TweetFollow Us on Twitter

September 95 - The Veteran Neophyte: A Feel for the Thing

The Veteran Neophyte: A Feel for the Thing

Dave Johnson

I used to think there was no room for mystery in the world of computers. I didn't think there was any use for fudge factors or rules of thumb or hunches in the clean, exact, hermetically sealed bubble of logic we all spend so much time diddling and poking. That stuff belongs to "real world" engineering, not software engineering, right? Software is always bounded and orderly, always understood completely from top to bottom, with no dangling ends, no frayed edges, and no baling wire and duct tape holding things together. There's never a need for vague, hand-waving explanations of how it all works, because we know how it works.

That's what I used to think. I'm not so sure anymore.

Ultimately, of course, the operation of computers is deterministic and absolutely predictable. There's guaranteed to be a complete explanation for any event on the computer; the search for an answer will always find one. It's like playing Go Fish with a deck of cards that contains only threes -- "Got any threes?" "Yep." "Got any threes?" "Yep." "Got any threes?" "Yep." The answer itself, of course, may be convoluted and difficult, and is often way too much trouble to actually track down ("Have you tried rebooting?"), but it's always there. The world inside computers has a definite, impermeable bottom, like a swimming pool.

The real world, on the other hand, is more like being out in the middle of the ocean: the bottom is nowhere in sight, and in fact is so far away that it may as well not exist at all. Trying to completely explain things in the real world is generally an exercise in futility, though one that humans seem to have a capacious appetite for (that's what science is all about, after all). The real world is so vast and complex that our explanations are never really complete. The answers always lead to more questions, and the edges of our knowledge remain frayed and ragged and crumbling, even though the center may have a seemingly solid, well supported integrity.

The thing that got me thinking about all this is boomerangs. I've been learning to throw boomerangs lately, and it's extremely satisfying -- and somehow endlessly novel -- to throw something away from yourself as hard as you can, and have it return several seconds later, hovering gently down into your waiting hands like a bird coming home to roost. (Such a perfect flight, of course, is a rare thing for a novice like me. More often, if the boomerang comes anywhere near me, it's slicing past at a frightening rate of speed while I cringe, covering my head.) While I've been learning to throw boomerangs, I've also been trying to watch myself learn to throw boomerangs -- sort of meta-boomeranging -- and I noticed that a complete explanation of what was happening was not only absent, but completely unnecessary: I don't need to know how boomerangs work to learn to throw them well.

Boomerang throwing is one of those real-world activities -- there are many of them -- that are governed by rules of thumb, by approximation and estimation, and by "feel." There are lots of variables involved in producing a good boomerang flight, and they're all sort of woven together, interconnected and interdependent. The direction of the throw, the angle of the boomerang as it leaves your hand, the forward power of the throw, and the amount of spin all contribute to the flight characteristics, but the way they combine and interact is complex and nonobvious. How's a poor, bewildered boomerang neophyte to make any sense of it all?

Well, the only way to learn to throw boomerangs is to get yourself a decent boomerang (very important!), read a little about it or get a lesson from someone, and then just get out there and start throwing. You need to experience it; you need to feel the smooth, flat weight of the thing, notice the way it slices the wind as it leaves your hand, and watch as it spins and swoops. Every throw you make adds to a growing store of knowledge about boomerang behavior. Slowly, you begin to sense the structure of the rules that govern the flight of the boomerang, to get a feel for it, to gain some control. But no matter how long you work at it, there's always more you can learn about boomerangs. Boomerang throwing, like most things in the real world, has no bottom.

But even though things in the real world are webby, tangled, and complex, with no real bottom and no real center, and even though complete understanding is out of our reach, that doesn't stop us from getting things done. Even though we may not understand exactly what's going on when we throw a boomerang, we can learn to throw them anyway, and can actually learn to throw them with incredible skill. Scientists don't have a complete understanding of fluid mechanics, but we can still design hydraulic lifts that lift, toilets that flush, and airplanes that fly.

Though it seemed profound when I first thought of it that way, it really isn't anything remarkable at all. It's the stuff our everyday sensory world is made of. It's our standard, animal mode of operation. We depend heavily on trial and error, on finding and keeping strategies that work. We invent myths and superstitions to explain things we don't understand, we guess, we fake it, we operate by feel. And it works just fine.

But we don't need that sort of thing in the clean, deterministic world of computers, right? If we know the answer is within our reach, then why gloss over it? There's one very good reason: it's gotten to the point where it's often really hard to reach the answer. Computers have become so complex that finding the real answer is often a Herculean feat requiring great effort and stamina. The things that we're "growing" in the machine are getting very deep and webby and complex, just like things in the real world. That nice smooth bottom we all know and love is getting pretty remote and hard to see, and in fact trying to keep it in sight often holds us back.

The truth is, we need fakery, or myth, or something similar, to avoid being hopelessly mired in complexity, and to let us feel cozy even in the face of something too deep to comfortably understand. The idea that an icon in the Finder, a document window in an application, and a file on the hard disk are all "the same thing" is a fiction, an illusion created from smoke and mirrors, and one that users don't even think about anymore (unless, of course, an application screws up the illusion; see Mark Linton's article in this issue for some code to help you avoid such a faux pas). But it's precisely that kind of myth and abstraction that lets people ignore all the underlying complexity and just go about their everyday business. Without that kind of trickery most people would be lost.

Humans have a deep need for some sort of explanation, and we'll often ignore aspects of a situation, or even make stuff up out of thin air, if it helps us to find an "answer." Remember the frictionless inclined planes and perfect vacuums of college physics? Without that kind of glossing over of details, we'd have been helpless. (A college housemate of mine and I used to joke about running a college physics stockroom: boxes of frictionless, massless pulleys on the shelves; gallon jugs of zero-viscosity liquid at our feet; coils of infinite and semi-infinite wires hanging neatly on the pegboard wall. Those wires have no thickness or mass, thank goodness, or the storage requirements would be prohibitive.) This need for explanation is what has led us to science, and to religion, and to superstition. These are not the same thing, of course, but they can all serve the same purpose: a soothing, protective balm on the raw edges of our incomplete knowledge. They give us a ground to stand on, a rail to hold on to, as we totter along in the darkness, going who knows where, hoping the batteries will hold out long enough to get an answer.

Now that I think about it, I'm happiest with a generous helping of myth and fiction stirred into my computing. It can help make the computer -- which, let's face it, is essentially a gritty, sharp-edged, and hostile machine -- feel more rounded and friendly. It can provide a useful disguise, like a plastic nose and glasses on something seething and alien, making it recognizable, familiar, even comforting and amusing. If it's done well, it can even let me learn to use a computer in much the same way I learn to throw a boomerang: by picking it up and trying it, by mucking around and getting a feel for it, by discovery.

Maybe best of all, it lets computers keep a little of their mystery. The mystery and magic of the Macintosh are why many of us are programmers, after all. Mysterious things, things that don't have clean and obvious boundaries, are inevitably more interesting and more fun. There's no denying that computers have a dull, featureless, dreary bottom. But in the other direction there seems to be no boundary; the top, if there is one, is as far away as the sky. So yes, I think there's plenty of room for mystery in the world of computing. Plenty of room indeed.


    RECOMMENDED READING

    • Many Happy Returns: The Art and Sport of Boomeranging by Benjamin Ruhe (Viking, 1977).

    • How to Hide Almost Anything by David Krotz (William Morrow and Company, 1975).

DAVE JOHNSON has an ever-lengthening list of life goals, things that he'd like to accomplish or experience before leaving this mortal coil. Some recent additions include making marshmallows from scratch, milking a cow, and hugging a full-grown bear. (Is bear breath better than dog breath? There's only one way to find out!) If you have a cow or bear Dave could visit, please let him know.*

Thanks to Lorraine Anderson, Jeff Barbose, 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.*

 

Community Search:
MacTech Search:

Software Updates via MacUpdate

Duplicate Annihilator 5.7.5 - Find and d...
Duplicate Annihilator takes on the time-consuming task of comparing the images in your iPhoto library using effective algorithms to make sure that no duplicate escapes. Duplicate Annihilator... Read more
BusyContacts 1.0.2 - Fast, efficient con...
BusyContacts is a contact manager for OS X that makes creating, finding, and managing contacts faster and more efficient. It brings to contact management the same power, flexibility, and sharing... Read more
Capture One Pro 8.2.0.82 - RAW workflow...
Capture One Pro 8 is a professional RAW converter offering you ultimate image quality with accurate colors and incredible detail from more than 300 high-end cameras -- straight out of the box. It... Read more
Backblaze 4.0.0.872 - Online backup serv...
Backblaze is an online backup service designed from the ground-up for the Mac.With unlimited storage available for $5 per month, as well as a free 15-day trial, peace of mind is within reach with... Read more
Little Snitch 3.5.2 - Alerts you about o...
Little Snitch gives you control over your private outgoing data. Track background activity As soon as your computer connects to the Internet, applications often have permission to send any... Read more
Monolingual 1.6.4 - Remove unwanted OS X...
Monolingual is a program for removing unnecesary language resources from OS X, in order to reclaim several hundred megabytes of disk space. If you use your computer in only one (human) language, you... Read more
CleanApp 5.0 - Application deinstaller a...
CleanApp is an application deinstaller and archiver.... Your hard drive gets fuller day by day, but do you know why? CleanApp 5 provides you with insights how to reclaim disk space. There are... Read more
Fantastical 2.0 - Create calendar events...
Fantastical is the Mac calendar you'll actually enjoy using. Creating an event with Fantastical is quick, easy, and fun: Open Fantastical with a single click or keystroke Type in your event details... Read more
Cocktail 8.2 - 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
Direct Mail 4.0.4 - Create and send grea...
Direct Mail is an easy-to-use, fully-featured email marketing app purpose-built for OS X. It lets you create and send great looking email campaigns. Start your newsletter by selecting from a gallery... Read more

Fast & Furious: Legacy's Creati...
| Read more »
N-Fusion and 505's Ember is Totally...
| Read more »
These are All the Apple Watch Apps and G...
The Apple Watch is less than a month from hitting store shelves, and once you get your hands on it you're probably going to want some apps and games to install. Fear not! We've compiled a list of all the Apple Watch apps and games we've been able to... | Read more »
Appy to Have Known You - Lee Hamlet Look...
Being at 148Apps these past 2 years has been an awesome experience that has taught me a great deal, and working with such a great team has been a privilege. Thank you to Rob Rich, and to both Rob LeFebvre and Jeff Scott before him, for helping me... | Read more »
Hands-On With Allstar Heroes - A Promisi...
Let’s get this out of the way quickly. Allstar Heroes looks a lot like a certain other recent action RPG release, but it turns out that while it’s not yet available here, Allstar Heroes has been around for much longer than that other title. Now that... | Read more »
Macho Man and Steve Austin Join the Rank...
WWE Immortals, by Warner Bros. Interactive Entertainment and WWE, has gotten a superstar update. You'll now have access to Macho Man Randy Savage and Steve Austin. Both characters have two different versions: Macho Man Randy Savage Renegade or Macho... | Read more »
Fearless Fantasy is Fantastic for the iF...
I actually had my first look at Fearless Fantasy last year at E3, but it was on a PC so there wasn't much for me to talk about. But now that I've been able to play with a pre-release version of the iOS build, there's quite a bit for me to talk... | Read more »
MLB Manager 2015 (Games)
MLB Manager 2015 5.0.14 Device: iOS Universal Category: Games Price: $4.99, Version: 5.0.14 (iTunes) Description: Guide your favorite MLB franchise to glory! MLB Manager 2015, officially licensed by MLB.com and based on the award-... | Read more »
Breath of Light (Games)
Breath of Light 1.0.1421 Device: iOS Universal Category: Games Price: $2.99, Version: 1.0.1421 (iTunes) Description: Hold a quiet moment. Breath of Light is a meditative and beautiful puzzle game with a hypnotic soundtrack by... | Read more »
WWE WrestleMania Tags into the App Store
Are You ready to rumble? The official WWE WrestleMania app, by World Wrestling Entertainment, is now available. Now you can get all your WrestleMania info in one place before anyone else. The app offers details on superstar signings, interactive... | Read more »

Price Scanner via MacPrices.net

13-inch 2.5GHz MacBook Pro (refurbished) avai...
The Apple Store has Apple Certified Refurbished 13″ 2.5GHz MacBook Pros available for $829, or $270 off the cost of new models. Apple’s one-year warranty is standard, and shipping is free: - 13″ 2.... Read more
Save up to $80 on iPad Air 2s, NY tax only, f...
 B&H Photo has iPad Air 2s on sale for $80 off MSRP including free shipping plus NY sales tax only: - 16GB iPad Air 2 WiFi: $469.99 $30 off - 64GB iPad Air 2 WiFi: $549.99 $50 off - 128GB iPad... Read more
iMacs on sale for up to $205 off MSRP
B&H Photo has 21″ and 27″ iMacs on sale for up to $205 off MSRP including free shipping plus NY sales tax only: - 21″ 1.4GHz iMac: $1019 $80 off - 21″ 2.7GHz iMac: $1189 $110 off - 21″ 2.9GHz... Read more
Färbe Technik Offers iPhone Battery Charge LI...
Färbe Technik, which manufactures and markets of mobile accessories for Apple, Blackberry and Samsung mobile devices, is offering tips on how to keep your iPhone charged while in the field: •... Read more
Electronic Recyclers International CEO Urges...
Citing a recent story on CNBC about concerns some security professionals have about the forthcoming Apple Watch, John Shegerian, Chairman and CEO of Electronic Recyclers International (ERI), the... Read more
Save up to $380 with Apple refurbished iMacs
The Apple Store has Apple Certified Refurbished iMacs available for up to $380 off the cost of new models. Apple’s one-year warranty is standard, and shipping is free: - 27″ 3.5GHz 5K iMac – $2119 $... Read more
Mac minis on sale for up to $75 off, starting...
MacMall has Mac minis on sale for up to $75 off MSRP including free shipping. Their prices are the lowest available for these models from any reseller: - 1.4GHz Mac mini: $459.99 $40 off - 2.6GHz Mac... Read more
College Student Deals: Additional $50 off Mac...
Take an additional $50 off all MacBooks and iMacs at Best Buy Online with their College Students Deals Savings, valid through April 11, 2015. Anyone with a valid .EDU email address can take advantage... Read more
Mac Pros on sale for up to $260 off MSRP
B&H Photo has Mac Pros on sale for up to $260 off MSRP. Shipping is free, and B&H charges sales tax in NY only: - 3.7GHz 4-core Mac Pro: $2799, $200 off MSRP - 3.5GHz 6-core Mac Pro: $3719.99... Read more
13-inch 2.5GHz MacBook Pro on sale for $100 o...
B&H Photo has the 13″ 2.5GHz MacBook Pro on sale for $999 including free shipping plus NY sales tax only. Their price is $100 off MSRP. Read more

Jobs Board

DevOps Software Engineer - *Apple* Pay, iOS...
**Job Summary** Imagine what you could do here. At Apple , great ideas have a way of becoming great products, services, and customer experiences very quickly. Bring 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
Sr. Technical Services Consultant, *Apple*...
**Job Summary** Apple Professional Services (APS) has an opening for a senior technical position that contributes to Apple 's efforts for strategic and transactional Read more
Lead *Apple* Solutions Consultant - Retail...
**Job Summary** Job Summary The Lead ASC is an Apple employee who serves as the Apple business manager and influencer in a hyper-business critical Reseller's store Read more
*Apple* Pay - Site Reliability Engineer - Ap...
**Job Summary** Imagine what you could do here. At Apple , great ideas have a way of becoming great products, services, and customer experiences very quickly. Bring Read more
All contents are Copyright 1984-2011 by Xplain Corporation. All rights reserved. Theme designed by Icreon.