat)? Eve was deceived [1Tim.2:14] but Adam chose.

Links:

The arguments (For and) Against Relationshipism
Relationships, concluding that people mean "affirmation" by that word
God of Truth, a draft of what might eventually become a book
Men Are from Mars, a list of specific Thinker/Feeler differences
The bottom of my home page, a challenge to do something about it
Thinker/Feeler Distinction (October 27 blog post)


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2008 October 22 -- Fake Ancient Tombs

MacGyver may be astoundingly clever about getting out of tight spots, but he's a real bonehead archeologist. Since it's all fiction, the real boneheads are the writers. Last month I watched MacGyver botch a Peruvian archeological site; today it pretended to be Alexander the Great's tomb in Turkey (but still a recognizably British Columbia scenery).

This program had a sheet of papyrus purporting to be Alexander's will -- except the seal was in the wrong place: ancient documents were rolled up and sealed on the outside; this one was flat, folded like a modern letter, with the seal in the lower right corner, where a modern document is signed. Also real papyrus is brittle and fragments easily, but this document was quite sturdy, able to be stuffed into the bad guy's inside pocket without crumbling.

They filled the screen with this document for a few seconds while the senior archeologist pretended to read it. It was real Greek, and the lettering style was about the right age, and some of the names matched the name "King Alexander" and the "Osiris" title of the episode, and the text actually made sense in Greek, so they obviously got a genuine Greek scholar to write it, but the rest of the text did not match what the guy said it said. I read Greek, so I know. Also they misspelled "King". In Greek it has a lambda (letter "L") which looks like an "A" with the cross-bar missing, but this text had an "A" (alpha) there. Obviously a copy error made by somebody other than the scholar. There were other typos too.

I was going to take a screen shot to show you the problems. The DVD player on this computer disables the screen capture function, but I bought a digital camera a few months ago, and I thought I could use that. Wrong. Sitting on the shelf a couple months ran the batteries down, which corroded the contacts. Now it won't turn on even with new batteries. It powers up when I plug it into the USB port on the computer, but it won't function as a camera while connected.

Did you ever notice how all these ancient tombs in the movies and on TV have hair-trigger stone doors that automatically swing open when you insert the magic key (which the heroine just happens to have), and then slam shut when the ubiquitous bad guy trips the 2000-year-old booby trap? Do you know how heavy a stone door that big is? And how much energy it would take to make it swing open on modern ball bearing hinges -- not to mention just sliding on a stone surface hewn out 2000 years ago. In the movie set they use styrofoam painted gray or brown, then add sliding stone sound effects later. The real McCoy would require huge hydraulics, which would be an OSHA hazard for the actors and stage crew. This one had a giant stone piston travelling at running speed (10+mph) through a tight corridor for some 50 feet. Yeah, right.

The reason you need these fancy trap-doors in the stories is that anything that has been around exposed to the weather for 2000 years has been visited by hundreds or thousands of would-be grave-robbers trying to do the same thing our heroes and their bad-guy nemeses are after: steal the treasures. At least some of them are as smart as MacGyver and/or as destructive as the movie bad guys, so all the gold and jewels are long gone. Therefore the story line has to come up with some way to have eluded these thieves over the centuries. They all do it the same: heroine (or hero) inserts magic key, everybody goes in, villain plans to kill everybody but triggers the booby trap seizing the treasure, the piston starts to close in, hero and heroine figure out how to escape empty-handed in the last second while the villain is crushed -- usually grasping the treasure in his dying hand, sealed forever in the ancient tomb.

In real life of course somebody would come in with dynamite and blow away the old stone pistons and booby traps and abscond with the treasure. Or else the government would come in with dynamite and (real) archeologists to "rescue" the national heritage. Which is why these things don't exist any more. Somebody already did that hundreds of years ago.
 

2008 October 21 -- Cryptonomicon

Well, I finally finished it. Several times I seriously considered just giving up. However, Neal Stephenson does have some good insights into the mind of a geek, so if you want to know how we think, this novel might be helpful. Then again, it might not.

My comments on Cryptonomicon
 

2008 October 20 -- Angell and Devils

In a journalistic world populated by left-wing bigots, Marvin Olasky is a refreshing and sometimes astounding island of truth. The current issue of WORLD magazine has five separate items with his byline, one of them a continuing confession of his former love affair with communism and the Left. It's his back-page editorial that sparks my attention today.

Olasky quotes Norman Angell on the common-sense idea promoted in Angell's The Great Illusion that nations become rich through industry and trade, so "military and political power give a nation no commercial advantage." Olasky points out that this is a common thread throughout Angell's writings, both before and after WWI. Obviously the fellow was not able to learn from history all around him. Olasky goes on to attribute war to sin -- which is true, but a brush so broad as to offer little additional insight. "Commercial advantage" is also a manifestation of sin.

When I read the "commercial advantage" line in the first half of Olasky's column, my immediate reaction was to anticipate a subsequent disclosure of the true reason for war, which is pride. I was disappointed.

Commercial advantage is a manifestation of the sin of greed, and it only works to create wealth insofar as the merchant seeks to benefit the customers -- which is a Christian virtue (the Second Great Commandment), not a sin. But that is a topic of another essay, which I already wrote last year.

Today I want to think a little about the reasons people go to war. As Angell clearly shows, it does not serve the sin of greed, because war impoverishes all participants. But greed is not the only possible sin. Why did Hitler start WWII? Pride. Hitler promoted pride in his so-called Aryan Race. Al-Qaeda flew jetliners into the Twin Towers over pride in their religious superiority. It might even be argued that Bush#1 declined to overthrow Saddam and Bush#2 elected to do what his dad did not, for pride (or the lack thereof): Bush went into Iraq because he thought our superior technology was better than whatever it is they would do. That's pride. Maybe there are other reasons for starting a war, but I can't think of any.
 

2008 October 18 -- Media Blackout

It's an astounding admission from the mainstream media (MSM), particularly a national magazine whose title claims to be about "U.S.News" (USN). Of course this year they announced a "new" policy of deprecating news stories in favor of opinion, so maybe I shouldn't be so surprised. But right there on page 42 in one of the newer opinion columns, Michael Barone tells us how "the success of the surge strategy in Iraq managed to penetrate through a media blackout to the voting public." Not only is there an admitted blackout, but it seems to be politically motivated. At least Barone thinks so.

I have pretty much given up on the MSM. Their politics is so far left of center, even their token conservatives remind me of praising an SUV's fuel economy -- which it is, compared to a Hummer. Except World magazine, which is unashamedly right-wing.

Another opinion column (page 20 in the same issue of USN) started with "an old adage about infantry officers: 'Frequently wrong but never in doubt.'" I'd heard this line before and thought it wonderfully descriptive. Actually, I try very hard to reduce the number of times I'm wrong. So of myself I prefer, "Sometimes wrong, but never in doubt."
 

2008 October 13 -- With Meekness and Humility

I bungled it.

The adult Sunday School class is working through Titus. Yesterday they got to 3:2, and pulled in Gal.6:1. The teacher is a lot like me, very competent in his specialty, but admittedly not very patient with incompetence. He did not use those words, but I think he handles the problem better than I.

I am reminded of this fellow "Ziggy" who offered for my comment some hypothetical untrained missionary to BungaBunga. After a few years there, he decides to translate the Bible from his King James English into Bunganese, using his (American) wife and kids as reviewers. This he expects to complete in a year. I told Zig to "Get real."

Maybe a  more humble answer should have been to refuse to address hypothetical examples like this.

In all the history of Bible translation, no translator has finished in less than 10 years, and then only with an eager team of native language assistants. I don't think there are any remaining languages in the world with no bilingual speakers and no existing Bible in the trade language spoken by at least a few people. Believers in some 2000 languages with no Bible, they all make do with on-the-fly translations from the trade language. That has got to be at least as good as whatever an untrained missionary might do in one year from the KJV without reference to to native speakers -- assuming he could actually pull it off.

American Christians do not want to be told disaffirming truth. Ziggy was "speechless" (whatever that means).

Bible translation is hard work, and it takes a lot of painstaking effort to do it. I keep hoping my software can take a few years off the total, but I have little human reason to believe that is any more likely than Ziggy replacing Windows and C++ with his DOS-like system and pseudo-English assembly language.
 

2008 October 11 -- Public Instability

Everybody knows that eunuchs are missing a vital organ, so they cannot perform.

The very first day I tried to use Apple's version of unix -- they want you to pronounce OSX as "oh-ess-stun" like an ancient Roman numeral because it's been such a stunning failure, but I prefer to spell it out "oh-ess-ex" (former system) in honor of the fact that it's the oldest system around -- OSX crashed "kernel panic" dead (that's the "blue screen of death" which other people get on Windoze but I only read about) and the whole system had to be re-installed.

I never installed OSX on this computer. I spent the first three years I had this computer trying to buy a copy of OSX, but nobody (not even Apple at the Apple show in SanFrancisco) would sell it to me. I think they knew something:

Fast forward eight years or so. OSX is still unstable. WIRED magazine, originally intended (like unix) to be a geek mag for geeks, but now mostly aimed at high-income wannabes, filled page 118 this month with a single short paragraph that begins telling us about the top-of-the-line "Mac Pro with two 3.2-GHz Quad-Core Intel Xeon processors and 32 gigs of RAM" used by artists Case Simmons and Andrew Burke, and ends quoting Simmons, "We crash our computers almost every day."

Why am I not surprised.

My (classic) Mac here only crashes when I try to play slightly scratched DVDs on it. That's not Apple's fault.
 

2008 October 6 -- Biting the Hand the Feeds You

I keep mulling over the brief encounter I had with "Ziggy" over his programming language + operating system demo. It must be because there is so much similar in our respective agendas. I hope that's where the similarity ends.

The documentation for his system continually berates "the Windows/Intel operating kluge." I often feel the same way. I want my Mac back. But the Mac is dead, all we have left is Wintel and eunuchs (one of which Apple calls "Mac" but it's still castrated, and not a Mac at all). There, you see? I'm doing it too.

Towards the end of last year, I negotiated with the local system integrator to put together a secure laptop computer. My first choice was Oh-Ess-Ex (I sometimes refer to it as "the former operating system", that is, the "modern" 35-year-old system Apple replaced their "aging" 17-year-old-system with), but the Apple dealer was not interested in my money. I really understand why...

Anyway, the local system integrator claimed in-house Linux expertise, but when push came to shove, they called in an outside consultant who dragged his feet for most of this year. I went in Friday to run acceptance tests (I insist on "everything installed and working before I take delivery") and it failed (of course). I left him with two pages of things that weren't working yet. I gotta be careful not to ridicule Linux too vocally before it actually works under my control.

Anyway, this got me thinking about Ziggy again. He has a pretty low opinion of all things Wintel, including floating-point arithmetic. Intel did not invent floating-point, but they did set in motion the international standard now used in all new computers. The technology was invented in the first decade of commercial computers (more than 60 years ago), and essentially matched what engineers had been doing for hundreds of years before that. It is a mature and efficient technology. Every modern computer does multiple floating-point additions and subtractions in one clock cycle. Ziggy prefers fractional arithmetic. Fractional arithmetic is much older than floating-point, but rather more complex. There are algorithms for adding and subtracting fractions (which Zig uses), but they are messy and cannot be optimized to run in a single clock cycle. Normalizing requires integer division, which is the slowest operation most computer hardware knows how to do. Normalizing after floating-point operations is a simple shift.

Transcendental numbers like pi and most square roots cannot be represented exactly. Floating-point square roots can be calculated in hardware at about the same speed as a single (floating-point) division; other transcendentals require approximations derived from ancient infinite series formulas, or else cut-and-try iteration. I think the Pentium uses cut-and-try iteration for division because it's faster than the algorithmic method. They bungled some of the tables used by this method in early Pentium chips, and had to recall the whole lot because it gave wrong answers some of the time. Ziggy doesn't do transcendentals yet. Because he's exploring new territory here, he may never do them. This leads me to the title topic: How does Zig do on-screen ovals and "roundy" rectangles (circular arcs on the corners)?

The classic mathematical definition of an elipse (oval) is ax2+by2 = c. That seems to suggest that drawing an oval on-screen might require square roots. Zig's program calls on the Win32 toolbox (which he derisively calls "foolbox") to do that job. I think he is not qualified to insult the toolbox he is still tied to. In my program, I draw my own lines and rasterize my own font. I use the Win32 toolbox only for getting the pixels onto the screen.

Ever since seeing ovals in the Mac graphics back in 1984, I wondered how they did it "quick" (as in "QuickDraw"). I don't think the original Apple QuickDraw used square roots, so I supposed there is a faster way, which the Win32 code probably also uses. I don't know how Apple did it -- I guess I could go look in the ROMs, but I have not bothered -- but in thinking about it, I remembered that I did my own straight line graphics without any division (or even multiplication) at all. Ovals and arcs might require a couple multiplications for each pixel -- oh wait, assuming we already know x2, the value of (x+1)2 is 2x+1 greater, so it can be done with a couple of additions only. That gets you an eighth-circle, which can be reflected across the two axes and diagonals to get the rest of the circle for free; ovals would still need a multiply for scaling, or I might be able to prescale the numbers I add.

The point of all this is this: I did my own file system for MOS; Zig depends on Win32. I did my own windows and icons; Zig doesn't do windows and icons. I did my own raster graphics; Zig depends on Win32. Operating systems really don't need fractional numbers, everything can be done with integers, but I was draft editor of the original IEEE-754 Floating-Point Standard (the math used in Pentiums and every other modern computer), so I know what can be done and how fast; I don't think Zig has given it much thought. He just depends on Win32 for most of the stuff that's hard to do right, and does his non-integers very slowly in fractional arithmetic. Ziggy has not yet earned the right to complain about Windows.

Have I earned the right to complain about Linux? Ask me next year. The consultant might actually have it running on my laptop by then.

PS, One of my readers sent me this link on how Bill Atkinson did round rects. I'm delighted to have guessed correctly.
 

2008 September 30 -- Selling the Sizzle

Most of us, like it or not, are in the marketing business. I have a Bible translation program I'm trying to convince people (linguists and their supporters) would save time and money in the world-wide push to make the Bible available to every person. Failing that, I have a distinctive collection of software development skills that might could help a variety of enterprises succeed in whatever they are trying to do. And some other project ideas that I think are worth doing.

I'm also the target of various marketing campaigns. Mostly they do not get my attention. My phone number is on the Federal DO-NOT-CALL list, and junk mail ("PRESORT STD") never gets opened. I rip out the card-stock ad pages from the magazines I subscribe to without looking at them. I have a good spam filter: anything with embedded graphics or links to a website, if you're not on my whitelist, it goes into the spam folder. That gets everything but the Nigerian inheritance scams, which I knock out by looking for huge dollar or Euro amounts.

Anyway, I got this email from some guy who picked up the link from my web page. I know he did, because he used my subject -- that's usually a clue that this is not spam, but this guy (let's call him Ziggy) was so vain he included his mug shot, which immediately threw it into my spam folder. Vanity of the vendor is an important clue about the value of the product. Or at least the vendor's added value: did you ever notice that real estate agents and insurance salesmen tend to put their picture in their ads and on their business cards? They get a huge commission for almost no work. Vanity is an inflated sense of one's own worth. It starts my opinion of them out on a lower rung than normal.

Ziggy has developed his own programming language which (in his opinion) resembles plain English, something like HyperTalk, which I did a compiler for 20 years ago. Zig obviously has spent a lot of time on his, but he has not spent much time learning the technology nor analyzing his market. His website says he plans to completely replace C/C++ within a decade, but in email he admitted that's not feasible. I don't know what he thought his market is, and I don't think he knows either. But he started on me.

The first thing in marketing is, you must sell something that people want to buy. Convincing them that they want it is selling. I gave some thought to that a while back in my essay on Persuasion. Ziggy doesn't have a clue. His introductory email held out the carrot that we might "be able to help out one another". That's a good come-on for me, because I like to help people, but he never did tell me what he thought I could do for him, nor what he thought he might do for me. He did hit several of my hot-button peeves, and I was not very affirming in reply. I need to work on that.

In retrospect, I think Ziggy and I are in a similar situation. We are both marketing an untested product that our target audience has reason to believe is foolish. Zig sent me his source code, and I looked at it. It's a giant kludge, similar in flavor to what I was writing 30 years ago, before I realized I needed more education. I failed 30 years ago because I didn't know what I was doing, and Ziggy will fail too. He was convinced my lack of enthusiasm was due to failure to look at his documents using his display technology rather than mine. He could not believe I think in ideas, not pixels.

Today I am working on a Bible translation program, which the experts in Bible translation know cannot succeed. And they are right! Except I am not doing what they know won't work. When I sit down with a linguist and he takes the time to understand what I'm doing, his opinion changes -- at least he stops saying it's impossible. But I think he still believes I'm foolish. Apart from the content (my program works, Zig's is only a "proof of concept" ;-) the situations are very similar.

Ziggy regularly insults his potential customers. Do I do that? I really don't want to work with Zig, but I shouldn't have insulted him. Maybe I should have said nothing, but if I were him, I would want to know what is wrong, so I could fix it (or quit while I'm ahead). Zig does not want to know. There is no place for problems in his vision.

Ziggy is an amateur trying to sell his invention to professionals. Me too, except at least I try to understand what they are doing, and show how my product helps them do what they are already doing.

The steak I'm trying to sell may not sizzle, but at least it's not a soupbone.
 

2008 September 24 -- Euphemisms

I recently accused somebody of "playing a game." I meant that in the sense of Games People Play, a 60's era book about the verbal fraud people perpetrate on each other in order to dominate them. Fraud is a form of a lie. This guy was careful to put weasel words into his promise, so he could string me along for a while before reneging on it, all the while imagining himself to be honest.

Afterwards I got to thinking about the exchange -- you know, the usual steps of grief, including anger at having been suckered, which I got over quickly when I recognized that I had controlled more of the interaction than either he or I realized at the time -- and I started to wonder if using a euphemism like "game playing" is a form of dishonesty. Perhaps I should have openly called him a liar.

"Woe is me," the prophet said, "For I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips." That is still true today. Even the churches are full of hypocrites, which is a form of lying. The social contract in those churches has been amended to require hypocrisy. I'm not sure how to navigate those treacherous shoals with my conscience intact.

Euphemisms are a funny thing, part lie, part verbal decoration, flowery words invented to hide the harshness of the real word. The hiding is the lie part. The flowery part makes life interesting. I'm slowly working my way through a 900-page novel. It's not a page-turner like Crichton or Clancy, so it's taking me a while. But he does have a very decorative way of saying things. Otherwise it would be boring.

The funny part of euphemisms is that they self-destruct. After everybody uses the euphemism for a while, it becomes a synonym for the original word and no longer hides the harsh reality the euphemism was created to protect. Like the word "toilet" which was originally a euphemism for the facility invented by Thomas Crapper. I think the newer word is French for applying perfume, something a polite person might do to hide the stench. Now the greatest device for the prevention of disease in all of history, the poor guy's name who invented it is considered vulgar, and we have euphemisms to hide the euphemisms. Some thanks.

Anyway, I woke up this morning thinking "game playing" is a euphemism, and that I had done the guy a disservice by hiding the reality of his dishonesty in my accusation.

It was still dark outside, so I lay there in bed still thinking about it, and finally came to the realization that while "game playing" is a form of fraud, and fraud is a form of lie, using these more colorful words is not mere euphemism, itself a lie.

Fraud is a particular kind of deception, the intent to deceive for the purpose of personal gain, realized at the victim's unknowing and unwilling expense.

"Game playing" is a particular kind of fraud, where the gain is psychological rather than financial. Other popular 60's books were Stephen Potter's Gamesmanship and One-Upmanship, which celebrated that kind of game-playing and taught methods for perpetrating it. It is still abusive and inappropriate behavior in a Christian, but to describe it using the word "fraud" instead of "game playing" is misleading and accuses a greater harm than actually inflicted.

So my original accusation was the best I could have done. It is his responsibility to learn and understand the meaning of the phrase (he could ask me, or read this post). Because he is a control freak (another violation of his claimed Christian faith), I don't expect him to bother, but that's his problem, not mine.

There still remains the question of whether using euphemisms is itself dishonest. I think not. It's not so much an intent to deceive as it is a desire not to offend unnecessarily. The Bible uses euphemisms. It must be OK.
 

2008 September 22 -- "Quotation"

I have recently noticed an increasing frequency of quotation marks in my communications. Quotes serve two distinct purposes.

Literally, according to English grammar, quotation marks around a body of text serves to notify the reader that this text is the exact words of some other person or some other occasion. Approximations to the other person's message are communicated by indirect quotations, indicated grammatically by the relative pronoun "that". Exact quotations are used in fiction to lend verisimilitude to the narrative, and in nonfiction to give credit to another author or speaker, and/or to argue precise meaning thus conveyed.

By extension, quotes are often used when a word or phrase should not be understood in the dictionary sense of its component words, but rather it represents a label for something else. Thus "spin" (quoted) is understood to be a euphemism for lying.

It is this second purpose I find myself using more often, most often the word "relationship", which in its dictionary sense has to do with connectivity, but when discussing people in American churchs usually is best understood as unconditional affirmation.

The purpose of today's post is to make this clarification, and to put y'all on notice. If I quote a word or phrase that might make sense without the quotes, it is almost surely because I mean it in a different sense than you might otherwise infer, and you need to examine the context and/or other postings for a clear understanding of what the label means.

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2008 September 17 -- Standing on the Shoulders of Giants

Twice this week I have had occasion to visit websites where the apparent agenda of the webmaster was to put precise control of the presentation above the dissemination of information. I went for information, and both times I was turned away.

Google is a study in contrast. Google makes their money selling clicks into the top one or two items in their search results, the paid ads. The more clicks, the more money they make. It is in their obvious financial interest to maximize the number of clicks, which is probably related and proportional to the number of eyeballs who see those top items to click on them. So Google makes it very easy to see those results. They try to put a couple cookies -- which they probably use for market research -- but if you refuse cookies (as I do), the search engine works just fine. Maybe they have some Javascript viruses active on their site, but it works fine on browsers that deny access to all viruses. I know. Other search engines are more discriminating about who they let on their websites. I don't go there, because their engines don't work. It's that simple.

Google also has numerous other web services which probably don't rake in the cash hand over fist like the core search engine. This is speculation on my part, because those services are based on the virus technology that I and other discriminating web surfers do not allow on our computers. So gmail and googlebooks and their office suite don't work for me. Obviously Google is not worried about chasing off clients from those sites.

Many other websites have some information available to everybody -- including cautious and discriminating users like me -- plus some eye candy designed for the reckless types. Then there are restrictive sites which simply don't get our traffic. That is their choice, their business decision. I consider it foolish, but they make their decisions, and I make mine.

Anyway, I communicated the problem clearly to both web managers. One of them is run by an organization small enough to respond. Actually he solicited my visit. The other site did too, but in a more impersonal forum. Maybe it's all they can do to keep up with the traffic they have, let alone allow more in. Or something like that. They did not reply.

So this guy explains how important it is to control the presentation. He sends me a PDF (it stands for Pretty Darn Foolish, a bloated non-portable file format supported on a few platforms by a single vendor with a long history of persecuting programmers trying to port their formats to other platforms) and I complained. Not content with standard presentation fonts, he wants to control every single pixel. He chose a goofy childish font that's quite unreadable (said his wife liked it). This is a Mac, and I can "print" the document to a PostScript file for later downloading to a printer -- and then, instead of printing it, run it through a little program I wrote to extract the text. I did that. Now I can read it in my viewer using my fonts. So much for controlling the pixels.

Apparently I am not the only person attempting to throw off the chains of PDF slavery. The font looks like it was intended to foil OCR attempts (taking screen shots and running them through an Optical Character Recognition program to convert the images to text). Another PDF perpetrator on another occasion applied a Caesar cypher (a simple, easily broken encryption technique) to his text and to his supplied font, so using any other font would look like a jumbled mess of letters (I sent that file back as unreadable). Another replaced key letters in his text with pictures of that letter (ditto). An increasing number of PDFs won't open at all on my computer.

I think it was Isaac Newton (quoting Bernard of Chartres) who said, "If I have seen a little further, it is by standing on the shoulders of giants." Some people have invested a lot of research into the readability of fonts. Other people have done research into computer-human interface. They are the giants that smart people stand on the shoulders of.

It seems to me that the function and purpose of education is to find out who are the giants, how tall they are, and where the steps up to their shoulders are. Some giants are under trees, or lying down; standing on their shoulders doesn't help much, but at least you need to investigate the situation.
 

2008 September 15 -- Peruvian Landscape

I spent several years of my early life in Peru, where my parents were missionaries, so I have a certain personal interest in things about Peru. My sister sent me the rest of the MacGyver seasons, and one of the episodes turned out to be about Peru. Sort of.

It was fiction, of course, but it had this Peruvian archaeologist searching for the mythical golden treasure of Manco. Her sole agenda was to plunder the treasure "for the people", which was really no different from the army bad guy, who wanted to plunder the wealth for a particular person (himself). I regularly read Biblical Archaeology Review, which is about real archaeologists. I suppose everybody wants money, but the agenda of real archaeologists is the accurate decyphering and preservation of past history, not pouring money on some ill-conceived marxist poverty program. This was no archaeologist in the story; if she were, she would have been horrified at MacGyver setting fire to the ancient torches and other light fixtures before they had been properly studied.

Much earlier in the story my suspension of disbelief began to crumble with the scenery. These were not the mountains of Peru, because there were too many trees, and the wrong kind. This was a mountainous region not far from the snow-capped peaks, but completely overrun with conifers (pine trees). Peru is at the equator; it has snow-capped peaks, but they are far above the tree line, and most of the trees lower down are deciduous. I often wait out the credits in movies to see where the outdoor shots were filmed. My suspicions were confirmed: "filmed entirely on location in British Columbia." Most of the MacGyver episodes are, despite that they have California plates on the cars. This one showed a Peru plate on one pickup.

There was one piece of scenery purporting to be Inca ruins. Inca stonework is very distinctive: huge stones -- usually the size of a washing machine or larger -- fitted together so tight you cannot get a knife between them anywhere, not even a toothpick at the corners. They are generally only approximately rectangular, but sometimes involve inside angles to accommodate the outside corner of another stone (all without air space), and the wall surface is very flat. Except that there is a boss on each stone: the flat front surface of each stone curves smoothly at the edges, so it meets the next stone recessed by an inch or two (deeper for large-stone walls). It looks like the stones were pressed together while soft, like modelling clay. The stones of the wall in this flic had that same approximate size and shape as Inca stones, but there was no boss at all and the cracks were too wide. It looked like a plastered or plywood wall painted gray with cracks painted on. It probably was.
 

2008 September 8 -- Artificial Life, the Dream

Last night I dreamed that I made an artifact that exhibited the characteristics of life. Dreams are like fiction, but without the constraints of plausibility. As the night wore on, I realized that it was sufficient for me to make a computer simulation of this artificial life. Then (still in my dream) I started thinking about what artificial life had to be like. In particular, it needed to be self-replicating, using components that could be fabricated out of naturally occurring substances. Biological life (plants) make sugars and proteins out of air and water and sunlight, and the rest of us (directly or indirectly) consume those components and use them as building blocks to sustain our own life and especially to reproduce.

Usually when my dreams hit an unsolvable problem, I wake up. I woke up this morning when I realized that the complexity my artificial life needed to fabricate its components out of natural substances was staggering.

Several months ago, while researching my review of Michael Crichton's novel Prey, I ran across the Cornell Replicating Robot, which consisted of a stack of identical and approximately cubical nodes, each with a diagonal joint, so that the stack of these nodes could flex and bend like a worm. If there were other unconnected nodes in a specific place nearby, this robot was smart enough to reach over and grab them one at a time, and stack them into a new worm, which could then proceed to do the same. This was somehow supposed to be "alive" in the sense of being able to replicate itself out of (not-very-much-) simpler components. Of course it took a very smart human designer to fabricate these cubes; there are no robots capable of fabricating them from natural substances.

In my dream, I started to think about the different kinds of components needed, wires for transmitting control signals, logic gates for making decisions -- that alone is a show-stopper. When I was in high school, I wanted to make my own computer. I started collecting parts, 200 dual-triodes and filament transformers, stuff like that that. I didn't have a clue. Later, after I learned more about how computers work, I toyed with the idea again. Even later yet, I actually succeeded in constructing a computer from gates, in computer simulation. It involves thousands of gates, not hundreds, but a simple computer can be done. A computer smart enough to know about making a computer is going to require billions of gates. If I had a really clever material like protein to work with, I might be able to do it with only millions of DNA codons, but that's not exactly playing the game, is it? It's building on Somebody Else's design, not designing my own. And that says nothing at all about making the nutrients; those simple bacterial with only millions of codons in their DNA, they can't make their own food, but depend on far more complex organisms to make it for them.

And that, ladies and gentlemen, is why there is no such thing as artificial life. Not even in my wildest dreams.
 

2008 September 3 -- Favoring the KJV

A couple months ago I put together a clear statement of why I do not favor the King James Bible. The strongest argument I see for the critical text is the openness of the information the editors used in their decision. Classic Christianity is different from the gnostic heresies of the 1st and 2nd centuries, precisely because there is no secret knowledge. Everything is open and available for anybody -- including the skeptics -- to examine. The King James Only (KJVO) crowd are still pushing some kind of gnosticism. The critical text of the New Testament documents every significant decision the editors made, showing which ancient manuscripts support their choices, and what the alternatives (and their supporting manuscripts) are. Almost half of every page in my Greek Bible is filled with this "apparatus" of explanations.

Recently I stumbled across a KJVO argument that cited Eph.3:9. My Greek text shows no variants at all where the KJV has "by Jesus Christ" at the end of the verse. The Textus Receptus (TR) prepared by Erasmus 500 years ago has these words, but the modern Greek text does not. It's not like the modern text is missing something important; Col.1:16 clearly teaches that all things were created by Jesus Christ without any textual problems at all; it's just not here in Eph.3:9. There are numerous parallels between Paul's letter to Colosse and the letter commonly assumed to be to Ephesus -- the best manuscripts leave the city name out, and some scholars believe it's actually the letter to Laodicea Paul mentions in Col.4:16 -- and it's easy to imagine some pious copyist adding these words copied from the other epistle. It bothers me that the crtitical text does not mention this one difference, but not as much as it bothers me that the TR does not justify any of its choices.

If the KJVO people want to make the case that the TR is better than the modern critical text, they should publish a critical TR text with every variant documented, the way the United Bible Society has done with the modern critical text. Otherwise their whimpering comes off more like a promotion of gnosticism. That is not the classic Christianity of the Bible.

[I subsequently learned that there is a TR edition with apparatus, but the single page I saw had far less information than the UBS text I use. I'm trying to get a copy of this edition for my library, but the proponents are not being overly helpful.]
 

2008 September 2 -- King of the USA

Regular readers here know that every once in a while I am reminded that we live in a monarchy (the king wears nine black robes), not a constitutional democracy. There are three classes of people who say otherwise: Liars, hypocrites, and prisoners. The hypocrites may say they believe in the Constitution, but they live consistently with the real monarchy -- probably out of fear of becoming members of the third category.

This week I was reading about some poor fellow who thought he understood the Constitution and the rights he had to run his religious organization free from government intervention, which is exactly what Thomas Jefferson was promising some Baptist pastor in a letter more than 200 years ago, the only document from his lifetime that said anything about a "wall of separation between church and state." The purpose of that wall, according to Jefferson, was to keep the government from meddling in church affairs; everybody who uses the term today wants it to keep religious ideas (except for their own, usually atheism) out of government.

The government won. This poor fellow is in jail. According to his website, the statutory guidelines recommended a year and a half, but the judge pronounced an actual sentence of ten years. Don't fight City Hall. You. Will. Lose.
 

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