Metaphysical absence

Lately, the star blogs we usually visit – mostly political/cultural ones – have been seriously mired in the dog days. CT has taken to two irritating habits. One is bullying Ward Churchill, who owes his entire leftist celebrity to the rabidity of the right and who has therefore been taken as a token target by the soft left – condemn this man and you are “serious” – even though, really, our only stake here is to express our distaste for lynch mobs. The second CT habit is responding in outrage to the Instaborg. Here, the who cares widens into an abyss of yawns – the number of discursive objects greater than that of being outraged by the Instaborg is surely one of those Greek letter constants that signifies the number of molecules in the universe times the number of possible moves a player could make in a chess game.

Then there is the outbreak of demystifying some faux journalist/GOP activist who operated as a ringer in the White House press corps – a funny idea in itself. A ringer among that collection of saps and duds? Haven’t they plentifully demonstrated the ability to self-ring over the past four years? Who can forget the fake press conference in which Bush, with a frat boy arrogance, “slipped” by saying that the questions were fixed in advance? Surely some GOP operative is putting icing on a sugar cube.

As for the newspapers – they have struck us as rather uninteresting lately, too. We expected the Narrative to start up about Iraq. It hasn’t, partly because the Narrative is so far from reality that even the Washington Post, which has always taken a Pravda like tone of shrill approval to any adventure the White House sees fit to throw lives away on, has had a hard time fitting a jingo attitude of approval to the coming Islamic state. It is rather like forking into a slice of chocolate cake and striking a bone. The etiquette book doesn’t have an entry for such moments. The new conservative mantra – that we should be pleased as punch to have started a civil war in Iraq – is a little too raw, as yet, for the WP editorial board – the search for a less intrusively honest vocabulary is ongoing.

So – is LI just going through a Mallarme moment (La chair est triste, hélas ! et j’ai lu tous les livres.)? Perhaps. Still, we think that there truly is something flat in the atmosphere right now.

Turn instead to an article by Paul De Palma entitled “why you can’t understand your computer” in the Winter American Scholar.

The first two grafs tell you: this is going to be a good essay. We like that assured feeling, the being grabbed and held, even if it isn't by the trembling hand of the Ancient Mariner but by the Old Scout in the bar, the veteran of business wars.

“On a bright winter morning in Philadelphia, in 1986, my downtown office is bathed in sunlight. I am the lead programmer for a software system that my firm intends to sell to the largest companies in the country, but like so many systems, mine will never make it to market. This will not surprise me. If the chief architect of the office tower on whose twenty-sixth floor I am sitting designed his structure with the seat-of-the-pants cleverness that I am using to design my system, prudence would advise that I pack my business-issue briefcase, put on my business-issue overcoat, say good-bye to all that sunlight, and head for the front door before the building crumbles like a Turkish high-rise in an earthquake.

But I am not prudent; nor am I paid to be. Just the opposite. My body, on automatic pilot, deflects nearly all external stimuli. I can carry on a rudimentary conversation, but my mind is somewhere else altogether. In a book-length profile of Ted Taylor, a nuclear-weapons designer, that John McPhee wrote for The New Yorker, Dr. Taylor's wife tells McPhee a wonderful story about her husband. Mrs. Taylor's sister visits for the weekend. Taylor dines with her, passes her in the hall, converses. He asks his wife on Monday morning--her sister having left the day before--when she expects her sister to arrive. Mrs. Taylor calls this state "metaphysical absence." You don't have to build sophisticated weaponry to experience it. When my daughter was younger, she used to mimic an old John Prine song. "Oh my stars," she sang, "Daddy's gone to Mars." As you will see, we workaday programmers have more in common with weapons designers than mere metaphysical absence.”


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So far, so good. Since we recently wrestled with an MSoftquake – anybody with a PC is living on a fault line composed entirely of cheap, sloppy coding brought to you by Bill Gates company, and our Windows was briefly destroyed by a minor rumble a few weeks ago -- we are vitally interested in de Palma’s topic. Plus, the literature of the programmer is growing, and there are some pretty good things in it: Mark Costello’s “If” of a few years back, and Ellen Ullman’s The Bug (anything by Ellen Ullman) are two that we particularly like to press on people.

De Palma quotes an IBM study that goes to the heart of his subject:

“People often claim that one of every three large-scale software systems gets canceled midproject. Of those that do make it out the door, three-quarters are never implemented: some do not work as intended; others are just shelved. Matters grow even more serious with large systems whose functions spread over several computers--the very systems that advances in networking technology have made possible in the past decade. A few years ago, an IBM consulting group determined that of twenty-four companies surveyed, 55 percent built systems that were over budget; 68 percent built systems that were behind schedule; and 88 percent of the completed systems had to be redesigned. Try to imagine the same kind of gloomy numbers for civil engineering: three-quarters of all bridges carrying loads below specification; almost nine of ten sewage treatment plants, once completed, in need of redesign; one-third of highway projects canceled because technical problems have grown beyond the capacity of engineers to solve them. Silly? Yes. Programming has miles to go before it earns the title "software engineering."

But are we going to give away De Palma’s explanation for these depressing stats? No. This is one of those pointer posts. Get the American Scholar. We like the journal in spite of the fact that the one review we did for them was, apparently, so despised by the current editor that we have a snowball’s chance in hell of writing for her again. So it goes.