Dreams Do Come True

I used to dream of owning a computer. Starting when Popular Electronics ran the article on the Altair 8800 I yearned for my own computer. As it turned out, the Altair 8800 was pretty much a hangar queen (aviation talk for a plane that seldom makes it off the runway). As it was originally configured, the only input devices were the toggle switches on the front panel and the only output devices were the lights that corresponded with the switches.

It didn’t take long for MITS to offer a serial card that allowed the 8800 to talk to a teletype machine. That gave it a keyboard and a printer and, on fancy teletype models, a paper tape punch/reader. Bill Gates and Paul Allen wrote the first version of Microsoft Basic for that machine.

I followed the blossoming of the personal computer hobby, largely by reading magazines like Byte, Kilobaud, and Compute. As time passed, the market grew and there were multiple ready made personal computers available. They always exceeded my budget by a considerable sum. Each year the capabilities of the latest models grew by factors of two or three while the cost remained essentially constant. For many years, the machine that I wanted cost approximately $1000. It was a different, more capable machine each year, but the cost was constant.

The first computer that I owned was itself somewhat of a hangar queen. It was an Ohio Scientific CIP. This was a 6502 based computer, as was the Apple II and the Commodore Pet. The particular machine I owned was given to me by a former employer in lieu of back wages that he owed me. It had been sitting in the shop for years with hardware bugs in it that none of us had been able to totally exterminate. It was better than no computer at all, but just barely.

Soon after that, I got my first real computer system. It was a Kaypro II. It was euphemistically called a luggable computer. It was too bulky and heavy to really be considered portable. It had two floppy drives, a z80 processor, a keyboard, an 80 character by 25 line display, and it ran CP/M. I was ecstatic.

I’ve owned many computers since then, some of them expensive, some of them incredibly inexpensive. I have several Arduinos that cost less than $20. I own several Raspberry Pis that are in the same general price range. Cell phones are more powerful computers than corporate data center mainframe computers were in the sixties. I can only imagine what people will think of our computers in twenty years.

But when it comes right down to it, I use my current fancy Apple laptop for the same thing I used that Kaypro II for, to write programs and to write prose. I occasionally use the graphics or sound capability that the Mac has and the Kaypro didn’t. But mostly, I write. Oh, and I surf the web. But that’s a story for another blog.


Sweet dreams, don’t forget to tell the ones you love that you love them, and most important of all, be kind.

Intelligent Patterns Emerge

There was a buzz of excitement in Cartography as I entered. It took a few minutes for it to sink in. They were talking about cities on the surface. They weren’t like any cities on earth. These cities were so integrated into the natural environment that they weren’t immediately obvious from orbit.

The cartographers were debating the features on a projection of a picture they had taken through one of the high powered telescopes. “See how these ridges are perfect sine waves and are perfectly parallel to each other for fifty miles. That has to be an artificial construction.” Arie, the senior cartographer pointed out.

“Why haven’t we seen any signs of the builders?” Susan, one of his crew asked.

“Perhaps we have. We are biased to look for bipedal mammals a meter and a half tall. Perhaps these artifacts are constructed by a different type of intelligence. We need to get as many eyes on these pictures as possible. We need to figure out what is behind these constructs. This may be a first contact situation.” We all knew the potential consequences, both good and bad, that might come of contact with an alien civilization.

Mankind had found four civilizations at a similar level of development as itself. Two of them had strict taboos against contact with alien races. One welcomed us with open arms. The fourth, well we were still working to disengage from one of the deadliest wars that mankind had ever known.

The Eleni were a fierce species. They were anywhere from 1.2 meters to 2 meters tall. They were the only other intelligent bipedal species that we had encountered so far. They had small feathers where humans had hair. They had two eyes with diamond shape irises, two holes where our nose was, a mouth that was bigger than ours full of sharp teeth, and membranes on either side of their bald head that served for ears. They had arms that had developed from vestigial wings.

Their race had always been flightless but they probably evolved from some kind of flying mammal. They gave birth to live offspring which were raised by an extended family unit. They breast fed their young. And they were fiercely territorial and didn’t believe in taking any prisoners. They had transdimensional drives similar to ours but not nearly as efficient. Their ships had a maximum range of about a quarter of what our least capable starships.

This was the context behind the discussion. If there were intelligent beings with any kind of advanced technology, we had to be very careful not to do anything to agitate them. If the didn’t have advanced technology we owed it to them to allow them to develop naturally without any interference from mankind. There was an old twentieth century TV show, Star Trek, that introduced the concept of the prime directive. Star Service HQ had adopted it as a standing policy after our first encounter with the Arnus, one of the races that shunned alien contact.

While I had been wool gathering, someone had called the captain. He came in followed by the ships doctor and the XO. “What kind of brilliant discovery have you made, Arie?” he asked. Arie pointed out the parallel sine wave ridges in the projected picture.

“We have seen other suspiciously artificial features in earlier pictures that we have taken over the last seventy two hours but this one is the most convincing. What do you think?” Arie asked the captain.

“I think we need to get you at least four more pairs of eyes for the next couple of weeks. See to updating the schedule, Eric,” the captain said. Eric was the XO. “And maybe we can get the doc and his staff to give you a hand if you get some pictures of potential IEs.” IE was what the Service called Intelligent Entities.

“Can we launch a small constellation of orbital sensors to speed up the scans?” Arie asked.

“I think that makes sense. Keep it down to less than half a dozen. Nothing bigger than a cubic meter. We don’t want to spook the natives.” the captain replied.

“Aye, captain. I’ll get you a detailed preliminary report by 1800 hours,” Arie said.

“That will be great. I look forward to it. We’ll get out of your hair now.” The captain and the other officers shook hands with the cartographers and the captain and the XO left.

The doc asked Arie, “Would you like some help from the biological perspective? Barb is an experienced xenobiologist. She would be happy to give you a hand.”

Arie said, “Thanks. I can use all the help I can muster.”

“I’ll be glad to help when I’m not on watch,” I volunteered.

Arie smiled. “That will be great Dave. I’ve noticed you here the past couple of days. You know your way around the scopes and have a good eye for detail.”

“Thanks,” I said. I sat down at one of the smaller scopes in the corner of the lab. It was going to be an interesting couple of hours.


Sweet dreams, don’t forget to tell the people you love that you love them, and most important of all, be kind.

Another One Bites the Dust

As if enough hadn’t gone wrong already lately, I got up this morning and my computer told me there were important system updates, so I installed them. When it finished updating, it rebooted. Only when it did, it had a fatal error on reboot. I would have expected as much out of Windows but this was a Linux machine. I didn’t have time to troubleshoot it so I booted the Windows partition and was able to read my email, record my vital signs, and write my morning journal entry (different from my blog). I had to fight off the requests to update my windows installation but I  was able to get what I needed to do done.

When I got home this evening, I booted Linux from the install disk and was able to backup my files. I am writing this blog post as my Linux home directory is copied over to an SD card. When that finishes, I’m going to see if I can repair the current installation. If not, I’ll reformat these partitions and start again from scratch. I need to buy a couple of external disk drives so that I won’t be stuck in this situation again.

I know that hearing my tale of woe about my computer problems is hardly satisfying fare for a blog post but I promise to do better tomorrow. I refuse to let a little thing like a computer malfunction get me down. Sleep well and have pleasant dreams. Tomorrow will be another day, resplendent in all of its glory. Enjoy your fleeting time upon this Earth and above all, be kind.

 

It’s Turtles, All the Way Down

I have a strange geography in my head that only has a cursory relationship to the actual geography of Paducah, Kentucky and its surrounding area. I walked the streets of Paducah so I have a direct sense of where things are and how far apart they are. I drove the roads of western Kentucky and southern Illinois so I have a relative sense of how far apart things are there. When those two gestalts get mixed you have a warped sense of distance.

I walked five and a half miles in Madison, Alabama last night. I walked down roads that I have driven for years. I have a new perspective on them now. It gives me the same kind of warped sense of distance that I was describing that I had of Paducah. It is born of the perception that, when you are driving in a car, it is an extension of your body. Even though it’s capabilities far exceed your own.

When I think of it, I have the same kind of warped perception of the rest of the world. It seems that the places that I haven’t been are compressed into near nothingness while the places that I have been are scaled according to how I have experienced them, whether on foot, by car, or by airplane.

That must be why they say that travel expands your mind. It has to grow to encompass the new geography that you have added to your experience. In a similar way, books add virtual geography to your mental landscape. I have to admit that the universe of Star Trek, Star Wars, and Dune are as real to me as this universe ever was.

Music occupies a strange geography comprised of a completely different set of dimensions. Instead of east, west, north, south, up, and down, music has dimensions of key, modality, pitch, tone, volume, and harmony. I’m sure I’ve overlooked some of them but they are just as tangible to me as the physical dimensions of geography.

By extension, I can imagine geographies of flavors and smells, of tactile dimensions, or of shape and color. But there is one mental geography that I travel in that may not be quite as universal. I also have a geography that inhabits my head. It is a geography of software.

This strange geography is composed of places with infinite layers of interpretation. It exists in my imagination and is built out of bits and bytes, addresses and registers, data buses and input/output ports. On top of those analogs of hardware constructs are abstractions like variables, queues, stacks, objects, dictionaries, and myriads of others. These pieces are cobbled together into active algorithms that are the machines that inhabit this strange mental geography.

We have problems with nomenclature in this strange geography of the mind. It is constructed out of abstractions that are intended to be metaphors for the real world phenomena that they represent. The difficulty arises when different people use the same metaphor to describe two different abstractions. Or just as confusing, use two different metaphors to describe the same abstraction.

The situation is made even worse by the fact that we have a penchant for bundling up a collection of abstractions and encapsulating it in an opaque black box that is embedded in other, higher level abstractions. As the programmer unwraps those black boxes to attempt to understand the system, the fractal nature of the system becomes clear. Each layer of abstraction is a universe in its own right.

Having realized this, I struggle to decide what to do with it. It informs my private conviction that the universe is quite likely a simulation that runs on some immense computer in a laboratory in some quiet corner of another simulated universe. This recursive embedding of simulation inside of simulation may go on indefinitely. There may not even be a reality as we conceive of it. We may all just be dreams within dreams of a disturbed super computer.

It makes as much sense to me as the other creation myths that we have been asked to accept on faith throughout the ages. In the final analysis I think that the best that we can do is to love each other and be kind to each other. The universe is whatever it is and is most definitely beyond our limited understanding. This isn’t to say we shouldn’t try to understand it as best we can. But we should be humble about our fundamental inability to comprehend its enormity and strangeness.

Bravo!

When I was young, my family routinely watched the Oscar awards on TV. I don’t recall us watching the Tony awards, perhaps they weren’t televised. My family was very involved in Theater. Both parents taught Speech and English in high school and both produced and directed plays in that capacity. Furthermore, we all three were employed in a semi-professional outdoor drama for two summers when I was eight and nine. I went on to act in and produce amateur productions of many plays and even spent three summers in college as a professional gunfighter and guitar player in a western theme park.

I say all that to give a sense of my personal involvement with theater. I have always loved theater and especially musicals. We never made a pilgrimage to Broadway but I followed the flow of new productions from year to year. I loved Andrew Lloyd Webber’s shows, Jesus Christ Superstar, and Hair. As time went by though, I lost touch with what was happening on Broadway. I heard news of new shows but I seldom got a chance to see them. I was beginning to think that Broadway was waning.

Then I became aware of Hamilton. What a dynamic show!  What a talented group of people! Maybe there was life in Broadway after all. Then, to top it off, I watched the Tony awards last night. I suppose I was expecting it to be like the Oscars and superficially it was. But I sensed a fundamental difference. There was a solidarity of purpose, a feeling of community, and profound expressions of humanity. These were attributes that I had seldom seen on the Oscar shows.

These people honored their elders and showed deep respect for the victims and families of the tragedy that might have otherwise marred their very special night. When they announced the endowment made by Andrew Lloyd Webber I almost cried. This kind of commitment to the community left me absolutely speechless.

It was an overwhelming evening. It sets a high bar for future Tony award shows. But somehow, I think this community is up to the challenge. I look forward to the Tonys next year and hope that maybe the Oscars will take a page out of their book and be more of a celebration of community and less of just an opportunity to self promote.

Can We Build a Better News Infrastructure?

Dave Winer said that we can build a better news network (please read his post for exactly what he said).

I commented:

The problem is that most people are just listening to figure out when it’s there turn to talk. They aren’t paying any attention to the substance of what the other person is saying. I think the abbreviation tl;dr is indicative of how that same principle translates into the print medium. I have lost all confidence in the news organizations in this (or any other) country. I feel less informed about the world than I ever was before the digital revolution. I can talk to someone on the other side of the world individual to individual but when the media is involved it all boils down to who stands to gain financially and who has paid whom the most to get their spin broadcast. I would like to see the internet give rise to a better news system as you advocate. What can we (users and developers alike) do to help bring this to life?

After struggling with getting links to this blog posted to Facebook and Twitter (manually, I am having trouble getting my process down to use Radio3), I discovered that Dave had replied to my comment:

Right now, the answer is simply to post using a tool like Radio3, which can post to the corporate networks as well as to the open Internet. So we get a chance to use your links to bootstrap a new open network. You sacrifice nothing, your posts still go to your current subscribers. That’s the outline of the plan.

I haven’t got Radio3 set up to post to Facebook through my corporate firewall so I am still figuring out the process to get this to work while I’m at work. Perhaps I should just refrain from posting while I’m at work. Any way, thanks for the response, Dave.

Daily Contemplation

I started writing every night. I set a time, 10:00pm until 10:30pm, as a minimum time. I was inspired to do this by Gladwell’s observation that it takes 10,000 hours to learn to do something well. I believe in practice. I have recently discovered that an important component of practice is to make sure that you are practicing the correct way of doing something, else you will learn to do it incorrectly. I suppose that matters less when it comes to writing. I have never heard of a right or wrong way to write. Perhaps that is because, it is so difficult to write anything substantial that it is a miracle if you write anything at all.

I have so many projects in progress that it is difficult to keep them all moving. I am doing better than I have in the past though. I think that my nightly writing discipline may help me develop some blogging discipline. I’m an eternal optimist, aren’t I? I have noticed a pattern to my writing though. I seem to spend most of my time writing about writing. That is something that I need to work on changing.

I’m using OpenOffice to write at home on my MacBook. I have given up trying to write using emacs. I’m not sure why but I end up spending too much time thinking about the structure of the document, for example, placement of line breaks, etc., when I use emacs. When I use a conventional word processor, I just take the defaults and type.