Viewing Life in Code

Today’s XKCD comic features a character suspended from a helium balloon, musing about the world, describing it as both sad and wonderful. The final panel says “I just didn’t expect it to be so big.” That final panel can be clicked and dragged, and from there we see more and more of the world. A tall tower on the left, a mountain on the right, leading to a cliff, leading to the first world of Super Mario Bros, with the “pits” in the level leading to subterranean scenes, and eventually to another world beneath the first world.

I didn’t spend an abundance of time on it before I decided to Firebug it. As a developer, I enjoy examining the code of effects I like when I see them on pages. And as an impatient person, I wanted to see if I could access the original image that this giant map of everything was being generated from.

I didn’t spend a lot of time on it, because I discovered pretty quickly that the image appeared to be cobbled together from four individual PNG files. Around this time, I noticed that dating blogger Dr. Nerdlove had mentioned the comic on Twitter. I mentioned the PNGs to him, he said he hadn’t seen them in the code, and as I played with the site a bit more, I discovered that the “four” individual PNG files were changing. In both amount and filename. So I figured XKCD was keeping the image fed via JavaScript. I was still determined to find out how many images comprised the mega-image (and was also vaguely considering creating the superimage to post somewhere, unaware that it had already been done) so I started paying attention to the naming convention of the png files. A number, followed by N or S, followed by another number, followed by W or E…

About this time, I saw that the good Dr. had tweeted his excitement about something he found in the map, and I saw the difference in how we were examining it. I was trying to “crack the code”, to see the entire map at once. Dr. Nerdlove on the other hand, was using the map the way it was intended… a draggable experience, with hidden treasures. Is either way the “right” way? No. But his way was probably a lot more fun.

It did get me thinking, though, about the nerd tendency to want to “decode” things in life. My first thought was to apply it to romantic relationships (probably because the Twitter conversation was with a dating advice blogger), but I think it applies to pretty much any kind of interpersonal relationship. And it also isn’t limited to nerds. I think everyone, at some level, is looking for a straightforward “code”-like cause and effect in the way we interact with friends. Or with employers. Or with potential dates. Or with our kids.

Look at all the opposing schools of thought concerning parenting… none of which have universally produced kids who were either perfect or evil.) Look at the plethora of personality tests, such as MBTI, which seek to quantify and categorize every human being in the world into 16 “types”.

I’m not saying there’s a problem with understanding. On the contrary, understanding the science behind something often makes it more beautiful. (Feynman had a great quote about that, concerning astronomy). I’m just saying that sometimes the pursuit of “hacking” or “decoding” something that is unhackable is detrimental to simply enjoying it. Such as a conversation. Or a kiss. Or a game of tag with a child.

So by all means, decode. Analyze, especially if it’s in your nature (it’s certainly in mine). But don’t lose yourself in the analysis and forget to live.


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