It’s Miller Time


When it’s time to relax, when it’s time to celebrate, it’s time to break open the champagne of beers. 

Today I began my new career as a Magenic Technologies consultant.  I first became acquainted with Magenic through my work a few years ago with the CSLA framework which, during a time when business objects were all the rage, was one of the few technologies that implemented the concept well.  Even better, the framework dovetailed perfectly with the emerging interest in code generation, and all of the major code generators, de rigueur, are obliged to support templates for CSLA due to its central place in the development of the field.  After all, what’s the point of having a code generator if you don’t know what you are going to build with it?

CSLA is the brainchild of Rocky Lhotka, whose book Visual Basic 6 Business Objects not only introduced many VB programmers, including myself, to the world of Object Oriented programming, but probably helped pave the way for the later success of C#.  Rocky Lhotka, in turn, is a principal consultant for Magenic.

If any of these claims seems a bit grandiose, I suppose it is fair to say that I am somewhat partisan at this point — though I feel confident that had I written this yesterday, I would have said much the same.  And since I have in effect attempted what is commonly referred to as a "full disclosure", I might also add that Magenic has a reputation for having some of the smartest people doing software development today — which begs the question of why they hired me, but I’ll leave that for a later post … maybe …

The only fly in my vocational ointment is the fact that Bill Ryan, with whom I was looking forward to working, who actually tech interviewed me for the consulting position and helped me to get the job, is now leaving Magenic.  For some reason I had gotten it into my mind that he would mentor me in the ways of the modern software consultant, would guide me through my first book writing venture, would lead me through the dazzling new technologies coming out of Redmond — but instead he is heading off to form a (undoubtedly successful) consulting business of his own in South Carolina.

And if I now come across as a bit lugubrious, it is probably due to the fact that I am somewhat tipsy.  Not from Miller High Life, however — a noxious beverage, all things considered, which cannot hold a candle to the fine brews I lived on for a year in Central Europe.  Instead I’m drinking a lovely distillation my wife bought for me for Christmas: Labrot and Graham’s Woodford Reserve Distiller’s Select Kentucky Straight Bourbon.  I horde it like a miser, only bringing it out for special occasions, drinking it neat with a splash of water, rather than iced down as I normally do with whiskey.  It’s just too good to be wasted due to the dissipation of melted ice.  While I’m on the topic of distilled liquors, I might also recommend Chopin Potato Vodka, for those who have a taste for it.  It is best served fresh out of the freezer, to give it the proper syrupy quality, poured into a tall shot glass, and thrown down the hatch with a toast and a chaser.

Here’s to the changing of the seasons, to the friends we might have made, and to the friends we hope to make.

Talking Heads


I recently rented Children of Men from the corner Blockbuster and, going through the DVD "extras" after finishing the film, was excited to find something billed as Slavoj Zizek’s commentary.

Slavoj Zizek, in case you don’t know him, is a Slovenian intellectual and provocateur who made his mark by analyzing popular culture, especially film noir, in a way that wasn’t completely cheesy.  He has pushed on in the double-naughts to generally pissing off his fan-base by doing what he always does: saying things no one expects him to say.  You may remember him as one of the few big-name intellectuals (besides Barry Smart) willing to contribute to The Matrix and Philosophy, the book which started off the whole popular culture and philosophy series.  His essay is the concluding piece in the anthology, and in typical Zizek fashion, he starts of by discussing how misguided he finds all the attempts to find deep meaning in what is basically a 90 minute animated comic book.

Zizek’s commentary to Children of Men does not disappoint.  He claims that Children of Men is actually a remake of Y tu mamá también, but without the sex.  He continues with a rambling discussion of the sixty-eighters.  Probably the only unexpected thing about the seven minute commentary is its brevity — Zizek’s loquacity is legendary.

For some reason, I had initially thought that the producers of the DVD had hit upon the brilliant notion of replacing the ubiquitous and generally tedious convention of having a "director’s commentary" with a rather clever conceit: placing an intellectual before the screen and recording him as he talks about whatever comes to his mind.

I remember when one of the early selling points of DVDs was that they could hold much more content than videos, and one of the first things that DVD producers tried out was adding the director’s commentary.  It certainly seemed like a good idea at the time.  Who wouldn’t want to hear Francois Truffaut discussing 400 Blows, or Godard explaining Masculin – Feminin?  Unfortunately, what we ended up getting were things like Penny Marshal discussing what she ate on the set of A League of their Own and Michael Lembeck’s commentary for The Santa Clause 2.  In The Lord of the Rings DVD, among others, an interesting twist was introduced by having the film’s actors provide commentary, and it was certainly interesting to listen to Sir Ian McKellen tell his theater stories whenever no one else had anything to contribute.  But even Sir Ian didn’t have enough material to fill 11 hours.

Besides perhaps David Mamet, who is an intellectual in his own right, there aren’t many directors whose opinions I really want to hear concerning … well … anything, and while vocation makes films a seemingly relevant topic for their discourse, experience has shown that most directors are not especially handy at even this.  And actors even less so.

What I would really like to experience is, say, Slavoj Zizek and Barry Smart talking for 90 minutes over a showing of the Matrix, ala Mystery Science Theater;  Christopher Hitchens doing the commentary for The Manchurian Candidate (the original, not the remake); Steven Pinker and Noam Chomsky discussing My Dinner With Andre.

Perhaps the problem is that the country which hosts the world’s largest movie industry doesn’t happen to have a particularly strong tradition of public intellectuals the way, say, Britain, France and Germany do.  When I was living in the south of France for a short while I regularly saw, squeezed in between dubbed versions of Dragon Ball Z and Married With Children, discussion shows in which really smart people were asked about important matters, and they were given enough time to provide full and interesting answers to the questions posed.  (It was also on one of these shows that I discovered that Sigourney Weaver is not only really smart, but also speaks excellent French.) 

After watching a few of these talking head pieces, I began to wonder why we don’t have similar public forums in America.   After pondering it some more, I realized that the really serious question is: even if we had shows like that, who would we invite to appear on them?  There aren’t really that many people in America, despite its size, generally considered to be smart people, and among these even fewer whose ideas we think are likely to change our opinions of things.  Perhaps this is the egalitarian streak in American public discourse — we all consider ourselves to be adequately intelligent to form our own opinions, without help from anyone else.  Consequently, when it comes time to look for interesting opinions, we don’t turn to our intellectuals.  Instead, we turn to actors, to opinion-shapers like Oprah and, in a pinch, when no one else is available, to twice-cooked hacks like Thomas Friedman.

Which is really fine with me.  I am more than happy to surrender our public discourse to entertainers and hacks.  I rarely read the newspaper, anyway.  What I am more concerned about is this: now that we’ve got all the movie actors busy discussing globalization and third-world debt, who are we going to get to do our DVD commentaries for us?

Everything In Its Place


There are many ways to make a career in IT, but perhaps the one most often dreamed of is starting your own business.  Lots of programmers get side-jobs that they hope will eventually lead to starting their own IT consulting business (this rarely works out, by the way).  Others wait for that great idea to come along, like a brilliant new Internet search algorithm, or a better way to do business reporting, or maybe even designing an original programming language.

I have heard that the thing that always kept Bill Gates up at night was the thought that some brilliant geeks would come up with the next great idea in their garage and put him out of business.

A colleague of mine has started his own somewhat atypical business building guitar stands in his own garage, and selling them on ebay.  While not the sort of stuff likely to unsettle either Steve Jobs or Bill Gates from his slumbers, my friend has done well enough with his home business that he has launched a web storefront, and is now selling his guitar stands at

He made a two-way stand for me with blazing pink and orange flames flying up the sides.  I love it, and it keeps me from stumbling over my Rock Band guitar after my kids have played a few riffs.  It ain’t the next great operating system, I know, and it isn’t even The Clapper, but if you find yourself wondering where to put your Guitar Hero or Rock Band guitar, I would highly recommend it.

Forgiveness Sunday


A colleague at work, who happens to be a Catholic catechumen, told me about a mass recently held at his church called the Mass of Penance (if I get the particulars wrong, knowing very little about the Western Rite, I apologize), in which forgiveness is granted, en masse, to the congregation.   There is a similar practice in the Byzantine Orthodox Church called the Forgiveness Vespers, which occurs on the eve of the forty day fast leading up to Easter.  The Sunday of Forgiveness commemorates the expulsion of Adam and Eve from the Garden, reminding the faithful of the need to seek forgiveness before entering the holy weeks of Lent.  In practice, each congregant, led by the clergy, lines up and approaches each of her fellows in turn.  From each person she begs forgiveness for all offences of action and thought committed against her neighbor in the past year, and prostrates before her fellow before embracing.  The process is hard on the knees.  The complex emotions of contrition, combined with the physical discomfort, often lead to outright crying.

It is a devotional practice that might be recommended to the denizens of the Internet, where anonymity and the quick, reflexive nature of web-based intercourse tends to lead to easy offense.

Dear readers.  I seek forgiveness for any offense I may have provoked in the past year through careless words.  I apologize for my obscurantist, long-winded, and self-indulgent writing style.  I beg pardon for my tendency toward high-handedness and jargon.  I confess to often not knowing whereof I speak.  I retract any false claims I may have made in the past year, and regret any efforts I have made to mislead or hoodwink my readers.  I cop to being boring.  I wince at my flat attempts at humor.  I lament my misspellings and tortured prose.  I ask that you excuse me for failing to amuse, and for often wasting your time.  Most of all, knowing my own character, I am deeply sorry that, going forward, none of this is likely to change, and that I will put you through more of the same in the coming year.  For all this and more, I apologize.

Big Cash Prizes


By way of Slashdot, here is a paper from Newcastle University suggesting that big cash prizes can drive technological breakthroughs.  Among successful examples of cash prizes driving innovation are the X-Prize Foundation’s fomenting of research into space rockets, space elevators, and moon landers.   Other competitions have driven innovations from breakthroughs in designing intelligent cars that navigate complex terrains to the successful construction of a half-scale model of an X-Wing that can actually take down a half-scale model of the Death Star.  In the same vein, the James Randy Educational Foundation has a standing one million dollar prize for anyone who can demonstrate, under "proper observing conditions", any paranormal or occult powers (restrictions may apply).

The notion that money can be a motivator is certainly an interesting one.   I myself once wrote an article on software interoperability in order to win an XBOX 360, and can testify to the power of electronics as a motivator for great endeavors.  Is it such a great leap from there to the idea that greenbacks can inspire similar feats of mental strength?

According to the synopsis for the article on cash prizes, the purpose of cash prizes is to drive "revolutionary" scientific breakthroughs, rather than typical scientific breakthroughs, for which the admiration of one’s peers is often sufficient compensation:

Given that revolutionary science is a high risk endeavor which usually fails; it is likely to thrive only when the incentives rewarding the rare instances of success are greater than for normal science. Therefore we would argue that it is insufficient for successful revolutionary scientists merely to get the usual rewards of prestigious professorships, respect from within the scientific profession, and a modestly high level of reasonably secure income. Something more is needed: lots of money.

The pluripotent possibilities boggle the mind.  Here are some of my own humble suggestions for achievable scientific goals and the cash prizes, in today’s dollars, that should be assigned to them.  Feel free to add your own prize suggestions in the comments.

  • A mass-producible flying car — $2 million
  • Pills that have the taste and nutritional qualities of real food — $3 million
  • A rocket to Mars — $5 million
  • A rocket to Saturn — $5.5 million
  • A rocket to Pluto — $1 million
  • Trained apes who will take over our menial tasks, freeing humans to live the good life — $5.5 million
  • Flying monkeys — $6 million
  • Disposable rocket packs (for daily commutes) – $6.5 million
  • Successful cloning of great thinkers like Plato, Aristotle, and Lincoln — $7.5 million
  • Successful cloning of B, C and D-list thinkers like Suetonius, Duns Scotus, and Ayn Rand — $1.5 million
  • Successful cloning of deceased pets — $2.5 million
  • Universal cure for cancer — $10 million
  • Teleportation devices — $11 million
  • Time Travel — $13 million
  • Worm Hole technology — $15 million
  • Hyperspace engines — $25 million
  • Mind-reading devices — $15 million
  • Robot sex-slaves — YMMV
  • Holodecks — $25 million
  • A computer that can defeat all chess grand masters — $1 million
  • Skynet — YMMV
  • A self-aware computer intelligence that will defend us against ape-slave uprisings — $25 million
  • Star Trek Replicators — $26 million
  • A working lightsaber — $27 million

As the paper suggests, if we haven’t achieved any of these goals so far, it may be because we have yet to offer the right incentives.

Memes and Goat’s Milk


What does eighteenth century naval warfare have to do with life today?  Nothing, as far as I can tell, yet one of the pleasures of reading Patrick O’Brian’s novels about Jack Aubrey and Stephen Maturin — one of the great portraits of male friendship in English literature — is the anachronistic affinities one finds between the bygone world of wood and canvas and quotidian modern life, thanks to Mr. O’Brian’s ingenuity.

Take, for instance, this passage from Master And Commander in which Jack, while at sea, is obliged to sign a legal document drafted by his predecessor, the previous captain of the sloop Sophie:

My Lord,

I am to beg you will be pleased to order a Court Martial to be held on Isaac Wilson (seaman) belonging to the Sloop I have the honour to Command for having committed the unnatural Crime of Sodomy on a Goat, in the Goathouse, on the evening of March 16th.  I have the Honour to remain, my Lord, Your Lordship’s most obedient very humble servant ….

Like the modern reader, Jack is not pleased with the rules and procedures one must comply with in the course of fulfilling one’s duties.  For his friend, Stephen, the matter is simply one that inspires perplexity.

‘It is odd how the law always harps upon the unnaturalness of sodomy,’ observed Stephen.  ‘Though I know at least two judges who are paederasts; and of course barristers … What will happen to him?’

‘Oh, he’ll be hanged.  Run up at the yard-arm, and boats attending from every ship in the fleet.’

‘That seems a little extreme.’

‘Of course it is.  Oh, what an infernal bore — witnesses going over to the flagship by the dozen, days lost … the Sophie a laughing-stock.  Why will they report these things?  The goat must be slaughtered — that’s but fair — and it shall be served out to the mess that informed on him.’

‘Could you not set them both ashore — on separate shores, if you have strong feelings on the moral issue — and sail quietly away?’

‘Well,’ said Jack, whose anger had died down.  ‘Perhaps there is something in what you propose.  A dish of tea?  You take milk, sir?’

‘Goat’s milk, sir?’

‘Why, I suppose it is.’

‘Perhaps without milk, then, if you please.’

The connection to be found between this passage and today’s headlines is no doubt as obvious to you as it is to me, reader.  The notion of contamination which runs thematically through this brief anecdote is a clear analog for the theory of memes.   Terms such as "viral", often used to describe memes, reveal the epidemiological roots of memetic theory.  While the vectors are different, the notion that the sin of seaman Isaac Wilson has somehow been transmitted to the hapless goat, for which reason the goat "must be slaughtered," mirrors the theory that ideas such as "freedom", "God", and "revolution" can be transmitted from person to person, carrying with them certain properties that will affect the behavior of the infected.

At the same time, this anecdote reveals one of the chief problems with memetic theory.  The idea of memes depends on a peculiar notion about the identity of memes when they inhabit different hosts.  But is this identity really something we can take for granted?  Is the "freedom" meme really the same from person to person?  What is missing from the meme theory is an acknowledgement of the inherent ambiguity of all ideas.  One man’s meat is another man’s poison, after all.

For instance, what is the intent behind serving the slaughtered goat, the unwarranted victim of seaman Isaac Wilson’s wantonness, to the seamen who informed on him?  Is it a reward for their dutifulness with regard to the Royal Navy or a punishment for their faithlessness with regard to their comrade?  Is the intent to let them taste a bit of Mr. Wilson’s humiliation, or to fill their bellies with a rare treat?

Memetics seems to completely ignore the much more interesting phenomenon of the association of ideas — perhaps necessarily so, since while the affinity between various notions and concepts, the way one idea leads to another, depends on the malleability of thought, memetics depends on its immutability.

The point is brought across in Stephen Maturin’s aversion toward the goat’s milk.  Why does he refuse the milk?  Because, in his mind, he associates it with Mr. Wilson’s goat.  One idea leads naturally to the other and the properties of Mr. Wilson’s crime are mysteriously transferred to the goat’s milk — an entirely different goat, certainly.

kant Immanuel Kant (1724-1804), normally thought of as a dour man though a great philosopher, is duly famous within certain disreputable circles for inserting the goat’s milk meme into his seminal work, the Critique of Pure Reason, sometimes known as the First Critique.  In Section III of the Second Part of the Doctrine of Elements, after he has explained the meaning of the term transcendental logic,  and after he has assented to the traditional definition of truth as the agreement between knowledge and its object, Kant drops this witty passage:

To know what questions may reasonably be asked is already a great and necessary proof of sagacity and insight.  For if a question is absurd in itself and calls for an answer where none is required, it not only brings shame on the propounder of the question, but may betray an incautious listener into absurd answers, thus presenting, as the ancients said, the ludicrous spectacle of one man milking a he-goat and the other holding a sieve underneath.

Kant alludes to the fact that this particular meme has classical antecedents, and indeed one can find it in Lucian’s (c. 125-180 AD) Life of Demonax (c. 70-170 AD).   That particular version of the meme was later replicated in Erasmus’s (1466-1536) collection of Adages

When [Demonax] saw a pair of philosophers, each as ignorant as the other, disputing together, one propounding absurd questions and the other giving crazy answers, entirely off the point: ‘Why friends,’ said he, ‘is not one of these fellows milking a he-goat and the other putting a sieve under it?’ 

To Polybius (c. 203-120 BC), in turn, is ascribed the following version of the trope:

But I fear that the well-known adage may apply to me unknown to myself: "Which is the greater simpleton, the man who milks a he-goat or he who holds a sieve to catch the milk?" For it may be said of me that by confuting in detail what is confessed to be a lie, and doing so at great length, I am behaving in a very similar manner. So I shall be told I entirely waste my time in speaking of this matter, unless indeed I wish to record dreams and take into serious consideration the visions of a man with his eyes open.

Erasmus ascribes this same variation to Diogenes of Sinope (c. 404-323 BC) (aka Diogenes the Cynic).

Another variation can be found in Boswell’s Life of Johnson, though in this case, we move from goats to bovines, and interestingly Samuel Johnson (1709-1784) is mocking the Scottish philosopher (1711-1776) whom Kant credited with waking him from his dogmatic slumber.

Hume, and other sceptical innovators, are vain men, and will gratify themselves at any expence. Truth will not afford sufficient food to their vanity; so they have betaken themselves to errour. Truth, Sir, is a cow that will yield such people no more milk, and so they are gone to milk the bull.

(I recommend that the curious reader not attempt googling on the phrase "milk the bull", since this seems to have taken on a different meaning in recent times.  "Milk the he-goat", however, is quite safe for searching.)

An obvious question is raised by these variations on a meme.  While they are obviously dependent on one another, and perhaps some sort of history can be traced showing how the trope has been transmitted over time from this thinker to that one, are they in fact the same meme?  Do memes admit of variation, or must a meme always have the same form?  In the latter case, are we then dealing with two memes, for instance the Polybius version and the Demonax version, with the Demonax variation later mutating into the Samuel Johnson version, or is it the case that each host (Demonax, Diogenes, Polybius, Erasmus, Johnson, Kant, O’Brian [1914-2000]) actually possesses a different meme altogether?

The rules by which a meme is transmitted from host to host is a central concern for memetics, and the problem of identity will remain a problem for it.  More interesting, from my point of view, is the problem of similarity.  What are the rules by which we associate certain ideas with other ideas?  Why does Stephen Maturin associate goat’s milk with a seaman’s indiscretion, to the point that he will not drink the milk?  How are we able to find a resemblance between these different variations on the he-goat anecdote, derived from different sources, to the point that we associate them all together?

In the First Critique, Kant raises a similar question about the character of experience.  Why should it be that events happen in a certain sequence?  Why do causes always precede their effects, instead of the other way around?  For Kant — and for you too, perhaps, if you have read the Critique — this is a perplexing and ultimately uncanny feature of our experience of the external world.  That events should happen in a certain sequence, and not in another, Kant calls Affinity (in philosophical jargon, it is known as the transcendental affinity of the manifold of intuition).

While Kant would not — for those interested, this is because according to Kant inner sense is not associated with a manifold –, we might ask the same question about the way in which one idea follows from another in the stream of consciousness.  What are the rules by which, say, the idea of a madeline leads a man to think back on his childhood and wonder about the nature of remembrance?  Like memes, the flow of ideas have a viral, irrational, and uncontrollable character to them.  It is something like the way in which you get on the Internet to look up how to throw a cocktail party and end up, hours later, reading about cooking with monkey.  Whereas memes are objects of a germinal science about how ideas are transmitted between people, shouldn’t there also be a science concerned with the logic by which ideas are linked together within the same person?

But perhaps this is not possible, since a universal logic of how ideas follow upon one another depends on all people being basically the same, and this cannot be guaranteed.  Certain people find affinities and make connections that others simply do not.  The point is well illustrated in T. S. Elliot’s (1888-1965) play The Cocktail Party — again, contamination is a central theme, here.  The setting is simple enough.  Edward and Lavinia host a cocktail party, and Alex, a guest, explains current affairs in colonial Africa.



Edward: But how do monkeys cause unrest?

Alex: To begin with, the monkeys are very destructive …

Julia: You don’t need to tell me that monkeys are destructive.  I shall never forget Mary Mallington’s monkey, The horrid little beast — stole my ticket to mentone and I had to travel in a very slow train and in a couchette.  She was very angry when I told her the creature ought to be destroyed.

Lavinia: But can’t they exterminate these monkeys if they are a pest?

Alex: Unfortunately, the majority of the natives are heathen: they hold these monkeys in particular veneration and do not want them killed.  So they blame the Government for the damage that the monkeys do.

Edward: That seems unreasonable.

Alex: it is unreasonable, but characteristic.  And that’s not the worst of it.  Some of the tribes are Christian converts, and, naturally, take a different view.  They trap the monkeys.  And they eat them.  The young monkeys are extremely palatable: I’ve cooked them myself …

Edward: And did anybody eat them when you cooked them?

Alex: Oh yes, indeed.  I invented for the natives several new recipes.  But you see, what with eating the monkeys and what with protecting their crops from the monkeys the Christian natives prosper exceedingly: and that creates friction between them and the others.  And that’s the real problem.  I hope I’m not boring you?

Edward: No indeed: we are anxious to learn the solution.

Alex: I’m not sure that there is any solution.  But even this does not bring us to the heart of the matter.  There are also foreign agitators, stirring up trouble …

Lavinia: Why don’t you expel them?

Alex: They are citizens of a friendly neighboring state which we have just recognised.  You see, Lavinia, there are very deep waters.

Edward: And the agitators; how do they agitate?

Alex: By convincing the heathen that the slaughter of monkeys has put a curse on them which can only be removed by slaughtering the Christians.  They have even been persuading some of the converts — who, after all, prefer not to be slaughtered — to relapse into heathendom.  So, instead of eating monkeys they are eating Christians.

Julia: Who have eaten monkeys.

Alex: The native is not, I fear, very logical.