User Support Translation IV

Just a helpful note: when you're in a "support dialogue" (e-mail or verbal) with a system administrator, and he or she types or says this:

I think I didn't explain myself clearly.
what he or she really means is:
I'm pretty sure you weren't thinking very hard about what I said.
The usual disclaimer applies: if you happen to be someone to whom I've said this, you are of course an exception to this rule.

(Previous entries in the User Support Translation series here, here, and here.)

The Big Questions

[Amazon Link]

Steven Landsburg is an economics professor at the University of Rochester. I had run across his work in Slate, a guest-blogging stint at The Volokh Conspiracy, and a number of other publications. He describes himself as a "hard-core libertarian", which is OK with me, even though I'm softer-core myself. His writings are accessible and witty, so I was a natural audience for this book. If you're interested, he set up an associated website here.

As the title implies, Landsburg isn't messing around with trivia here. The questions he outlines in (just) part 1: "What exists, and why? What are we made of, what are our minds made of, and what is the Universe made of? How should we think about God, and the ultimate causes of things?"

This might strike you as arrogant. It could appear so, in the hands of a less able writer. Landsburg points out in his introduction that he merely means to provide what he considers to be plausible answers for the Big Questions. Like all good thinkers, the "I might be wrong, but" is always hanging around. At times he might seem glib; I think he wandered down the wrong path in a couple of places. (For example, some of his refutations of alternate views involve speculation on the internal inconsistencies of the holders of such views. No fair.)

But that's a quibble; it's a very entertaining read, and if you ever wanted a layman's explanation of Gödel's Theorem, or the Uncertainty Principle, or a knock-down of protectionism, or a host of many other topics, this is a pretty good choice.

Last Modified 2012-09-27 11:39 AM EDT

The Social Network

stars] [IMDb Link] [Amazon Link]

IMDB users, as I type, have rated this movie as #177 of the top 250 movies of all time. I don't know about that, but it's pretty good. Its got eight Oscar nominations, including Best Picture, Director, Actor, and Screenplay.

I was able to suspend my distaste for the jerk screenwriter, Aaron Sorkin.

It's the story of Mark Zuckerberg (played by Jesse Eisenberg), and how he, with a little help from his friends, founded Facebook. He went from being just another genius Harvard undergrad in 2003 to (according to Forbes) just another genius Harvard dropout worth $4 Billion. Along the way, there's plenty of drama, as Zuckerberg shafts (first) a couple of jock entrepreneurs who hired him to work on their (arguably similar) idea for a Harvard website, and (then) his partner Eduardo Saverin, who found himself edged out of the company when his vision differed from Mark's.

Many critics have claimed that Zuckerberg is portrayed as an asshole, and that's not without merit. But the larger truth is that he had a capital-V Vision about where he wanted Facebook to go, and (like most Visionaries) he was single-minded and relentless about pursuing that Vision. (He forms an instant bond with investor Sean Parker (played by Justin Timberlake), who recognizes and buys into the Vision himself. I buy that narrative.

I enjoyed the movie's more-or-less accurate flinging around of Linux-geek terminology: Apache, emacs, wget, Perl, Python, etc. They must have had a consultant to get that right. Otherwise, there's a lot of controversy about the movie's relationship to actual reality; here is an example.

Local angle: Zuckerberg graduated from Phillips Exeter Academy, just down the road.

Last Modified 2012-09-27 11:40 AM EDT