The Universe of Discourse

Fri, 20 Jul 2007

Tough questions
It's easy to recognize a good question: a good question is one that takes a lot longer to answer than it does to ask. Chip Buchholtz's example is "what is a byte?" To answer that you have to get into the nitty gritty of computer architecture and how, although the information in the computer is stored by the bit, the memory bus can only address it by the byte.

One of the biology interns asked a me a good one a couple of weeks ago: he asked how, if Perl runs Perl scripts, and the OS is running Perl, what is running the OS? Now that is a tough question to answer. I explained about logic gates, and how the logic gates are built into trivial arithmetic and memory circuits, how these are then built up into ALUs and memories, and how these in turn are controlled by microcode, and finally how the logical parts are assembled into a computer. I don't know how understandable it was, but it was the best I could do in five minutes, and I think I got some of the idea across. But I started and finished by saying that it was basically miraculous.

My daughter Katara asks a ton of questions, some better than others. On any given evening she is likely to ask "Daddy, what are you doing?" about fifteen times, and "why?" about fifteen million times. "Why" can be a great question, but sometimes it's not so great; Katara asks both kinds. Sometimes it's in response to "I'm eating a sandwich." Then the inevitable "why?" is rather annoying.

Some of the "why" questions are nearly impossible to answer. For example, we see a lady coming up the street toward us. "Is that Susanna?" "No." "Why is it not Susanna?"

I think what's happening here is that having discovered this magic word that often produces interesting information, Katara is employing it whenever possible, even when it doesn't make sense, because she hasn't yet learned when it works and when not. Why is that not Susanna? Hey, you never know when you might get an interesting answer. But there might be something else going on that I don't appreciate.

But the nice thing about Katara's incessant questions is that she listens to and remembers the answers, ponders them deeply, and then is likely to come back with an insightful followup when you least expect it.

This weekend we went to visit my parents in New York, and as we drove down the Henry Hudson Parkway, we passed the North River wastewater treatment plant. Three-year-olds are fascinated with poop, so I took the opportunity to point out the plant to Katara. I said that although it had a park with trees on the roof, the inside was a giant machine for turning poop into garden soil; they cleaned it and mixed with with wood chips and it composted like the stuff in our composter. (I later found that some of these details were not quite accurate, but the general idea is correct. See the official site for the official story. My wife provided the helpful analogy with the composter.) As I expected, Katara was interested, and thought this over; she confirmed that they turned poop into soil, and then asked what they made pee into. I was not prepared for that one, and I had to promise her I would find out later. It took me some Internet research time to find out about denitrogenation.

Speaking of poop, last month Katara asked a puzzler: why don't birds use toilets? I think this was motivated by our earlier discussion of bird poop on our car.

In Make Way for Ducklings there's a picture of the friendly policeman Michael, running back to his police box to order a police escort to help the ducklings across Beacon Street. He's holding his billy club. Katara asked what that was for. I thought a moment, and then said "It's for hitting people with." Later I wondered if I had given an inaccurate or incomplete answer, so I asked around, and did some reading. It appears I got that one right. Some folks I know suggested that I should have said it was for hitting bad people, but I'd rather stick to the plain facts, and leave out the editorializing.

Anyway, lately I've been rereading The Defeat of the Spanish Armada, by Garrett Mattingly, which is a really good book; it won a special Pulitzer Prize when it was published. It's about the attempt by Spain to invade England in 1588. The invasion was a failure, and the Spanish got clobbered. Most interesting minor detail: Francis Drake went to St. Vincent the year before the Armada sailed and captured a bunch of merchant ships that were carrying seasoned barrel-staves, which he burnt. As a result, when the mighty Armada sailed, many of the ships had to carry casks made of green wood, and they leaked; whenever the Spanish opened a cask that should have contained food or water, they were as likely as not to find it full of green slime instead.

So I was reading the Mattingly book this evening, and Katara was eating and playing with Play-Doh on the kitchen floor. After the eleventh repetition of "Daddy, what are you doing?" "Reading." I decided to tell Katara what I was reading about. I said that I was reading about ships, that ships are big boats; they carry lots of men and guns. Katara asked why they carried guns, and I explained that often the ships carried treasure, like spices or gold or jewels or cloth, and that pirates tried to steal it. Katara asked if the cloth was like a wash cloth, and I said no, it was more like the kind of cloth that Mommy makes quilts from, or like the silk that her silk dress is made of. I explained about the pirates, which she seemed to understand, because toddlers know all about people who try to take stuff that isn't theirs. And then she asked the question I couldn't answer: Why were there men on the ships, but no women?

I was totally stumped; I don't even know where to begin explaining to a three-year-old why there are no women on ships in 1588. The only answers I could think of had to do with women's traditional roles, with European mores, social constructions of gender, and so on, all stuff that wouldn't help. Sometimes women were smuggled aboard ship, but I wasn't going to say that either.

I don't usually give up, but this time I gave up. This is a tough question of the first order, easy to ask, hard to answer. It's a lot easier to explain wastewater treatment.

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