17.777 Tar-pits, metaphorical autism & the real thing

From: Humanist Discussion Group (by way of Willard McCarty willard.mccarty@kcl.ac.uk)
Date: Fri May 07 2004 - 16:59:20 EDT

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                   Humanist Discussion Group, Vol. 17, No. 777.
           Centre for Computing in the Humanities, King's College London
                         Submit to: humanist@princeton.edu

       [1] From: John Lavagnino <John.Lavagnino@kcl.ac.uk> (36)
             Subject: Re: Tar pit (was: metaphorical autism?)

       [2] From: "Yager, Susan F [ENGL]" <syager@iastate.edu> (33)
             Subject: RE: 17.775 ancient Greek word formation? metaphorical

             Date: Thu, 08 Apr 2004 07:10:14 +0100
             From: John Lavagnino <John.Lavagnino@kcl.ac.uk>
             Subject: Re: Tar pit (was: metaphorical autism?)

    In 17.775 Willard wrote---

    > Wegner's line of argument roughly coincides with Terry
    > Winograd's, for what the latter calls "interaction
    > design". Wegner says basically that the Turing Machine model of
    > computing is transcended by the interaction machine model,
    > quoting Alan Perlis's term, "Turing Tar-pit". (See the 54th of
    > Perlis's Epigrams, "Beware of the Turing tar-pit in which
    > everything is possible but nothing of interest is easy",
    > http://www.cs.yale.edu/homes/perlis-alan/quotes.html; those
    > here who are not American may not detect the implicit reference
    > to the La Brea Tar Pits, for which see
    > http://www.tarpits.org/.)

    I think the work that actually brought the tar-pit comparison into
    computer science is actually the classic book by Frederick P. Brooks,
    Jr.: The Mythical Man-Month: Essays on Software Engineering
    (Addison-Wesley, 1975). Chapter 1 is called "The Tar Pit", and has a
    frontispiece depicting the La Brea Tar Pits; in the copy I bought in
    the early 1980s this is on the front cover too. Chapter 1 starts like

         No scene from prehistory is quite so vivid as that of the mortal
         struggles of great beasts in the tar pits. In the mind's eye one
         sees dinosaurs, mammoths, and sabertoothed tigers struggling
         against the grip of the tar. The fiercer the struggle, the more
         entangling the tar, and no beast is so strong or so skillful but
         that he ultimately sinks.

         Large-system programming has over the past decade been such a tar
         pit, and many great and powerful beasts have thrashed violently in
         it. Most have emerged with running systems---few have met goals,
         schedules, and budgets. Large and small, massive or wiry, team
         after team has become entangled in the tar. No one thing seems to
         cause the difficulty---any particular paw can be pulled away. But
         the accumulation of simultaneous and interacting factors brings
         slower and slower motion. Everyone seems to have been surprised by
         the stickiness of the problem, and it is hard to discern the nature
         of it. But we must try to understand it if we are to solve it.

    John Lavagnino
    Centre for Computing in the Humanities, King's College London

             Date: Thu, 08 Apr 2004 07:10:46 +0100
             From: "Yager, Susan F [ENGL]" <syager@iastate.edu>
             Subject: RE: 17.775 ancient Greek word formation? metaphorical autism?

    I am writing in response to the entry "posted Wednesday, April 7, from
    which I quote:

    "...Can anyone shed light on the non-medical occurrences of the word
    [autism], e.g. on other domains of application?"

    I have seen this word used to mean something like "willfully unaware" in a
    discussion of politics, but cannot find the source. I did find this
    reference to technology in a quick Lexis search:

    Electronic News October 27, 2003
    NPC: Universities Create Smart Devices for Connected Future
    By Jessica Davis
    "But the connections to the world are inadequate," he said, such as
    sensors, actuators and displays/user interfaces. "We are autistic in this
    way with an enormous amount of intelligence but not very good connections
    to the world."

    However, I am writing as the parent of a high-functioning autistic boy, to
    urge you NOT to use this word in a metaphorical way, especially since such
    metaphors perpetuate the early twentieth-century idea of autism as a form
    of schizophrenia. Autism is now recognized as a spectrum of disorders.
    Some people with autism may be unaware of their surroundings or lacking
    "very good connections to the world," but many thousands are not; yet they
    are autistic.

    My request to you is not based on identity politics or social/political
    "sensitivity." It is based on the fact that "autistic" does not now,
    probably never did, correspond to the idea that the metaphors are trying to
    convey. This perhaps needs no greater proof than the fact that my son
    laughed at the post when he saw it this morning (though he agreed with me
    that use of "autistic" metaphorically was also insulting). This evening he
    asked whether I had written to you about this, saying, "Aren't you going to
    tell them about ME?"

    And so I have done so.


    Susan Yager
    Assoc. Professor, English
    Iowa State University
    Ames, IA

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