Everybody knows that

I once unhappily wrote a Master’s thesis on a topic that seemed interesting at the beginning, but turned into pure drudgery in the execution.  It got me the degree, but it was a failure. One of the professors dismissed my efforts with “Everybody knows that.” I could see his point. That’s what can happen if you try to write things that are true.

Everybody knows that.

Why isn’t life like a dream?

According to some modern scientists there is no freewill. Freedom of choice and action is only an illusion, everything we do is caused and we have no control over our own actions. Oddly, this describes something much like the night dreams we experience, where we drift along experiencing things without influencing what happens. But night dreams are something we awake from, at which point–whether it is an illusion or not–we believe we regain control of our lives and actions.

What happens when we awaken? What is the difference? Why don’t we experience life as a dreamlike state when we are awake?

Was it unethical of Caesar to invade Gaul?

How about the Greeks? Should we hold the destruction of Troy against them? Kind of a stupid question.

Forget the ethics, the question is did these things work out well for the Romans or the Greeks? Would they maybe have been better off if they had done nothing instead? Another kind of stupid question.

It isn’t just that these things were so long ago that we don’t have the evidence to make informed decisions about ethics, and we have no methodology for the prediction of alternative futures based on event changes. Even if we knew all the facts, it just wouldn’t matter. Debating the question is like debating how many angels can fit on the head of a pin.

So why do we spend so much time debating the ethics or expediency of invading of other countries at present if–in the long run–it just isn’t going to matter. We know that the world is a different place because ancient events occurred as they did, but whether it is a better or worse place or the people were good or evil–these are just not interesting or useful things to consider.

It is a mistake to think that human actions on this scale come as a result of rational argument. It is more like the weather, like a thundering herd of bison, like the flow of water down a river, like the growth and flowering of a plant in response to fertilization, sunlight, and water.

People know this, but they talk anyway, because that is what they have to do.


The origin of prayer

When human infants are born, they have the ability to sense when something is wrong like being hungry, having gas, being cold, and so on–even before they could tell you exactly what it is–and to cry out about this. The result of their crying out is that someone comes and takes care of whatever is wrong for them. So, experience teaches them–let’s go right to the meat of it–that prayers are answered.

What can go wrong? If they don’t cry when hungry or cold, that is, if they don’t pray for relief, they tend to become sickly and die. Alternatively, if they do cry, but their prayers are unanswered, that it, no one arrives to take care of the problem for them, then they also tend to die. So, humans that survive this awkward early period pretty much tend to pray as a matter of course, and know that prayers are answered. There will be exceptions of course, but the general rule will be clear. (For instance, an exception: If you were so well taken care of by persons very attentive to all your needs so that you never had to cry, or did less of it, you would not learn that prayers were answered.)

So, later in life but quite early in life still, this general situation stops being true. They are encouraged not to cry and to be specific about what it is they want. When they reach a maturity level where they can actually do this, what they find out is that the situation of distress is often not fixed automatically. They find out that food is not immediately forthcoming, that they may be required to fix their own problems, and that crying is viewed as immature and bad. This is the awful period of transition to being a human being.

But here’s the thing: The belief in prayer is fixed at a very early age, and although all memories of that hyper-immature formative state of life large disappear for the young human, and although experience will make it very clear that prayers have very little effect and are not answered at all, the basic neurological wiring is there supporting the “Ask and it shall be given” even when all the events of that period are forgotten and later events contradict it.

This explains the existence of belief in prayer and the continued belief in it even when experience does not actually support it. This is why it is said that there are no atheists in foxholes–or at least very few of them.

The outernet is here

Some weeks ago, I discovered that I can obtain a very accurate report of local weather conditions by opening the front door of my house and stepping outside on the porch. I found the weather information in many ways superior to the information I would have found by getting my phone, checking for temperature, wind speed, and cloud cover to determine if I had the appropriate clothes on to take a brief walk. In the first place, the information on the appropriateness of my clothing was conveyed almost instantly, as if I was directly, neurally wired to the source. The display was huge! And near the edge of the display–at the top and same side that the wind was indicated as coming from–there were icons indicating what future conditions might be. Later I found that these icons varied and could be white and fluffy, quite dark, or entirely absent depending on the situation.  It was all incredibly well-designed, user-friendly, and intuitive.

Given its location, I called it the “outernet.”  I considered drawing people’s attention to its existence. But, given its limited focus on weather as well as the convenience of getting all information from a single source (my phone), I decided it didn’t merit mention. I continued to use it myself for weather conditions, but I concluded that my own appreciation of it was a personal idiosyncrasy.  Although an interesting curiosity, I doubted it would be generally useful.

Due to my experiences on a recent driving vacation, my attitude has now changed. Despite having a Garmin GPS unit and the Google navigation app and full internet connectivity on my phone, a new fact emerged:  The outernet is no longer limited to weather information. Enhancements are being added and–this is the clincher–the information provided on the outernet is often more complete and accurate. A short list:

  • There were location indicators throughout the outernet providing directions just as good as on the web, and much more easily visible on the (again: huge) outernet display–especially in bright sunlight.
  • The internet indicated a restaurant was closed when the outernet had it–correctly–open.
  • The meal at the Cork & Bean Restaurant, Bryson City, NC  after we fortunately stumbled on it (“stumble on” added to the outernet recently(?)), was better in all respects than the Yelp reviews indicated. By the end of the meal, the outernet had provided far more complete information on the restaurant than the internet.

There were more events of this kind; I don’t want to go on and on about it.  But after this, I felt obligated to inform people. It is just too big to keep to myself, now that the outernet isn’t just for weather. And though it may not be “world-wide” yet, I can tell you it does extend from the top of Virginia through parts of Tennessee, Georgia, and North Carolina.  It is very worth checking out if it can be accessed in your area now. (Those of you west of the Mississippi may want to wait a bit.)

Even if you think the outernet isn’t worthwhile, it may improve further in the future. At the very least, you can hope–as I do–that the competition from the outernet will spur needed improvements to the internet.


Operating Systems: Evil, Stupid, or just Passe?

So, with two degrees in CS in hand, plus about 30 years experience, I recently readied a new Windows 7 box for use.   Admittedly, I’m a developer, so I had to do some non-standard things.  But still, it was just crazy. The user interface provided little help and confusing decisions at every turn.  If it weren’t for web searches, I’d have been stopped.  It required way too much knowledge, and way too much faith that, yeah, it would really do what it said.

Now let me tell you about my new Samsung Galaxy 4.  It notifies me.  Yeah, it has more to tell me than I really want to know.  About everything.  It won’t leave me undisturbed for a minute.  Yeah, I know, there are settings, but where are they? In the app? In the phone? I’m clueless. I look, but do not find.

This can’t go on.  It has to get better.

Yeah, I bore myself, too

Everything I’ve thought of since May or so, yeah, completely dull.  If I shaved with my thoughts I would have a long beard.  If I stabbed myself with my thoughts, I’d be alive and well, thank you. Tomorrow is frickin October.  You would think I’d have something to say.  Yeah, I feel it welling up inside me like a big pizza-induced zit.

See, I got nothing.


User interface is still the key to big data

I’m not talking about the user interface to extract meaning from big data, I’m talking about how the data gets into big data, so that there is something wonderful there to find.

The best user interface needs to be a few things to the user:

  • They have to need to use it to get something done.
  • It should be easier than the current way they have to get things done.
  • Data entry has to be a barely noticeable side-effect of getting things done.
  • The basic rule that the user should only ever have to enter the same thing once still applies.

As a user-interface designer, I’m very unimpressed when the persons ordering the software tell me that they will take care of bad user interfaces with training, or the entering of unnecessary data (unnecessary to the end-user) by ordering them to enter it or firing those who don’t.