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The Northern Spy
March 2009

Thanatology--Alive and Well

Rick Sutcliffe

Reading O. Henry the other night

reminded the Spy once again how literary standards have changed since the turn of the previous century. O. Henry's fabulous short stories are filled with Biblical and other literary references, and employ a wide-ranging vocabulary that would be opaque to most readers under fifty today. Moreover, the denizens of these yarns--cowboys, shopgirls, indigents, petty miscreants, and members of the constabulary, were also his readers. A writer of his day could confidently address hoi polloi who nonetheless could be counted upon to be peripatetically literate.

Today's reading audience, such as it is, has a passing acquaintance with a plethora of technical terms and social buzzwords picked up in chat rooms and over other Internet virtual back fences, but these are for the most part pedestrian nouns and verbs, lacking the descriptive eloquence of a bygone literate era.

Today, a writer must use grade nine prose to have a hope of being read. Consider magazines. The glossy big-picture rags prosper, while erudite and more technical pubs such as the long-lasting but now late and lamented Dr. Dobbs perish unread, because there is are few left who can effectively read them. iSteve apparently agrees, reportedly declining to make an eBook reader because no one reads any more. The Spy adds that if they read it is for the vacuous escape of fantasy (science fiction seems dead too) or romance, not to have the mind engaged or the horizons expanded. Solomon may have been right that of the making of books there is no end, but of what quality, and to what end?

One could also argue that the paper publishing industry has priced itself out of business anyway, that eBooks are the future, and dead tree format is, well, deceased and overdue for burial. The Spy happens to agree with this assessment, but its import in the argument at hand is tangential.

There's far more to this phenomenon than the lack of, say, Biblical literacy, even the near exorcism from what passes as modern social intercourse (including in the neo-religious subculture) of its concepts--creation, stewardship, sin, sacrifice, propitiation, redemption, justification, righteousness, resurrection, service, faith, hope, love, and even the asking of questions about the very purpose of it all. There's also more here than a mere secular attenuation of vocabulary and concomitantly of thought processing capability.

Post-moderns have become fixated on the moment, the two-second sound byte, the all-but-subliminal ad, the ephemeral emotional high (perhaps drug-induced). It's about the graphic not the text, the virtual not the real, the phrase not the paragraph, the experience not the underlying reality, the emotional buzz not the logos, the second not the year. Forget analysis, depth, content, commitment and profundity. Speed, size, visuals, and the moment matter. Substance is so yesterday.

How else to explain what advertisers know too well--steak doesn't sell, sizzle does. How else but logic-defying emotion to explain the marketplace attachment to a a buggy and inherently inferior computer operating system? How else to explain the irrational behaviour that creates stock market and housing bubbles in defiance of reasonable analysis? How else to elucidate the apparent belief of supposed experts that money or information can spontaneously appear ex nihlio? That bad systems can be made better by computerizing them so they run faster? That governments throwing money at problems caused by greed will magically generate fiscally sound solutions? That continuing to trust in doing things the same way will eventually result in different outcomes? Why, when people know that alcohol, tobacco, and other drugs tax their intelligence, and gambling taxes their stupidity, do they continue to burn incense to both? What, me thimk? I kin bearly spel.

The universities are not helping. Driven by issues of cost, resource shortages, and student demands to hand over the piece of paper ever faster, many have gone to three year discipline-intense baccalaureate programs, moving away from the Liberal Arts as an effective means to begin the process of producing literate and educated citizens.

As a best case this is a mere pendulum swing overdue for a negative derivative. As a worst, the Fourth Civilization may founder on its citizens' inability to read, to argue, to understand, to think, to engage in more than the trivial and mundane reaction to the emotional moment. Make no mistake. Where literacy perishes, where informed conversation and debate on foundations fails, democracy inevitably yields to dictatorship of the ignorant by the ignorant. Too sweeping a big picture? Consider the small.

A case in point

and one that might be of more interest to the less philosophically inclined among the Spy's many readers, is the recent and rapid demise of computing science as an academic discipline. In most jurisdictions, CS enrollment reached a peak between 2002 and 2004, but has declined from there by fifty to ninety percent since. Universities that once had robust programs are down to a comparative handful of students, and the smaller institutions are either quietly closing their departments or transitioning resources to a less demanding or technical informatics entity. Tough economic times are ensuring that such departments will not survive to catch a next wave, should there be one.

One might ask whether anyone should care? Disciplines come and go. Does it matter? One might reply first and generally per the above that when academic discipline itself goes, society is in serious trouble. Second, one might answer specifically that technology companies relying on a steady stream of highly trained graduates had better care, because the supply is quickly becoming Elijah's Kerith Ravine, or Jonah's vine, with no rainmaker on the horizon. Who's going to write their code? Not script kiddies.

Again, it is important to discern whether this is a cyclical change or a paradigm shift. Most who declaim on the subject rely on the former explanation, supposing that when dot-com and other business busts are forgotten, the business cycle reverses, and companies again need trained graduates and offer bonuses to get them, supply and demand corrections will shepherd a flock of high school students back into the fold.

The Spy offers a tentative and half-hearted "maybe" to the Pollyanna hypothesis. It seems as likely to him that the cultural and social factors described above have permanently damaged the learning environment for the mathematical and technical education necessary to build a computer scientist from a neophyte. Even given the will and resources to do so, and neither are obviously in abundance, the supply might take as much as an entire twelve-year student generation to re-establish. It may never be. Some taps become frozen once turned off.

Indeed it seems to him that public schools are now so focused on creating the illusion of acceptance, social success, relevance and tolerance (whatever those slogans mean this week), and universal good feelings, that the mandate to teach content, whether in language, literature, mathematics, science, or elsewhere, has been intentionally deprecated, if not altogether obfuscated. The cause de jour is elevated to the pedestal, while curriculum substance is sacrificed before it on on the altar of social theory, without educators seeming to comprehend the irony that they thereby undermine the very society that created them the platform upon which they work toward its destruction.

From a students' point of view, why work for knowledge and understanding when minimal skills suffice for the nonce? For instance, a beginner can take a six month course in web design and score a job with a half decent income. Why spend four years getting a degree that has to include such subjects as philosophy, English literature, chemistry, communications, psychology, and business, when the starting wage isn't much better and you still have to train on the job?

Easy one to answer if anyone's listening. The pure web designer is a one-trick pony who will be out of work in a half decade when other skills become more demanded. On the other hand, the properly trained computing scientist is a software engineer, a multi-skilled communicator conversant with many disciplines and tools, a versatile problem solver writing code that matters, and who will always have a job (whatever the title), perhaps in part supervising the temporary IT boys and girls who do the grunge work that requires little understanding or intentionality.

But long term effort for postponed big-time career gratification isn't part of the twenty-first century lexicon any more than is, say, sanctification. Minimal effort and skills leading to immediate disposable income is, and today's attention spans don't go beyond the moment, the long term past month's end payday. Our society is not only becoming illiterate in its own history, language, literature, ethics, religion, and philosophy, but in mathematics and science as well (and is proud of the latter).

Doing Algebra homework in grade nine takes longer than a commercial. That automatically makes it both uncool and too hard. Why not play another video game, twitter some friends, or hang out on Facebook instead? Programming is labour intensive. Why not scarf a script or two and cobble up a hack that looks impressive, even if the code is neither human readable or understandable? Have you seen my new skis and car stereo? Dig the eye candy on my arm. Playing with toys and people is the new cool. Studying mathematics, physics, chemistry, engineering, and computing is as passˇ as reading philosophy (or even O. Henry).

The new disdain for the "hard" subjects isn't universal, of course. In fact the Spy's current calculus class boasts more mental horsepower and work ethic than he's seen gathered in any one classroom for lo these four decades. But supposing this isn't a blip is wishful thinking. It's also a far smaller class than the one he taught the previous generation in the same room twenty-five years ago, and moreover is populated by pre-med students going for the impressive GPA, having only a peripheral interest in mathematical ideas and almost none in those of computing as a discipline. Hey, give these few Horatios credit for tackling a bridge that's long and hard, but who's going to fix or create the medical and other high-tech for these putative professionals to do their jobs effectively and efficiently?

Society's stereotypes don't help either, particularly the one that paints computing scientists as all men, dull and impoverished souls spending dreary days isolated in a cubicle slinging impenetrable code, but lacking a life. What nonsense the human mind can believe when it suits. Is there a myth more wrong? In real life, they spend most of their time working with users, designers, marketers, each other, testers, then users again. They write code people can read and modify, not just that a machine can scan. They know enough about many industries and disciplines to adapt broad skills to the task at hand, are widely read and consummate communicators. If material success goes on your A-list, they are high earners with many perks. They wheel with the movers and the shakers big time. And yes, they probably sweep Augeas' stables in their spare time. Hockey bunnies might be well advised to try fishing in the software engineering pool. If it matters, so would go-getter men looking for a partner wife, for the field has many successful women practitioners.

Can attitudes and perceptions be turned around and computing science be re-invented? Not without a social and educational sea change that includes a return to hard work as an incentive rather than a bore, reading as an engagement of ideas rather than an escape from them, mathematics as a thing of beauty rather than a chore, computing science as inherently cool and important rather than the domain of uninteresting geeks, and a new appreciation that significantly worthwhile things (temporal or eternal) are hard work and worth it.

This won't happen by itself. Moreover, government intervention, as with the economy, is more likely to make things worse than better. For self-preservation, industry needs to come to bat on its own behalf. Companies like Apple, MS, HP, IBM, and a score of other heavy hitters need to use their mindshare clout to get involved with universities, do ProD and exchanges with faculty, assist in designing relevant curriculum, fund chairs, scholarships, and facilities, co-market the discipline, and restore the cool from the top down. Re-invigorated liberal arts universities may then be able to help the same corporations influence the grade school curriculum sufficiently to maintain the new supply chain. The pitiful efforts of some notwithstanding, marketing is what industry must do to function at all, but career marketing is also what universities cannot effectively accomplish. Town and gown need to get together on this one. Survival is at stake. Marketshare is the likely outcome for the participants, so it's worthwhile.

However, if industry collectively deems it unimportant to intervene and seek to change high school students' minds about mathematics, technical and scientific subjects, and computing science in particular, the Spy's mother's motto seems a propos: "You kids'll be the death of me yet."

Want to talk specifics on this one? Contact the Spy, Steve.

The health problems at MS

may not yet be terminal, but certainly have the industry abuzz. Turns out that many in the latest round of MS layoffees were mistakenly given overly-large severance packages. At first they were asked to return the excess, but wind of a PR disaster caused a reversal, along with new cheques quietly mailed to those who were correspondingly underpaid. Troubles computing simple arithmetic leave people wondering if the company can get anything right. One presumes the calculations were done on a W*nd*ws machine. Shoulda used a Mac. But the discussion above provokes a more fundamental question. How are they going to get those people back (or ones like them) when the need turns around? Mind you, the Spy doesn't think he envies anyone working at MS today. On the whole, he'd rather be in Philadelphia.

In late breaking news (which the Spy doesn't do as news, per se) comes word of the discovery of a problem in the .xls (old Excel) file format, creating a vulnerability that permits an attack. But really. How many people load documents from unknown or untested sources, especially into MS programs? We've been down this road before.

By contrast, remember when

your generic IT columnist hack could throw something into print by following her byline with "The beleagured Apple Computer Corp...." then speculating on when the company would pass on to the great computing graveyard in the bit bucket? Some still seem to be hoping the malaise will spread to Cupertino (to validate their anti-Mac stance?), but so far, iSteve's little company is motoring along doing relatively better than anyone else, even in his absence. No death watch there, though its hard to imagine more than one of Palm, RIM, and Motorola surviving as its competitors, and Dell doesn't look very healthy just now either. Again, chalk up marketshare increases for Apple even during the recession, with much larger gains afterward, when we say requiescat in pacem to many of the others.

Book of the Month

is "Guns Germs and Steel--The Fates of Human Societies" by Jared Diamond, 2003 edition from Norton.

To be sure this isn't a new work, having been first published in 1997. But when the Spy got it for Christmas, it was new to him. It was interesting to see in a Pulitzer winner similar thinking to that in his own book "The Fourth Civilization--Technology, Society, and Ethics", which had its genesis in the 1980s and early 1990s. The interplay and mutual feedback of available and adopted technology on the one hand, and the way a society develops over its history on the other is truly fascinating.

The Spy quibbles in a minor way with the awkward but apparently obligatory bows toward evolution, which add nothing to his argument. A major flaw is that GGS downplays the third leg--a society's beliefs, particularly concerning right and wrong. These do play a very significant role, and provide explanations where the author demurs or evades, for the historical and social differences between nations that apparently had essentially the same access to technology. Diamond dances around but doesn't explicitly acknowledge this issue with respect to China, then ignores it altogether when discussing other regions such as Northern Europe, where it also played a significant role in technology adoption and subsequent history. Still in all, an excellent read. Recommended.

Product of the month

is once more Literature and Latte's Fabulous book writing software Scrivener. How many software authors would post on their forum a soul-searching piece apologizing for the necessity of charging for the next major update because it will be so large and represents so much work, only to have the customers all reply "thatÕs OK, we understand. If fact, we underpaid in the first place."? More on this when those updates arrive, but the Spy is relying more on Scrivener for the really heavy writing lifting all the time. And, he is lifting once again, having written several new chapters in upcoming books for The Interregnum series. Wait for it.

Rick Sutcliffe, (a.k.a. The Northern Spy) is professor of Computing Science and Mathematics at Trinity Western University. He's written two textbooks and several novels, one named best ePublished SF novel for 2003. His columns have appeared in numerous magazines and newspapers, and he's a regular speaker at churches, schools, academic meetings, and conferences. He and his wife Joyce have lived in the Aldergrove/Bradner area of BC since 1972.

Want to discuss this and other Northern Spy columns? Surf on over to ArjayBB.com. Participate and you could win free web hosting from the WebNameHost.net subsidiary of Arjay Web Services. Rick Sutcliffe's fiction can be purchased in various eBook formats from Fictionwise, and in dead tree form from Bowker's Booksurge.


The Northern Spy Home Page: http://www.TheNorthernSpy.com

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The Spy's Shareware download site: http://downloads.thenorthernspy.com/

WebNameHost : http://www.WebNameHost.net

WebNameSource : http://www.WebNameSource.net

nameman : http://nameman.net

opundo : http://opundo.com

Sheaves Christian Resources : http://sheaves.org

Arjay Books: http://www.ArjayBooks.com

Booksurge: http://www.booksurge.com

Fictionwise: http://www.fictionwise.com

Scrivener: http://www.literatureandlatte.com/forum/viewtopic.php?f=1&t=5229

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Last Updated: 2009 02 25