Why you don’t get programming

The best description I’ve seen of programming is in Peter Welch’s1 memoir And Then I Thought I Was a Fish:

Programming requires the acceptance that you are entering meaningless symbols into a machine that’s going to spit out other meaningless symbols, and this can be hard to accept. It requires abandoning all hope of an answer for the existential “why?” in favor of shuffling boolean values ad infinitum. By no interpretation of the concept of understanding does a computer understand what you’re telling it or what it’s telling you.

Of course the symbols make perfect sense to the humans trained to use them. Otherwise you could not call them “symbols.”

But those symbols have no meaning to the computer. It is only dealing with the symbols in a predetermined manner specified by programmers and computer engineers.

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Image Credits: Wikimedia / Glenlarson

I don’t math good

My son is in this phase where he takes small numbers and turns them into giant ones. “Here, have two pancakes,” I say. “What about 10,000 pancakes?” he says. Sorry, kid, I don’t have enough flour. I have hopes he’ll grow out of it, but maybe not. Consider this nugget from Rand Paul:

For every Kentuckian that has enrolled in Obamacare, 40 have been dropped from their coverage.

Holy crap! That’s huge! That’s a disaster! That’s … mathematically impossible!

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It is not called a “museum of ideas.”

Donald Sterling gets banned for life by the NBA, and the usual suspects start hollerin’ about the First Amendment. This despite the fact that it’s a private membership organization making decisions about who they want to have as members.

When Brendan Eich was forced to voluntarily step down as CEO of Mozilla because of his political donations, John Scalzi observed:

I mean, isn’t this supposed to be how things work? Decisions made, a frank exchange of viewpoints by legitimately interested parties, choices selected with an eye toward the bottom line good of the company, and actions voluntarily taken by the person and people affected? With no governmental interference in any way? Is this not the very soul of laissez-faire capitalism?

I remember people were confused about freedom of speech way back when Vanilla Ice was a thing, and I am sure they were confused about it long before then. So I don’t think I’m going to set anyone straight on this. But I do have three observations.

First, it may be sad that Eich had to give up his position with Mozilla. But he was not clapped in irons and thrown in San Quentin. He can still work, he can still speak at conferences, and he can still donate money to anti-gay organizations if he likes. What he did was not illegal, it was just … frowned upon.

Second, many people far less well off than Eich or Sterling have lost their jobs because of things they’ve said. A while back some folks got booted from their jobs because they made a joke that offended an eavesdropper, and then the eavesdropper got fired for raising a stink about it. I can think of at least two bloggers who lost their jobs because of things they said on their weblogs. It really happens all the time. We just don’t often see the rich and/or powerful paying a price.

Third, I still remember the Dixie Chicks.

In general, I think people ought to be more tolerant of other people’s viewpoints. People do need an opportunity to change their minds and evolve, and I don’t like it when people are intimidated into silence by twitter-mobs. But that doesn’t mean we need to tolerate assholes, or that we shouldn’t speak up when we find one.