Anxious about ambiguity: Maybe everything is not black and white

When you think about it, a computer is a pretty dumb machine. As any programmer will tell you, it does exactly what you tell it to do — no more, no less — for better or worse.

Literally, a missed period can cause a program to fail or to mail out checks for $1,000 that were supposed to be $100. Heck, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration lost a $125,000,000 (that’s million, folks) Mars orbiter because one programming team used decimal measurements and the other used metric. Yes, this kind of thing really does happen.

So, because I’ve been working with computers nearly my whole life, I’ve become very pragmatic, to say the least. Any ambiguity in anything leaves me scratching my head, or worse. Let me give you a couple of examples.

A lady I know once told me she built a bed for her son. Now that’s impressive: Here’s an ordinary woman doing quality woodworking to build something useful and practical for her family. Great story. Of course, “inquiring minds want to know” more, so I had to ask her one specific question.

Building a bed is not especially complicated. All it is is an elevated platform with slats to hold a box spring and mattress. You can make the headboard and footboard all fancy, add in storage, etc, but it’s really just a raised platform.

The complexity comes in how you attach the long side board to the headboard and footboard. You can cut a hole in them (a mortise) and then stick the long sideboard right through them (a tenon). Or you can install some corner braces and lag bolt everything together.

They also make specialized hardware just for this application because it’s so common, consisting of metal fingers that go into a mating slot. I’m sure someone can dream up more ways to do it, but these are the most common.

So I asked my friend, the woman who built the bed for her son, how she handled that joint. Her response was this: “I don't know how I did it — I just did it!”

Er, um, what the blank are you talking about? I mean, I’m pretty sure she wasn’t lying about building the bed. Assuming that’s true, how can you not know what kind of joint you, yourself used when you made it?

Being a computer person, where I’ve been declaring everything down to the most miniscule command-line option painstakingly for decades, this kind of thing just drives me crazy.

Here’s another one. I have a friend who plays the guitar and sings. He’s also gotten pretty good on the harmonica, so much so that, when he goes to certain bars, the band will ask him to come on stage and join them with his harmonica. This happens so often now that he brings a bunch of “harps” with him, all in different keys, so he’ll have the right one to use depending on what tuning their music is in.

I’ve been trying to teach myself to play the harmonica for a long time. I hope to spend a lot of time practicing if and when I finally retire.

The good thing about a harmonica is anyone can just pick one up and blow into it and get sound out. When you do that, you’re going be blowing into more than one hole, which is usually not what you want. The hard thing is getting good enough so that you can get single notes consistently.

From my study of the harmonica (yes, I really do read everything), there are three ways to get single notes: 1) puckering your lips, 2) blocking extra holes with your tongue, and 3) making a u-shape out of your tongue.

Knowing this from my reading, I asked my buddy how he got single notes when he played the harmonica. Here’s what he said, and I’m not making this up: “I don’t know; I just do it.” Sigh.

Here I am with two friends who have done something extraordinary — building a bed from scratch and playing a harmonica on stage with a band — and they can’t even tell me how they did or do it. Can you believe that?

Let’s put it this way — I wrote a computer program to solve the daily Jumble puzzle that’s in the newspaper. I use it when I don’t have time to figure it out by hand or when it’s especially difficult.

If my friends asked me how I did it, I could simply give them the code and show it to them in black and white. No ambiguity at all. Why can’t the rest of life be like this?

The bed my lady friend made exists (I think); she must know how it’s built. My buddy is playing single notes on the harmonica; clearly he should know how he’s doing it. Yet good luck getting a straight answer from either of them.

I know, I know, everyone is different. Not everyone is as detail-oriented as it takes to program a computer, or to do open-heart surgery, or any one of another really technical things like that. Some people are more free-spirited, which is great, because we need all types of people in the world to keep things vibrant and interesting.

Still, as a detail-oriented person, I am frustrated by some things because they just can’t be learned or taught in sequence like the computer programs I’m used to.

Like learning how to swim: I’ve taken the Red Cross adult learn-to-swim program twice, and I’m still not good at it. I even suggested to them: Why don’t you teach treading water first? Treading water is a way to keep yourself from drowning.

If they taught me that first, I’d totally lose my fear of water, and that would make me much more confident. But it doesn't work that way — first you have to learn to put your head under water, then the front float, then the back float, etc.

That’s great for a lot of people I suppose, because they keep teaching it that way, but I just know that, for me, if they taught me how not to drown first, I’d feel much more comfortable in the water.

Let me finish with this: My father is famous far and wide for his delicious homemade real Italian meatballs. In fact, I’m telling my brothers that when he dies we should put “Here lies the Meatball Man” on his tombstone.

In the past, I’ve tried to get his meatball recipe, and it’s always like this: “Just put some ground beef and ground pork, some breadcrumbs, an egg …” and it goes on from there. No amounts, no measuring, no times, nothing.

I’m a professional programmer looking for step-by-step instructions so you can imagine how much this helps me (not at all). I suppose I should just go and watch him do it in person. Maybe some things are just better done that way. I'll let you know when I try that how it comes out.

Consider this quote by Thomas Reid, a religiously trained Scottish philosopher: “There is no greater impediment to the advancement of knowledge than the ambiguity of words.”

Maybe everything is not black and white the way that we detail-oriented programmers like it. If that’s the case, I better get over to my father’s house right now and watch him make some meatballs while he’s still around to do it.