A mind is a terrible thing to waste

Debating and discussing is something I like to do on occasion. With internet forums there is ample opportunity for discussion these days. And even on some of my own blogs there have been some rather lengthy exchanges. On one occasion, someone told me “People think you are one step behind, while you are actually two steps ahead”. And he was quite right; I had been debating a certain issue for a while, but it seems that people didn’t quite follow what I was REALLY aiming at, and so they took the easy way out: they assumed my understanding of the subject was not as good as theirs. Then at some point, apparently I managed to phrase things in just the way that somehow made the click with some people (at least the person who made the remark).

A similar thing happened not too long ago right here on this blog, with the "Are all AMD fans idiots?" article. Now ofcourse I knew that this title would be baiting lots of AMD fans… but what I didn’t quite expect was that most of them seemed to be so blinded that they didn’t actually understand the point of the article. Many responses were just about defending AMD and its products… while the article wasn’t attacking AMD, it was attacking the people defending AMD (oh the irony). One of them (by the name of Alan Sulzer) kept coming back. At some point I actually bothered to explain my stance more in-depth. And then he uttered the magic words: “I agree with you on many of your points.”

I hadn’t changed my stance from what I had written in my article at all. I had apparently explained it in a way that he finally saw the deeper meaning, and realized that I wasn’t just talking nonsense. I had solid arguments to back up what I had to say.

Recently, there was another discussion where someone didn’t agree with me, and thought I was pro-Intel/x86. So I tried to explain that the whole notion is ridiculous, because if you knew where I came from… I used to prefer Motorola 68k processors over Intel’s x86. I only moved to x86 because 68k was defeated. Then, I’m not quite sure why, perhaps he tried to please me, he said: “68k was actually good, it had real potential. Motorola should have kept it alive.” So I answered: “That’s where you’re wrong. One of the main problems with x86 is the legacy. Motorola was right to kill off 68k for regular desktops, and move to the more advanced (and legacy-free) PowerPC architecture.”

He seemed surprised that I STILL disagreed, even though he was now ‘on my side’. But this is exactly one of those situations where I was two steps ahead. Originally he thought I was pro-Intel/x86, because I happened to defend that side of the argument. Then when I explained that I never really had a liking for x86 in the first place, and that I originally preferred 68k, he thought he had me figured out, but I was still one step ahead. Namely, he didn’t know WHY I never liked x86. One of the main reasons for that is the legacy that x86 brings with it. Had Motorola kept 68k alive (ignoring the 68k-derivatives for embedded solutions and such for a moment here), it would have fallen into the same trap as x86. So yes, I *used to* like 68k, but I also fully supported Motorola’s move to PowerPC, because at that point, 68k had run its course, and a new architecture was a good step forward. Likewise, since PowerPC has also died out since, and x86 is still alive, I have again made a new step forward: while I still may not like x86 from an aesthetic point-of-view, I have to acknowledge that Intel did a very good job of keeping x86 relevant by implementing a translation layer so they could decouple the execution back-end from the x86 instructionset (which Motorola actually also did with the last 68k, the 68060). You could say that technology has caught up with my reservations about the x86.

Anyway, I wasn’t planning on making this a technical piece. These anecdotes just serve as examples and an introduction to what I really want to talk about here. And that is: WHY is it so hard for some people to follow what others are saying? My impression is that it seems that people just don’t think things through. They see an opinion, an opinion that they don’t agree with… and then the thinking stops. They don’t seem to contemplate the possibility that someone with a different opinion may actually have some solid reasoning behind this opinion. They don’t seem to understand that different opinions may not necessarily conflict with eachother. Like the above example… yes, I used to like 68k, I still do. But I also think it’s good that it was replaced with PowerPC. And going one step further: Yes, I liked PowerPC, but I think for Apple it is good that they moved to x86. And while x86 may never be my favourite, in most cases that is not relevant. Most computers use x86, and I’m not going to deny x86’s technical merits. I will happily discuss x86 technology, and most of the time I don’t bother to give my opinion on x86 as a whole.

But I think I’ve touched on the essence here: I have actually used CPUs other than x86 in the past. I have used 68k and PowerPC. I have a broader perspective on CPUs. To me, Intel vs AMD is mostly still x86 vs x86. The differences are not as big as x86 vs 68k or x86 vs PowerPC back in the day. And perhaps more importantly: With 68k, PowerPC and x86, I have already had THREE types of CPUs to compare. That means that there is no way that I can just view things as right vs wrong, or black vs white. Yes, you could argue that it’s still mostly Motorola vs Intel… but the fact alone that Motorola moved from 68k to PowerPC indicates that there’s more than one way to skin a cat. That move indicates that even Motorola admitted that 68k had several shortcomings, which they tried to address with PowerPC. If you think of Intel vs Motorola as black vs white, then 68k and PowerPC are two separate shades of gray.

Isn’t that the key here? That you need to realize that it’s not just a choice between good and bad. That it’s not just black and white, but that there could be a whole gray area in between? That things aren’t set-in-stone, but can change over time, as technology evolves? That both sides can have their strong points? And that defending one company’s strong points (or pointing out another company’s weaknesses) is not necessarily an indication that you ‘side with’ said company? That perhaps you are just defending those strong points for the simple reason that they are strong points, and deserve to be defended, regardless of the actual company involved? That they actually CAN be defended, because these strong points can be backed with facts and solid arguments? If you haven’t thought it through this far before entering the discussion, you’ve basically disqualified yourself for the discussion already. Then you’re just thinking in one dimension.

That’s also something that I see a whole lot of, by the way. That if you happen to mention one company’s strong point, that they automatically assume that you are against the other company (or vice versa: point out a weakness). Funny enough, when I googled the term ‘one-dimensional thinker’, this was the first hit. And the first example of one-dimensional thinking was a quote from none other than George W. Bush: "You’re either with us, or you’re with the terrorists". Thanks George, now I’m a terrorist too!

Today I happened to see this article: The ‘Learning Knights’ of Bell Telephone. It was a real eye-opener for me. Apparently Bell concluded that many people with a technical background weren’t very good at making decisions when they got higher up the chain. This was because they thought mainly in technical terms (where many things just are ‘right’ or ‘wrong’), and didn’t have a very broad perspective. This led to a beautiful quote: “A well-trained man knows how to answer questions, they reasoned; an educated man knows what questions are worth asking.”

The solution that Bell proposed was equally eye-opening: Bell gave them training in… the arts. Apparently things like architecture, literature and music are good ways to develop a broader view. Being among ‘intellectuals’ rather than just people with a technical background. Discussing non-technical subjects. I suppose art is the perfect example of a subject where there are no clear rights or wrongs. Where a single piece of art doesn’t really mean anything. You need a broader perspective to be able to evaluate it. Know the background of the art, of the artist. Know similar pieces of art, similar artists. Once you can put it in perspective, you can see value in things that just went by you at first.

As an aside… Bell concluded this about 50 years ago… I wonder if it is a result of middle-class people being able to study, where previously only the upper class could afford to study and reach those higher places in companies (or just get there because of their connections). Rich families tended to have traditions when it came to arts, music and such. They brought their children up with appreciation for the ‘finer things in life’. Which may actually have had a positive function in broadening their perspective, and being more successful in corporate roles.

But, to get back to Bell… There was that word: intellectual. People who have developed their minds, their reasoning. People who have knowledge and understanding of history, art, culture. People who are capable of independent, critical, analytical and abstract thought. I suppose this can be traced back all the way to the classical period, with the ideal of being a polymath. The ideal that became popular again in the Renaissance days, the ideal of the Homo Universalis (also known as Renaissance Man). Which might be what the traditions of the rich families are based on.

That’s when it hit me: I don’t know if I can call myself an intellectual, but I can relate to many of these things. I’m an independent thinker, not afraid of having (and expressing) an ‘impopular’ opinion on matters. I’ve studied Latin, Greek and history in high-school, so I have a basic knowledge and understanding of various languages, cultures, mythologies and such (rather than just being limited to the timeframe, culture and language of the part of the world that I live in). I also took an interest in such things, so I like to watch documentaries on such subjects on occasion. I play an instrument and write music, and I have been active in the demoscene, so I’m also not a complete stranger to certain forms of art. But most importantly… I realized that I generally prefer to socialize with people who also share some of these ‘intellectual’ traits. Which in most cases means non-technical people. They tend to have deeper insights in matters and make for more interesting conversation than just technical talk. They also seem more understanding, and less likely to jump to conclusions. They have that broader perspective.

And I suppose intellectuals like to debate for the sake of debating. It’s not so much about being right or wrong, but rather about bouncing ideas around, and obtaining new, deeper insights. They might also play “Devil’s advocate”: defending something not necessarily because they agree with it with themselves, but simply because it can be defended. Sometimes you get a better perspective by just looking at it from the other side. It’s more about philosophies and theories. And this blog right here is a philosophy of mine. I’m not saying it’s right, let alone that it is the only possible answer. But I’m putting it out there so it can be discussed, and hopefully perspectives can be broadened and deeper insights may result.

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