Tom Pittman's WebLog

(or something like that)

2004 December 31 -- Optimism

Americans have no sense of history. Except maybe for old people, who have no future, everybody imagines themselves to be forever young, with no past. Yeah, me too, nevermind that I'm long past the middle. I call it "Future Perfect," a sort of grammatical pun which reminds me that God's grace willfully accepted wipes away the karma of past mistakes, so I'm not forced to repeat them.

Part of not repeating those past mistakes lies in understanding what went wrong, then making changes to prevent recurrence. The Bible calls that "repentance" and Jesus was rather radical about it: "If your hand or your foot causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away. It is better for you to enter life maimed or crippled than to have two hands or two feet and be thrown into eternal fire." [Matt.18:8] I don't know what they call that process in American churches today, but they don't do it, and they don't tolerate people who do. People much prefer to admit they are sinners (in a general, non-specific way) -- and then go on sinning. I don't think God has a very high opinion of such people -- not if you read what Jesus said about it -- and it's certain the people outside the church don't either. There will be a lot of surprised people on Judgment Day, and it won't be over theology.

But for the next couple decades or so, I'm an American. "Forgetting what is behind and straining toward what is ahead, I press on toward the goal..." [Php.3:13] The goal for me today is computer assisted Bible translation. I used to think the job is too big for one person working alone. I still think so, but until I get the software working on a non-dead computer platform, there's not a lot that people can do to help.

The trouble is, the non-dead operating systems should be. A friend sent me a link to one of the industry leaders' blog, where he discusses the new Microsoft initiative on collaboration, which he claims they swiped from IBM. Perhaps they did; Microsoft lacks the vision to invent anything new, so they just buy up whoever did invent it. The result is a muddled mess, and a large part of why I spent the last seven months writing a new operating system and a new language compiler to write it in. Although still incomplete, the system works and puts up windows and icons which I can double-click to run separately compiled programs. I was hoping to have scripting running this week, but my optimism got the better of me. Hence the title of this entry.

I am convinced that the exuberant optimism of software developers is a special form of Original Sin, the realization that I can create "as gods" with no limits. Well, there are limits. Human synapses are slower than electrons in transistors, and as we get older they slow down even more. I wrote 17,000 lines of code in the last half year (do the math: it's almost ten times the industry standard rate of one line per hour), but unless these new tools work far better than I have any right to expect, replacing 67,000 lines of BibleTrans code in 2005 as I was hoping is probably a little foolish. sigh

But I'm going to try. I still have another month of work before this new OS is usable (editor and scripts functional, and ported to the PC), then -- well, ask me at Easter how it's going.

2004 December 27 -- Clue Deficit Disorder

One of the opinion columns in last week's InfoWorld illustrated rather starkly why there is such a divide between the intellectual elite in the media and the rest of the country. Jon Udell quoted another pundit's reference to "faith-based parsing," which, as he went on to explain, was meant to be an insult -- without the least apology for the insult that his explanation is to people of faith, and especially to the government initiative which originated the term "faith based." I suspect he is completely oblivious to the notion that what he cannot perceive with his five senses does not therefore not exist apart from the minds of the faithful believers. Unfortunately, the atheistic agenda has been bought by far too many of the people inside the churches, so that they are inclined to agree with the child in the Sunday School joke, "Faith is believing what you know ain't so."

Well, it ain't so. True faith merely acknowledges that our puny 3-dimensional minds just might not be able to grasp all there is to know, and if you approach the historical and scientific evidence without prejudice, it just might better support the existence of a Creator, who has the right to tell us how to live. As for the President's "Faith-Based Initiative," all it attempted to do is give to the other 3/4 of the country the same rights and advantages that the atheists in the power structure already have. Except for the right of the Establishment to cram their religion down the throats of everybody else, the way they do in Muslim countries like Saudi Arabia and Iran, and in atheist countries like the former Soviet Union and China and (the ACLU keeps hoping) the USA. The atheists like their position of power, and they (probably wrongly) believe that if they made any space at all for the Christians, the Christians would turn around and do to the atheists what the atheists have been gleefully doing to the Christians for the last half century.

Atheists are bad historians. Democracy -- not the oligarchy of ancient Greece, but the democratic experiment first started here in 1776 -- is a Christian notion. Atheists, left to their own devices, tend to prefer dictatorships (think: Soviet Union, China, and so on). They are really looking in a mirror, not at the facts, when they fear or ridicule the faith of the President. As I pointed out a couple months ago, "It takes one to think you know one."

2004 December 25 -- Debt Free

Let no debt remain outstanding, except the continuing debt to love one another -- Rom.13:8
Two events this week reminded me of the issue of debt.

My first full-time job was at a government research lab, and the Government Employees Insurance COmpany offered rates somewhat below their competitors. I stayed with them long after they broadened their market to all comers. But a couple years ago it became public knowledge that their principle stockholder promoted politics and a corporate morality which I prefer not to support voluntarily with my purchase money, so I found another carrier. Unfortunately, it turns out they are not licensed to do business in the state where my car is registered. Finding yet another carrier became more difficult than I was prepared to spend the effort on, so I went back to Geico -- mostly as a stop-gap while I keep looking. As part of the sign-up process, Geico did a credit check. Why this is necessary, I cannot imagine: there is no credit involved, they get the premium in full up front, and in 35 years they never paid out a single claim on me. As a consequence of the Fair Credit Reporting Act, they notified me of an adverse report, because "we may have been able to offer you a lower rate had the report been more favorable."

I fired off a letter to the credit agency to find out why. The report came back this week, with page after page of "Balance $0...paid or paying as agreed...never late." All except one mortgage company, 5 years ago, with three late payments. When I bought that house 16 years ago, I went to the local bank and explicitly asked for a mortgage that would not be sold out of state. Against my better judgment they gave me a variable rate, because the credit buyers "don't like them." They also set it up to deduct the payments directly from my checking account. Little did I know that the bank management would be involved in the subsequent national savings & loan scandal, and they had to sell off their assets, my bank accounts to some other bank and my mortgage out of state. That was the end of the automatic deductions and the beginning of my troubles. The mortgage holder sent monthly bills, which I paid on time, but eventually they sold the mortgage to a third slimy company in yet another distant state. This went on three or four times. Sometimes I sent the payments to the old address because I really had no proof that my debt had been transferred. One of these transient out-of-state asset buyers stopped sending the monthly statements, which made it hard for me to remember to make the payments. I really did miss a payment a couple of times. More often, I started making three payments at once, when I paid the home-owners dues as a reminder. The office screwed up the accounts, charged interest not due, and generally made a mess of things. NEVER do business with Regions Mortgage in Montgomery Alabama if you have the choice. I called the Alabama attorney general office for help (they were already in deep trouble with the state). I almost had to go to Montgomery in person to straighten things out. That's why I asked not to have the loan sold out of state in the first place. Fortunately they sold to another asset investor, and my mortgage problems went mostly away. Until now. sigh What can I say? I did owe them money, and I was late those two times. The borrower is servant to the lender. So now I have a financial (not merely moral) reason for finding an alternative to Geico. And no mortgage.

Also this week a friend sent me a book Total Forgiveness by R.T.Kendall. Forgiveness is a difficult subject for us to grasp, because we have in one word two different concepts. Both are good things to do, both are taught in the Bible (using separate words for the two ideas), but the conditions for doing them are quite different. Today I might have something to forgive, which I am eager to do as God commands me, and I also need to renounce all bitterness that might rise up within me.

The bitterness I can do something about: My God is bigger than theirs, and my God tells me ALL things work together for good to the Called. My God is in total control of events; theirs is not, so they may feel the need from time to time to do unethical things to make things work out. I don't have that problem, and however unpleasant the situation may have seemed at the time, it was GOOD (for me). It got me out of a temporary situation and back into the work God has called me to, with my skills updated and ready to do it. I'm having a ball. I'm even ahead of the optimistic schedule I set for this year.

But -- and here is where the two ideas come together -- if they owed me a debt (and from their website Mission Statement, you'd think at least they owed me the respect of "a Christ-centered, caring academic community" but that is untrue), I sold the mortgage to God. God paid me off. They may still owe God something, but that's between them and God, not involving me. Christmas is about God's Gift, and God's gift to me is greater than any puny debt owed by people who perhaps don't appreciate Who God is. No debts, no regrets, no bitterness.

Living debt-free is really wonderful, you should try it sometime. But I really must remember not to hang on so tightly to what God gives me today, so He doesn't have to break my knuckles prying my hand off so I can receive tomorrow's gift tomorrow.

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2004 December 21 -- The Politics of Education

Last week's issue of World magazine, which leans to the right almost (but not quite) as far as Time leans to the left, had an article on left-wing politics in American universities. They used the adjective "liberal" but that is inaccurate: "liberal" means open and accepting of a wide range of viewpoints, while the educators they described were mostly knee-jerk heterophobic anti-Christian left-wing bigots. My thoughts on this subject started to crystalize a month ago, when I saw the thin blue strips on the left and right edges of an otherwise overwhelmingly red election results map.

Two kinds of people dominate those thin blue strips: The vast majority of the so-called "poor, uneducated, and easily led" filling the city ghettos lack the education and resources to understand economic cause and effect, so they tend to vote for whichever party promises them the most freebies from the public treasury. And one party is pretty good at making those promises.

At the other end of the spectrum are the highly educated intellectual elite -- including the educators themselves -- who should know better, except perhaps they have started to believe their own rhetoric. Or maybe they just enjoy the feeling of power that comes from keeping the poor prople ignorant and subservient.

Then there is the vast majority of the American people in the middle. It doesn't take a lot of education to understand cause and effect, but it does take a certain amount of literacy to grasp basic economics and to know where to find resources that enable people to control their own destiny. Controlling your own destiny is kind of a libertarian idea, not socialist. Accumulating capital by making wise investments is what the Republicans get accused of doing. Home owners want to see reasonable limits on their property taxes, especially as the property values rise.

Imagine for a moment how you would want the country to operate if you wanted the blue party to win: For starters, you would want to prevent anybody who is now impoverished (and voting blue) from acquiring the wealth that would move them over to the red side of the line, wouldn't you? So let's spend a lot of money on worthless educational ideas (educators get that money, not the students), but don't teach them anything, and especially don't give them any way to break out of the trap, such as school choice. Oh, and raise the taxes on the rest of the country (the producers) so to drive them down below that poverty/dependency level where maybe they will start to vote your agenda instead of the other party.

Now I'm quite sure none of the Democrats would even consider thinking thoughts like that, but you kind of wonder what good all that education is, if they can't see the logical implications of their political agenda.

Full Disclosure: I too have a lot of education (PhD) and I didn't vote red.

2004 December 18 -- God's Exalted Word

In today's Psalm, 138:2, David exalts the Word of God even above God's Holy Name (the NIV translation gives them equal status over all else, which is still pretty high). Teaching is good, and I can do it reasonably well, but making God's word available is far more important than teaching. So all in all, this year has been a step forward for me, an improvement. Although I have not yet started working on BibleTrans itself, I seem to be on schedule for beginning actual code next month. I can hardly wait.

A news item recently sent out by Wycliffe Bible Translators reports 356 new projects were started in the last five years (since 2000). That's nice, but there are 2,644 languages that have no translation, not even started; another 1,678 have unfinished translation in process. Sometimes I wonder, does the church care? Maybe we don't even read our own Bibles, so we don't appreciate that a quarter of the world's population cannot read a Bible because there is none in their language to read.

2004 December 6 -- Publication Polemics

Magazines with a political or religious axe to grind -- in other words, most of them -- will often print letters criticizing a position they took, but only if the critic comes off looking like a buffoon. Case in point: a couple months ago WIRED magazine ran a rather one-sided cover story on Intelligent Design. This month they reported on the firestorm of letters they got, and printed some of them. To their credit, they did print a few hysterical anti-creationist letters, and also one from Michael Behe, originator of the idea of irreducible complexity (IC) and author of Darwin's Black Box, where IC is explained in very scientific terms; however, most Darwinists have not taken the trouble to understand IC, assuming incorrectly that it is a variation of the old "God of the gaps" argument ("we don't understand natural phenomenon X, so God must have done it"), so the editors probably considered his letter benign. They did not print anything that might suggest a scientific (non-political) way of addressing the problem, such as mine. See for yourself, why they could not bring themselves to print the letter I wrote:
There is a simple way for the evolutionists to stop Intelligent Design dead in its tracks: Science.

Unless of course there is no scientific support for Darwinism.

Five years ago I stopped worrying about Y2K because everybody was saying "I'm ready, but I don't know about my suppliers." From mathematical induction, that implied everybody had adequately mitigated the threat. It was a correct analysis.

Twenty years ago, believing that evolution was probably correct, I started asking the same kind of Question of anybody doing original peer-reviewed research in any scientific field: "What in *your* research supports the Darwinist hypothesis of descent from a common ancester over the alternative?" I asked at the University of California, where I got my own PhD, and in the other universities where I taught on faculty, and everywhere else where smart people can be found. In 20 years *nobody* even attempted an answer. All I get is personal ad hominem attacks and generalized appeals to "10,000 scientists" who cannot all be wrong.

Actually, it's more like 1000 atheists who have an apriori philosophical commitment against any kind of Designer regardless of where the facts lead, plus 9000 scientists who, after hearing about Robert Gentry, Forrest Mimms, and Roger DeHart, wouldn't dare risk their own research funds and jobs by speaking their metaphysical opinions in public.

Ratliff's article ends with the charming thought:

>> The notion is noble enough: In a democracy, every idea gets heard.
>> But in science, not all theories are equal. Those that survive
>> decades -- centuries -- of scientific scrutiny end up in classrooms,
>> and those that don't are discarded."

A great sentiment, which I'm sure the Ptolemaicists used against Copernicus and Kepler and Newton and Galileo. The 16-century survival of Ptolemy's science still trumps everything since.

Stop counting supporters and years. Truth is not determined by majority vote. Get the argument out of the courts and the legislatures, and back onto the scientific issues. The old-guard evolutionists won't be convinced, but young scientists will follow the best evidence -- if you let them see it. They already are, and it terrifies the evolutionists.

Tom Pittman

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2004 November 24 -- Market Politics

I wonder how long the whining will continue. Some of them were still complaining earlier this year about how "the Republicans stole the election" in 2000.

There are two ways to solve an interpersonal (political) problem: Persuasion and force. OK, one way; force is just a different kind of persuasion. The essential difference is, in one method you convince the other person (or become convinced) by reasonable arguments supporting the better idea. The more reasonably both sides approach the issue, the more likely that their respective concerns will be heard and addressed, and some kind of win-win compromise can be achieved. If one or both opponents lie about their intentions, they can still appear reasonable and persuasive, and sometimes win. The other way is to make the alternatives appear so bad that your position comes off as the lesser of the evils. Prison and death are effective persuaders, but they lack moral authority.

In this country we have a 200+ year history of preferring the logical persuasion method, exposing all ideas to the public and letting them stand or fall on their own merits. Then you put into office somebody who can make the best ideas happen. At least that's how it was supposed to work. Party politics at its best agglomerates collections of ideas into two or more bundles that you can choose from without having to think about all the hard questions. In a dictatorship you have no choice at all, the guy with the biggest army wins. Many of the other countries we read or hear about in the news work that way. Some of the people in this country try to work that way too. Never mind the name of their political party, it's not democracy.

In a democracy, if you want your ideas to win, you have to market them. I call it "market politics," the presentation of political ideas in a way that convinces the voting public to choose them over the opposition. Bill Clinton and Tom Daschle did that by lying to the American people, telling them what they wanted to hear, but implementing entirely different policies in office. Clinton was very good at it; Daschle wasn't good enough. If everybody thought through all the issues carefully, then elections would go very differently. Since they do not, politicians can and do sell unthought sound bites to the unthinking masses, and carefully thought-out policies to the people who care to think about them -- and the marketers hope that they got their demographics right on the sound bites.

In the recent American election, more than the usual number of people thought about more of the issues. One party is out of touch with the American people. It would not have even been close, except that all the major news media are in that party and equally out of touch. But they control what the people see and hear, so that party's sound bites got better marketing than the other. Most of the media show you a state-by-state breakdown of the election results, with the left edge and the top right corner blue, and all the rest red. Those are the Electoral College votes, so there is some logic to it. However, when you break it out by county, the results are stark: the left edge and right corner shrivelled into just a few urban counties, plus a smattering of low-income areas along the Mississippi and Appalachia, and some Hispanic areas in Florida and along the Mexico border. Low income people in the cities and elsewhere typically lack the education and resources to analyze what government is doing; one party is very good at selling sound bites they will buy.

The Hispanics are starting to break out of that poverty mentality and think about what the parties stand for. They do not approve of the anti-Life, anti-family, anti-religious policies of the Blue party, and for the first time many of them voted the issues instead of the sound bites.

Of course the Red party has their sound bites too, but they are not as skillful at it. Bush simply looked bad when he tried to market sound bites in the debates. However, thanks to a timely push from Osama Bin Laden, a lot of people voted the Republican sound bites. It's part of the marketing.

In other parts of the world market politics do not apply. In many countries, if you don't like the ruling Muslim policies, you die. In North Korea and China the atheists run the same kind of oppression. Here the atheists control the national media and the tax-funded education establishment, and they are trying to force their views on government using undemocratic means (unelected judges), but they have not done a very good job of selling their policies to the American people.

Market politics still rule the land. It's a crummy way to run a country, but as Churchill once famously said, it's better than everything else that's been tried. So losers, stop whining and do your market research. Sell something the American people want to buy.

2004 November 20 -- Six Months Later

Six months ago today was my last day at the university. I'm still a little sad about the circumstances, but my God is bigger than theirs. After coming to a realization of the full impact of what happened (well before the actual termination date), I set about to finish updating my skills on the remaining operating system(s), especially now that the system I know best is gone. If you've been watching these posts, you know how bad I found Windows to be. So I'm writing my own, a sort of Mac-like phoenix rising from the ashes where there used to be a lush Apple tree but now only sterile eunuchs -- well, let's not go there.

I guessed, mostly on the basis of the original Macintosh ROM size (64K) and about how long it takes me to write that much code, that I could do it in 3 months. Multiply by 2 to adjust for geeky exuberance (also known as pride), I figured that it should be usable by the end of the year. Well, I lost a couple months on a little Windows project that took several times longer than I planned, but after 4 months of actual work on this, I'm actually pretty close to where I should be on the original timeline. The operating system kernel is functional and reasonably robust, and I just today got the window manager to respond to mouse clicks and drag a little window around the virtual screen:

It's not particularly beautiful, but the graphics engine works quite well (that's real text you see on the window title and the button, not just cardboard pixels). Macs put their close box on the top left corner of the window, but everybody else puts it on the right; I decided to go with the majority, since there's no real performance advantage in either place, except as habits. Yes, the red X is a little ugly, but beauty is not what this is about.

One observation that struck me today as I contemplated my progress on this project and the lack of it over the previous two months on that Windows thing: What a difference adequate tools makes! The six or eight months I eventually spend on this operating system project will be fully recovered in enhanced productivity in the next year or two at the most. There really is that big a difference. And this is even before the system is completely functional.

Update: See screen shots from Windows port.

2004 November 1 -- Geographic Sorting

Yesterday I noticed a peculiar phenomenon at church. Normally, you can look over the audience and sort of guess how people feel about being there: Ignoring mothers with small children, who sit near the back for a quick getaway in case of accident or eruption (or perhaps not ignoring them), the people who sit near the front tend to be more involved and active in church activities, while the people near the back often act as if they wish they were somewhere else. Nobody sits in the first two rows but the pastor's wife and the special speaker.

I have mentioned my observation to other people on a number of occasions, usually to denial. However, last week I saw a similar sorting in the BioInformatics conference room. The first day the speakers were not particularly compelling, and most of the attendees sat near the back of the room; the second day the topics were much more interesting, and the attendees distributed themselves much closer to the front. I commented on this distribution to the gentleman across the table from me, who happened to be a geographer, and he cited some research in support of my observation.

It happened back in the 50s, they randomly assigned students to seats in a classroom and required them to sit in their assigned seats the whole term. Because the seating was random, there was no geographical component to student ability or grade point average going in, but at the end of the term there was a significant geographical distribution of the grades in that class, with the students in the front doing better than those in the back, and those in the center doing better than those on the sides. This is of course different from the self-sorting that goes on in church congregations and conference seating, but apparently related to it.

Last night at church the usual distribution was inverted, with the greatest density of people near the front, and the back rows almost empty. The program was unusual too, the first time they ever did a talent show kind of thing, with large numbers of people (including a whole bunch of kids) taking turns getting up front to perform. I guess watching your family or friends show off is more interesting to the average church-goer than the regular hymns and sermon.


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2004 October 30 -- BioInformatics

I just got back from a conference on "BioInformatics" at the University of Iowa. "Informatics" seems to be a neologism meaning approximately that computers are somehow involved, and the university seems to consider themselves to be at the front of the general field. However, I cannot tell how much of that opinion is shared by people off campus. Some of the speakers showed some remarkable technology for making action movies of living cells and tracking the component parts, and movies modelling the individual protein molecules in a cell. Another speaker discussed the problems reconciling two different nursing vocabulary standards; how that topic was "informatic" or even "bio" was somewhat unclear.

What is clear to me, after only one day of reflection (more time may crystalize other insights), is summed up nicely in a line quoted by one of the speakers representing a Federal agency: "Data is a four-letter word, spelled T-U-R-F." My opinion of government agencies, rooted deeply in my own experience in civil service, is less than laudatory, but she did make a good case for the government setting certain kinds of data standards, and for insisting that medical research conducted on Federal grant funds should be accessible to the public -- her agency being the obvious choice for guardian of that public data.

Closer to where my rubber hits the road, turf means that the exciting technology I was seeing is essentially inaccessible to me. As fun as it may be to work on cutting edge technology like that, it ain't gonna happen. I became aware of the conference and its possible relevance to my work through a small software project I'm working on for one lab at the university (a relative is lab technician there). The software may save her hundreds or thousands of hours of manual data crunching, but it's a little tiny backwater, not unlike the dictionary reconciliation project the first speaker reported. Nobody gives a rip except the lab tech, her employer, and me (the programmer). The big spectacular stuff is funded by Federal grant money, and (probably) programmed by students on fellowships. The point was made -- I think in response to a question -- that universities do the research, and the technologies that work engender spin-offs, to be commercialized by private companies. Volunteers need not apply.

I went to scout out opportunities. No connections were made.

Am I disappointed? Not really. It just confirms that BibleTrans is where I'm to spend the immediate future, and there is no "Plan B" for when that fails (again), or if it works but I lack funds to promote it. sigh

2004 October 19 -- It Takes One to Know One

When I was a child, one of the things I learned in the schoolyard is that the other children are terribly cruel with their taunts. The next thing I learned is that an effective shield against such verbal assault is to turn it on the attacker, typically with the phrase "It takes one to know one!" I similarly learned that only ticklish people ever thought to try and tickle, so the best defense was to tickle back.

As I grew older, I learned other coping strategies -- or maybe people didn't like Jesus being proved correct: "In the same manner you judge others, you will be judged," so they were more careful with their attack. I entirely forgot about the line for several decades...

Eight years ago, a bad character evaluation on my part put me in business with a person who, as I subsequently learned, did not share my core values. Things began to crumble, and communication completely disintegrated. He did not understand what I was trying to say, and I sure did not understand him. I think rather slowly, and I am by disposition inclined to try to understand what is going on before I lay my opinions on other people, but he was otherwise inclined and the accusations flowed. They didn't make any sense to me (except to prove the breakdown of communication), because the claims were so much at odds with what I knew about my own thoughts and motives.

But what on earth was he thinking? How could I negotiate some kind of win-win treaty if I don't even know what he wants? I suppose most people assume that the other people they meet are basically the same as they themselves are, same thought processes, same values, etc. At least what I read seems to imply that, and it fits with my experience. I did that too -- until it became obvious that other people do not think the way I do. Hardly ever. Nor do they share the same values. I mostly lost that prejudice eight years ago, when I suddenly realized that my colleague might be engaging in the same kind of projection as I had been. I had assumed he was the same kind of generous, thoughtful, and self-giving person I imagine myself to be, but it didn't fit what was happening.

Everything suddenly made sense when I took those bogus accusations as confessions of his own inner thoughts and values. Early on he expressed concern that I might try to take the business away from him; what he meant was that he was planning to do the destructive act. And so on.

Since then I have seen this happen over and over, not always being the target myself. A wife accuses her faithful husband of leaving her -- then sues for divorce. A manager accuses an employee of lying -- when he is the one hiding the truth.

I am reminded again of this principle in the election rhetoric flying about this year. You will have to pardon my one-sided perspective here: I don't have a TV, so the only hostility I see with any regularity is in the extremely anti-Bush news magazine I read. As I recall, the broadcast networks and the news channels hate Bush also, but at least the Republicans can buy ad time. The Democrats accuse Bush of lying about Iraq; what it means is that they are lying about Iraq (I suspect Bush acted on the best information he had, as anybody would). They accuse him of planning to institute the draft... Now that one doesn't even make sense: Bush's entire political base is exceedingly hostile to drafting women, and how could anybody start up the draft in these days, when any activist judge would insist that it include women? It evidently means that Kerry is likely to start up the draft. You saw it here first: A vote for Kerry is a vote to draft women.

The Iraq hostilities are beginning to resemble VietNam in 1964, when the Democrats said Goldwater would "escalate the war, and send our boys over to be killed, and bomb Hanoi, and..." So everybody voted for Lyndon Johnson, who then proceeded to escalate the war, and send our boys over to be killed, and bomb Hanoi, and...

Now every time I hear anybody make some assertion about another person's inner thoughts or motives or future plans, especially when they are hostile or contradict that person's public stance, I take such accusation to be a confession of their own anti-social attitudes and motives and plans. It's wonderfully insightful.

It doesn't so much take one to know one, as it takes one to think he knows one.

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2004 October 15 -- Gender Bender

I always cringe when opening a trade magazine or journal and seeing an article on women in computing. More than any other skill, computer programmers work in a merit-based economy. Producing correct software is so hard and so much in demand, that anybody who can do a tolerably good job of it will be accepted and do well. There is no "Clubhouse" nor "glass ceiling" in computing.

While repeating ad nauseam the usual complaints about the dearth of women in this business and falsely blaming it on social hostility, the current article in Software Development actually touches on the real reason for it: women are well-rounded persons who want to go home and spend time with their families; the highest rank of geeks are just that: geeks. The reason all the technical leads are men is that the women want to go home and spend time with their families instead investing in the total immersion that excellence in this business requires. It's that simple.

It takes about two hours to get back up to speed after any interruption takes your mind off the complexities of the current project for more than a few minutes. In an 8-hour standard workday, that's two hours in the morning and two more after lunch -- completely wasted. The result is 50% productivity. Now look at the typical uber-geek hacker, on the hacker clock reported in Steven Levy's book (20 hours working, 15 hours off sleeping; I allow another hour or so in non-productive activities); in 36 hours the geek spends the same 2 hours ramping up, but now it's only 10% of the day. He not only gets 80% more useful work out of each average hour of work time, he also has more work time per week. The person who goes home at 5pm every day, five days a week, contributes 20 hours per week in productive results, compared to the geek on Levy's schedule, who produces usefully for 84 hours in the same week, more than four times the output.

OK, not that many of us really churn out 36-hour "days" -- but then, there aren't that many stellar programmers, either. I keep to a more or less 24-hour clock, with maybe 10 or 12 hours of productive time, six days per week. That's still three times what can be done on a 5-day, 8-hour schedule with an hour off for lunch and errands. It is noteworthy that the programming community has fewer elderly members than female, and they are typically viewed with the same disdain. Yet, even though I am twice the median age, I am generally accepted. Why? I spend the time and I deliver the code.

The ridicule this article reported male programmers have for women who try to join their ranks is not because they are women; it is solely because they are asking to be accepted on the basis of their gender, instead of for what they have contributed. The system really isn't sexist; the women complaining about the system are the sexists.

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2004 October 13 -- ...But Liars Figure

TIME magazine has for most of this year been Kerry-friendly and Bush-hostile. However, in an extreme effort to give the appearance of balance, they carefully listed three faults for each candidate in their sidebar "Who Stretches the Truth?" All three of the Bush quote analyses end with some unnamed "critics" debunking the facts; no critics are cited against Kerry.

Kerry is quoted on malpractice lawsuits being "less than 1% of the total cost of health care," and then they cited a Congressional Buget Office estimate of 1.5%. Big whoop-de-doo. They could have more honestly noted that malpractice insurance, whose sole function is to protect individual doctors from the astronomical costs of those lawsuits by averaging them over all physicians, costs each doctor somewhere between $10,000 and $55,000 each year. That's perhaps a quarter of the average doctor's income, not 1% nor even 1.5%. Health care obviously includes other costs like drugs and hospitals, but those providers must pay insurance premiums also. Somebody is going to pay for all those million-dollar lawsuits, and it's not the insurance companies and not the doctors. And especially not the legislators and the lawyers. Ultimately, it comes out of your pocket and mine.

Figures may not lie, as the saying goes, but liars can pick and choose whom to quote and how to slice and dice the numbers. And yes, the Republicans do it too. But if all the media are in bed with one candidate, how can anybody balance the lies from one side against the lies from the other to see which is actually worse? All we can see here in the heartland is that the magazines and TV (not just Dan Rather, all of them) all hate Bush with a passion that transcends truth.

2004 October 5 -- Digital Stargazing

WIRED magazine is targeted at techno-wannabes. Its early years aimed for digital nerds, but after the founders sold out to Conde Nast (the fashion conglomerate) a few years ago, it has morphed its target more toward clueless groupies. Every three or four years I pop for one of their nearly free subscription offers -- at $10/year you know the price is only to winnow subscribers down to actual readers; the ads, of which there are many and costly, pay the entire publication cost. The Table of Contents is on page 15! Most magazines put it on page 3 or 5; everybody reserves the first couple pages for expensive ads, but in Wired you have wade through over a dozen pages of them.

The current issue cover story is a nearly clueless groupie piece titled "The Plot to Kill Evolution." Now I have to admit, the Intelligent Design folks really do believe that Darwinistic religion as taught in the public schools is fatally flawed; elsewhere I show why. But this is not a technology piece, it's about religion and politics -- the sort of thing you might find in American National Religion (aka Scientific American). Apart from the sensationalism of this one article, a much more appropriate cover would have brought together three articles about taming the explosion of digital information, notably media, radio and pictures.

Digital radio is interesting. They featured the guy who oversees one of two allocated digital satellite radio empires. Most Wired articles these days are about people, not technology; that's how you know who their target audience is. His first career in radio essentially eliminated all variety in the broadcast spectrum and focussed instead on maximizing the audience (read: ad dollars) by carefuly measuring actual audience demographics. I call it "the pablumization of the market," driving everything to a low-grade mediocrity. More on that later. This limitation, the article points out, is driven by the scarcity of broadcast spectrum. The new satellite digital radio has spectrum to spare, so they can offer more variety. They also don't sell ads (yet) so their revenue comes from monthly subscriptions, and the profits go up by offering more variety, not less.

However, there are practical limits to the spectrum availability, even from a digital satellite. There are only two licensed purveyors for the USA. Why is that? That's all the bandwidth the FCC was willing to allocate for it. XM may have 130 "channels" expandable by a factor of perhaps ten, but he doesn't have unlimited capacity, so not all voices can be heard, only those he chooses to put up.

There are more limits that the Wired authors and editors either ignore or else are simply ignorant of. With my subscription this year came a supplement (published a year ago) on the new digital wireless computer networks. It breathlessly gushed over the unlimited capacity of this technology, completely ignoring simple physics. Yes, right now, with relatively few nodes on-line, spread-spectrum hops around a lot, missing the little spikes of noise in the air from other users. However, when everybody is on, those little spikes of noise will fill the entire band: it will be noisy on every one of the little sub-channels, and throughput will degrade to zero for everybody. There is no such thing as a free lunch. Enjoy it while you can.

The "New Economy" that Wired obsessed over a few years ago (before the Dot-Bomb burst), even then had serious detrimental effects on the marketplace: it essentially eliminated quality products from the marketplace and replaced them with nearly identical mediocre products at a very low price. This low price made the small-scale high-quality producers uneconomical, so they either joined the pablumizers, or went out of business. Now there is a new way around this problem: with digital distribution, the costs go down so low that it once again makes sense to offer a large variety, digital radio being a (probably temporary) case in point. Another article in the same issue discussed the difference between Amazon and Barnes&Noble (and similarly, Netflix vs. Blockbuster), the internet-based national vendor versus the local brick-and-mortar store. Amazon carries 20x the number of titles as the typical B&N, and most of their sales volume is not from the same hits that B&N sells, but from the other 95%. The point being that with the low cost of inventory, even a few sales per month is profitable. This had an interesting side effect that books which quickly disappeared from the local dealer shelves (or never got there at all) began to become popular again as people could get them and (Amazon helped here) recommend them to others. Just-in-time printing could further reduce inventory costs to essentially zero, making it feasible to offer every book that was ever written. iTunes has a similar story for music, and Netflix for movie rentals. Too bad it doesn't work for clothing and food.

2004 October 2 -- Voting Your Conscience

One month from today Americans will go to the polls to vote in an election, which both sides of the ideological divide are claiming is crucial. In these last six weeks preachers all over the country are urging their parishioners to register and vote. Yeah, I heard that sermon too. It was well researched, full of Biblical references about the Christian duty toward government: obeying the laws (even the speed laws!) and paying taxes and such, and what the government duty is to the people (protection, punishing evil and rewarding virtue). But when he came to the central point of his sermon, the Biblical references stopped. The Bible says nothing about voting. The sermon was very thoughtful and well-reasoned, despite the lack of Biblical support. 99% of the homosexuals and the pornographers vote, he said, but only 17% of the evangelical pastors and only slightly more of their congregations. That has some interesting implications, which he did not go into.

If only a tiny minority of the Good Guys and all of the Bad Guys vote, and the vote is split 50-50, then there must be a whole lot more Good Guys than Bad Guys in the country. The Democrats whine a lot about the Republicans "stealing the election" (which isn't true: they won it fair and square, by a 500+ vote majority), but if everybody who could vote would vote, that majority would be much larger. So why don't the evangelicals vote? I think it must be that goofy, unBiblical, and unConstitutional notion of "Separation of Church and State" which almost everybody in this country believes in. Most people understand it to mean "separation of religion (but only organized churches, and only when they disagree with the homosexuals and the pornographers) from government," which is not what Thomas Jefferson meant when he used the term. The phrase is not in the Constitution, and the Founders of this country certainly had no intention of excluding religious influence from government affairs. The only country in the world that ever did have such a phrase in its constitution, the former Soviet Union doesn't exist any more -- and yes, they meant it in the same atheistic sense.

Maybe the evangelical pastors know the Bible doesn't say anything about voting. Or maybe they are intimidated by government officials threatening to take away their tax-exempt status for preaching unapproved dogma. Don't laugh, it has already happened in this country. European governments are even now putting pastors in jail for preaching Biblical truth, and Canada already has a law on the books which allows them to do the same. It's coming. Notice, however, the unequal application of the law: Black churches have no problem politicking from the pulpit. Their pastors argue for the other political party. Or maybe it's a subtle form of racism, where the blacks are deemed too stupid to obey the laws that the whites can be required to conform to.

I think there's a bigger issue driving evangelical absenteeism on election day. We profoundly believe in a God who is in control over everything -- including the governments supposedly elected by sinful people. God's Purposes are not thwarted by who gets elected once every four years. The homosexuals and the pornographers have no other god; government is their only hope. I read the last chapter of the Book: our side wins. We win even if their guy gets elected. That has a profound impact on how much effort we are motivated to expend on Tuesday, November 2.

Don't get me wrong: Good Guys should vote too, especially if they believe that God wants them to. Especially if they don't want their pastor going to jail for preaching the Bible, and even mostly if they want to continue getting a tax deduction for their church donations. Oh wait, those are selfish motives; Christians should do things for unselfish reasons. As the pastors continue to say, "Vote your conscience, not your wallet." I think that's code for the fact that Bush is an outspoken moralizer, while Kerry is not even in compliance with his own declared church. But the preachers can't say all that for fear of government retaliation.

Let me see... I began a 7-year period without gainful employment during the Clinton administration, and it ended during the Bush presidency. The media complaints about unemployment have it all backwards for me; my wallet says to vote Bush. Let's take health care. I wish we could. However, greedy trial lawyers like John Edwards have driven up the cost of health care so that people like me cannot afford it any more, and in some places it's not available at any price. You won't find that information in the mainstream media. So if I vote my wallet, I certainly would not vote for any ticket with John Edwards on it. Or maybe we should do like that Arkansas driver told me, "We all voted for Clinton as President to get him out of Little Rock." If Edwards is Vice President, he can't be mounting frivolous multi-million-dollar lawsuits against doctors -- oh, but his friends can. The Democrats are fond of telling us about corporate financial ties to the Vice President; do you really believe that will go away with a regime change?

Voting my conscience is something else: Bush caved on education, pushing a bill through that any Democrat in any other year would love. We still don't have school choice, and we are still stuck with the racist educational agenda pushed by the other team. Bush caved on AIDS, appointing a fox to guard the henhouse. Bush caved on "faith-based" services, which is now hardly any different from the atheistic version the Democrats wanted. Bush caved on judicial appointments. Bush caved on economic restraint. But he preaches a good bully pulpit, that must be worth something. Yeah, my conscience...

2004 September 25 -- Beating Up on Bill

The more I work with the Windows operating system, the less I like it -- and the better my new OS project looks by comparison.

I used to read every Macintosh magazine in print, and not many of the others. Now that the Mac is dead, there's only one holdout magazine (MacAddict), which of necessity has switched to promoting Unix. I just got my last issue, after letting the subscription die. There really aren't any Unix magazines I want to read: either they are filled with arcane stuff on how users can get around that system's many faults and failures, or else they are very techie far above my skill level; MacAddict is one of the former -- and a backwater version of Unix at that.

So I read the industry newsweekly InfoWorld. Many IW reviews and columns are about Unix -- it's the information technologist's only alternative to Windows, so of course Microsoft advertizes heavily in it to try to hold onto their market share. Some of the Microsoft ads are pretty funny...

Here's one for VisualStudio, the compiler I bought. It shows a restaurant where all the tables and chairs are lined up in a long winding chain like a string of dominos, with a zillion large sheets of poster paper laid out all over them and this huge flowchart carrying across from table to table to chair, and a couple of programmers puzzling over one end of it. It's a recurring theme: previous ads showed the flowchart taped up all over the walls, out the door, and down the hall. VisualStudio projects are like that: totally out of control to the point of being utter chaos. No wonder the Microsoft OS is such a mess! They use their own tools.

A few pages later, one with no picture, only text: "There is no one, single source for security. But there is one source for ongoing security guidance." I think this one is damage control: later in the same issue, one of the columnists faults the Microsoft monopoly for being part of the industry security problem. Over the months there has been in this magazine a long litany of blaming fingers pointed at Microsoft as the primary enabler of the internet worms and viruses that shut down so many systems earlier this year. The fox is trying to sell his services as henhouse guard, because everybody knows there are chickens missing.

Microsoft hires the nation's top computer science college graduates each year, why are they so incompetent? Partly I suppose it's because the colleges no longer teach them how to program. I tried to, but all it did was make the department chairman mad at me. However the top students in each class somehow learn anyway; what went wrong? I think it's the culture. There is no culture of excellence at Microsoft, only a bumbling "get the job done, somehow" in an industry with no accountability (read the fine print in those "End User License Agreements" that all the software vendors insist on: they promise nothing at all, not even to run), and a monopolist in that industry who can afford to ship shoddy products without losing market share. And because the programmers and system designers can get away with shoddy work, they do.

Apple always had a corporate culture of excellence, and they came out of nowhere to redefine the whole industry -- twice. Or maybe three times. Not always: their current computer offering is Unix, an aging 19th century OS with a pancake layer of makeup, but their iPod music system is doing to the music industry what the Mac once did to the computer industry.

There's a lesson here someplace.

2004 September 20 -- Demonizing the Opposition

I once heard a sermon about "Legalism." OK, more than once: it's a popular sermon topic in today's anarchic culture. Preachers get stuck in the first couple chapters of Galations and stretch it out to cover a bunch of antinomianism that the Apostle Paul never intended. The gist of (all) these sermons is "Don't tell me what to do!" Of course the very saying so violates their own ethic, so they are usually more careful in how they say it.

Now I suppose that God is not overly thrilled when we exclude people from church because we don't like the way they dress (or smell, or the color of their skin), but there is a lot of variability in what may be personally annoying to some people, and what is not a matter of choice. One pastor I knew returned from a mission trip to Africa, and was so appreciative to be back "where people smell good." The people in the African bush, it would appear, are too poor to wash their clothes every day and apply expensive deodorants and perfumes to hide the unavoidable consequences of tropical heat without air conditioning. Many churches in Europe have a dress code, where women are expected to dress modestly (no short skirts, no bare shoulders); apparently men's dress is not a problem there, but it was in a California church not too long ago, where men showed up in speedos (I think they all went to the beach after the service). The pastor wanted to preach delicately against the women's skimpy attire, and his wife reminded him that the men were also a problem. They instituted a dress code.

The particular legalism sermon that comes to my mind today berated another church for "preaching another gospel" because they gave a skirt to a woman visitor in slacks and asked her to wear it. Excuse me, but this isn't doctrine, it's just a dress code. Would this particular preacher accept into his congregation a woman stark naked? I don't think so. Does that make his own theology "legalism"? Hardly. It's just a dress code, to prevent offense to the other attendees. He draws the line in a different place than the target of his criticism, but he still draws the same line and for the same reason.

Many years ago I overheard a Lutheran pastor criticizing the Baptists for "preaching salvation by works." The Lutherans, it seems, are saved by faith and faith alone, while the Baptists preach a works-righteousness (the believer must "make a decision" which is clearly something to do, therefore a work). The Baptists, on the other hand teach that the Lutherans are similarly "preaching salvation by works" because they require the infant to be baptized (which is something to do, thus a work), while the Baptists make no such requirement. I almost laughed out loud.

Some zealots even try to demonize other Christians for the celebration of Christmas or (God forbid!) Easter. I might go along with taking some of the commercialism out of Christmas, but Easter? These people have too much idle time on their hands; they should be spending it evangelizing the heathen, not criticizing the believers.

Jesus' disciples found somebody casting out demons in Jesus name, and the disciples wanted to stop them because these other exorcists were not among the Twelve. Jesus said "Let them alone. Whoever is not against us is with us." I often wonder why the preachers don't get the message.

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2004 September 18 -- Computer Blueprint

I've been working on this operating system (OS) to be a vehicle for future software development. The MacOS is gone, and in its place Apple is selling an off-beat version of Unix, spelled OSX (I pronounce it Oh-Ess-Ex, as a reminder that it's a 40-year-old system and showing its age). Unix is the system designed by geeks for geeks; it is not usable by real people. Linux is the only version of Unix that is growing in market penetration, and that only because everybody hates Windows. Windows is a good system to hate, as I keep getting reminded every time I try to use it. The only system worse than Windows is Unix.

So I'm writing my own, which is neither Unix nor Windows. I set a goal of finishing it this year, and halfway through the time frame, I'm still on target. The system part already works reasonably well; all I need to add is the gooey (GUI, for Graphical User Interface -- windows and icons) part and some scripting, and port my tools over.

Read all about it in: Blueprint for a 21st Century Operating System.

2004 September 13 -- Being (un)Connected

The Protestant insight was that every person is individually responsible to God for their own faith -- we call it the Priesthood of all believers -- but sometimes we carry that too far. Especially in this country, where the cultural ideal is "Rugged Individualism." Some of our poets have tried to pull us back: "No man is an island," and "Ask not for whom the bell tolls, it tolls for thee." But the commercials have shouted the poets down: "Please, Mother, I'd rather do it myself!" and "Have it your way."

I think the poets were right. The faith Paul taught in the Bible encourages us to take each other's concerns as our own. Like everything else, Paul got this directly from Jesus, who reminded us that (after first loving God), loving your neighbor as yourself is the Second Great Commandment.

I know a person who likes to "give information" (her phrase). She wants to feel useful. Perhaps not everybody wants that as a primary goal, but they surely want it indirectly. The useless person has no products or services to sell to the public, and thus has no source of income. That may be OK for a while if you are rich, but most of us are not rich, and the few that are, are getting fewer.

I recall a discussion at a company where I was working. Some disgruntled employee had called in the Labor Relations Board to hold an election whether they should be represented by a union. The technicians in the product development group were grumbling that this was likely to move the whole operation offshore, and lose their jobs. One of them argued that "The whole point of being in business is to make money," with the implication that if the unions cost the company too much in labor, they will replace the workers with other, less costly (offshore) labor. Strangely prescient for 20 years ago. One of the others responded with this curious insight: "No, the whole point is to help people; if you make money, that's evidence you succeeded." Pure Puritan Ethic. Another person in another place said it more succinctly: "If you are not ultimately in business to help people, then your business will ultimately fail." One reason Bill Gates is so rich is that deep in his heart, he really wants to help people; the bean counters and lawyers who are slowly taking over his business as he gets older, they have no such altruism; their greed will ultimately destroy Microsoft -- probably in the next decade.

I'm working on a project to help people, too. Not very many of them know it yet. Perhaps the real beneficiaries of my efforts will never know it, but that's OK. God knows. The trouble is, God is not as vocal as the people we meet here on earth. People want to feel needed.

When a missionary comes to church, I go to hear what they are doing. Missionaries often work in situations like mine, where the beneficiaries don't know it yet. We can support each other. So I listen to what they are doing, and try to be supportive. It feels like a one-way street. A few people are supportive, but even fewer understand what I'm doing. If they are supportive, sometimes it feels like they are just being polite.

Two years ago I took employment at a university after five years of this kind of isolation. What a difference! Here people wanted to be helped, so much that they were willing to pay for it. Directly, the university wanted somebody to teach, and paid my salary; indirectly, every student there was paying (or their parents paid) tuition to be there. Eventually the university changed their mind. Even while I was there, the last couple months were pretty isolated, the way people say they feel in a cancer ward. It was palpable. Oh well.

So now I'm back to feeling useless.

A friend called today with a Macintosh problem. The only trouble was, it was Unix, not a Mac. Unix is a horrible system, but I'm such a long way from knowing enough unix to help anybody. If he'd had that problem on a real Mac, I could have said "Open the Chooser (under the Apple menu), and click on the AppleShare icon, then choose the router you want from the list." It's that simple. On unix, you go to their terminal window and type in arcane commands which do strange things that only gurus understand. sigh

So I still feel useless.

2004 August 20 -- Software in Crisis

It's no wonder that all the computer technical journals speak of a computer software crisis: It is! We didn't have these problems on the Mac. The Mac had its own problems, mostly that it was so easy to use that nobody ever bought any more software upgrades, so the vendors didn't make any money. Yes, I had a vendor actually tell me that. Now that the MacOS is dead and replaced with Unix ("Oh-Ess-Ex"), they no longer have that problem. Unix is so hard to use that the vendors love it. But Apple is now a tiny 1% niche market, irrelevant to anything. Microsoft's monopoly is now completely unshakeable.

So I bought a PeeCee computer and a Microsoft compiler. I really wanted to buy the Borland compiler, but I guess they are running Microsoft (or maybe Unix) code on their web server: I was unable to find any information on how to buy their products. Does anybody know anything about buying Borland products? I still would like to get away from this Microsoft albatross.

I asked the dealer to install Visual Basic 6. Microsoft no longer (perhaps never) supports VB6. So the dealer installed Microsoft's goofy "Dot-Net" product. It has a product called "VisualBasic" but it does not import VB6 projects. Simply refuses. Not even partially. Nothing. Zip. I wrote my own.

The translated code does not compile, of course. The compiler is Microsoft. It spits out 100+ error messages, mostly of the form "this name is not recognized" but if you roll the mouse over the offending line, the editor pops up a little tooltip telling you what this symbol is defined as. So the editor can find it, but the compiler in the same software package cannot.

My source text window is cluttered up with these meaningless lines and boxes down the left edge. I suppose "outlining" might be useful to somebody somewhere, but I want to see what I'm doing. They have a menu to turn the feature off. I turned it off. Next time I look, those lines are back again. Every time I look, those lines are back again. I keep turning them off, and they keep coming back a minute or so later. I tried to search the Help system for instructions on permanently turning them off. Their Help system is on life support, totally brain dead in a vegetative state.

I think this program was written by amateurs.

If this is the best the software industry has to offer, it's small wonder that nothing works any more. Small wonder that all the programming jobs are going to India. Maybe they have their own compilers in India. Maybe they still have Macs.


2004 August 14 -- Computer Power

People keep telling me how much more "powerful" Windows is than the (real) MacOS, or how much more "power" Unix has than Windows. I think they have confused computer power with driver power. Power is the ability to do what you want done without additional help. The Mac did what I wanted done in a couple clicks and a drag. Doing those kinds of things on WinXP requires a third-party product and several dozen clicks and a reboot or two. Doing them on Unix (including Oh-Ess-Ex) is often simply impossible. Which operating system is more powerful?

Suppose you hire a "powerful, can-do-anything" butler from the Acme Household Service company. You ask him to make a peanut butter sandwich. He says, "I have grape jelly and orange marmalade; which do you prefer?" And then brings you a sandwich. That's the MacOS. Then the Acme decides that he is too old and fires him. The replacement they send over is a fellow with long grey hair and wrinkled skin showing through a thick layer of pancake makeup. You ask him to make a peanut butter sandwich, and he says, "What's peanut butter?" Welcome to OSX.

Acme's competitor down the street hires out 20 butlers for every one that Acme places, so you ask them to send over a butler. You ask him to make the benchmark peanut butter sandwich, and he says, I have this jar of stuff called peanut butter; should I open it? Which way do I turn the lid, clockwise or counter-clockwise? Should I use a knife or a fork or a spoon to spread it? Would you like anything else on your sandwich, perhaps salsa, or jelly or jam or mustard or pickles or leftover roast beef?" You have amazing control over what kind of peanut butter sandwich this fellow makes, but what a hassle! That's the power of Windows. It's really about taking power away from the computer and making the user do what you bought a computer to do.

Me, I want a computer that knows how to do the right thing and does it. If I want something different, I can ask for it. That was the Mac.

Can you guess? Today I tried to do something on the PeeCee. I got it done, but oh, what a hassle. sigh

Last year I wrote a program in VisualBasic (version 6) to do some processing on genetic sequence data. VisualBasic is Microsoft's answer to HyperCard: not as powerful (read: not as easy to use) as the defunct Apple product, but it beats the tar out of C in terms of raw power. Unfortunately, Microsoft's attitude toward VB6 is about the same as Apple's toward their fine product: they discontinued it. They have a new product out with the same VisualBasic name, but it's radically different and it refuses to import VB6 programs. Taking their (non-)support of VB6 as a predictor of the future, I have to believe that their new "Dot-Net" is effectively unsupported and therefore unusable in a commercial environment.

I spent two days in HyperCard and had a translation program that converts 99.5% of the VisualBasic code to syntactically correct C++. This is what Microsoft could have done, if they wanted to keep their customer base. Such are the economics of doing business with a monopoly. Fortunately, the VB6 program file is plain text and easily figured out. The user interface part is another day of hacking, to convert it to the (also text) user interface specification file for a competitor's tool. That's the one nice thing about Unix: everything is text and easy to hack. Which is more about the power of the programmer (in this case, me) than the system. Anyway, that was three days' work and $1600 that I would not have had to spend if Microsoft had done the minimum effort to support legacy code. There's more to do (this is, after all, a Unix-based program) before it will run... sigh

For such reasons, I do not buy nor recommend Microsoft products when there is a viable alternative. Unfortunately, Apple has taken themselves out of the running, and unix -- well, eunuchs still cannot perform. sigh

Will things ever get better? Don't bet on it, not in your or my lifetime. The Golden Age is past, and everybody who wanted to do it well is gone; nobody is left but people in it for the money. Entropy strikes again!

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2004 August 7 -- Software is a Gas

In the Forum section of the current issue of Communications of the ACM one reader quotes Blaise Pascal (in the original French, no less!) on how his letter had gotten to be longer than usual because he didn't have the time to make it short. I think software is like Pascal's correspondence: it's somewhat compressible, but making things smaller (or faster) takes increasingly more pressure and energy. In that respect, it's like the physical properties of a gas.

I'm writing this program (an operating system) that runs on a program (a virtual computer) to allow me to run programs (like BibleTrans). If that doesn't bend your head, consider that I'm using a program (editor) to write it and another program (the compiler) to convert what I wrote into what the machine understands. Yeah, I wrote those programs, too. Software is a lot of fun.

God gets His creation right on the first cut; the rest of us have to debug our work. All programmers know about debugging their code -- finding misspelled words and backwards conditions and just plain wrong numbers, any of which can cause a computer program to misbehave or (more often) fail catastrophically. Another part of the programming process that gets far too little attention is converting the requirements into a design, and yes, we all make mistakes in that part also. Major software versions typically fix some of those design flaws. The most egregious of these design bugs are just left there to provide opportunity for competitors to offer a better product -- except of course there are no competitors: Bill Gates has it all (or buys it).

After I got my operating system marginally operable, I decided the virtual computer was badly designed, and it would be easier to fix it now than later. It's not easy even now. Like Pascal's correspondence, making it smaller and/or faster takes a lot of time. After a week, I'm still beating on it.


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