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
$517.96
Apple Inc.
-3.72
MSFT
$39.75
Microsoft Corpora
+0.57
GOOG
$536.44
Google Inc.
+3.92

MacTech Search:
Community Search:

Software Updates via MacUpdate

Starcraft II: Wings of Liberty 1.1.1.180...
Download the patch by launching the Starcraft II game and downloading it through the Battle.net connection within the app. Starcraft II: Wings of Liberty is a strategy game played in real-time. You... Read more
Sibelius 7.5.0 - Music notation solution...
Sibelius is the world's best-selling music notation software for Mac. It is as intuitive to use as a pen, yet so powerful that it does most things in less than the blink of an eye. The demo includes... Read more
Typinator 5.9 - Speedy and reliable text...
Typinator turbo-charges your typing productivity. Type a little. Typinator does the rest. We've all faced projects that require repetitive typing tasks. With Typinator, you can store commonly used... Read more
MYStuff Pro 2.0.16 - Create inventories...
MYStuff Pro is the most flexible way to create detail-rich inventories for your home or small business. Add items to MYStuff by dragging and dropping existing information, uploading new images, or... Read more
TurboTax 2013.r17.002 - Manage your 2013...
TurboTax guides you through your tax return step by step, does all the calculations, and checks your return for errors and overlooked deductions. It lets you file your return electronically to get... Read more
TrailRunner 3.8.769 - Route planning for...
Note: While the software is classified as freeware, it is actually donationware. Please consider making a donation to help support development. TrailRunner is the perfect companion for runners,... Read more
Flavours 1.1.10 - Create and apply theme...
Flavours is a Mac application that allow users to create, apply and share beautifully designed themes. Classy Give your Mac a gorgeous new look by applying delicious themes! Easy Unleash your... Read more
Spotify 0.9.8.296. - Stream music, creat...
Spotify is a streaming music service that gives you on-demand access to millions of songs. Whether you like driving rock, silky R&B, or grandiose classical music, Spotify's massive catalogue... Read more
SlingPlayer Plugin 3.3.20.475 - 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
S.M.A.R.T. for USB and FireWire Drives 0...
S.M.A.R.T. for USB and FireWire Drives is a kernel driver for OS X external usb or firewire drives. It extends the standard driver behaviour by providing access to drive smart data. The interface to... Read more

Latest Forum Discussions

See All

148Apps Live on Twitch: Pivvot’s Looper...
On our latest Twitch stream, we’ll be playing a pair of minimalist arcade games, one that just got a big content update in Pivvot, and another that was inspired by it in 15 Coins. Whitaker Trebella, creator of Pivvot, will discuss the new modes... | Read more »
Word Cubes Review
Word Cubes Review By Jordan Minor on April 15th, 2014 Our Rating: :: SQUARESVILLEUniversal App - Designed for iPhone and iPad Word Cubes is fine, but it is barely any different from any other word game.   | Read more »
PAX East 2014 – Desert Fox: The Battle o...
PAX East 2014 – Desert Fox: The Battle of El Alamein is Coming to iOS Soon Posted by Rob Rich on April 15th, 2014 [ permalink ] Shenandoah Studio has become one of the go-to developers for war games on iOS, with | Read more »
Tank of Tanks Review
Tank of Tanks Review By Carter Dotson on April 15th, 2014 Our Rating: :: TANKS A LOT!iPad Only App - Designed for the iPad This multiplayer game played on a single iPad is simple, chaotic fun.   | Read more »
PAX East 2014 – Dungeon of the Endless J...
PAX East 2014 – Dungeon of the Endless Just Might Have a Shot at an iPad Release Posted by Rob Rich on April 15th, 2014 [ permalink ] I think it’s fair to say that | Read more »
SideSwype Review
SideSwype Review By Carter Dotson on April 15th, 2014 Our Rating: :: ON YOUR SIDEUniversal App - Designed for iPhone and iPad SideSwype is a puzzler that takes inspiration from Threes, but becomes its own incredibly fun game.   | Read more »
PAX East 2014 – Bigfoot Hunter Invites P...
PAX East 2014 – Bigfoot Hunter Invites Players on a Wild and Wooly Photo Safari Posted by Rob Rich on April 15th, 2014 [ permalink ] Yeti. Sasquatch. Wendigo. | Read more »
Dungeon Quest Review
Dungeon Quest Review By Cata Modorcea on April 15th, 2014 Our Rating: :: NO STORY, BUT GOOD FUNUniversal App - Designed for iPhone and iPad Dungeon Quest does a lot of things right, but ultimately forgets about one of the core... | Read more »
Tempo AI and Speek Join Forces to “Kill...
Tempo AI and Speek Join Forces to “Kill the Conference Call PIN” Posted by Rob Rich on April 15th, 2014 [ permalink ] Today Tempo AI, makers of Tempo Smart Calendar, and | Read more »
Fighting Fantasy: Starship Traveller Rev...
Fighting Fantasy: Starship Traveller Review By Jennifer Allen on April 15th, 2014 Our Rating: :: A SIGNIFICANT VOYAGEUniversal App - Designed for iPhone and iPad Continuing the release of Fighting Fantasy titles, Starship Traveller... | Read more »

Price Scanner via MacPrices.net

Save $50 on Mac mini Server
B&H Photo has the 2012 Mac mini Server on sale for $949 including free shipping plus NY sales tax only. Their price is $50 off MSRP. Read more
PhatWare’s “Ultimate Writing App For iOS” Ren...
PhatWare Corp. has announced it has renamed its new WritePro word processing app for iPhone and iPad: WritePad Pro. The decision to change the app’s name to leverages the strong brand awareness and... Read more
Full Resolution Photo Editor Tint Mint 1.0 Re...
California based independent developer, Jeffrey Sun, creator of the iOS app Modern Editor, has released Tint Mint, a new photography app for editing enthusiasts. The app costs a dollar, and it packs... Read more
16GB iPad mini (Apple refurbished) available...
The Apple Store has refurbished 1st generation 16GB iPad minis available for $249 including free shipping. Both black and white models are available. Read more
Save $120 on the 27-inch 3.2GHz Haswell iMac
B&H Photo has the 27″ 3.2GHz iMac on sale for $1679.99 including free shipping plus NY sales tax only. Their price is about $120 off MSRP. Read more
Using a Mac Doesn’t Eliminate The Heartbleed...
Low End Mac’s Dan Knight notes that any time you visit a website with an https: prefix or see that secure lock icon on your browser, some type of security software is busy trying to protect your data... Read more
AirPrint Basics Tutorial Posted
A new Apple Knowledge Base article helps get you started using AirPrint, the Apple protocol that enables instant printing from iPad, iPhone, iPod touch, and Mac without the need to install drivers or... Read more
Speed Tips For Running LibreOffice On The Mac
LibreOffice is my favorite of several free, open-source application suites, and the one I have configured on my Mac as my default app for Word documents that one frequently has to deal with. It also... Read more
Snag a 15-inch Retina MacBook Pro for $115 of...
B&H Photo has 2013 15″ Retina MacBook Pros on sale for up to $115 off MSRP for a limited time. Shipping is free, and B&H charges NY sales tax only: - 15″ 2.3GHz Retina MacBook Pro: $2489.99... Read more
MacBook Airs on sale for $50 to $100 off MSRP
Several resellers are offering $50-$100 discounts on 11″ and 13″ MacBook Airs today, including Amazon, Best Buy, B&H, and others. See the breakdown of deals on our MacBook Air Price Tracker,... Read more

Jobs Board

*Apple* Retail - Manager - SoHo - Apple (Uni...
Job SummaryKeeping an Apple Store thriving requires a diverse set of leadership skills, and as a Manager, you're a master of them all. In the store's fast-paced, dynamic Read more
Position Opening at *Apple* - Apple (United...
**Job Summary** Every day, business customers come to the Apple Store to discover what powerful, easy-to-use Apple products can do for them. As a Business Leader, Read more
Position Opening at *Apple* - Apple (United...
…challenges of developing individuals, building teams, and affecting growth across Apple Stores. You demonstrate successful leadership ability - focusing on excellence Read more
Position Opening at *Apple* - Apple (United...
…Summary** As a Specialist, you help create the energy and excitement around Apple products, providing the right solutions and getting products into customers' hands. You Read more
Position Opening at *Apple* - Apple (United...
**Job Summary** The Apple Store is a retail environment like no other - uniquely focused on delivering amazing customer experiences. As an Expert, you introduce people Read more
All contents are Copyright 1984-2011 by Xplain Corporation. All rights reserved. Theme designed by Icreon.