Bird’s Eye

I wonder if a bird can fly so high

It sees the place where the sea leaves the sky.

Does it behold the earth curving away far below,

Emerald and sapphire in the sun’s radiant glow?

Do fowl of the air watch day dawn and day set,

Hovering high in the air, defying gravity’s net?

Have they, ever since they have flown,

Of the earth’s spherical shape known?

Who Watches the Watchmen?

rorschach

First published in 12 issues from 1986 to 1987, Watchmen has long been recognized as one of the greater (if not greatest) graphic novels of all time. So I finally decided to see what all the fuss was about. Written by Alan Moore and illustrated by Dave Gibbons, Watchmen is a dark and twisted tale of competing moralities.

Set in the Cold War era, Watchmen reimagines what the 20th century might have been like in the presence of superhuman protectors. Emerging in the 1940’s-1960’s, these protectors maintained order and even helped America win the Vietnam War.

Now, those heroes not working for the U.S. government are in hiding, and a government-employed hero named “The Comedian” has been murdered in New York City.

Watchmen traces the story of masked vigilante Rorschach and others as they try to determine who killed the Comedian, and why. Not a conventional murder mystery, this tale intersperses flashbacks that reveal characters’ pasts as well as telling the story of a marooned settler trying to warn a town of an impending pirate attack (a story within a story!). The nonlinearity of the story could easily be confusing, but the plot stays quite clear and there are interesting overlaps and symbolism between parallel storylines.

The characters are also interesting. Armed only with a grappling gun and his own wits, Rorschach exercises a legalistic morality on the world, a morality with no concept of mercy. Dr. Manhattan (the blue guy), the product of an experimental accident that imbues him with near god-like abilities, experiences life as if it is all happening at once, making him wonder if man has any control over what happens, or if the quantum reality is that everything simply is–inevitable.

doc-mars-palace

Without spoiling anything for the curious, I will simply say that one of the main themes of Watchmen, while interesting, is very, very wrong. The ending makes sense in the context of the story, but it is an ending that pits human existence against morality and finally claims that human life is more important than morality. That’s a dichotomy I disagree with.

Note: this story has quite a bit of graphic violence, sex, and cursing, some of which seems excessive but usually makes sense in the context of the plot. Something to be aware of.

This is not a graphic novel I will read more than once, but I am glad I read it. Filled with interesting (albeit disturbing) ideas, characters, and themes, Watchmen gives a unique glimpse into a quite different view of reality–one with no room for mercy or grace. The greatest graphic novel of all time? I think not, but I can understand the appeal.

Misconceptions in Programming

Having been in college for the past 41 months in pursuit of a CIS (Computer Information Systems) degree, I fancied myself somewhat knowledgeable in the area computers and (to a very small degree) programming. However, courtesy of a class that I have had the good fortune to be enrolled in, my views on computer programming have shifted, and that is what I would like to share today. The views expressed in the following paragraphs do not ONLY apply to computer programming, so even if you don’t have the slightest interest in computer code hopefully you can still find this short post somewhat interesting.

So, to begin with…some history. For most of the time that I have spent in college my number 1 question related to programming has been:

What programming language should I learn?

I asked teachers, recruiters, other programmers, receiving almost as many answers as the number of people that I approached. This pretty much described my life up until the beginning of this past quarter (started around Dec 1st of 2014) when I began taking computer science 120: intro to programming, and this brings me to my first point:TitleImage_Python

Programming is NOT about the language

Just like spoken words are not the main point of communication (communicating is), neither are the languages of computer programming the main point of software development. Spoken languages exist to facilitate the communication of ideas, truths, and emotions. Similarly, programming languages simply exist for the communication and creation of ideas and content. Think about it for a moment: the code behind Google Maps exists to represent reality (the geographic and topological layout of the globe) to enable people to get directions and find their way from one place to another. For years all I thought about was, “Which language should I learn to make myself marketable as an IT professional?”. However, the right question would be, “How can I better prepare myself to solve real world problems with a computer?”. As with spoken language, the ideas and logic that provide the foundation of meaning and purpose matter much more than the specific linguistic way it is finally expressed (e.g. Spanish vs. English). Ultimately, programming is all about problem solving just like engineering, theology, art, philosophy, plumbing, trash pick-up, and politics. In the computer science class I am currently enrolled in, the professor stresses the problem solving strategies and ways of approaching problems much more than the specific language we are using (Java).

However, this brings me to my second point:

Programming is an art form…

…like painting, sculpture, or music. After all, the purpose of visual and musical art is to communicate ideas and represent reality. Michelangelo didn’t create his amazing sculptures without some intention of them representing how people really looked and felt, and Bach didn’t write his music without intending to communicate and represent real emotions to his audience. Going back to my Google Maps example, the code behind the online service was written to mimic and represent the reality of the road systems of the world. Some artists paint on canvases, or with notes, or in languages (literary), but programmers paint in code. Just as the medium that Michelangelo chose to communicate (pencil, paint, sculpture) mattered much less than what he was trying to say, so the language used by programmers takes second stage to what they are trying to communicate/accomplish.

Do you want to be a programmer? To paint on a virtual canvas that millions (and maybe even billions of people) will interact with? Then learn how to solve problems; learn how to strive for perfection. Leonardo Da Vinci did not paint the Mona Lisa his first day on the job. Also, don’t be afraid to fail -without failure there is no learning. As someone who used to draw, I can attest that 90% of everything I created was junk, but that the ninety-percent had to be worked through before the good 1% (and mediocre 9%) could be created. Learn the tools of your trade, but more importantly learn how to communicate and solve the problems, ideas, emotions, and meaning that drive every aspect of human life. That is how you can become a truly great artist, engineer, plumber, truck driver, or programmer.

Theme for a Thief

With masked face and padded gloves

He slowly creeps the closer.

A wanted man! A famous thief!

Although he has no poster.

The night envelops the devious one

As he makes his way

And rapaciously destroys some goods!

The ruins are seen next day.

The food is claimed, the cans picked clean

For his stomach did demand it.

I will catch you one of these days,

You furry little bandit!

Into the Woods of this World

Into the woods…I have always liked the phrase, even as a small child. Is it any surprise, then, that when I discovered Stephen Sondheim’s musical, Into the Woods, it instantly became not just one of my favorite musicals, but one of my favorite stories. There is nothing so grand in this world as finding someone, or in this case, something, that sees the world the way you do, like Into the Woods does. “There are always wolves, there are always spells, there are always beans, or a giant dwells there…” the characters sing. The woods are very real; they are the world.

Perhaps I continually find myself coming back to this musical because I, myself, am about to enter the woods, embarking on a teaching career. I’m in the second semester of my junior year at college. In a little under a year, I’ll be student teaching. In a little over a year, God willing, I’ll have my own classroom. This semester, I’ll be assisting a teacher in their classroom. Soon, very soon, I will have children looking to me “for which way to turn.” I will have children listening to me. I’ve played that song, the finale of Into the Woods, “Children Will Listen,” many times since entering into the advanced stages of my degree. “Careful the things you say, children will listen,” sings the Witch, “Careful the things you do, children will see and learn.”

To be someone children will look up to is quite a responsibility, to put it mildly, and I doubt it’s always going to be a pleasant one, if Sondheim is anyone to go by. One version of the song remind you: “Children may not obey, but children will listen. Children will look to you for which way to turn, to learn what to be. Careful before you say, ‘Listen to me.’ Children will listen.” In fact, recently, I was hearing a principal talk about the influence a teacher has. “I can’t tell you how may emails I’ve gotten from former students, telling me how important I was in their lives,” he told us. Then he grinned, a bit wryly. “Now, a lot of the students aren’t the ones I have fond memories of.” Then, he became serious again. “But that’s how important you, as a teacher are, though you may not know it.”

Be careful what you say: “Careful the spell you cast…Careful the tale you tell. That is the spell.” I am a spell-caster, and a very powerful one.

However, as I’m constantly reminding myself, there’s a bit more than simple hearing involved in this spell. This tale I tell is my life, from the words I speak to the gestures I make. Quite frankly, this thought sometimes makes me want to run screaming from the woods and curl up in my safe, warm bed.

But I am not that sort of explorer. I did not decide to become a teacher so I could never speak a word. I wanted to go into the woods, and I want the tale of that journey to be told. Who better to tell it to than the children, who will listen?