Browsed by
Category: Uncategorized

The Machine Stopped

The Machine Stopped

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.

The Family Gathering Around the Tube

The Family Gathering Around the Tube

In the classic television show The Waltons (which you can binge-watch on Amazon Prime if you’d like), the Walton family is often seen sitting around their radio, listening to news or to one of the Presidents fireside chats. Ever since the invention of broadcast communication using electromagnetic radiation, some form of this ritual has been a hallmark of modern life.

When I was young, we sat around the television, which picked up a signal that was broadcast over the air. It was a huge deal when sometime in the 1980s we upgraded to receiving our signal over a wire. Even back then we had many electronic devices in the house, in contrast to the Waltons, who only had their beloved radio.

Fast forward to my early adulthood and you might have found my friends and I enacting the ritual around a computer screen, playing a strategy game. We would all have insisted on playing competitively against one another, but today’s young generation can be seen gathered around a game where one person is playing and the rest spectating. Either way the social bonding around the screen remains a constant.

Now that I am in mid-life and enfolded again into a multi-generational family, we repeat the ritual gathered around the Internet. For that is what our big screen is connected to now, the old commercial channel format replaced by streaming on demand. We sometimes sit and watch short videos on YouTube, discussing them in heated arguments, or showing our favorite new finds to one another. For whatever faults the Internet may have, it has become a place of gathering, of sharing and interacting.

I’ll leave off with a video from a YouTube channel we enjoy, since we are all film fans. The channel is a very erudite set of video essays on film technique. Here we learn why Edgar Wright movies are so good (and this was made before Baby Driver).

A Star Above

A Star Above

I wrote this story. I hope you enjoy it. Merry Christmas!

A Star Above

Not Quite a Christmas Story

Millions of years ago, in a time long forgotten, the shape of the land was not the same as it is today, and the Earth was ruled by the Saurians.

And it came to pass, one winter’s season, that a bright star shone in the sky above. It was so bright that the Saurians were certain it was a portent. So they asked the wisest among them what the star might signify.

The most wise of all the Saurians had a vision, and told it unto the others. “This star signifies that a child is hatched! A child who heralds a new age to come!”

“What will come in this new age?” cried the other wise ones.

“A new hope, and an end to the wickedness of our kind.”

“It is true that many Saurians are wicked,” agreed the others. “What shall we do now that we know of the meaning of the sign?”

“We must journey to where the child is hatched. If we follow the star it will guide us there.”

So the wisest of the Saurians, as well as two others who were fairly wise themselves, set out on a journey, walking across the great land, keeping the star ahead at all times.

“I think it is growing brighter,” said one of the three wise Saurians, one who had a large posterior and a long, sinuous neck, and came from the swampy regions.

“Yes, it must be nearing the time of the child’s hatching,” said the wisest of the three Saurians, who stood on two legs and could run very fast, and was from the grasslands.

“Is the time of the end of wickedness arriving? What should we do?” worried the last of the three, who had a shell, and a horny head, and was from the rocky places.

“Let us bring gifts to the hatchling,” said the wisest Saurian. “Do we have anything to bring?”

“I have these weeds from the swamp that I like to eat,” said the long-necked Saurian. “They smell real good.”

“I have some shiny rocks that I have collected,” said the horny-headed Saurian. “I think they are very pretty.”

“They are perfect,” said the bipedal Saurian. “We shall bring the fragrant plants and the shiny rocks as offerings to the hatchling who portends the dawn of a new age.”

So they walked on, carrying their gifts, following the star, which grew ever brighter in the sky above. At last they came to a place where a herd of Saurians grazed on the grassy hills.

The wisest Saurian spoke to one of the herd, “Have you heard of a child who is hatched, and portends a new age, as signified by the bright star above?”

“Yes,” said the other, “many of us have gone to visit the child. But it is not hatched.”

“Not hatched? It is still in its egg?”

“The child is born, but not of an egg.”

“A child born not of an egg!” cried the three wise Saurians. “Truly this is a miracle!”

So they went together to where the child was born, and saw it in a little nest, where other Saurians stood around, bowing in awe before it. It was a creature not like a Saurian, tiny and covered in fur.

“That is – different,” said the wisest of the Saurians.

“Yes,” said the other. “It is not a Saurian like us, but a Mammal. And it portends a new age.”

“We have brought gifts for the Mammal child.”

“You can just put them over there.”

And the star above grew ever brighter, and then fell to Earth, and the Saurians and their wicked ways were ended forever. And the Mammal and all of its kind came to rule the Earth in their stead, as they do to this very day.

The End?

Music for All Ages

Music for All Ages

I have always loved music. It touches the soul. As the ancient Greeks theorized, the harmonic structure of music reflects the order and harmony of the Universe. And so the joy experienced when listening to or performing music is transcendent – you really are reaching out to heaven!

I wanted to be more engaged with music, to do more than just listen to endless Spotify playlists, so last year I joined a choir. I had been in a choir in junior high school, so I figured I could jump back in (“back after a 40 year hiatus,” as they say). Of course it has been a lot of work to get up to speed on how to sing again, but it has also been tremendous fun.

One thing I love about choir is that it brings all the generations together – this is a hobby that doesn’t appeal to one particular age group only. We have choir members from every generational archetype. Yes, that’s right, we have Millennials, Gen-Xers, Boomers and at least one Silent. He told me himself – he was born in 1940 and even identified himself as a member for the Silent generation.

We are called The Singers for Goodness Sake, and are non-profit, performing mainly in retirement communities. Tonight is the last performance of the season, and then I will take a break for the summer, when traveling will take priority. I’ve feel like I’ve come a long way in the eight months since I started singing, and like we’ve come a long way as an ensemble. I look forward to making more music with friends of all ages.

Making the Most of Valuable Time

Making the Most of Valuable Time

I listen to audio books in the car, on the premise that I spend so much time driving (either commuting or travelling) that I should at least be into a book simultaneously, especially since I will not live long enough to read all the books I’d like to, even if I live to be a hundred and twenty. My commute is 20-30 minutes each way; that is a lot of time frittered away if I am not also doing something else!

This latest one should fill in a good deal of that valuable time:

To save valuable money, which is also time, I borrow audio books from the library. The Wake County library system has an excellent collection of books of the types I like, which is mostly history. And that’s right, this one has 26 discs!

It’s The Great Upheaval by Jay Winik, and unsurprisingly there is much to be said about this particular time period (late 18th century). I’m sure I will learn a lot, although there is one slight disadvantage to audio books – sometimes I space out and miss bits. This is not a problem with the written word, since the words are still there where I left them after I return from a reverie.

Still, it will be nice to have something to look forward to while I am slogging through traffic. Why aren’t you people all telecommuting?

Pascha Celebration

Pascha Celebration

Last night I attended an Eastern Orthodox Pascha celebration, right here in central North Carolina where I live. I have always been fascinated by this branch of Christianity, so long in pedigree, but not what I usually encounter in the Southern United States. A friend of mine has been attending their services, and I asked if I could come along, and he verified with the priest that I was welcome.

So at about 10pm we drove to the church, which turned out to be a small, squat building along a woody roadside, as common a structure as you will find in the South. We were warmly greeted by a couple of gentlemen at the front and ushered in. So then came my first surprise – the church was dark! There were no lights on, and it was hard to see anything. People helpfully guided us to where we were to take a thin, tapered candle from a box, and then we found some seats in the back.

As my eyes adjusted to the darkness, I could just make out the depictions of Jesus Christ and of the Madonna and infant Jesus, in the classic Byzantine style. The altar was actually separated from the congregation by basically a gate, a significant difference from the Roman Catholic church. The scent of incense was heavy in the air.

From behind the gate the priest started chanting, and was joined by deacons in front. They read from ornamented liturgical books, but in plainchant. Sometimes the congregation would respond, also chanting. The whole ritual evoked the ancient past – here was a way of worship that went back over a thousand years, almost unchanged, except that the participants were modern Americans and spoke/chanted in English. In the dark, the only distraction was the fussing of small children.

At one point we all lit our candles, starting with the priest, who then passed the flame to two worshipers in the front, who then passed it along. Then we processed out of the building, and around a path lit by luminaries, which we circled three times, and when we got back to the building, there proceeded a theatrical ritual of the priest requesting admittance, and being rebuffed. When eventually we were admitted, the lights were on inside.

The liturgy continued. I noticed a boy started crawling under the chairs, and I thought, my, he is rambunctious. But then I saw that an elderly man was tucking him in with a blanket! I saw that other children were now lying under the chairs, snoozing, and concluded that it must be that they were allowed to because of the late hour. The ritual was very long. The worshipers stood or sat as they wished; I realized that there was no formal requirement, although at certain points everyone stood.

In the later part of the ritual, the priest would say “Christ is risen!” and the response would be “Indeed he is risen!” Then he would repeat the phrase in a few other languages, and get some responses. I assumed one of the languages was Greek, but I didn’t know. In the end there was communion, a familiar rite to me from my Roman Catholic background. The priest blessed us with holy water, and also blessed a basket of red-dyed eggs.

The liturgy finished after over two hours – it definitely takes dedication to properly participate in the Orthodox church! But it felt like we earned the feast which followed, in tables set up in a separate space. Everyone had brought baskets full of food and wine. They were very welcoming of me; I sat with my friend next to a Romanian couple (they moved to the U.S. in 1980) and partook of food and conversation.

As the night wore on and the crowd thinned, we ended up in conversation with the priest and some of the deacons, all of them bearded and sporting wedding bands (no celibacy requirements for priests in this church). I learned that the building was only recently purchased, and is the second Orthodox Christian church in the county. I learned that the other languages spoken were Romanian, Arabic and Spanish (how did I miss that!) to reflect the languages spoken by congregants. I learned that the normally the liturgy begins at midnight (April 16 is the date of Pascha this year) but that a special dispensation had been received to begin at 10 pm from the Metropolitan – the Archbishop who presides over all of America and Canada.

We were up talking and drinking wine until well after 3:00 am. Luckily, it was a short drive to my friend’s house to finally sleep. I met some very cool people and am grateful for being welcomed to the celebration.

Parallel Universes Won’t Get You Out Of Reality

Parallel Universes Won’t Get You Out Of Reality

The idea of parallel worlds or alternate timelines is a compelling source of endless entertaining science fiction stories. It is also taken seriously in theoretical physics as a possible interpretation of quantum mechanics, that bizarre empirical phenomenon in which matter loses its substantiality at sub-atomic scales, particles become waves, and reality becomes probabilistic – until the moment when an observation is made. An observation precipitates the so-called “wavefunction collapse” and restores the familiar objective world of classical physics. In the many worlds interpretation of quantum mechanics, it is assumed that the wavefunction simply describes all the possible versions of the Universe, and when we make an observation, we don’t collapse the wavefunction, we just determine which version of reality we are currently in. It’s an appealingly simple interpretation, which saves us from having to resolve the paradoxes of wavefunction collapse; it is a theory that has been jokingly described as “short on assumptions, long on Universes.” And now it has been updated with the many interacting worlds version, with its tantalizing possibility of being verifiable experimentally.

I remember reading a short story by Larry Niven, All The Myriad Ways, in which a corporation had figured out a way to travel among the many worlds, discovering all the possible timelines, and demonstrating to all that, indeed, the Universe does split into different versions every time a choice is made. This ends up prompting a wave of casual crimes – including suicides, murders, and rapes – as people process this knowledge to the extreme logical conclusion that there is no reason to consider the consequences of actions. After all, if I kill someone, what does it matter, since there is some other Universe in existence in which I didn’t kill them?

I wouldn’t hold out for a dimension-hopping corporation to come along and sell us souvenirs from alternate historical timelines, though. The best interpretation of quantum mechanics is the Von Neumann–Wigner interpretation – consciousness causes collapse. This interpretation neatly resolves the paradox of wavefunction collapse by accepting its salient property – it occurs at the moment of observation. Through the vehicle of consciousness, the Universe comes into being, one timeline unfolding according to our choices. This is why our actions are rife with moral significance: each choice fatefully fixes the storyline, and dispenses with the alternatives.

So Niven’s story can be seen as a parable about the nature of moral choice – it is meaningful because there is one world, limiting us with its physical laws, shaping our destiny as we travel through time. Parallel realities make for compelling television entertainment, but they are not actually going to let us escape this one. This life is your one chance, and the stakes are real.

Where did Steve Barrera get his worldview?

Where did Steve Barrera get his worldview?

When I write about the Zeitgeist, or spirit of the age, it is frequently in the context of my favorite theory of social cycles, the generational or turnings theory of William Strauss and Neil Howe. In this theory there are recurring social eras, each characterized by a particular mood, depending on whether the individual or group is elevated, institutions are strengthening or weakening, and more. There’s a bit to it, and the best way to learn about it is just to read the books by the authors.

Their web site is here: The Fourth Turning.

Here is a summary that I wrote for an old blog: Background on Generational Theory.

You may have come across this theory recently, because it is now associated with the current U.S. administration, thanks to a particular advisor’s interest in it. Here author Neil Howe discusses this matter: Where did Steve Bannon get his worldview? From my book.

Here’s a brief interview as well: The book that shaped Steve Bannon’s worldview.

I post this in case it helps with understanding my language, since I tend to look at life through this particular, uh, Weltanschauung.

Exoplanets are cool but Earth is where we keep our stuff

Exoplanets are cool but Earth is where we keep our stuff

I was as excited as anyone about the news of seven planets orbiting a dwarf star, all of which are in the ‘Goldilocks zone’ (neither too close to their star nor too far) wherein they could conceivably harbor life. The memes came fast and thick for a couple of days, including this imaginary travel poster:

But as fun as it is to conceive of interstellar travel and space vacations, the truth is that the challenges that must be overcome for humans to leave the solar system are all but insurmountable. Even spreading out to nearby worlds such as our moon and Mars would require Herculean effort. The real challenge for the human species is learning to coexist on planet Earth without destroying ourselves through war and environmental degradation.

That we keep looking for “life out there” speaks to mankind’s boundless curiosity and sense of adventure, and perhaps to a desire to find an alternative to living with the lifeforms that we’re stuck with here. Like all those idiots who voted the opposite of you a few months ago. But the physics of the Universe, with its limiting speed of light and its dimensions in the tens of billions of light years, confines us to our local star system pretty well. I recall a sci-fi short story by Stanislaw Lem, in which he speculated that this is actually the design of the Universe, which is a vast experimental laboratory for the generation of intelligent life.

The calling of the human race is not to planet hop throughout the galaxy – it is to take care of the planet we inherited, and of each other. It is to evolve our capacity for love right here on Earth.