Sunday, December 26, 2004

No sex, lots of violence: the Grimm roots of American media

A guest post from S. -- the first time I've been able to blog-capture one of her wonderful insights:

It’s a commonplace that the Grimm Brothers’ fairy tales are now considered excessively violent. Birds peck out the eyes of Cinderella’s stepsisters; Snow White’s stepmother is made to wear red-hot iron slippers and dance to the death; and Rumpelstiltskin literally rips himself in two in his anger.

The Brothers modified the oral tradition to expunge sexual elements, tighten the narrative structure, and introduce a moral element (see Jack Zipes’ translation and introduction to the tales). For example, in the 1812 edition, Rapunzel’s liaison with the prince is discovered through her remark:

“Tell me, Mother Gothel, why do you think my clothes have become too tight for me and no longer fit?”

By 1857, this is revised to:

“Mother Gothel, how is it that you’re much heavier than the prince?”

Now consider the norms for US television:

· No sex.
· High levels of violence.
· Every 30-minute show finishes with a neat moral.

Not much that I can see has changed from the 19th-century bourgeois temperament.

Wednesday, December 08, 2004

Patron saints

While looking for some gods of unintended consequences, I found a wonderful site offered by the Catholic Forum: the Patron Saints Index. There is a saint for every need and occasion. Selecting almost at random from the alphabetical topic list, you will find saints to intercede on your behalf:-

Joseph of Cupertino is the patron saint of air travel, since he had the gift of levitation. Just the kind of person to have around when that second engine conks out…

Even the Internet has a patron saint: Isidore of Seville. He’s also the patron computer technicians and schoolchildren. I imagine the association derives from his prolific writing, which includes “a dictionary, an encyclopedia, a history of Goths, and a history of the world beginning with creation”. Some associations are entirely obscure to me, though; Philip Neri, for example, is the patron saint of the US Special Forces

Code-mungers (and -mongers)

Programmers and lawyers have a lot in common:
  • Both create code
  • Both are concerned with edge cases
  • Both have to transpose messy human reality into special languages
  • In both cases, a misplaced comma makes a huge difference to meaning and outcome.
Both practices are at the mercy of the small gods of unintended consequences (Kokopelli, Loki, Tyl Uilenspiegel?). When a software program does something unintended, it’s called a bug; when a law doesn’t work as expected, it’s a loophole.

(Of course, loopholes are often inserted on purpose and with the informed consent of the legislators, which cannot be said for bugs. However, the status of bugs is often ambiguous, as in the line sometimes heard after a product’s shipped, “Oh, that’s not a bug, that’s a feature!”)

Unintended consequences are prevalent for the same reasons in both cases: complexity and “embedded abstraction”. In any sufficiently complex system, the interactions between the parts cannot be predicted, other than to say that there will be unexpected interactions. This is the case both for large bodies of code, of both the legal and computing variety.

Some of the complexity derives from the fact that abstraction is a necessary part the process of cutting code. Laws and programs both model reality in order to make a workable product. Of course, any intellectual process does this, from poetry to civil engineering. However, software and legal documents both then loop back to interact with the worlds they’ve modeled in a recursive way. Their work product is a model; the same cannot be said of an engineer’s bridge. Software that models business process becomes the way the process is driven; contracts model commercial or social interactions, and then become the subject of those interactions.