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Thu, 19 Oct 2006

Boring answers to Powell's questions
A while back I answered some questions for Powell's City of Books web site. I didn't know they had posted the answers until it was brought to my attention by John Gabriele. Thank you, John.

They sent fifteen questions and asked me to pick at least five. I had a lot of trouble finding five of their questions that I wanted to answer. Most of the questions were not productive of interesting answers; I had to work hard to keep my answers from being super-dull.

The non-super-dull answers are on Powell's site. Here are the questions I didn't answer, with their super-dull answers:

  1. Have you ever taken the Geek Test? How did you rate?

    Hardly anyone seems to answer this question, and really, who cares? Except that Sir Roger Penrose said something like "There's a Geek Test?".

    I did take it once, but I forget how I scored. But if you read this blog, you can probably extrapolate: high on math, science, and programming. But really, who cares? Telling someone else about your geek test score is even more boring than telling them about your dreams.

  2. What do you do for relaxation?

    I didn't answer this one because my answer seemed so uninteresting. I program. I read a lot; unlike most people who read a lot, I read a lot of different things. Sometimes I watch TV. I go for walks and drive the car.

    One thing I used to do when I was younger was the "coffee trick". I'd go to an all-night diner with pens and a pad of paper and sit there drinking coffee all night and writing down whatever came out of my caffeine-addled brain. I'm too old for that now; it would make me sick.

  3. What's your favorite blog right now?

    I answered this one for Powell's, and cited my own blog and Maciej Ceglowski's. But if I were answering the question today I would probably mention What Jeff Killed. Whenever a new What Jeff Killed post shows up in the aggregator, I get really excited. "Oh, boy!" I say. "I can't wait to see What Jeff Killed today!".

    It occurs to me that just that one paragraph could probably give plenty of people a very clear idea of what I'm like, at least to the point that they would be able to decide they didn't want to know me.

  4. Douglas Adams or Scott Adams?

    I think they're both boring. But I wasn't going to say so in my Powell's interview.

  5. What was your favorite book as a kid?

    This should have been easy to answer, but none of the books I thought of seemed particularly revealing. When I was in sixth grade my favorite book was "The Hero from Otherwhere," by Jay Williams. (He also wrote the Danny Dunn books.) A few years back Andrew Plotkin posted on rec.arts.sf.written that he had recently read this, and that it occurred to him that it might have been his favorite book, had he read it in sixth grade, and had anyone had that experience. I wasn't the only one who had.

    I reread it a few years ago and it wasn't that good anymore.

    Robertson Davies writes about the awful juvenile-fiction magazines that he loved when he was a juvenile. Yes, they were terrible, but they fed something in him that needed to be fed. I think a lot of the books we love as children are like that.

  6. What new technology do you think may actually have the potential for making people's lives better?

    I couldn't think of any way to answer this question that wouldn't be really boring. That probably says a lot more about me than about the question. I thought about gene therapy, land mine detection, water purification. But I don't personally have anything to do with those things, so it would just be a rehash of what I read in some magazine. And what's the point of reading an interview with an author who says, "Well, I read in Newsweek..."?

  7. If you could be reincarnated for one day to live the life of any scientist or writer, who would you choose and why?

    This seems like it could have been interesting, but I couldn't figure out what to do with it. I might like to be Galileo, or to know what it's like to be Einstein, but that's not what the question says; it says that I'm me, living the life of Galileo or Einstein. But why would I want to do that? If I'm living the life of Einstein, that means I get to get up in the morning, go to an office in Zurich or Princeton, and sit behind a desk for eight hours, wishing I was smart enough to do Einstein's job.

    Some writers and scientists had exciting lives. I could be reincarnated as Evariste Galois, who was shot to death in a duel. That's not my idea of a good time.

    I once knew a guy who said he'd like to be David Lee Roth for one day, so that he could have sex with a groupie. Even if I wanted to have sex with a groupie, the question ("scientist or writer") pretty much rules out that form of entertainment. I suppose there's someone in the world who would want to be Pierre Curie, so that he know what it was like to fuck Marie Curie. That person isn't me.

  8. What are some of the things you'd like your computer to do that it cannot now do?

    I came really close to answering this question. I had an answer all written. I wrote that I wanted the computer to be able to manufacture pornography on demand to the user's specification: if they asked for a kneecap fetish movie featuring Celine Dion and an overalls-wearing midget, it should be able to do that.

    Then I came to my senses and I realized I didn't want that answer to appear on my interview on the Powell's web site.

    But it'll happen, you wait and see.

    I also said I'd settle for having the computer discard spam messages before I saw them. I think the porn thing is a lot more likely.

  9. By the end of your life, where do you think humankind will be in terms of new science and technological advancement?

    First I was stumped on this one because I don't know when the end of my life will be. I could be crushed in a revolving door next week, right?

    And assuming that I'll live another thirty years seems risky too. I'm hoping for a medical breakthrough that will prolong my life indefinitely. I expect it'll be along sooner or later. So my goal is to stay alive and healthy long enough to be able to take advantage of it when it arrives.

    Some people tell me they don't want to be immortal, that they think they would get bored. I believe them. People are bored because they're boring. Let them die; I won't miss them. I know exactly what I would do with immortality: I would read every book in the library.

    A few months ago I was visiting my mother, and she said that as a child I had always wanted to learn everything, and that it took me a long time to realize that you couldn't learn everything.

    I got really angry, and I shouted "I'm not done yet!"

    Well, even assuming that I live another thirty years, I don't think I can answer the question. When I was a kid my parents would go to the bank to cash a check. We got seven channels on the TV, and that was more than anyone else; we lived in New York. Nobody owned a computer; few people even owned typewriters. Big companies stored records on microfiche. The only way to find out what the law was was to go to the library and pore over some giant dusty book for hours until you found what you wanted.

    And sixty years ago presidential campains weren't yet advertising on television. Harry Truman campaigned by going from town to town on the back of a train (a train!) making speeches and shaking hands with people.

    Thirty years from now the world will be at least that different from the way things are now. How could I know what it'll be like?

  10. Which country do you believe currently leads the world in science and technology? In ten years?

    In case you hadn't noticed, I hate trying to predict the future; I don't think I'm good at it and I don't think anyone else is. Most people who try don't seem to revisit their old predictions to see if they were correct, or to learn from their past errors, and the people who listen to them never do this.

    Technology prognosticators remind me of the psychics in the National Enquirer who make a hundred predictions for 2007: Jennifer Aniston will get pregnant with twins; space aliens will visit George Bush in the White House. Everyone can flap their mouth about what will happen next year, but it's not clear that anyone has any useful source of information about it, or is any better than anyone else at predicting.

    I read a book a few years back called The Year 2000: A Framework for Speculation on the Next Thirty Years, by Kahn and Weiner. It has a bunch of very carefully-done predictions about the year 2000, and was written in 1967. The predictions about computers are surprisingly accurate, if you ignore the fact that they completely failed to predict the PC. The geopolitical predictions are also surprisingly accurate, if you ignore the fact that they completely failed to predict the fall of the Soviet Union.

    But hardly anyone predicted the PC or the fall of the Soviet Union. And even now it's not clear whether the people who did predict those things did so because they were good at predicting or if it was just lucky guesses, like a stopped clock getting the time right twice a day.

    Sometimes I have to have dinner with predictors. It never goes well. Two years ago at OSCON I was invited to dinner with Google. I ended up sitting at a whole table of those people. Last year I was invited again. I said no thanks.

The answers on the Powell's web site are more interesting, but not very much more. If I were writing the Powell's questions, I would have put in "what question do you wish we had asked you, and what is the answer?"


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