My story?

My dad bought a TRS-80 Color Computer when I was about 5. I didn’t learn to code, but I saw a modem, heard binary being played on our cassette drive, and learned what a kilobyte is.

Later, I learned Logo and BASIC when I was 8 and 9. Just very simple toy programs. I learned more sophisticated programming in Pascal in high school. I did have books, and Dad got me started, but my schools’ programming classes get at least half the credit.

I started getting paid to work with computers while still in high school. I have made money ever since from working with computers. Even the years I taught ballroom dancing full-time, I wrote software part-time and brought in new revenue at the studio by setting up the website and our first online sales of gift certificates.

Today I live in Vienna and manage a significant software project at the International Atomic Energy Agency. As a job, it’s amazing, and the work is important. I’m writing this from a lovely apartment in Venice where I’m vacationing with my family while the team works without me.

It’s a good life, and I’m incredibly grateful. I wouldn’t be here if I didn’t know how to code.

But it’s not just about the good work you can do and the good life you can have. It’s fun. The things we can do now with software are amazing. A programmer in the 80s would be awed by what’s possible to coders now. It’s not just faster computers, it’s the fact that so much of the world is now online. Take something simple like flight bookings: they were computerized in the 80s (probably earlier), but in closed systems. Today, there are so many ways to tie that information together that travel booking sites abound, and the best ones are so good that we can be near-omniscient about our options. We think little of booking, from our couch, vacations with airlines and hotels we’ve never heard of.

Coders regularly produce apps which do things that weren’t possible a few years ago. My phone (an anachronistic name for the hyper-connected supercomputer I carry in my pocket) can augment my reality in countless ways, but the latest is holding it up and looking through it so that all the Italian writing is replaced with English.

What’s next? Imagine writing code to do this:

  • social apps that allow you to point your finger and write in the sky…where all your friends can see it through their glasses or contact lenses.
  • designing toys and selling them online where buyers click to print them out on their 3D printers
  • building the apps to do the designing I just mentioned or building the site to broker the transactions
  • writing code to control swarms of tiny flying/crawling robots to…well, frankly the first of these will all have military or intelligence applications which may appeal to some, but, after that, there will be plenty of environmental and scientific uses.

I wouldn’t stop for red lights

I’m posting this in a public place where my children will be able to see it forever.

If any of you are ever in the hospital, I’m not stopping for red lights.

I will be there as fast as humanly possible. I will drive, get on a plane, hail a cab (hansom, motorized, whatever), run, or whatever combination gets me to you. That’s true if you tell me I don’t need to come, if you tell me not to come, if I’m estranged from you, if your spouse doesn’t like me, if I have a big meeting the next day, if I’m in a big meeting right then, if I’m not a doctor and can’t fix anything, if your mother is already there, if I’m with your mother who is in a different hospital, if I’m sick and that means they won’t let me anywhere near you, if you’re in the hospital because you did something dumb, illegal, or embarrassing, if I was just there, if I was already planning on going in a few weeks, if I’m going to a wedding, if I’m in a wedding, if I’m at a funeral, if I don’t have any vacation time, if I have to borrow the money from a credit card or a friend. You get the idea.

I won’t wait for you to ask. If you are hurt, scared, or need help, I will be there.

Just sayin’


I had a hard time with Ayn Rand because I found myself enthusiastically agreeing with the first 90% of every sentence, but getting lost at “therefore, be a huge asshole to everyone.”

Randall Munroe, in mouse-over text on xkcd: Bookshelf

Couldn’t agree more.

Don’t Put Limits on God

It’s natural that our comprehension of God is limited by our imagination. That’s why scientists get rankled at the notion that science takes the wonder out of the world. An astronomer spends her life wrapping her mind around the biggest, and wondrous, concepts in the universe, a biologist spends his life wrapping his mind around the most intricate, and wondrous, details of the universe, and so on.

Often, scientists are agnostic. Their concept of the natural world is so amazing, the supernatural holds no attraction for them.

But many of these intellectual types do have spiritual, and even religious, beliefs. And, as a result of the mind-expanding concepts they deal with on a daily basis, their concept of God (by any name) is HUGE. They are mystified by the conflicts about keeping Christ in Christmas, keeping God in schools, whether or not God blesses America, who gets married, and whether our national pledge also affirms God. And that’s the American perspective. They are equally mystified that God cares whether men wear beards, women drive, or a religious figure is depicted in a picture.

From that perspective, God doesn’t have a country. He doesn’t even have a planet. Earth is a mote of dust in a mote of dust in a mote of dust in a mote of dust in God’s full creation. He doesn’t have a holiday…in fact the whole of human history is an eye-blink in His creation. God is present in school and Christmas and a foxhole because God is everywhere and everywhen to an unfathomable degree, not because of national policy.

You don’t have to be a scientist yourself to understand this, but anyone reading this has a responsibility to keep a proper sense of perspective. If you really realize the grandeur of His creation, you can’t help but glimpse that these conflicts are insignificant. Irrelevant. Petty. Needlessly fearful.

If you’re worried about whether God is in…anything…you’ve forgotten Who you’re talking about.

Still think God cares about who the US president is? ...what's printed on US currency? ...what's on the lawn at city hall?

Fun science fact about the sky

Fun science fact about the sky: did you know that it has several huge galaxies in it? I don’t mean the universe, everybody knows there are zillions (that’s a technical term) of galaxies out there.  I mean the sky. The Andromeda Galaxy, which is the one that stands in for our own galaxy in probably every “You are here” T-shirt and poster you’ve ever seen, covers 190′ x 60′ of sky. What does that mean? Well the moon covers about 30′ of sky, so…

Andromeda Galaxy with moon inset to show relative size

You just can’t see it like that because it’s too dim! But I still love mentally picturing it.

The scene at the end of The Empire Strikes Back is actually similar to our own sky – it’s just that the galaxy they’re looking at would also be too dim to show up like that, even from a spacecraft:

C-3PO, R2D2, Luke, and Leia looking out the window of a spacecraft at a galaxy at the end of The Empire Strikes Back.

Thinking Critically Means Not Being Publicly Foolish

Fake picture purporting to show rare alignment of planets with the pyramids of Giza

What’s wrong with this picture?

Seriously, you should be able to debunk this yourself, without looking anything up, right away, if you think about it.

If you know how and are willing to think critically.

Critical thinking happens after “Wow, neat,” and before “Let me Like/Share/Tweet this!”

What’s special about the picture? The planets are over the pyramids, but couldn’t you just figure out where to stand to do that almost any time? The apparent heights don’t match at all. The planets are in a nice line, but aren’t there a bunch of planets moving around the sky all the time? That’s probably not so rare. Internet hoaxes are common, so this is probably just that.

At this point, you could also check Snopes, but you know you probably needn’t bother. You haven’t proven anything yet, but you can tell the likelihood that the statement is true is pretty low.

If you won’t think critically, you will believe and repeat myth.

If you combine critical thinking with just a little bit of knowledge about reputable sites (yes, Wikipedia counts 99% of the time), you’ll be safe from believing myth. You’ll be able to be impressed by things which really are amazing.

Pop quiz: what if you saw this in your news-feed: a picture with the planets right at the tip of each pyramid and the caption “At midnight on 12/21/2012, the eyes of the Great Sphinx will be looking at this!”

Now, that would be a truly impressive claim. The details like the exact time, the more precise planetary positioning, and the fixed position and angle of the observer…that would be amazing! And there’s nothing inherently wrong about the statement on the face of it. But you should be able to dispense with it in about 30 seconds with a quick fact check. Hint: go here and just look…no need to read.

The best thing about thinking critically is that it gets faster and easier. Like any muscle, you can develop it, and the result is having a built-in BS detector. You use it like a filter, and your experience in life is more pleasurable, because there’s less noise in your FaceBook newsfeed, your Twitter feed, your email, or the ads you see.

Why Multiculturalism?

Got a question earlier, from a friend, as a response to my last post:

why would [we] give precedence to [celebrating other cultures] over efforts to celebrate what we have in common?

I’ll say this: we make special effort to celebrate our diversity because

  • it’s what makes us interesting,
  • because there’s often something to learn,
  • because celebrating what we have in common is all the richer in the context of our different backgrounds,
  • and finally because celebrating what we have in common happens without any effort. It’s easy to go bowling with your buddies who are mostly one race, political party, economic status, marital status, and age.

Doing anything else is always at least a little out of our comfort zone.

The Trouble with Multiculturalism

I came across this article today, and I’m told that the author comes across as well-spoken, succinct, and dispassionate.

To use his words, his “intellectual myopia is striking.” Other than mentioning Chinese cuisine, his perspective only covers two cultures, “the West” and “Muslim.” And his fear is that if we Westerners participate in any celebration of other cultures that include Muslim, that we’ll basically turn into Saudi Arabia and take drivers licenses away from women. And he associates Muslim culture with 9/11 attacks and paints that as part of a larger concerted attack on our freedom.

It’s not dispassionate. It’s fear-mongering.

This honestly angers me. There are attacks on freedom in our country. Warrant-less wiretapping, indefinite detention, literal *imprisonment* of more of our citizens than any other country, religiously-motivated pseudoscience taught in schools…and not one bit of it came from embracing anything other than the worst elements of our own culture.

But then, a bit farther down in my news feed, I came to this, and my faith in humanity got a little boost:

Joyful child and camel

Simple genius doesn’t come from playing mental chess

My friend Stephen Yoder posted the following on FaceBook today:

This morning I made my son laugh while he accompanied me on my morning commute. My elder boy asked (in the thick of traffic–i had no time for a planned answer) “dad, what do you think about gays and lesbians?” I said, quickly, “good people, son. They just use their privates differently than I do.”

I am utterly unsurprised by his opinion. I am, however, in awe of the brilliant simplicity with which he expressed it. I think most of us are too aware of the controversy not to struggle over how to craft the answer that is most likely to impress upon our children what we believe on this important subject. He eschewed this mental chess playing and thus rendered the best answer. I love him for it.

Can we all share this, retweet it, like it, give it a +1, repeat it to our children, shout it in the streets, write it in the sky, affix it to carrier pigeons, insert it into ocean-going bottles, and write it in giant letters of fire on a planet at the end of the universe?