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October 1st, 2003
01:54 am
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The sly and subtle art
So I'm uploading the stories for tomorrow's newspaper onto my employer's Web site, as I always do right before leaving work.

I get to today's top story -- some local researchers have discovered that the first gold found in Auburn during the California Gold Rush, in 1848, may not have been found where everybody assumes it was found.

Along with the top stories, we upload the artwork that was used with the story. The secondary art -- of the two researchers -- I named "1001gold.jpg," because that's what the story package was slugged, and that way I could keep everything straight when I went to do the actual uploading. The dominant photo on the front page -- as those in the biz call it, the day's "lead art" -- was a picture of a statue of Claude Chana, the prospector in question. I uploaded the file as "1001lead.jpg", as is our standard style.

And it suddenly strikes me, while I'm linking the story and the two pictures together so that they'll appear with the proper relative placement, just how arcane all this is. Think about it. At my command I have this stack of ingredients -- bits of data, ones and zeroes, some of which display as brightly colored pixels and some of which display as words. I'm putting them together with predefined recipes that, at some deep level four steps removed from my immediate comprehension, tell this silent, boxy servant on my desk how to turn those ingredients into a Web page.

I'm messing with magic. At base it's all ones and zeroes, but up here, in the world of people, it's arcane and arbitrary formulas that create strange and wonderful results -- and the more you let yourself stop and think about it, the more inscrutable the process becomes. How does the Web browser parse the HTML? How does the operating system interpret the Web browser's instructions? How do the little electronic pathways of the CPU turn the operating system's pulses of energy into meaningful data?

It's alchemy, I tell you. I stopped and thought about this, and I felt like a medieval alchemist mixing strange potions into miracle cures.

But then I took a deep breath and paused for a reality check. Just because it's inscrutable from here doesn't mean that it doesn't have perfectly rational explanations all the way down to every single electron. It may be unnerving, but it's solid, predictable rules. No matter how crazy the process of assembling the photos properly might seem from a detached perspective ... this isn't alchemy; it's science.

Thus reassured, I shrugged, and continued chaining lead.jpg into gold.jpg.

Current Mood: deviousdevious
Current Music: "Decisive Battle," Final Fantasy Tactics OST
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From:baxil
Date:October 1st, 2003 02:22 am (UTC)
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I admit it: The entire post was nothing but an excuse to make that pun.
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From:quen_elf
Date:October 1st, 2003 03:46 pm (UTC)
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I worked that out before seeing your comment :)

Even so, I suppose computers must seem kind of magical to ordinary non-programmers, who often have no concept about what computers can do (anything that you can define as a series of simple, logical steps) and what they can't do or can do only with extreme difficulty (anything that you can't define that way, like recognising somebody's face).

As a programmer I basically know on a general level how everything works from the lowest software level upwards (I don't understand electronics or how computer hardware works on a low level, but I do know the sort of things it can do). So if you point at any feature of any piece of software and ask 'how does it do that?' I'll be able to make some kind of supposition that will probably be more or less accurate. (The vagueness of this answer will depend on how complicate the feature is and whether it's an area I know about particularly.) It's really rare that I look at something on a PC and think 'wow, how does it do that'.

On the other hand if you ask me about some complicated chemical/mechanical process I will have absolutely no clue. So I guess as far as I'm concerned, the internal combustion engine might quite possibly end up turning unleaded to gold. :>
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From:baxil
Date:October 2nd, 2003 01:51 am (UTC)
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True, although I think from a gut-instinct perspective, it stops being science and starts being magic when you can't even track it with a microscope -- when the processors get so minaturized that you can't point out the similarities between an electronics board and a microchip without sticking the microchip in an equally expensive machine that shoots electrons at the chip and paints a view of it onto a big monitor.

I've got about the same level of technical competence you do (although it's been years since I actually programmed, and I never received any formal instruction on the hardware side of things), and at some level between the micro and the macro, there's just a disconnect there for me.

I know that stepwise you can trace it back to first principles, and I could probably even explain to a technically inclined guy most or all of the steps ... but, at the end of the day, you still have this coin-sized object that is essentially a black box, because we have no direct way of verifying that it actually operates in the manner we say it does, other than trusting the word of the people who made it. (And even they have to trust the machines they made to do the making, and so on, back to the first step of the bootstrap that can still be made by hand ...)
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From:mr_silvers
Date:October 1st, 2003 02:27 am (UTC)
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You are very strange, sir.
From:raki
Date:October 1st, 2003 02:42 am (UTC)
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Try carbon to silicon... that was (more or less) the subject of an email to you earlier today. }:=8D
From:raki
Date:October 1st, 2003 05:31 am (UTC)
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Incidentally, the second-last paragraph inspired this uberlong Tomorrowlands forum post about magic and reason, which threw me off writing a journal entry of my own. So go reply. }:=8p
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From:baxil
Date:October 2nd, 2003 01:52 am (UTC)
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As soon as I get my own long-waiting journal entry written up.
From:hilarypoet
Date:October 1st, 2003 10:34 am (UTC)

alchemy and touching memories

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Think how strange this whole post feels to me, cause I grew up over a newspaper office, where I was allowed to sit under the table to watch the linotype operator. (It was a small operation). For a treat he would give me discarded lead slugs with words on them (Backwards) to play with.

And I also play a character pivotal in the discovery of gold, Jenny Wimmer.

I long ago decided that the "universal solvent" was a metaphor for human memory...
From:premchai21
Date:October 1st, 2003 09:08 pm (UTC)
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I anticipated that pun from first when the filenames were mentioned.

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From:baxil
Date:October 2nd, 2003 01:54 am (UTC)
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Alas, that was probably unavoidable. I tried to obfuscate where I could, but the words lead to that sort of connection pretty directly. (Which is how I realized it in the first place, incidentally. It didn't even occur to me until well after I'd already named the files.)
From:premchai21
Date:November 14th, 2003 12:31 am (UTC)
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I should have posted this earlier, really—and I would have if I had thought of it then. You've probably seen this before, but it just seemed so appropriate that I couldn't help but put a link to it here...

ImageMagick, the image manipulation library. They even have a scripting language for it that gets interpreted by conjure.

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