"It's a Fork"

The current issue of IEEE Spectrum has four feature-length articles of note, all six pages except the cover story at eight. The first explained the relevant technology (electronic gyroscopes) in about three sentences, and the rest was essentially biography of the guy who invented it. I'm a techie. The last described a company retrofitting used Land Rovers with (used) Tesla electric drive trains. It got less interesting when they got around to telling us the customers pay a quarter-million dollars for one of these re-creations. The cover story told about the DARPA Subterranean (robot) Challenge. It was slightly different from the WIRED article article I'd already read, neither very strong on the tech.

The other piece was a fascinating discussion of the technology behind a process for taking three-dimensional X-ray images of the insides of integrated circuits. They showed a stunningly clear picture of (what I assume is) the inside of a modern Intel Pentium processor, apparently the copper runs through five (the text said "15") layers with the silicon omitted. They called their process "ptychographic X-ray computed tomography" where the "tomography" is the same word as the "T" in the medical process called "CAT scan" and the "ptycho-" part is unexplained. Google tells us the Greek word means "fold" -- my dictionary, which defines only its usage in the New Testament, has it meaning to roll up a scroll or close a book -- and I have no idea why they used that word to name their process. As explained, they look at the diffraction scattering of X-rays going through the chip from various angles, then calculate what the internal structure must be. I think a similar process was used to study the helical shape of DNA molecules. This is not yet a commercial process, as they can only do a few micrometers at a time so far, and the processing takes a whole day on (I assume) the lab super-computer. As a computer programmer, I can appreciate what is involved.

Then overnight, it turned into a metaphor for what I'm going through. I have a knack for making people unspeakably angry at me -- literally: they are so angry they cannot tell me what I did to deserve their wrath (see "Unspeakable" a couple years ago). So all I have is something like tomography, sifting through the ashes to try and figure out what I might have done to trigger what little they said on their way out the door. The most recent blow-up gave this obscure clue:

This is extremely patronizing and insulting. You've been like this to me before
"Patronizing" is not in my vocabulary. My dictionary defines it as behaving in an offensive condescending manner. Condescending it defines as "to behave as if one is conscious of descending from a superior position." Hmmm, OK, that person is still an undergraduate in college, studying what I have a PhD in and have been doing professionally since before that person's parents were born. Yes, I would say my education and experience is superior, but "descending"? I am an educator in this situation, and the point of education is to lift the other person up, not to "descend" to where they are. So I have no idea what this word means in this context.

I suspect insult and offense are like beauty, "in the eye of the beholder." I cannot see what they "behold" unless they tell me, and they don't. I remember an incident when I was in grad school, and I was explaining how I would solve a problem, and the professor responded, "Tom, it's a theorem" [his emphasis], meaning there's a mathematical proof against me. Duly chagrinned, I shut up. It was no insult, just fact. He's the professor, I a mere student. I'm there to learn from him and his colleagues. That's what education is all about. Now *I*m in the professor position, and I'm here because I have something to share. You want it, it's free. You don't want it, not my problem. If (as was the case) I'm in a position over you in authority, and you disagree (as in this case), we can argue the facts, but in the end *I* decide. It's my job. I don't like to be Wrong, so I work really hard not to be. But don't assume thoughts for me that are different from what I say. That is what insults me, and I'll tell you so.

The "been like this to me before" part is the most puzzling. There was one incident where this person was boasting about learning music from some software program, and showed me how the program could set up a couple measures and then place four instruments (all percussion) in it, then play the result, and it was "music!" I did not attempt to hide my astonishment. My desk dictionary (copyright 1980, editions back to 1966) defines music as "combining sounds of varying pitch," and musical as "melodious or harmonious." This is about sounds of particular base frequencies. Tympany drums have recognizable notes, but most percussion -- and certainly the four in this short demo -- is just noise used to set a (possibly syncopated) beat. OK, I should know better: "rap" has no melody or tune, just a syncopated beat, yet it has been called "music" for several decades.

The insight that came to me this morning is that the English language has changed. Language changes all the time, and I have commented on words that changed meaning in my lifetime, words like "gay" -- it meant "cheerful" when I was young -- and "marriage" and "illiterate" and "gender". It did not occur to me that "music" is one of them.

For a few years many decades ago, I was the official USA delegate to the International Standards Organization Working Group on the programming language Modula-2. Most of the delegates were from European countries, so the meetings were held in various European cities. One particular year we were in a university town somewhere in central England, and our host told a story over dinner about four guys from four different countries sitting around a dinner table as we were. The Britt held up a fork and said "Take this fork. You Germans call it a 'gabel' and you Spanish call it 'tenedor' and you French call it 'forchette,' but we English call it a 'fork' because that is what it is!" We all were fluent in several languages, so the guy's parochial attitude was very funny.

My problem with "music" is that I was speaking a different language than this young college student, and neither of us knew it. No insult was ever intended, and to assume it is every bit as insulting as what was assumed but not actual. But insults don't get the work done, and we were here to get a job done. The team was destroyed, and the product will be different than if we all just did our work. Oh well.

I still like my definition of music, as something I can sing. I cannot sing snare drums. But our product is not about music, so it didn't even matter. Was that part of the problem? I can only guess, because their anger is always so unspeakable. More's the pity.

Tom Pittman
2022 May 25

Postscript, June 6. I was telling my woes to a family member, and she was a bit more kind and generous than other members of her demographic, and she told me that I had been "patronizing" her daughter, who had refilled my water glass. The water faucet in that kitchen is somewhat weird, and it took me quite a while to learn how to set the handle for cold water, which was not helped by the fact that the matron of that kitchen normally leaves it in the "warm" position, and it takes a couple seconds for the water coming out to match the handle setting. I did not expect the child to have learned in one day such subtlety as took me closer to weeks or months of occasional visits to figure out, so I offered to explain how. That was deemed -- by the mother -- to be "patronizing." The glass came back with the ice half melted and the water still warm to touch.

It would appear that "patronizing" is another word that has changed meaning since my dictionary was published. From the dictionary definition I would suppose that giving unearned affirmation to a person in place of being told how to do the job at hand is patronizing and condescending. You are "sitting on your high horse" and "condescending" to give tacit yet false affirmation to a person you know (however mistakenly) to be evil, instead of helping to work out a solution to the difficulty. Unearned affirmation is a lie and an insult to any honest person's intelligence, and I refuse to do it. But insult and offense are in the eye of the beholder. On the other hand, half of the country prefer to "make their own reality" instead of contributing to the wealth of the country, and I don't particularly want to be giving unnecessary offence, however silly the cause.

This is not a new problem to me. I was in grad school 42 years ago, and in the home of my major professor (not the same one as "Tom, it's a theorem"), whose newborn child in her mother's lap was wearing a tiny gold ring on her finger, and from time to time sticking her fingers in her mouth as young children often do. I (foolishly) expressed concern over the ring -- today such things are considered a "choking hazard" and you cannot buy them at all. The next day that I was on campus, the professor called me into his office and scolded me for insulting his wife. "If you ever do that again, I will ask you to leave immediately." At least he told me. My only possible solution was to break off any contact with his family in their home -- at least until I figured out how to prevent my good intentions from being "evil spoken of" (which learning never never happened). I gave the situation a lot of thought, and concluded that the only way to avoid such offense is to never think any negative thoughts about anybody at all. Offering help is inherently negative, it gets interpreted as supposing they need help (and are therefore somehow inferior).

Unfortunately nobody can get any work done that way, and I am a doer, not a dreamer, so I backed off to a middle ground. The world is divided into (MBTI) Thinkers and Feelers, where the Thinkers create wealth and the Feelers only imagine it and are insulted if you say so. I work well (doing real work) with Thinkers and get along fine with Feelers by never criticizing them. And crash and burn when I miscategorize somebody -- or fail to imagine all possible ways something intended to be positive and helpful could be misinterpreted as criticism. It doesn't happen often, but it's still devastating.

Bottom line: Never offer help of any kind to a Feeler, it insults their high opinion of themselves. sigh

* Rom.14:6 [KJV]