Monthly Archives: April 2005

On the Balance of Blogging

Today begins the new blog with a new set of principles to guide it. In my previous and sporadic ramblings, I have sought to write on various topics of presumably common interest or pose interesting problems and for the most part I’ve found these explorations of my internal psyche to be at least mildly amusing. Apparently some other people have as well. Unfortunately, while I’m busily espousing the validity of this or the insanity of that what has been lacking is the acquisition of new knowledge. I can, and have, been busily building up my own opinions into tidy little entries but during that time I haven’t really acquired any new information. There have been various positive outcomes in real life: people attempting to convert me to Christianity, some very diverting conversations and small pockets of agreement and new theories to some interesting questions. This is all well and good but at what cost does it come? While I’m variously outputting my own opinion I’ve forsaken the input that it takes to build new opinions.

The 60 to 90 minutes it takes to generate a blog entry that is probably of no interest to anyone but me could certainly be better spent in study of some sort. This is not to say that the act of creating the entries themselves is frivolous. It certainly does aid one in solidifying one’s thoughts to write it out in painstaking detail. The point is that at the end you don’t really know anything you didn’t know before. You’ve only massaged an existing belief into something which is 98% similar to what you had previously.

To the ends of building onto rather than merely rearranging my mental furniture, I begin the hybrid project to annotate a few key pieces of literature as I read them. No doubt the same sort of observations will be made as in the previous ramblings but in a context that allows me to also add to my own repertoire of knowledge while also massaging it into something more concrete as I go. Wish me luck.


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Workin’ 9 to Eternity

Unlike what the title may evoke, this epistle has little to do with real eternity but rather with the perceived eternity of one’s working life in a particular position. Few people go into a job with the intent to only stay a year but it doesn’t take long for the ‘this is the last job I’ll ever have’ attitude to turn into a visceral need to be anywhere else. Inevitably, what was novel or interesting in the beginning turns into day-to-day humdrum existence. What was amusing becomes annoying and you find yourself inhabiting a cubical-shaped personal hell filled with a million screeching harpies.

It seems indisputable that every job suffers from this inevitable decline; what varies is the rate at which this decline occurs. The rate of descent into personal job hell varies from job to job and from person to person. I for one, tend to become rather bored with exceptional rapidity. Once the learning and innovation phase of a job is over, I’m ready to find greener pastures with less predictability and more room for innovation. It has been my experience that all the truly entertaining work of establishing procedures, developing standards and building the foundation for future work in the department is done after the first year. After that it’s just reapplying what you’ve built over and over again. Once you’ve established that baseline, you’ve guaranteed yourself a vacuum of real quality entertainment for years to come.

Sometimes the hell isn’t of your own making but instead inherited. I sadly point to my own colleagues who have in fact entered such a situation. Coming into the department well after its practices were established they now have to live with them or attempt to change them. While they have done a great job of bringing their own special knowledge and experience to the department I am sure it’s frustrating trying to work in an area whose standards don’t quite meet their own. Interestingly it is their commentary and criticism which I now find most interesting. Having established a certain way of doing things I’m endless intrigued by the differing viewpoints they being to the exact same set of problems.

Sadly our society has an ‘If you can’t say anything nice then don’t say anything’ mentality that filters their real feedback. Those who subscribe to such a motto do themselves and their peers a great disservice.

Lastly, some jobs just can’t last. When the job involves creation of a product, support of that product will eventually take its toll. You can alleviate this somewhat with draconian long-term support contracts and the like but the crux of the matter is that someone will have to support this customer for the life of the product and that person is probably the one that created it in the first place. So as time goes along, the person who created the product is less and less able to create new product because of ongoing responsibilities to existing customers. Eventually the wicket snaps and they will go somewhere else merely to escape their own creations.
And thus the cycle of creation and escape continues…

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The Lost Art of Conversation

It seems that the fine art of conversation, complete with possible conflict and rife with potential controversy, has died a horrible death and left in its wake only a hollow and meaningless stepchild, small talk. Or, perhaps it’s just that I’m somehow lacking in my execution of it that leaves me thinking so. Maybe people don’t care to talk about topics that interest me (science, history, religion, politics, etc) or is that our society has grown so contentious over these issues that everyone is afraid to start a conversation for fear of offending someone and so to avoid conflict we constrain ourselves to inane topics such as the weather, the ‘big game’ and last nights television programming?

I’ve often that thought that under the surface, most people really WANT to talk about interesting things. That if you could just dig down, under the veneer of defensive meaningless gibber that every one of us is seething with ideas that would just offend the pants off our neighbors if only they were allowed to escape, a verbal Pandora’s box. It’s occurred to me that small talk may be the vehicle by which humans ‘feel out’ each other to determine if their ideas are compatible enough to continue into more interesting conversations.

Since I admittedly suck at small talk the humans I interact with simply subconsciously register a negative response in the ‘Rob’ column and go look for someone else to talk to. This is an understandable response but it does leave one wondering what epiphanies are hiding behind the protective conversational shell of ones neighbors.

Alternatively, it’s possible that people frankly don’t care nearly as much as I do about most of the topics in my conversational top ten. In order for that to be the case, however, most of the people I know would have to care about precious little except for sports and television. I cannot recall, in fact, the last time I overheard a conversation in the office about anything outside the realm of everyday experience: company gossip, entertainment and what to have for lunch. Where are the philosophers? Did all the mathematicians at heart go on to actually become mathematicians and leave me behind? Surely not; surely there’s more to the average person than the surface experiences of everyday life.

In defense of the common man, I haven’t exactly gone out of my way to plumb the depths of anyone within my daily contact but I haven’t gotten any real glimmers either that swifter waters are running under the surface either. We all have our outward obsessions, hobbies, religions, etc but what about the real mechanics of the psyche? Perhaps this is too much to expect to see. Some currents run too deep to show themselves at all.

Most sad of all is the possibility that we just don’t talk to each other because we’re afraid to. This country has become so polarized: black/white, liberal/conservative, man/woman, different/not different that you can’t really say much of anything without offending someone. It seems tragic that we can’t explore these differences and learn from each other rather than being afraid of being attacked or sued. Despite my opinion on the subject, I am completely fascinated by people of a religious nature. I enjoy hearing their ideas about how the world works, what God means to them and how it impacts their daily lives. The lives, feelings, beliefs of the people who are NOT like me are of unbounded interest because they represent the rest of the human story that I think all of us want to figure out. Unfortunately, the old ‘never discuss religion or politics’ rule rears its head and we have to mum up on the topics of real interest because we’re afraid we’ll offend someone.

While the state of conversation is clearly in disarray, there is yet hope for the social animal that is man. At this point, I’ll site a few rare counter examples to the trends noted above. First and foremost I must point out my own wife. She will talk happily, spiritedly and intelligently on any one of hundreds of topics from Genetic Engineering to Abortion Rights with anyone and everyone. She’s never afraid to speak her mind and drives her points home like a mathematics professor with a rigor that’s obvious to anyone with an open mind to start with. If not for her, I’d be a blubbering mass looking for some form of social outlet. Her audience may not always like what she says but that’s hardly the point. She adds to the total knowledge of the world and is a teacher and leader in every sense. If every human on the planet conversed as well as she does then we would live in a much better informed and no doubt much happier society.

My own father, not surprisingly, is also good for a conversation in the realm of music, psychology, philosophy or human behavior. His viewpoint on the world is as unique as my own; I sincerely wish he had the time to sit down and write some of it out.

The only other person with whom I can say I’ve had a really interesting conversation in the past ten years is my associate from 3 jobs ago, Charlie (See Art and Its Appreciation). Whereas my wife is primarily anchored in the concrete, Charlie is more an aficionado of the artistic, historical and dare I say religious realms. Though softer spoken than my wife, Charlie is not afraid to talk about the ‘forbidden’ topics that other people shy away from and is always good for a real and truly interesting conversation devoid of any reference to the weather, sports and 99% of TV shows.

Logic assures me that these are not the only people on the planet who want to have a real meaty conversation with some real content. The chances are infinitesimal that there aren’t at least another ten people like them in my immediate vicinity. The problem, of course, is identifying them and getting through to their true intellect without the usual requisite hours of inane babbling about sports that most people go through. This assumes that even after all the small talk people find their way into real and relevant conversations. Perhaps they just don’t and I’m wishing on a star that has long since ceased to shine.

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A Special Place in Hell

As I sit down to write this entry I am amused that some days it is an effort to dredge an idea from the depths of my mind while on others like today an idea simply smacks you so hard aside the head that you can barely sit still long enough to type it out. It is not often that my muse is so brutal in her appearance so I will do my best to do her justice.

Today as I sat pondering my lunchtime repast some of the most offensive words ever to find their way into my comprehension greeted me without warning from across the room:

“You know, there’s a special place in hell for queers.”

Before I go on to describe exactly WHY this is so offensive let me begin by telling you where I stand on the issues at subject here. Firstly, I am not a homosexual and like most of the population, the mechanics of homosexuality are frankly disturbing to me. While I would not encourage homosexual behavior in my children or my friends I also see no reason to censure those who do engage in it. In many species of animals that have a fixed gender throughout their lives we can see many examples of homosexuality, so clearly this trait is a natural phenomenon and not a ‘choice’ as many people on the religious right would have you believe. As long as they do not begin promulgating their beliefs and activities on my doorstep I say let them do as they like and we can all live happily ever after.

Amusingly, this is much the same attitude I have towards those who practice a religion.

Since I live in a primarily Christian area of the world I have some passing familiarity with the Christian belief system and would say that the religious figure of Jesus as depicted in the bible is a remarkable example of optimal human behavior. Jesus’ message of forgiveness and acceptance is a remarkable one that would make a wonderful example for all of us. Jesus even forgave those who betrayed him to his death just as the Pope forgave his would-be assassin. Surely the death of a savior is more of a crime than that of homosexuality? Amazingly, the same people who claim to follow Jesus and his teachings cannot forgive but instead hurl hateful epithets about those who disagree with them in terms of lifestyle.

Religious leaders will respond that homosexuals are openly living in sin and are in violation of God’s law. But did Judas not know what he was doing? Did Jesus say, “Judas, there’s a special place in hell for you!”? No, Jesus forgave. Jesus forgave the man who brought about his death but the followers of Jesus can’t tolerate a group of people who live differently from themselves. Whether they’re different because of choice, biology, fashion or fad is irrelevant. It is not man’s place to judge his fellow man:

7:1 Judge not, that ye be not judged.
7:2 For with what judgment ye judge, ye shall be judged: and with what measure ye mete, it shall be measured to you again.
7:3 And why beholdest thou the mote that is in thy brother’s eye, but considerest not the beam that is in thine own eye?
7:4 Or how wilt thou say to thy brother, Let me pull out the mote out of thine eye; and, behold, a beam is in thine own eye?
7:5 Thou hypocrite, first cast out the beam out of thine own eye; and then shalt thou see clearly to cast out the mote out of thy brother’s eye.

So before you condemn anyone to hell for any reason, you’d better be damned sure your own affairs are in order or you’ll find yourself living next door to them for all eternity.

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Intelligence vs. Experience

It has become evident to me that most people are completely unable to draw the line between innate intelligence or talent and the mere appearance of it after long experience. As a society we seem to assume that just because someone is good at something it’s because they have some natural ability, something that was gifted to them when the entered the world. We seem to disregard the fact that while some people may be naturally predisposed to be particularly good at something it’s generally the hours and hours of practice or study that makes someone an adept in a particular area.

On some levels, I think this is actually a self-defense mechanism. As long as a person believes that they simply aren’t talented enough to do something then they have a bulletproof excuse for remaining as they are. Without this, we are forced to admit that if we were only willing to put forth the effort then we could in fact get an A in math, learn to play the trombone or finally learn to write coherent blog entries. If we can hide behind those misfortunes of birth that are beyond our control our lack of success is guilt-free. Once we come to the realization that with small exception we are in charge of our own limitations, only then can we begin the process of overcoming them. As a computer programmer, I see this mechanism in action every time I tell someone what my profession is. Invariably, the reaction from the listener is something of the form, “Oh, wow. You must be smart; I’d never be smart enough to do that.” I always find this amusing since many of the programmers I have worked with in the past have been among the most moronic people I’ve ever known. I generally don’t bother to bore the speaker with a long diatribe about the basic skills needed to generate computer code and how it’s not particularly complicated or even difficult. Primarily the job is one of repeating what you have seen before and remembering where to find the information you need to repeat that task. It is not, in general, a profession that requires a great deal of intelligence in any sense of the word.

Computer programming is as blue collar as any assembly line job yet the perception is that it requires a gift of nature to do it well. This notion is not limited to vocational pursuits. With few exceptions, I have come to the end of the list of people with whom I can play chess. Most people if they lose at a game with no element of luck will refuse to continue playing. People believe that if they lose a game of chess that it indicates some inferiority of intellect but completely fail to see that chess, like all mental exercises, is one much more heavily influenced by long hours of practice and experience than else.

In summary, I think it important to remember that the only real limitations to our aspirations are those that can be measured externally. Clearly, a five-foot-tall adult will probably not reach seven feet but aside from the extremes we can be what we want to be. In a journey of a thousand miles it’s that first step which is the hardest for it’s that first step that forces us to admit that we can succeed if we only have the determination to do so.

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Vishnu’s Dream

The Hindus believe that the world we see and hear around is all an illusion. That in fact all we think we perceive is really merely one of Vishnu’s Dreams. While it is of course ridiculous to assert any literal interpretation of such a mythological belief the point should be well taken that we create much more of our own reality than we give ourselves credit for.

Humans live for stimulus. We are literally built around and dedicated to the process of taking outside information and turning it into actions we can use to ensure our survival. Whether this means eluding the fierce predator on the plains of the Serengeti or beating out our co-workers for promotion, the basic principle is the same. We accept inputs from our environment and in response we do stuff. At least that’s how one might expect it to work.

Along with each stimulus we also depend on knowledge of the context for that stimulus. The sound of a roaring tiger is much different when heard in the midst of a jungle safari than when heard on the radio while driving down the street. Luckily for our collective sanity our brains are smart enough to differentiate between those situations and act accordingly. So along with the actual information our senses receive we also have a lot of background information that tints the way information is processed.

This background is often more powerful than the stimulus itself. To demonstrate this effect, try watching a horror movie with the sound turned down and replace the music with the ‘Green Acres’ theme song. We still SEE the horror, our context is the same but without the additional backdrop of the music what was horrific before becomes merely silly.

In day to day life, though, there is no incidental music. We each go through each day without the aid of Hollywood soundtracks. Instead we have something equally as powerful, our attitude. Whether it’s the violin concerto of the upbeat optimist or the slow dirge of the pessimist we each have an internal symphony that impacts how we see our world. If you think the world hates you then to you it will. Passive looks of indifference will become sneers of disgust. Conversations between neighbors will instantly seem to point the finger of guilt at you. Even a smile from a stranger will grow into a tangled web of deception.

Like any scientist who thinks he knows the answer before he begins his investigation, every scrap of input from your world will simply add to your case and deepen your belief that everyone is out to get you. Happily, the reverse is equally and delightfully true. To those with a truly upbeat outlook on life, every stranger is three words from being a lifelong friend. I recall my grandmother driving down the street one day when a boy in a school bus made an obscene gesture at her. She just happily waved back and said, “My, what a friendly young man.” I explained later to her that what the boy did was in fact obscene and she merely replied, “Oh, you must be mistaken. He looked so friendly.” In my grandmother’s eyes, there was no evil and everyone was a friend.

So while the Hindu’s say we all live in Vishnu’s dream, I would disagree. We all live in our own dreams.

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On Art and the Creation and Appreciation of it

While on a trip to the local state museum my wife remarked that she simply ‘did not get’ art. In my experience, this is anything but uncommon in today’s world. As a people we are so irrevocably anchored in the concrete concerns of day to day life that we don’t often take time to look at things on a more abstract level. In all honesty, this is probably exactly what the forces of evolution intended. If primitive man was lost forever in the appreciation of ‘that beautiful flower’ he would no doubt find himself someone’s lunch rather quickly.

Many seem to have the idea that only the ‘intelligent’ can appreciate art and those who don’t appreciate it are simply feeble minded. This is frankly balderdash as my wife is exceptionally intelligent but the simple fact is that she has no experience with art and doesn’t have a particularly artistic nature, at least in the classical sense of the word. I think the real problem is that she, and many others, simply don’t know what to expect. It’s always amusing to me that she will say ‘I don’t get this’ but will also state that she’s repulsed by it. This visceral and non-concrete reaction is what’s supposed to happen. Rather than allowing her emotions to interpret what she’s seeing, she instead tries to use reason to decode it. Most of art is not susceptible to such forms of analysis.

I said above that my wife is not of an ‘artistic’ nature in the classical sense but clearly her artistic energies are merely differently expressed. Her medium is not oils or stone or clay but instead the interior of our home. I think the art of everyday esthetics is vastly under appreciated in our culture.

As for myself, I’m no more an expert at art than my wife though perhaps more likely to ‘let go’ and see beyond the literal. A friend of mine does art in a purely digital medium and has generated a small gallery of images:

In each of these images can be seen a vague impression of something, though it’s very open to debate what that actually is. I’m relatively convinced that this is entirely his intent. I’ll admit that none of these really evokes any great emotion from me with the exception of his submission on 8/30/04.

Firstly, it’s an utter and complete contradiction. Large, apparently stone, objects are floating happily among the clouds. The use of color is also powerful to further suggest a world much like our own but still wholly different in some key way. Mind bogglingly, I’ve found myself actually imagining this picture at random points throughout the day. Each time the image becomes slightly modified: details are added to the floating objects, clouds rearranged, etc. The actually physical image is not stored in my memory but the internal impression is etched permanently in my recollection.

Charlie’s interpretation of this particular work is an apocalyptic one. Presumably he’s seeing large threatening objects looming over us waiting to stab down into the planet. I don’t see that at all. Instead I see mankind and his works interceding hard and sterile into the realm of nature. This difference between the observer and the observed is what art is really about.

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