Risk and Reward
May 29, 2007

Tomorrow as I am flying across the country, I shall (at least for a bit) be playing Etrian Odyssey.

I find playing an old-school dungeon crawler at 34,000 feet amusingly ironic.

If you filed off the serial numbers and re-worked the graphics and (minimal) story a bit, you could call this the Bard's Tale IV. It's hard, it's tricky, and it Wants You To Die. It doesn't actually cheat, or at least I haven't seen it cheat so far. But be careful opening doors if you're not ready for what's on the other side.

What's almost as intriguing as the game is the reaction it has received online.

You can't have reward without risk. It's almost a law of economics, and it is incorporated into our psychology at a deep level. Witness gambling or extreme sports, and those are just two of the behaviors you might think of where almost the entire joy is in the taking of the risk itself.

(Warning, this rambles.)

Read the rest...

May 28, 2007


(OK, as a bone to my non-programming readers, consider the natural evolution of pet pictures on the web. It actually seems to have a consistent, emergent grammar. It doesn't meet the technical requirements of a Pidgin language, but it bears a certain resemblance; call it a faked pidgin. Gaim (open source IM client) recently renamed itself to Pidgin, and despite using a pigeon as a logo, pidgin is where the name came from. IM servers are what I will be working on in my new job starting Wednesday. That stream of conciousness ought to keep you busy clickin' some links even if you don't care about me being in your loop and incrementing your variables.)

May 27, 2007

Dear automotive marketing firms: Please stop "introducing" cars. It's so cliché I'm starting to twitch every time I hear it. (Hooray TiVo!)

Government Myth #8: Democracy Means I Always Get My Way
May 25, 2007

As soon as I title this myth, it's obvious what's wrong with it.

Yet a good two out of three times on the Internet, when I see someone complain that the US is not a democracy, they're not making the pedantic point that it's actually a Republic. They're actually saying "it's not a democracy", and the proof they hold up is that the US isn't doing something that they happen to want, or is doing something they don't want. Invariably, their position has much less than 50% support.

Probably the most common "proof" of the non-Democratic nature of the US is the ongoing war in Iraq. But even now, with the low approval rating of all concerned, the War continues to have 30-45% support among the people. (It depends on how you ask the question; there's a continuum of opinion and I don't have enough info to guess the exact distribution.) One of the effects of being a "Republic" and not a "Democracy" is that even 30% support can be enough, though that is pretty fragile, as you can see in the news as I write this.

While I always see this in the context of things not being "Democratic", it's worth pointing out that there is no system on Earth where you always get your way. Even supreme dictators find themselves constrained by politics, not to mention the laws of physics, economics, and mortality (not a typo for "morality"). Complaining that the US isn't a Democracy because it isn't doing something economically questionable or impossible that the complainer wants is a popular one, too. Dubious programs for ending poverty or unbelievably permissive total free health-care programs are popular issues.

If I had to guess at the root cause of this myth, I'd guess it's because ideologies tend to clump together geographically and electronically on the Internet. It's easy in many communities to run through entire days or weeks without engaging with anybody who disagrees with you on some issue. (Blog posts pointing at the allegedly-stupid bad guys that tell you in advance what opinion to have don't count as "engaging".) This creates the perception of 100% support, and obviously, if a policy has 100% support and yet isn't enacted, it's not a "democracy". 100% in your community is of course quite different than 100% in the country.

This is a late entry to the Government Myths series.

Programming is not Uniquely Unique
May 23, 2007

I want to be clear about my purpose here. My point is not to claim that the uniqueness of programming is itself unique. Every interesting field is unique in its own special way. For each field, it is helpful to understand why it is unique if you wish to truly excel, or you may bring inappropriate concepts from other domains in, or export inappropriate programming concepts to other domains. I say that programming has several unique aspects and that these aspects are worth thinking about, but this does not mean that programming is privileged somehow.

In fact, that would be a very bad attitude to have since the very purpose of a professional programmer is to serve somebody else, and service workers don't succeed with a holier-than-thou attitude.

This chapter is intended both to combat the perception I have seen that programming is somehow equivalent to some other task, prompting bad suggestions and in the worst cases bad decisions, and to explicitly call out the things that are special about programming to encourage people to think clearly about them. None of this takes away from the specialness or uniqueness of anything else.

There is a delicate balance to be had here. There are powerful underlying similarities shared by many disciplines, but everything is also unique. Ideal skill development can only be had both truths are correctly balanced, when you learn how to correctly leverage your past experiences while at the same time seeing how the new task is different.

(This work is of course about programming because a programmer is what I am. I am not qualified to write Baseball Wisdom or Accounting Wisdom, presuming I'm even qualified to write Programming Wisdom. In a way, nobody ever really is, but it's better that somebody try.)

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