Monthly Archives: July 2014

Ancient Metaphors

New nations often use comparisons and metaphors to build a more familiar and solid framework or ‘story’ using the past, especially to evoke visions of ‘glory days’. One example is the symbolism of early America harkening back to ancient Greece and Rome. The founding fathers often learned Greek, Latin, and much of the history of those cultures in their formative years. We can still see that influence today in the architecture of capital government buildings.

It should come as no surprise then, that the same thing happens with computers and the insatiable need for new descriptors and naming conventions. Much of this framework has sprouted up within the last few decades. That doesn’t leave enough time for growing familiarity organically. Past language and literature provide a rich crop ready for immediate harvesting.

Here are two examples:

Beowulf

This epic poem is one of the earliest known pieces of vernacular English literature. The story is about a brave hero who slays monsters in the north of Europe sometime around the 6th century. It is a tale of great strength, difficulties overcome, and distances traveled. The fame of this poem (especially the Old English version) has grown steadily over the last two centuries. It has even been reproduced in literature, popular media, and the cinema. This provides a ready-made metaphor that can be used by something new.

In 1994, Thomas Sterling and Donald Becker built a computer at a contractor to NASA. It was the prototype for what would become the “Beowulf Cluster” architecture. This type of machine uses modest, commodity, even oddly matched PCs connected together to form a single parallel computer. It has acquired a rather stoic and renegade reputation in academia, where it has been used to gain entrance to the exclusive supercomputer club ‘on-the-cheap’. The name is said to have been inspired by the line in the epic poem: “thirty men’s heft of grasp in the gripe of his hand”.

 

Inferno

Another old epic poem is Dante Alighieri’s “Divine Comedy”. It is an allegory for the soul’s travels and a map of 14th century spirituality. It is as well a multi-dimensional exploration of sensitive/rational human nature and psychology. Again, this work is one of the most studied pieces of literature in history. It is another ready-made treasure trove of meaning and metaphor.

The first of its three parts is “Inferno” (hell). It is graphic and horrifying. It is also strangely open-minded and thoughtful in that figures from classical literature are woven into a Christian narrative. These include Socrates, Plato, and indeed Virgil, Dante’s guide. Perhaps the most apt adjective for “Inferno” is: deep.

“Inferno” was recently used as a template for a “Software Inferno” describing “sinners against software” and their torments (1). By using this template, the author begins with an extensive toolbox of metaphors. Of course, neither “Software Inferno” nor this short blog post should be used as an authoritative representation of Dante. There are plenty of good academic sources for that.

Instead of Virgil, Bell uses the Countess of Lovelace as our guide. More commonly known as Ada Lovelace, she was a mathematician and the daughter of Lord Byron, and is widely considered as the world’s first computer programmer for her work with Charles Babbage. She leads our hapless traveler down through the Inferno, towards the Earth’s core, along a roughly cone-shaped set of circular slices:

inferno1

LEVEL DESCRIPTION
ANTE-
INFERNO
developers who couldn’t decide whether to use their skills for good or evil
denied entry to both Heaven and Hell, doomed to eternal obscurity
LIMBO developers born too early in history to know of proper software engineering
LUST developers who chose power and fame over commitment and responsibility
they gave their time to their computers instead of their family
they sought the spotlight, now they are blinded by its glare for eternity
GLUTTONY developers with human heads and pig bodies
IPO and stock bubbles had led them into wasteful, gross over-consumption
GREED IT types who gathered every crumb of profit for themselves, neglecting to
share anything with the people who got them there
condemned to a cacophony of falling pennies forever
ANGER realm of vitriol and negativity, with inhabitants broiled by burning paper,
the only water available had been poisoned just like their own workplaces
HERESY developers who knew of good software engineering, yet refused to use it
now chaotically and aimlessly going their own way for all time
VIOLENCE developers who had inflicted malware, viruses, and phishing on the public
this pestilence now torments them in turn, and even sleep offers no escape
 FRAUD techno-hucksters, advocates, evangelists who had foisted crappy software,
standards, and models upon desperate users who longed for guidance
they now dwelt in sewage for all time
TREACHERY those who had enabled and encouraged this fraud
doomed to keep shoveling this detritus forever

 

Although intended for an audience of computer developers, the macabre humour is widely understood thanks to the template provided by Dante.

Here are a few other names for computer technology borrowed from the past:
Apollo, Athena, Delphi, Hercules, Hermes, Homer, Hydra, Jason, Janus, Merlin, Midas, Oracle, Odyssey, Phoenix, Phoebe, Pegasus, Sisyphus, Tantalus, Troy, Ulysses, Valhalla, Valkyrie, Zeus
… and of course a whole host of planets, moons, stars, and constellations.

 

Greek Pattern 1

 

(1) Bell, A.E. (2014). The Software Inferno. Communications of the ACM, 57(1), 48-53.

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Morse Code Therapy

Some years ago I had speech therapy for dysarthria. The therapy consisted mainly of breathing and vocal exercises, aimed at strengthening and enhancing the many components of physiology involved in speech. It was very successful and the professionals who helped me have my eternal gratitude. Along the way, I noticed that I was having some small trouble with initiating speech. Although a thought would form quickly and lucently in my mind, actually triggering the vocal machinery to convert it into spoken words was sometimes problematic. It was like using a computer with a slow, damaged printer as the output device. Having been a computer designer and programmer for many years, it seemed to me that what was needed was a second output device, perhaps even a full two-way communications channel.

It’s certainly nothing new for people to compensate for one shortcoming by drawing upon one or more other senses or faculties. For example, there is Braille for the visually impaired and sign language for the hearing impaired. Even for someone without any such disability, learning a new language has profound benefits.

“To have another language is to possess a second soul”
Charlemagne

If I could open such a second communications channel, I could link my mind to the outside world while bypassing speaking altogether. This would allow me to work on both problems, the dysarthria and the imperfect speech initiation, as two processes in parallel (my inner geek again). However, another spoken language would not help here, and sign language required another person for learning and practice. Additionally, I wanted to keep it in the audio realm because working on neural audiology would reinforce my other therapy. I needed something that was audio-based, flexible enough for real communication, and simple enough to learn quickly, perhaps even with automated help.

Back in high school, I had belonged to the amateur radio club, mainly due to my interest in electronics. We built circuits, from oscillators to amplifiers to modest radio transmitters and receivers. The really keen members of the club (which did not include me) went so far as to obtain their amateur radio license. One of the requirements for this was proficiency in Morse code, that dih-dah-dih beeping from a bygone era sometimes featured in movie plots from the Old West to air and sea.  Aha – I had found the answer.

morse eureka

I assembled a few resources – a Morse code chart, an inexpensive key, an audio oscillator and speaker, and even a few text snippets encoded as Morse audio files from the Internet. Surprisingly, a bit of my old familiarity with Morse had stayed with me across the years. I keyed a few short phrases and found to my great joy that there was no delay or difficulty in initiating them. It also provided good fine motor control exercise for my right hand – another therapy which I needed but had not taken up as yet. I quickly improved at both writing and reading Morse, and soon began tapping out thoughts even if a pencil or fork was all I had available.

After a few weeks, I noticed a marked improvement in my speech initiation too, although I cannot say for sure whether this was the result of Morse practice or normal therapy and recovery. I like to think it was a combination of both. It could also be that any kind of learning, even just passive reading, is beneficial during this type of recovery.

The biggest surprise is the one that comes with any new comprehension of previously unknown words or language. Now, whenever I hear some innocuous Morse in the background of a film, I read it without even trying; usually it’s meaningful, but occasionally, it’s just gibberish !

 

Adaptive

 

“I see no reason why intelligence may not be transmitted instantaneously by electricity”
– Samuel Morse

 
We sometimes give ourselves too much credit for all that’s new and shiny. Staying with telegraphy, here’s a prediction of cell phones (in regards to Marconi’s “Syntonic Wireless Telegraphy”) from 1901!