TweetFollow Us on Twitter

September 94 - THE VETERAN NEOPHYTE

THE VETERAN NEOPHYTE

Rubber Meets Road

DAVE JOHNSON

[IMAGE 110-111_Veteran_Neophyte1.GIF]


I've been thinking about edges lately -- about the places where dissimilar domains meet and interact. You know how every now and then you come up with a new view on things? A new model to try to fit the facts into, a new lens to use to examine the world, a new pattern that you haven't noticed before but that suddenly seems pervasive? Edges are like that right now for me. It seems that everywhere I look I see edges, and the edge always seems to be where the action is.

I think it started in January, when I was called for jury duty. I was promptly selected to serve on a long, complex, and sordid criminal trial. I've been called for jury duty only once before, and that time the experience was short and dull. I did serve on two juries, but neither trial lasted more than a couple of days, and they were both very mundane. This time was decidedly different. There were 4 defendants, 53 separate counts to decide, 3 different crime scenes, dozens of spent bullet casings and slugs and shotgun waddings to keep track of, something like 14 police witnesses and 6 or 8 civilian witnesses, a two-inch thick stack of 8 by 10 color glossies, and lots more. The whole adventure took nine weeks to play out. Yow.

The atmosphere in the courtroom spanned the full range of intensities. There was plenty of plodding boredom: day after somnolent day of slow, thorough, painstaking ballistics testimony, matching bullets to guns and mapping where they were found. There was high drama: the tapes of the police transmissions during the chase and as the final shootout began were filled with panic, screaming. There was humor: Helen in chair 5 often started to fall asleep in the afternoons. The court reporter would see her dropping off, make a little hissing noise, and Wes in chair 4 would surreptitiously nudge Helen back to consciousness. We'd all grin.

But no matter what was happening at the moment, I found theprocess absolutely riveting, from beginning to end. Here were the great and mighty wheels of justice in America, slowly and ponderously turning, grinding away at the facts like so much dry corn under a millstone. The courtroom is a place where politics actually collides directly with people's lives, through the strange intervening filter called law. It's an edge, an active boundary separating two domains, where work actually gets done.

I'm constantly drawn to active boundaries like that, places where two dynamic systems collide and affect each other. Interfaces. Precipices. Limits. Edges. And they are everywhere. In a previous column I pointed out an edge in the realm of language: semantics, where a language's structure collides with meaning and where the real work of the language -- creating meaning from abstract symbols -- gets done. In biology, there are edges all over the place. An obvious and important one is the semi-permeable membrane. It's the structure that allows life to create and control its own environment, and it's arguably the single most important structure enabling complex multicellular life to exist. Biologically active molecules are active because of theirshape , their boundaries; proteins and enzymes work because they fit together with complementary molecules. In philosophy there is the edge between self and not-self, and teetering along this edge, hopping back and forth across it and trying to look at it from all angles, is how the work of philosophy gets done. In physics, often the edges are where the truly interesting -- and, not coincidentally, mathematically intractable -- stuff happens. (In engineering school, an all-too-common phrase was "ignore edge effects.")

All the exciting stuff seems to happen at edges. Large systems that incorporate feedback often exhibit a behavior known as "self-organized criticality" in which they evolve toward a critical state, an edge, and forevermore exist there, teetering on the crumbling lip of stability. A great example is a conical pile of sand on a circular plate, with grains being added to the top one at a time. Over time the overall shape of the pile will change very little, but if you turn up the magnification and look closely at the side of the pile, there are constant avalanches of all sizes, all extremely unpredictable and chaotic. This is an interesting dual behavior: at one scale there is incredible robustness; the overall shape of the pile is very stable and will always recover itself, even if disturbed. But on a smaller scale, the scale of an individual grain on the side of the pile, the dynamics are wildly unpredictable and incrediblyun stable. The pile is poised at a limit, a dynamic balance between growth and decay.

An interesting thing is how many different varieties of dynamic systems seem to exhibit this kind of behavior. The locations and magnitudes of earthquakes, fluctuations in traffic flow, the rise and fall of economic markets, the rhythmic variations in a heartbeat, the varying current through a resistor, and the population changes in an ecosystem all exhibit dynamic characteristics similar to the sand pile, and this is not an exhaustive list by any means. That state, pushed up against the edge of stability, seems to be a natural one. Life itself appears to be delicately poised on the boundary between order and chaos.

In computers (you knew I was going to get around to this eventually, didn't you?), as in any complex system, there are lots of interesting edges and boundaries if you look for them. Internally, there's the place where the software collides with the hardware; sparks really fly down there, all right. Object- oriented programming is all about repackaging the boundaries between and among data and functions. (A large part of good object design is minimizing the "surface area" of your objects.) And then there's the edge of the computer itself. And I don't mean the plastic or metal surface of the box, but theexperiential boundary, the true edge between the machine and the user, the interface. Here the animal collides with the machine, and the boundary between them is infinitely convoluted, elastic, dynamic, and interesting.

For software designers, perhaps the most important lesson to be learned from the edge-centric view is this: the shape of a boundary defines the shape of things onboth sides of the boundary simultaneously. The boundary of my dog Natty defines not only her own shape, but that of a Natty- shaped hole in the air as well. The edge between two interlocking tiles in an Escher drawing defines the shape of both tiles at once. If the edge in question is one we have control over, this can be very important.

By programming a computer we're not only shaping the machine; we're also shaping the humans who use it. This is often overlooked, but is crucial to designing good software; it needs tofit . Humans are incredibly adaptable, and will contort themselves grotesquely to use awkward tools, if necessary. Like kids with their faces squashed against the toy store window, computer users smash themselves up against the interface -- even though it might hurt -- to get at what's inside.

But because of the chameleon-like nature of the computer, we have more or less total control over the interface. So in principle we have the power to shape the computer to the user, rather than the other way around. We should be able to make a truly human-shaped dent in the computer, a dent people can slip into effortlessly and comfortably, like slipping into a fuzzy slipper. It's incredibly hard work, shaping the computer to the human, all that snipping and tucking and smoothing. It requires constant readjustment, painstaking attention to detail, and massive amounts of brute-force trial and error. But it'sgood work, some would say the work that humans are best at: the shaping of tools.

So now here I am, seeing edges everywhere. Sigh. Last year it was basins of attraction, this year it's edges, next year maybe it'll be networks of interconnections. But there's one thing I can count on: every time I get tired of looking through one particular glass, there will be another within reach. Humans have this uncanny ability to apply order to everything they see, to perceive structure in everything around them. Our minds seem to operate by forming and then reforming meaning, establishing and then reestablishing context, constantly slipping and adjusting to accommodate the relentless stream of input. Hmm. Just like that pile of sand.

RECOMMENDED READING

  • Complexity: The Emerging Science at the Edge of Order and Chaos by M. Mitchell Waldrop (Simon & Schuster, 1992).
  • How Dogs Really Work! by Alan Snow (Little, Brown and Company, 1993).

DAVE JOHNSON likes to try to slip new words he's learned into casual conversations without anyone really noticing. Two years ago he learned the word enantiomorph . As you might imagine, he's still waiting for the right opening. *

Thanks to Jeff Barbose, Michael Clark, Michael Greenspon, Brian Hamlin, Mark ("The Red") Harlan, Bo3b Johnson, Lisa Jongewaard, and Ned van Alstyne for their always enlightening review comments.*

Dave welcomes feedback on his musings. He can be reached at JOHNSON.DK on AppleLink, dkj@apple.com on the Internet, or 75300,715 on CompuServe.*

 
AAPL
$111.78
Apple Inc.
-0.87
MSFT
$47.66
Microsoft Corpora
+0.14
GOOG
$516.35
Google Inc.
+5.25

MacTech Search:
Community Search:

Software Updates via MacUpdate

calibre 2.13 - Complete e-library manage...
Calibre is a complete e-book library manager. Organize your collection, convert your books to multiple formats, and sync with all of your devices. Let Calibre be your multi-tasking digital librarian... Read more
Mellel 3.3.7 - Powerful word processor w...
Mellel is the leading word processor for OS X and has been widely considered the industry standard since its inception. Mellel focuses on writers and scholars for technical writing and multilingual... Read more
ScreenFlow 5.0.1 - Create screen recordi...
Save 10% with the exclusive MacUpdate coupon code: AFMacUpdate10 Buy now! ScreenFlow is powerful, easy-to-use screencasting software for the Mac. With ScreenFlow you can record the contents of your... Read more
Simon 4.0 - Monitor changes and crashes...
Simon monitors websites and alerts you of crashes and changes. Select pages to monitor, choose your alert options, and customize your settings. Simon does the rest. Keep a watchful eye on your... Read more
BBEdit 11.0.2 - Powerful text and HTML e...
BBEdit is the leading professional HTML and text editor for the Mac. Specifically crafted in response to the needs of Web authors and software developers, this award-winning product provides a... Read more
ExpanDrive 4.2.1 - Access cloud storage...
ExpanDrive builds cloud storage in every application, acts just like a USB drive plugged into your Mac. With ExpanDrive, you can securely access any remote file server directly from the Finder or... Read more
Adobe After Effects CC 2014 13.2 - Creat...
After Effects CC 2014 is available as part of Adobe Creative Cloud for as little as $19.99/month (or $9.99/month if you're a previous After Effects customer). After Effects CS6 is still available... Read more
Evernote 6.0.5 - Create searchable notes...
Evernote allows you to easily capture information in any environment using whatever device or platform you find most convenient, and makes this information accessible and searchable at anytime, from... Read more
Command-C 1.1.7 - Clipboard sharing tool...
Command-C is a revolutionary app which makes easy to share your clipboard between iOS and OS X using your local WiFi network, even if the app is not currently opened. Copy anything (text, pictures,... Read more
Tidy Up 4.0.2 - Find duplicate files and...
Tidy Up is a complete duplicate finder and disk-tidiness utility. With Tidy Up you can search for duplicate files and packages by the owner application, content, type, creator, extension, time... Read more

Latest Forum Discussions

See All

Make your own Tribez Figures (and More)...
Make your own Tribez Figures (and More) with Toyze Posted by Jessica Fisher on December 19th, 2014 [ permalink ] Universal App - Designed for iPhone and iPad | Read more »
So Many Holiday iOS Sales Oh My Goodness...
The holiday season is in full-swing, which means a whole lot of iOS apps and games are going on sale. A bunch already have, in fact. Naturally this means we’re putting together a hand-picked list of the best discounts and sales we can find in order... | Read more »
It’s Bird vs. Bird in the New PvP Mode f...
It’s Bird vs. Bird in the New PvP Mode for Angry Birds Epic Posted by Jessica Fisher on December 19th, 2014 [ permalink ] Universal App - Designed for iPhone and iPad | Read more »
Telltale Games and Mojang Announce Minec...
Telltale Games and Mojang Announce Minecraft: Story Mode – A Telltale Games Series Posted by Jessica Fisher on December 19th, 2014 [ permalink ] | Read more »
WarChest and Splash Damage Annouce Their...
WarChest and Splash Damage Annouce Their New Game: Tempo Posted by Jessica Fisher on December 19th, 2014 [ permalink ] WarChest Ltd and Splash Damage Ltd are teaming up again to work | Read more »
BulkyPix Celebrates its 6th Anniversary...
BulkyPix Celebrates its 6th Anniversary with a Bunch of Free Games Posted by Jessica Fisher on December 19th, 2014 [ permalink ] BulkyPix has | Read more »
Indulge in Japanese cuisine in Cooking F...
Indulge in Japanese cuisine in Cooking Fever’s new sushi-themed update Posted by Simon Reed on December 19th, 2014 [ permalink ] Lithuanian developer Nordcurrent has yet again updated its restaurant simulat | Read more »
Badland Daydream Level Pack Arrives to C...
Badland Daydream Level Pack Arrives to Celebrate 20 Million Downloads Posted by Ellis Spice on December 19th, 2014 [ permalink ] | Read more »
Far Cry 4, Assassin’s Creed Unity, Desti...
Far Cry 4, Assassin’s Creed Unity, Destiny, and Beyond – AppSpy Takes a Look at AAA Companion Apps Posted by Rob Rich on December 19th, 2014 [ permalink ] These day | Read more »
A Bunch of Halfbrick Games Are Going Fre...
A Bunch of Halfbrick Games Are Going Free for the Holidays Posted by Ellis Spice on December 19th, 2014 [ permalink ] Universal App - Designed for iPhone and iPad | Read more »

Price Scanner via MacPrices.net

The Apple Store offering free next-day shippi...
The Apple Store is now offering free next-day shipping on all in stock items if ordered before 12/23/14 at 10:00am PT. Local store pickup is also available within an hour of ordering for any in stock... Read more
It’s 1992 Again At Sony Pictures, Except For...
Techcrunch’s John Biggs interviewed a Sony Pictures Entertainment (SPE) employee, who quite understandably wished to remain anonymous, regarding post-hack conditions in SPE’s L.A office, explaining “... Read more
Holiday sales this weekend: MacBook Pros for...
 B&H Photo has new MacBook Pros on sale for up to $300 off MSRP as part of their Holiday pricing. Shipping is free, and B&H charges NY sales tax only: - 15″ 2.2GHz Retina MacBook Pro: $1699... Read more
Holiday sales this weekend: MacBook Airs for...
B&H Photo has 2014 MacBook Airs on sale for up to $120 off MSRP, for a limited time, for the Thanksgiving/Christmas Holiday shopping season. Shipping is free, and B&H charges NY sales tax... Read more
Holiday sales this weekend: iMacs for up to $...
B&H Photo has 21″ and 27″ iMacs on sale for up to $200 off MSRP including free shipping plus NY sales tax only. B&H will also include a free copy of Parallels Desktop software: - 21″ 1.4GHz... Read more
Holiday sales this weekend: Mac minis availab...
B&H Photo has new 2014 Mac minis on sale for up to $80 off MSRP. Shipping is free, and B&H charges NY sales tax only: - 1.4GHz Mac mini: $459 $40 off MSRP - 2.6GHz Mac mini: $629 $70 off MSRP... Read more
Holiday sales this weekend: Mac Pros for up t...
B&H Photo has Mac Pros on sale for up to $500 off MSRP. Shipping is free, and B&H charges sales tax in NY only: - 3.7GHz 4-core Mac Pro: $2599, $400 off MSRP - 3.5GHz 6-core Mac Pro: $3499, $... Read more
Save up to $400 on MacBooks with Apple Certif...
The Apple Store has Apple Certified Refurbished 2014 MacBook Pros and MacBook Airs available for up to $400 off the cost of new models. An Apple one-year warranty is included with each model, and... Read more
Save up to $300 on Macs, $30 on iPads with Ap...
Purchase a new Mac or iPad at The Apple Store for Education and take up to $300 off MSRP. All teachers, students, and staff of any educational institution qualify for the discount. Shipping is free,... Read more
iOS and Android OS Targeted by Man-in-the-Mid...
Cloud services security provider Akamai Technologies, Inc. has released, through the company’s Prolexic Security Engineering & Research Team (PLXsert), a new cybersecurity threat advisory. The... Read more

Jobs Board

*Apple* Store Leader Program (US) - Apple, I...
…Summary Learn and grow as you explore the art of leadership at the Apple Store. You'll master our retail business inside and out through training, hands-on experience, Read more
Project Manager, *Apple* Financial Services...
**Job Summary** Apple Financial Services (AFS) offers consumers, businesses and educational institutions ways to finance Apple purchases. We work with national and Read more
*Apple* Retail - Multiple Positions (US) - A...
Sales Specialist - Retail Customer Service and Sales Transform Apple Store visitors into loyal Apple customers. When customers enter the store, you're also the Read more
*Apple* Retail - Multiple Positions (US) - A...
Sales Specialist - Retail Customer Service and Sales Transform Apple Store visitors into loyal Apple customers. When customers enter the store, you're also the Read more
*Apple* Retail - Multiple Positions (US) - A...
Job Description: Sales Specialist - Retail Customer Service and Sales Transform Apple Store visitors into loyal Apple customers. When customers enter the store, Read more
All contents are Copyright 1984-2011 by Xplain Corporation. All rights reserved. Theme designed by Icreon.