Chesterton's Fence

Posted on Fri, Apr 2 2021 in Bob's Journal • Tagged with software

There is a guiding principle of second-order thinking explained by G. K. Chesterton in his book The Thing.

There exists in such a case a certain institution or law; let us say, for the sake of simplicity, a fence or gate erected across a road. The more modern type of reformer goes gaily up to it and says, “I don’t see the use of this; let us clear it away.” To which the more intelligent type of reformer will do well to answer: “If you don’t see the use of it, I certainly won’t let you clear it away. Go away and think. Then, when you can come back and tell me that you do see the use of it, I may allow you to destroy it.”

While Chesterton was thinking of social structures, this is a good principle in many areas, including computer software. Many of us in the early days of our programming careers (because of course, we've all learned our lesson and never fall for this anymore) come across a line of clearly useless code. Its removal would improve readability and have no negative impact, and so it is discarded. Only later did we discover that that piece of code was instrumental in preventing some error we hadn't even realized was possible.

After a few such encounters, a programmer tends to become superstitious about such sections of code. If you don't have the time to understand it deeply (and in the modern business world, who does?), you just leave it alone and hope for the best. To return to the fence analogy, we could remove the fence, but that would mean taking responsibility for understanding it. Maybe it really could be removed. Maybe a speed bump or warning sign would be more appropriate, but it's hard to say. Instead, the enterprising programmer leaves the fence in place, but jams a stick in the hinges to hold the gate open.

The drivers are delighted that they can now barrel down the street without having to stop and open the fence, until that fateful day when the stick breaks or wiggles loose and the fence slams shut in front of a car traveling at fifty miles per hour.

The next programmer comes along to investigate the wreck and he isn't looking at the fence anymore. Now, he wants to understand the stick. After considering it a while, he decides he needs a stronger stick, or one that's differently shaped. Or perhaps he just needs to use some glue to hold the stick in place better. When that fails, more modifications are made to the stick, and eventually modifications begin being made to those modifications.

Finally, someone gets sick of this mess with the pile of twenty sticks held together with twine, mud, and glue, and reroutes the traffic along a mud path alongside the road. Of course, this path is more treacherous and we need a way to make traffic stop and consider the road ahead of them carefully. So a fence is added.

Christmas Songs

Posted on Thu, Dec 10 2020 in Miranda Rants

Hi everyone! I know, you think I forgot about you, my loyal audience, but I've been super busy taking care of the parents. You wouldn't believe how much trouble they can get into, but I can't go into that right now, because I have something really important to tell you.

Did you know they play Christmas music on the radio? I thought they might, and so I've been looking for it since March, but didn't have much luck tracking it down. Then, on November 1st, I finally found it. A station playing Christmas music. It was great. I played it all day long. And the next day. And they just kept playing Christmas songs. All day long, every day.

And guess what?!? Then I found another station that plays Christmas music all day long. So now when I get tired of one station I can just switch to the other. It is so wonderful that I turn it up as loud as I can so I can hear it anywhere in the house. I love Christmas!

The Great Race

Posted on Mon, Jul 13 2020 in Bob's Journal

Recently I had the chance to spend some time with my brother and his family at a nice house with a creek running nearby. Soon the kids and adults were splashing around in the water. Someone, possibly my brother, suggested to the kids that they have a boat race. They would pick a boat and float it down the stream, and see which one reached the finish line first. I stood downstream to catch the boats before they drifted away to the sea.

Having no actual boats, it was up to each child to select their water craft. Miranda selected a long grass-like blade from a plant, which she was quite confident would be the fastest boat. Her oldest cousin, Eva, selected a leaf. After some consideration, she connected it to another leaf with a stick. Upon further review, she removed the stick and returned to her single-leaf design. Eva's younger sister, Mya, selected a charred piece of wood from the fire pit. Jay, the youngest and only boy, selected a rock.

His dad, a teacher, laughed, and pointed out to Jay that his rock would not float. Jay pondered this for a moment before agreeing that it would be better to switch boats. He chose a different rock.

The charred wood won.

Supplication and Demand

Posted on Mon, Jun 22 2020 in Essays and Stories

"What do you reckon is the bandwidth of the Almighty?" Jonesy asked as he hung his lanky frame through my office doorway. I had been up all night going over the latest report from accounting, but he looked as though he'd had even less sleep. Impressively dark circles hung around eyes that were shining like I'd never seen.

"What?" I asked, startled by the sudden interruption.

"The Almighty? You think we could..." He trailed off. "It'll be easier if I just show ya," he said. "I have some charts pulled up in the conference room. This is gonna be huge, Jimbo!"

"It had better be," I said, tossing a stack of papers onto my desk. "The most recent numbers don't paint a pretty picture." I grudgingly hoisted myself from my chair and followed him down the hallway to our small windowless conference room. Projected on the white wall I saw the same numbers I'd poured over the night before: a flat, faltering line meandering lazily across the months.

"These are our numbers for the past thirty-six months," Jonesy began. I guess he could tell by my expression that I was already painfully aware of that fact, because he quickly clicked the mouse and a second line appeared, slowly but steadily trending upwards. "These are the number for Cullinghams over the same period."

"Where did you get those?" I asked

"Well, ya see, I met this little chap at Jacob's middle school play back in May. Turns out his mother is old man Cullingham's secretary. So I gave him a USB drive and twenty buck and told him to copy all the files on his mommy's computer."

"Do you have any idea how illegal that is?"

"Do you want to know what I found out, or not?"

I had to admit I was curious.

"So, most if it was worthless, but I found some internal quarterly reports that allowed me to graph their growth for the past three years. Basically, it coincides with what we expected."

"So you risked getting us sued and shut down to find absolutely nothing?"

"I ain't finished yet. You know I don't give up that easily," he said. "So, I emailed down to their accounting department and asked for the complete database of transactions, to see if there was anything interesting there."

"And they just said, 'Sure, here you go?'"

"Well, I used his secretary's email address."

"How'd you do that?"

"You remember the USB drive I gave to her..."

"You know what, on second thought, I'd like to keep some plausible deniability. What did you find?"

Jonesy clicked the mouse and a third line appeared on the screen, roughly tracking the previous line, but with noticeable spikes and jumps.

"Now a lot of this here is just noise. Payroll, rent, contracts they've had for years. So I went through and scrubbed out any recurring events, to get a feel for the real picture." A new line appeared, offset a bit from the others, but with some noticeable small bumps. "You can see there's a bit of a pattern. Let me zoom in here a bit, so you can see it better"

Sure enough, a heartbeat pattern appeared. "Now I went through and checked, and every Friday a new revenue bump starts. Fridays! I thought that can't be right, but I went over it again and the signal is there, regular and repeating. So regular, in fact, that I was able to map the standard deviation from a rolling window." Yet another line appeared, this time closely hugging the zero line, with only an occasional jump or dip.

"So, I pulled up old man Cullingham's calendar to see what he's being doing. Turns out, every Friday at 10 AM sharp, the old boy sets aside ninety minutes to go down to St. Paul's church and spend some one-on-one time with the Good Lord Himself."

"You're telling me you think God is helping Cullingham?"

"You're right to be skeptical, Jimbo. I didn't think that made no sense neither. I reckoned it was some sort of mental boost he got. You know, getting alone with his thoughts for a bit, calming his soul, that whole thing."

"So, I …

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Posted on Fri, Mar 13 2020 in Essays and Stories

It's now the seventh week of the COVID-19 outbreak. Electricity has been out for nearly a month, and I'm running low on ammunition and gun oil. The looting has slowed now that the virus has fully taken hold. Some joker set up a solar panel in a tree to play It's the End of the World on a loop all day long. I can only hope he died in agony shortly thereafter. I've considered cutting down the tree, but don't want to waste the battery for my chainsaw in case the zombies come back. I'd ask you to tell my family I love them, but I know none of us will survive this. If only I'd hoarded more toilet paper.

Game Hints

Posted on Thu, Feb 27 2020 in Miranda Rants

Mommy and Daddy gave me a game system in my room. It only has a few buttons, and the only display is a number and a few lights. They're too cheap to get me a really good game system, but I make due with what I have.

The point of this game is to make the number go a high as possible. Mom and Daddy can only get a score of sixty-eight, sometimes seventy. I can do much better. Obviously.

What I figured out is that if you push the button on the right until the light next to "High" stays on, you can get a much higher score. But I bet most you out there knew that. No, I'm here to tell you how to truly get the highest possible score.

I discovered and honed this exploit myself, so if you use it in a video, please leave a link back to this explanation. The key is to think outside the box, literally. The buttons on the game only get you so far. I've tried offering the game toys and books, but those don't seem to have a significant impact on the score. What does work, however, is to take your blanket and put it over and around the game.

You might be tempted to look at the number from time to time, but for the best possible score, leave the blanket in place and don't move it. If the air starts to smell funny, that means it's working. The only slight issue with this exploit is that if Daddy finds out he'll take away your game. My parents get so petty when I beat their score.


Posted on Sat, Feb 15 2020 in Bob's Journal

Our congregation has started out the new year with a series about the parables in the book of Luke. This is right up my alley, and last Sunday we tackled the parable of the Good Samaritan. Since we're supposed to sit quietly and not ask questions, I have a lot of pent up ideas. Fortunately, I have a website.

For those of you who don't trust me, you can find the full text in Luke 10:25-37, but I'm going to rehash it here. An expert in the law asked Jesus "What must I do to inherit eternal life?" This may be the earliest recorded instance of someone asking this question of a Rabbi, but it became very popular as Jewish eschatology advanced in the following centuries. Jesus, being a proper Rabbi, returned the question to the expert, treating the expert as his student. The man was not deterred and answered "Love the Lord with all your heart and your neighbor as yourself." Jesus praised the scholar, but the scholar was only coming to his real point. "And who is my neighbor?" he asked Jesus.

This question might seem strange to us, but to the culture of Jesus's time it was a big deal. They were trying to maintain their cultural identity and their unique relationship with God. To do that, you needed to associate only with like-minded people, and Jesus seemed to have a problem with that. He wasn't sticking to the devout Jews only, but had picked up a following of sinners and tax-collectors, and there was some concern that he might even have dealings with less savory characters like Samaritans or Gentiles.

So Jesus tells a story. "A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho (probably to avoid going through Samaria), when he was attacked and robbed. His body was left broken and barely clinging to life along the road when a priest, on his way to the temple, passed by. He saw this man and his plight, and quickly crossed to the other side of the road and continued to Jerusalem. Soon, a Levite, also heading for his duties at the temple, came along. He likewise saw the suffering man and crossed the road to avoid him. Finally, a despised Samaritan came up the road. He saw the beaten man and had compassion. He tended the man's wounds and carried him to safety. "Who was a neighbor here?" asked Jesus.

The expert in the law could only reply "The one who had mercy on him."

In the sermon last Sunday we heard about the importance of caring for those in need. We even heard about the need to avoid racism and xenophobia, important messages at times such as these. Yet I cannot believe that was the point of the story Jesus told. I just think the real meaning is something we have a little trouble talking about in Christian circles.

The story is not, as we might hope, about a Jew reaching out to help a struggling outsider. This is a story about the Kingdom of God and how to live out God's will, and like most of Jesus's parables the problem is religion. All Jews knew they should love their neighbor, and this man who was beaten and left for dead was certainly a neighbor in need. The problem was that there were other laws that superseded helping someone in need. In particular, people doing holy jobs, such as this priest and Levite, needed to maintain their purity to do their jobs. Touching a potentially dead body or getting contaminated by blood would rendered them unfit for service. In order to maintain the temple this suffering man had to be left to die. It was only the Samaritan, with no theological statement to make, who could actually get down and help the wounded.

The message to the expert in the law, and to us, is to stop worrying about keeping up our holiness and get down into the trenches with those who are in need. Jesus was not opposing God by reaching out to the unclean of his society. He was doing his will.

I think the relevance of this message is hard to …

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The Cat of Unintended Consequences

Posted on Thu, Oct 17 2019 in Bob's Journal

My parents live back a series of gravel roads in the lower foothills of the Appalachian mountain range. Their next door neighbor is a country song come to life. He lives in a trailer. His wife left him. His dog died.

To make matters worse, his son and his son's wife had been living in his trailer. He started building a barn-like structure behind the trailer for them to live in once their baby was born, but after the birth of their child and associated domestic squabbles, both left, leaving behind a half-completed structure and five cats.

Not being a man familiar with the concept of house cats, he has done the best he could, setting out boxes with straw in them, and placing food out for them regularly. However, the cats are left, as cats often are, to wander freely wherever their feline desires lead.

The other weekend we went to visit my parents, and while we were playing around their house, Miranda discovered the joys of perspective. She would run near and far, yelling to ask us if she looked bigger or smaller from each new place.

This commotion attracted the attention of one of the cats, who crossed the field between the houses and began to rub against Miranda's legs. Now Miranda loves cats, and to have a cat that actually wanted to play with her was a dream come true. She and the cat spent the afternoon playing hide-and-seek around my parent's house. She even got down on the ground to be more like the cat. My dad found some old dog treats in his house (a story for another day) and let Miranda give them to the cat. Miranda had the time of her life.

But, all good things must come to an end, and eventually it was dinner time. The cat was left to return to its wanderings, and Kelly made sure Miranda washed her hands extra well.

While we were eating, the cat found its way to the glass door by the kitchen table, and began meowing and clawing at the screen door. It wanted its new little human friend to come back out and play, but it was already late and we had to be up early the next morning, so the cat was left without its playmate.

The next morning I got up at six. I went to the kitchen to get a cup of water, and the cat jumped up outside the kitchen door. Finally, the humans were awake and its friend would come back soon, but it was not to be. As we were loading our car for a trip into Pittsburgh, the cat jumped into the driver seat, and had to chased out by Kelly. We left, hoping that the cat would realize that Miranda wasn't going to be around that day.

While we were away, the cat decided that it had found a new home, and bedded down under the steps to the kitchen door. My dad chase the cat out, and blocked off the space under the steps. When we returned late that night, the cat was sleeping under my dad's truck, and jumped into the back seat next to Miranda when I opened the door. I pulled the cat out, and we went inside.

Unsurprisingly, the cat was still outside the house the next morning. We went to church, and the cat was waiting for us when we returned, despite the weather having turned rainy. The cat was still there when we returned again late that evening.

The next morning it was time for us to head back home, and cat watched from under my dad's truck as we pulled away. That cat is still at my parent's house, pining for its little friend, over a week later.

Hi Friends!

Posted on Sat, Jul 27 2019 in Miranda Rants • Tagged with By Herself

can we come next week can we come see little maryn and you boys james if it;s not hot out when we come see you would you like to send me in the basement or outside?

Pleasing God

Posted on Thu, Jul 25 2019 in Bob's Journal

Since God is a father, maybe it would make his day to see his children playing nicely with the other kids, being patient, growing, learning, and happily spending time with him.