On Writing

I want to write an essay about programming. But I still have a lot to learn, and I don't feel like learning it all in public. So I'll do my homework and hopefully pass the exam. Meanwhile I'll write about writing, something that I think is more difficult to fail.

Am I a good writer? Yes and no. Looking back on what I wrote through the years, I see that much of it makes sense, some of it is fun to read, and there is little that I feel like shredding retroactively (via time-machine).

This is surprising. Very surprising! Why? Because until somewhat (very?) recently I was terminally immature and lived in my own little bubble. I didn't know anything about the real world and lived in a fantasy fueled by random books I had read.

Now thinking about it logically, that sounds like a recipe for making a good writer. Doesn't know the real world, but knows books.

Did all that make me a bad person? This is a harder question. It kind of subsumes a bunch of other questions. Is a good writer a good person? A wise person? Are "books" more important than the "real world"?

Silly questions? Maybe, but sometimes the commonest of sense needs to be re-examined. Actually almost never re-examined, but examined, it never having been in doubt.

Someone once said that you have to learn from other people's mistakes, because you probably won't live long enough to make them all yourself. The same could be said just as meaningfully about experience.

What does this have to with our topic? Language is how we communicate. You can't learn from other people without talking to them. You can try and learn from just watching them, but unless you're trying not to slip on a banana peel, you'll probably learn the wrong things.

Sometimes you need a live human being, because they need to look at what you're doing and criticize your form. Sometimes a dead book human being is enough because they're just saying stuff that you'll have to mull over and figure out for yourself.

Also getting back to smart-allecky statements: you should really learn from people's writings whenever possible, because if you have to invite them over to learn from them in person, you'll spend all your time entertaining and they'll hog your Nintendo, and you'll be having too much fun to care about learning stuff.

But seriously, a large enough selection of books is like having friends. Well it depends what you use friends for. If you use them for bouncing ideas off of and learning stuff, then books are like friends.

And the good thing about these friends is that they're always available whenever you want, and they only talk when you feel like listening, and they don't mind if you don't pay attention, and they're really good listeners, and you'll never reach the end of the road, unless that is the end of the road.

Though to be fair the bad thing is that unless you set out to do so (or you just don't pay attention to what you're reading) you'll rarely have your ideas challenged

Though to be double fair if you don't use your friends as in the second before last paragraph, then you'll probably not get much idea challenging either way. But in all triple fairness you'll get more than your fair share of idea challenging from your non-friends, who couldn't care less about your feelings or about how awkward things will get.

And all this makes me want to sing the praises of short attention span inducing technologies. Why? Why another pointless non sequitur? Because the world is a big place and that means you can do whatever you want if you're willing to pay the price.

What you say? There's never an end to our being told this is good and this is bad, and you must choose the good. And this seems like a sensible argument (be good for goodness' sake), except this assumes that the moral advice is coming from well-meaning and wise counselors. When in fact they are almost always not well-meaning (nor ill-meaning) but un-meaning; simply parroting what everyone else is saying.

It also assumes that all of life's choices are simple and there is a clear good and bad, that is constant for all people at all times. And they all lived happily ever after. The end.

But every good thing that is better than some bad thing that is worse, is only so when all things are equal. And all things are never equal, for if they were, every one would choose that good thing.

Which brings me to lesson 7-million of our little tale: people aren't stupid. They may be killing themselves and destroying the planet but they're not stupid. We're not stupid. We're just lazy. At least I'm lazy. You'll have a hard time convincing me that I'm not.

You'll say: but wait a minute trustno1! You get so much done. You write entire essays and post one up on your website every other year.

To which I'd reply: All well and true, but I could do so much more. And truly I could. We all could.

But back to society and our choices. You can eat bacon for every meal, as long as you live. Which might not be that long, but it's much longer than you'd think. And it won't affect me in the least. The world's a big place and if you can afford $5 a day to feed yourself in bacon, it won't do a thing to me. Unless we're roommates and you're stealing my bacon.

I'm sure some will disagree with me and pick nits and say well what if I (Debbie Downer) ate bacon until I died of a heart attack, blah, blah, taxes, blah, blah, frickin, blah... To them I say, put your money where your mouth is and eat bacon until you die, and we'll see just how much that affects the rest of us.

Now I'm ready to praise the internet and television and all that jazz. You see a short attention span will make it difficult for us to master complex skills that have a steep learning curve. The classic example being learning to play a musical instrument. But it will make us seek out other skills that have a shallow learning curve. And nothing tells me that those things are logically worse.

And now I can finally talk about programming, because programming my friend (you the reader, not programming) is something with a shallow learning curve, that isn't worse, but possibly better, possibly on another plane of cognition entirely.

Am I serious? How can I say that programming has a shallow learning curve? Doesn't that mean it is easy to do? No shallow learning curve means it's easy to start.

Well if it's so easy to start then why don't people do more of it? I'll hypothesize that it's an odd combination of lazyness, patience and apathy. But more importantly and probably more accurately it is because people don't have the mental tools for the job. In this case it is an understanding of computing.

To understand the language of the computer you must understand the operation of the computer. Either formally or intuitively.

And this brings us back to writing. To write (well), you must understand the language of people, and to do so you must understand the operation of the human mind. Either formally (ok semi-formally) or intuitively.

Someone once responded to my aptitude for dealing with computers, by saying: I guess some people (like you) are just better at dealing with machines. I don't know if they meant to imply that I was worse at dealing with non-machines, but I'm just offering this in passing, so I really don't know...

Well to answer the original questions let's try to simply judge a fruit by its tree. Or maybe it's the other way around. Though that somehow seems like the ends justifying the means. Maybe the tree's roots are cracking your house's foundation in half. Then you don't care how sweet the fruit is, because they sell (ready-picked) fruit for dollars per pound in stores, but your house is going to cost you thousands.

But again I'll try not be a smart-allecky jackass and just use this to remind us of the spirit of the original, which is you judge people by their actions, and not something else (their appearance?).

So is a good writer a good person? That's really to ask does a good writer necessarily do good things? Possibly going down the road of: Is writing good? Is that mostly what they do?

By and large if the writer is not particularly successful somewhere else in their life, they are probably not affecting the world much through their actions. And writing, even bad writing might conceivably have more of a positive effect than all the rest.

That answers whether writing can be significant and dominate the moral weighing of the writer's actions. But is writing good? And what do we mean by such a broad term as "good"?

In this case, when judging someone, we probably mean morally good. And here we are back in deep. For what is morally good about writing? Or reading? Is there a duty to learn as much as we can and contribute as much as we can to human understanding?

As smart people we're tempted to think so. But again what is the end result of such endeavours. Will we use our knowledge for good or for evil.

But in truth the capacity for evil is essential in measuring goodness. Maybe it's an extension of the concept of the balance between the sum of good actions and bad actions, crossed with the notion of inaction being as significant as action.

To put it simply knowledge means choice. And choice is the only thing that is moral. Gravity is not moral, nor are any facts or theories. Only our decisions can weigh on our souls or our consciences.

Writing, learning and teaching in turn, all enlarge the compass of morality. The more we know, the more we are bound. Bound to not let others come to harm through our actions and inactions.

To return to the big world where we can do what we want, remember that you are one person amongst billions. And that while knowledge may tell you how your actions affect others it also tells you how they do not affect others.

That is to say knowledge, learning and teaching in turn, all circumscribe the compass of morality as well. The more we know, the less we are bound. Not bound to arbitrary moral codes that limit our actions (or demand actions of us) even when these actions (or inactions) can lead to no harm of others.

To jump back to why people don't bother programming. This is also a direct consequence of the shallow learning curve and the big world. The easy problems are already solved. Worse yet the most common "hard" problems have "usable" solutions.

And this makes programming in the current state of things a steep learning curve activity. Is that bad? Should we put a lot of effort into making a better mousetrap?

Only if we enjoy it, or if our mousetrap will be game-changingly better. Otherwise we're better off putting our limited effort (we're still lazy) where we can get the most bang for the buck.

And this part of why there are so few programmers. You need someone that is so much better at it, or who enjoys it so much more than anything else, that they would be wasted in any other line of work.

Why did I phrase the morality of our actions in terms of minimizing harm and not maximizing benefit? Because the road to hell is paved with good intentions. It is hard and it is rare for us to see who we are hurting, even when it is in front of our eyes, we are biased. It is easy to see how to help, far too easy (we are biased). Maybe we should metaphorically focus on loving god more and try and inflict less love on our neighbours. But if you're having trouble figuring out how to help others, just contact me and I'll tell you where to send a check.

Again it is probably best not to do unto others. Unless they're a consenting adult. But blasphemous jokes aside, when should we do what? Do the ends justify the means? But more importantly for us: do the means justify the ends?

It is easy to see the logic in the first question, though experience tells us to be cautious (for in any change (that doesn't happen of its own accord) there are winners and losers, and some are more tempted to see the "justification" than others), but why do we accept that we should always do good, regardless of the consequences?

This site best viewed with Lynx or Mozilla or Konqueror or any standards compliant browser!

Valid HTML 4.01! This Site is Powered by vi and Powered by Emacs also. The all-powerful ed has also contributed!.