Sunday, July 21, 2013

Bowling Is Not A Sport

Rules To Live By

Back in 2003-2004  I completed an internship with IHS Energy in Calgary, Alberta. Not to spark too much controversy, but as an Edmontonian at heart, I cannot advise anyone else to do the same. The company had a lot going for it, many of the people were great, but I couldn't get over the fact that I felt like I was a double agent living within the walls of the enemy base. For those who have not yet sworn allegiance to the Edmonton side of the battle of Alberta, it was a great experience.

While I was there, I was privileged enough to work with a bright and charismatic coworker named Demetrio (I hope I've spelled that correctly). Originally from the Bronx in New York, he was one of those people that everyone seems to like instantly. I admire people with that gift and wonder where that special quality comes from. I came to see him as somewhat of a mentor over my time in Calgary.

Among work-related talks and intense games of foosball, Demetrio would share nuggets of wisdom and humor. On one such occasion, he shared that he and a few of his college friends each came up with a list of three rules to live by. I can no longer remember his first two rules, but the third was so profound that it has stuck with me to this day: "bowling is not a sport".

Obviously, this rule was meant in jest. Yet, somehow, I couldn't get the idea out of my head. Meditating on this thought led me to ask the question, "How do I define a sport?" This question is tougher than it seems. Pause here for a moment and think about your answer it before proceeding.

(I'll wait here ...patiently)
Stay tuned and I will share my thoughts on this important topic.

A Spectrum Of Games

There are some games that the vast majority of people would define as a sport. Whether or not you enjoy it, very few would claim that football (European or American, take your pick) is not a sport. Balanced competitions between opposing teams with a great deal of strength, speed, agility, and strategy are almost universally accepted as sports.
At the other end of the spectrum are games that have no physical component to them, but may contain some amount of strategy. Most board games and card games fall within this category. Indeed, some of these games require great time and commitment to master. Chess is the definitive example of a complex challenge for great minds. Some people include these games in their definition of sport, but most will protest their lack of a physical component.
In the middle lay games and competitions whose validity as a sport are hotly contested. Is, as Demetrio would deny, bowling a sport? What about equestrian events? The jockey clearly has skill and athleticism, but the heavy lifting is done by the horse. What about car racing? Again, drivers have great skill and a long race can be a great test of endurance and concentration. What about individual contests like golf, where the player faces the course, not any opponent. What about judged competitions such as figure skating, dance, or gymnastics?

Formal Definitions

The definition of the word 'sport' as found on contains a list of activities that I would not personally include using my definition of sport (more on that later). It even includes Demetrio's maligned bowling in its list of sports.

The International Olympic Committee recognizes sports as activities that are based in physical athleticism or physical dexterity. This guiding rule seems to be widely accepted by many.

My Definition

To find my own definition of sport, I examined games and competitions that I thought were not deserving of the title. My first target was games without a physical component. If the game can be adequately simulated by a computer, that is a bad sign. If an able-bodied man in his twenties has no advantage over a seventy-year-old retiree with arthritis, I cannot consider the game to be a sport. This rules out most board games and card games. Sorry poker, I love you, but the sports networks are just plain wrong.

I generally like the definition from the International Olympic Committee, but I feel it is still too broad. Prepare yourself for my first controversial criterion. True sports must include an element of strategy. Part of the joy of being a sports pundit is speculating on how I would do things differently if I were calling the shots. Nobody ever told a short-distance sprinter to hold back and lull his opponents into a false sense of security. No, the only strategy is to run as hard and fast as possible.

Another requirement is that the structure of the game must seek to put opponents on an even footing. By this, I mean that a game is designed to be symmetrical with both competitors trying to achieve equivalent goals. While games that break this structure are rare, this requirement becomes necessary for some of the more esoteric competitions out there. This eliminates most events from American Gladiators.

My final rule, which may also be controversial, requires a form of direct opposition. While one of the competitor tries to accomplish a physical task, the opponent must have a way to try to stop or impede his progress. A great deal of the glory of sport derives from a struggle of man vs. man. This rule puts the final nail in the coffin of bowling's claims to sporthood in my mind.

Applying The Tests

My criteria for a sport are quite clear and easy to apply. Even so, there are some events which sit on the border line. The first one that comes to my mind is curling. Let's take a closer look:

1. Curling requires weight control, precise aim, and physical sweeping. CHECK
2. Curling has many strategic components from guards, to freezes, to raises. CHECK
3. Each team has the same number of players and stones and uses the same playing surface and target. CHECK
4. The only "direct" opposition consists of sweeping stones out the back half of the house. check?

Is curling a sport? I'm still not sure.

Please Don't Hurt Me

Before I find myself impaled by javelins, being thrown across the room by weightlifters, or having my face used as a surface for ice dancers, I would like to express my respect for athletes of all forms. You train long and hard to achieve excellence and distinguish yourself in your field. You perform fantastic feats of of strength, skill, and elegance that are exciting and inspirational. Please take my writing with a grain of salt.

My definition of sport comes from the concepts that comes to my mind when I hear the word. I picture hockey, baseball, football, soccer, tennis, and wrestling. These other competitions are wonderful too, but they just seem different to me. For those who see things differently, more power to you.

What Do You Think?

I asked you to come up with your own definition of a sport first. Now that you've heard my theories, how well does it hold up? What do you disagree with? Is there something I've missed?

Demetrio, if you're reading this, I hope you've kept the faith. Thank you for all the good advice.


Joshua Ganes

Monday, July 08, 2013

Stop Whining And Get Over Yourself

A Disturbing Theme

There has been a recurring theme in programming blogs over the past decade or so that continues to get my ire up each time I encounter it. Some entries tiptoe around this theme without ever coming out and state it. Others state it so boldly that I am left with no choice but to roll my eyes or to fume at them and leave a nasty YouTube-style comment. Many authors with incredibly wide readership and influence have repeated this theme using different words.

Can you guess what the theme is?

Maybe a few quotes will help:

Shall I go on?

It seems that everyone with an opinion and access to the internet is writing a post bemoaning the sad state of affairs in the world of software. They complain that every single system is utterly flawed at the deepest level and is at risk of crashing immediately if we dare even look at it the wrong way.

A Dose Of Reality

Now, don't get me wrong. There is software out there that is crap. I've even written some of it myself. I feel, however, that saying that all software is crap, or even that most software is crap is far from the truth.

In the process of creating this post I have already interacted (both directly and indirectly) with many different software systems. I used my operating system, its user interface, and various hardware drivers to launch and control a web browser. I used my browser to search for and visit many different websites. Each of these sites is running at least a web server, and most have additional scripting and database systems that work with it. All of that data passes through multiple systems in transit over the internet. Guess what? I have not encountered a single noticeable error up to this poin...NO CARRIER


To my readers old enough to get the above reference, I apologize for subjecting you to such a terrible joke. To those younger readers who are scratching their puzzled heads, I apologize for subjecting you to such a terrible joke that you did not even understand.

The fact of the matter is that most of us use a wide variety of software each and every day. Occasionally we encounter a problem that interrupts us or prevents us from accomplishing the task at hand. It may be the blue screen of death disrupting our career-defining presentation to a high-profile client, or our browser freezing halfway through a video of adorable cats diving head first into slightly-too-small boxes. The rest of the time, our software is quietly plodding along in the background and doing its job so well that we barely recognize it's doing anything at all.

It's like that old caretaker at your company that most people were aware of, but nobody could quite tell you what he did. He worked after hours when everyone else had gone home for the night. You might have run into him that time you returned to collect something you had left in your office. Maybe he vacuumed the hallway outside your door that time you stayed late to finish your essential project before the deadline. When he retired, everyone suddenly noticed how so many subtle niceties around the office had changed . When a system is working well, we may not even realize how much we take it for granted until it is gone.

Most software that gets noticed is like the annoying guy at the office who all the managers praise, but nobody wants to work with. He feels the need to add his input on everything and boasts about his "expertise". Trying to integrate his work with the rest of the team sets everyone back as they struggle to correct all of the problems he's caused. He manages to assign the blame to the soft-spoken fellow who sits by himself in the lunch room. When he manages to take credit for the eventual success of the project and parlay it into a promotion, everyone else on the team breaths a grudging sigh of relief that at least they don't need to deal with that guy anymore. This is the bad kind of getting noticed.

The fact of the matter is that for every annoying software system that stands out in the wrong way, there are dozens of others that you barely even notice. You don't notice them because they perform their designated task in silence while you're busy watching groan-inducing videos of skateboarders landing crotch first on the railing instead of stylishly grinding down it.

Professional Pride

I don't know about everyone else, but when I step back from a challenging project that required lots of hard work, time, and energy, I take a certain amount of pride in it. I enjoy seeing efficiency improve as people use my system to accomplish tasks that used to take an order of magnitude longer and require tedious, manual effort. I enjoy creating new software realities out of mere ideas and possibilities.

In any system large enough to be proud of, there will inevitably be some problems. When the bug reports roll in, I don't just throw in the towel and bemoan the fact that I've created yet another crappy system. No, I roll up my sleeves and get to work. I fire up my IDE and get started debugging my code and developing a fix. Depending on the operating environment and the nature of the bug, I can have a fix ready and deployed within hours - delivering a working solution to an eager customer who is (hopefully) pleased with such prompt resolution for their issue.

When I watch users struggle to control my software, I don't just sit back and whine about how I've created yet another clunky user interface. I go back to the drawing board and come up with new ideas on how to make the user interface easier and more intuitive. I perform usability tests with ordinary folks who are trying my software for the first time. I iterate over new designs until I find a solution that is user friendly and simple to understand.

What They Really Mean

Perhaps I'm taking these people too literally. If their point is to acknowledge that most software has bugs and it's nearly impossible to create "perfect" software, then they've got it right. Developing software is challenging. Just when you think you've achieved a new level of competence, a new bug rears its ugly head. The bug mocks you as you sweat and furrow your brow, struggling to figure out what has gone wrong. When you finally figure it out, panting and exasperated, you smack your forehead for overlooking such an obvious flaw.

The good news is that with each boneheaded bug you create and fix, there's actually a chance you might be able to avoid making the same mistake again in the future. If you keep your head down and work hard for many years, you may just learn to create software that isn't a flaming ball of garbage. That said, even the best of us have days when our brains are just not on their game and we write a fancy version of while( 1 ) fork(); Don't lose faith. Keep going and continue striving to become a better developer. In time, you will gain a new level of competence and, at very least, you'll know enough not to let your guard down the next time you're feeling like a project was too easy.


Joshua Ganes