Different Languages…

Sometimes I think it’s a tragedy that two people merely think they’re speaking English to each other, but in reality, they’re not only talking past each other, but speaking completely different languages.


Okay, I’m going to vastly oversimplify things here, but I’ve got another proposition. Engineering speak is not english. Neither is computer-geek speak. Neither is builder speak, physics-speak, contractor speak, architect speak, navy speak, or doctor speak.

Sure, the words sound like English. Some of them. At least until you hit that which we call “jargon” but is really your first clue you’ve left english as most people know it. Some of the words even share a similarity of meaning with their common origins.

An old joke to illustrate:

If you give the command “SECURE THE BUILDING”, here is what the different services would do:

The NAVY would turn out the lights and lock the doors.

The ARMY would surround the building with defensive fortifications, tanks and concertina wire.

The MARINE CORPS would assault the building, using overlapping fields of fire from all appropriate points on the perimeter.

The AIR FORCE would take out a three-year lease with an option to buy the building.

It’s hoary, and too-often told, but aside from what it illustrates about stereotypes of the various armed services, it also illustrates that while those services are using something resembling english, they have an entirely different set of assumptions and definitions for what appear to be the same sound symbols, when operating in a military context, than when using regular English.

Sure – look the word “secure” up in the dictionary, and you’ll see enough different definitions to support all of those interpretations. This allows us to walk away secure in the knowledge that we’re only speaking one language.

Of course, we are talking about the language that mugs other languages for spare grammar. Where Spanish, German, and French might use one word each to describe a range of nuances, based on context, English borrows a word from each of them, and uses each for a subtly different meaning.

It gets worse when you talk programming languages. Sure, the vocabulary is smaller, and the rules of grammar and syntax, while different for each, are fairly rigid and well defined. Yet, if you look at the actual words used – if, until, go, class, procedure, etc., they look like english. English with very formalized meanings.

A non-programmer looking at code from several languages like Ruby, Perl, Java, C, and Python might have a hard time telling that they’re even different languages. Well, except Python, which happens to be pretty visually distinctive. And yet, while the languages have many commonalities, the subtle differences in between them, and between these languages and other languages like Smalltalk and Haskell, result in completely different metaphors and methods for solving the same problem. Completely different ways of thinking about things, different models of thought.

Each language, each set of restrictions, each context, each set of grammatical and syntax rules, that tells us how to interpret and understand these symbols which often look alike, result in you having to think in a completely different way to solve a problem. In much the same way that the different grammar, structure, and conjugation rules for German, Spanish, and Lithuanian require you to approach speaking a simple statement in completely different ways.

Learning to be a carpenter involves not only learning words you may have never heard of that only apply to carpentry, but definitions of words, and terms of art, that may have completely different meanings from those outside of that context.

And learning those multiple contexts and the different patterns and assumptions and metaphors behind them make it easier to find solutions that people who’ve only seen one of those concepts may never have spotted. Programmers are often recommended to learn several languages, especially oddball ones with completely different idea structures like Haskell, because even if they never make a living programming in those languages, it will help them become better programmers and problem solvers.

The same is true of learning a new skill like carpentry, painting, hiking, skating, or shooting. It gives you a new language (even if it sounds like english) and a new set of thought-patterns and symbols.

Which brings me to another, final thought.

Most of these “languages” I’ve discussed here are still, in the end, subsets of English. But, while the lessons and tools they give you may be different, just like a ‘real’ foreign language, they give you a very similar experience in mapping a new set of mental tools.

But it really does confuse communication when two people think they’re talking “English” – and they’re not. At least not the same english.

How to Guarantee I Never Watch Your Show (or read your book)

While the TV was on, during a commercial break, one actress was doing a teaser blurb on the series she’s in. I have no way to tell how much of this was her, how much was prompted for her, but someone trying to pitch the show to new viewers thought it was spot on and approved it for the advertisement. 

So, what statement did she make that guaranteed I would have no interest in the show ever, whatsoever?

“There are no bad guys, and there are no good guys“.

Let’s take a look at that for a second.

First of all, those of you about to break out the pitchforks over simplistic storytelling or whatever, I’m well aware that not only is it possible to tell a kick-ass story without a single bad guy, by using rivals and “good” antagonists with their own goals, but some of my favorite stories are structured precisely around such conflicts, and some of my favorite “bad guys” qualify as good people who are rivals. Miyazaki’s “Spirited Away” is an excellent example of the former.

The part I take exception to is the “no good guys.” To me that says “no-one to cheer for.”

Yes, I’m aware nobody is perfect, and everyone has flaws. if people didn’t change, and grow, and overcome these flaws, stories would be really boring.

But if there’s no-one that I consider a “good guy” – that I admire, either for what they are, or for what they have the potential to become and then grow into – then the story is about a bunch of people that I find despicable, screwing each other over, with one person being more of a “viewpoint” character than the rest.

It also helps feed into a nihilistic, nothing-is-worth-anything mindset.

I have better things to do with my life.


So Long…

Not much to say that Apple hasn’t already said. The man is arguably one of the most important and influential people in his chosen fields. Yes, plural. He ushered in not just one revolution in his industry, which few enough manage to achieve, but multiple revolutions, in several industries, and in the lives of people everywhere. Personal computing, how we interface with computers, how we listen to music, how we tell stories in movies, and redefined our concept of how personal a computer can be with the iPhone.

He will be missed.

Rest in Peace, Steve.

Ha Ha Only Serious…

There’s an expression in the geek community, “ha ha, only serious,” that tells the listener that the previous parody, joke, etc., may have been intended to be humorous, but also includes a large degree of truth. 

This comes up because I was explaining to a friend a large part of why “Like a D6” (that I mentioned earlier in Parody) was funny. For a lot of gaming geeks, hanging out around a table playing D&D, wargames, boardgames, etc., is just as fun and looked forward to just as much as a “good time” (if not more so) as hanging out in a club with friends and dancing, etc.


Here’s one on the lighter side. A bunch of gamers got together and made a short video spoof of the Far East Movement song “Like a G6,” but revolving around a D&D theme. Basically, if you’re a gamer of any sort, or live with someone who plays Dungeons & Dragons (or any other RPG for that matter), you’ll get why this is funny.

First of all, thanks to the guys at the D6 Generation for mentioning it. Also, yes, the song is available on iTunes.

Gamer Origin Stories

I often listen to a gaming-oriented podcast called “The D6 Generation,” focusing on board and miniature games. Most episodes include an interview with a member of the game design community, and a question often asked at the beginning of the interview is to describe their gamer “Origin Story” – or how they became a gamer.

So how did I get into this hobby in the first place? For most gamers my age, it usually starts at Dungeons & Dragons, but actually, it started even earlier than that with regular straight-up wargames.

My first wargame I ever bought with my own money was a copy of Starship Troopers by Avalon Hill.  I’m still not sure precisely where I first saw it – it may have been at the the Navy Exchange’s “toy” department. Perhaps it was the local hobby shop where I started looking for models more varied than the standard department-store airplane kits. It sure as heck wasn’t the standard Kmart, Sears, or JC Penny’s.

A long-time Heinlein fan even at the age of eleven, I was hooked. I started looking at other games. Fortunately for me (and unfortunately for any hope of sanity on the part of my parents), the husband of the couple that provided before-school care for us while my parents worked – the D.C. commute was a stone cold b*tch even then – was a wargamer and had a rather nice collection of AH games.. I lost a lot of time there playing Afrika Korps, Dune, and other games.

It wasn’t until we started staying over at a friends place after school in 5th or 6th grade that I first saw a copy of Dungeons & Dragons – a “box” set intended to get a foothold in toy and game stores – and promptly bought my own.

I started paying more attention to the weird books in “that” corner of the hobby shop. Sooner, rather than later, several friends and I had a fairly complete set of D&D books: the Player’s Handbook, the Dungeon Master’s Guide, the Monster Manual, and a number of modules. We also started looking at related stuff like Gamma World for post-apocalyptic Sci-Fi role playing, also by TSR.

Then I stumbled into a copy of The Traveller Book, a compilation of the first three manuals for the spacefaring RPG Traveller.

It was like finding home. I loved D&D – played it quite a bit through high school, but I’d spend hours going through the Traveller rules – especially the rather unique spaceship combat system (that used real newtonian mechanics!)

I’d also picked up a few more games – as I still played wargames. Panzerblitz and Magic Realm were added to my collection. I tried to convince my cousin to get into wargames by buying him a copy of Storm Over Arnhem based on the battle for Arnhem bridge that also inspired the movie “A Bridge Too Far.”

I also received my intro to Steve Jackson Games with the ludicrously fun “Car Wars,” spent a lot of money on Battletech right after it changed from Battledroids, and quite a bit of time in Shadowrun (magic and cyberpunk).

I then needed something with more flexibility, as the ever-changing editions to Traveller were driving me nuts, and I didn’t feel like keeping up. So I tried on GURPS (yeah, I know, I’m now a couple editions behind again, but that’s not bad for a game system I bought fifteen years ago…). While not very scalable and justifiably put down as fiddly, it had a unique character development system that allowed you to tailor your strengths and your weaknesses. It also had the flexibility needed to put out incredible resource books on everything from Vikings to Cthulhu and the far, far future. I ended up writing an article for the Pyramid (SJ’s in-house gaming magazine).

While dabbling in the vampire based games from White-Wolf games, I mostly skipped that as well as Magic: The Gathering, though I did end up getting quite a few cards for SJ’s loony “Illuminati: New World Order” card-based world domination game. The sheer lunacy of having Bjorne the viking dinosaur be the dictatorial ruler of California while running the world via TV advertisements was a sight to behold, and only a hint at the possible craziness in a game where all conspiracy theories could be true. Fasa actually had a very nifty game of armored grav tank combat that unfortunately petered out, but I dearly loved it.

These days, while I still have a few GURPS books, it’s mostly current boardgames, as I don’t have the time to invest in RPG’s. Descent, Survive! Warmachine, Mag Blast, Seven Wonders, etc. take up the majority of my monthly (sometimes bimonthly) playing time. I still have an old copy of Fortress Europa by Avalon Hill.


Aside from my work, and studying that I’m doing, I try to set a little time aside each day to simply read, for pleasure’s sake. Even if only for a few minutes. Right now, I’m at the beginning of Neal Stephenson’s Cryptonomicon

Neal is an incredibly geeky and clever writer, and I can almost feel the delight at the wordplay he employs.

Bluntly, he is one of the very, very few authors who I appreciate as much for their ability to turn prose into poetry as I do for their ability to tell a story. Dan Simmons, Gene Wolfe, Cormac McCarthy are the others.

I don’t read empty style, so you won’t see me recommend someone with no substance just because they put a lot of effort into style.


Coaches, Wisdom, Challenges, and Success.

Mike, a friend of mine told a story and asked a question. The story? A young man, hooked on playing football, goes through numerous failures. Over and over again he fails, is tackled, injured, hurt. He slams into the unforgiving earth, he bleeds, he is covered in mud and sweat, grime and spit. And the coach keeps pushing him – pushing him on. The kid keeps going on little more than faith. Faith that if he keeps trying, if he doesn’t stop running, doesn’t stop moving, no matter how hard he’s blocked, he can make it, he will make it. Because the coach said so.

And yet again, he fails – over and over. 

And he keeps trying, facing down the desire to quit, the pain, the suffering on, at times, little more than a bare thread of faith and dogged will. 

And yet. And yet.

There is a paradox. You have a gigantic heap of sand in your driveway. Your neighbors, your friends, your wife, your kids – they all stand about this massive, gigantic heap and proclaim that yea – it is a gigantic heap of sand and no mere pile. Pulling out but one speck, one grain of silica makes it no less a gigantic heap, and neither does pulling out the next, or the next, for at each point the neighbors, the kids, the friends, and all the gathered busybodies proclaim that lo, it is still a gigantic heap of sand and no mere pile.

No-one can draw the line at which removing but one tan, translucent grain of silica turns the gigantic heap into a pile. And yet, at some point, you look around, and realize that the once large gigantic heap now is but a mere pile. Wherever that line was, it was crossed a long time ago.

One day, invisibly crossing a faint line that cannot be seen, everything starts coming together. The boy starts to truly perform. He “keeps on choppin.’” – And he sees results. And then, he breaks through. 

He achieves his goal.

The question becomes: “Now What?”

What do you say to this young man? What do you say when he comes off the field? What is the paradox? What dilemmas does he now face? Why do others choose a different path instead?

I cheated, and added a bit. I also need to take a few side trips into wisdom, storytelling and sequels, but it’s all relevant. 

A caveat – I don’t know this boy, this man becoming. He could be anyone. All such advice is dependent on too many variables to predict. And yet – some truths re universal, or at least generally so. 

As we grow older we get cynical. It’s all too easy to remember that the good guy doesn’t always win, that everyone has their faults and imperfections. Those cynics, those that hate to think of the glory we are capable of, who tear heroes down via their failures in order to stand at the same level, are a poison. Being a hero isn’t about perfection, it’s about risking your life and facing danger in striving toward an ideal. It’s about standing fast on principle, and meeting a standard, and in some small way surpassing our humanity despite our other faults. Do we choose to look at our lives as a list of the things we’ve failed at, or a list of thing’s we’ve accomplished – with plenty of “interesting times” and bad examples not to emulate again?

Faith – faith that, despite the repeated failures, that the seeds of heroism lie in all of us if we but try. That we can at times approach the divine, and transcend our humanity in some small way. That in the wreckage, and blood and pain we find not despair but hope – and the will to go on.

This heroism, this struggle, this transcendence needs to be recognized and praised. It must be nurtured. And so we praise him. And this praise, coming from the man who’s standards he never quite met, who kept pushing him to try over and over again through the example that he could do it, will mean more than gold, more than wine, women, and song.

And it is this very struggle that shaped the man, that allowed him to make those small, incremental improvements, that molded him, toughened him, forged him, until he broke through and transcended his limitations. And he finds himself standing there, getting praise from his coach, knowing that he made it there, and never quite knowing when he took that step that made it.

The man now has a living, breathing example that he can face adversity and win. Maybe not always, certainly not always, but eventually, if he never lets go, he can win, or die trying.

And here lies the trap. 

The buddhists take the attitude that life is pain. A popular powerpoint presentation making the email rounds made the point that “assisting” a butterfly in its’ struggles to break free of the cocoon instead cripples it, as that very struggle is needed to develop its wings. And yet we want everything to be easy.

Despite the success and the clear path of how he got there, it is far too easy to rest on his laurels. He has succeeded. He has overcome! He won! Woo Hoo! He’s going to Disney World!

And if he’s like all too many stereotypical high school football stars, or like your standard-issue teen pop music/child actor celebrity, his life will implode.

He must immediately be presented with a new challenge. Any challenge, as long as it forces him out of his comfort zone and forces him to learn.

Something to focus on.

He’s gained some wisdom, and is perilously close to throwing it away. Invest a bit more wisdom in him that yet again, if he trusts you, and in this context he will now trust you more than ever, may save him until he learns from personal experience the why of what you are telling him to do. 

So go ahead. Take that break. Then have him get back on the damned horse, and ride! Push the envelope. Find another struggle where he can say “by God I accomplished something.”

But what struggle?

Here we turn to storytelling, and sequels. One trick to make things more bearable, that kids almost instinctively do, is to act like their heroes, to act as if they are the heroes in a story. Superman, the Lone Ranger, the super secret agent. (In this context, it begins to make you wonder about a lot of our sports heroes, celebs, and teen idols as role models, eh? It gets worse when you consider how many teen-oriented shows make the adults out to be idiots…..).

Part of why this works is because kids know the hero is supposed to struggle. If you are the protagonist, the hero in your very own story arc – unless your tastes run to the post-modern and nihilistic – you will instinctively start looking for solutions to the problems, and be more willing to face the problems.

The problem with sequels as a metaphor is Hollywood disease. Every sequel has to be bigger, better, louder, and with more explosions. Instead, I’ll turn to the authors who helm the podcast “Writing Excuses” (“Fifteen minutes, because you’re in a hurry, and they’re not that smart.”). All you need is a challenge. Any challenge, as long as it makes you focus, as long as it makes you learn something new, as long as it makes you grow.

So no, if you won the game, you don’t have to win the state finals or the superbowl (though those are worthy goals in and of themselves). Saving the world doesn’t require you to save the galaxy the next time out.

It can be as simple as finally getting your head wrapped around algebra, or grammar, while not slacking off on the football.

As one of my favorite bands put it:

There is no love untouched by hate
no unity without discord
there is no courage without fear
there is no peace without a war
there is no wisdom without regret
no admiration without scorn

(The Cruxshadows, “Eye of the Storm”, from DreamCypher)

It’s pointless to avoid struggle. Embrace it, face it, learn from it.

Addendum: Mike Bronco, the guy who originally asked the question that inspired this, is a all-around great guy and fitness instructor originally from Jersey. He’s got a book coming out called Man School, about the obvious, but sublimely so. It’s filled with real-life examples, good advice, and a ton of tales passed down from his Dad, Grandad, and uncles.