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.*

 
AAPL
$105.22
Apple Inc.
+0.39
MSFT
$46.13
Microsoft Corpora
+1.11
GOOG
$539.78
Google Inc.
-4.20

MacTech Search:
Community Search:

Software Updates via MacUpdate

OS X Server 4.0 - For OS X 10.10 Yosemit...
Designed for OS X and iOS devices, OS X Server makes it easy to share files, schedule meetings, synchronize contacts, develop software, host your own website, publish wikis, configure Mac, iPhone,... Read more
TotalFinder 1.6.12 - Adds tabs, hotkeys,...
TotalFinder is a universally acclaimed navigational companion for your Mac. Enhance your Mac's Finder with features so smart and convenient, you won't believe you ever lived without them. Tab-based... Read more
BusyCal 2.6.3 - Powerful calendar app wi...
BusyCal is an award-winning desktop calendar that combines personal productivity features for individuals with powerful calendar sharing capabilities for families and workgroups. BusyCal's unique... Read more
calibre 2.7 - Complete e-library managem...
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... Read more
Skitch 2.7.3 - Take screenshots, annotat...
With Skitch, taking, annotating, and sharing screenshots or images is as fun as it is simple.Communicate and collaborate with images using Skitch and its intuitive, engaging drawing and annotating... Read more
Delicious Library 3.3.2 - Import, browse...
Delicious Library allows you to import, browse, and share all your books, movies, music, and video games with Delicious Library. Run your very own library from your home or office using our... Read more
Art Text 2.4.8 - Create high quality hea...
Art Text is an OS X application for creating high quality textual graphics, headings, logos, icons, Web site elements, and buttons. Thanks to multi-layer support, creating complex graphics is no... Read more
Live Interior 3D Pro 2.9.6 - Powerful an...
Live Interior 3D Pro is a powerful yet very intuitive interior designing application. View Video Tutorials It has every feature of Live Interior 3D Standard, plus some exclusive ones: Create multi... Read more
The Hit List 1.1.7 - Advanced reminder a...
The Hit List manages the daily chaos of your modern life. It's easy to learn - it's as easy as making lists. And it's powerful enough to let you plan, then forget, then act when the time is right.... Read more
jAlbum Pro 12.2.4 - Organize your digita...
jAlbum Pro has all the features you love in jAlbum, but comes with a commercial license. With jAlbum, you can create gorgeous custom photo galleries for the Web without writing a line of code!... Read more

Latest Forum Discussions

See All

Rami Ismail Opens Up distribute​() for D...
Rami Ismail Opens Up distribute​() for Developers Posted by Jessica Fisher on October 24th, 2014 [ permalink ] Rami Ismail, Chief Executive of Business and Development at indie game studio | Read more »
Great Hitman GO Goes on Sale and Gets Ne...
Great Hitman GO Goes on Sale and Gets New Update – Say That Three Times Fast Posted by Jessica Fisher on October 24th, 2014 [ permalink ] | Read more »
Rival Stars Basketball Review
Rival Stars Basketball Review By Jennifer Allen on October 24th, 2014 Our Rating: :: RESTRICTIVE BUT FUNUniversal App - Designed for iPhone and iPad Rival Stars Basketball is a fun mixture of basketball and card collecting but its... | Read more »
Rubicon Development Makes Over a Dozen o...
Rubicon Development Makes Over a Dozen of Their Games Free For This Weekend Only Posted by Jessica Fisher on October 24th, 2014 [ permalink ] | Read more »
I Am Dolphin Review
I Am Dolphin Review By Jennifer Allen on October 24th, 2014 Our Rating: :: NEARLY FIN-TASTICUniversal App - Designed for iPhone and iPad Swim around and eat nearly everything that moves in I Am Dolphin, a fun Ecco-ish kind of game... | Read more »
nPlayer looks to be the ultimate choice...
Developed by Newin Inc, nPlayer may seem like your standard video player – but is aiming to be the best in its field by providing high quality video play performance and support for a huge number of video formats and codecs. User reviews include... | Read more »
Fighting Fantasy: Caverns of the Snow Wi...
Fighting Fantasy: Caverns of the Snow Witch Review By Jennifer Allen on October 24th, 2014 Our Rating: :: CLASSY STORYTELLINGUniversal App - Designed for iPhone and iPad Fighting Fantasy: Caverns of the Snow Witch is a sterling... | Read more »
A Few Days Left (Games)
A Few Days Left 1.01 Device: iOS Universal Category: Games Price: $3.99, Version: 1.01 (iTunes) Description: Screenshots are in compliance to App Store's 4+ age rating! Please see App Preview for real game play! **Important: Make... | Read more »
Toca Boo (Education)
Toca Boo 1.0.2 Device: iOS Universal Category: Education Price: $2.99, Version: 1.0.2 (iTunes) Description: BOO! Did I scare you!? My name is Bonnie and my family loves to spook! Do you want to scare them back? Follow me and I'll... | Read more »
Intuon (Games)
Intuon 1.1 Device: iOS Universal Category: Games Price: $.99, Version: 1.1 (iTunes) Description: Join the battle with your intuition in a new hardcore game Intuon! How well do you trust your intuition? Can you find a needle in a... | Read more »

Price Scanner via MacPrices.net

Weekend sale: 13-inch 128GB MacBook Air for $...
Best Buy has the 2014 13-inch 1.4GHz 128GB MacBook Air on sale for $849.99, or $150 off MSRP, on their online store. Choose free home shipping or free local store pickup (if available). Price valid... Read more
Nimbus Note Cross=Platform Notes Utility
Nimbus Note will make sure you never forget or lose your valuable data again. Create and edit notes, save web pages, screenshots and any other type of data – and share it all with your friends and... Read more
NewerTech’s Snuglet Makes MagSafe 2 Power Con...
NewerTech has introduced the Snuglet, a precision-manufactured ring designed to sit inside your MagSafe 2 connector port, providing a more snug fit to prevent your power cable from unintentional... Read more
Apple Planning To Sacrifice Gross Margins To...
Digitimes Research’s Jim Hsiao says its analysts believe Apple is planning to sacrifice its gross margins to save its tablet business, which has recently fallen into decline. They project that Apple’... Read more
Who’s On Now? – First Instant-Connect Search...
It’s nighttime and your car has broken down on the side of the highway. You need a tow truck right away, so you open an app on your iPhone, search for the closest tow truck and send an instant... Read more
13-inch 2.5GHz MacBook Pro on sale for $949,...
Best Buy has the 13″ 2.5GHz MacBook Pro available for $949.99 on their online store. Choose free shipping or free instant local store pickup (if available). Their price is $150 off MSRP. Price is... Read more
Save up to $125 on Retina MacBook Pros
B&H Photo has the new 2014 13″ and 15″ Retina MacBook Pros on sale for up to $125 off MSRP. Shipping is free, and B&H charges NY sales tax only. They’ll also include free copies of Parallels... Read more
Apple refurbished Time Capsules available sta...
The Apple Store has certified refurbished Time Capsules available for up to $60 off MSRP. Apple’s one-year warranty is included with each Time Capsule, and shipping is free: - 2TB Time Capsule: $255... Read more
Textilus New Word, Notes and PDF Processor fo...
Textilus is new word-crunching, notes, and PDF processor designed exclusively for the iPad. I haven’t had time to thoroughly check it out yet, but it looks great and early reviews are positive.... Read more
WD My Passport Pro Bus-Powered Thunderbolt RA...
WD’s My Passport Pro RAID solution is powered by an integrated Thunderbolt cable for true portability and speeds as high as 233 MB/s. HighlightsOverviewSpecifications Transfer, Back Up And Edit In... Read more

Jobs Board

*Apple* Solutions Consultant - Apple Inc. (U...
…important role that the ASC serves is that of providing an excellent Apple Customer Experience. Responsibilities include: * Promoting Apple products and solutions 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
*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.