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December 2009

Letters to the editor, December 2009

This a traditional letter column. You are encouraged to write a letter of comment on anything that you find worthy of comment. It will (may) be published in this column along with my reply. As editor I reserve the right to delete material; however I will not alter the undeleted material. E-mail to me that solely references the contents of this site will be assumed to be publishable mail. All other e-mail is assumed to be private. And, of course, anything marked not for publication is not for publication. Oh yes, letters of appreciation for the scholarly resources provided by this site will be handled very discreetly. This page contains the correspondence for December 2009.

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From: Suford
Date: 18 November 2009

Well, it is certainly more likely that an evolutionary step will occur because of a change in side effects as larger changes are harder to get advantage of in one genetic change. Other changes will accumulate in slightly better something or other eventually adding to a change in quality. Who knows what changes we may already have somewhere in our biome just waiting for the right minor change in brain function or neural conductivity or efficiency in some chemical reaction or timing? (Obviously the pheromone made the lobsters more successful in mating or there would have been little point…I believe that was covered in the experiments, too.) Does that make all the odd stuff human brains do a series of side effects? I wouldn’t be surprised.

One of the things that makes biology frustrating for people with computer programming backgrounds is that life regularly does things in hackish ways that we learned not to do as programmers. Frex there is the story of Mel who incremented a counter until it overflowed in the op code, changing it into a goto to location zero. No loop termination test needed, none provided. Biological systems do that sort of thing all of the time.
Then there is do good vs be good. I will start be stating that I gave up on Christian definitions quite a while ago–besides the fact that “being good” got mixed up in predestination and non-demonstrables like faith and accepting Christ, &c.; So I would just start over with doing good and forget about what being good means. Doing good is a hard enough problem without the metaphysics of “being good” anyhow. My own goals are much more in the direction of doing good with some other stuff thrown in like having fun and genetic successors.
You may well give up on the Christian definitions, but where are you going to get your definitions instead? What, after all, is good and why should we care? Is it like pornography? You can’t define it but you know it when you see it? Or is it like Mammy Yokum’s, Good is better than Evil because it is nicer. Seemingly, people have different notions about good and evil, and about what is fair and unfair.
On the choice between making better people or making the system better, I come down square on making the system better. Part of this is that I think that the nature of people is not easy to change (besides the problem of figuring out if a change is for the better) but that if the system is better people will at least not be acting out of fear or hate or prejudice and if the system supports people doing okay by being fair and honest, then they probably will be. There is actually evidence that most people want to be fair and honest (most appears to be at least 9 out of 10 and maybe even more than 99 out of 100 depending on how stringently you measure ‘honest and fair’). After all, how many really dishonest people do we know? How many who are seriously unfair? Hmm. Unfair may be easier to find than dishonest but fairness usually matters more with power. There is an interesting set of studies there…
I’m inclined to agree with you, but, after all, I am American too. We Americans are obsessed with reform and fiddling with the system. Reform is the American vice, although obesity is growing fast.
If the rules of the system force people to cheat to get enough to eat and to get reasonable living conditions, people will work out a new morality of how much and what kind of cheating is okay and pretty much do that. The Russian Communist system and the Chinese Communist system are interesting examples in whether such a system can evolve or must suffer a discontinuity. The experiment continues.

Your observation that any systemic change requires actions that are seldom good in themselves illustrates the difficulty in keeping on course when trying to cause a change for the better. The skill set tends to take one off course. There is also the difficuty of being right about the change you want to make being a change that really is for the better–and we have many examples of changes at least SOME thought would be for the better but which surely were not from the Russian Revolution to support for unwed mothers; the devil was in the details (and should we even count the Nazi Party? Did it really begin as crackpot idealism or was it a scam from the start?) I sometimes wonder if the invention of farming was an improvement. I think the goal was a more reliable source of beer but it got out of hand.

Well, at least we have the clue that as soon as the movement becomes power for its own sake, it has wandered off the path. Even now we have a huge number of organizations that purport to be doing good–many of which actually are–yet they exist at least somewhat as bases for one or more public figures (or retired public figures) to make a living and continue to push their old agendas (and maybe keep from being more retired than they like). I even support a bunch.

One group I am really confident is on an unselfish path is The Southern Poverty Law Center. They are against hate. Amnesty International is also comparatively unambiguous. Then there are various collections of groups that do very similar and overlapping things. I try to support those that seem most effective. However, I early on decided that I was not cut out to be one of the employees of any of these groups, mostly a bunch of lawyers and social workers that I have trouble getting on the same wavelength with.

At one point I determined that the one good act I could personally do, that was the least likely to have side effects I didn’t like, was giving blood. I figured that even if I prolonged the life of a bad person, they had a possibility of deciding to do better and if they needed blood, they were likely to have a period of quiet to think. Other acts, like opening doors, picking up dropped objects, giving directions, and such I just count as what one ought to do.

There are more science-based groups, but they seem to spring from some brilliant science person who also had the people skills to build an effective group! Start out by being a brilliant scientist is a route I did try, but that did not really work out for me. I did manage to lead the Association for Women in Computing for a few years, but it was not my vision that they ever followed and the most effective thing I did was to recruit my successor! So this leaves me with the option of supporting groups I think are working in the right direction to do things I think will make things better. So there I am: if I am right, I am doing good but if I am wrong, I am not.

Well, that’s my solution to the problem and I have, as it were, put my money where my mouth is. What is your solution?

But I don’t have a solution. In fact I don’t have a problem. I have problems, but being good and doing good are not among them. This is not to say that I don’t do “good things”. I do, but I don’t have to set out to do good things. There is no end of people who try to persuade me to do what they consider to be good things. I am grateful to them; they quite save me the work of inventing good deeds myself.

Likewise, I have been told that I am a tolerably good person. I am willing to take the word of those who say so – I am too modest to make the claim myself., Some have told me that I am insufferably self-centered. Perhaps they are right, though I would prefer they not spread the word about. I dare say all of them are right in their way. It matters not; I am who I am and I do what I do.

I suppose this is an odd answer but I have no better at the moment. Ask me another day.

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From: Eugenia Harrison
Date: 15 December 2009
Subj: Harvard Square

Hello. I like your site. I have sampled Harvard Square since 1966 and regret to tell you it has declined further since you wrote your description. The Design Research glass cage is now empty. The chains have moved in–the Coop is now run by Barnes and Noble. Music has suffered most. Shoes are now sold at Briggs and Briggs, and the only record store remaining is Newbury Comics. Sheldon Cohen sold the Harvard kiosk news business to Hudson News. Mr. Bartley’s remains as does the Harvard Bookstore, but most of the quaint and curious stores have moved up to Porter Square. Brine sporting goods moved to Concord. No kitchen stores remain. I no longer shop for gifts this time of year; indeed, I hardly shop for anything nowadays in the Square.

Anyway, I like your site and enjoyed “The Face in the Mirror.”

You are obviously a woman of high intelligence and great character. I need no further evidence for this than “I like your site.” That’s very bad news about the square. I suppose it was inevitable. That which makes a location worthwhile – the quaint and curious – cannot survive in the environment too much success creates. When next in Cambridge I shall have to investigate Porter Square.

Thank you for the kind words about “The Face in the Mirror”. I like to think it was one of my better efforts.

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From: Anthony R. Lewis, PhD, FN
Date: 9 December 2009
Subj: Tales of the Old West

I think that you should write an alternate history story in which Montana became the American Israel. Maybe it could feature a religious war between Utah and Montana.
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From: Paul Morrison
Date: 16 November 2009
Subj: Data Flow and FBP

Very interesting! I assume you will be posting both my note and your answer – that would be great! Your web site being…? What is varinoma, or shouldn’t I ask?

I created, but I don’t use it as my main web site. Varinoma is a fictitious publishing company that publishes a long list of non-existent books. It does have a link on the main page to “Richard Harter’s World”. In turn this is not a domain; rather it is webspace currently maintained at Earthlink. The home page is In turn, this is an e-magazine that I have been publishing since 1996. It has an appalling variety of material or, as some might say, a variety of appalling material. Be that as it may, this month’s letter column has your note and my answer. You can see it at:

Now, aren’t you sorry you asked?

Incidentally, I am wrestling with what would be a good vehicle for discussions… I tried the wiki route, but, as you can see, the d**n thing is totally out of control, but there’s some great stuff buried in there… see, particularly and also some links in

What about blogs? They seem too time-dependent (chronological?) to me. Somebody else I have been corresponding with recently also asked the same question. I guess I am thinking of something more like a semantic net…

That’s a good question. I’ve noticed that there are blog formats that are particularly suitable for creating a series of technical articles. Here is an example of a clean format:

(we needn’t concern ourselves with the content. :-))

One general comment about the wiki is that the formatting is klutzy. Sorry about that, but you asked. It seems to me that the general structure that is wanted is a core of thought pieces that would be quotable. Let me think about this some more.

By the way, I sent out a general request for ideas about stuff that should added to my book – I will forward it to you.
I got your request. I’ve been working my way through the online version. There is a lot of meat there to digest. Here are a couple of thoughts

First of all, I feel there should be a explicit distinction between static flow structures and dynamic flow structures. In languages like Hermes, Erlang, Axum, and Go, processes (components) are created on the fly during execution. Now this means that you can’t describe the structure with a picture (visual programming) because the structure can be continually changing. OTOH in business programming etc you have a fixed flow structure that you are modeling and visual representation works. This seems to me to be a major bifurcation.

A second thought is that it would be useful to have more on the kinds of things that flow based programming is good for. From my perspective it seems particularly appropriate for constructing models of real world processes. Business models are an obvious application, but I see it as appropriate for modeling electronic systems, for meterological systems, for social structures, for economic systems, and, in general, for the modeling of processes that operate over time.

A third thought (my opinion) is that the process languages all share a common fault – they try to be both an imperative language and a flow based language. As a practical matter this works against adoption – in effect proponents have to sell two languages at once.

A fourth thought is that the flow based approach simplifies reusability. One can have a relatively small suite of information packet formats. Libraries of functions tend to have a large suite of varied calling sequences. Thus the flow based approach simplifies creating standardized interfaces.

Just some thoughts. You’ve said most of it in the book but I feel the case needs to be stronger.

I look forward to reading anything you care to send me! Speaking of beers, if you are ever in Toronto, we have a nice local here, with an outdoor area in summer – had many interesting conversations here!
Sounds good.
PS Is Hermes Rob Strom’s Hermes? I describe that a bit in my book. And thanks for your kind words, too!
Yeah, it’s Rob Strom’s Hermes. The post mortem is illuminating.

… continued on next rock …

Re your reference to a Hermes post mortem, I found this:
http://www.cs.ubc./local/reading/proceedings/spe91-95/spe/vol25/issue4/spe950wk.pdf – is this the one?

The “5 fatal flaws” they mention seem to be somewhat tied to that time – I am wondering if the IT environment has changed enough that some of its concepts (not necessarily that implementation) would be accepted now…

5 should hav 4. Mea culpa. I make it as five any way.

My view is that they are general issues applicable today. Thus

(1) High learning curve: In any technology perceived as new and different an intimidating learning curve is a major barrier unless the benefits are overwhelmingly obvious.

(2) Poor performance: Much less of a constraint today. However slow performance as in scripting languages is mostly acceptable in languages used in special circumstances. It is problematic in general purpose languages, which is what Hermes tried to be. In short, know your niche.

(3) Lack of interoperability: This is important for minor languages. Today C is the substrate linqua franca. If there is no smooth interface to C, the road is very rocky.

(4) Cumbersome. The original 4 points scattered this between (1) and (3). However the simple fact is that Hermes code was very wordy and somewhat cumbersome to write.

(5) Shortage of development tools: The critical factor here is debugging. If there aren’t coherent, reasonably mature methodologies for debugging that come with the package, they aren’t going to use it. It becomes too hard to fight both debugging and the learning curve.

Offhand it seems to me that these are recurring pragmatic issues.

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From: Lee R Piazza
Date: 23 November 2009
Subj: Whatever

Glad to hear it. You didn’t mention it. The Santa Cruz weather is exactly the same as last time – 71F and surf’s up.

Sigh. That’s only 71 degrees warmer than it is here. December is even more of a disaster than November was. I’ve been to Vegas to watch Deb’s nephews make money quickly laying steers on the ground. I’ve been to driver’s class. I’ve been driving people around. And I’ve been fighting a cold. LIfe can’t get any better.
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From: Anthony R. Lewis, PhD, FN
Date: November 16 2009
Subj: Antoher week

Antoher is a major character in the play “Typographic Error.”

I know that play. I had a bit prat in the Boardway production.
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From: Nanci Adams
Date: 28 November2009
Subj: Redneck Christmas Lights

hope it’s a deer & not Rudolph!

All I can say is look at the nose.
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From: Tim DeLaney
Date: 1 December 2009
Subj: Double take


I am a semi-frequent visitor and a fan. Today, I came back after a long hiatus because your name was mentioned on T.O., along with that of Paul J Gans. Lo and behold! Paul’s name was mentioned in a recent editorial.

Thank you for writing. It is always a pleasure to hear from people of surpassing intellect and taste, these qualities being signified by those magic words “I am … a fan.”
Next, I ran across one of my favorite linguistic oddities: “Time flies like an arrow; fruit flies like a banana.” I must be getting old and senile (Are these two synonymous?) because it had never occurred to me that “fruit flies like a banana” was also a Garden Path (TM) sentence. OK, but then ..
Sense can be found in everything that appears to be nonsense and vice versa – vice versa being pornographic poetry. You will have read one of my favorite efforts along this line, “Colorless green ideas sleep furiously” at
I ran across “Omphalos” (under Evolution, Creationism and Crackpots) and was astounded to see my name. Well, I’ve made quite a few posts to T.O., and perhaps I shouldn’t be too surprised. But here’s the source of my astonishment: Although I recognize my writing style (perhaps too dignified a term, but what the hell), I don’t remember ever posting this. Now I’m seriously entertaining the notion that “old” and “senile” truly are strongly associated. Did you actually reply to that post? Surely, I would remember (assuming non-senility) a reply by somebody as prestigious as Richard Harter!
Don’t feel bad – I have posted a lot of things that I don’t remember. Forgetting some of them required considerable effort.

The article may have been light hearted but it rests on a real issue. Let me put it this way: We live in an ever changing present. The future is contained within the present as potentialities. The past is contained within the present as traces of what was. The difficulty is that we do not actually know the past. All we have is a narrative about what we think the past was; neither the narrative nor the evidences for the narrative are fixed.

Anyway, keep it up. I am particularly in agreement with your comments on the current debate over national health care policy.
No doubt I am overly cynical, but too often the intent of reform is the reshaping of the order of things in a new and better shape whereas the effect is the addition of yet another metastisizing cancer.
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This page was last updated December 1, 2009.

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December 2009