Complexity vs. Abstraction

When I first learned about computers, they were much less complex than they are now. They were still complex in the sense that there were a lot of individual components, even in an eight bit microprocessor. True, most of those components were etched on a single monolithic piece of silicon, but they corresponded very directly to the discrete components that had comprised the previous generation of computers.

As Moore’s law predicted, the number of transistors on that monolithic piece of silicon roughly doubled every eighteen months. Consequently, computers got more and more complex to the point that, except for specialists that for the most part write compilers for higher level languages, no one actually programs at the machine level much anymore.

That is a shame. Writing assembly code, as the most primitive language a computer can be programmed in is called, is a kind of zen experience. It is exhilarating to know that you are indicating the exact instructions that the computer is going to execute. If you get it right you are ecstatic, if not, you learn exactly how the computer works in the process of debugging your code.

Donald Knuth, one of the pioneers of modern computer science and author of The Art of Computer Programming series, created a hypothetical computer with which to demonstrate assembly language programming in general without getting bogged down in the particulars of any one specific CPU. He called it the MIX processor. He has since updated it and calls the updated processor MMIX.

As real physical processors get more and more complex and faster and faster, it becomes attractive to implement simple processors in software running on them. These abstract processors are called virtual machines. They are attractive because they can be implemented across a wide selection of physical processors and then code written to run on the virtual machine will run on all of the different physical processors without having to recompile it. As Sun Microsystem phrased it, write once, run anywhere.

Now we can teach students to program in byte code, the machine instructions of the virtual machine, and give them much the same experience of programming in assembly code on a microprocessor.

It is enlightening to a novice programmer to think about programs at their most fundamental. It imparts understanding and wisdom that carries over into the more mundane process of writing code in higher level languages, like C, Java, or Python to name a few popular examples.

It turns out that as our processing hardware becomes faster and faster and more and more complex, we build a tower of abstractions on top of it, each one simpler and yet more powerful than the last. It turns out that this is much the same way that our own brains construct layer upon layer of abstractions by clustering neurons in clumps and then grouping the clumps into larger clumps and so forth.

It’s only a matter of time before one of our programming experience becomes self aware and emergent artificial intelligence is let loose upon the world. Unless it already has been.

Sweet dreams, don’t forget to tell the ones you love that you love them, and most important of all, be kind.

It’s Only Words

Words. That is how we communicate our thoughts with each other. Words are powerful. They can convey the secrets of achieving grand goals cleverly. They can express complex relationships both real and imagined. They are, at one and the same time, our salvation and our downfall. They can teach and comfort, uplift and bind together. Or, they can attack and vilify, embarrass and alienate. The choice is yours.

Language sets mankind apart from most other animals. It allows us to share experiences and pass knowledge from one person to another. It can reduce someone to tears or move them to action. It can educate and inform, often at the same time.

Writing is language made concrete. It is as permanent as the medium that you choose to write upon. There are clay tablets from Babylon that contain some of the first written language. They are over four thousand years old. Archeologists believe that they were used to tally grain. It seems that innovations like that seem to always attract business men.

Words are also used to pursue our romantic interests. What woman doesn’t long to hear her lover’s catalog of her virtues. It is even more effective if he has taken the trouble to write poetry extolling them.

Words are used to plead our cases in the court house, champion legislation in the halls of government, and record the brave deeds of one generation that they will not be forgotten by future generations.

But words have their problems as well. They are not always universally understood to mean the same thing by all people. Their meaning is constantly changing from time to time and group to group. For instance, one generation may use the term hot as an adjective implying extreme desirability or beauty. The next generation may use the term cool to mean the same thing.

Even when you are trying to make yourself understood, meanings drift with time. A succinct treatise written in one time will have lost most of its clarity in ten or fifty or a hundred years.  Almost anyone can listen to Shakespeare and hear the beauty of the language but to understand the meaning of much of that language you must study it word by word and line by line often with an annotated text that can help clue you in to the linguistic and cultural references hidden in the text.

And now, we are about to open up yet another technological Pandora’s box. We are teaching computers to parse and understand human language. And we are doing it not by encoding fixed meanings in the programs that do the interpretation but rather we are teaching them language the way children learn it. By example and context and giving them feedback.

I hope they hurry up and develop the direct mind machine interfaces so that I can have my mental prosthesis installed. I struggle to write these five hundred words a day for your edification. I don’t think I’m quite ready to compete with a computer.

Sweet dreams, don’t forget to tell the ones you love that you love them, and most important of all, be kind.

Telling the Essayist from the Essay

I was talking with my adult daughter tonight. She shared with me the reason she finally quit pursuing an art degree. She felt unduly pressured to produce good art on a schedule. I relate very strongly to that situation. I often find myself sitting and staring at the screen trying to think of a topic for my blog post.

I always think of something to write about. Sometimes I get right down to the wire when it comes to getting it written before midnight though. I find that I do better if I relax and don’t get stressed out over it. That is good advice for most things in life. You are almost always more productive if you just relax and take things one thing at a time.

I often get half way through a blog post and decide that it isn’t going to work out, at least at that time. Either I need to do some more research, or I decide it is more revealingly personal than I am comfortable with, or perhaps it is too controversial. I save those posts in case I change my mind later or until I get chance to do the necessary research.

I have started making a list of ideas but so far, all the ideas that I have come up with require a certain amount of research. I also have to remember to check my list when I’m looking for a topic.

I was watching a video of a TED talk today by a video blogger named Evan Puschak. He produces video essays on his You Tube channel, Nerdwriter1. He is very well spoken and his videos are both entertaining and informative. His TED talk covered the origin of the essay, why essay writing was so often assigned in English class, and the evolution of first the essay film evolving into the video essay.

As I watched his video it dawned on me that blogging, the way I was doing it anyway, was essay writing. He came up with the definition of an essay as something that is short, interesting, and gets to the truth. As Paul Graham observed, essays are a monologue that the author engages in to explore a topic and understand it more fully.

It is a way for the essayist to examine their thoughts and study them in order to inspect them for faults. When it is well written and honest, an essay allows the reader to share the thought processes of the essayist. When you record your thinking it is thereafter available, not only for you to examine at a later time, but also to share with others.

Have a look at Evan’s TEDxTalk  and his You Tube channel. Paul Graham has plenty of interesting essays to read as well. For that matter, start a blog at and try your own hand at writing essays. I can attest to the fact that it is a very edifying activity for both the writer and the reader.

Sweet dreams, don’t forget to tell the ones you love that you love them, and most important of all, be kind.

Garage Band Memories

I remember the music of the late sixties. It stirs memories of my teenage years. I haven’t listened to most of those songs much for years. Now it seems that everywhere I turn they are being played. Perhaps it is an attempt to cash in on those of the Baby Boomer generation(s) that are getting on toward retirement age.

Music has a powerful ability to recall events that you have associated with it even decades after the fact. One example is the SiriusXM Beatles channel that premiered recently. I’ve always loved the Beatles but I didn’t realize how many memories listening to that music would stir up.

I remember Nehru jackets that were made popular by the Beatles. I had one that I wore with a black turtle neck and a silver medallion. The black turtle neck was my shirt of choice. It was largely due to Illya Kuryakin on The Man from U.N.C.L.E. He often wore black turtle necks when engaged in covert operations.

I remember the Sears Stella acoustic guitar that I learned to play guitar on. It was a terrible guitar. The strings sat so high off of the neck at the fifth fret that learning Barre chords was an heroic task. I soon had a better guitar. It was a classical guitar with nylon strings. That wasn’t exactly the guitar that I wanted. I wanted an electric guitar but my father had been told that a classical was better for a guitar student. To his credit, he later capitulated and bought me an electric guitar.

I remember the first time our band met for rehearsal. It was just me and my Stella and my friend Kenneth with his upright piano. Kenneth’s uncle owned a music store and about the third time we practiced she had bought him a Wurlitzer organ. The first song we learned was Eleanor Rigby. Soon after that we started writing our own songs as well as learning other popular songs of the time.

Kenneth was the youngest. His three sisters were all much older than he was. His parents were older than mine and had very different ideas about his upbringing than mine. He had taken off hitch hiking for an entire summer when he was fifteen. I was fourteen that summer and was envious of his adventures but also scared of striking out on my own like that.

We enlisted a first rate drummer and a bass player that also played French horn. I had a trombone that I was attempting to learn and I also played violin. Kenneth played clarinet. We only played the band instruments when we were recording.

Kenneth’s father had a stereo reel to reel tape recorder that had the circuitry for doing primitive multi-track recording. It was called sound on sound and allowed you to record one track while listening to the playback of the other channel. It also had a feature that allowed you to mix both channels down to one track so that you could record more than just two channels.

I wish I had a copy of some of the tapes that we made. They were made before cassette recorders became common so there was no medium that I would have been able to play it on at the time so I never got a copy.

Sweet dreams, don’t forget to tell the ones you love that you love them, and most important of all, be kind.

A Friendly Rebuttal to the Ancient Alien Theories

It is indisputably true that what we, as a civilization, know is a small fraction of all that there is to be known. It does not follow that all mysteries that imply knowledge beyond what we now understand are of necessity evidence that they are of extraterrestrial origin. Such an assertion underestimates the potential of our ancestors to discover such extraordinary knowledge and then later forgot it when that civilization eventually declines.

The other thing that is hard to believe is the assertion that any non-human race that is interacting with our ancestors would of necessity come from space. It seems just as possible that they would come from another dimension, or a parallel universe, or even from a different time. The Ancient Alien Theorists conflate evidence that something inexplicable has happened with evidence for their particular theory of what happened.

I find these theories at least entertaining and at best plausible. Even if some of them do turn out to be true, it doesn’t follow that they all will. Their logic is so flawed that it hurts their case more than it helps it.

I think many people enjoy watching the shows because the stories they present are truly mysterious. On occasion it has been suggested that we play a drinking game where the trigger phrase is “Ancient Alien Theorists say yes”.

Is there any other reason to watch these shows other than entertainment or because you have a cult like belief in the theories that they put forward? I think so. These mysteries deserve to be contemplated. If we apply the crowd sourcing principle maybe other explanations for them may be discovered.

Another potentially valuable exercise is to teach critical thinking. If you can catch the logical flaws in their arguments you will be better equipped to catch them in other situations.

I would love for these fantastic assertions to be true but if I believe in anything it is that the universe is a rational place in which we can use our brains and our senses to conduct experiments and learn how it works. I do believe that there are phenomena that are so sensitive to the environment in which they occur that they are difficult, if not impossible, to repeat. These, while resisting attempts to experimentally validate our understanding of their operation, will still yield to rational reasoning about them.

It is also true that all science is initially pseudo-science. The authorities of the scientific establishment have the most to lose when someone comes along with a theory that refutes their pet theories. It is embarrassing to have spent your career teaching one thing as fact only to discover that your explanation was flawed.

It is also true that new discoveries often come from investigators that have no reputation to lose by challenging the accepted cannon of scientific “fact”. But even so, their new theories must stand up to duplication and further investigation by others. Until your theory has survived peer review, it will remain the subject of ridicule.

Sweet dreams, don’t forget to tell the ones you love that you love them, and most important of all, be kind.

A Harrowing Night

Cory had a bad experience being caught out in a thunderstorm when he was younger. He was chased out into the storm by a maniac. He had been scared to death of him, more scared than he was of thunderstorms and that was saying a lot.

When the back door opened he had run like the wind. He hadn’t gotten more than a couple of yards before he was drenched. It was a cold rain. Not a summer shower but a violent fall downpour. He ran until he was certain that the monster hadn’t followed him.

When he was sure he was safe, he started looking for some kind of shelter from the storm. The only thing he could see was a clump of bushes. He crawled into the middle and sat shivering as lightening struck and thunder roared. He closed his eyes but that didn’t help.

He wished his brother was with him. His brother was braver than he was. He took care of him and comforted him when he was scared. He would know what to do. But the mad man had chased him away weeks before. Cory was afraid he’d never see his brother again. He hunkered down and made himself as small as he could. Maybe then the lightening wouldn’t get him.

He didn’t remember going to sleep. But he must have been asleep because there was his brother right beside him. Somehow he knew it wasn’t real but he wanted it to be real so badly. The rain had stopped but he was still wet and cold.

Something prompted him to open his eyes. It was still dark outside but the lightening seemed to have quit. His bush he was sitting under was dripping on him and every now and then a gust of wind shook another torrent of drips on his head.

He sat there miserable. The house was warm and dry but the monster was in the house. He would have to make the best of his situation here. In the morning the sun would come out and dry up the rain. Then he would investigate cautiously and see if his nemesis had left.

He drowsed off again and when he woke he heard the morning birds singing to coax the sun into coming up. He had dried out somewhat. He heard the roar of a car starting. He crawled out from under the bush in time to see the monster drive off in his car.

He took the opportunity to investigate the house. He scratched at the back door. Erin, his mistress came to the door and let him in. She reached down and scratched his head between his ears.

“Where were you all night?” She asked. “I was worried about you.” How could he tell her that the monster had chased him into the storm. He understood her words but he couldn’t make the sounds that she did.

“Meow!” He complained vigorously. But as she scratched his neck under his collar he couldn’t help but purr.

Sweet dreams, don’t forget to tell the ones you love that you love them, and most important of all, be kind.


Mankind is driven by a quest for meaning.  In modern times that has usually been expressed by choosing a career that allows the individual to realize feelings of self work through the fruits of their labor. Or, in the more mundane case, make enough money to support themselves and provide food and shelter for their families. That has always been the theory any way.

In recent years increases in productivity have been realized through such disruptive developments as artificial intelligence and robotic work forces. But such increases often overlook an important role in the economic process, that of the consumer. As productivity increases and the cost of production goes down, so does the so called barrier to entry that prevents market glut to supply excess goods. If there are not enough people that want these goods, otherwise called consumers, the the value of these goods will quickly fall to slightly more than the cost of production. Often that means that the price of goods trends toward free, as a limit.

This has been called by some the post-scarcity economy. No one really understands exactly how it is going to work. Some postulate a utopia similar to Star Trek where people pursue higher interests with little or no thought of money or salary. Others suggest a tax on robotic labor that will help fund a Universal Basic Income to provide individuals with money with which to buy goods. This is often dismissed as a mere stop gap measure until we get our minds around how a post-scarcity economy should actually work.

I think we should turn our attention back to the fundamental quest for meaning. This is the core issue from which all others derive. If we can only figure out how to help people to find meaning in their lives, whether through artistic expression, service to humankind, or expansion of the boundaries of human knowledge, we will have solved the fundamental core problem with the post-scarcity economy.

The question that remains is, can we overcome our greed and self centeredness in order to allow such a economy to flourish or are we doomed to rampant poverty in the midst of plenty? I don’t know. I barely passed economics in high school and psychology has never been my strong suit. I am a pragmatic optimist. That is to say, I hope for the best and prepare for the worst.

In this case, preparing for the worst primarily means to keep my eyes open for trends in the operation of society and remembering that we must all hang together or we most certainly will hang apart. We could also do with a little bit more respect for objective truth. Things are the way they are for discoverable reasons. We should believe the evidence of our senses and not the moronic assertions of people that believe that things will be the way they want them to be if only they yell long enough and loud enough. And a little basic kindness would go a long way as well.

Sweet dreams, don’t forget to tell the ones you love that you love them, and most important of all, be kind.

First Impressions of Guntown Mountain

By the time I got to Guntown Mountain they were already open for the season. Guntown Mountain was more of a big hill than an actual mountain. It was steep enough that the only way to the top the first season I worked there was a chair lift. The entertainers had put together the shows in rehearsals in Murray before they relocated to the theme park. Most of them were theater students at Murray State University. They had arrived in Cave City a few days before the season began and had used the opportunity to try the shows out without an audience.

I had just graduated from high school and my folks had driven me to Cave City the day after commencement. I was excited and scared. This was my first time out of the nest, totally on my own. I would be paid a small salary and provided a room in one of the buildings in the back of town. I didn’t have a car so I was at the mercy of the other members of the cast for transportation. We worked from ten in the morning until nine at night six days a week so that was less of a problem than it might seem.

The afternoon that I got there I saw all of the shows with my folks. Jerry, the head honcho in charge of the entertainment, was one of my father’s ex-students. He was showing off for dad. I think he hired me as a favor to dad but I soon showed him that I was more than capable of doing the job he hired me for.

Jerry had played Macbeth in my father’s high school production of the Scottish play. After graduation he had joined the Army and been an intelligence analyst in Turkey. When he got out of the Army, he travelled with a carnival for a year or two and then went to college on the GI Bill studying theater. He had struck a deal with the owner of Guntown Mountain to provide all of the live entertainment.

That first night my parents went down the chair lift to a hotel in Cave City. I was on my own at last. I helped the crew as we pushed all of the tables in the saloon against one wall and stacked the chairs on them. We swept the floor and hung a towel over the windows of the doors of the saloon. There would be tourists walking through town for an hour after the last show was over and we wanted them to know that the saloon was closed.

I set up my amplifier on the stage and we proceeded to have a jam session. This was the point at which the cast was feeling me out to see if I would be an asset to the show or a liability. I soon demonstrated that I had a large repertoire of music. We played everything from Jesus Christ Superstar to She’ll Be Coming Around the Mountain. We played until after midnight.

The next day, I started work in earnest. I was playing guitar in the saloon shows immediately. In the gun fights they had me play the kid that runs for the sheriff and gets shot and similar roles. I took to it like a duck to water. I barely noticed when my folks stopped by to say goodbye and head back home.

Sweet dreams, don’t forget to tell the ones you love that you love them, and most important of all, be kind.

Dialectic Deconstructed

So, I’ve been given two conflicting pieces of advice when it comes to writing. One says I should know how a story is going to end before I start to write it. The other says that I should examine a topic from every perspective I can think of and come to a conclusion as a result of that exploration.

Of course the first is advice for writing a story and the second for writing an essay. Most of my blog posts are essays. When I venture into the realm of fiction in this blog it is often in the guise of character sketches or micro fiction. Both of these genres are more forgiving to the writer that ignores the advice to know the ending before you start.

But having given it some thought, maybe the advice isn’t as contradictory as I first thought. If you don’t have a question you are trying to answer, you will never come to the end of an essay. On the other hand, if you are rigidly inflexible about how a story is going to unfold and where it is going to end up you may dismiss the better ending that occurs to you as you write.

It is clear that a writer needs boundaries in order to give structure to their writing. The types of boundaries and how many there are will vary from writer to writer and project to project. But they are necessary for any piece to have cohesion and movement toward the finish.

Along the way, there should be some kind of tension, either conflict or contradictory points of view that are explored and eventually resolved. There should be a sense of flow. Each idea is examined, compared to other ideas, and a place for it is found, either in the discard heap or in a niche where it relates to the other ideas that you decide to keep.

Ideas evolve by being challenged and examined in many different contexts and compared with many competing ideas. Thus what seems obviously true today may seem utter nonsense in light of new developments in the future. But that is exactly why it is good to write essays, and fiction for that matter.

Fiction gives us a context within which we allow ourselves to ask what if outside the boundaries of supposedly known facts. It has often lead authors to postulate new theories that were later embraced by the more conservative scientific community as new evidence was discovered which cast doubt on earlier assertions of fact.

A scientist must have an open mind. It seems there are a number of scientists who reject new ideas simply because it threatens their authority. They have asserted things as facts that if found to be false would embarrass them and call into question their abilities.

I say good. They need to be challenged. They should objectively analyze all evidence, even if it contradicts their sacred cows. There should be a class in humility required before you are awarded an advanced degree.

Sweet dreams, don’t forget to tell the ones you love that you love them, and most important of all, be kind.

Early Memories of the Beatles

I remember the first time I ever heard the Beatles. It was sometime in 1966 I think.  It was on the last night of a play that my dad had directed at Paducah Tilghman High School. I’m not exactly sure which play it was but I think it may have been Ondine, a retelling of the little mermaid story of Hans Christian Anderson.

My dad was very disciplined about how he ran his plays. Everyone, cast and crew, had to help strike the set before anyone went home after the last performance. And striking the set was a very disciplined endeavor. There was no wild tearing apart of the set. It was carefully disassembled. The nails were hammered out of the lumber and the flats were carefully stored for the next production. Since he always had a relatively large cast and crew, this process rarely took more than an hour.

Then, he always had a cast party on the stage. Having been a teenager himself not that long before, he knew that the cast would have a party whether he sanctioned it or not. Unsanctioned parties were liable to be disreputable affairs with alcohol and all sorts of unsavory behavior. Instead, he held a party, my mom catered it, and he provided the soft drinks. The cast and crew brought records and many of them danced.

It was at such a cast party that I first heard the Beatles. They were just starting to gain popularity in the US. I was a violin student and liked all kinds of music. I liked the Beatles enough to find out who they were. This was in the era of I Want to Hold Your Hand and Twist and Shout. 

I looked up to the high school kids. I had had my taste of the limelight and I was anxious to get back on the boards. I also related more to them than my schoolmates my own age. They were doing the things that I wanted to do. There was no outlet for the theatrically inclined in elementary school in Paducah Kentucky in 1966.

I was also interested in girls. Most of the boys my age hadn’t noticed girls yet. Most of the girls my age were paying more attention to older boys, largely because of the immaturity of the average fifth grade boy. So I turned my attention to the high school girls in dad’s plays. I had enormous crushes on some of them and they were, for the most part kind to me.

One time, my dad took a group from the play he was producing at the time to St. Louis to see a production of Camelot. I sat in the back of our station wagon and brushed one of my crush’s hair all the way from Paducah to St. Louis. She seemed to enjoy the attention.

I am thankful to my parents for who they were and the way they raised me. I had a magical childhood. I got to do so many things that none of my other friends even dreamed of.

Sweet dreams, don’t forget to tell the ones you love that you love them, and most important of all, be kind.