Wednesday, June 14 2006
setting: Woodland Hills, California
I solved a small XSL problem before setting out on my Eastward journey this morning. What was interesting about the way my mind worked during this period was that it would soon all be explained by a book I would be reading on my flight.
I drove out to Pasadena to return Mike's Prelude and have him drive me to the Burbank airport. We stopped first for burritos at a ghetto establishment not far from his house. You could tell it was good because not only did it have a B health inspection, but a cop showed up and gave them some business. Cops know the 'hood and they've done a lot of experiments, so they know where the good burritos are. Well, technically, they know where an overweight gentleman should go for a south of the border experience that doesn't result in too many bathroom breaks.
On the television as we ate was some of that polyglot World Cup action, though in this case it was in Spanish. It looked like the kind of sport I could watch without relying on marijuana, medical or otherwise. It's not like I'm going to start watching it, though, unless (of course) Gretchen should get obsessed. At this point in my Los Angeles experience I was having very fond thoughts of my wife, and half of it wasn't even a consequence of her gender.
I found myself at the Burbank airport with more than two hours to kill. Somehow I found my way to a part of the terminal that only had a few people in it. It was a lawless place, where a heavily-tattooed skater punk lay sleeping while nearby a middle-aged man read a magazine while keeping an eye on his tiny Yorkshire Terrier. One of the stewardess made a huge fuss over the little dog and felt it appropriate to give the middle aged guy a big kiss on the cheek before walking away to never see him or the dog ever again.
There was a 120 VAC outlet in this area allowing me to plug in my laptop and write. Since I was obviously in a lawless place, it seemed appropriate to spike my fruit beverage with the last of that expensive fecal rum Mike had given me. Unfortunately, though, the only internet available had to be paid for and I have an ironclad rule about such things.
I talked for a long time with Gretchen on my cellphone and when that was over I went in search of reading material. When I saw Malcom Gladwell's book Blink for sale, I didn't really have to think to buy it. That idea was there in my mind in an instant, provided by something in my subconscious rooted in all the joy I've had reading Malcom Gladwell in the New Yorker. Has Malcom Gladwell ever written anything I couldn't read? I don't think so. His is exactly the kind of mind that appeals to me most: intelligently reaching across disciplines and never worrying for a moment about constituencies as he makes his points. Usually his points please liberals, but sometimes he throws a party for literate reactionaries, who have rewarded him for years by flavoring their office emails and watercooler banter with the unexamined phrase "tipping point." My politics are, I would like to think, Gladwellian. If the logic (as opposed to the fairy tales or the principles) takes you there, those are the things you should encapsulate with "belief brackets" so you can mentally form your next supposition in an object-oriented manner. Faith and ideals are for the those who are frightened by what they might think.
JetBlue gives you the freedom to change seats electronically to any that are still available, so I changed mine to the second from the back next to the window. The two guys next to me were the kind who liked to watch The Simpsons and South Park but whose reading was restricted to tabloid newspapers. For my part, I didn't watch any teevee at all during this flight, though I did pay attention to the map illustrating our flight's progress.
Reading Blink, I developed some nuances for a theory I'd developed about the difficulties I'd had working one-on-one with Luc both earlier today and over the past couple weeks. When he's there looking over my shoulder, Luc demands verbal explanations of everything I'm doing to the code and when I do something he disagrees with he is sure to lodge an immediate protest. For me working in such an environment, work immediately becomes a dangerous minefield to tip-toe across. I become shy with the code and the fertile swamp of my mind is drained. Even if I do get an idea for how next to proceed, the valuable short-term memory necessary to hold that thought in my left brain is immediately overwritten by the demands of my verbal system, which is continually being called upon by Luc for an explanation. But if Luc should leave the room for a five minute cigarette break, the clouds lift and I'm able to immediately solve the problem. Sometimes this requires a rapid series of wild experiments, but since I'm free to make them without any adverse comments I can conduct them all in seconds. According to Gladwell in Blink, being called upon to account for your actions is one of the surest ways to hobble the power of your intuitive mind. Not doing that, "commanding without controlling" is the recipe for success in several cases Gladwell cites, including a Vietnam-era commander who would go on to defeat the latest American computerized war technology in a war game conducted during the run-up to the Iraq War in 2002.
For me, though, there was a wrinkle in matching my interactive programming problems with the kind Gladwell describes. I'd assumed that programming problems are logical, inherently left-brain in nature, but Gladwell says that people's ability to solve logical problems is actually enhanced by being required to talk about them as they solve them. He says the opposite happens with insight problems, where talking serves only as a distraction. Perhaps this means my programming ability isn't coming out of the logical part of my brain at all, but is a product of the parts of my brain generating intuition and insight. This would account for my ability to happily listen to talk radio while I program (but not while I write). This would also mean that being required to talk hadn't actually been overwriting lines of code in my short term memory - since they were being held in a separate place. What I was experiencing was something Gladwell describes - the process of talking about programming problems was redirecting them to the verbal, non-insight part of my brain, a place that, for me at least, is unsuited to working with them.
There were few clouds to obscure my view of the ground for the daylight portion of the flight. I had a spectacular view of the Rockies, which from 35,000 feet had lost most of their normally-dramatic relief. What I saw instead was the dark lush greenness of the lower slopes stopping sharply at the mountains' contour-shaped timberlines, which girdled them and demarcated their upper slopes of tundra in the shapes of cartoon clouds. Even in mid-June these tundra areas were still hatched with banks of snow clinging to any available north slope. According to a site cataloging Colorado's glaciers, some of that snow is actually permanent (for the time being). It's good to look down at a part of the world and see that it's pretty much off the human grid. Occasional roads cross this remote countryside, but it doesn't look much different from the way it did six thousand years ago (when God created it all).
But just to the east, where the Great Plains begin, human activity was writ large, with grand structures one doesn't even see in cities. This was a land cut into a grid of dark green irrigation circles, massive agri-technical lilypads where the power of the sun is harnessed to turn fossil fuels into food so that 6,624,039,722 people can be sustained.
We ran into a line of thunderstorms somewhere over the plains of northeastern Colorado. Like everything else viewed from an airplane, they were absolutely still, like massive snow sculptures reaching nearly as high as our jet.
Further on, over central and eastern Nebraska, I was surprised to look down and see that the plain wasn't anywhere near as smooth as driving through it had led me to believe. A good third or even half of the countryside looked to be something approaching a badlands of low, steep-walled hills dissected by an extensive dendritic network of gullies, creeks, and small rivers. Crop farmers did what they could with the smooth land that wasn't of this type, but I had to assume the rest could only be used as range land.
Our jet continued over Chicago, Lake Michigan, the shallow Lake St. Clair of Ontario, and on to JFK.
A gypsy cab driver quoted me a ridiculous figure of $55 for a ride to Park Slope, Brooklyn. The conventional cab I took instead cost only $35, and that was with a good tip. I spent the night at Ray and Nancy's apartment on 7th Avenue. Ray was already in bed; he would have to get up at 5am for his schoolteacher gig, but Nancy stayed up and chatted with me a little before I went to sleep. It was good to be back in The East, if only just in Brooklyn.
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