Saturday, May 04, 2002

I try to be funny sometimes...

Here is the next (UNPUBLISHED!)
installment in my piece, alaskan road rules:

I’m still getting used to California cars. My little Aspire, which looks more like a sidecar for a motorcycle than a road-worthy vehicle has special quirks.

For example, one of the first things my father taught me about cars, even before he taught me how to drive, was how to change a tire. I will never forget his lesson, and I assumed that all modern women could open their own doors, pump their own gas, and change their own tires.

Well, California women can do the first two, but I’m not sure even California MEN can change their own tires. There is a co-dependent relationship between all California drivers and the American Automobile Association. My new friends here told me about this amazing service, and especially the startling fact that a driver in distress does not need to be a member to get help for free, she only needs to have a member be nearby when AAA help arrived. I could never have imagined such a thing before I came to this warm and gentle place.

AAA could not have existed in Alaska. For one thing, people were constantly getting stuck in snowdrifts and their cars freezing to a dead halt so often that the association could never prove profitable. But also, no one stuck in such a position could afford to wait in the cold for a tow truck to make the journey from a populated area to the inevitably remote and deserted place where you have been stranded. Survival demanded more immediate remedies. This is yet another reason why Alaskan vehicles should be tough; people had to be tough too.

The day I walked out to my little car and the tire was flat, I knew exactly what to do. Smug and self-satisfied, I flipped open the back and began to pull out all the tire-changing tools: the spare, the jack, the tire iron. This was my chance, even though no one was looking, to prove my Alaskan independence. I could justify the contempt with which I regarded my non-empowered girlfriends who could not change a tire. I would show them!

So. I braced the wheels, and started to jack up the car. I had not actually looked at these tools before; up close, they looked a lot like Barbie’s spare tire kit—little teeny dainty car jack. These are not the sorts of tools dad taught me to use. Oh well! This was a small car, I felt sure that the manufacturers knew what they were doing. But the tire iron was really odd. It was not the steel cross I was expecting, it looked more like a bent paper clip.

After I put the hex end of the paper clip onto the lug nut I gave it a good whack to start it going. To my utter shock and horror, the side of the hex ripped open. That wasn’t supposed to happen!

In disbelief and desperation, I took my once-used and now-worthless tire iron inside and called my brother. Yes, he had a tire iron. Yes, he would be right over. He found me sitting beside the flat tire of my car staring into the torn socket of the former tire iron, as if it were Yorick’s skull: “Alas!”

God bless him. I should have known better than to call my brother. He is willing and cheerful, but he has bad luck with cars. We broke the next tire iron. I had new respect for the tenacity of this little car. If the neighbor hadn’t come out with his electric socket wrench, I don’t know what we would have done.

All right! Now that we’d taken care of that minor setback, I was back to feeling tough. Pull that tire off! Put on the spare! Looking good, handling the problem. I’m tough, I’m from Alaska. This time, though, I tell my brother to put the nuts on less tight. I’d hate to be really stuck and not be able to change my tire.

It wasn’t until the next week, as I was driving back and forth to work, that I heard the strange noises. What was happening to my car? Since I needed an oil change anyway, I took the car in to have it checked.

My helpful brother had been so careful not to screw the nuts on too tight that two of them had fallen off and were bouncing around behind the hubcap. That explained the noise.

It was time to come to terms with the situation. I joined AAA that day.

As you can see, this is not the sort of story I could keep to myself. But as I was telling my best girlfriend about the situation, she couldn’t let me finish. “WHAT!? Your tire could have come off your car and you could have been KILLED!”

I should explain. Lynda is a beautiful, intelligent and talented woman. Not the least among her talents is her ability to perceive, in any situation—real or imagined—the potential for harm or danger. She has a highly developed sense of worry. She tells me that she has inherited it from her mother; no doubt this is true. Such prodigious skill would be unlikely to develop without Darwinian refinement.

She and I have an agreement. I am not a native of California, and my sense of self-preservation is not attuned to the dangers of this area. Wild animals and below-zero temperatures are not a problem here, so I could get cocky if I’m not careful. Since I know my weak area, I have chosen to outsource my worrying to Lynda. Whenever I know I’m going to encounter a new situation, I call her and she, being a true virtuoso, immediately gives me a comprehensive list of everything that could go wrong.

It is true, some of the things she tells me have so little chance of occurring that they are a statistical impossibility. However, I consider this to be the price I pay for quality. I simply choose the scenarios of doom that seem conceivably possible, and take the necessary precautions to avoid them. I’m very satisfied with this arrangement.

Now, at first the idea of the tire coming entirely off the car might have been one of the worry-points that I would have discarded as a statistical impossibility; after all, there were still 3 of the 5 lug nuts firmly attached the tire to the car. Those 3 were the ones I had screwed in. But just as I was about to dismiss the idea, I remembered something.

“You’re right!” I said. “That actually happened to me. When I was a teenager. The tire came off the car when my mom was driving.”


posted by Murphy 5/04/2002

Friday, May 03, 2002


I am doing research on an Margaret Fuller, an early american Femininst. She is supposed to have knocked the socks of Emerson and Thoreau for being smart. Here's how they describe her:

It was what in woman is generally called a masculine mind; that is, its action was determined by ideas rather than by sentiments. And yet, with this masculine trait, she combined a woman’s appreciation of the beautiful in sentiment and the beautiful in action.

That's pretty clear description of the dichotomy. Granted, it's from the 1880's. But the idea didn't go away, it was just rephrased.

MEN think with ideas and reason.

WOMEN think with feelings or sentiment.

There are underlying assumptions here that bear re-examination.

posted by Murphy 5/03/2002

Thursday, May 02, 2002

During my class in literary criticism, we were discussing Feminist criticism of Conrad's Heart of Darkness.

Feminist criticism is so hard to listen to, because it is so painfully true. I find that I cannot pay attention to what's being said for very long, because my mind instantly leaps to examples in my own life that uphold the argument made by the feminist.

My girl Kisa and I started writing notes to one another about the situation:

The thing they never seem to understand, is that we know MORE than them--about the world, us, AND them!

Yes, but the WAY we know things doesn't fit easily in the logical, "reasonable" man-thinking that has become the only acceptable voice of authority. Emotion, compassion, or intuition are excluded.

Word! It's strange, though. Sometimes I think there's a sort of (oppressed) power in our secret knowledge. Kind of like the whole of womankind is collectively thinking, 'OK, we'll let them think they in charge/know what's up/understand our "feeble" minds,' while we know what's REALLY going on. We can't come out and SAY it, which is why I say 'oppressed,' but still, there's a strange sense of power in it.

I think women are more concerned about relationships than power. It's like, we love these men, and they want the power, so we indulge them. It's more important to us to have love than power. It's not worth the relationship to destroy their illusion of grandeur. But it comes back on women; we need to own our own power and flex it in ways that will help.


I fear that this transcription might alienate male readers, but I still feel that the truth deserves to be told. Female ways of talking are often excluded from having the Right to be Right because they come from an unexpected place. A soft voice, a high-pitched voice is heard as less imperative than a forceful. deep MANLY voice.

Or words that are "emotional" are dismissed as irrational. I say, emotionality and rationality are not mutually exclusive.

I know that the world turns on what is already in place. As a teacher and as a Supervisor in the IT field, I have learned to Bark out forcefully what I need to be taken seriously. It's like a tool in my toolbelt, I can use it when I need to.

Yet, I think it would be better if I did not have to. If women could wield authority based on the merit of what they have to say, the world would be that much better.

I personally resent having to become “masculine” to be taken seriously in this man’s world.
I know that I, and many of my women friends, have a way of seeing ideas holistically that leaves a lot of my male friends going “huh?”

And yet, we feel merciful towards these poor saps. We don’t want them to feel embarrassed. We’ll slow up and talk in little words so that they can respect themselves.

Okay, I might be overstating the case. But not every case.

I DO know that I, and other women, have purposely held back from attaining their full potential or expressing themselves fully because it would create a rift in their primary relationship. Like, “I could go to work, and be a blazing success. But what would my man do? What would my children do? I should make them a priority.”

Ambition is often quenched by a sense of duty. Thank god, things have changed. A woman’s duty has been redefined so that responsibility for children and the home is becoming shared between the man and the woman.

But the “work” of maintaining an intimate relationship is still often solely the responsibility of the woman, since men are so ill-equipped by the culture to assess the health a relationship.

But women know. We ought to share. But then, others would need to listen.

posted by Murphy 5/02/2002

More on Barriers To Entry:

Jay, who is an Economist, introduced his little bit about "signal to noise" with this comment:

Economists tend to look at puzzling phenomena and
Ask themselves, "what problem does this phenomenon solve?"

Perhaps I should be an economist. I ask that question too! But I usually don't stop there. I believe it is important to understand the uses of personal and societal structures or habits before altering them. It's similar to finding out the uses of your house's walls (are they weight-bearing) before knocking one of them down.

Common sense and personal responsibility require you to know something about what you are doing.

But if you stop after understanding the problem, you have wasted your time. Understanding should lead to action. Find a way to work within the structure usefully, or come up with a better structure.

Now, if, after understanding the structure, you see that it is flawed (it does not solve the problem it was originally intended to fix, or solves it at too high a cost), you must work on it to "fix" it.

This is very difficult, and a very worthy task.

Not everyone can do it. Oh wait; did I just put another barrier up?

Let me put it this way:
Not everyone can work towards the solution for every problem.
Every individual has at least one, and probably more, area of expertise.

If those who had expertise in an area were given access to more information (the kind usually reserved for those with THE RIGHT TO BE RIGHT) and were listened to, their expertise could be captured and made useful.

posted by Murphy 5/02/2002

Wednesday, May 01, 2002

I'm learning how to add links to my blog. I should know how to do this already, but better late than never.

My boyfriend, Chris Daley, of The Daley Weather is the one who is teaching me.

posted by Murphy 5/01/2002


I’ve already talked about barriers to entry in this blog. I got a response from a reader, my friend Jay.

Yes, I do have a reader! Wow!

He made a good point about the barriers to entry as useful devices, screening out the “noise” from the “Signal.” That is to say, the signal is the useful information and the noise is the garbage created by external circumstances. As a person who has been (may still be, soon) professionally engaged with computer networks, I understand this concept. However, the only difference between the “Noise” and the “signal” is in whether the receiving end can process it in a useful way.

Bear with me.

Paolo Freire, a Brazilian law professor, did some very interesting work about the process and theory of education. He articulated the idea of the “banking” concept of Education. In this model, the teachers act as retainers and distributors of knowledge and the students are empty vessels for the teachers to fill. The teacher’s “task is to fill the student with the contents of his narration.” Students are perceived as unable to contribute, and are without knowledge until it has been given to them by the teacher. The students do not contribute to or interact with the knowledge to change or add to it; they merely receive it.

What students are supposed to do is take the static commodity that is knowledge information and shape it into the required forms—in the case of classes, it would be homework assignments, test, or papers. But they should not significantly add to the knowledge or change it. The authority to modify the knowledge information is restricted.


In the business world, the persons who have the authority to make policies are restricted. The executives hand down decisions and policies, a static commodity, for the employees to shape into the required form—a product, an organization scheme, a metric to meet.

In the military, Officers give orders that the enlisted people are not allowed to question. They must execute the order.

But even the military, the example that seems most suited to a strongly hierarchical system of authority benefits from allowing knowledge to come in from “below”.

In his popular book Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman, the physicist Richard Feynman talks about his experiences with the military. He was stationed at Los Alamos to do research and testing of the atom bomb. When he discovered where the military was procuring the radioactive material from, he freaked out. The men who were handling this volatile matter were doing it such a way as to endanger the entire base and blow it to smithereens. He immediately went to the military authority and told them about the danger they were in. Feynman wanted to tell the men working with the radioactive materials how to do is safely.

The general told him that the information was classified, and the men could not be informed about their danger. (it was the military’s knowledge, they owned it, they would do with it what they willed)
But the laws of physics supported Feynman’s plan and the general decided to let Feynman inform the men of what they were handling and how to handle it properly.

When he recounts the story, Feynman says that once the men were told what they were doing and given the information, they themselves came up with more efficient and better ways of handling the material than HE could have devised.

Here is the crux of the matter. When knowledge is retained and acted upon only by a few people, expertise is wasted. But if more people are empowered to act and interact with the knowledge then greater efficiency, greater results will be achieved.

But when knowledge and authority (the right to be right) is out of reach for most, most are powerless.

How many of us, in the company we work for, or the school we are in, found that we have to go against company policy to get our jobs done? As in, do the task first, and sidestep the proper procedure? Ignore or violate security measures to get something done?

Or who has had a truly beneficial idea that will have significant results for the company, but which will never go anywhere because the ones in POWER will not listen?

Then again, there are the majority of workers and students who have ceased to have ideas, since they have no way of implementing them in a system where action and power are reserved for the few.

In the realm of government, we used to have a system that put barriers of entry between the common person and power. It was called a monarchy. But the American democratic system was designed with faith in the individual to be able to operate meaningfully on information to take action and create policies. The framers of the constitution had faith in the people to create more “signal” than “noise”.

posted by Murphy 5/01/2002

Tuesday, April 30, 2002

Here is the final installment of my award-winning humor.
After this, I’ll just have to post untried humor.

ALASKAN ROAD RULES part III (Continued from here)

The other thing my friends said was “Wow! You have nice car!” I had a 4 year-old ford aspire. I bought it because it was the cheapest car money could buy. But, I could see why my friends would admire it. Its paint was intact.

You see, between gravel roads and freezing ice and salt on the roads, no car in Alaska could keep a paint job for more than, oh, say a week. Almost all the cars in Alaska devolved into looking like an army camp vehicle. Heck, many of them were army vehicles! This was seen as a sign of the vehicles’ toughness.

Toughness was admired in a vehicle, above most things. That, and its ability to get out of a snowdrift in a hurry. Roads were icy and slippery, it’s true. But it didn’t matter so much, since every road was protected on each side by a high snowdrift created by the snowplows that came through to clear the roads. So you might slide off the roads several times a week, but you would land in a soft pillow of snow. Then it was just a matter of digging yourself out, pushing the car back on the road, and you’d be on your way.

I feel a little bit sorry for student drivers in California. When they are learning to drive, they don’t have snowdrifts to practice against. They can only hit other cars. They miss the fun of shoveling out the snow and pushing the car. Instead, they have to get out and exchange insurance information.
But California has it’s own charms. In Alaska, cars were a uniform blur of cracked windshields and dinged, dull exteriors. The only distinguishing feature was whether it was a car or a truck.

In California, there is a whole sign language of cars. For instance, before I moved here, I had no idea that someone who drives a BMW is an asshole. I could have met someone and thought, “Boy, what’s wrong with him? He’s a real asshole.” But now, I know. He drives a BMW, and that explains it.

The BMW/Asshole connection is only the most basic of car communication signals. It’s quite complicated, and I haven’t been able to find a Car-English phrasebook, but I’m working it out as I go along.

posted by Murphy 4/30/2002

Monday, April 29, 2002

ALASKAN ROAD RULES part II (Starts here

I told you there would be more!

Let me tell you, a moose is big. I don’t think that most Californians can comprehend colliding with a moose. The only basis for comparison is hitting a deer. Man, hitting a deer is something like swatting a fly. I can’t imagine that a deer would even break your headlight. What do they weigh? 50 pounds? That’s nothing! A moose, now, is a half-ton animal. And most of that animal is on stilts. It’s got little skinny legs, and a huge heavy body, which means that most of that half ton is what rolls over you after you hit the legs with the hood of your car. Granted, that does not make the moose feel good, but you are one-tenth the size of the moose. You are in a bad way if you hit a moose. Learning to drive under the threat of moose collision affects you forever after.

Moose are wild animals. One of the things I really admire about wild animals is their ability to survive in the wild. I suppose that is rather obvious, but really, it is amazing. I think it takes two things to survive in the wild: one, you have to be able to find food, and two; you have to be able to hide from things that think you are food. And, scary as this thought is, there really are things in Alaska that think of this half-ton moose-beast as food. So the moose has developed camouflage, so that it blends in to it’s surroundings while it slowly and peacefully wanders through the forest looking for food.

Camouflage is good in the sense of hiding the moose from other animals, but cars are not something the moose should want to hide from. And moose, using their animal’s intelligence, have figured out that roads are very convenient to get from one place to a different place with better food. They think roads are great! But this is not so great for the cars. All drivers have to be watching for something that blends into its surroundings really well.

The best way to see a moose is to look for movement out of the corner of your eye. This is a wonderful way to save your life on Alaskan roads. On California roads, movement out of the corner of your eyes is a given. Roads in Alaska very seldom have two lanes going the same direction. California roads seldom don’t.

After I had been living in San Jose for a while, some friends from Alaska visited me. Of course, we had to drive to get around. They were totally excited by the highways. “It’s just like a video game! This is so cool! I don’t know how you do it!”

posted by Murphy 4/29/2002

Sunday, April 28, 2002

I’ve been contemplating the issues of barriers to entry. Barriers that stand in the way of ideas being recognized.

Ideas, or creativity, are really important. On a low level, they might be called problem-solving skills. You know? Looking at a problem and finding ways of resolving it. Or sometimes just finding a way of re-framing it that reveals new avenues of approaching the solution.

An extremely unpronounceable author, Mihaly Csikzentmihalyi, has written a book about creativity, and how it works. He’s a psychologist, so he uses the tools of psychology to attack the issue. He likes to say that the world is dependent on creativity. Well, that’s not really over-stating the case. Here in Silicon Valley, everyone is familiar with Moore’s Law. “Moore predicted that the number of transistors per integrated circuit would double every 18 months.” In order for Moore to make that prediction, he depended on innovation and creative responses to the problems that arose in trying to get more transistors on that integrated circuit. Naturally, Moore’s law had wider implications that affected other kinds of hardware, and software, and bandwidth expectations, etc.

BUT! My main point is that we KNOW we need innovation. We rely on those geniuses to come up with answers to the problems. We build it into the plan, “At this point in the time line, inspiration will strike.”

And yet. The barriers to entry into the echelons of the creative contributors are very strong. It is hard for just anybody to contribute.

Part of this has to do with expectations. I’ve never been able to forget one thing I learned in a linguistics class…The professor was demonstrating how different languages have different sounds. He said that if a person’s first language does not contain a certain sound (for instance, Russian does not have the “th” sound) not only do they have difficulty pronouncing it, they can’t even hear it. If they are not expecting to hear it, they won’t. Many of my ESL students in Russia could not pronounce “th” at first, they used “s” or “f” instead.

But this is the point: if people are not expecting to hear creative contributions from a certain sector, then if or when those contributions are given, they will not be heard.

Let us leave aside the obvious problem, that the “unexpected” groups might not be given access to information about the problem to begin solving it.

As I mentioned before, there are significant barriers to entry into the “creative contributors” group. Credentials, money, ethnicity, gender, things like this bar the overwhelming majority of the world’s population from working on the world’s problems.

It’s not fair to anyone to block off potential sources of creativity. We need help to solve big problems. But it is not only that the non-contributing population should be brought up to the level of the creative contributors. The creative people, and the executors of the ideas, need to learn to hear the unexpected.

posted by Murphy 4/28/2002

I promised to share my award winning humor.


I love being able to say that!

Well, here is installment one. More is to come.


Alaska is a place where people go to run away from things. People go there to get away, sometimes from the hustle and crowds of dense population, sometimes from the long arm of the law. Alaska attracts the misfits. There are a lot of adults there who cannot read, criminals who are hiding out, and paranoid people who need a lot of extra space to hold their exaggerated fears. Murderers, drug dealers, crazies and zealots from all over the US find their way to the Last frontier. So where do you go if you are from Alaska?

Growing up in Alaska is like nothing else. I was born there, and being born in Alaska really sets me apart. Most people there are from somewhere else. Because who in their right mind would want to live in Alaska? It’s cold, sure, but that’s not the big part. It’s the people. Or more specifically, the lack of them. A large crowd has a different meaning there. First of all, it would be hard to find enough people to make a crowd. Second of all, Alaskans are not really joiners of things, even crowds. By nature they are separators. They separated themselves from civilization by living in Alaska, why would they want to be part of civilization in the form a crowd once they’ve managed to lose those annoying masses from the lower 48 states?

A traffic jam is not exactly unheard of there. But it would not be caused by rush hour. Traffic only jams up when the two-lane highway gets blocked because someone hit a moose. And when a moose gets in a car accident, usually the moose and the car fare equally badly. Also, if the moose is killed, it is necessary to call someone to gather up what’s left of the moose and save it. That’s good eatin’!

Roads, though, are something else entirely. First of all, pavement is a luxury. Most roads are gravel or dirt. State highways are paved, true. But the whole half million square miles of Alaskan land only has three highways. That’s enough to get wherever you need to go. In fact, for some people, not having a road to get to their home is a selling point.

Now that I live in California, I have had to learn about roads. Highways and freeways and expressways. Turn lanes, exit lanes and carpool lanes. Roads that are labeled south and north but actually are going east and west. Or roads that you expect to be labeled north or south but are instead labeled by small towns that are in a northerly or southerly direction, and you are just supposed to know which is which.

In Alaska, in the wintertime after it snows, the only way you know which lane is which is by the two wheel tracks in the middle of the snow. Lines, white, yellow or dotted, can’t be seen underneath the snow. In California, they might not have lines either. They have bumps that glow in the dark. Which is fine, at night. But during the day, if you don’t know what you are looking for, you end up “driving by Braille.” It’s kind of scary when it first happens. Because you know what an Alaskan driver is thinking?

“Oh my god! I’m hitting a moose!”

posted by Murphy 4/28/2002

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