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
$102.94
Apple Inc.
+0.44
MSFT
$45.02
Microsoft Corpora
-0.41
GOOG
$573.81
Google Inc.
+2.21

MacTech Search:
Community Search:

Software Updates via MacUpdate

Mac DVDRipper Pro 5.0 - Copy, backup, an...
Mac DVDRipper Pro is the DVD backup solution that lets you protect your DVDs from scratches, save your batteries by reading your movies from your hard disk, manage your collection with just a few... Read more
pwSafe 3.1 - Secure password management...
pwSafe provides simple and secure password management across devices and computers. pwSafe uses iCloud to keep your password databases backed-up and synced between Macs and iOS devices. It is... Read more
StatsBar 1.8 - Monitor system processes...
StatsBar gives you a comprehensive and detailed analysis of the following areas of your Mac: CPU usage Memory usage Disk usage Network and bandwidth usage Battery power and health (MacBooks only)... Read more
Path Finder 6.5.5 - Powerful, award-winn...
Path Finder is a file browser that combines the familiar Finder interface with the powerful utilities and innovative features. Just a small selection of the Path Finder 6 feature set: Dual pane... Read more
QuarkXPress 10.2.1 - Desktop publishing...
With QuarkXPress, you can communicate in all the ways you need to -- and always look professional -- in print and digital media, all in a single tool. Features include: Easy to Use -- QuarkXPress is... Read more
Skype 6.19.0.450 - Voice-over-internet p...
Skype allows you to talk to friends, family and co-workers across the Internet without the inconvenience of long distance telephone charges. Using peer-to-peer data transmission technology, Skype... Read more
VueScan 9.4.41 - Scanner software with a...
VueScan is a scanning program that works with most high-quality flatbed and film scanners to produce scans that have excellent color fidelity and color balance. VueScan is easy to use, and has... Read more
Cloud 3.0.0 - File sharing from your men...
Cloud is simple file sharing for the Mac. Drag a file from your Mac to the CloudApp icon in the menubar and we take care of the rest. A link to the file will automatically be copied to your clipboard... Read more
LibreOffice 4.3.1.2 - Free Open Source o...
LibreOffice is an office suite (word processor, spreadsheet, presentations, drawing tool) compatible with other major office suites. The Document Foundation is coordinating development and... Read more
SlingPlayer Plugin 3.3.20.505 - Browser...
SlingPlayer is the screen interface software that works hand-in-hand with the hardware inside the Slingbox to make your TV viewing experience just like that at home. It features an array of... Read more

Latest Forum Discussions

See All

The Manhattan Project Review
The Manhattan Project Review By Andrew Fisher on September 2nd, 2014 Our Rating: :: ROCKET SCIENCEUniversal App - Designed for iPhone and iPad The Manhattan Project offers a great Euro-style gameplay experience, but it is totally... | Read more »
Rhonna Designs Magic (Photography)
Rhonna Designs Magic 1.0 Device: iOS Universal Category: Photography Price: $1.99, Version: 1.0 (iTunes) Description: Want to sprinkle *magic* on your photos? With RD Magic, you can add colors, filters, light leaks, bokeh, edges,... | Read more »
This Week at 148Apps: August 25-29, 2014
Shiny Happy App Reviews   | Read more »
Qube Kingdom – Tips, Tricks, Strategies,...
Qube Kingdom is a tower defense game from DeNA. You rally your troops – magicians, archers, knights, barbarians, and others – and fight against an evil menace looking to dominate your kingdom of tiny squares. Planning a war isn’t easy, so here are a... | Read more »
Qube Kingdom Review
Qube Kingdom Review By Nadia Oxford on August 29th, 2014 Our Rating: :: KIND OF A SQUARE KINGDOMUniversal App - Designed for iPhone and iPad Qube Kingdom has cute visuals, but it’s a pretty basic tower defense game at heart.   | Read more »
Fire in the Hole Review
Fire in the Hole Review By Rob Thomas on August 29th, 2014 Our Rating: :: WALK THE PLANKUniversal App - Designed for iPhone and iPad Seafoam’s Fire in the Hole looks like a bright, 8-bit throwback, but there’s not enough booty to... | Read more »
Alien Creeps TD is Now Available Worldwi...
Alien Creeps TD is Now Available Worldwide Posted by Ellis Spice on August 29th, 2014 [ permalink ] Universal App - Designed for iPhone and iPad | Read more »
Dodo Master Review
Dodo Master Review By Jordan Minor on August 29th, 2014 Our Rating: :: NEST EGGiPad Only App - Designed for the iPad Dodo Master is tough but fair, and that’s what makes it a joy to play.   | Read more »
Motorsport Manager Review
Motorsport Manager Review By Lee Hamlet on August 29th, 2014 Our Rating: :: MARVELOUS MANAGEMENTUniversal App - Designed for iPhone and iPad Despite its depth and sense of tactical freedom, Motorsport Manager is one of the most... | Read more »
Motorsport Manager – Beginner Tips, Tric...
The world of Motorsport management can be an unforgiving and merciless one, so to help with some of the stress that comes with running a successful race team, here are a few hints and tips to leave your opponents in the dust. | Read more »

Price Scanner via MacPrices.net

Apple refurbished iPads available for up to $...
Apple is offering Certified Refurbished iPad Airs for up to $140 off MSRP. Apple’s one-year warranty is included with each model, and shipping is free. Stock tends to come and go with some of these... Read more
Are We Now In The Post-Post-PC Era?
A longtime and thoroughgoing laptop aficionado, I was more than a little dismayed by Steve Jobs’s declaration back in 2010 when he sprang the iPad on an unsuspecting world. that we’d entered a “post-... Read more
PC Outlook Improves, But 2014 Shipments Still...
According to the International Data Corporation (IDC) Worldwide Quarterly PC Tracker, worldwide PC shipments are expected to fall by -3.7 percent in 2014. To hat’s actually an improvement from the... Read more
IDC Lowers Tablet Sales Projections for 2014...
Following a second consecutive quarter of softer than expected demand, International Data Corporation (IDC) has lowered its worldwide tablet plus 2-in-1 forecast for 2014 to 233.1 million units. The... Read more
Apple now offering refurbished 21-inch 1.4GHz...
The Apple Store is now offering Apple Certified Refurbished 21″ 1.4GHz iMacs for $929 including free shipping plus Apple’s standard one-year warranty. Their price is $170 off the cost of new models,... Read more
Save $50 on the 2.5GHz Mac mini, on sale for...
B&H Photo has the 2.5GHz Mac mini on sale for $549.99 including free shipping. That’s $50 off MSRP, and B&H will also include a free copy of Parallels Desktop software. NY sales tax only. Read more
Save up to $300 on an iMac with Apple refurbi...
The Apple Store has Apple Certified Refurbished iMacs available for up to $300 off the cost of new models. Apple’s one-year warranty is standard, and shipping is free. These are the best prices on... Read more
The Rise of Phablets
Carlisle & Gallagher Consulting Group, a businesses and technology consulting firm focused solely on the financial services industry, has released an infographic depicting the convergence of... Read more
Bad Driver Database App Allows Good Drivers t...
Bad Driver Database 1.4 by Facile Group is a new iOS and Android app that lets users instantly input and see how many times a careless, reckless or just plain stupid driver has been added to the... Read more
Eddy – Cloud Music Player for iPhone/iPad Fre...
Ukraine based CapableBits announces the release of Eddy, its tiny, but smart and powerful cloud music player for iPhone and iPad that allows users to stream or download music directly from cloud... Read more

Jobs Board

*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...
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
Senior Event Manager, *Apple* Retail Market...
…This senior level position is responsible for leading and imagining the Apple Retail Team's global event strategy. Delivering an overarching brand story; in-store, Read more
All contents are Copyright 1984-2011 by Xplain Corporation. All rights reserved. Theme designed by Icreon.