Wednesday, November 30, 2005

A Computer Named Scotty

I never was employed as a computer, but the summer that I let my father talk me, against my better judgment, into working as a gravity observer on a seismic exploration crew up in the Northwest Territories of Canada near the confluence of the Liard and the Nahanni rivers---a land that was primarily muskeg, which is just a fancy word for swamp---I worked for a computer who, because of his Glaswegian accent, was inevitably known as ``Scotty.''

It was my job to go slogging through the swamp with a gravity meter on my back and, every so often, when I came across a stake with certain markings placed on it by the surveyors, I would unsling the gravity meter, place it on a tripod, and look through an eye piece with a vernier dial, twisting the dial until a little bubble, very much like the bubble in a carpenter's level, appeared in the very center of the eyepiece. At that point I could, by reading the numbers on the dial, supposedly determine the force of gravity acting at that particular location to the nearest thousandth of a gal or so. [A gal is the centimeter-gram-second unit of acceleration, equal to one centimeter per second per second.] As I recall, being rather a klutz, I never could reach quite that degree of accuracy.

I was looking for buried riverbeds that could, if unaccounted for, mess up the seismic data. The gravity meter did a pretty good job of sensing the presence of a buried river bed, but it it also sensed other things like the variation in tidal forces that occurred as the moon made its journey around the earth. In order to filter out such unwanted noise I had to get back to the point where I made my first reading within two hours and make another reading and then Scotty, the computer, had to adjust my readings taking into account the drift that had taken place over the two hour period.

I was supposed to collect the raw data; Scotty was supposed to manipulate it. That is, after all, what computers are supposed to do: manipulate data. So I supplied the data that I had collected to him, and someone---a seismologist---gave Scotty instructions as to how he was to process that data. But there were actually a couple of evenings that Scotty handed me a slide rule and gave me some hasty instruction on how to use it in order to filter out the noise attributable to tidal forces and things like that that messed up the data I had collected.

Scotty just wanted me to recheck some computations that had already been done by someone else, but arguably that allows me to claim with at least some legitimacy that I myself was a computer for a couple of evenings. I'm not quite sure that I ever understood exactly what it was that I was doing on those evenings, other than sliding scales back and forth inside a slide rule, but that sliding did produce numbers which satisfied Scotty. After all, we computers are not required---or even encouraged---to understand what it is that we are doing.

I just followed the instructions that Scotty gave to me and those instructions were, by definition, instructions to a computer. It is, I think, worth noting that a set of instructions to a computer is exactly what our legal system defines as a ``computer program.'' It may even be worth remembering that the earliest computer programs were sets of instructions to human beings like Scotty and myself.

Tuesday, November 29, 2005

Unintelligent Design

It seems to me that there is no way that one can be certain that the world as we think we know it, with all of its buzzing, booming complexity, was not designed---and created---by some sort of god or demiurge.

On the other hand, what seems absolutely clear---even though I have not seen any express mention of this by those who object to the teaching of so-called ``intelligent design''---is that such a design of the world---and of us---would have been remarkably unintelligent.

The first rule of any good design---of any intelligent design---is ``Keep It Simple,'' yet the proponents of ``Intelligent Design'' base their whole argument on the immense complexity of natural systems, an argument that, I submit, can only be called unintelligent and downright stupid.

Just consider ourselves with our veriform appendices, blind spots in the middle of our eyes, and confusingly complex sexual organs. If we are the product of design, surely in justice we should have a product liability suit against the designer.

The problem of unintelligent design is closely related to the problem of theodicy, the problem of how a benevolent and omnipotent God could create a world with so much evil in it, for how could an intelligent creator have made such a mess of it when it designed the world and us?

Monday, November 28, 2005

Cruel and Unusual Choices

In the original version of this blog I wrote an entry in which I said:
There is an errand that I have been avoiding for several weeks, one that I dread: getting a bottle of shampoo at the drugstore.

The last time I did that I ended up in an incapacitating rage and, though I finally picked one bottle, my blood pressure probably remained high for several days.

That is not the way a follower of the Buddha Dharma is supposed to react. It is, however, the way that I reacted.

The problem was that there were far too many choices: thickening shampoos, conditioning shampoos, thinning shampoos, coloring shampoos,herbal shampoos, and Lord knows what else. Yet, as it happened, there was no bottle that I recognized as being a shampoo that I had used before. And so I had to make a choice among myriads of brands and versions of soap in a bottle adulterated with various types of gunk.

I did not dare just pick a bottle and have done with it, because with my luck it would turn---as it promised on the label---my remaining hair an interesting shade of green.

And so I had to read the fine print and think and dither and, inevitably, grow angrier and angrier.

As I think of that experience I grow angry all over again and find that in my most unawakened mood I want to kneecap anyone who claims that increasing the number of my--or the world's--choices makes me--or the world--better off.
You can imagine how infuriated I now am at the necessity of choosing between forty some different insurance company plans for the new Medicare drug benefit.

It hardly abates my rage that I know that if I do choose a plan the insurance company that I select can change the prices of the drugs it covers or even the type of drugs that it does cover whenever it likes. So the choice that I am confronted with is: which bait and switch con game should I choose to victimize me?

But if I am enraged, think of how others who, unlike myself, are not trained as lawyers and are not intimately familiar with the Internet, must feel about the program.

It is perhaps the cruelest piece of legislation to be passed in the last decade, although it would have to compete with the recently effective bankruptcy reform legislation.

It hardly helps that the Federal government is now running advertisements suggesting that us old folks should get our children to make the choices.for us, especially since many of us like myself don't have any children and many children---especially those whose parents are receiving Medicaid---don't have the skills necessary to make the choices for their parents.

People like myself who don't absolutely need the new drug benefits will often be able to choose---or pick, as I plan to do---some sort of drug benefit plan. On the other hand, those who really need the benefits are much less likely to be able to take advantage of the program.

I am reluctant to make political predictions, but the new Medicare drug benefit program is such a cruel and complex mess that I am pretty sure that it, rather than the Iraq war, will be the critical issue in the 2006 elections. I don't think that I will be alone in planning to vote against anyone who voted for that legislation.

Friday, November 25, 2005

Misleading Metaphors

I am not sure that it required the writings of George Lakoff to reveal the fact that we cannot think about something new---some new concept or phenomenon---without first analogizing it to something more familiar that we think we know how to think about. I suspect, however, that we do owe Lakoff a great deal of thanks for making clear to us how those analogies are usually presented to us as unrecognized metaphors and how those metaphors control what we think---control what we can think---since they are probably as close as we can come to the unintelligible underlying buzzing, booming confusion of reality.

Electronic---that is, non-human---computers have, of course, been around for a while, but the nature of their inner workings and of the programs that they implement are matters that most lawyers---members of my profession---are as little likely to have actually experienced as, say, the composing of a sonata for piccolo and flugelhorn.

Thus, when lawyers are confronted with a problem involving computers and computer programs they have evidenced a strong tendency to discuss---and, presumably, think about---them in terms of wildly inappropriate metaphors.

The paradigmatic example of a lawyer---and, in fact, a judge---thus misconceiving the very nature of computers and computer programs is, I submit, the holding of Judge Gwin in the case of Junger---that's me---v. Daley---who was the United States Secretary of Commerce---that ``source code,'' the instructions written by a human being describing the actions to be performed by a computer, is not expression that is protected the First Amendment to the United States Constitution because it is ``a device, like embedded circuitry in a telephone''---which is the equivalent of claiming that a recipe is an entree like duck Montmorency and that therefore a cookbook is not entitled to First Amendment protection.

Thursday, November 24, 2005

Not Recommended by Duncan Hines

My father had, as I recall, few rules that he considered inviolable, but one was that one should never eat in a restaurant that was recommended by Duncan Hines.

Today, of course, the name ``Duncan Hines,'' if remembered at all, is going to be remembered as a brand of dessert mixes, but back in the early forties of the last century Duncan Hines was a traveling salesman, turned into a food critic, who went around writing books about restaurants that he had eaten at during his travels. To those restaurants that he found particularly praiseworthy he gave a sign saying ``Recommended by Duncan Hines,'' a sure sign according to my father that the food would be terrible but that the restrooms would be spotless.

Whether my father was correct or not in this judgment I cannot say from my own personal experience since at the time I was too young to go to restaurants by myself and I never as far as I know actually ate anything in a restaurant that admitted to having been recommended by Duncan Hines.

At that time we lived in Bakersfield---where I was born, though I do not like to admit it. As I recall there were only two restaurants in town that were worth going to to eat, but they were wonderful. Without any definite proof---proving a negative is notoriously difficult---, I am sure that neither were ever recommended by Duncan Hines, or by any other food critic for that matter.

One was Mexican---what is now known as a taqueria---that was located in a shack with dirt floors not only on the wrong side of the railroad tracks but right up next to them. I do not remember what they served besides tacos, but I do recall that all the food was wonderful.

That restaurant was so successful that a few years later the owners were able to retire and go back to Mexico.

At the time taquerias were not common it the States, but now it is possible to find---although not in Cleveland where I now live---similar shacks with dirt floors that offer wonderful food: for example, La Super-Rica Taqueria on Milpas street in Santa Barbara, the favorite taqueria of the late Julia Childs, who had infinitely better taste than Duncan Hines.

The other restaurant was in a Basque sheepherders hotel that I had long assumed had also vanished years ago. A little research though reveals that the Noriega Hotel, which was founded in 1893, still survives and that Basque food is still served there at communal tables just as I remember it, with only one sitting for dinner, although I gather that the hotel itself no longer serves as a rooming house for Basque shepherds.

I am not sure that the dishes remain the same and am not likely now to visit it in hopes of refreshing my recollection. What I do vaguely remember is that the spinach was wonderful, but mostly I remember the wine, a dry and dusty red that in memory at least tasted rather like a red version of a Frankenwein, though perhaps that recollection is colored by the wine skins that hung on the walls in the hotel's dining room that now makes me think of the original meaning of the Bocksbeutel* that is the traditional flask for Franconian wines.

* ``Goat's scrotum''

Tuesday, November 22, 2005

Classification of Animals

When I consider my recollections of various animals, I am inevitably re- minded of the classification of animals that Borges in his essay "The Ana- lytical Language of John Wilkins" attributes to a certain Dr. Franz Kuhn who in turn attributes it to a certain Chinese encyclopedia entitled Celes- tial Emporium of Benevolent Knowledge where it is written that animals are divided into:
(a) those that belong to the Emperor,
(b) embalmed ones,
(c) those that are trained,
(d) suckling pigs,
(e) mermaids,
(f) fabulous ones,
(g) stray dogs,
(h) those that are included in this classification,
(i) those that tremble as if they were mad,
(j) innumerable ones,
(k) those drawn with a very fine camel's-hair brush,
(l) others,
(m) those that have just broken a flower vase,
(n) those that resemble flies from a distance.

Giving Thanks for the Free Market

When I gave a talk the other day at an interfaith service about thanksgiving, all of the other speakers, with one exception, confined themselves to reading passages about giving thanks to a monotheistic creator god and to its---or, as they put it, ``his''---creation. The exception was the Rabbi.

The Rabbi read a passage from the Talmud that describes how---my memory is a bit vague here, but if I have the details wrong I am sure that I still recall the general thrust of the story.... The Rabbi read a passage from the Talmud that describes how the author owed thanks to many different people for the meal that he ate: he owed thanks to the farmer who raised the crops, the merchant who sold the farmer the seeds, the carter who brought the crop to market, the merchant who sold the food, and on, and on.

Suddenly my ears were hearing that we should give thanks to all those upon whom we depend in a recognition of our interdependency; my ears were hearing the functional equivalent of a buddhist Dharma talk.

And then the Rabbi went on and said that today we owe thanks to many more people on whom our meals depend---the fertilizer company, the shipper who sends the food from Asia or South America, the grocery wholesalers, the advertising agencies that advertise the availability of the groceries, and so on. (I am not sure that the Rabbi gave any of those particular examples, but they give a fair idea of what he was saying.)

And then the Rabbi said that today we owe our thanks for our meals and for all who make them possible to the ``free enterprise system.''

And suddenly my ears were hearing what might well be called an ``anti-Dharma'' talk.

In the first place, the so-called free enterprise system depends on a very limited kind of interdependency---a dependency only on human beings wealthy enough to take part in the ``free market''---that does not include the birds and the bees and the fish and all the animals and plants and swamps and fields and mountains and rocks and rivers and oceans upon which we also depend, and who depend on us.

In the second place, the free enterprise system brings us many things for which we have no reason to be grateful: global warming, vanishing habitats, Walmarts, and telemarketers.

From the viewpoint of a follower of the Buddhadharma---a follower of the Buddha's teachings---the great failing of the free market system is that it depends on the greed of the individuals and corporations who are the players in the market. Just imagine the economic catastrophe that would result if everyone decided that they have enough already and simply do not want anything for Christmas that they do not already have.

The whole justification for the free market system is that it somehow makes each of us better off by giving us the opportunity to satisfy more and more of our wants.

The Buddha's teachings on the other hand are that we are made better off---and all who depend on us are made better off---if we simply do not want so much.

Saturday, November 19, 2005

The Local Consequences of Global Warming

I turned on the local public television station for a moment in the middle of the night last night and learned that the polar bears are hungry and endangered. The weather is so warm this year that the acrtic ice is a month late in forming and until the sea freezes the polar bears can't go out on the ice hunting for seals for their dinner.

This morning I awoke to the realization that we could, if not solve, at least ameliorate two of our environmental problems by feeding Republicans to the bears.

Friday, November 18, 2005

Giving Thanks

Here is a talk that I plan to give on Sunday at an interfaith Thanksgiving service at a Presbyterian church:

As I understand it, my charge here this afternoon is to read or recite some passage from the literature of my school of Buddhism, which is Jodo Shin Shu---the True School of the Pure Land---, which is the tradition of the Cleveland Buddhist Temple.

So here goes:


Of course, since I recited that in my approximation of the Japanese pronunciation of a Sanskrit phrase, I suppose that I owe you some sort of explanation.

So here it is.

There are many different schools of Buddhism, perhaps as many schools as there are Buddhists, for there is nothing that one is required to believe to be a Buddhist and each of us can only follow our own path.

But one thing that almost all Buddhists have in common is that they have many reasons for giving thanks. Giving thanks is a basic part of Buddhist practices: thanks to our parents, thanks to our friends, thanks to the lunch we ate today, thanks to things just as they are, and especially thanks to the Buddha for the Buddha's teachings.

Now the central teachings of the Buddha are that all things are impermanent, that all things are interdependent, and that no thing, no person, has an independent essence---that no person has an independent self. The Buddha teaches us that as a result of these truths that anyone---and that means every one of us---who clings to impermanent things, and especially to the idea that one has an independent self, is going to be disappointed and unhappy.

And finally the Buddha teaches that, if you don't want to be unhappy, then you are going to have to truly get rid of the ignorant belief that you have a separate self that exists somehow apart from that of others. And, of course, since that means that you must recognize the fact that you are inextricably interconnected with others, it requires that you not only want to attain your own happiness but that you want all beings to be happy.

And so the goal of all Buddhist practices is to attain wisdom and compassion. The wisdom to free oneself from the fetters of one's ignorance and greed and the compassion to wish that same freedom for all others.

But Shin Buddhists like myself, ordinary ignorant people filled with blind passions, have to recognize that we simply lack the capacity to free ourselves from the bonds of our ignorance and greed.

Now the usual translation of NAMO AMIDA BUTSU is: ``I am one with Amida Buddha---I am one with the Buddha of Infinite Light and Life---I am one with the infinite wisdom and compassion that surrounds me.''

But for an ignorant person like myself it is more likely at first to be a cry of existential despair.

We are, however, taught in the Shin tradition that if we listen carefully to NAMO AMIDA BUTSU we will hear Amida Buddha calling us to entrust ourselves to the wisdom and compassion that surrounds us. And when we truly hear that call, then NAMO AMIDA BUTSU becomes: ``Thank you. Thank you. Thank you.'' Every day becomes a day of thanksgiving. Every moment becomes an eternity of thanksgiving.


Thursday, November 17, 2005

The Computer Who Couldn't Compute

The teacher who supposedly taught me plain geometry in my sophomore year at Natrona County High School worked during the summer vacation as a computer for my father. That was back in the days when ``computer'' was a recognized job description like ``jug hustler'' and ``gravity observer''---both of which were jobs that I actually have held.

It was fortunate for Alan---who is now an emeritus processor of computer science---and myself that we found it easy to work with axiomatic systems, and thus were able to teach ourselves geometry, since it was quite clear to us that our teacher really did not understand that sort of thing. I don't know if any of the others in the class really learned anything from him. In fact, my father was convinced that he simply could not compute, that he could not follow the instructions that were given to him in his temporary capacity as a computer.

I, on the other hand, have always found that type of ``computing'' to come quite easily, and so, eight years later when my evidence teacher in law school taught us evidence as an axiomatic system, I found it easy to do very well on the final exam without having to do any studying at all. Of course, at that time, I did not realize that I was computing something, for no computations were involved.

That I would have made a good computer is, of course, nothing for which I can take any credit, anymore that I can be condemned for not being able to spell. Nor, I suppose, could my old teacher have been blamed for the fact that he couldn't compute.

Ordinateurs et Informatique

The French they have a word for it: ``un ordinateur,'' which I suppose refers to something that orders things, that puts things into an order. We, and the rest of world, now call those somethings ``computers,'' although back in the mid-sixties my English-German dictionary translated ``computer'' as ``ein Hollerithmaschine'' in honor of the punch card calculators that were invented by Hermann Hollerith back in 1886.

I use that French name here for the gadgets---if not the people---that we call ``computers'' in the hope that it will jar us out of the misleading stereotype that all that computers can do, or, at least, what they primarily do do, is compute.

The French have another useful word---that sometimes appears in other languages, including English: ''informatique,'' which refers to what we can only call, in long-winded fashion: ``the science of information processing,'' which is not quite the same thing as the field of study that we call ``computer science.'' .

I shall be including here some of my recollections of my collisions with ordinateurs and informatique, although I shall say nothing further about the time that I actually tripped over a computer.

I am far too old to be able to think that ordinateurs are simply an ever-existing part of the environment, like chairs and horses and milkwagons. In fact, the first computers that I had to deal with were not the machines that the French call ``ordinateurs,'' but rather human---all too human---beings.

On Not Seeing the Rock of Gibralter

I have no memory of not seeing most of things that I have not seen, like the Virginia Falls on the Nahanni River. In fact, until I checked it out just now, I even misremembered the name of those falls, thinking that their name was the same as that of the better known Victoria Falls in Africa, which I have also never seen and have no recollection of not seeing.

On the other hand, I do have a most distinct recollection of not seeing the Rock of Gibraltar.

It was dark outside and I was sleeping happily in my bunk---although, of course, having been asleep when the memory starts I do not actually remember that happiness---and then my father came into the cabin and woke me up, to a rather limited extent, and held me up to the porthole and told me that we were passing by the Rock of Gibraltar.

Wanting only to go back to sleep, I fear that I had no interest in seeing a rock, even though my father, who was a geologist, was so enthusiastic about seeing it. My father was enthusiastic about a lot of rocks that, at the age of three at least, raised no corresponding enthusiasm in myself. If you had asked me then I doubt that I could have put my response to the sight of a rock into such precise words, but I am pretty sure that my position was that if you have seen one rock you have seen them all.

And, in any event, I did not see any rock at all, but only a faint reflection of myself on the inner surface of the porthole. So I said that I saw it, wanting to get back to sleep, and my father put me down and I got back into my bunk and that is all that I recall of that. I guess that I went right back to sleep.


This weblog is a continuation of the blog that I started and still maintain at <>. I have not, however contributed to that blog in more than a year, having been interrupted when I came down first with a bad cold and then with a book about Computing and the Law, a book that stubbornly resists completion. I have been writing that book using PDFLaTeX and was writing the blog using LaTeX2html and, being a purist, without any blogging tools like blogger. Working on both the book and the blog seemed to be a bit too much.

But now I have come down with still another book: a collection of recollections of the sort that almost demand being recorded in a blog. And so I have given in and started this new blog, which I hope will be easier to write and maintain than the old one was.

Obviously I still have a lot to learn about blogging.