Friday, January 23, 2009

Uncle and Aunts

Many years ago, when my parents still lived on the farm in Taber, I made the mistake of telling a niece and nephew that I was their only uncle. I was quickly corrected.

You see, there are several kinds of uncles. There is your mother's brother, your mother's sisters' husbands, your father's brothers, and your father's sisters' husbands. Oh, and then honorary "uncles" as well. To me, these are all different kinds of relationships that happen to share the same title: "uncle."

Let me put it this way: I am your mother's only brother. How's that?

If your mother is in this picture, then I am your mother's only brother. And therefore, I am the only uncle of that kind that you have.

Now let's turn to the issue of aunts. Your father provides you with aunts of two kinds: his sisters, and his brothers' wives. Your mother (who, we've established, is in the picture above) provides you with five aunts: her two sisters and the three women that I have had the privilege of marrying.

Some of you know Auntie Marie, whom I married in 1972. Unfortunately, we were divorced in 1979 (and please let me take all of the blame for that: I was young and foolish). She is happily married and has one son, who is now about the age that I was then (young, but not nearly so foolish).

I almost did a "Friday flashback" last Friday, which was 28 years, to the day, from the Friday when I was married to your Aunt Judy, whom you all know well. She has three lovely daughters from her first marriage, and we had a daughter and a son together. (Again let me take all the blame for that ending as well: I was older and foolisher.) She is now happily married and has six step-children ("kinds of cousins" is not part of the subject of this post, although you can see how that might go...).

For the last four years, I have been wondrously happy married to your Aunt Sara. She has six children. I hope that you will have many opportunities to get to know and love her (and them), as the years go by.

So there you have it. Of the aunts and uncles on your mother's side, I have provided fully half of them: one uncle and three aunts. Your mother's two sisters each provide one aunt and one uncle.

I think I've done my share. This post dedicated to all of my wonderful nieces and nephews.

Thursday, January 22, 2009

Telephone numbers

It used to be that my telephone number was a great way to identify me. During my growing up years, our family only had two of them. The first one was only 5 digits! But then, things changed, and we got a standard 10 digit phone number, which I still remember well.

After that, I went through a series of phone numbers, roughly one per physical location. That was because phone numbers used to be associated with physical addresses. During much of the time I lived in France, I didn't even have a phone at all.

When I left Utah for California on October 31, 1999, I converted my physical phone number into a voice mailbox, and upon my return and buying a house in the same local exchange, it then became the number for that (new and different) physical location.

By that time, though, I had had a cell phone for some time, so I actually had two phone numbers. I managed to keep that same phone number through a number of physical devices and with two carriers.

Now, though, I have a different cell phone number, which is associated with a "family plan" with actually 5 different numbers. Besides that, there is our old "landline" phone number from where we used to live, in Orem.

And, just to add to the mix, our current home phone is actually a Skype phone. And it has its own phone number. The number is a local Salt Lake City phone number, but it is no longer associated with a physical location. Nor is it tied to a local exchange. Well, the phone number is, but our phone service definitely is not. That is, even if we moved to, say, India, the phone number would stay the same, and if you called it, we would receive your call in India (or wherever we were), and if we called you, your caller id would show the SLC number.

Well, long-winded post. And that's even leaving out why we would never have a landline phone again in Utah (because the company with the monopoly here has truly abysmal customer service). And it also leaves out why I think Skype is great (and gives us unlimited US and Canada calling for $9 a month, besides).

The whole point of the post is that a phone number is no longer a good way to identify me.

Various places of business (the doctor's office, for example) ask me for my phone number as a way to look up my account. That just doesn't work, and I always stumble around before replying. Because, which number do they have for me? My old local number that survived a move to California and back? My old landline number from Orem? My first cell phone number? My current cell phone number? My Skype number? My wife's cell phone number?

When did a simple phone number get so complicated?

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Moving and Shaking

When I was a younger man, the expression "movers and shakers" was frequently used to indicate people who made a difference, or who led out in an industry. Part of me would have liked to have done some of that, but the rest of me knew it wasn't in my nature.

The closest I came, until the story that I'm telling in this post, was as a teenager when I decided to start a company to manufacture modular transistor radios. Pretty innovative for 1963. I knew that I'd have to raise capital, so I began selling shares in the enterprise. One boy gave me a dime. The next day, he wanted to know where his "chair" was, so I gave him back the dime, and abandoned the plan.

In the mid 1980's, I became aware of a relatively new idea in computer science, now called "object-oriented programming". After spending some time learning Smalltalk, I became somewhat of an expert, and was soon working at WordPerfect Corporation on a Smalltalk-like system (described in my dissertation).

While working there (1988-1995), our small group attended all of the OOPSLA conferences. The first one we went to was in San Diego, and my niece and nephew, who lived there, started calling me "Uncle Oopsla."

After a few years of attendance, I got ambitious and asked for a chance to be on the program committee. As a result, I was invited to be a member of that committee for the 10th OOPSLA conference, to be held in Austin, Texas. Being on the program committee meant that I was asked to referee (review submitted papers, evaluate them, and give feedback to the authors). Then, a few months before the conference, the committee met in the San Jose area to make the final decisions as to which papers would be invited to the conference, and which would be rejected.

It was fairly easy at first. There were a number of papers that were really good, and everyone agreed to include them. There were more that weren't so good, and everyone agreed to reject them. Then, a lot of time was spent going through the others, and discussing them. For each one, there was a vote. If someone felt really strongly about it, they got a few minutes to present their thoughts to the entire committee. Sometimes one person could win over enough votes to get a paper accepted.

When we got to a paper that I had refereed, it only got one positive vote, and that was mine. So, then I had a quick decision to make. Did I just let it go, or did I fight for it?

I stood up and gave a quick defense of the paper, and explained why I thought it was innovative and deserved a spot in the conference. Many of the committee members, exhausted by the long day, looked irritated. We took a break. A few of them talked with me individually. After the break, we took another vote and the paper was in. The rest is history.

That was my one time at making a difference in an industry. I was now truly a mover and shaker to some small degree. Well, its a pretty minor thing really. But there you have it.

At the conference, I made it a point to attend the oral presentation of "SmartFiles: An OO approach to data file interoperability." And, it lived up to my hopes for it. I don't know if it made the slightest difference to the authors' careers, or to the success of the concept. I'm sure the ideas would have been published elsewhere if the paper had been rejected for OOPSLA.

No one knows about my role in this. Well, until now anyway.

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Symmetry and a surprising asymmetry

This is more on the subject of systems of thought. Please refer to the two previous posts for the definitions of S, C, R, and M.

Many thanks to my readers for their comments. They are encouraging. And a special thanks to Kelline for the very funny joke. Myrna, you are right that I'm going at this quite soberly, but a bit of humor never hurts. Thank you, Nancy, for your passionate expression of belief. Finally, thank you, Thom, for your kind sensitivity, and for raising the important issue of Truth (with a capital T), which I really want to write more about someday.

The table that follows is a personal analysis of the four systems of thought.

does mind pre-exist body?
does behavior affect after-life?
is mind separate from body?
allows for a supreme being?
considered a religion?
world population estimate
my friends and family

The first two lines are me being a computer scientist and finding a way to map four things onto two bits. The next three lines are of some interest in showing that one of the systems is somewhat apart from the others. The world population estimate is my personal estimate of what proportion of the world's population believes each of the systems. Finally, the last line shows the proportions for people I know quite well.

Interestingly, I defined the four systems in order of familiarity in the original posts. Here they are listed in an order that works well for my bit mapping exercise.

At the world population level, M is quite peculiar (which is internally consistent, as "peculiar" is a word used by M to characterize its adherents). However, it is very familiar to me. In this post, I want mainly to point out some strong similarities and symmetries between M and S. Finally, there is a very strange asymmetry, which explains some of the anxiety when adherents of the two systems sit down to talk.

Both systems include the belief that the system is true. Both systems value truth and seek to find truth wherever it can be found. Each system considers that it includes everything that is true. So much for similarities. Quite a few.

Now for the symmetry. While each system acknowledges that the other system exists and has believers, each includes the belief that the other system is false. At best the other system is just plain wrong. At worst, it is dangerous. Dangerous in the sense that, "we wouldn't want to see anyone we care about go there." Each system includes the idea that it would probably be a good thing if more people believed and supported it, and fewer supported the other.

The surprising asymmetry has to do with how one might go about resolving the difference of opinion. Part of the difference involves a future event. Normally, when there is a difference of opinion about a future event, we make a wager. Then when the event occurs, everyone sees what happened and the loser pays up. Simple and effective.

In the case of the life-after-life wager, however, if the believer in S turns out to win, he or she won't be around to collect. So it's always a safe bet for the believer in M.

This explains why believers in S often seem belligerent in such discussions. There is just no way that they can win the wager. For them, the question has to be settled in this life or not at all.

Point of View

My previous post, unfortunately, drew a couple of comments that were critical of the two systems of thought. That was not the reason I brought up the subject, but, in retrospect, I should have expected it.

Each of us has a unique point of view. All I want to do is try to understand the different points of view. Let's remember that each one is held by a living, breathing human being. Let's remember that each one is strongly held, and dear to the heart and mind of a person.

In this post, I am going to introduce two additional systems of thought, so I'm going to give each one a letter, so that I can refer to them all more easily in the posts to follow. The first system of thought from yesterday's post, I will call M, and the second one, S.

Now it happens that the first two comments said, basically, "I choose M." The third comment made fun of M, and the fourth comment told a joke at the expense of S. Now it happens that I love all of those who left a comment, and I recognize that each has a unique point of view. I don't think it is useful in any way to make fun of anyone else's point of view.

The third commenter phoned me right after hitting submit and asked me to remove xer comment. Xe realized that xer comment wasn't adequately respectful of other points of view. I invite xer to make another comment that simply claims xers choice of S over M, without poking any fun, if xe wishes to do so.

Now again in the spirit of understanding, rather than criticism or humorous disbelief, let me present two other systems of thought relative to the life questions.

Several students of mine when I was a professor held to this system of thought, which I will call C:

Q. Where did I come from?
A. A supreme being created you out of nothing, as a special creation.

Q. Why am I here?
A. You must worship your creator, live a good life, and accept the One sent by the creator as your personal savior.

Q. Where am I going?
A. After you die you will go on to eternal bliss if you have accepted the One, but if not, you will go on to eternal torment.

Another dear friend holds to a system of thought which I will call R:

Q. Where did I come from?
A. You have lived many lives before on this planet and are now again living here on Earth.

Q. Why am I here?
A. You are here to gain more experience as a living being and to see what kind of life you choose.

Q. Where am I going?
A. After you die, you will look over your life and learn from it while preparing to be born into another life.

These systems of thought are all quite different, and it can be interesting to compare and contrast them. For example, M, C, and R all hold that there is life after death, whereas S does not.

It is important to remember that each person holds on to their preferred system of thought quite firmly, and it is important to them. While we could get a great deal of enjoyment poking fun at other systems of thought, my purpose in this series of posts is to learn about them, accept that each has some believers, and above all, to be tolerant and detached.

Monday, January 12, 2009

Life Questions

When I was a young man, much was made about a series of questions about the meaning of life. Perhaps this had to do with the screening of "Man's Search for Happiness" (created for the New York World's Fair in 1964).

The system of thought that I was taught as a child went something like this.

Q. Where did I come from?
A. You lived for a long, long time as a spirit child of heavenly parents, then were born into this world and forgot about your previous life.

Q. Why am I here?
A. You are here to learn by your own experience to distinguish good from evil, and to be tested to see if you will voluntarily choose good.

Q. Where am I going?
A. After you die, you will remember your long spirit past, and be judged on how well you chose good while on the Earth, with glorious rewards or lasting punishments based on that judgment.

After a few years of study*, I became familiar with another system of thought, which answered the questions in a different way.

Q. Where did I come from?
A. You are the latest in a long line of animals which grow up to become conscious thinkers and ask questions such as these.

Q. Why am I here?
A. There is no particular reason that you are here for a time, so enjoy it as best you can.

Q. Where am I going?
A. When you die you will no longer exist, except in the minds of those who knew you while you lived.

On a break between semesters, I went home to Canada and tried to discuss this with my father, a firm believer in the first system of thought. We didn't get very far before he stopped me with this challenge, "Show me something better than what I believe and I'll be glad to accept it."

As I mentally compared the two systems, I really couldn't think of anything that my father would find "better" about the second system. So, that was the end of that discussion.

After all, if you were free to choose between them, which would you rather believe?

*Ironically, I first learned about the second system at a school which is a bastion in defense of the first system.