Is it obvious or is it the wrong abstraction?

Lovely observation from Katja Grace:

Things can be obvious if they are simple. If something complicated is obvious, such as anything that anybody seriously studies, then for it to be simple you must be abstracting it a lot. When people find such things obvious, what they often mean is that the abstraction is so clear and simple its implications are unarguable. This is answering the wrong question. Most of the reasons such conclusions might be false are hidden in what you abstracted away. The question is whether you have the right abstraction for reality, not whether the abstraction has the implications it seems to.

Abstractions are essential to understanding, but we must keep in mind that abstractions ignore information. Essentially, they are storytelling, organizing raw data into actors and relationships while leaving out the irrelevant stuff. When too much stuff is deemed irrelevant, the narrative becomes obvious, but the abstraction may become mostly fiction, too removed from the raw facts.

I still remember my freshman physics professor at Rice warning us that real atoms were not anything like the Bohr model of the atom, but that the model gave great answers for a useful set of questions.

With humans, it is all storytelling.

Via a post on Tyler Cowen’s blog, Marginal Revolution.


Your call may be recorded …

You know you are about to talk to a human when you get the warning “your call may be recorded …”. It took about 30 minutes and four different phone numbers to get to that point after our AT&T U-Verse service went out at 4:45PM. A bit over four hours later, we’re reconnected to the tubes.

We have a technician visit scheduled for tomorrow between 8 and 12, but I have no way to tell AT&T that our connection works now. Sigh.

So why don’t they know that we are down? Why can’t they say that we were off line at 4:43 and traceroute fails at the San Antonio Road DSLAM? That technology is two decades old. I know, because I was doing it then.

Time passes. We are now upgraded to a “chronic outage” and have a competent senior tech visiting our house. He is sufficiently senior that he doesn’t have to wear an AT&T shirt. He also does clever things, like running a second line through our back yard rather than crawling under the house. I like this guy.

So, Internet, phone, and TV were down for five days. We have some sort of continuing interference problem between our DVD player and the broadband, where we can’t have the DVD player plugged in if we want any service at all. This is new, so I don’t think that our DVD player went rogue on Sunday afternoon.

I’ll be putting my EE degree and long-expired amateur radio license expertise to work solving that. On the plus side, we learned that TV is not essential to daily life, at least for a stretch of a few days.

And woot! Internet!

TED is not a good model for Sundance

Ron Galloway has posted an odd article, What The Sundance Festival Can Learn From TED. Part of the oddness is that I can’t quite tell what he thinks Sundance should take from TED. I think he says that Sundance should be “about ideas” and make the presentations available for free, but that doesn’t really make sense.

TED is about ideas, but Sundance is about the expression of ideas. TED makes the presentations, the expressions, available because that strengthens the marketing of the idea, which is still associated with the idea-maker.

Sundance is all about expression. If you take ten years to make a documentary about Patti Smith, then give it away, you have zero. No one is going to pay you to come talk about your free film. It is entirely OK to make deals at Sundance, because that means the expressions are valued, even at the most crass level, money. That is also the level where the filmmaker can pay for food and shelter.

Here is one other thing that Sundance shouldn’t change. I can go to Sundance. I can’t go to TED. I can “join” TED’s website, but to go to the conference I would have to apply for membership and pony up $6000 if I was good enough. Then I would have to apply again the next year. For Sundance, get some friends, share an overpriced condo in Park City, and go stand in line to see movies for $10 each. Or stay with friends in Salt Lake City and go to the films shown there. $6000 would be a gold-plated Sundance experience, with an Express Pass (entrance to any movie) plus your own condo at Park City and airfare.

I’m not sure that Sundance needs fixing, but I’m pretty sure that it doesn’t need TED as a model.

PS: See the Patti Smith documentary, Dream of Life. You can rent it from Netflix. It is an interesting portrait, and wonderful cinematography. Steven Sebring has an amazing touch with film. Watch it just for what he does with film and exposure, because there won’t be very many more movies like this. Film is like the Polaroids scattered on the floor of Patti’s apartment, lovely but obsolete.

Two Stories About Marriage

I agree with Plain Jane Mom, this first story, She’s happily married, dreaming of divorce, is about the most depressing thing I’ve ever read about a “good” marriage.

There are so many things wrong about this. Leaving your shoes in the way isn’t even being a good roommate, let alone a good husband. Writing your complaints in O: The Oprah Magazine instead of going to counseling is a cheat. This is isn’t source material, it is your marriage.

Some of it hardly sounds real. Does she really believe that every wife thinks of divorce as a security blanket, that it is “the closely held contemplation of nearly every woman I know who has children who have been out of diapers for at least two years and a husband who won’t be in them for another 30.”?

Of course married people think seriously about divorce, as Ambrose Bierce said, “Who never doubted, never half believed.” But to treasure it? To call it a “secret reverie”? Dear Abby would tell you to get to a marriage counselor. Get some coaching in being human to each other, talking, living. It works, we’ve done it.

After that has thoroughly bummed you out, or perhaps, after you skip it, read John Scalzi on losing wedding rings and his tenth anniversary. It is full of the shared life, secret jokes, and surprises that only happen when you live together and love each other for that long.

Shalane Flanagan, My Most Famous Relative

Until recently, my only relative with any serious claim to fame was my cousin Sherry, who set the world record in the women’s marathon in 1971. She had a number of “firsts” — first woman with an athletic scholarship at a public university, first woman on the cover of Runner’s World, designer of the first running bra for women with larger breasts (designed after she had kids), and so on. There is a great interview with her (Cheryl Treworgy) that goes over a lot of the early history, including a male runner trying to force her off the road during her world record run. These days, she is a track and field photojournalist, with her photos at

This week, cousin Sherry has been eclipsed by her daughter, Shalane Flanagan. Shalane holds US records in the 3000m, 5000m, and 10000m. She won Olympic bronze in the 10000m on the first day of track and field competition in Beijing, and has qualified for the finals in the 5000m. There has been essentially no coverage of distance events on TV, so check out the Runners World Olympic coverage, which has been excellent, even liveblogging races. Here is their page for the women’s 5000m races. If you are really dedicated, you can join the Facebook Unofficial Shalane Flanagan Fan Club.

Shalane Flanagan after winning bronze medal in 10000m

Photo is from Runner’s World, no credit given on site.

When my cousin was running competitively, there were no distance events for women at the Olympics. She surely would have made the team and maybe have had a chance at a medal. Shalane went to the Athens Olympics on the US team and Cheryl went as a photographer. That was a great experience for both of them, but nothing like Beijing. Go Shalane!

Big Dog Party!

I always love the “big dog party” up in the tree at the end of Go, Dog. Go! You can make a reasonable facsimile of that with a backyard pool, twenty-five dogs from Canine Companions for Independence, and enough toys for each dog to carry one at all times.


My (edited) photos from the party are at Flickr, in the CCI Dog Pool Party 2008 set.

For us, the most exciting part of the party was that when Loken needed a friend, he came to Kevin. This first year with Kevin and Loken is critical for their bond, and this was the first time he showed that Kevin was his best friend.

Loken had a good time, but he eventually got a bit overloaded by all the strange dogs sniffing him and and the energetic play. I was sitting with Kevin in a somewhat quieter spot to the side, and Loken found us there. You can see him looking squinty and stressed in this photo. After a bit, he put his head on Kevin’s lap. This is the same as the “Visit” command, but we didn’t give the command. It was Loken’s idea.


Kevin gave him a hug (I did suggest that).


Then Loken decided to hide behind Kevin, where he would be safe.


It was wonderful that Loken went to Kevin. I was right there (taking pictures, duh) and Tina was right on the other side (you can see her in the pictures). We are big safe people and he trusts us, but Loken chose his boy when he needed a hug.