Table Rules

Parents spend an inordinate amount of time telling their children the same rules over and over in an effort to help them be better people in the long run. Just sitting at the dinner table for a meal involves a myriad of protocols that most of us rarely think about unless someone around us is breaking from convention in a social setting, be it formal or otherwise. With repetition and the occasional bit of discipline, children learn how to compose themselves when at a table with different groups of people. Everybody knows this is how we learn how to act in polite company, but what would these rules look like if they were written out for an android?

Robotics technology has seen a remarkable amount of progress over the last quarter century as we continue to build better motors, faster processors, and adaptable machines. Eventually we'll reach a point where it will become feasible to build an android that is the size and shape of "the ideal person"1, most likely with the bulk of its brainpower hosted by a giant organisation or — ideally — a local server buried in a closet with a great deal of processing power. When the time comes for people to invite these machinations into their home2, someone will need to sit down and write out all the rules that must be followed when sitting at the table and pretending to eat a meal.

  • wash your hands before sitting at the table
  • wear underwear, pants, and a shirt at the table
  • sit up straight
  • don't put your elbows on the table
  • eat pasta with a fork, not your fingers
  • eat pizza with your fingers, not a fork3
  • when you cough, take a sip of water or tea
  • do not raise your leg to have your knee above the table
  • eat with your mouth closed
  • ask for additional food or toppings with "please"
  • thank people for the meal
  • compliment the chef, offering specific praise for at least one dish
  • do not sing while eating
  • swallow the food before talking
  • do not stuff food into your mouth
  • don't slurp liquid
  • don't lick the plate
  • don't throw food
  • do not use a straw to drink your soup
  • french fries do not belong in your nostrils
  • if you must take food out of your mouth, gently spit it into a tissue, then wrap the tissue so nobody else sees the mess
  • if you must pass gas, excuse yourself and leave the table to go to an adjacent room, then return after waiting at least 30 seconds4

The list goes on and on and on. I've had to tell my son every one of these rules at least once this week, and many of them at least once per meal. A machine with some degree of autonomy, however, would only need to have the list written once and put into a weighted scale so that, when the situation requires it, the rule can be overridden5. When sitting at a table with young children, for example, maybe slurping soup or putting food up a nose would be a means of silly entertainment to keep the kids occupied while a table of adults try to have a meal in relative peace. When sitting at a table with senior family members, such as a grandmother and grandfather, then the rules can tighten up and be followed to the letter. These are all things we teach our children to do, and these are all things that we ourselves do when not eating in isolation, so it makes sense that an android with situational awareness will understand the environment it's in to determine how best to follow the protocols of the dinner table.

Mind you, this is just the dinner table. Rules would have to be added if an android finds itself at a five-star restaurant in Dubai or a dumpy fast-food joint next to a forgotten truck stop on an abandoned highway. Then there's the hassle of ensuring that so many of the other rules we unconsciously follow are programmed into the system.

When is it appropriate to speak at a normal volume? When should we whisper? Is it okay to talk during a movie? Can an android spontaneously break into song like a character in Glee?

What etiquette will be followed regarding clothing? Which rituals are observed at formal events such as weddings, funerals, or bar-mitzvah? It's okay to make sand castles at the beach and in a sandbox, but what about the vegetable garden?

When we really sit down and think about all the protocols we follow just to interact with other people, it's no wonder that children need darn near two decades of practice before we send them into the world on their own, often knowing that some of the rules will be intentionally ignored for a short period of time6. Putting these rules into a coherent fashion for a walking computer to follow while also appearing to be a cognitively present human being is going to be a remarkable feat of computational engineering.

We will do it, though. One day in our lifetime, we will all have the opportunity to have an android with us as an assistant, a servant, an outdoor labourer, or maybe even a companion7. Today's societal questions about rights, freedoms, and responsibilities will pale in comparison to the ones we'll ask when machines look, act, and appear to think like us.

Before we can embark on the journey to decide whether machines that look like people should have similar rights and freedoms as people, though, we'll need to give them rules. Tens of thousands … hundreds of thousands … perhaps millions of rules to follow in order to successfully navigate the social worlds our cultures have constructed over thousands of years.


  1. I've only ever seen one sci-fi show depict androids of different body sizes. While they may appear to be in various age groups, they are generally "perfect" with slim builds and amazing teeth.

  2. This future is a lot closer than people realise.

  3. Yes, people can use a fork and knife with pizza. I've seen this done and, on occasion, done so myself. Generally a fork and knife will reduce the chance of getting sauce on white clothes from spilled toppings.

  4. Okay, this is one that I haven't yet taught the boy. It's on the list, though.

  5. A machine with no autonomy would not have a list of "do nots", but instead a script of actions to be followed, possibly with some occasional randomness thrown in to provide the illusion of being human.

  6. When I lived at home, I would cook dinner for my many brothers, sisters, and parents, and later do the dishes five to six nights a week. Most meals resulted in anywhere from 25 to 60-odd items that needed washing. When I moved out into my first basement apartment, "cooking" involved making a simple tuna risotto in a single glassware bowl that was also the dish I ate from. Every meal had exactly 3 dishes: the bowl, a fork, and a glass for my soda. I drank Pepsi from a glass because I wasn't a complete animal at 17 ….

  7. Looking at how we've treated ourselves over the last few thousand years, some of these machines will be subject to some pretty lousy conditions. Things that no human should ever be condemned to. Depending on how much liberty and cognitive capacity the androids have, it may be necessary to grant them rights or, at the very least, limit what humans can order them to do.

The 10-Hour Workday

Today marks the second day where I must put the day job away as best as possible after just ten hours of on-the-clock effort in a bid to get some better sleep every night, as per doctor's orders. There are a number of benefits to working no more than 600 minutes a day, such as keeping overtime hours down1 and spending a little more time with Reiko after the boy has gone to bed. However, I will need to contend with the nagging feeling that I should be doing something more productive than sitting on the sofa and having a conversation about upcoming trips, our landscaping plans for the coming spring, or — heaven forbid — getting back into studying Japanese so that I can communicate with people a little more intelligently2. There's no denying that the forced change will take some time to become the new normal and I'm looking forward to using some of the freed up time to read, write, and think.

In the reading queue is Teaching in a Digital Age (2nd Edition) by A.W. Bates and The Rational Bible: Exodus by Dennis Prager. I've also considered reading The Gulag Archipelago by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, which I understand would be an incredibly depressing, though enlightening, study of recent history.

Writing will not be anything nearly as coherent or structured as the books mentioned above, however, I have been working on a potential "open specification" for a digital textbook that would offer a good deal of flexibility for teachers as well as students. The preliminary work is certainly interesting, though there are a couple of areas that will need further consideration, such as the most logical way to keep file sizes down while also maintaining portability over decades.

As for thinking, there's just so much to consider all the time. One topic that I'd like to invest more time in is with my future, both near and distant, as it's hard to know what to aim for when the target is fuzzy or non-existent. When I try to think about where I'll be in three, five, and ten years, the mind comes up mostly blank. Sure, I have a couple of goals and have made some decent progress on being gainfully self-employed in the next few years, but is this the best way to accomplish the longest term goal of dying debt free with enough in the bank for the family to not worry about money for at least a decade? I have no idea, which is why setting aside adequate time for thinking, which usually involves pens and paper to physically map the thought process, is so important.

Limiting the day job to just ten hours feels like I'm working just a half day. Hopefully I'll make effective use of the additional time every day.


  1. Keeping the OT numbers down is good for my managers.

  2. I want my words to have more nuance when I speak with people here. As it stands, most of what I say can be perfectly understood by a 10 year old, which is nowhere near the level of sophistication an adult needs to be taken seriously.

Endowments

This morning Reiko and I made the short trip to the nearby municipal hospital where I was scheduled to undergo an ultrasound on my liver and kidneys to search for a possible cause for the occasional bit of blood in my urine. This was identified as a possible issue two years ago after an annual physical and it was brought up again this year, albeit with additional asterisks next to the result and a more tersely worded recommendation from the physician. I was to see my family doctor about the blood. Period. Two weeks ago I had the first set of follow-up tests and today's was the more thorough exploration to check for internal issues, such as kidney stones.

Long story short, my kidneys are in perfect health. My liver, while surrounded by perhaps a bit too much fat, is also in perfect health. The final diagnosis put my organs at "better than average" for the time being. The cause of any internal bleeding was likely the result of my horrible sleeping patterns over the last four years. Dr. Yamada, using verbal asterisks of his own, told me that I should get a lot more sleep than is currently afforded.

My first thought was "This will seriously impact the amount of work I can accomplish in a given day."

This is a preposterous notion given what I witnessed at the hospital while waiting to be seen, then again while waiting to pay the bill1. Nested in with all the healthy, able-bodied people at the hospital were others missing limbs, or confined to a wheelchair, or carrying their own oxygen, or in so much pain all they could do was weep silently while waiting their turn. Hundreds of people, each with their own distinct set of strengths and limitations. Each with their own unique, day-to-day challenges that make the asterisks on my most recent physical diagnoses seem moot by comparison.

Fortune favours the foolish, and few are more senseless than I. While a large number of people of all ages and backgrounds invest hours, days, weeks, or months of their lives in search of health, I balk at seeing a doctor and instead busy myself with asinine deadlines for the sake of a fairly good income. "I'm fine," I tell myself, which is true for the most part. I am fine. My physical health today is superior to what it was 15 years ago. But it is not an endowment to be taken lightly. A combination of chance and dumb luck has resulted in a clean bill of health despite all the stupid things I've done over the last four decades. A simple twist of fate could have resulted in signs of impending kidney failure, or a hardening layer of fat surrounding the liver, which can prove fatal. High blood pressure can result in heart attacks, strokes, and other life-altering conditions in the blink of an eye. The near daily headaches — a result of not moving enough — can be precursors to other problems as well.

We all have challenges in life. Some far more than others. While the frustrations and inconveniences of the day sometimes seem beyond belief, there's no denying that there are always people who would trade anything to live as we do. With this perspective it's obvious that we should set aside half a day to see a doctor when early warning signs appear. It's also incontrovertible that whatever minor nuisances we must contend with need to be viewed in a greater context. Yes, the problems of the day are nothing to ignore, but they could be worse. They could always be worse.


  1. Japan's health care system is not 100% funded by the government. Depending on what is checked and what category the conditions are in, we will pay more. Today's total bill for three doctors visits, a urine test, a blood test, an X-Ray, and an ultrasound worked out to less than $50, which I can claim back through the day job's health insurance system.

Out of Time

Bouts of anxiety are nothing new, nor is the sense that I'm perpetually behind schedule on a number of projects. This generally gets worse during weeks when I try to take time off work for holiday or health-related reasons. In the back of my head there's a voice saying "I could be working on X, Y, or Z right now. Why am I using time here?" For a long time this was explained away as workaholism, but the description is incomplete. My anxiety does not stem from workaholism, but something that is buried even deeper than that; the feeling that I'm running on — and nearing the end of — borrowed time.

The question I've yet to answer, though, is what it is I've borrowed time to accomplish. A little more specificity would go a long way to helping me understand the root causes of my anxiety and how to better control it.

A Day Trip to Kyoto

Last week the family an I were expecting to spend a couple of days at Tokyo Disney, enjoying all of the high-priced sights and sounds of the theme park. This was going to be our first trip to "a faraway place" as a family and a great opportunity to relax and unwind after a year of go-go-go. Unfortunately, Mother Nature had other plans and decided to send a rather devastating typhoon. We cancelled our trip last week and spent the planned time off no different than we would have if I were working1. The typhoon hit us yesterday, but just hard enough to keep us home2, which was quite rough on the boy who wanted to go outside and play despite the 30 hours of non-stop precipitation.

Blue Skies and Green Grass

Generally the day after a typhoon hits, we can expect clear skies and cool temperatures. Today was no exception. While Nozomi and I were out walking this morning, I thought it would be a nice idea to head south to Kyoto and enjoy the sights and sounds of a different place. The boy had yet to ride the Shinkansen, so a little bit of exposure to the train might help him relax a bit when we're en route to Tokyo at some point later this year.

Reiko asked me to plan a couple of things to do in Kyoto and that's just what I did. The loose itinerary was simple:

  • take the Shinkansen to Kyoto station
  • walk to Umekoji Park (about 750m from Kyoto Station)
  • have lunch at a restaurant or cafe
  • visit the Kyoto Train Museum
  • if everyone's energetic enough, take the train to Arashiyama; a popular tourist destination

Unlike most trips, there were no rigid times associated with any of these items. We'd get to Kyoto when we got there. We'd get to the park when we got there. We'd aim to have lunch around 12:30 so that the boy didn't get too cranky. Then we'd do the rest at a leisurely pace.

Oddly enough, this worked out perfectly.

A Day in Kyoto

There were a couple of things that we couldn't do simply because there wasn't enough time or because some of the more touristy activities were priced beyond reason3, but the trip was very much the relaxing getaway that we were all looking forward to having last week. Hopefully our next trip as a family will be just as enjoyable.


  1. As it happens, I did work every day that I was supposed to be off. There were server problems at the day job, and I pitched in to get things back to normal as quickly as possible.

  2. The wind and rain were quite destructive just north of here. Lots of flooding. A couple of tornadoes. Two dozen people are still missing, too.

  3. 4,000 Yen ($37USD) for a 12-minute ride on a rickshaw? Get out of here!

Dark Mode

A few days back I was using Reader View on the tablet and adjusting some font settings when a question crossed my mind: what would my site look like in dark mode? Not being one to let a question linger for too long, I used a darker Reader View theme and looked at some recent posts. I liked what I saw and decided to shamelessly copy the colour scheme here and write a quick bit of JavaScript to check whether a person has their device set to dark mode or not. So long as the feature is enabled, the site will set its colours accordingly.

This is what the site looks like on the tablet:

Dark Mode with Reader

This is the new dark mode colour scheme in the Anri theme:

Dark Mode with Anri

Future updates will allow a reader to toggle the colour scheme as well as set font preferences, but only when a few more bugs are ironed out of the existing theme. In the meantime, I hope that this quick bit of evening coding will help people who generally prefer to see darker colours on their screens.

Unrecognisable as Me

When the beta versions of Apple's iOS 13 were released, I put the test operating system on a work tablet in order to begin testing various corporate sites and software. In addition to the updated core applications, though, iOS 13 brought Apple's "Animoji" to the older devices that I use on a daily basis. This is something that I've seen on occasion from friends and family who have sent messages, but was new to me. One of the first things that a person needs to do before using these animated emotional icons is to customise the look of the face "to reflect our own unique style". I did so, paying careful attention to detail, and saw a face that I thought looked like me right up until I saw two dozen of them waiting to be used.

Despite looking similar to me, all but one of these faces are completely unrecognisable as me.

My Face as an Animoji

The problem is that these avatars are far too expressive. Very, very rarely will people see this much emotion on my face … even when I'm really happy. While it's probably unlikely to happen with older devices, it would be nice to see an option to tone the feelings down a bit. Ideally there would be a toggle that reads "Look like a Vulcan" as that would be much closer to how I generally look from day to day.

All this said, there is one face that looks like me. Unfortunately it's not one that I would consider using with the people I send messages to.

Oblivious

When people talk about responsibility there is often a comment or two about the weight associated with the burden as though the duty were tangible and made of lead. When asked, the most common "heavy responsibilities" are generally children, the mortgage, bills, and possibly the care of an elderly or sick family member. There is no denying that these can require a phenomenal amount of personal time and resources and, should any be neglected for a sufficient period of time, the consequences could be absolutely dire. Ignore the bills, and modern luxuries like cell phones and working plumbing are disabled. Forget the mortgage for a while and you can wind up homeless. Disregard a child or ill family member and … well … it's really not good. Many of us take on more responsibility as we progress through adulthood before enjoying a reduction in obligations as we near retirement. None of this is news to anyone who is a contributing member of society.

Yet despite the long list of responsibilities and expectations placed on me, I no longer feel a weight. Two or three years ago the rapid assumption of duties seemed a bit excessive. For so much of my time in Japan my core responsibilities were rather simple:

  • look after Nozomi's needs
  • pay the bills
  • pay the rent
  • ensure the government ID and supporting documentation is always valid
  • be productive at work and meet every deadline

After moving out of the classroom and into my current role at the day job, I then became responsible for servers, services, software, and systems. When the boy was born, I then became a father and quickly assumed the role. When we bought a house I became an immigrant home-owner and had to first manage the myriad of legal hurdles before taking on the day-to-day maintenance of a building and plot of land. The role at the day job has since expanded again, meaning I'm responsible for many of the same things as before, but for many, many more people across the face of the planet. Never in my life have I had so many expectations nor have the consequences of failure ever been higher.

Yet, despite all of this, I don't feel these responsibilities are "heavy". At one time I did, but the feeling has long since passed.

Mind you, I'll be the first to admit that I'm fortunate to have a great deal of support with every one of the obligations and duties. Reiko helps out a lot with the domestic items, and a handful of dedicated colleagues make the expectations from the day job easier to meet. Stressful days continue to exist. Impossible deadlines keep me awake some nights. Concerns about the health of some close family are constantly on my mind. But this is all taken in stride now. I can manage it. I can overcome the little issues that are sometimes irritants and sometimes roadblocks. Despite the sheer number of responsibilities on my plate, the vast majority of which are not listed, there is no weight on my shoulders.

Why not? Am I completely oblivious to the very real threats that could turn my current lot in life into something far worse than anything I've experienced thus far? This is certainly a possibility as we can't always know what we don't know, but this might not be the case.

There's always the possibility that I might lose my job, which would immediately impact the family's ability to afford anything. Reiko does work, but her hard-earned salary is not enough to cover our monthly operating costs. There's a chance someone in this house might become incredibly ill and require constant attention, possibly hospitalisation. A stupid mistake with a database at the day job could cost the company as little as 15 minutes of downtime1, which is measured in the thousands of dollars, or maybe tens of millions of dollars if student data was exposed to risk and the press caught wind of the situation. Any one of these could make like much more difficult, particularly if a family member is really sick.

Despite the serious ramifications from failure or fate, these situations do not even enter my equations for how much a responsibility weighs. Why worry about all the possible negative things all the time? It's enough to know that the possibility is there and have some basic plans in place to ensure at least some short term survival.

The more I think about how I perceive the burdens of responsibility, the more I think I'm feeling comfortable with these challenges because it's time to assume a bigger one. What it is exactly I haven't a clue but, from past experience, when I've become too comfortable with the day-to-day the mind will begin looking for something new. This could be joining a neighbourhood program. It could be taking on another role at the day job. Heck, it could even be trying to raise another child2. The hard part isn't finding some other challenge to take on; it's finding the right challenge to properly embrace.


  1. If we need to switch a hot-secondary system to a primary, this can be done in the space of a couple of minutes. That said, there is always some time spent on the first system to get it operational again. Fortunately this has never had to be done as a result of something I did.

  2. Given how much energy the boy demands from me, I don't know how I'd get by with another young child in the house. How did my parents manage to stay sane and get things done with five kids in the house?

Idle Hands

If it weren't for the storm barrelling down on Japan this week, the family and I would be resting at a hotel just outside of Tokyo DisneyLand right now. This was to be our first "real" vacation away from home since Reiko and I went to Kobe back in 20131. However, considering the intensity of this 19th typhoon of the year, it did not seem wise to risk getting stuck 400km from home with a toddler in tow. We still plan to make time and travel to the theme park this month to enjoy the sights and sounds of a Disney Hallowe'en, but only if the weather is a little more agreeable. Hopefully I can book the time off work without falling too far behind the myriad of tasks that need to be completed for the start of November.

台風19号

My grandmother used to say that idle hands were the Devil's playthings and often insisted that people be doing something rather than nothing2. She passed away when I was quite young, but this phrase has stuck with me as it has made very little sense over the years. Being bored does not necessitate an act of malevolence. Heck, my experience has generally been the opposite; when I'm bored, I get to work.

So it probably surprises exactly zero people that I've two of my three paid vacation days this week to solve some technical problems for the day job.

Was it the devil that made me fire up the necessary tools to diagnose the database performance issues? Nope. Was it the devil that compelled me to remain on "silent mode" with all but one colleague to ensure a minimum of distractions? Nope. Was it the devil that provided enough time in the afternoon and evening so that I could focus on the difficult task of sifting through millions of SQL operations to find the worst offending queries and clean them up like a man possessed?

Maybe.

There's no denying that I am not good at being bored. There is always more to do in a day than can be reasonably accomplished, which means there is generally a reason to get out of bed the next morning3. When the trip to Disney was cancelled, I had planned to use the time for some 10Centuries features, such as Sign in With Apple, restoring the landing and sign up pages, and optimising some of the syndication elements that have become sluggish as the database has grown. Some time was spent on the first item, but not a heck of a lot. When the emails started coming in from work from people saying the system was interfering with their ability to get work done, the focus had to shift.

This isn't a good thing, though. Time away from work should mean spending time away from work, no matter how much I might want to jump in to solve problems.

Tomorrow, after spending some time with the family and ensuring everything outside is ready for the impending weather, I'll get back to doing what I should be doing with 10Centuries, which is building the platform. There are a number of concepts that have been worked on since the start of summer and it would be nice to see them deployed before winter arrives. There's also a bunch of work I need to do on the iOS application in order to get it ready for submission to the AppStore in the next couple of months.

There is always a lot to do. Sometimes I wonder if my hands can ever be idle at all.


  1. We've had shorter holidays, but we haven't stayed anywhere overnight. Visiting the in-laws for New Year doesn't count as a holiday, either.

  2. The one exception to this rule was always invoked when her favourite soap opera was on. Every afternoon at 4:00pm, she would watch The Young and the Restless and everything would come to a standstill, including her hands, for the entire hour.

  3. The boy is pretty good at making just the right noises in the early morning to pierce the calm … and any eardrums in the vicinity. This isn't a great reason to get out of bed, but a natural alarm clock does make it a little bit easier.

Chaos on a Blank Page

When people are presented with a blank page and asked to write whatever they'd like to share there will be a small percentage capable of doing so almost instantly while the vast majority will struggle to get started. Our ability to be creative on demand is limited and people's general ability to face a blank page and turn it into something with structure and purpose is even more finite.

One of the ideas that I've tried to put to words is an evolving concept of chaos and order. A blank page is chaos. A page with content, no matter how trivial, has a degree of order. The way I approach a blank page for blogging is almost the same way I approach software development. We are presented with an unformed canvas that can be transformed in a near-infinite number of ways. How do we start? How do we structure? How do we know we've finished? The chaos that we see in the form of a blank page, be it physical or digital, can be seen as untapped potential.

This is how I look at it, anyway. Chaos is potential, while order is what we derived from that potential. A chaotic blog post might not ever see the light of day in its current form, but there's still the potential to refine the idea further, imbibing order on the work so that others might read and understand. A chaotic application might never compile, but there is still the potential to work out the issues and impose a minimal amount of order to see the code in action. This balance can be seen with just about everything and it's often up to us to create something good from the potential before us.

Putting this in a blog post, however, has proven to be quite difficult. The concepts can run quite deep, which would make for a rather long essay that could very well need a bit of research and references. I have no qualms with writing an article that hits five or six thousand words in length, but the piece has to be cohesive and coherent.

Perhaps it would be better to just keep it simple, then.

Chaos = Potential.
Order = Realisation1.

These four words do not do the concept justice, though. At some point I'll sketch out a mind map, draw from reference material, and compose an article that better articulates the notion in a manner befitting its meaning.


  1. The achievement of something desired or anticipated.