Friday, December 28, 2007

resolving the question of new year resolutions

Dreaming up resolutions for living better in the coming year is one of those many cultural rituals which are simultaneously well-intentioned and pointlessly arbitrary. The drive to improve oneself isn't the pointless or arbitrary part. The pointlessness stems from a few other facts.
  • The point of completion of another solar revolution could be set anywhere in a cyclical calendar. A year is an additional numerical designation applied to the calendar to preserve a linear (or sinusoidal, because each year is a cycle?) reckoning of time. In other words, the switching of the year is like going from 19 to 20. Oooo, the "1" changed to a "2". How fascinating. Who are the people obsessed with "boring numbers" now? (Of course, time isn't perfectly linear, but under the circumstances most of us operate in, this assumption is accurate enough.) Just as a new year could be started at any time in the calendar, new resolutions could be started at any time in the calendar.
  • Similarly, the passage of time which occurs as one year ends and another begins isn't at all unique. Someone looks about the same a day before and a day after his or her age changes, tattoos or hangovers notwithstanding. When the "calendar's birthday" happens, the interval of time that has passed isn't a year; it's a day. Days change...daily. Celebrating the passage of mere time is an odd exercise when time is always passing. We're always waving farewell to the past and planning for the future. If a person thinks of a new resolution on Dec. 22 and waits until Jan. 1 to do something, which is more significant and concrete: the action the person took on the "magical" first day of the new year, or more than one week's accumulation of days of inaction?
  • From the standpoint of results ("metrics", if you want to annoy people), resolutions are not enough. This isn't news, but that won't stop the news from producing several fluff segments about it. Traditionally, people make resolutions, attempt to follow the resolutions, fail, and perhaps try again the next time the digits of the year increment. For claiming to be a civilized society of knowledge workers in the information age, this approach is remarkably careless. Although an inspiring goal is vital for the sake of motivation, resolutions should include other items: sub-goals/milestones, plans, contingency anticipation (you don't expect the universe to cheer you on, do you?), rewards, punishments, support, recognition of difficulty. Moreover, if someone isn't willing to "bother" with such details, that may be a sign he or she would truly prefer for the resolution to remain in daydream-land, where valuables have no cost.
  • Some excellent character-based humor has come out of the tendency for people to overlook their greatest flaws as they form resolutions about comparatively trivial minutiae. We shouldn't be surprised. Personal qualities often serve as both strengths and weaknesses, leading people to think the quality is no problem, or to think the people around them are the ones with problems (isn't marriage challenging?). And as for the flaws people are oblivious to...would they still have them if they were aware of them? A pivotal change to one's path requires a clear view of where someone currently is. Before drawing up new year resolutions, perhaps one should spend time considering Who is responsible for past failures? Who is standing in the way? Who is the saboteur? One might find the unpleasant answer by looking himself or herself in the I.
  • Furthermore, after deciding on a resolution, the plausibility of the resolution bears evaluation. Without extreme tactics (think of those who talk about "breaking down newbies to rebuild them"), sustainable behavior modification happens slowly and gradually. In my opinion, not everyone is capable of every behavior, doing every action, developing every habit. Bodies differ. Genes exert limits and tendencies. Within those parameters, dedication can accomplish a lot, yet some resolutions are, realistically-speaking, improbable to impossible for some people. Don't let failure to reach an implausible or impossible goal steal the satisfaction of doing something worthwhile. Readjusting the resolution is still preferable to trashing it.
To the extent I have a resolution for the new year at all, it would be to act on the good intentions I had during the past year. That should keep me busy.

Thursday, December 20, 2007

peeve no. 254 is "argument from common sense"

"Common sense is the collection of prejudices acquired by age eighteen." -Albert Einstein (link)

In the midst of an argument, the most satisfying retort is exposing the opponent's reasoning as a fallacy, such as one of these. But the most frustrating reasoning to deflate is reasoning that's not even wrong: its truth value is meaningless, mu, zero (and not the way C conditionals judge zero). The "argument from common sense" is in this category of fallacy. When someone advances an idea on the basis of, or defended by, what he/she calls common sense, no recourse is available. Possibly one could gain some satisfaction by responding with "I find your abundance of faith in unexamined assumptions disturbing", but that still wouldn't be a real counterargument.

Real counterarguments to the argument from common sense would be meaningless, because the argument from common sense is meaningless, because common sense is meaningless in an objective debate. I don't mean that the concept of "common sense" is meaningless, but that its very usefulness is its function as a catchall term for implicit knowledge. It doesn't have a fixed definition. Without sharp definitions, debates can endlessly spin in confusion purely from misunderstanding of what each participant is communicating. (Not incidentally, this is why the legal documents of a society under the rule of law are careful to define all important nouns. If you use the GPL, you really should know exactly what a "derivative work" is.)

Moreover, a bare argument from common sense exudes sheer ignorance of observer bias and disregard for rigorously evaluating truth via proof--how much of common sense is the result of investigation, as opposed to culture and mindless conformity? As I've heard some people say, with tongue-in-cheek, "common sense isn't common". A subset of common sense knowledge for one person, or even an entire group, might not be a subset of common sense knowledge for another person, or even another entire group. Is it common sense to use global variables sparingly, if at all? Is it common sense to indent code in a consistent manner? Is it common sense to change the default/root password? Is it common sense to finally cease using <font> tags, for Bob's sake? Maybe for some people, those procedures are so blindingly obvious that using the description "common sense" is pretty much an insult to the words. For other people, perhaps not...

The argument from common sense is not an argument. If trying to justify a statement by referring to common sense, find some other way. Look closer at what "common sense" really means in that specific case. At least make your assumptions explicit, so everyone knows you aren't using common sense as a logical hand-wave (no need to look here, it's common sense!). Common sense has done a lot for you. Don't push it into being something it isn't.

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

seriously, two movies based on the Hobbit?

According to the official Hobbit movie blog, two movies will be shot simultaneously, with Peter Jackson as one of the executive producers. Also, speculation is rather pointless right now, considering the hoped release dates are in 2010-2011.

Overall, this seems like good news to me. A good adaptation of Hobbit has been a long time coming. But I never thought two movies would be necessary. LOTR is usually sold as three books, and each book is dense. I've always considered Hobbit to be the "gateway drug" for LOTR: less intimidating, generally not as potent/complicated (look, fewer subplots!), and hints of what the heavier stuff is like. Looking back at how the adaptation worked for LOTR, massively cutting here and adding there until we had three long movies (longer if you opt for the extended DVDs), I'm worried what will happen this time around, when the problem is reversed: not enough story for two movies. Will it turn out like King Kong?

Yet another problem will repeat itself for the screenwriters: the choice of which scenes belong in which movie. In retrospect, Two Towers may have been diminished because of the parts that shifted to Return of the King. I'm curious where the dividing line will fall for two Hobbit movies. The book's sense of scale shifts toward the end; onward from when Smaug appears, the book is suddenly no longer about just Bilbo and dwarves, but disagreements between peoples culminating in a Battle of Five Armies. Cut the story off too soon, and the first movie won't have much of a climax to speak of. Cut the story off too late, and the second movie won't have much plot left to cover at all. This should be interesting to observe.

Monday, December 17, 2007

why "Art Vandalay" writes Rippling Brainwaves

I was reading On The Meaning of "Coding Horror" (short version: the blogger's a coding horror because all professional coders are--and the best coping tactic is to be humble and teachable), when I followed a link to a past entry, Thirteen Blog Clich├ęs. I agree with most of the list; fortunately, Rippling Brainwaves hasn't had many violations, although that's partly because its basis is unmodified Blogger (items 1, 4, 6, 13). Avoidance of randomly-chosen inline images (2), personal life (8), the topic of blogging (10), mindless link propagation (11), top-n lists (12) happened naturally because I try to publish using two fundamental guidelines: 1) only include content I would honestly find interesting if it was on someone else's blog (content Golden Rule), 2) only link elsewhere if I supplement that link's content with substantial and original commentary. The first exception to guideline two is when I judge that the link must be shared, but I don't have anything to add because the link is just that good or important.

However, the third item in the list, "No Information on the Author", needs further mention. The item's word choices are emphatic, so I'll quote in entirety.

When I find well-written articles on blogs that I want to cite, I take great pains to get the author's name right in my citation. If you've written something worth reading on the internet, you've joined a rare club indeed, and you deserve proper attribution. It's the least I can do.

That's assuming I can find your name.

To be fair, this doesn't happen often. But it shouldn't ever happen. The lack of an "About Me" page-- or a simple name to attach to the author's writing -- is unforgivable. But it's still a problem today. Every time a reader encounters a blog with no name in the byline, no background on the author, and no simple way to click through to find out anything about the author, it strains credulity to the breaking point. It devalues not only the author's writing, but the credibility of blogging in general.

Maintaining a blog of any kind takes quite a bit of effort. It's irrational to expend that kind of effort without putting your name on it so you can benefit from it. And so we can too. It's a win-win scenario for you, Mr. Anonymous.

These are excellent points excellently expressed. I hope the rebuttals are worthy:
  • Like any blogger, I'm always glad to discover that my precious words are connecting to someone rather than going softly into the Void. However, I think it's up to me to decide what I "deserve". Attribution to my proper name isn't one of my goals, because becoming a celebrity is not one of my goals. Crediting the blog and linking back is thanks enough, because that action has the potential to prevent future precious words from going softly into the Void. And by all means, be ethical enough to not plagiarize.
  • This blog is of my ideas, the titular Rippling Brainwaves. It isn't about (original) news. It isn't about (original) research or data, unless you count the anecdotal set of personal experiences I use for reference. The information in this blog, which is mostly opinions anyway, can and should be evaluated on its own merits. In this context lack of a byline should have no bearing on the credulity of the author, the writing itself, or "blogging in general". Here, the ideas reign or fall apart from the author. Think of it like a Turing Test: if a computer was writing this blog, or a roomful of monkeys at typewriters, etc., would that make any difference, in this context? Part of what makes the Web special, in my opinion, is the possibility that here, as in the World of Warcraft, everyone can interact apart from the prejudices and spacetime limitations implicit in face-to-face/"first life". Objectivity++.
  • Given that credibility is not in question, and I function as the writer of this blog, not the topic (item 8, "This Ain't Your Diary"), I'm not convinced that my identity is of interest. I don't mind stating that I am not a famous individual, I do not work at an innovative software start-up or even at one of the huge software corporations, I am not a consistent contributor to any FLOSS projects, and in almost all respects my often-uneventful but quietly-satisfying life is not intriguing. More to the point, I don't want anyone who reads to "color" my words with knowledge of the writer: don't you dare belittle my ideas because of who I am.
  • Probably the most childish or indefensible reason I have for being a "Mr. Anonymous" is anxiety about real-life repercussions from what I write, to both career and personal relationships. I also appreciate the freedom of expression which comes from disregarding such repercussions, and I believe uninhibitedness benefits the readers, too. Who wouldn't like the chance to say whatever one wants? I'm nicer in person, yet I'm guessing that's the typical case. It's rare to hear someone comment, "I don't have road rage. I only have hallway rage."
  • Lastly, I won't dispute the assertion that "Maintaining a blog of any kind takes quite a bit of effort". Perhaps I should be putting in more, at least in order to achieve more frequent updates. Currently, and for the foreseeable future, I will post as I wish, and not until I judge the post is worthy and ready. I started blogging for the same reasons as many others: 1) I enjoy doing it, 2) I feel that I (at times) have valuable thoughts to share, 3) I hunger for greater significance, 4) I wish to give back to the Web, 5) I like communicating with people who have common interests, 6) I relish correcting and counterbalancing what others write. Those reasons are how I "benefit" from the blog. Are those reasons "irrational"? Eh, if you say so. Either way, I can't stop/help myself. As I keep repeating, this blog isn't about me, my career, or my finances. Ad income wouldn't earn much anyhow, and even it did, I wouldn't want to look like someone who's trying to drive Web traffic for profit. The blog is about what I'm compelled to publish. (And inserting ads would morally obligate me to use my real name. Hey, if you're planning to potentially profit off people, you should at least have the decency to tell them where the money's going.)
I'll end by saying that, notwithstanding the above, I'm certainly willing to consider revealing more about my identity. But what information, why, and how is it worth forgoing the benefits of anonymity?

Friday, December 14, 2007

peeve no. 253 is overuse of the word 'satire'

Here's a quotable line: "When someone uses pointed humor to discredit my opinions, it's vicious meanness. When someone uses pointed humor to discredit your opinions, it's satire." (I was inspired by Mel Brooks' "Tragedy is when I cut my finger. Comedy is when you walk into an open sewer and die."--link)

Regardless of the above, satire does have an objective definition, and that definition doesn't match up with some of the commoner usages of "satire" I've been reading. I bet some of you same offenders have been misusing "irony" and "decimated". As I understand it (he yelled from his padded cell), satire is the timeless technique of applying humor of exaggeration in public discourse to starkly emphasize the ridiculousness of an opposing viewpoint. Satire is a part of language; it predates telecommunication, mass communication, photography, and practical electricity. Effective satire, especially satire which stands a minute chance of influencing others, requires a corresponding degree of intelligence and wit. A Modest Proposal is an excellent example. In politics, which is a subject I attempt to studiously avoid in this blog even in the face of an imminent presidential election year, satire is a welcome diversion from the typical "shout louder and more often" tactic. I respect satire.

Having described satire, it should be clearer what satire is not. Admittedly, my idealization of satire may not perfectly fit the official/academic category of satire.
  • Satire is not synonymous with political humor, because not all political humor is satire. A joke which has a political subject might not be a satirical joke.
  • Satire is not synonymous with sarcasm, although both include the idea of statements whose intended purpose is to express the opposite of its meaning. Both include the idea of statements that attack something. (Side comment: some comments I've heard called "sarcastic" should be called "facetious".) However, sarcasm is the more general of the two. Satire may be an extended application of sarcasm to a particular viewpoint.
  • Satire is not an attack on a politician's personal appearance, personality, mannerisms, etc. It's an attack on his or her beliefs or actions.
  • Satire is more than a hodgepodge of one or two line quips on political issues. Satire employs greater depth in narrower focus, as it attempts to illustrate that a viewpoint is not merely funny, but ludicrous.
  • Satire is more than creating unflattering fictional caricatures of an opponent or viewpoint--perhaps that technique is satire, but no more than the lowest form of it. Satire's goal is to make a point. Having the fictional caricature say something like "rustle me up some ding-dongs" may be worth a chuckle (but hardly more), yet it neither discredits follies nor imparts wisdom.
I enjoy humor as much as anyone else. But "satire" is too valuable both as a word and as an art-form to be diluted by pretenders and anyone those pretenders satisfy.

Tuesday, December 04, 2007

peeve no. 252 is artless programming

I intended to ramble on for a bit about how readability/ease of understanding is not at all guaranteed by the mere use of a runtime-typed language, but then I recognized that the point I planned to make was in a sense the opposite of a previous peeve, no. "251": equating programming and art. The main thrust of 251 is that programmers don't need to babble on about pretty code and being artists when each programming task (ideally) has an objective purpose and objective obstacles known as bugs. Regardless of the opinions of a few folks, code is likely to be far more appreciated for fewer bugs than for beauty.

However, I can't deny the existence of programming style, nor can I ignore its manifestation or absence in any particular piece of code. The level of style exhibited by code has been analyzed and quantified in a few ways: lists of code "smells", program-structure calculations such as cyclomatic complexity, lint-like tools for flagging potential problems (tried JSLint, by the way?), and, of course, automated style-enforcement programs. The sense of style I am describing includes and goes beyond all those.

It also goes beyond bug reduction, the province of 251. Code listings A and B can be equally bug-free, but the level of style in A can still be unmistakably superior to B. Style is part of what Code Complete tries to communicate. Duplicated code has less style than modular code. Cryptic variable names have less style than informative variable names; so do verbose variable names. Objects and functions that overlap and do too much have less style than objects and functions with clear-cut responsibilities. On the other hand, style indicators are more what you'd call guidelines than actual rules, because style is an elusive concept which escapes hard definition.

One example of the difference between code with style and code without style has been burned into my memory. In one of my first few undergraduate classes, the professor divided the students into three groups to write a pseudo-code algorithm for translating a day of the month into a day of the week, but only for one specified month. Thanks to my influence (I was the first one to suggest it, anyway), the group I was in used the modulus operator (%) as part of the algorithm. One or both of the other groups made an algorithm without the modulus operator, a patchwork algorithm having several simple "if" statements my group's algorithm did not. All the algorithms solved the (trivial) problem of producing the correct output for each input; the benefit of several people to mentally trace/check the code was probably why the students broke into groups in the first place. Need I state which of the algorithms had the most style, regardless of my all-too-obvious bias?

Here's another quick example, from a few days ago. Out of curiosity, I was looking over some checked-in code. A utility class contained a handful of methods. One of those methods had many complicated steps. In defense of the code's style level, the method's steps were sensibly grouped into a series of "helper" methods, called in succession. The gaffe was the visibility of those helper methods: public. Is it likely that other code would try to call any of those helper methods individually? Is it even likely that other code would use that narrowly-applicable utility class? No on both counts. The public visibility of the helper methods causes no bugs, and realistically speaking will never result in bugs. Nevertheless, objects that "overshare" a contract/interface to other code represent poor style.

The programmer who checked in this code is not dumb, yet he had a style "blind spot". Style is subjective, but it can be learned. Constructively-minded code reviews should put an emphasis on improving the style of everyone involved.

If you've read Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, you may also have noticed that its conclusions about language rhetoric resemble the above conclusions about programming style. Quality craftsmanship can arise from the mental melding of craftsman and material. It's neither objective nor subjective, neither art nor science. A common expression of programmers is a language or framework "fitting my brain". Artless programming proceeds without the attempt to achieve this deep awareness.