Tuesday, October 28, 2008

A programmer's view of the Universe, part 1: The fish

I write a column for computer programmers called "Stevey's Blog Rants." It's basically a magazine column — I publish to it about once a month. The average length of my articles is about 12 pages, although they can range anywhere from 4 to 40 pages, depending on how I'm feeling. But for precedent, don't think blogs: think of Reader's Digest. The blog format sets the wrong expectations.

Hence, some people complain that my articles are too long. Others complain that I have not given my arguments sufficient exposition, and that my articles are in fact too short on detail to warrant any credibility. This is a lose-lose situation for me, but I keep at it nonetheless because I enjoy writing. Even if nobody were to read my blog, the act of writing things down helps me think more clearly, and it's engaging in the same way that solving a Sudoku puzzle is engaging.

You should try it yourself. All it takes is a little practice.

My blog topics vary widely, and sometimes I even venture outside the realm of programming. Programming is where I'm most comfortable, and it's also where people seem to ascribe to me some level of punditry: I'm not necessarily right, but even my greatest detractors grudgingly admit that I'm entitled to an opinion, by virtue of my having spent twenty years hacking day and night without any sign of wanting to give it up and turn into a pointy-haired manager.

Even though I love both programming and to a lesser extent writing about it, there are also lots of non-programming topics I'd like to write about. Being a career programmer gives you an interesting perspective on issues not directly related to programming. You start to see parallels. So maybe I'll branch out some more and see how it goes.

The programmer's view

The first thing you notice as a programmer is that it trains you — forces you, really — to think in a disciplined way about complex logic problems. It also gives you a big booster shot of confidence around problem-solving in general. Junior programmers tend to have very high opinions of themselves; I was no exception.

In time, though, programming eventually humbles you, because it shows you the limits of your reasoning ability in ways that few other activities can match. Eventually every programmer becomes entangled in a system that is overwhelming in its complexity. As we grow in our abilities as programmers we learn to tackle increasingly complex systems. But every human programmer has limits, and some systems are just too hard to grapple with.

When this happens, we usually don't blame ourselves, nor think any less of ourselves. Instead we claim that it's someone else's fault, and it just needs a rewrite to help manage the complexity. In many cases this is even true.

Over time, our worldwide computer-programming community has discovered or invented better and better ways ways to organize programs and systems. We've managed to increase their functionality while keeping the complexity under control.

But even with such controls in place, systems can occasionally get out of hand. And sometimes they even need to be abandoned altogether, like a dog that's gone rabid. No matter how much time and love you've put into such systems, there's no fixing them.

Abandoning a system is a time of grieving for the folks who've worked on it. Such systems are like family.

And there's a disturbing lesson at the tail end of such experiences. The scary thing is that it's very easy, as a programmer standing at the precipice of complexity, to envision systems that are orders of magnitude more complex, millions of times more complex, even unimaginably more complex.

In the end, programming shows us how small we are.

The fish's view

Long ago, I used to have a Siamese fighting fish, also known as a Betta splendens, or simply a "betta". You can buy these fish at almost any pet store. I kept my betta, who was a deep vibrant red, in a pretty little 15-gallon tank decorated with a resplendence of real freshwater plants. And for a while I think my betta was happy there.

Like many Americans, I went through a phase in which I kept and ultimately killed many, many tropical fish. I didn't kill them intentionally; I wanted them to live and thrive. But keeping them alive for long is a challenge when you don't live in the tropics. So they might live for a few months or maybe a year, but they would always die prematurely. It was sad, and eventually I could no longer bear it, so I stopped keeping them.

Of all my fish, my betta left the biggest impression on me. The betta is a remarkable fish in several ways. For one thing, bettas are physically beautiful, and when they are at full display, their fins expand, peacock-like, into a fluid rose shape that is undeniably dramatic.

Bettas are also remarkable because they fight. They do not fight to establish a pecking order, as other fish do; they fight to kill. The males display their fins and then fight whenever they see another male betta, or even their own reflection, so they have to be kept alone and away from mirrors.

But bettas, I think, are most remarkable for their intelligence. Of all of the hundreds of tropical fish I kept, only bettas displayed anything resembling intellectual curiosity.

This really makes bettas some of the saddest stories in the tropical fish industry. Like other hobbyist fishes, they are stolen from their natural habitat and shipped overseas, or at best farmed in unsavory conditions. But unlike most other fish, bettas are also dyed to enhance their color. They are generally housed in tiny fist-sized bowls because of their ability to breathe air when necessary. And they are bred to express their fighting genes, and are often made to fight by their owners. Whereas other fish are kidnapped and sold, bettas are abused.

But worst of all, I believe their high intelligence endows them with greater capacity for suffering than other fish species. They can suffer physically and emotionally, but as we will see shortly, they can also suffer intellectually.

So bettas are a sad story.

My betta

Here is the specific sad story of my betta, the fish that left such an impression on me.

I had taken to lying on my bed and watching my betta for an hour or longer. The betta was the sole occupant of the tank in my bedroom. I had filled the tank with plants and copious natural light, so the effect was calming and serene. At times I almost envied the betta for the nice home I'd made for him.

One day, after the betta had been in his new home for several weeks, I found him exploring. It was a most unusual exploration, and one that I will never forget.

For the first few weeks, the betta explored the way you would expect any reasonably intelligent fish to go about the task. For the first few days he swam around to every nook and cranny of the tank, to make sure he had the lay of the land. Then for a few more days he experimented with staying put in different locations to see how he liked their feel.

Just like people, most fish will soon find a spot or a path they like best, and they'll stay in that spot or on that path for the rest of their lives.

But my betta was different. After his initial explorations he became restless. I'm no Fish Whisperer, but I could tell that he was restless. You would have thought so too. The betta started spending most of his time looking out of the tank, examining my bedroom. And he was clearly looking at specific things in the bedroom, not just "out there" in general. He would periodically swim around looking mildly agitated. He was acting like he wanted out.

I did everything I could to placate him. I experimented with different fish foods. I changed the water weekly and monitored it carefully to keep its temperature and pH within acceptable ranges. I added more lights. I added more plants. I rearranged the plants. In desperation, I even added a little castle.

Every time I tried something new, it would pique his interest for a little while. But in time, and faster each time than before, he would revert to his state of restlessness.

I'd never seen quite this behavior in other fish, so already he was demonstrating what seemed to be above average intelligence.

And then one day I found him engaged in an exploration that was altogether new.

He wasn't exploring the tank. He'd already investigated its topology for weeks. This time, he was exploring the nature of the tank. That's what caught my attention, and not just for that day, but for the rest of my life.

There was a twenty-inch vine in the tank that extended from the lower left back corner to the upper right front corner, along the diagonal of the main volume of the tank. The vine belonged to one of the many plants I'd put in there in the hopes of making it feel more like the Mekong river basin and less like a plexiglass tank in Seattle, Washington.

The betta had his nose on the vine. He was floating just above it, twitching his fins slightly to stay in place, and he was keeping his eyes as close to the vine as possible while keeping it in focus: about half a centimeter to a centimeter. And he was traversing the vine.

With the tiniest of motions, he was propelling himself along the vine towards the lower back right corner, keeping it under close scrutiny at all times. This excursion, from the halfway point to the end of the vine, took him perhaps three minutes. He was taking his time.

When he got to the end of the vine, he remained rooted in place while he inspected the 3-inch-radius spherical volume at the end of the vine, which was truncated in three dimensions by the walls and floor of the tank. He spent about three or four minutes doing this inspection, evidently making sure the vine really did terminate in the corner, and did not escape the tank.

After he had thoroughly scrutinized everything in the betta-sized vicinity of the vine's end, he turned back to the vine, nose pressed close, and began working his way along the vine in the other direction.

At this point I sat down to watch, because if he was doing what I thought he might be doing, then... I didn't know what to think. I wanted to see it for myself.

Over the next seven to ten minutes, he crept along the vine, never losing sight of it nor getting further than a centimeter from it, until he reached the upper-right front corner of the tank. He then proceeded to repeat his inspection of the volume at vine's end, ensuring himself that the vine terminated in the tank rather than protruding beyond the wall.

But what if he had missed something?

Sure enough, he turned and looked down the length of the vine for a time. And then he put his nose back on the vine and began again his long descent to the other end.

He did this for five days.

By the second day my amazement had turned to concern, and by the third day I felt utterly helpless. Here was an intelligent prisoner, my captive, exploring the mechanics of his prison with a thoroughness that only the imprisoned can afford, looking for an escape with deathly tenacity.

But while purchasing my betta had been easy enough, returning him to his real home would be unthinkably difficult, and probably unsuccessful even if I'd tried. Returning him to the fish store seemed like a dead end; he could easily wind up worse off than he was now.

So I concluded that there was nothing I could do. As he inspected the vine, I bit my nails, and timed passed in silence.

After the fifth day he gave up. And then he did something that I still don't understand, even though I've heard about this kind of thing before, and even though I personally saw him do it: he died of unhappiness.

It only took him a few days. He refused his food, he stopped moving, and to all external appearances he had become ill. But I knew better.

The lesson

Whenever I find myself struggling against the tide of massive system complexity, I think of my betta. He had a big heart, a small brain, and a small range of sensory input. I watched him use them all as methodically as any programmer to reason his way through to a soundness proof of the inescapability of his prison.

We like to think of ourselves as being pretty smart. Admit it. We do. But in the grand scheme of things we're intellectually little better off than that fish. We can easily find problems so complex that reasoning about them can take days or weeks of microscopic scrutiny, like my fish swimming along his vine.

And we can just as easily envision problems thousands or millions of times more complex: problems beyond the reasoning abilities of any person, any group of people, or even our entire species.

This has ramifications for the way we think about things today.

I believe I will have more to say about this soon. Right now I need to go mourn my fish, whose soul shone as brightly as that of anyone I've known.


Anonymous Anonymous said...


Here's hoping I never reach the end of that vine. I like to think there's always more.

10:29 PM, October 28, 2008  
Blogger Unknown said...


Thanks for this post, Steve. It's very thought provoking.

10:48 PM, October 28, 2008  
Blogger Unknown said...

Wow... that's a fascinating perspective.

Richard P Gabriel has a paper of a talk called "Design Beyond Human Abilities" which deals with some of the deeper problems of how to manage systems that are too large and complex for the human mind to comprehend.

Many of the essential steps involve a major change in what we think of as 'programming', away from slamming out lines of human readable syntax, towards curating and evolving code/circuits that are more biological in nature.

10:58 PM, October 28, 2008  
Blogger an0 said...

Thank goodness. When we programmers give up on a complex system, we do not normally choose to die. We might want to kill someone else but would not try.
Probably your betta also wants to kill you(or the one who catched him in the first place) and is so eager to try; however, that's something far beyond his ability, so he died in desperation and with hate.

11:15 PM, October 28, 2008  
Blogger nanreh said...

beautiful, steve. i had the same exact experience with a cockatiel once. i think about it all the time.

11:35 PM, October 28, 2008  
Blogger Kristof Jozsa said...

Thanks a lot for the beautiful story. Since your business reqs thoughts I can't wait for your next entry and I've yet to get disappointed.. keep up writing!

12:19 AM, October 29, 2008  
Blogger Adrian Kosmaczewski said...

You are the best blogger. Period.
This post was by far one of the best I've read in a long time. Simple yet deep, thought-provoking, beautiful. Thanks!!

1:25 AM, October 29, 2008  
Blogger DragonL said...

Thanks for sharing with us.

1:28 AM, October 29, 2008  
Blogger Jarosław Rzeszótko said...

That was great - thank you.

3:40 AM, October 29, 2008  
Blogger Kelly McDonald said...

for my birthday?? Thanks! Just the right size! (it is usually the highlight of my day to find a Stevey post while I go up and down the vine)

3:49 AM, October 29, 2008  
Blogger Phil said...

Wonderful piece of writing, Steve, thanks for sharing it with us.

I'm a bit depressed now, tho.

4:17 AM, October 29, 2008  
Blogger jeremy said...

Excellent post. Thank you for sharing.

4:34 AM, October 29, 2008  
Blogger postmeta said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

4:52 AM, October 29, 2008  
Blogger postmeta said...

So if the universe is our fish tank, is the world your oyster?

4:57 AM, October 29, 2008  
Blogger Martín said...

We like to think of ourselves as being pretty smart. Admit it. We do. But in the grand scheme of things we're intellectually little better off than that fish

Maybe there is little difference between us and fishes, but I like to think that the real difference is this: when facing an impossible problem, we don't lay down and die. We keep trying.
We are trapped in this planet, but we never gave up trying to go somewhere else, we faced impossible problems, but they became possible just because we never gave up.

Again with the space analogy, we haven't send a man to Mars yet, but we send one to the Moon. And prior to that, some guy reached America when everyone thought Earth was flat. And before that someone must have traversed Africa, and so on... We always lived in cages, but we made them bigger each time.
That's the reason, I believe, we are not fishes (or monkeys) anymore. Because we never gave up.

5:17 AM, October 29, 2008  
Blogger Patareco said...

What a beautiful post! I didn't even knew fishes could have such deep emotions!

5:42 AM, October 29, 2008  
Blogger Unknown said...

Wow, I never actualyl looked at it that way before. Amazing!


5:43 AM, October 29, 2008  
Blogger sushirabbit said...

Thanks for sharing Steve, and I'm sorry about your betta :(

6:01 AM, October 29, 2008  
Blogger NOtReallyWorkingWithThis said...

Sad story about the fish. But instead of going all philosophical on it, you should just have gone back to basics (must like you do when tackling a complex computational problem).
If man-fish is unhappy, introduce woman-fish. Although the female betta is somewhat scarce compared to the males, they do exists and they will make the males very happy (and the courting behavior and the nest building of the bettas are quite fascinating to watch).

6:16 AM, October 29, 2008  
Blogger Sam Griffin said...

Quite a good story, although I'm not sure about the central metaphor that programmers are like your Betta.

Your betta was trapped in a world of boring simplicity.

6:31 AM, October 29, 2008  
Blogger Mark p.s.2 said...

I think my fish did the same thing. As in their death was not from physical disease but they decided to die and stopped eating.

6:32 AM, October 29, 2008  
Blogger Drew @ Cook Like Your Grandmother said...

I don't think this is the sad outcome everyone else here is seeing. The betta did figure out how to escape the tank.

If we're going to use the story as a metaphor for the programmer, think about the phrase "career suicide". When you leave the rat race to strike out on your own, your more conservative friends talk about it like an ending, not a beginning. What they really mean is that the future you have chosen is unacceptably (to them) uncertain.

This matches nicely to the differing views people have of death, depending on their religious/cultural background.

7:18 AM, October 29, 2008  
Blogger Ted Sbardella said...

What you had was a spirit guide, fish take your prayers to the spirit world. You may should have offered him something to do.

7:34 AM, October 29, 2008  
Blogger Sean said...

I don't usually comment here though I read every post. This is by far the most terrifying story I've read or heard this Halloween season. Thank you for such a personal glimpse of an amazing, painful event.

7:35 AM, October 29, 2008  
Blogger Kurtkilgor said...

That was a beautiful post. However, I wanted to point out that perhaps, the fish was simply sick and exhibiting stereotyped behavior, then died?

People and animals often get stuck in patterns of behavior when they are sick, and since we tend to ascribe purpose to any behavior we see, we automatically assume they're tenaciously trying to solve whatever problem would most logically be solved by their behavior.

But I agree that your view is more inspiring.

8:12 AM, October 29, 2008  
Blogger Pete said...

Really great post! It's a very touching, and entirely relevant metaphor. I was taken by the content, as well as being impressed by the quality of the writing. Nice work.

8:15 AM, October 29, 2008  
Blogger Unknown said...

Beta maybe has an underlying meaning now since it is really close to betta and perhaps some of both die of unhappiness.

Also a new perspective on working for a large company... being that fish on the vine... and not wanting to be the one that dies of unhappiness. An entrepreneur could be seen as that betta out in the wild blue, not in the tank.

8:52 AM, October 29, 2008  
Blogger Roman McClaine said...

"Being a career programmer gives you an interesting perspective on issues not directly related to programming."

Indeed -- like how to "open source" the elections process and make it possible for anyone to perform a recount or verify the integrity of the process, and (nearly) impossible for elections officials to pull a fast one. More info at http://sea-cat.info.

9:00 AM, October 29, 2008  
Blogger Twenty20 Admin said...

Wow.....What a blog....superb....you are really a programmer with experience....who experiences each and every minute details of his life...

9:15 AM, October 29, 2008  
Blogger Andrew Stine said...

"He died of unhappiness."

Or psychosis. Being cooped up days on end in an invisible prison ought to do something to your mind, especially a fragile fish's mind. When he starts to pace in eccentric ways, you know that the stress is getting to him.

9:17 AM, October 29, 2008  
Blogger Dave Rolsky said...

Animals in captivity often exhibit these sorts of obsessive repetitive behaviors, called stereotyped behaviors. It's a sign of psychological distress, and is frequently seen in zoos. The wikipedia article on stereotyped behaviors has a bit about these behaviors in animals.

Animals aren't meant to live in tiny little tanks or cages, just to entertain us. If you want to enjoy seeing animals, there are lots of great nature shows, and for the more adventurous, you can always go visit their native habitats.

Really, animals aren't that different from us humans. Just like us, they value freedom to do as they please.

10:18 AM, October 29, 2008  
Blogger Hamlet D'Arcy said...

+1 on Gabriel's Design Beyond Human Abilities. http://www.dreamsongs.com/Files/DesignBeyondHumanAbilitiesSimp.pdf

10:28 AM, October 29, 2008  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Great story and analogy, but very sad. I could never own one of those fish only to keep them in a tiny bowl. However I have wanted to rescue one and give it a good home as you did, thinking if one must live out of its natural environment then at least it should have a good quality of life.

I wonder if being in those tiny bowls with next to no sensory input is the only way for those fish to be at peace, except for being in their natural environment of course?

Being naturally intelligent and curious, it might then be better for then to have nothing to be curious about. It's terribly sad that it died from the realization of its situation.

Maybe round tanks are better in that respect as there are no perceptible edges. Whereas in a rectangular one, the beginning and end and limits of the space are easily measured.

I wonder if it had a very nice tank like you provided, but in a large bowl, if it would have suffered the same fate?

11:11 AM, October 29, 2008  
Blogger John said...

Sorry about your fish, but this story is about you...or rather more accurately, about how you have projected your own feelings, intellect, and opinions/behavior etc...onto your fish...this story is like you describing a dream...it might appear abstract, but on closer inspection, this is how you feel and so you project it in explaining your fishes behavior - or maybe more broadly how we as humans assign what is familiar to us into animals. Your fish was not curious or exploring in the way humans do...he was executing a program, perfected by time and genetics (evolution) based on his environment. I'm sure these actions make complete sense and have no tragic or sad (lonely and trapped fish exploring the nature of his tank) component in the context of it's natural environment. For instance, traversing the vine...perhaps in the Amazon, in tiny, muddy puddles where these things live, a vine shows up which has a tendency to let more water into the puddle which might make it more likely for a mate to show up?...and it will instinctually do this in the same way a mosquito follows carbon-dioxide, pheromones, and heat to my skin. I guess it's comparable to people assigning grander purpose through God when a tsunami takes out heathens. Not all things can have human attributes assigned to them...and if we do assign human attribute, we find those really describe US.

This really is about you per my previous mention but also is an indication of something good; you are a thoughtful and caring person...so much so that you project human traits to a fish...but I think you might be more at peace with all of this if you explore what really caused the behaviors in your fish from a standpoint of logic and evolution (in other words study this type of fish to understand that these behaviors are a reaction from his programming and not really a realization that he was stuck in Seattle with no hope of escape.

Just because a mosquito finds me an attractive meal by the same method a woman finds me as an attractive mate, we can't really project any kind of advanced human behaviors onto the bugs.

11:58 AM, October 29, 2008  
Blogger barsoomcore said...

@Martin: You said

"Maybe there is little difference between us and fishes, but I like to think that the real difference is this: when facing an impossible problem, we don't lay down and die. We keep trying.


That's the reason, I believe, we are not fishes (or monkeys) anymore. Because we never gave up."

I think the correct formulation of the last sentence ought to be: "We haven't given up yet."

We haven't yet seen the edges of the tank. The point is that the fish's capacity for sensory input and problem-solving is lower than ours, and so its horizon is more limited.

It doesn't follow from that that our horizon is unlimited; only that we haven't hit the limit yet.

12:12 PM, October 29, 2008  
Blogger Justin Weiss said...

This is weird, because my betta just died last night. He did the same thing -- stopped eating, stopped swimming, and just gave up.

2:08 PM, October 29, 2008  
Blogger Zwirb said...

I'm sorry that your betta didn't make it to RC...

4:08 PM, October 29, 2008  
Blogger Unknown said...

It's fish. What is it about humans that they need to project human characteristics on other lifeforms? They are unique and they have their own life, don't judge it by your standards.

4:41 PM, October 29, 2008  
Blogger Michael Duffy said...

brilliant stuff, steve. i do look forward to your blogs

5:41 PM, October 29, 2008  
Blogger Pablo said...

Did you tried with a female betta companion?

5:45 PM, October 29, 2008  
Blogger Unknown said...

thanks for this steve!

9:28 PM, October 29, 2008  
Blogger Steve Yegge said...

Sooooo... I _definitely_ didn't mean to imply that programmers choose suicide (or career suicide, or whatever) when faced with complexity. It didn't occur to me that so many people would jump to that conclusion.

The statement "we're no better off intellectually than the fish" was just that: there's unimaginable complexity out there. On an absolute scale, what we know is effectively zero.

But there's no need to get depressed about it! It was sad that the fish died, but I didn't mean to imply doom-and-gloom for programmers. Sorry about that.

I've got something big in the works: a thesis that I'm working my way up to. It's controversial, so it's going to take some prep work. This post was the first step: trying to illustrate in a memorable way just how small and constrained our perspective really is.

Kurt Vonnegut Jr. has done a much better job of explaining this idea in several of his books, usually in the scenes dealing with Trafalmadorians. Slaughterhouse Five and the Sirens of Titan in particular.

Stay tuned. :) There's definitely more to come, and it'll be much more thought-provoking and probably a good deal cheerier. Although I won't necessarily do the whole series sequentially. (I have other stuff to write about too!)

9:50 PM, October 29, 2008  
Blogger Arjun G. Menon said...

This is a really touching article. I just really wish you had dropped him (the betta) off at some freshwater lake or something...

1:55 AM, October 30, 2008  
Blogger Arjun G. Menon said...

It is highly possible that the cause for the betta's incredible sadness was the denial of its need to procreate.

The reproductive drive is so fundamental to life, especially in lower organisms that the lack of a mate has have serious consequences.

This has been observed in dogs, elephants (lone elephants - they're basically male elephants doomed to celibacy, which turns them into very violent creatures), and many other animals.

In fact humans are no exception. See the Psychology Today article "Ten Politically Incorrect Truths About Human Nature" - http://www.psychologytoday.com/articles/index.php?term=pto-4...

2:09 AM, October 30, 2008  
Blogger suraj sharma said...

I agree with SørenSkov, Dave and Rolsky, However at the crux of it lies the question: Did or did not the fish die of depression (or anything like it)?.

This is a binary question, obviously for "maybe" isn't really a programmer's answer.

If the fish did die of unhappiness does it not prove that intelligence helps us in self-destruction? Since the ultimate aim of any system is death/the final stage of entropy. Intelligence is a method which helps us commit suicide by proving to us the worthlessness of it all, thereby solving all our problems.

If the fish did not die of unhappiness, then that raises some serious doubt about the whole "fish-suicide" scenario, for if it did not die of unhappiness, then what did it die for? could this be attributed simply to stupid animal behaviour or was it exhibiting some sort of intelligence? I guess one could argue endlessly, but the fact that this was a pretty interesting post isn't debatable.

2:15 AM, October 30, 2008  
Blogger Robert Moser said...

Not to detract from your post, but as someone who grew up where bettas lived in the wild, I'd like to point out that the males build their bubble nests on the water's surface, usually anchored to a twig, vine, or other small bit of vegetation to keep it from drifting away.

Your fellow was likely looking for a good anchor spot, and if none of the vine actually broke the surface of the water, got stuck in a 'traverse this vine until I find a good spot poking out of the water to build my nest' loop.

Bettas are also hunters-- they'll take what food is offered, but will really perk up, and display interesting stalking behaviors, if offers some form of small live prey.

I will say that I've kept aquarium fish on and off for decades, a bettas, as small & common as they may be, exhibit some of the richest varieties of behavior. Perhaps it is because they are slow, deliberate hunters, so you can actually watch what they're up to, or perhaps it is because you can see exactly where they're looking, as unlike lots of other fish, they can move their eyes. But they are one of my favorite fish.

I am surprised you didn't introduce a girl-fish, though. They aren't hard to find, and although they aren't as vibrantly-colored as the males, they exhibit the same interesting behaviors, and you can have several in one tank.

4:14 AM, October 30, 2008  
Blogger Saj said...

While reading, I was trying to relate the words with programming.. but, God! I was so sad that I forgot the damn programming and found myself in deep solitary confinement! Life in Betta's eyes, through the tank..

Thank you.


6:36 AM, October 30, 2008  
Blogger Unknown said...

It's interesting how the programmer's perspective never really leaves you- I certainly find it helpful as I am trying to learn to be come a horseman, although horses get by on something close to pure emotion so it's an entirely different logic to discover.

Funnily enough I was thinking about Trafalmodorians and what I learned from them only an hour ago. Today seems filled with small synchronicities. Of course, my logical side has read up on the statistics involved and dismisses such things outright, but my illogical side is contemplating purchasing a lottery ticket.

I look forward to hearing the Yegge theory of Eudaimonia or whatever the upcoming total perspective vortex will turn out to be.

8:21 AM, October 30, 2008  
Blogger JimDesu said...

Forget complaints over length: I'm always thrilled to see one of your essyas/posts/rants precisely because you're willing to burn 'ink'.


9:51 AM, October 30, 2008  
Blogger pjr said...

Damn can you write and what a story. Perspective what a powerful and scary thing it really is

5:54 PM, October 30, 2008  
Blogger Vikash Kumar said...

Even I had a similar experience when my Siamese fighting fish died in it's solitary confinement. Never dared to get another one again.. It's heart breaking & reading your post was indeed thought provoking.

3:38 AM, October 31, 2008  
Blogger johannes said...

Way too short article! ;)

4:30 AM, October 31, 2008  
Blogger Dirceu said...

wow. nice post. in case of a programmer career suicide, you can *really* enjoy writing (sci-fi maybe) :)

9:40 AM, October 31, 2008  
Blogger Fred Hsu said...

Great story, thank you for sharing!

2:39 PM, October 31, 2008  
Blogger Satish Srinivasan said...

Wow, I mean just wow! Best. Post. Ever.

3:54 PM, October 31, 2008  
Blogger Satish Srinivasan said...

Its tempting to think.. One way handling complexity is procedural abstraction right?

Which means basically team work, you take some boxes and use them to build bigger boxes. You don't have to know whats in the box you are building with.

Maybe.. Maybe the fish would have survived with a companion?

No matter how much we think or how much smart we are, some problems are just hard... like the one thats troubling me right now. Rather than depressing over it, i'll just let my mind wander over something else --play a game perhaps-- and then come back with a fresh perspective.

This has worked for me in the past. I hope it would in the future as well.

4:04 PM, October 31, 2008  
Blogger L. David Varvel said...

As a former Betta keeper, you have my utmost sympathy. They are, without question, the most interesting fish I've every had. Losing one is far more hurtful than losing a hundred goldfish.

I wonder if the fish could have been saved with a smaller tank. Male Bettas feel a deep need to defend their habitat, and to control their environment. Anything over a couple of gallons is too much territory for them to patrol, so they get terrifically stressed out and often die.

In essence, they become deeply (often fatally) bothered when they know that the potential complexity of their system is greater than their ability to manage it. We should all be so self-aware.

5:19 AM, November 01, 2008  
Blogger rdm said...

My current "hobby horse idea", that this blog entry provokes in my mind, is Charles Moore. Charles Moore has been quite successful, and almost radically opposed to code reuse (he will not even use other people's device drivers, but other people are allowed to reuse his code if they like). He has gone into VLSI design because of how, in part, code reuse induced problems had created such a business opportunity for him in that area... so anyways, this hobby horse idea of mine (that has probably already annoyed anyone reading here) seems to have some relevance when I think about how we can tackle the limits of abstraction. At some level, trying again with a better understanding becomes a really important tool for us.

But I have been ignoring the tragic side of this essay...

If Bettas die because of intellectual boredom, I would expect that other people would have noticed this because of all the other Betta deaths. Of course, this does not exclude the possiblity of individual variation in Bettas, but it also points at some of the character of such problems.

If Bettas die because they have too much external change, that sort of makes sense but not really, because how would they live in the real world? And if they die because they have too much territory, I wonder how they could ever live in the wild? I also wonder if fighting and/or companionship comes into the picture.

I was also envisioning adding a separate tank with perhaps a swim-able tube connecting them, but now I am wondering if a very small tank added in this fashion could have worked -- perhaps one with lots of cover? Or perhaps he was getting stressed out because he knew another Betta was going to attack him and he could not figure out how to place himself defensively. But remembering how depressed I have gotten when pets have died, I am also so very glad that I have not tried to raise Bettas.

Actually, I have given up on such things, myself, which might say something not very good about me.

8:29 AM, November 01, 2008  
Blogger Chris said...

You totally lost my interest somewhere around 'betta fish'. Learn to get to the point sooner. Like many of your posts, I end up skimming, hoping for something salient. Other posts of yours, the shorter, I-have-a-point ones are good.

10:50 AM, November 01, 2008  
Blogger Corey said...

If you are interested in the topic of how system complexity can overwhelm us mere humans, here's my favorite piece of writing on the topic, "The Lessons of ValuJet 592",

It's about how complexities in the system that is supposed to keep planes from crashing CAUSED a plane crash in this case.

6:21 PM, November 01, 2008  
Blogger brad dunbar said...

Great post Steve, as always.

6:46 AM, November 03, 2008  
Blogger James Owen said...


I noticed that several owners of Betta fish (also called a Siamese Fighting Fish on Wikipedia) had similar experiences. I once wanted to get a Betta from a fish wholesaler for whom I did a lot of consulting work.

He told me to always make sure that I had at least two males in different aquariums so that they could see (but not touch) each other. They really are extremely territorial and will constantly try to get to the other one. This keeps them active without getting hurt. He also suggested that if one died to put a mirror up where the Betta could see himself until I could get another.

On other thing - he called them "Beata" even though their name is Betta - also in agreement with Wikipedia. Mine lived for several months and when one died I replaced it with another. I should have gotten a couple of females for each one and started breeding but I didn't think of it at the time.

12:14 AM, November 04, 2008  
Blogger Selifflowen said...

A close friend of mine told me about this post and we talked about it, on how we're like the fishie. It depends on the level of reality we speak of, I think. If it's the physical reality, of what our senses can comprehend, of course there's a limit to it.

Although if it's the reality of what surrounds us,it's a whole different level. Although I believe blogger martin is right in saying that we all live in cages, we just expand it bit by bit. There's just something about us that drives us to explore and go out to up til where we can, where our bodies can reach.

I'd like to think of your fishie as the soul. No material thing can ever satisfy what it needs. If it is where it can never grow, then it will free itself in any way it can.

I don't know if that made sense, just some thoughts of mine that you yourself provoked. =) kudos, write more.

4:29 AM, November 04, 2008  
Blogger BillSeitz said...

So when are you leaving Google?

2:19 PM, November 04, 2008  
Blogger ms.pebble said...

liked the line:"he died of unhappiness.."
waiting for what 'A programmer's view of the Universe, part 2: ...' would be about :-)

1:54 AM, November 05, 2008  
Blogger benzrad华中朱子卓 said...

really moving. i like ur story, and i believing God. i subscribed ur blog now. keep posting pl.

12:05 AM, November 06, 2008  
Blogger Boggled said...

that was beautiful =')

8:17 PM, November 07, 2008  
Blogger shards said...

Thanks for sharing... It's really heartwarming. I like to think that animals do have emotions too. :)

8:47 AM, November 13, 2008  
Blogger mo.stoneskin said...

You know mate, that article did two things for me.

1) It (bizarrely) made me want to get another fish.

2) It made me want to get on and write a JAXB extension in my spare time to solve a problem that my company doesn't have budget for right now.


2:15 PM, November 14, 2008  
Blogger Unknown said...

Wow... I've definitely been in that fish tank

9:42 AM, November 19, 2008  
Blogger stung said...

Thanks for this lovely post. Wish one day I can live life to the fullest just like your fish.

9:55 PM, December 09, 2008  
Blogger Unknown said...

I have a betta too. While I don't give him the same attention, I have noticed its intelligence. I wouldn't ascribe the same level of awareness to them that you do, but I was surprised to see how he perks up when I pick up his yellow bottle of fish food. Sadly, I've neglected him lately and his little bowl needs a cleaning.

3:08 PM, December 11, 2008  
Blogger Dilip Krishnan said...

Great piece! Thought provoking (and touching I might add!) Thanks for sharing.

1:36 PM, December 30, 2008  
Blogger pavedwalden said...

I just saw this post about a species of spider that tackles tasks of mammal-level complexity by methodically working things out over several hours. It reminded me of the betta.


12:26 AM, January 10, 2009  
Blogger HB said...

I don't know how serious you were really being but..it was bizarre to read this because *my* betta made me very sad too. He was a blue fella a lived in a big tank with a bunch of other fish (I decided to discredit the whole fighting thing plus there was no way I was keeping him in a tiny bowl). I was mesmerized by my little blue. I actually (imagined?) he would see me and swim up to my finger when I would dip it into the tank. But in a couple of months he suddenly started to get sick and fade (now I know why he was fading) but he would still try and swim up to say hello. Finally he just languished and died...I was crushed :-/. SIGH.

By the way, I heard this great interview on NPR's Fresh Air with Nick Trout, a veterinary surgeon (I have three dogs so this was pretty poignant for me) - you should check it out if you have a chance:


7:51 PM, January 16, 2009  
Blogger Jamie said...

An extremely fascinating perspective. It may bear out to be true - after all, which other species destroys its own habitat? Humans aren't as smart as we think we are - in the grand scheme of things, we are pretty stupid really. At least the fish tried to change its circumstances - we seem to be charging towards oblivion and can't seem to force ourselves to change at all.
"And we can just as easily envision problems thousands or millions of times more complex: problems beyond the reasoning abilities of any person, any group of people, or even our entire species" - Very true and perhaps a pertinent point in view of the above.
An excellent blog - extremely thought-provoking.
tanzanite jewelry

5:39 AM, November 02, 2009  
Blogger Unknown said...

hi steve ... apropos of nothing in this latest rant of yours, but relevant to one you wrote in may, 2006, in which you mention your experience w/ 'anagrams,' i felt it devastatingly important to share this site with you. Before posting the link, however, you should know that your brother has every reason to be upset about what can be found in his name (afraid and in fear as he grieves as a friend is dying - for example), as should you, regarding the 'piggery' and much more. The site is (and you have to type in the whole url) http://www.lexigramsofthemoment.com/index . Be sure to read the 'About' and 'Funky Monkey' along with everything else in there. As you said, you're weary of blogs, but this site is beyond the pale.
Happy Reading,
LOTM author
(btw, one of your fans sent me the link to that particular article because he wanted me to see your take on anagrams. Adore your writing and stories. Sorry to see you've wrenched back ;)

5:49 PM, December 03, 2009  
Blogger E3 said...

Thinking on this topic reminded me of a view i hold that i haven't had the time to think about for a long while.
I think we are stimulated in life to follow what interests us. Like the old Greek tragedy life distracts us with a myriad of things to keep our mind occupied. With careful thought we either realize that the world is too complex and big for us to understand and we give up to a higher power or we forge ahead and keep optimistic things will work out. we as humans are an optimistic bunch, without we would seep into depression and probably end up like your proverbial fish who kicked the bucket. when we give up, life gets the best of us. with so much around us today to distract us we try to cling to whats familiar to stay sane. for those of us who think too much it is a blessing and a curse because we are always drawn to the inevitability that life is futile. we try to combat this by justifying the meaning of our lives by our actions, when in fact at the end of the day you have to just be able to live with yourself. we are just psychotic apes because we cannot accept the simple inevitability of simple lives because our minds must have more. the constant doldrums of life wears us down until we give up and become your fish passing time until the inevitable end. no one on this earth is normal and life sucks and then you die. i myself just enjoy the little moments in life until its my time. most call me eccentric and a little off but that's because i almost died and i enjoy what little time i have left on this marble spinning in the infinite void of space. i no longer sweat the big stuff. i think it takes a big experience to waken one up to the true beauty in this world. and yes, i am an optimist. sharing the planet with 6 billion others we sometimes feel alone; how ironic. but the fact stands we need to do whats right for those who come after us, to give them the best chance at a future where there is possibility and worries are not so necessary. our job is to fix the mistakes of the past the best way we can and try to make it better for those who follow. lead by example. silly little things are the most profound. all in all i hope you all fare better than his fish.

7:49 AM, January 28, 2010  
Blogger Kailani said...

wow that story was unbelievable. it reminds me a lot of the first hamster I ever owned. it would interact with its surroundings much in the same way that your betta did. it would even watch tv with us, and not just stare at it. unfortunately, it was also very curious about escaping from its prison. it actually did succeed many times although in its last it was squashed by my brother in his sleep :/

10:58 PM, October 07, 2010  

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