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The Northern Spy
April 2010

The Last Column

Rick Sutcliffe

After over forty years and at least 18 000 lectures

the Spy recently delivered his Last Lecture, to the TWU chapel gathering this past month. While there is plenty of overlap with this column (last advice is, after all, last advice), the dissimilar audiences and intent necessitate a substantially different approach, organization, and applications. What follows is in addition to the Spy's Laws (required prerequisite reading here, folks), and if he finds himself repeating himself repeating himself on the ideas below, he'll add some of this material to that collection.


The post moderns are wrong. Truth and rightness do exist. So, by all means consider yourself right with God, upon doctrine, and respecting your choice of church (including that of PC or Mac, C++ or Modula-2, liberal or conservative, Ford or GM), but don't extend any of this to thinking you are right about everything, or you will be insufferable, no one will want to have anything to do with you, and when you're finally gone, everyone will just be plain relieved.

On that note, as far as possible, be right with others. It is better to be wronged than to be forever trying to vindicate yourself, even if you are right. And, be very careful about using terms like "frankness" or "speaking the truth in love" because both are far too often euphemisms or excuses for an abusive and critical tongue sharp enough to cut sheet metal.

And don't forget: as there is no difference between exaggerating and lying, between ripping off your employer's office supplies or her time (to surf), between robbing a bank and pirating books, music and software. It's right to pay for your shareware, music files, and eBooks. You do want the authors to continue writing, don't you?

Yes, and put the purveyors of the illicit out of business by ignoring both the pirate sites and the pornography collections. You don't need it, and neither does anyone else.

Moreover, when you are wrong, repent of it specifically, and change your ways. On the one hand, doing the same thing the same way over and over and expecting a different outcome is a good definition of insanity. This includes continuously rebooting your computer (or your life) upon the occurrence of every fault, in the vain hope that all will work better the next time, but without venturing to make any fundamental enquiries into what went wrong (or what you did wrong) and then, informed with this knowledge, fixing the problem before continuing.

Finally, your rights (but not others') are significantly less important than your responsibilities. Moreover, the two are related in the same way as bad money and good--sufficient of the former inevitably drives out the latter. When you are wrong (reprise) it really is your fault, not someone else's, certainly not that of society. The devil didn't make you do it. Take responsibility.


Be a builder not a destroyer, a creator not just a consumer, a praiser not a critic. Last month's column criticized the critics and destroyers. Who needs 'em?


Enjoy life while its time lasts, and make sure it counts for something when you're gone. You don't get another one here. Remember that life is a fatal disease. You haven't lived well until you have died well.


Know the difference between fantasy and truth, between imagination and reality. The world is not the way you want it to be, no matter how hard you try. Alternate History really is fiction, the Spy's novels notwithstanding. Maybe you did really buy the wrong computer and OS. Maybe that product really isn't ready to ship, despite the boss' bullying. Maybe that deadline cannot be met. Fooling yourself once may be excused. Fooling yourself routinely is yet another good definition of insanity.


The most important things in life are not things. So give rather than take. Invest in people and ensure they know to pay your investment forward, rather than back.

Be a team player--there are few software projects and almost no other worthwhile things that can be profitably constructed alone--and that includes your life and those of others.


To expand on that last thought, the New Agers are right about one thing, even if only one. Everything and everyone is connected to everything and everyone else. We cannot live alone. That is why we have society, clubs, churches, towns, countries. What you say, do, or decide always has consequences, even if you repent of, regret, and retract it later. That web page you put up affects the rest of the net as search engines and other sites link to it. That Facebook or Twitter post will be a window into your mind for your friends, enemies, parents, teachers, and prospective employers for the rest of your life. It will change both you and them. All such information remains in the collective archive or Metalibrary, continuing its influence forever (in Internet time at least). Have you thought about the consequences of your own connectivity?

While we're on the subject, privacy is becoming a fossil. You cannot keep secrets in the information age. If you're cheating, stealing, lying, it will all become public eventually. Expect it.


Be a faithful servant. Keep your word even when it costs you, even if you later would rather decide you were tricked into giving it. Be the kind of person who is always there--at Church, at work, at your appointments, the one person other people CAN take for granite, a pillar, not a missing person.

Multiply your talents. Be prepared. We will all give account for our stewardship to someone someday.

Occasionally violate the rule of predictability to do something unpredictably kind and loving. Perform a Random Act of Kindness, help the poor sufferer understand MS W*rd's arcanities, remove your neighbour's W*nd*ws viruses gratis, or treat that homeless bum to a sandwich. She may be an angel in disguise sent to test you.


Everyone has a potential for addiction, whether it be to alcohol, tobacco, another mind altering drug, sex, work, fame, power, money, toys (including your Mac), social networking, games, work, pride, self-righteousness, food, beauty (your own or others), or even learning. Give in, and you will be a slave forever, of no practical value to anyone.

Oh, and if you turn your very self into a (literal or metaphorical) crack house or a slum tenement, you may end up getting evicted, and (to misuse an old Irish expression) your meathouse torn down. Same goes for your environment.

Not only that, don't decry street crime and drug related violence if you're a user. Your addiction is the cause. Look to yourself first.

To pick on one of those again, the Spy mentions beauty more than once herein. Remember this: the best looking software, camera, computer, or drill press isn't always what gets the job done. Likewise, there is more real substance of beauty in a kind heart, a generous soul, and a smiling face, than in all the sham and illusion found in all the clothing stores, makeup kits, jewellery collections and beauty parlors in all the world.

To pick on two others, and not for the first time in this space, while drugs and alcohol are a tax on intelligence, gambling is a tax on stupidity. Pickle your brain with one, flush money, home, relationships and livelihood down the toilet with the other. Your call.

The Spy was once a swim club sponsor for his high school students. It just ain't possible to destroy your lungs with smoke and still swim, run, or ski like a champ. Neither can you write quality software, or indeed do much else worthwhile if you're looped on or preoccupied by some addiction. Big projects with lasting impact require time, concentrated attention, diligence, and consistent hard work. They won't happen if your mental wiring is short-circuited or french fried. 'Course, if your addiction is work in the first place....

Technology, Money and Stuff

Everything costs more and takes longer than you expect, especially hardware and software projects.

She who dies with the most toys may well win, but what does she win? After all, money not only isn't everything, it isn't anything-just an abstraction for keeping score, like chalk, or ink, both of which fade out or are soon wiped away. In the very long run, money is meaningless. It's just a convenience token for a fractional portion of your day's work, and of use solely as a medium of exchange between that and goods. And it does not matter whether the abstraction is expressed tangibly (gold or lead), instantiated symbolically (old fashioned paper money) or exists purely abstractly (electronic funds). Reality and the meaning of life are found under other headings, not this one.

And, while on the subject of toys and pseudo assets--before you plan, buy, deploy, and train for technology, ask some questions about its effects on people, their jobs, their lives. If the deployment decision makers don't deal with the ethics of technology, who will?

And if someone offers you a business deal that sounds too good to be true, a higher-than-normal interest rate, a domain transfer to a company you don't know, access to your own or somebody else's bank account or web site, or an unexpected inheritance--run, do not walk, as far away as you can go. It's a scam. The only one to make money will be the scammer--and the money taken will have been yours. 'Course, if you followed the previous advice, you didn't want it anyway, did you?


Be a student all your life. If you're not growing in wisdom, knowledge, understanding, and application, you're dying. By the way, university is NOT about deconstructing your world view and constructing another on its ruins, it's about engaging ideas.

Practical corollary: lean as much about mathematics, science, and computing technology as you can, for these three are keys to understanding the world around you, and how it was made. They will also dictate many of the everyday circumstances of life for the next generation. Moreover, if we may turn from the general and philosophical to the specific and hard-nosed practical, they'll get you something better than a McJob.

Exercise your brain (and not with salacious pictures). Read and study the classics (including the Bible), philosophy, history, economics, science, and novels. However, if you want your mind not merely filled, but challenged to think creatively, read science fiction and even some fantasy. After all, today's Science Fiction is tomorrow's everyday technology. Hey, give the Spy's Alternate History SF a try.

And, while we're at it, don't neglect music and art--also windows to the soul. Hey, get a double degree in the arts and the sciences. Be a New Renaissance man or woman, why not?

Be open minded, but not so much so that just any ideas can lodge there. Intelligently and meaningfully assess ideas (and web sites). Just because they're published doesn't make them true. Even if they're true they're not necessarily practical or applicable.

Oh, and the purpose of discourse and debate is NOT to win, to beat your opponent down. It is to engage competitive ideas and sharpen (and perhaps change) your mind. Let's hear it for rational discourse to make a comeback, particularly in the academic, political, scientific, and religious realms.


It is sometimes said by the abysmally and unrepentantly fence-post-for-a-brain ignorant that "those who can, do, the rest teach. Rather, say, "you have not done anything really well until you have taught another person to do it better." More pithily: "If you cain't teach it, you hain't done it yet." The goal, on any job site, whether the task is ditch digging, sermon preaching, theorem proving, polymer synthesis, barn cleaning, or computer programming, is to replace yourself, and then some.

In business, the bottom line can be totaled up at the end of the month or quarter, and you count how successful you have been. In teaching, success is realized over decades, and is measured by the former students who return to tell you what positive influence you have had on their lives.


By definition, problems have solutions. Otherwise, they are called something else. However, not every problem is worth your trying to solve. You may lack the resources to finish a software project, to deal with a difficult person, to build that network, to complete a business venture. Count the cost ahead of time before starting, count it again as you decide whether to continue or to fold either your hand or an IT project. Don't throw good money after bad. You cannot finish everything.


Plan ahead. Thimk. Have an engineering mindset. Your intelligence is the only (related word warning) discernible difference between random data and meaningful information. Indeed all meaning derives from intelligence. You're not on a random walk through life. Do things on purpose. Have a reason (double entrende intended). Otherwise you are indistinguishable from a vending machine. There is no difference between a life without plan or purpose or meaning and no life at all, no difference between an unintended or undocumented feature and a bug. If you didn't know where you were going when you started, you'll never know either when you've finished your journey or where you've arrived.

Know your discipline's epistemology. Until you understand what it means when you say you know something is true about your discipline, you cannot credibly claim to know anything about it at all.

Understand that the universe already has substance, form, meaning, and beauty. Look for and marvel at the concinnity of meaning and beauty that is already there; do not arrogantly suppose you can create your own consilience.


Cheap tools ruin your work and waste your time. Both are too expensive. Get the right ones. As we mathematicians say, don't use a sledgehammer to crack a peanut. Use screws to attach sheet goods, not nails. Rototill your garden at least twice before planting. Remember that a computer is not an appliance like a toaster, but a tool like a compound sliding mitre saw or a Swiss Army officer's knife. Get a Mac.

As a reprise of the last point, intend to create the software or documents you write, then do so with the best tools--Excel 2004, NisusWriter Pro, Scrivener, BBEdit. IOW, intentionally use and write the right programs. Develop the software the customer needs. Life is short, and so are contracts. Do the job right at least by the third time.


The Spy's Second Law, a variation of Murphy's states: The practice of theory never matches the theory of practice--or, what's a beta tester for? So learn from your disappointments, and when life serves you lemons, savour the lemonade.

The silver bullet

Every few years a "new" old teaching fad limps back into vogue, often with a new alias--just like fashions, paint colours, political ideas, or heresies. Resist. Educational theories, like the corresponding business fads, are all too often power tripping tools in the hands of supervisors promoted per the Peter Principle.

Likewise, every few months brings a new piece of technology to solve all your problems using the DWYM (do what you mean) mantra. You don't need to be the first on the block to adopt the latest and greatest iGadget or iSoftware. Nearly every home, school, or business has an "old tech" cupboard or room somewhere filled with "stuff" that was scarcely used before it became obsolete. Why add to it faster than you can remove what's already there to the town recycler next time you take your shrub prunings? Sooner or later the buffer will overflow.

Likewise the software development field is littered with the wreckage of IT projects that failed despite (or even because of) being pursued with the latest and greatest fads in development methodology. Folks, there is no silver bullet.

On the other hand, there is a brass one. It has scratches and isn't very shiny, but it does seem to don its jeans, roll up its sleeves, work its heart out, and usually get the job done. It involves getting along with and managing people, consulting users, developing in teams, writing specs, designing and coding to those specs, (planning ahead with intentionality), being accountable, testing, checking, and documenting everything. It's called "software engineering", and it's little more than a compendium of some of the advice in the space above. One invests heavily in the front end schema and the foundations, then the superstructure goes on smoothly and cleanly. It ain't rocket science; it's computing science, and that's harder to get right, but in general terms we do know how. Get with the program.

Specialization & Generalization

"A human being should be able to change a diaper, plan an invasion, butcher a hog, conn a ship, design a building, write a sonnet, balance accounts, build a wall, set a bone, comfort the dying, take orders, give orders, cooperate, act alone, solve equations, analyze a new problem, pitch manure, program a computer, cook a tasty meal, fight efficiently, die gallantly. Specialization is for insects."

-- From the Notebooks of Lazarus Long, by Robert A. Heinlein

The Spy seconds that motion, even if he isn't otherwise a big Heinlein fan. The New Renaissance man or woman does not need to know all the answers about a single ultra specialized field so much as be able to practice its techniques by employing well-understood means to find those answers on demand in the Metalibrary.

The last word

may or may not be. While all the above is good sound advice to our reader, that alone is the entire premise of a "last lecture" or by extension, a "last column"--that is, what one would say if one knew there'd never be another chance to address that audience on the topics of mutual interest. And if our reader really was hoping there'd never be another word from this ink-stained wretch, he refers one and all to the date. The catch this year--the Spy was perfectly serious beyond the title and opening line. 'Course, that couldn't last. So, there may be another column after all.

An after word

The most famous "Last Lecture" was that given by Randy Pausch 2007 10 22 at Carnegie-Mellon University. Like the Spy, Randy was also a computing science professional and therefore high on the nerdity scale. Unlike him, the Spy has not yet been informed that he is imminently about to die, though such comes to all, and mayhap sooner to the writer than the reader. All set for same?

--The Northern Spy

Rick Sutcliffe, (a.k.a. The Northern Spy) is professor and chair of Computing Science and Mathematics as well as Senate Chair at Trinity Western University. He is also on the board of CIRA, operator of .ca. He's written two textbooks and several novels, one named best ePublished SF novel for 2003. His columns have appeared in numerous magazines and newspapers (paper and online), and he's a regular speaker at churches, schools, academic meetings, and conferences. He and his wife Joyce have lived in the Aldergrove/Bradner area of BC since 1972.

Want to discuss this and other Northern Spy columns? Surf on over to ArjayBB.com. Participate and you could win free web hosting from the WebNameHost.net subsidiary of Arjay Web Services. Rick Sutcliffe's fiction can be purchased in various eBook formats from Fictionwise, and in dead tree form from Amazon's Booksurge.


The Northern Spy Home Page: http://www.TheNorthernSpy.com

The Spy's Laws collected: http://www.thenorthernspy.com/spyslaws.htm

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Arjay Books: http://www.ArjayBooks.com

Booksurge: http://www.booksurge.com

Fictionwise: http://www.fictionwise.com

Rick Sutcliffe's Last Lecture: http://www.sheaves.org/rsdevotions/lastlecture.html

Rick Pausch's Last Lecture: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ji5_MqicxSo

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Last Updated: 2010 03 25