Saturday, February 28, 2009

The Law of Unintended Consequences -- Right-side Up

I guess when I hear someone invoke the "law" of unintended consequences it's usually in a bad way. Like, "you can't go back in time and fix something because the chain reaction might blow up the world." But I think I very often find an upside to the "law" -- occasions where I do something (or someone else does) and years later something good results, totally unexpectedly. Case in point. I remember taking a statistics course in 2005, but only barely. That was a rough semester. I had to leave the house at 6:30 in order to make sure I made it to my 8:30 class, then I had a break before stats at 11:30 followed by a lunchless scamper back down I-45 to work. I'd get back around 2, meaning that between the classes I had 10 hours of work time to make up each week. Mid-way through the semester Kathryn got sick and ended up needing surgery, so I was pretty busy, and not well focused on the material. In addition, I was a bit disappointed because I had hoped the stats class would focus more on approximation theory and Gaussian models, and this didn't happen.

So fast-forward to this semester. I'm in another class, and we start talking about Poisson distributions and Markov chains. The professor is covering things in class in an intuitive way, generally glossing over the details, but giving homework questions that stress the theory. The textbook is next to useless - kind of a hybrid Math/Engineering book with scraps of random theorems thrown in presumably to make the book seem more rigorous. Tonight, I came across my notes from the stats class 3.5 years ago. And there they were. Poisson distributions. Markov chains. Probability theory. All explained in a beautifully concise and careful manner with plenty of intuition, summary and illustrative examples. How could I not have just eaten this up at the time? I guess I was too frazzled to appreciate it. But I sure do now! Thanks, Dr. Nicol. I owe you one.

Sunday, February 15, 2009

The Land of No Outdoors

Kathryn and I went to Sugarland today, to a little Indian restaurant we know and love from the time it used to be in Clear Lake. Not that I go to Sugarland often, but every time I do go, it strikes me as an extremely odd place -- perhaps the strangest place I have ever visited. Everything is new there. The strip malls with their vast array of chain stores and the odd mom-and-pop are pristine and immaculately coutured, every brick and line of tinted mortar redolent of the same grand architectural theme. So, too, with the subdivisions, whose houses rise effortlessly from just the right amount of weedless green grass fronted by perfect prisms of yaupon holly or indian hawthorn. So far, so good. But the odd thing is that of all the times I have been in Sugarland, I have never one actually seen a person outdoors, except for the short journey from house to car, or car to store. No one stands and chats by the conveniently-placed trees, or the charming English-style wrought iron lampposts. No children play on the wide sidewalks, or ride bikes up and down the quiet side streets. There are no benches outside the stores in the strip malls, and no one, apparently, misses them. From all appearances, Sugarland is a place with no outdoors, or rather a place where the outdoors is simpy a landscape to be looked at from inside, or a road on the way to a destination.

Imagine, just as a thought experiment, a town -- let us call it Superland -- some time in the future. Thanks to a Star Trek-like teleportation system, there's now no need to drive to stores in the strip-malls. Being up-to-date epitomes of contemporary design, the strip malls were built with teleportation in mind, while recognizing that customers still want some touches that harken back to the old way of doing things. So there is still a parking lot outside, and every so often automated cars drive up to the storefronts, simulating the experience of a bustling shopping envionment. The automated cars serve a secondary function of cleaning the lot as they drive, though happily only the results of the cleaning and not the mechanism is obvious to customers. Consumers love the convenience of zipping from one store to another, then instantly back home without the hassle of having to drive. Teenagers can now meet at the mall without driving up their parents' insurance rates. Workers can take an instant trip down to their local branch of This Planet's Most Overpriced Coffee between meetings without being late. Automotive manufacturers are, of course, highly unhappy, but after they squandered billions in taypayer funds in the great depression of 2010, no one much listens to them any more. Desparate to find new uses for their product, the big oil companies have found a huge emerging market in simulated outdoor experiences. Why, they asked, go outdoors with all that heat, rain and ice, and all those nasty bugs when instead you could have grass that never needs mowing, filtered sunshine with no UV rays, water features and whatever else you desire in the climate-controlled comfort of your own Total Immersion Simulated Backyard (TISB)? And the best part is, you never have to worry about some eyesore that your neighbor has erected again, because your TISB is programmable so that your neighbor backyard appears the way you want it to. In fact, you never need to see your neighbors again. True, energy bills have increased by several hundred dollars a month, but now that they no longer have car payments, gas costs and auto insurance to deal with, most middle-class households can afford it.

When TISB was first introduced, investors were worried that consumers might not accept it as a replacement for the neighborhoods they lived in. But with internet education firmly entrenched, it soon became clear that consumers only cared about the appearance of the neighborhoods they lived in, and crime rates, and otherwise couldn't care less. With teleportation and TISB in place, no one went outdoors any more, and violent crime rates dropped precipitously in the newer neighborhoods that supported both. And for those interested in additional security, TISB provided a "neighborhood view" module, removing the need for windows, so houses could be made far more secure.

So, is this a dream or a nightmare?

Monday, February 9, 2009

Old Cats

Brandy is 18 in cat years -- perhaps 90 in human years. Four years ago she had blood clots that caused partial paralysis of her hind legs. At the time, the vet gave her a few weeks to live. Yet ... to-date, she's still eating and sleeping and annoying us with her extra-loud meow. I took this picture yesterday when I was getting the one of the cinnamon peppers. It came out surprisingly well. I hope I look this wise when I am 90.
Posted by Picasa

Fairy dust

This is so blurry that I hesitated to post it. But I love the glow of the candles on Kaley's face, and just what is that immediately to her right? Fairy dust?
Posted by Picasa

Cinnamon Peppers

It's not a metaphor -- that's real cinnamon on the peppers. Some of them have developed a sad case of fungus; cinnamon is supposedly an antifungal. I'm not that worried, because being fungusy seems to be a minority pursuit, and I already have more plants than I can probably use. Next time they need watering, I'll use weak chamomile tea, which is also supposedly an antifungal.

I watered them from the bottom on Saturday -- just sloshed in some water into the tray -- and it was rather amazing to note the capilliary effect at work, and see the top of the soil eventually turn dark as the water made its way up.

Need to get the garden soil next weekend for sure, unless I go with a piecemeal approach in which case I could do it tomorrow. The taproot of the onions is already to the bottom of the peat pot. I wouldn't be surprised if the peppers are there soon too.
Posted by Picasa

Sunday, February 8, 2009

Loving God

I have never managed to love God. A few years after I became a Christian, I had a vivid image in my head of being trapped in a dark room, of which I could only see one wall. In that wall was a window, looking out on to a beautiful landscape. I was filled with desire to go through the window and out into the sunlit grass and trees. And, in fact, on inspection, the window was not really a window -- only a frame without glass. But no matter how hard I tried to get out of the window, my body always somehow ended butted up against the frame, while I struggled and contorted my limbs in a hopeless effort to get more than one dangling arm or leg outside. At some point, I thought, "Perhaps the problem is that I'm trying. Perhaps I need to let go and let God bring me into the light." So I let go, and I am still here in the dark room, waiting.

Perhaps it is like 1John says: if you can't love your brother, who you do see, how can you love God, who you do not see? And, in all fairness, I don't particularly love my brother. It's not that I'm a misanthrope. I find that most people are perfectly pleasant and reasonable, provided they are not pushed too far. This is, after all, what social convention demands. But there's nothing lovable in that. And if they do happen to be pushed beyond that point, it is usually more accurate to assume that they will behave selfishly, based on survival instinct, or family bonding, than that they will behave altruistically; there is a reason why saints are saints - if everyone behaved this way, the term could happily return to its new testament sense, applying to all Christians rather than a special few.

But the problem for me goes much deeper than that, and gets to the heart of what we can know about God. The message of the conservative churches I went to for years focused on the "Abba, father" view of God, the idea of us as children, and God as all-powerful, all-loving father. But what I have never been able to reconcile in this picture is that God should love some and not others. The second this question comes into play, the all-loving father image vanishes, and stern truths emerge. The Calvinist says, "God plucked you from the jaws of Hell when you had no power to love God on your own. Rejoice that he chose you." The Arminian says, "God gave you a gift of grace, and by that grace you chose life rather than death. Rejoice that he gave you the gift." And for those whom God did not choose? He simply did not choose them. And why? For his own reasons, and not because of anything they did. And as soon as these words are uttered, there is a blanket of incomprehension between us and God. It is conceivable that, given the choice to save his own child or the child of another parent, a father might choose his own. But the father who has the ability to save both children, yet lets one die arbitrarily does not meet the minimum standard of behavior for human beings.

Either God is impartial, or God is not. If God is not, then, so far as we can see, God's actions are sometimes arbitrary. And if this is the case, then we are asked to trust those actions against our best instincts on the grounds that they are for the good, even if they are not for our good (in the human sense), and even if they result in the acute suffering of others no worse than ourselves or eternal damnation. If God were the impersonal ineffable god of Plato or Plotinus, or some great universal force that binds everything together, then I could accept this more easily. But in Christianity, we are told that God is personal, and oversees the smallest detail of each life. And we are commanded to love this Person. Psychologically, I do not see how this is possible, unless we close our ears to everything outside and focus the message down to the good things God has done for me. I have walked this path, and it was not pleasant.

So let's suppose that God is impartial. For example, if the father tries to save both children, but one child refuses to be saved, we do not consider it the father's fault. Could it be that God is impartial, but our free will trumps the ability of God to compel us? This might be plausible if everyone had an equal chance, an unequivocal experience of God's grace. But what does this mean? It cannot mean that everyone grows up being taught Christianity, since that is obviously false. So we would then need to believe that people in places completely outside the bounds of Christianity, who never hear of Christ through the testimony of any missionary, never read a word of the Bible, and, indeed, are brought up in societies and beliefs completely different and even antithetical to those of the Judaeo-Christian tradition can nevertheless experience grace. If this is true, the "one way to heaven" is very broad indeed, and the implications for our understanding of God are significant since the forms, beliefs and scriptures of the Christian faith as we have been taught them are now no longer definitive. This idea requires either an undermining of the Biblical text, or some subterfuge to maintain it (e.g. a special revelation of Christ at the point of death for all who had no chance to know him in life). And as soon as we solve one question using this method, another pops up. The desire to keep God loveable begins to trump knowledge and tradition, and any reasonable attempt to express what Christianity means wilts. God begins instead to take on image we create for him, and becomes what we want, but at the same time becomes blurry and indefinite, more warm feeling, less deity, more principle, less concrete reality. And ultimately, I think this is unsatisfying, and we simply turn back to ourselves and our "common sense" to make decisions, and belief recedes into memory.

I haven't though of the room with the window for quite a while. I know very well that there are theological answers to all of the stuff above. The problem is, those answers don't get me through the window. For that, I need something else, and what that something else is, I don't know. Maybe, like the man attempting to gain access to the law in Kafka, I will never find out.

Tuesday, February 3, 2009


Been thinking about how to approach this topic. Let's try this.
Somewhere, right now, someone is becoming a millionaire.
Somewhere, right now, someone is about to die of starvation.
Somewhere, right now, someone is worried sick about a Calculus test.
Somewhere, right now, someone is being applauded for graduating from Kindergarten.
Somewhere, right now, someone is throwing a bouquet after getting married.
Somewhere, right now, someone is about to commit suicide because someone else broke up with them.
Tonight, I was pleased by how well the beef stroganoff turned out.
Tonight, I cut my finger on the sharp end of a curtain rod.

The common thread is significance. Each event really matters to the person experiencing it, and sits in their mind, taking up their thought space, focusing their mental capital. And, unfortunately, in the scheme of things, give or take a few hundred years, it is unlikely that any of these events will be remembered by more than a note somewhere in cyberspace. But, the events are obviously not equivalent. I would never suggest that my struggles with OpenGL shaders are anything akin to the struggle against sweat-shop labor, or starvation, or a traumatic relationship breakup. They're probably not even worthy to compare against the Calculus test. I felt strange writing the list of events above, as though it were wrong to put the horrific side-by-side with the trivial.

It sometimes happens, as it did in the shower this morning, that I am thinking of some work- or school-related problem, and all of a sudden there is an irruption from somewhere else, and I am thinking of the Middle East, or the global financial crisis, or someone I know who is hurting. And there it is -- the Discrepancy. The self-question: why were you thinking of something so trivial when there is something so significant going on to think about? Or, more pointedly, why are you living a life focused on the trivial when there are significant things to address? It's not about practicality; it's a moral issue. For example, it's not that I could solve the Middle East crisis. But even if I could do nothing, would it not be better to spend a life working on that than coding OpenGL? Isn't it better to tilt at a worthy windmill than step on a grape? Maybe if enough people join in, the windmill will tilt.

But really the point is not about me. It's about discrepancy. It's about all the things going on the world, and how it seems right to be concerned with big things, but there's always still what to eat for dinner, and how to earn a paycheck, and the splinter in your finger from a piece of wood you absent-mindedly ran your hand over without noticing. And on the positive side, there's the joy of eating something you enjoy, or watching a seed grow, or a laugh shared with friends versus the great joy of peace after war or maybe the birth of a child.

Modifying discrepancy is difference. It's unfair to say to a child learning addition, "that's trivial," simply because you have taken it for granted for so long. So, it seems that the absolutes aren't there. You can't say "breakups are the same for everyone," or "having a child is the same joy for everyone," or "dying is the same for everyone." Difference is personal. Discrepancy is absolute in its import, but personal in its instantiation -- everyone sees discrepancy, but, perhaps, where we see discrepancy is personal.

Becoming involved in our own worlds and isolated from those outside is a defence mechanism against discrepancy. Discrepancy is considered a negative thing in this society because it makes us realize the relative unimportance of our lives, and disrupts comfortable assumptions. Apple pie. Family values. Peace and love. Doing this questioning and making us uncomfortable should be one of the primary purposes of the great institutions of education, media, religion. That's why it's so disappointing to see education as socialization, media as entertainment and religion as social conformity.

Haven't expressed this right. Too much though in too few words.

Onions gone wild

The onions look like they are set to take over the world. I can't believe how prolifically and reliably they've grown. I put a bunch of seeds in each peat pot, thinking that perhaps one or two would sprout. Some of the pots now look as if I've sown grass. They obviously love Kim's magic grow-bulb. They're now tall enough that their growth is being restricted by the plastic top, so I've had to separate them from the peppers, which are just starting to sprout. I hope that Brandy, who likes to sleep by them, won't eat them. I assume that cats left to their own devices will be maximally evil, which is usually prudent, though sometimes I'm proved wrong.

Good day at work today. Hacked up some code with ifdefs with Keith, and all of a sudden there is a moon. Still, shaders are called shaders for a reason -- they're shady: deceptively simple on the surface, but tough as nails to debug and possessing surprising sleight of hand when addressing the graphics hardware. Now to fix up some CMFS...