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
$102.25
Apple Inc.
+0.12
MSFT
$44.88
Microsoft Corpora
+0.01
GOOG
$569.20
Google Inc.
-1.80

MacTech Search:
Community Search:

Software Updates via MacUpdate

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
Get Lyrical 3.8 - Auto-magically adds ly...
Get Lyrical auto-magically add lyrics to songs in iTunes. You can choose either a selection of tracks, or the current track. Or turn on "Active Tagging" to get lyrics for songs as you play them.... Read more
Viber 4.2.2 - Send messages and make cal...
Viber lets you send free messages and make free calls to other Viber users, on any device and network, in any country! Viber syncs your contacts, messages and call history with your mobile device,... Read more
Cocktail 7.6 - General maintenance and o...
Cocktail is a general purpose utility for OS X that lets you clean, repair and optimize your Mac. It is a powerful digital toolset that helps hundreds of thousands of Mac users around the world get... Read more
LaunchBar 6.1 - Powerful file/URL/email...
LaunchBar is an award-winning productivity utility that offers an amazingly intuitive and efficient way to search and access any kind of information stored on your computer or on the Web. It provides... Read more
Maya 2015 - Professional 3D modeling and...
Maya is an award-winning software and powerful, integrated 3D modeling, animation, visual effects, and rendering solution. Because Maya is based on an open architecture, all your work can be scripted... Read more
BBEdit 10.5.12 - Powerful text and HTML...
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
Microsoft Office 2011 14.4.4 - Popular p...
Microsoft Office 2011 helps you create professional documents and presentations. And since Office for Mac 2011 is compatible with Office for Windows, you can work on documents with virtually anyone... Read more

Latest Forum Discussions

See All

Hyperlapse Review
Hyperlapse Review By Jennifer Allen on August 28th, 2014 Our Rating: :: SPEEDY VIDEO SNAPSUniversal App - Designed for iPhone and iPad Want to make a great time-lapse video quickly? Hyperlapse is perfect for that.   | Read more »
Back To Bed Review
Back To Bed Review By Jennifer Allen on August 28th, 2014 Our Rating: :: STYLISH BUT LIMITEDUniversal App - Designed for iPhone and iPad It looks gorgeous, but Back to Bed is actually a fairly simple and uneventful puzzle game.   | Read more »
New Cars, New Locations, and a New Seaso...
New Cars, New Locations, and a New Season in Asphalt 8: Airborne Update Posted by Jessica Fisher on August 28th, 2014 [ permalink ] Universal App - Designed for iPhone and iPad | Read more »
Award Winning Children’s Book Bedtime fo...
Bedtime for Sarah Sullivan is a children’s storybook that emphasizes the importance of going to bed, dreams, and those magical moments right before being tucked in. Now Kelly Paniagua, author of the award-winning children’s book, is planning to... | Read more »
Happy Cube Death Arena Review
Happy Cube Death Arena Review By Jordan Minor on August 28th, 2014 Our Rating: :: CUBEDUniversal App - Designed for iPhone and iPad Happy Cube Death Arena is adorably violent, but very, very shallow.   | Read more »
8bit Doves, the New Game from Icebreaker...
8bit Doves, the New Game from Icebreaker Developers Nitrome, is Now Available – and in Four Colours Posted by Ellis Spice on August 28th, 2014 [ | Read more »
Ace Ferrara and the Dino Menace Review
Ace Ferrara and the Dino Menace Review By Nadia Oxford on August 28th, 2014 Our Rating: :: DINO-MYTEUniversal App - Designed for iPhone and iPad Ace Ferrara and the Dino Menace combines space combat and weird humor into a fun game... | Read more »
Draw Stuff, Win Prizes. Glorkian Warrior...
Draw Stuff, Win Prizes. | Read more »
Lots of iOS Games Have Been Deeply Disco...
Labor Day is fast approaching, and so are the sales. Lots of sales, by the look of it. This list is already pretty sizable, and we haven’t even made it to the weekend yet. Naturally that means you can expect there to be plenty more price drops and... | Read more »
Letter Pix Review
Letter Pix Review By Jennifer Allen on August 28th, 2014 Our Rating: :: FLAWED WORDPLAYUniversal App - Designed for iPhone and iPad Create words to clear the board and guess a photo underlay correctly in this fun but flawed word... | Read more »

Price Scanner via MacPrices.net

Save up to $60 with Apple refurbished iPod to...
The Apple Store has Apple Certified Refurbished 5th generation iPod touches available starting at $149. Apple’s one-year warranty is included with each model, and shipping is free. Many, but not all... Read more
12-Inch MacBook Air Coming in 4Q14 or 2015 –...
Digitimes’ Aaron Lee and Joseph Tsai report that according to Taiwan-based upstream supply chain insiders, Apple plans to launch a thinner MacBook model either at year end 2014 or in 2015, and that... Read more
Sapphire Screen “Most Wanted” iPhone 6 New Fe...
According to the ‘uSell.com iPhone Most Wanted Survey’ — a representative survey of 1,000 U.S. smartphone users conducted by used iPhone marketplace uSell.com — close to half of all smartphone users... Read more
The iPad’s Real Competitive Challenger (Not S...
It’s been my contention for some time that the iPad is suffering from something of an identity crisis, and I suspect that may be a factor in slackening sales this year. Apple can’t seem to decide... Read more
13-inch 2.6GHz/256GB Retina MacBook Pro on sa...
B&H Photo has the 13″ 2.6GHz/256GB Retina MacBook Pro on sale for $1379 including free shipping plus NY sales tax only. Their price is $120 off MSRP. Read more
Life Inventory iOS Apps – Learn to Know Thyse...
James Hollender’s Life Inventory apps s are now on sale with 20% off thru Labor Day, 09/01/2014. This is a great opportunity to get started on that Moral Inventory you’ve been putting off doing for... Read more
Pocket Watch, LLC. Reveals Cloud Server For P...
Beaumont, Texas based Pocket Watch, LLC. has announced the availability of its new ActivePrint Cloud Server Powered by Raspberry Pi. With this small standalone box almost any USB printer or available... Read more
902it Simplifies Area Code Changes For Nova S...
The east coast Canadian provinces of Nova Scotia and Prince Edward Island are phasing in 10 digit telephone dialing, to be fully in place by November, in order to accommodate a second area code to... Read more
Boomerang iPad Stand Mounts Your iPad Anywher...
Boomerang, a Mountable Stand with Multiple Viewing Angles, is now available for iPad Air. Boomerang combines several functions that aim to expand your iPad’s potential in one, elegant product. The... Read more
Retina MacBook Pros available starting at $10...
The Apple Store has Apple Certified Refurbished 13″ and 15″ MacBook Pros available starting at $929. Apple’s one-year warranty is standard, and shipping is free: - 13″ 2.5GHz MacBook Pros (4GB RAM/... 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
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
*Apple* Solutions Consultant (ASC) - Apple (...
**Job Summary** The ASC is an Apple employee who serves as an Apple brand ambassador and influencer in a Reseller's store. The ASC's role is to grow Apple Read more
Project Manager / Business Analyst, WW *Appl...
…a senior project manager / business analyst to work within our Worldwide Apple Fulfillment Operations and the Business Process Re-engineering team. This role will work Read more
All contents are Copyright 1984-2011 by Xplain Corporation. All rights reserved. Theme designed by Icreon.