Tag Archives: Phenomenology of Spirit

ReMIX Atlanta: Soup to Nuts and Bolts

ReMIXAtlanta 

If you have ever wondered how a major technical event gets thrown together, I’ll tell you.

ReMIX Atlanta started with a conversation in which Corey Schuman suggested that it would be a good idea to do a ReMIX event like they do in Boston and Chicago every year.  The appeal for us was that MIX is totally unlike every other Microsoft sponsored event.  In turn, every community event in Atlanta tends to model itself on MS conferences like the PDC.  Wouldn’t it be fun, we thought to ourselves, to do something different.

Meanwhile in another part of the world, Richard Campbell and Carl Franklin, the hosts of the .NET Rocks! Podcast (and producers of Hanselminutes, I believe) were planning to bring their roadshow to Atlanta on May 7th.

Glen Gordon and Murray Gordon, Microsoft Evangelists in Atlanta, suggested that we associate the two events and do some cross-promoting.  So an invitation went out and on March 25th, a bunch of guys got together at a Fuddrucker’s and started laying out plans.

The first thing was trying to scope the event.  Should we go small or go big?  Corey and I wanted to do something really new and different and ambitious for the Atlanta area so we pushed for something big – 400 attendees big – and we got our way.

Having pushed for the idea, we were now on the line for making it happen, of course.  We next had to find a venue for both the .NET Rocks roadshow as well as the ReMIX that could accommodate 400 people.  Cliff Jacobson (Cliff helps to run the MS Pros user group and helps out lots of other user groups in innumerable ways) got on the phone that following Monday and just started making calls.  It turned out to be a bad time of year to plan an event.  We were competing against proms and weddings.  We had used colleges and universities for events in the past, but the main problem there is that they either do not have the space or have weekend classes or are on the edges of Atlanta making them hard to get to.  Besides, we wanted to use the same space for both the .NET Rocks! roadshow as well as the ReMIX event.  Finally the Marriott at the Perimeter came through for us (and have continued to work with us every step of the way to get us what we needed for a fantastic conference).

So the next question was: how do we pay for this?  We decided to charge $25 dollars initially as a way to cover our costs for a bare minimum conference.  This doesn’t even cover lunch, but at least the Perimeter is a nice area and there are lots of excellent restaurants within walking distance.  (If you’ve ever wondered, getting conference space with catering is expensive, yes it is.)

Now we needed to promote the event.  I contacted my favorite web designer, Dennis Estanislao, part of our Minus Five team from MIX (there’s an embarrassing picture out there somewhere of our Minus Five outing), and he put together a design concept and website for the event in three days.

So next – what were we going to present at the conference?  You may think that this should have been our first concern – we did have a few MIX inspired ideas – but the truth is we weren’t ready to start recruiting speakers until we knew we could actually have an event.  Silverlight 4 and Blend 4 were just about to come out, so we knew we wanted to do that.  Then there’s Windows Phone 7 – we decided that we needed to do a whole track on Windows Phone 7.  So for the third track?  Believe it or not, the first suggestion was to do a catchall track for RIA Services, Sharepoint 2010, SQL Server Reporting Services and so on.

But that wouldn’t be MIX-like, would it?  We were sitting around with Sean Gerety and Dennis who began describing an Abbott and Costello routine they had developed around common misunderstandings between developers and designers.  We were on the floor laughing and knew immediately that that should be in the conference.  Very quickly we realized that we wanted to do an entire track on the sorts of issues they were pointing out.  It’s a Kumbaya kindof idea, but developers really need designers to make their applications shine, while designers need developers to make their applications functional.  And yet these are two fields that simply don’t talk to each other and even have a bit of a chip on their shoulders about it.  We knew we wanted to break down those boundaries with the ReMIX conference.

And so the User Experience track was born.

Now we needed speakers.  We wanted the best and we wanted to include excellent speakers that the Atlanta community hasn’t seen before.  Back on the phone we all went and before we knew it we had speakers from Alabama and Tennessee committed to speaking at ReMIX.

We then got a lucky break.  Richard Campbell was talking to Brandon Watson, the new Director of Developer Experience for the Windows Phone 7 team, about being our keynote speaker.  In the process, Brandon offered to provide us with hand-picked speakers for the entire Windows Phone track.

We put out the registration site http://remixatlanta.eventbrite.com (Eventbrite turns out to be amazing – Brendon Schwartz recommended that we use it and he was right!), asked all the leaders of the user groups in Atlanta to promote the event to their members, and within a few days had a hundred people register.  We were excited.

Now we really had a big event on our hands.  We needed money to make it better.  With only three weeks before the event, everyone started hitting their contacts and we reached out for sponsors.  We were worried that no one would even respond to our emails.

Instead, lots of companies have come through at the Platinum level (we honestly thought only one or two would offer to sponsor us at the Platinum level).  Richard Campbell hooked us up with the great people at DevExpress; Doug Ware reached out to Matrix; Veredus Staffing even added a comment to our website asking if we needed sponsors.  Very quickly Dunn Training, Agilitrain, the wonderful Bethany Jones Vananda of Wintellect, my own company Sagepath, Stacy Koehn at Slalom and Emily Parker and Telerik all offered to help sponsor the ReMIX – on very short notice, let’s remember.

Dan Attis set up a non-profit bank account to put all these pledged funds into.  I can’t thank him enough for that.  We’d been talking about setting up an account like this for well over a year, and Dan finally got it done just in time for ReMIX.

The Atlanta Web Developers Group: http://www.awdg.org/ and the Atlanta’s Interaction Design and User Experience Community: http://ixdaatlanta.ning.com/ are going to help us with the event (yay designers!) and be present in The Commons to talk about design issues.  J. Cornelius, leader of the AWDG, will even stick around to give tips on improving your apps – so bring your laptops with your current web, windows or Silverlight project and get a free appraisal from an expert.

What is The Commons, you ask?  The Commons is a concept a bunch of us first encountered at MIX.  While learning new information at conference sessions is valuable, the greatest value one can get out of a conference is a chance to make new contacts and expanding your network.  The Commons is a place that facilitates that.  We’re going to make it extremely comfortable and inviting.  It is where you will want to be when you want to take a break – and really, who can sit through five talks in one day – you need to pace yourself.  So we are setting up The Commons as your personal retreat.  Here developers will get a chance to talk to designers (I know developers who have never even met designers before).  Designers will get a chance to reevaluate their opinion of Microsoft products.  People who are job hunting, or just thinking about job hunting, will get some casual time with recruiters to find out what the market is really like now.  We’ll have an XBOX 360 there for a little bit of RockBand action.  Software vendors will demonstrate their products (which Silverlight charting control should you use? – you’ll get a chance to compare them side-by-side from the vendors themselves).

Sean Gerety has been the biggest proponent of The Commons concept and is doing the majority of the concept work.  It is going to be fantastic.  He has also been putting together the UX track and has the most amazing soft skills I have ever encountered.

If you haven’t picked up your ticket to ReMIX Atlanta and the .NET Rocks roadshow, yet, please do so at: http://remixatlanta.eventbrite.com

The Roadshow is a free event on Friday night.  Richard and Carl are giving out lots of software licenses and books, and anyone who has ever listened to their podcast will know how fun these guys are.  Think Prairie Home Companion for geeks and without so many jokes about Minnesota.  There will be food and refreshments.

And that, as Paul Harvey would say, is the rest of the story. 

Death of the Laughing Man

9stories

I found out about the passing of J. D. Salinger through, of all places, an article in the Onion called “Bunch of Phonies Mourn J. D. Salinger” written in the style of Holden Caulfield – a brilliant, if overly subtle, homage.

I first read Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye sometime in middle school when it turned out to be the only book on an English class reading list that I could find on my dad’s bookshelf. After finishing it I immediately asked my dad for the remaining books in Salinger’s limited opus and quickly consumed Franny and Zooey, Raise High the Roof Beam Carpenters, and Nine Stories. I re-read these books over the following years up until my first year in college, at which point I discovered John Updike’s critical assessment of Salinger and decided that Salinger was “pretentious and puerile” – a phrase I repeated whenever Salinger’s name came up in my own pretentious and puerile conversations with classmates. 

Nevertheless I maintained a secret, embarrassing and abiding fondness for J. D. Salinger’s characters.  I would criticize myself over the years for sharing too much in common with Holden Caulfield while at the same time looking for other kindred spirits with Holden characteristics.  I made a furtive effort to trace The Laughing Man through literature, at one point, and even chose Magister Ludens as my tag when I first started posting on the Internet.  I have an ongoing crush on Zooey Deschanel in large part because she shares a first name with one of Mr. Salinger’s characters.

J. D. Salinger’s central theme, of course, was puerility: the youthful contempt for the falsity and compromises of the adult world.  Salinger’s approach to his theme, however, was always ironic.  He seemed to recognize – though it only became evident when I reread these books in my first year of college – that there is something naive and self-destructive about this attitude.  It is a stance that cannot abide, and one must eventually outgrow it.  Salinger, in effect, prepared his audience to outgrow him.

Having outgrown him, I nevertheless waited over the years for Salinger to write something new, to find out what comes after the romance of puerility.  His last published work, however, was in 1965, following which he became a recluse and never had another word printed for the public.  While waiting, pointlessly it turns out, I have learned the lessons of adulthood – I have learned how to play by the rules, how to reconcile my views to others’ opinions, how to self-promote, how to betray friends, how to get ahead.  I have gained experience and the sort of wisdom I know that Holden Caulfield would never understand or appreciate.

Craft and Exposure

derek_jacobi

With Silverlight 3, Silverlight seems to have reached a critical stage – that is, people are starting to criticize it.  This is a good thing since it means we can now talk about the reality of Silverlight rather than the promise of Silverlight as a technology.

Some recent comparisons have been made between Silverlight and Flash by Michael Lankton as well as Silverlight and HTML + JQuery by Dave Ward, a truly great developer.

One topic that hasn’t been broached, I believe, is the comparison of Silverlight and WPF.  For some die-hard WPF developers I know, Silverlight just seems like a crippled version of the technology they love.  This is somewhat unfair.  Silverlight has definite limitations when compared to WPF; it also, however, is able to reach a much broader audience because it is browser-based and platform neutral.  Until a mono version of WPF is implemented, Silverlight is going to be the main way for .NET developers to get their state-of-the-art applications onto their Mac using friends’ computers.

This reminds me of a comment I heard Derek Jacobi, the great Shakespearean actor, once make to the effect of:

“I do movies for the money.  I do television for the exposure.  But I do theater for love of the craft.”

As much as I have always enjoyed windows development and have cursed the many tricks and hacks one must know to do web development, web development was still always fun because people had a greater appreciation for what one did.  In part this is because web applications simply reach a wider audience.  It is also due, I think, to the fact that users are much more savvy about the web and the way they feel it should look than consumers of desktop applications.

And so those lessons might be applied to how we look at the relationship between Silverlight and WPF.  WPF allows one to practice one’s craft – which is an enjoyable but mostly solitary affair.  Silverlight, on the other hand, provides the developer with exposure for his work – and this is no bad thing. 

David Carradine

kungfu

As with many people, the passing of David Carradine has left me quite shaken.  David Carradine, after all, was the reason I got into consulting in the first place.

Kung Fu, the Ed Spielman TV series in which Mr. Carradine played Kwai Chang Cane, a parapatetic Shaolin monk in the American Old West, left a lasting impression on me.  If you are unfamiliar with the series, it revolved around a half-Chinese half-American man trained in Kung Fu helping people out as he travelled from town to town searching for his American relatives, all the time pursued by the Chinese Emperor’s assassins.

It may be hard to believe, but when I found out about the world of Software Consulting, I realized that it was my opportunity to fulfill my childhood dream of living the life of Kwai Chang Cane.  It’s a bit of a stretch, but think about what a consultant does. He travels from company to company assisting them with difficult technical issues they desperately need help to resolve.

Let me say that the reality has been as good as the dream.  In the past year I’ve managed to:

05/08 – 07/08

Upgrade a billing application for a national furniture chain located just off of Jimmy Carter Boulevard from VB6 Forms to an ASP.NET 3.5 application with limited ajax functionality.  In the process, I helped out a group a beleaguered shopkeepers being extorted by local thugs.

08/08 – 09/08

Gather requirements for a POC Silverlight project while investigating why a beautiful roller derby skater was killed.

10/08 – 11/08

Assist in the data migration of an insurance company’s legacy data – horribly denormalized, unindexed and lacking referential integrity – from a Paradox for DOS system to SQL Server 2008.  At the same time I was able to rescue the office manager’s cousin from a Turkish prison where he was incarcerated under trumped up drug trafficking charges.  I was able to do this with some help from friends who are Vietnam vets in hiding from the US government for crimes they didn’t commit.

12/08 – 03/09

Design a reporting framework for a mortgage company going through hard times that heavily leveraged third party charting tools while also arranging a new life for a protected Federal witness — who was testifying against his mobster brother — and help him to visit his sick mother before she died.

04/09

This was a fairly quick gig.  I had to design and build a WPF point-of-sale application for a cruise liner.  During installation of the software I teamed up with a consultant from a rival firm to defuse two sophisticated bombs aboard the cruise ship while overcoming our mutual animosity and learning to work together and ultimately develop an abiding respect for one another’s abilities.

05/09

I had some down time in June, so I reminisced about my adventures to my colleagues clip-show style while preparing for a certification exam.

If this makes consulting out to be something glamorous, I want to make it clear that this is not always the case – for instance the time I had to scrub crystal reporting data for a client or the time I had to hunt down oversized alligators in the sewers because they were eating neighborhood pets.  But between those times there can, indeed, be quite a bit of excitement. 

Consulting is definitely not for everyone.  It takes a certain mentality, a certain desire to not have the same routine every day, and of course it never hurts if you have the ability to make plastic explosives out of a matchbox and a stick of spearmint gum or can deploy a multi-tier application with only a command line utility and the spring from a ballpoint pen.

At least I look forward to coming in to work each day knowing that there will be something new and unexpected to make it different from the day before.

And I have David Carradine to thank for setting me on this path.

Outsourcing to Sleestak

sleestak1-349x267

I have a mirror blog called ‘Outsourcing to Sleestak’ that is hosted on my company’s corporate site.  It has seen a recent spike in hits for reasons I do not fully understand.  Looking through the search queries that bring people to my mirror site, I have come to the conclusion that there is a lot of interest in the advantages of outsourcing to sleestak, especially in these difficult financial times. 

As the world’s leading authority on outsourcing to sleestak, I thought it might be helpful if I provide the following FAQ.  Bear in mind that these FAQ are solely the result of my personal research and expertise in the area.  My company has its own outsourcing solution that I will decline to comment on – especially as I am offering a competing solution to the problem of providing cheap alternatives for expensive problems.  So without further ado:

The Outsourcing to Sleestak FAQ

1. Isn’t the plural of ‘sleestak’ in fact ‘sleestaks’?

No.  The plural form of ‘sleestak’ is ‘sleestak’, as in “Ten sleestak can do the work of a typical developer without the added cost of health insurance or the hassle of labor laws.” 

2. I have heard that sleestak are not effective developers and often screw up projects, in part due to their lack of fingers.  Is this true?

This is a common lie spread by jealous outsourcing centers in Bangalore.  While the physical disabilities of sleestak are admittedly problematic, they are more than capable of manipulating polyhedral objects called ‘crystals’.  Work stations in the land of the lost are equipped with large keyboards in which the typical key is replaced with these crystals, making the sleestak more than qualified to search MSDN forums for code samples they can paste into their own projects.  Furthermore, I find these attacks on the digitally impaired to be highly prejudicial and unnecessary.

3. What about the language barrier?

While it is true that the sleestak lack vocal cords, per se, I have never found this to be a deal breaker in working with sleestak outsourcing centers.  Each sleestak ‘tribe’, which is made up of 20 to 30 sleestak, has a ‘leader’ which I like to call the ‘project lead’.  Each leader has a magic crystal around his neck that allows him to communicate in a faux English accent.  Software requirements may be given to the ‘project lead’ who will in turn translate them for the sleestak workforce.  You will never personally have to interact with a sleestak developer.

4. What if I want a project lead onsite at my company?  Is there anyone available to do that?

Besides sleestak workers and sleestak leaders, we also have sleestak from the distant past on staff such as Enik who are highly educated and trained in ‘soft’ skills.  They are experts at telling the client what he wants to hear and will keep the project on track, or at least lead the client to believe that everything is on track.  In a pinch, he is also experienced at rationalizing delivery problems and deflecting blame. 

5. Can sleestak outsourcing meet my advanced programming needs in Silverlight, WPF and other complex technologies?

You are clearly looking at this in the wrong way.  If you are concerned with getting work done, you should look to your internal developers, to independent contractors or consulting firms.  If you are concerned with the bottom line, however, then you need to be outsourcing.  At 99 cents an hour, sleestak are the most cost-effective solution for your programming needs.

6. I think you punted on that last question.  If sleestak don’t know these technologies, then my project will never be completed.  Shouldn’t I be concerned with getting working code, as well as cost savings, at the end of an engagement with sleestak?

Apples and oranges.  It is all a question of motivation.

If you simply want to get work done, then you should give it to an internal team of developers.  Internal developers, however, do not always keep up with the latest technology and methodologies and expect companies to provide expensive training.

An alternative is to hire independent contractors or contractors provided by staffing agencies.  While these are frequently more expensive than internal staff, you can typically be assured of hiring someone with the skills you need to complete a project.  Contractors, however, have the following shortcoming – they dread the day they complete a project because this is the day they must look for a new job.  Consequently, they have a tendency to do only what is requested of them, seeing no need to do additional work that might bring their engagement to an end. Alternatively, they will over-architect a project in such a way that they will be needed well past the completion date for a project since they are the only ones who understand the code.

Another alternative is to engage a high-end consulting firm.  High-end consultants are judged by their consulting companies based on their ability to deliver.  Consequently they will work hard to complete a project as quickly and efficiently as possible in a way that leaves the client happy.  They will juggle development speed, code quality and code maintainability in a manner that best meets the client’s objectives.  Their ultimate goal is to complete a project as successfully and quickly as possible so they can move on to their next project and accomplish the same thing.  The main shortcoming of hiring high-end consultants is that they are really expensive.  They know they are the best and charge accordingly.

If money becomes a problem – let’s be frank, when isn’t it? – and you can’t afford the best solution, then you have a moral obligation to choose the cheapest solution.  Why allow yourself to be straight jacketed by the dictum that you get what you pay for.  With sleestak, you’ll be paying for what you get.

7.  Your answer makes brilliant sense.  But I’ve heard there is alot of turnover among sleestak.  Isn’t this a problem?

Perhaps this is a problem for traditional outsourcing but not for sleestak outsourcing.  Sleestak belong to what is known as a ‘hive mind’.  What one sleestak knows, all other sleestak in the vicinity know equally well.  This basically alleviates all the issues of project hand-over and application maintenance that plague the typical software project.

It is common to call developers ‘resources’.  This gives the impression that all developers are commodities and interchangeable.  Sadly this is not the case, and great effort has to be expended on team building, personality management and motivational techniques.

With sleestak outsourcing, we take these soft issues out of the equation.  The hive mind ensures that sleestak are true development commodities.  If one goes off to join a rival firm or is injured in a freak elevator accident, this is not a problem!  We can replace him with someone with identical skills and an identical knowledge of the project the very next day.

8. I love the idea, but this sounds like science fiction.  How can you afford to bill 99 cents an hour for software development?  Aren’t you exploiting your sleestak?

Certainly not.  Sleestak are not motivated by anything as banal as money.  They are motivated by the desire to achieve client satisfaction – as represented by their client satisfaction target numbers for which they are rewarded with papaya and mangos.  Unsatisfactory target numbers garner a half-hour in direct sunlight, which they find physically painful.  This is a win-win situation for everybody. 

And while there are certainly moral dilemmas involved in the employment of sleestak, this is not your problem.  You can leave the worrying to us.

9. Given the recent backlash against foreign workers, isn’t outsourcing to sleestak a PR nightmare?

Let’s face it.  There’s only one opinion you need to be concerned about – the opinion of your shareholders.  Issues such as community backlash, employee morale, code quality and project deadlines are ultimately peripheral.  The purpose of outsourcing is to demonstrate fiscal responsibility to shareholders.  This is why, when a project goes bad or revenue is lost due to missed release dates, the solution is always to outsource even more work to sleestak – thus demonstrating your ability to quickly respond to revenue loss with efficient cost-cutting.

When it comes down to it, what’s good for sleestak is good for America.

Of Friendship: Lover and Beloved on Twitter

Boys_King_Arthur_Wyeth

Friendship and the API

We commonly think of an API as merely a set of performative rules that determine how two systems communicate with each other.  An API is also, however, an implicit carrier of a set of semantic rules that dictate how a client application (or, to be more specific, how the programmer of the client application) is to understand these utilitarian instructions. 

A well designed API, consequently, must not only provide all the tools necessary to accomplish certain tasks on the server but must also do so in a way that is easily understood by the client, either by reusing common software metaphors or, more often, by using analogies from the business domain or culture in general to get across the purpose of the API.

In the case of a social networking API, these semantic metaphors must naturally come from common modes of social relationships.  Not surprisingly, this can be a complicated task when the social networking API actually creates new forms of social interaction that are fundamentally unlike the forms we are familiar with.  This is both the promise and, to some extent, the danger of social networking. 

In forging new manners for people to interact with one another social networking technologies also modify and distort the old ways in which people used to interact.  When an office worker prefers to email the person sitting in the cubicle adjacent to hers rather than walk over for a conversation, the nature of the workplace – not necessarily for the worse – has admittedly been changed.

A case of API semantics meaning something other than what they ought to mean can be found in the Twitter API.  In order to form a social relationship with another user, Twitter provides a REST method called friendships/create.

One would assume that, upon calling this method, the current user becomes the friend of the user that is befriended and that a mutual relationship has been created between the two.  This is not the case.  In the Twitter API, friendship is an asymmetrical relationship merely indicating that the person one befriends is a friend to oneself – that is someone that is followed – while one may not necessarily a friend of the person one is following – that is, they have not reciprocated by following back.

This asymmetric relationship is more clear when one considers two additional methods provided by the Twitter API: statuses/friends and statuses/followers.  Calling the statuses/friends method returns a list of people whom one is following.  By calling the statuses/followers method one retrieves a list of people who are one’s followers. 

Rather than a network of friends, the world of Twitter is made up of these two classes of relationships: friends and followers.  Even on the Twitter website itself, one is not provided a means to view all of one’s relationships.  Instead there is one link, “following”, for viewing one’s friends and another, “followers”, for viewing the people who consider you a friend (even if you don’t feel the same way about them).

This is not the standard usage of friendship.  It falls short of Aristotle’s notion that friendship is a reciprocal relationship between two people.

“Now the friendships that have been discussed consist in an equality, since the same things come from both people and they wish for the same things for one another…”  Nicomachean Ethics, tr. Joe Sachs

It falls even further from the mark when one considers Michel de Montaigne reflections on his friendship with Étienne de La Boétie:

“Beyond all my understanding, beyond what I can say about this in particular, there was I know not what inexplicable and fateful force that was the mediator of this union.  We sought each other before we met because of the reports we heard of each other, which had more effect on our affection than such reports would reasonably have; I think it was by some ordinance from heaven.  We embraced each other by out names.  And at our first meeting, which by chance came at a great feast and gathering in the city, we found ourselves so taken with each other, so well acquainted, so bound together, that from that time on nothing was so close to us as each other.”

. . .

“[W]hat we ordinarily call friends and friendships are nothing but acquaintanceships and familiarities formed by some chance or convenience, by means of which our souls are bound to each other.  In the friendship I speak of, our souls mingle and blend with each other so completely that they efface the seam that joined them, and cannot find it again.  If you press me to tell why I loved him, I feel that this cannot be expressed, except by answering: Because it was he, because it was I.”  Of Friendship, tr. Donald Frame

Practices Ancient and Modern

The two parties in a friendship are traditionally a friend and a friend, not a friend and a follower.  And yet the friend/follower dyad isn’t a completely new social relationship, as one might expect from a mode of communication based on novel technology.  Instead it resembles a social structure endemic to ancient Greece in which the participants were called erastes and eromenos, as often as not translated as ‘lover’ and ‘beloved’.  You can find an interesting treatment of the institution, heavily influenced by Michel Foucault’s History of Sexuality, in this Wikipedia entry.

Like the institution of friendships on Twitter, the ancient practice went by the common name for something it was not.  Aristotle expresses concern over this kind of “friendship”, which sometimes went under the code “lovers of friendship”, as he tries to place it within his already overextended catalog of the types of relationships that are possible between two people, which already include friendships of utility, friendships of pleasure and friendships of virtue (true friendship):

“With these [incomplete friends] also, the friendships are most enduring whenever they get the same thing – pleasure for instance – from each other, and moreover, get it from the same source, as witty people do, in contrast to the erotic lover and the boy he loves.

“For the erotic lover and his beloved do not take pleasure in the same things; the lover takes pleasure in seeing his beloved, but the beloved takes pleasure in being courted by his lover.  When the beloved’s bloom is fading, sometimes the friendship fades too; for the lover no longer finds pleasure in seeing his beloved, and the beloved is no longer courted by the lover.”  Nichomachean Ethics, tr. Terrence Irwin

The asymmetry inherent in the “special” friendship between an erastes and his eromenos is due to the fact that they seek different things from each other, and consequently cannot simply be called “friend” and “friend”.  The erastes seeks pleasure from the eromenos whom he follows, while the eromenos allows the relationship to persist because he sees utility in it – he can get something — whether it be praise or practical gain — out of the relationship.  The most extreme case of this may have occurred in ancient Sparta (somewhat glossed over in 300) where, because children were taken away from their families at an early age to become soldiers, thus dissolving the familial bond, hereditary titles and political advancement were based on the adoption of youths by their more mature elders into these follower/friend relationships.

The asymmetry in these relationships were also a source for amusement in ancient Athens.  Plato writes about it in the Phaedrus, which is at the same time a dialog on seduction as well as a dialog on the nature of the soul.  The humor inherent in Alcibiades’ party crashing in the Symposium and claiming that Socrates is his beloved likewise makes little sense without knowledge of the social context in which it takes place.

“For what is this love of friendship?  Why does no one love an ugly youth, or a handsome old man?”  Cicero

This ancient institution was also the backdrop for the accusation by Mark Antony — reported by Suetonius — that Julius Caesar’s adoption of Octavian, his heir, was based on such a follower/friend relation.

Hell Hath No Fury Like A Lover Scorned

According to Aristotle, the greatest source of instability in erotic friendship occurs when one of the parties misunderstands the nature of the relationship.

“The friendship that seems to arise most from contraries is friendship for utility, of poor to rich, for instance, or ignorant to knowledgeable; for we aim at whatever we find we lack, and give something else in return.  Here we might also include the erotic lover and his beloved, and the beautiful and the ugly.  That is why an erotic lover also sometimes appears ridiculous, when he expects to be loved in the same way as he loves; that would presumably be a proper expectation if he were lovable in the same way, but it is ridiculous when he is not.”

Navigating these relations and understanding how we stand to one another is one of the peculiar games people play on Twitter.  Each user profile provides two numbers that indicate how their role in the Twitter economy: “following” and “followers.”  Today Oprah Winfrey’s Twitter account says she has 1,125,560 followers, but only 14 friends.  She can be considered an extreme object of desire on Twitter – a megalos eromenos.  Other accounts will sometimes show a great disparity in the other direction, with many more friends than followers.  These people might be considered excessive lovers

A third group, exemplifying Aristotle’s notion of moderation, maintain balance between their “following” and “followers” numbers.  These might be thought of as the good citizens of the Twitter economy, since they seek neither to achieve status with the number of their followers, nor infamy through the number of people they are following.  Yet even this third group encounters its own problems.  When the good citizens of Twitter reach out to follow someone, they generally expect to have the favor returned.  If this does not occur, this can cause a certain amount of resentment against the beloved, in part because what was considered an overture of friendship has now been turned into an erotic and asymmetric relationship.

There is also some gaming involved in achieving high “followers” numbers – the number that is the de facto currency on Twitter.  One way to do it is to begin following everyone one can.  If they follow back, then this becomes a solid relationship of sorts.  If they do not, then the follower can later drop the offer of friendship, thus bringing his two numbers back into some sort of balance.

This in turn leads other Twitter account holders to be wary of new offers of friendship.  When it is from someone one does not know, the initial temptation is to simply say yes – and we all have early twitter relationships of this sort with people we do not particularly have any interest in.  Over time, however, we become wiser but less friendly which, in turn, leads to the problem of non-reciprocation resentment on Twitter.

Certain tools offer a way around this.  Rather than feel obliged to read the tweets of all 2000 or so “friends”, some account holders use software like TweetDeck to filter out their friends – in effect forming a circle of close acquaintances within their network of friends.  This isn’t foolproof, however, since if someone following you sends you a quick tweet, they generally expect a reply.  If you don’t reply, this may likewise eventually lead to non-reciprocation resentment – especially if the follower suspects you are filtering them.

The fault is in part due to the technology itself.  A technology that encourages asymmetric friendships will ultimately be based on relations of pleasure and utility rather than on Aristotle’s ideal of friendships based on the admiration of virtues.  This in itself is not a bad thing, but it lacks one of the central aspects of true friendship:

“In this noble relationship, services and benefits, on which other friendships feed, do not even deserve to be taken into account . . . For just as the friendship I feel for myself receives no increase from the help I give myself in time of need, whatever the Stoics say, and as I feel no gratitude to myself for the service I do myself; so the union of such friends, being truly perfect, makes them lose the sense of such duties, and hate and banish from between them these words of separation and distinction: benefit, obligation, gratitude, request, thanks, and the like.” Montaigne

At the same time, these Twitter relationships based on 140 characters at a time may form the basis for true friendships.  The people we follow and are followed by on Twitter may eventually be encountered in real life – at a conference; on vacation – and something more lasting may be formed, much as Montaigne and La Boétie’s friendship began as an acquaintance by reputation.  Even the relationship between the lover and the beloved in that peculiar institution of the ancient Greeks, according to Aristotle, has the potential to bloom into something closer to true friendship, after the initial courtship, if it is based on fondness rather than utility.

“Many, however, remain friends if they have similar characters and come to be fond of each other’s characters from being accustomed to them.  Those who exchange utility rather than pleasure in their erotic relations are friends to a lesser extent and less enduring friends.”  NE, tr. Terrence Irwin

Haecceity

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Out of the Medieval intellectual battles between Realists and Nominalists, one of the more interesting fruits to fall was Duns Scotus’s notion of Haecceity (this-ness), which in modern philosophy is often reformulated as a person’s essence.  Possibly against a straw-man, Scotus argued that those who sought after the principle of Quiddity (what-ness) were misguided.  The truly interesting question is not how quiddity is possible, but rather how the individuation of universals is possible.  In other words, rather than look into how we know that Socrates is a man, we should examine how the concept of ‘man’ can be broken up in such a way that gives us a Socrates.

Another way of looking at this is in terms of Porphyry’s tree.  Each genus can be divided by a differentia into species.  For instance a Substance can be either be extended or not.  If it is, then it is a a Body.  A Body can be animate or not and if so it is an Animal.  An Animal, if rational, is in turn a Human Being.  But what is the differentia that produces an individual like Plato or Socrates?

For Scotus, this differentia is a person’s haecceity.   An interesting marginal note to a person’s haecceity is that we cannot have a adequate word for a person’s this-ness.  Words fail.  The only clear way to indicate haecceity is by extending one’s finger and pointing.  Saying “this guy” tells us nothing unless we accompany the words with a gesture to represent ‘this guy’s’ haecceity.

My haecceity for the week includes unexpectedly finding out that I passed a Microsoft certification exam.  I had taken Designing and Developing Enterprise Applications using Microsoft .NET Framework 3.5 (exam 565 for short) back in November and had forgotten about it until I received notice a week ago that I had actually passed it.

Then last Thursday I did an internal presentation for Magenic on the new Prism V2 framework.  This was rather fun, thanks to my colleagues Sergey Barskiy, Colin Whitlatch, Tim Price-Williams and Wells Caughey, who helped me start taking the technology apart.

On Friday I received a request to do a brief presentation for the MS Pro’s user group.  I took the short notice as license to do something a bit off beat and ended up presenting on “The Medieval Problem of Universals and Object-Oriented Programming.”  The audience was remarkably gracious about the whole thing.   For me it was a perfect evening which started with lunch at the bar of Pappadeux with Wally McClure, the host of the ASP.NET podcast, over martinis and oysters and ended with presenting on, all things considered, a slightly mad and rather dry topic — the kind I learned to love in grad school.

The 3rd of March, furthermore, marks one year since the wonderful Carole Cuthbertson formally offered me a job with Magenic Technologies.  It is without a doubt the best job I’ve ever had.

Finally, what has two thumbs and a birthday today?

This guy.

The Quiet Mind

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Like an Empiricist prescription or an occult warning, depending on how you take it, Wittgenstein wrote as a coda to the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus,  Wovon man nicht sprechen kann, darüber muß man schweigen.  C. K. Ogden translates this as “Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent.”

I have spent the past week trying to learn how to be silent, again.  I unplugged myself from the Internet and went to the beach with my family where I spent several days trying to silence the various voices that constitute a perpetual background cacophony in my head.  The ocean swell helped me to accomplish this quiescence of the noetical Madding crowd, until finally there was nothing left but stillness in my brain and the inbreath and outbreath of the sea as it filled up the new tide pools of my mind, and a gasp escaped my lips and traveled over the waters as I realized that this really was a vacation, at last, and it wasn’t what I had expected.

This sense of quietude is what I have always taken Heidegger to be referring to when he discusses Lichtung — the clearing — in his writings, for instance in Being and Time where he writes:

“In our analysis of understanding and of the disclosedness of the “there” in general, we have alluded to the lumen naturale, and designated the disclosedness of Being-in as Dasein’s “clearing”, in which it first becomes possible to have something like sight.” — tr. Macquarrie & Robinson

Except that for me, sight is a place holder for my inner monologue, and the clearing is a place to rediscover my inner voice.  We are all social animals, after all, and when we are with other people our inner voices become drowned out by the various social pressures that sweep us along, whether this is in politics, or at work, or on the Internet, the biggest stream of voices available.  My general strategy in life is to fill my mind with so many voices that they eventually begin to cancel each other out so that my rather weak voice can have some influence within my own head.  But this doesn’t always work, and I eventually need to detox in a quiet place.

Heidegger uses a clearing in the woods as his metaphor for this place, but I think the ocean serves the purpose even better.  The ocean is a natural source of white noise, and the way white noise affects human beings is peculiar.  According to some studies, the appeal of white noise seems to be specific to primates, and to humans in particular.  According to the Aquatic Ape theory, human evolution is intimately tied to the coast, and this might explain, in a hand-waving sort of way, our affinity for the ocean and the sounds of the ocean.  It is the music that calms the inner beast.

The inner monologue is a peculiar, though pervasive, phenomenon.  An interesting observation concerning it occurs in Augustine’s Confessions.  Augustine expresses amazement at the fact that his mentor, Ambrose, is able to read without moving his lips.  This gives us a strange impression of the Roman world — apparently it has not always been the case that people read silently in an ALA approved manner.  This in turn has led various philosophers to wonder if the inner monologue existed for these Romans, or if they simply articulated everything they thought.

For Derrida, this became a motif for his philosophical studies.  In an early work, Speech and Phenomena, Derrida tries to find the source of Husserl’s phenomenological insight in The Logical Investigations, and concludes that it is due to a basic confusion between observation and speech.  Because in speech we are capable of this inner monologue, Husserl, according to Derrida, made the analogous assumption that we can exist, in some peculiar way, without the world.

“For it is not in the sonorous substance or in the physical voice, in the body of speech in the world, that he [Husserl] will recognize an original affinity with the logos in general, but in the voice phenomenologically taken, speech in its transcendental flesh, in the breath, the intentional animation that transforms the body of the word into flesh, makes of the Körper a Leib, a geistige Leiblichkeit.” — tr. David B. Allision

Just as Derrida saw in the Logical Investigations the germ of the entire Husserlian project, the Husserlian David Carr used to tell us that the germ of Derrida’s project could be found in this brief passage.  Taking the problem of authorial intent to a philosophical level, Derrida wants to cast doubt on the meaning of the inner voice, and it’s privileged status as the arbiter of the meaning of its utterances.  It is a sort of Neo-Empirical game that resembles the attacks often made by material-reductionists on the folk-psychology of consciousness, which has at its core the notion that for the most part we all know what we are talking about when we talk about something.  Instead, the inner voice is a sort of illusion to be dispelled, like witchcraft and theology.

And yet I can’t help but feel that there is something to the inner voice.  For instance what was George Bush thinking about when he was first notified about the 911 attacks?  What was Bill Clinton thinking and intending in that fateful pause between the phrases “woman” and “Monica Lewinsky” that changed the meaning of this statement (skip to end for the good bit)? 

Silence isn’t simply a turning off of the mind.  When the lights go out, we may stop seeing things, but when all noise is shut out, we continue to hear ourselves, and it is perhaps the best time to hear ourselves and in the act recollect ourselves.

I leave you with John Cage’s composition 3′ 44”, which is pregnant with the composer’s intent, as well as the performer’s in this unique rendition.

Gone Daddy Gone

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Here’s Gone Daddy Gone performed by the Violent Femmes back in 1982.   Gnarls Barkeley covered it in 2006.  Here’s their video of the song.  The lyrics are based on a Muddy Waters classic, I Just Want To Make Love To You, YouTube videos for which are available in both risque and non-risque versions, penned by Willie Dixon.

The Femmes have recently returned the favor with a cover of Gnarls Barkeley’s Crazy.

Post hoc, ergo melius hoc

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I’m just doing my bit to propagate this viral Latin phrase.  Roughly translated, it means "Newer, therefore better."  It doesn’t appear to have ever been spoken by a citizen of the empire, but rather by Latin scholars in other periods.  There is an obvious and intentional irony in this, since those using this phrase are appealing to the authority of the archaic, the notion that what is older and more obscure is inherently wiser, as they make the claim.  Ergo, it would seem, the phrase is always used ironically.  (An interesting blog-spanning discussion of this phrase can be found here, here, and here.)  Personally, I like it even better in French: Après cela, donc meilleur que cela, due to a predisposition to believe that everything is always better in French, for instance Poe and Bukowski — not that my French is any better than my Latin, which is undoubtedly why I cleave to this peculiar prejudice.

In technology, however, this motto should perhaps be taken at face value.  The beta release of a product is always better than the alpha, the RTM is better than the beta, and the first service pack is generally the first stable release of the product.  Unlike in previous eras, our concept of technology has the notion of progress built into it.  This makes everyone in technology a bit of a trend follower, trying to keep on top of the newest technologies and trying to anticipate what will succeed (Entity Framework) and what will not (Linq to SQL).  Once one begins speaking of trends in technology, however, we naturally undermine the notion of progress a bit, and instead are led back to Descartes’ observation about fashion:

…[J]usques aux modes de nos habits, la même chose qui nous a plu il y a dix ans, et qui nous plaira peut-être encore avant dix ans, nous semble maintenant extravagante et ridicule.

To some extent this is a valid point.  Isn’t SOA simply a return to the type of functional programming that used to be done for mainframes and dummy terminals?  Just because Silverlight is the hottest newest thing in Microsoft development, is this a reason for everyone to jump onto the Silverlight band wagon?  Must we always chase after the shiniest piece of tinsel?

Of course we must.  Those who have been in this profession much longer than I have, who have made the leap from mainframe programming to object-oriented programming to service-oriented programming, who have gone from client-server to n-tier to distributed programming with WCF, have learned that it is better to take a descriptivist view on the phenomenology of progress rather than a prescriptivist view.  Isn’t this the secret to understanding Darwinian evolution — that it is based on a tautology?  Survival of the fittest determines what exists and what does not; existence, in turn, determines what is fit.  Post hoc, ergo est (et non est hoc).

Perhaps this is the most unfortunate aspect of technological progress.  It robs us of our sense of irony.