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Of Frigates, Grasshoppers and Physicality

"Ships in ports are safe; but that's not what ships are built for" -Grace Hopper.


If anything, Grace Hopper was a legend both as a pioneer in the computing industry and in the American Navy. (interestingly enough, although her name is actually Hopper, there were over 500 hits with the misspelled version "Hooper"...what a travesty for such a remarkable lady!) Her list of achievements is long, distinguished and significant, including over 37 honorary degrees. She created the first computer compiler (to translate a human-programmed language into machine language), was instrumental in the creation of the COBOL programming language, and worked on the now-famous Mark II computer, whose log included the first computer 'bug', when an operator found that a moth had short circuited one of the 17000 relays, and dutifully taped it to the log pages, reporting "bug found to have caused problem". Buried in the many honours she received, and as a reflection of a throwback to a different time, she received the "Man of the Year Award" from the Data Processing Management Association (DPMA). As a member of the Edmonton branch of that organization at the time, I was honoured to hear her speak one evening of her accomplishments and her journey.

One thing she did was hold up an 18-inch long piece of wire and pronounced it to "be a millisecond". She had a whole bundle that she gave out as "calling cards". Mine, I suspect, is still in one of the many collection boxes buried in my crawl space somewhere. What is the significance? She said she kept getting asked by people "How long is a millisecond?" They couldn't wrap their heads around the incredible speed that computer machine cycles were measured in back then. Eighteen inches was how far a signal travelled in a computer in a millisesond.

I mention this because we seem to have this overriding need to "see" or "place" things that aren't 'things'. I'm finding that Jay struggles with the same concept to a degree in his book. He muses upon 'where' consciousness is placed within the brain, leaving me with the impression that things would be much tidier if we could point to a particular lobe, or series of axons and say "There it is!". He mentions that he envisages it somewhere centrally behind the eyes, since the eyes and ears are our major sensory input devices, but then wonders about Helen Keller who was deaf and blind, but certainly not "insensitive"!

So I started wondering the same thing, but I wondered why we seem to have the need for placement. Do we try to place things like 'pride', or 'failure', or 'ethics'? All my life, I've been a very slow reader, and so have tended not to read very much, and actually seldom complete a book I start. I think I might be understanding why now. By way of illustration, early in his book, Jay was making a point about how much we do without conscious thought, and used driving a car as an example (checking the mirrors, adjusting pressure on the pedals, etc.). As I read that, my mind was suddenly focussed on the exact moment that I remember, as if it were just yesterday, when I "got it" while learning to drive stick shift, and my mind wandered off to that day and that story. It left his message behind, to be replaced by my own word and thought associations. I found myself reading, and re-reading Jay's words, because they weren't telling my story, rather his story was re-triggering parts of mine. That's when I realized that the location of my consciousness was hovering about half an inch above the page where the words Jay had written appeared. It was on my side of his words. I also pictured his consciousness hovering about half an inch on the other side (or the underside) of the words, both of our consciousnesses mirrored by the printed words themselves. Perhaps this image associates itself with the concept of a "meeting of the minds".

That's when I also realized that I wasn't reading Jay's book, I was reading my interpretation of his words. The only interface between him and I was this moveable, bound object called a 'book'; that, together with one evening where I had met him on a social basis. I know nothing else of the man, his background, his ideas or attitudes. I have no knowledge of his motivation for writing the book except that he has a curiousity about the scientific view of the conscious mind. I have a similar curiousity, but because of who I am and my lifelong interest in the teaching/learning paradigm, my curiousity is biased by how we learn, and what impact being bipolar might have on the equation. His motivation, curiousity and bias are quite different, I'm sure.

I find myself often backtracking and re-reading portions of his book (and all books I read) for other reasons also. He doesn't use the words or grammar I would have used. Our styles are different, so I find myself mentally saying, "Hmmm..that didn't make sense on the first read...better go back and check the words and their context and the way he's punctuated it again, so you don't lose his meaning".

He speaks of numbers (like "there are likely 100 billion neurons in the brain, about as many neurons as there are trees in the Amazon rainforest"-Page 47), and I wonder things like "Is that a lot?" The rainforest is being devastated every moment, and computer timing is measured in trillionths of a second (picosecond) now, so I have an image of it being a relatively small number in the context of the complexity of our brain, but I get the sense that he meant 'big'. Who counted them? It's the Grace Hopper complex. We seem to have a need for perspective before we can grasp an understanding. We need to turn it into something familiar. At least I do. I mentioned before that I'm a visual learner, a visual thinker, and my tendency when I was teaching was to use metaphors extensively. I'd try different ones until I found one that would cause me to see that little "Aha! Now I've got it!" look in a student's eye. I watched eyes closely for feedback. I suppose that's part of the reason that I find writing, and the selection of words, so difficult at times.

Some years back, 1972-1975 to be exact, there was a popular television series called "Kung Fu" starring David Carradine. It told the adventures of a Kung Fu practitioner in the Old West, but who had been raised and trained in the ways of the Mythic and Mystic East. The peaceful warrior. The show started showing Carradine as a young boy being trained by the Shaolin master, who held a stone in his open palm and said, "Grasshopper, when you can snatch the pebble from my hand, it will be time for you to go".

Even training in the sacred ways of the wise, it seems, needed some form of visual measurement, verification or validation. It puzzles me, but more than puzzling, I find it fascinating.

At both a profound and a simple level.

GraceHopper
m i r r o r (.)
Grasshopper


Minds hovering closely.

PEACE
MIRRORED
THROUGH
TOLERANCE



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  • I'm Evydense
  • From Edmonton, Alberta, Canada
  • And I'm tired of living in the shadow of narrow-mindedness and ignorance. So here's the fax, Jack! "The Bible contains six admonishments to homosexuals and three hundred and sixty-two admonishments to heterosexuals. That doesn't mean that God doesn't love heterosexuals. It's just that they need more supervision." - Lynne Lavner*** I'm confused; curious; satisfied; realistically resigned to being a frustrated idealist; usually at peace with myself, but not always. Amazed at how little I know, and wondering how much I need to understand.
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