As a software tester I get how difficult software development is, and why software technology so often fails us. The problem space of testing for all possible scenarios is too vast to traverse within the time frame of a fundable development project. It’s likely that some scenario will be missed in the journey from design concept – which always look great on paper – to actual implementation – which often fails to meet expectations, usually because the expectations are not accurately communicated.
Therefore I was not surprised to learn that two recent Boeing 737 plane crashes were the result of software failure. This article by a former crash investigator explains it a bit, even comparing the software that aids airplane pilots to the software you use on your mobile phone. If you’ve ever been frustrated using your phone, imagine how airplane pilots must feel, operating their software-laden fly-by-wire systems. The stakes are obviously much higher for them when those devices fail.
As the article points out, there is a paradox where reliance on safety technology sometimes makes us less safe. Relying on computer software, which is bound to be error-prone, seems insane. It’s only possible because our genius system of corporate capitalism deflects liability away from individuals and underwrites risk through insurance payments. But take it from someone who has been testing software for most of his adult life: all of those automated and networked computer systems that pervade our lives are full of bugs. You won’t see me getting into a self-driving car any time soon.
Last weekend I watched The Baldwin School’s production of Marie Antoinette. It was a challenging play for a high school to put up, and they did so brilliantly.
The script covers the Queen’s life from her early years in the French court up until her fateful end, focusing on her character and attitude, and her reaction to how her adopted country perceived her – which is to say, in an unflattering light. Marie Antoinette was the victim of scurillous slander at the expense of her virtue, and scapegoated for France’s problems, particularly the country’s financial troubles and food shortages. She was blamed because, as an elite living in a bubble, she was unwilling or unable to appreciate how her actions looked to her poor and desperate subjects.
Marie Antoinette was known as the Butterfly Queen, but she might have been called the Hashtag Queen instead, as she was victimized by the same kind of mobbing that happens today on social media. Back then, they used word of mouth and the printed page to transmit information, instead of the Internet, but the effect was the same.
In fact, from what I’ve read about the French Revolution, there are many parallels with our time. France was divided into partisan factions, each seeing the other as a threat to society. The extreme left and right (the terms originate from this era) each enforced their own version of political correctness, making centrist politics untenable. Fake news was as much of a problem then as now, with rumors spreading across the country, inciting the factions against each other. Does it really matter how information is spread? It’s not about the technology, but about the social predilection.
The production I saw reminded us of current events, by dressing the revolutionaries and prison guards in yellow vests. How bad could it get today? I do think that the French Revolution was more violent than we are likely to experience now because the people then were so desperate – France was struggling to emerge from the feudal period, and people were literally on the brink of starvation, meaning they didn’t have much to lose.
In France during the time of Marie Antoinette, everyone eventually got tired of the extremism and just wanted law and order. That was how they ended up with Napoleon. How things will all play out in our time I cannot say, but it is always prudent to reflect on history.
I just wanted to weigh in with some thoughts on the news stories surrounding erstwhile and possible future Presidential candidate Joe Biden. Biden was born in 1942, which according to Strauss & Howe generations theory puts him in the last birth year of the Silent Generation. This generation was actually first recognized and named in the early post-war era, in an essay in Time magazine.
The Silent Generation were too young to fight in World War II, and came of age after peace and prosperity had been secured. With all the battles won, and the social order locked down, they became careful conformists, with an easy future laid out before them. They developed a reputation for technical expertise, for nuance and respect for process, and for a sense of fairness and compassion.
These are the very qualities which are getting Biden into trouble today. On the political side, he’s been accused of helping Republicans, voting with them or endorsing them. In positive terms, his behavior might be called “reaching across the aisle” – after all, isn’t working with the opposition party one of a politician’s duties? Well, maybe not so much in an age of hyper-partisanship, where there is no room for compromise.
The other problem the world has with Joe Biden is that he is physically affectionate with people. This has exposed him to the “me too” outrage movement on social media. Biden is a sensitive guy – so much so that he released a video apologizing for being insensitive to the new social mores surrounding the expression of sensitivity. You could say he was being meta-sensitive, or perhaps simply that he has the misfortune of being empathic in an age that has rejected empathy.
This is not to say that Joe Biden couldn’t be a competent President. I mean, just look at how low the bar has been set. But unfortunately for Biden, he is not a man for the times. The personal qualities which served Biden well in his long career and not what the electorate is currently seeking in a Presidential candidate, and should he make a bid for the Democratic nomination, Biden will have a tough time competing in an already crowded field. In fact, his cohort Bernie Sanders (b. 1941) stands a better chance, precisely because he goes against the grain of his generation, with his radical ideas and firebrand attitude.
Someone at work left the company, which means the mandatory going away lunch happened. I remember at a previous position I was invited to a going away lunch in my first week on the job. It was just assumed that I knew that guy who was leaving. It was a strange way to start a gig, but of course I went along with it.
Anyway, at my current job, you may realize if you are following this blog that I work almost exclusively with Indians. So we all go to an Indian restaurant (which is one of my favorite cuisines) and enjoy the excellent buffet. The men sit at one table and the women at another. I am the only non-Indian present.
At the end of the meal, the guy who is leaving, who is at a somewhat senior level, gives a little speech. He very graciously thanks everyone, and then advises us all to always be working on our skills. That is the best way to ensure we will have confidence in ourselves and our careers will go forward.
I can’t help but think that India – or at least this man from India, or these Indians with whom I am lunching – has embraced the ethos of the neoliberal market state. That may be an over-analytic or pigeon-holing way of thinking, but these are just the kinds of thought that pop into my head. Here is this group of professionals, all in the United States on work visas, who clearly fit into the structure of a globalized, meritocratic labor force.
Meanwhile, young Americans are being told – or internalizing – a different message. Skills will get you nowhere, the economy is stacked against you, it’s better to vote for free college or universal basic income, we just gotta pry control of government out of the hands of the billionaires. I can’t help but wonder if my current situation represents an economic mode that is about to end, or one that will survive – even be vindicated – in the times ahead.
In an earlier post I mentioned Millennial angst about being “basic” – a slang term for ordinary or conventional. Here’s a couple of satirical videos that make fun of this idea, from the College Humor channel.
So there’s a contrast between being a “basic bitch” versus being a “bad-ass bitch” – that is, a regular girl versus an interesting or stand-out girl. Now, for the last generation which was similar to the Millennials – the GI or Greatest Generation – being a regular guy or gal was something to be proud of. And I think that for Millennials, satire like this video is cover for a heartfelt desire to just be basic – to enjoy acceptance without having to take the risks associated with trying to stand out apart from your peers.
The male version of the above video.
You can see in these videos what Millennials have done with customs which for previous generations were marks of rebellion, of a break from the bland culture of postwar America. Customs like yoga, astrology, and tattoos, which once defined the counterculture, have now been appropriated into mainstream culture. And these videos make fun of them for being the new definition of bland and unimaginative. Even down to the backward baseball cap.
Those young adults who do push the limits of style and behavior may be admired to a degree, but for most Millennials it’s OK to stick to basic conventions in personal expression. How much more is there really left to explore in that sphere? As the zeitgeist moves away from the inner world to focus on the outer, Millennials will save their collective energy for bigger things.