A while back, I mentioned reading "Manhood for Amateurs". Like many of you, I collect quotes and passages. These days, I collect them in text files, a growing collection of digital commonplace books that I store in one of my folders of stuff. "Manhood for Amateurs" gave me many. Some seem as true about my life as programmer or teacher as they are about manhood or the world more generally.
... I never truly felt [the immensity of the universe] until I looked through a first-rate instrument at an unspoiled sky.
Call me crazy, but this brought to mind the summer I learned Smalltalk. I had been programming for ten years. When I first opened that Digitalk image and felt like I'd walked through the back of C.S. Lewis's wardrobe. After working through a simple tutorial from the manual, I was ready to explore. The whole world of computer science seemed to lie before me, written in simple sentences. Even arithmetic was implemented right there for me to read, to play with.
Smalltalk was my first first-rate instrument.
(Scheme was my second. There is nothing there! Just a few functions. The paucity of types, functions, objects, and libraries let me focus on what had to be there.)
the dark tide of magical boredom [... was ...] the source of all my inspiration
I wonder how much of my desire to program early on was driven by the stark fact that, if I wanted the computer to do anything, I had to teach it. There are so many distractions these days, on the computer and off. Will some possible future programmers never have a chance to create a desire out of their own bored minds' search?
If we are conducting our lives in the usual fashion, each of us serves as a constant source of embarrassment to his or her future self....
Spoken like a programmer. If you don't believe me, dig out some of your old code and read it.
Everything you love most is a lifelong focus of insufficiency.
Chabon is speaking as a man, a son, a husband, a father, and also, I presume, a writer. I feel this insufficiency as a teacher and as a programmer.
Every work of art is a secret handshake, a challenge that seeks the password, a heliograph flashed from a tower window, an act of hopeless optimism in the service of bottomless longing.
Okay, so this is more poetic than some of my programmer friends care to be, but it made me think of some of the little gems of code I have stumbled upon over the years. They were conceived in a programmer's mind and made real, then shared with the world. One of the great joys of living in this age is open-source software world and having the web and GitHub and CPAN available. It is so easy to find software created by a fellow artist out of love and hope and magic. It is so easy to share our own creations.
That leads me to one last quote, which comes from an essay in which Chabon describes his experience as a member of writers' workshops in his MFA program. He was a young poseur, being as dishonest to himself as he was to the people around him. He began to grow up when he realized something:
Without taking themselves half as seriously as I did, they were all twice as serious about what they were doing.
Take a look at all the wonderful work being done in the software world and being shared and written about for us. Then see if you can look yourself in the mirror and pretend you are anything but just another beginner on a path to being better. Then, get serious.
(Just don't mistake being serious with not having fun!)
A couple of weeks ago, many people were discussing this response by Jeff Bezos to a question at Amazon's shareholder meeting, in a nutshell, "I don't see the company failing much these days. Is it taking enough risks?" Understandably, most of the discussion was about Bezos's description of how Amazon's corporate culture supports long-term vision and incremental innovation. Again, in a nutshell, "We are stubborn on vision. We are flexible on details."
But the passage that jumped out to the faculty member in me was this one:
We start with the customer and work backwards. And, very importantly, we are willing to be misunderstood for long periods of time.
First let me say that I do not believe that students are the "customers" of a university or academic department. They are a strange mix of many things, including product, collaborator, and customer. Still, the idea of starting with the student and working backwards strikes me as an intriguing but uncommon way for faculty to think about their curricula and courses. We talk a lot these days about student outcomes assessment, which can be a useful tool for accountability and continuous feedback in curriculum design but which is usually treated as a chore added on after the fact to courses we think are best.
Even when faculties do start with the student, they tend to start at the beginning -- "the basics" -- and design their first-year courses around what they think their students need to know for the rest of the program. The real starting point is the body of knowledge that we think constitutes the discipline. We design courses around the topics of the discipline and, to the extent we think of students, we think of how to teach the basic ideas and skills they need to master those topical areas.
The above is a generalization, both of how the faculties I have been a part of seem to work and of how the faculties my colleagues describe to me seem to work. But I do not think that it is so inaccurate as to be not useful.
So that is the context in which I thought about Bezos's remark and began to think. What if we start with what we would like for our students to know and be able to do on graduation day, and work backwards? Start curriculum design not with CS 1 but with a capstone project course. What will students be able to do in that course if we have done a good job preparing them? Create one or more courses that prepare them for the project. Recurse.
Yes, I know, education is about more than concrete skills, and it is more complicated than stacking one block on top of another. I am just trying think outside of the self-imposed constraints that usually hem us in academia and see where we might go.
I have written about something similar before, Dave West's and Pam Rostal's vision of competency-based curriculum design as presented at the OOPSLA 2005 Educators' Symposium and elaborated in a ChiliPLoP 2008 hot topic. But I don't know about any schools have truly started at the endpoint and worked backward. If you so, please let me know.
I've been off-line a lot lately, doing physical therapy for my knee and traveling a bit. That means I have a lot of fun reading to catch up on! One page that made the rounds recently is Advice From An Old Programmer, from Zed Shaw's intro book, Learn Python The Hard Way. Shaw has always been a thoughtful developer and an entertaining writer with a unique take on programming. Now he has put his money where his mouth is with a book that aims to teach programming in a style he thinks most effective for learners.
I look forward to digging into the book soon, but for now his advice page has piqued a lot of interest. For example:
Programming as a profession is only moderately interesting. It can be a good job, but you could make about the same money and be happier running a fast food joint. You're much better off using code as your secret weapon in another profession.
As a matter of personal opinion, I disagree with the first sentence, and could never make the switch discussed in the second. But I do think that the idea of programming as a secret weapon in other professions has a lot to offer people who would never want to be computer scientists or full-time software developers. It's a powerful tool that frees you from wishing you have a programmer around. It changes how you can think about problems in your discipline and lets you ask new questions.
Finally, Shaw tells his readers not too worry when non-programmers treat them badly because they are now nerds who can program. He gives good reasons why you shouldn't care about such taunts, and then sums it up in a Zed Shaw-like killer closing line:
You can code. They cannot. That is pretty damn cool.
Many people are talking about Conan O'Brien's recent commencement address at Dartmouth, in which he delivered vintage Conan stand-up for fifteen minutes and a thoughtful, encouraging, and wise message about failure. We talk about the virtues of failure in many contexts, including start-ups, agile software development, and learning. O'Brien reminds us that failure hurts. It makes us question our dreams and ourselves. But out of the loss can come conviction, creation, and re-creation. Indeed, it is in failing to achieve the ideals we set for ourselves that ends up making us who we are. Your dream will change. That's okay.
If you haven't seen this speech, check it out. It really is quite good, both entertaining and educational. If you are not particularly a fan of O'Brien's stand-up, you can skip to 15:40 or even 16:15 to get to the important message at its heart.
I've been thinking about failure and liberal arts colleges in New England in recent days, as my daughter prepares to head off for the latter with a little fear of the former. So this talk meant a lot to me. She isn't sure yet what she wants to major in or do for a living. This has been tough, because she has felt subtle pressure from a lot of people that she should have a big dream, or at least have a specific goal to work toward. But she likes so many things and isn't ready to specialize yet.
So she went looking for a liberal arts college. Then she hears a lot about unemployed English grads, students who lack practical job skills, and 20-somethings with crushing loan debts and no prospect of paying them off. That's where the fear comes in...
But I think people are making a fallacious connection between undergraduate education and professional prospects. First of all, a student can go to school with a particular job path in mind, amass huge debt, and enter a profession that doesn't pay well enough to pay it off. I saw news articles in the last year that talked about problems some grads have faced with degrees in social work and counseling psychology. There is nothing wrong with these degrees per se, but the combination of low median pay and debt amassed even at public schools can be deadly.
Second, and perhaps more important, many people seem to misunderstand the nature of a liberal education. They think it means studying only "soft" academic disciplines in the humanities, such as literature, history, and philosophy. Maybe that is what most people mean by the term, but I think about it more broadly as the freedom to read and study widely. Liberal arts majors are not limited to studying only in the humanities. They can study literature and also economics, chemistry, and international relations. They can study languages and also political science and a little math; history and also graphic design. They could even learn a little computer programming.
The sciences are part of a liberal education. I think CS can be, too. And the small size of many liberal arts majors gives students the freedom to sample broadly across the spectrum of human knowledge and skills.
The danger of a liberal arts education is that some students and professors take it as license to study only in the humanities. But the ultimate value of a liberal arts education lies not in that narrow circle, as valuable and rewarding as it can be in its own right. The value lies in intersections: the ability to understand them, the ability to recognize them, and the ability to work in them. It is most desirable to learn something about a lot of different things, even real problems and real solutions in the modern world. Put together with a few key skills, the combination is powerful.
Just as it's important not to be too narrowly trained, it's important not to be too narrowly "liberally educated".
So I've encouraged my daughter not to worry about her lack of narrow focus just yet. She has a lot to learn yet, most importantly about the challenging problems that will vex humanity in the coming century. Many of them lie at the intersection of several disciplines, and solving them will be the responsibility of well-prepared minds.
For the last year or so, there seems to have been something of a backlash against agile software development. A lot of conference speakers and bloggers have been telling us about the failures of the move to agile approaches, both the misconceptions at its base and the misdirections in its evolution. I have been especially uncomfortable watching writers and consultants who have teaching the world the ways of agile development join the bandwagon.
Don't get me wrong. I am aware that agile development has its weaknesses; all things do. I'm also aware that the social and technical movement leading to its adoption across our industry has had its problems; all movements do. I do believe that we should understand the weaknesses in our practices and our methods for teaching the world about them, so that we can learn how to do those things better. Still, it's been a little disconcerting to watch the backlash proceed.
Then again, in my short career, I've seen something similar happen to design patterns, object-oriented programming, and structured programming. It seems the natural order of history in our business. I've long wondered why.
Then I came across The Return of the Barbarian, which tells the story of humans history as a cycle between barbarian culture and civilization. If we think of the software world in similar terms, our own history makes sense. Agile software development was once the barbarian. Now its the civilized culture, ripe to be conquered by a new, hungry barbarian.
How so? Think back to before the days of agile. The software world, broadly speaking, had an entrenched culture that we all recognize. Developers and clients were different breeds. Developers and users, too. We documented stable requirements, designed up front a software system to deliver them, and passed the design onto programmers, wrote code. When the process didn't go as well as planned, programmers worked longer and harder to meet their deadlines. This was an idealized world, to be sure, but we strove hard to meet the ideal. People who had made this style of development work -- smart people, energetic people -- codified their knowledge in textbooks and training courses, so that the rest of us could learn how to duplicate their successes. Anyone willing to study could learn the techniques and become part of civilized society.
Collectively, we were wise, but individually, we were weak, really, going through the motions.
Along came agile. It turns out that there were world-class developers -- smart people, energetic people -- who did things differently. They worked closely with their clients and users. They collaborated heavily among themselves. They took small steps, refactored their code, and grew their software, rather than erecting it. To many in the industry, this was a romantic way to live and work, and they wanted to join in the fun.
The dominant software culture didn't see it that way, though. Agile looked, well, barbaric. What happens when a cowboy programmer does something to break the system? How can we write programs if we don't know everything about what it should do? Where are the systematic controls on the process? Those entrenched in civilized software development culture saw agile methods as a step backward, to a less advanced time. But they were wrong, as we read in "The Return of the Barbarian":
The reason this seems like a strange phenomenon is that we confuse refinement with advancement. Finely-crafted jewelry is not more advanced than roughly-hewn jewelry. A Boeing 747 is about a million times more capable than the Wright Flyer I, but it does not contain a million times as much intelligence. It is merely more refined.... The difference between advancement and refinement is clearest in disruption. A beautifully-crafted sword is not more advanced than a crude gun. It is merely more refined.
The problem was, the software civilization built around structured programming was more than refined than the agile approaches, but not necessarily more advanced. The system itself was quite intelligent, with much wisdom and knowledge encoded in its practices, its textbooks, and its other literature. But individually, developers did not need to be as sharp, because the system guided them to success (as much as it could).
The above passage is soon followed by a stark distinction:
The intelligence manifest in an artifact is simply the amount of human thought that has been externalized into it. Refinement on the other hand, is a measure of the amount of work that has gone into it. In Hegelian terms, intelligence in design is fundamentally a predatory quality put in by barbarian-Masters. Refinement in design is a non-predatory quality put in by civilized-Slaves.
It was in this context that agile -- a new barbarian culture -- swooped in and made inroads. The existing culture derided it as a fad, but it was in fact a set of advanced values, principles, and practices, less polished than the refined extant culture but full of deep thought and human experience.
Over time, we saw the inevitable cultural evolution. In order to teach agile values, principles, and practices to a wider audience, barbarian-masters wrote down their wisdom in the form of books and conference talks and podcasts and index cards. In order to reach the managerial class of the corporations that build and buy software, first- and second- generation agilista created management seminars and certification programs and the trappings of institutional respectability. The practices were packaged, adjusted... refined. Soon everyone could "do" agile, or at least pretend to, by following the rules. Some folks got it, though not everyone, but most everyone tried to do it.
The agile barbarian has become the civilized Organization Man. Where is the romance in that?
Now new barbarians are at the gate, ready to shove the once-romantic revolutionaries of OO and patterns and agile development out into the streets. It is the natural order.
Here's the thing. Agile approaches still work as well as they did back when they were the knowledge in the minds of great programmers, who were unhindered by the rules that they follow instinctively and break when necessary in the pursuit of a great program. That knowledge was born out of experience and embodied wisdom gained from living in the civilization that came before.
If we want to become like the agile masters, we need to do more than imitate them. We need to live the values, principles, and practices -- to make them our own, not something written in a book or a blog.
Perhaps this is just a fanciful retelling of our history to explain away the agile movement's shortcomings and failures. But I think it carries a grain of truth. A new barbarian knocks down the door as soon as we become too civilized, when we convert our deep, compiled, pragmatic, contextual knowledge into handbooks and notecards and consultants' packaged talks and on-site training courses.
To the extent that my tale is true, I think it offers us a path forward: a reminder to embrace our barbarian past. Each of us can develop his or her own individual intelligence, rather than relying on the external trappings of a civilized movement. Don't let the next revolution cause you to abandon what works well. Look for useful knowledge and practice in the ways of the next wave of barbarians, and use it to get better.
Instead of arguing with others about test-first design, pair programming and refactoring, about collaboration with users, collective code ownership, and sustainable pace, we should simply do them, in the way that fits best our context. This leads by example. It may not scale as fast as the civilized approach, but as we have seen, that approach is fraught with its own dangers.
Besides, the goal isn't to scale or to create a movement. It's to write great programs.
Our state legislature still has not passed a budget for the next fiscal year, which leaves the the university hanging, waiting to set its course for 2011-2012. We expect another round of big cuts, the latest over more than a decade in which the funding base for state universities has eroded rapidly.
I've written before about the fault lines under higher education. I'm really not a Chicken Little sort of person, but I do think it's important that we pay attention to changes in the world and prepare them -- maybe even get ahead of the curve and actively build an institution that serves the state and its people well.
Over the weekend, I read William Deresiewicz's recent piece in The Nation, Faulty Towers: The Crisis in Higher Education, which looks at the pyramid scheme that is graduate education in the humanities. Deresiewicz writes about places like Yale, but much of what he says applies across the academy. This passage made sirens go off in my head:
As Gaye Tuchman explains in Wannabe U (2009), a case study in the sorrows of academic corporatization, deans, provosts and presidents are no longer professors who cycle through administrative duties and then return to teaching and research. Instead, they have become a separate stratum of managerial careerists, jumping from job to job and organization to organization like any other executive: isolated from the faculty and its values, loyal to an ethos of short-term expansion, and trading in the business blather of measurability, revenue streams, mission statements and the like. They do not have the long-term health of their institutions at heart. They want to pump up the stock price (i.e., U.S. News and World Report ranking) and move on to the next fat post.
What we have in academia, in other words, is a microcosm of the American economy as a whole: a self-enriching aristocracy, a swelling and increasingly immiserated proletariat, and a shrinking middle class. The same devil's bargain stabilizes the system: the middle, or at least the upper middle, the tenured professoriate, is allowed to retain its prerogatives -- its comfortable compensation packages, its workplace autonomy and its job security -- in return for acquiescing to the exploitation of the bottom by the top, and indirectly, the betrayal of the future of the entire enterprise.
Things aren't quite that bad at my school. Most of our administrators are home-grown, not outside hires using us as the next rung on their career ladder. But we are susceptible to other trends identified in this article, in particular the rapid growth of the non-faculty staff, both mid-level administrators and support staff for the corporate and human services elements of the university.
Likewise, the situation is different with our faculty. We have relatively few adjuncts teaching courses, and an even smaller proportion of grad students. We are a "teaching university", and our tenured and tenure-track faculty teach three courses each semester. That's great for our students, but our productivity in the classroom makes scrounging for grants and external research dollars hard to do. We may be more productive in the classroom than our research-school brethren, but with less recourse to external dollars we are more dependent on state funding. Unfortunately, our board of regents and our state government don't seem to appreciate this and leave us hanging by much thinner threads as state appropriations dwindle. Now there is talk of assigning faculty who are less productive as researchers to teach a fourth class each semester, which will only further hamper our ability to create and disseminate knowledge -- and our ability to attract external funding.
The idea of career administrators hit close to home for me personally, too, as I enter my third term as a department head. I am at heart a computer scientist and programmer, not an administrator. But it's easy to get sucked into the vortex of paperwork and meetings. I need to think of this year not as the first year of my next term but as the first year of my last term, or perhaps as my third-to-last year. Such a mindset may be a better way for me to aim at goals I think most important while preparing the department for a transition to new leadership.
One last passage in Deresiewicz's article got me to thinking. While talking about the problems with tenure, he points out one of the problems of not having tenure: Who will pursue the kind of research that cannot be converted to a quick buck if faculty can expect to be jettisoned by universities at any time, but especially as they age and become more expensive than new hires?
Doctors and lawyers can set up their own practice, but a professor can't start his own university.
I've been thinking about this idea for a while but don't think I've written about it yet. It's something that really intrigues me. There are so many obstacles lying in the way of achieving the idea, and the differential immediate applied value of the various disciplines is only one. yet it is an interesting thought experiment, one I hope to write about more in the future.
I should probably apologize for the florid prose in this recent post. It was written under the influence of "Manhood for Amateurs", Michael Chabon's book of essays on life, which I was reading at the time. Chabon is a novelist known for his evocative prose, and the language of "Manhood" captivated me. However, such style and vocabulary are perhaps best left to masters like Chabon. In the hands of amateur writers such as me, they pale in comparison.
I am often influenced as a writer by what I've been reading lately. There is something about the rhythm of some authors' words and sentences that vibrates in my mind and finds its way into my own words and sentences. Recognizing this tendency in myself, I often prepare for a bout of writing by reading a particular writer. For example, when I set out to write software patterns, I like to prime my brain by reading Kent Beck's Smalltalk Best Practice Patterns, for its spare, clean, readable style. I do the same when I code, sometimes. Browsing the current code base gets my mind ready to write new code and to refactor. Whenever I used to start a new Smalltalk project, I would browse the image to put myself in a Smalltalk frame of mind. These days, I'll do the same with Ruby -- github is full of projects I admire by programmers whose work I respect.
I can strongly recommend Chabon's book. It gave me as much life as any book I've read in a long while. Men will find themselves on every page of "Manhood". American men of a certain age will recognize and appreciate its cultural allusions even more. Women will find a bit of insight into the minds of the men in their lives, and receive confirmation from one particularly honest man that, most of the time, we don't have a clue what we are doing.
Is there anything in "Manhood" specifically for programmers and other computer types? No, though there are a couple of references to computers, including this one in the essay "Art of Cake":
Cooking satisfies the part of me that enjoys struggling for days to transfer an out-of-print vinyl record by Klaatu to digital format, screwing with scratch filters and noise reducers, only to have the burn fail every time at the very same track.
I love to cook in much the way Chabon describes, but I must admit that I've never had quite the drive to tinker with settings, configuration files, and boot sectors that my Linux friends seem to have. Cooking feels this need need better for me that installing the latest distribution of my operating system. My drive with computers has always been to create things with programs, and in that regard I was most at home in "Manhood" when he talked about writing.
Chabon does have an essay in the closing section of the book that echoes my observation that there is no normal, though his essay explores what it means for daily life to be normal. I usually see connections of this sort to my life, and readers of this blog won't be surprised if I write a post soon about how the truths of life that Chabon explores find themselves residing in the mind of this programmer and teacher.
One note in closing: Good Boy that I am, I must tell you that Chabon uses language I would never use, and he occasionally discusses frankly, though briefly, drug usage and sex. Fortunately, as I grew up, I learned that I could read about things I would never say or do, and benefit from the experience.
After I wrote my previous post, I downloaded the PDF version of the June issue of Chess Life to check out its quality and readability. Lo and behold, the first letter to the editor said:
I would like to seek readers' help in solving my dilemma about Chess Life magazine. Since 1972 -- almost 40 years! -- I have saved every copy of Chess Life. I treasure these magazines, of course, and I want to keep the "streak" going until I pass away. However, I also recognize that mailing magazines is costly for USCF, and that it is much less "green" than reading Chess Life online.
So, dear readers, what should I do? Keep the 40-year streak going despite the cost and environmental impact, or get with the times and read Chess Life online?
The motive force behind my dilemma is less base than wanting to maintain a streak, and yet more selfish than wanting to save the earth. Still, I chuckled at the unexpected conjunction served up by the universe.
While writing that post, I read back over the much older post I linked to, Electronic Communities and Dancing Animals. It contains an extended passage that I reread and thought about for a while:
I know this beauty, and I'm sure you do. We are physical beings. The ability and desire to make and share ideas distinguish us from the rest of the world, but still we are dancing animals. There seems in us an innate need to do, not just think, to move and see and touch and smell and hear. Perhaps this innate trait is why I love to run.
But I am also aware that some folks can't run, or for whatever reason cannot sense our physical world in the same way. Yet many who can't still try to go out and do. At my marathon last weekend, I saw men who had lost use of their legs -- or lost their legs altogether -- making their way over 26.2 tough miles in wheelchairs. The long uphill stretches at the beginning of the course made their success seem impossible, because every time they released their wheels to grab for the next pull forward they lost a little ground. Yet they persevered. These runners' desire to achieve in the face of challenge made my own difficulties seem small.
I suspect that these runners' desire to complete the marathon had as much to do with a sense of loss as with their innate nature as physical beings. And I think that this accounts for Vonnegut's and others' sentiment about the insufficiency of electronic communities: a sense of loss as they watch the world around evolve quickly into something very different from the world in which they grew.
Living in the physical world is clearly an important part of being human. But it seems to be neither necessary nor sufficient as a condition.
Another timely conjunction. I am heartened now by the stout spirit of the runners I saw in DC. I am also reminded anew of how small my own loss is when compared to theirs, and how much more noble its source. Fortunately, I seem to have reached a state of acceptance relatively quickly, enough so that I don't feel much envy or sadness when I see runners pass by my house on the bike trail that leads to many of my favorite routes. Still, at heart, I am a dancing animal.
I remember the day I received my first issue of Chess Life & Review magazine. It was the summer of 1979, in late June or early July. I had won a membership in the U.S. Chess Federation as part of a local goodwill tournament, by virtue of beating my good buddy and only competition for the junior prize. My victory entitled me to the membership as $20 of loot, which includes a portable set I use to this day and a notation book that records my games over a period of five or ten years.
That first issue arrived while I was at summer school. The cover heralded the upcoming U.S. Open championship, but inside the story of Montreal 1979, a super-GM tournament, captivated me with the games of familiar names (Karpov, Tal, Larsen, and Spassky) and new heroes (Portisch, Huuml;bner, Hort, and Ljubojevic). A feature article reviewed films of the 1940s that featured chess and introduced me to Humphrey Bogart's love of and skill at the game I loved to play. Bogart: the man's man, the tough-guy leading man at whose feet women swooned. Bogart! The authors of the magazine's regular columns became my fast friends, and for years thereafter I looked forward monthly to Andy Soltis's fun little stories, which always seemed to teach me something, and Larry Evans's Q-n-A column, which always seemed to entertain.
I was smitten, as perhaps only a young bookish kid can be.
Though I haven't played tournament chess regularly in three decades, I have remained an occasional player, a passionate programmer, and a lovestruck fan. And I've maintained my membership in the USCF, which entitles me to a monthly issue of Chess Life. Though life as husband, father, and professor leave me little time for the game I once played so much, every month I anticipate the arrival of my new issue, replete with new names and new games, tournament reports and feature articles, and regular columns that include Andy Soltis's "Chess to Enjoy". Hurray!
... which is all prelude to my current dilemma, a psychological condition that reveals me a man of my time and not a man of the future, or even the present. It's time to renew my USCF membership, and I am torn: do I opt for the membership that provides on-line access only to Chess Life?
For the last few years, ever since we moved into a new house and I cam face to face with just how much stuff I have, I've been in the process of cutting back. Even before then, I have made some society membership choices based in part on how little I need more piles of paper taking up space in my house and attention in my mind. This is the 21st century, right? I am a computer scientist, who deals daily in digital materials, who has disk space beyond his wildest dreams, whose students have effortlessly grown into a digital world that makes magazines seem like quaint compendia of the past. Right?
Yet I waffle. I can save roughly $7 a year by going paperless, which is a trifle, I know, but a prudent choice nonetheless. Right?
Undoubtedly, my CL&R-turned-CL collection takes up space. If I stem the tide of incoming issues, I can circumscribe the space needed to store my archive and devote future space to more worthy application. Perhaps I could even convert some of the archive into digital form and recoup space already spent?
This move would space, but if I am honest it does not free up all my attention. My magazines will join my music collection in the river of bits flowing into my future, being copied along from storage device to storage device, from medium to medium, and from software application to software application. I've lived through several generations of storage media, beginning in earnest with 5-1/4" floppies, and I'm sure I'll live through several more.
And what of changing formats? The text files that have followed me from college remain readable, for the most part, but not everything survives. For every few files I've converted from WordPerfect for DOS I have surely lost a file or two. Occasionally I run across one and ask myself, is it worth my time to try to open it and convert it to something more modern? I am sad to say that too often the answer is, well, no. This never happens to my books and magazines and pamphlets from that time. I choose to keep or to discard, and if I have it, I can read it. Where will PDF be in 50 years?
I am also just old enough that I somewhat cherish having a life that is separate from my digital existence. When I have the chance to play chess these days, I still prefer to pull out a board and set up the pieces. The feel of the ivory or plastic or wood in my hands is part of the experience -- not essential to the experience, I suppose, in a cosmic sense, but a huge ingredient to my personal experience. I have been playing chess on computers since 1980 or so, which isn't much later than I began playing the game in earnest as in grade school, so I know that feeling, too. But feeling the pieces in my hand, poring over My 60 Memorable Games (another lifelong treasure from the booty that first brought me Chess Life) line by line in search of Bobby Fischer's magic... these are a part of the game for me.
Ultimately, that's where my renewal dilemma lies, too. My memories of checking the mailbox every day at that time of the month, eager to find the next issue of the magazine. The smell of the ink as I thumbed through the pages, peeking ahead at the delights that awaited me. The feel of the pages as I turned to the next column or article or advertisement. The joy of picking out an old issue, grabbing that magnetic portable set from 30-odd years ago, and settling into a comfortable chair for an evening of reminiscence and future-making. All are a part of what chess has been for me. A cache of PDF files, $22 over three years, and a little closet space hardly seem sufficient consideration.
Alas, we are all creatures of our own times, I no less than any man. Even though I know better, I find myself pulled backward in time just as much as Kurt Vonnegut, who occasionally waxed poetic about the future of printed book. Both Vonnegut and I realize that the future may well exceed our imaginations, but our presents retain the gifts of days past.
When we last visited this tale, I had learned that my right knee suffers from a condition known as OCD and that my life as a distance runner was likely over. Depending on the size of the lesion and the state of the bone tissue, there are several potential reparative and restorative procedures that my surgeon could take. But running was almost certainly out of question.
After doing some research, we decided to do arthroscopic surgery to try to repair the lesion. My surgeon hoped that he would be able to do microfracture surgery or, if the lesion were a little bigger, perhaps the OATS procedure, which transplants good cartilage to the lesion for regrowth. If the lesion were too large for either of these procedures, there was one more option, the first step of a newer technique known as CARTICEL. The expected procedures, microfracture or OATS, would require a recovery period of six to eight weeks, during which I would not be allowed to put weight on the knee but would be doing a lot of motion therapy to stimulate blood flow and tissue growth.
I went in for arthroscopy last Wednesday, May 25. It had been thirty years since I had undergone surgery, to repair the rotator cuff in my left shoulder, and this experience was quite different. Medical technology has come a long way in thirty years. We did the operation at an outpatient surgery center, which was much more comfortable than the typical hospital. I was in and out in about four hours, despite being placed under general anesthesia. I went to sleep and woke up comfortably and even recall some of the conversations I had with nurses as I left the post-op room. The surgeon spoke to my wife after surgery, but I was still out cold. That evening, I was home resting comfortably.
The surgery was one of those good news/bad news things. The good news was that my recovery would be faster than we had planned. The bad news was why: the surgeon was not able to do either microfracture or OATS, because the damage to my joint is more extensive than we thought. It looks to be more degenerative than the result of a specific trauma, which fits how it presented better than the typical cases. So, instead he removed some loose cartilage, including one large piece, and cleaned up cartilage on both sides of the joint.
For the last week, I have been doing physical therapy, using lots of non-weight-bearing motion to loosen the joint and to strengthen other muscles in the leg, so that they can take pressure off the knee when we return it to full use.
Yesterday I went in for my post-op appointment with the surgeon, to gauge the state of recovery and to discuss next steps. He showed me pictures of the inside of my knee from the scope and explained why he could not do the procedures he had planned. The reasons came down to two. First, the lesion is wider and deeper than we had hoped, and microfracture and OATS only work on shallow wounds of a few centimeters at most. Second, there is also damage on the tibia across from the lesion on the femur. This is known as a "kissing lesion" and means that any new tissue growth at the bad spot on the femur would be damaged whenever I walked and the knee joint closed.
The next thing for us to try is a partial knee replacement, in which he cleans up the damaged area and fills the lesion with a piece of something. Basically, the options are again two. One is called osteochondral allograft, which uses a bone and tissue plug taken from a cadaver. The second is to use a synthetic implant made of the plastic and metal. The surgeon suggested that I may be a candidate for makoplasty, which uses computer visualization to help create the implant and an interactive robotic arm and to place it in the lesion and attach it to the femur. That sounds incredibly cool. I have to be sure not to let my fascination with the technology unduly influence my decision!
At this point, my wife and I have some research to do, to decide what, if anything, we want to do next. I am on the young side for even a partial knee replacement, but medical advances are improving the longevity of the procedures' effectiveness. My surgeon is sensitive to the fact that, as a relatively long guy, I probably want to live a more active lifestyle than an unrepaired joint is likely to allow. It is a big step for me, whatever we choose.
In any case, the surgeon says I need to continue working diligently on physical therapy, to build up the muscles both in the knee and, more importantly, all the other muscles and joints in the leg. If I don't do more surgery, these muscles are essential to supporting the damaged knee; if I do opt for more surgery, these muscles need to be as strong as possible to support the knee during recovery and rehabilitation. So, off to therapy I go.
If any of my running friends are still reading, I can add this: given both the size and character of my lesion and the way it presented, the surgeon is unable to say to what extent my heavy mileage affected the condition. Clearly, heavy mileage delivers a lot of repeated trauma to our knee joints. But with no previous pain or disruption to my running, it seems almost as likely that my running delayed the onset of the bone necrosis as that it caused it. I seem simply to have been unlucky genetically in this one regard.