Thursday, June 19, 2014

The Age of Immaturity

Its been said that a person spends the first two years of his life learning that he is the center of the universe and the rest of it learning that he is not. Many people today seem to be stuck at levels of maturity far less than their years would suggest. Why is this and what's it got to do with Technology?

Emotional Immaturity
By immaturity, I mean primarily Emotional Immaturity. So what exactly is that? Well, Emotional Maturity (EM) is the ability to control ones emotions and reactions. It is also the ability to cope with life and accept it as it really is not as you want it to be. Someone who is mature can accept responsibility for their actions and their situation. They look inwardly for ways to affect positive change, adapting to the world rather than expecting the world to adapt to them. Because of these positive behaviors they contribute to the well being of what ever community they are a part of.

In contrast someone who lacks EM will:
  • Try to control every situation and person around them.
  • Live in an idealized past, future or fantasy.
  • Dwell on negative emotions instead of moving on.
  • Talk on and on about their problems instead of finding solutions.
  • Throw a temper tantrum when ever they are faced with a situation that doesn't fit their ideal.
  • Blame other people and situations instead of accepting responsibility for their life.
  • Create lots of drama for themselves and their loved ones.
As a result of these attitudes and behaviors living with a person who lacks EM will be very difficult.

Technology's Role
Although, the roots of such behavior are varied and on the surface technology may seem to have little to do with it, the immature attitudes and behaviors described above are at least exacerbated by the influence of today's miraculous electronic world.

Today we have the means to supply instant gratification in so many ways. From the microwave oven to instant messaging we can often times get what we want when we want it with out much effort. Though some of this getting everything we want immediately is due to non technological factors like easy credit and the spoils of living in a wealthy society that lives off the cheap labor of the developing world, much of it is directly or indirectly due to technology.

Technology makes getting things done faster and this reduces our patience. We now find waiting for anything to be intolerable. Today sending a letter through the mail is called Snail Mail and the youngest generation even finds that email is too slow, They prefer to use text messaging. Products can be ordered on line and delivered to your door step overnight. Movies can be downloaded online, no more driving to the theater or Video rental. Even our food comes ready to eat or can be heated up in less than 2 minutes.

Video games and virtual reality allow people to enter a world where its all about them. They can do what ever they want and everything in the game is geared toward their enjoyment. We can talk to anyone on line in a social media app and we can ignore them, be rude or otherwise act in ways that would have been very awkward to say the least without these technologies. We don't even have to deal with boredom anymore because we always have a device nearby to entertain or otherwise occupy our minds.

Effect on children
Children who grow up with machines that cater to their every whim and live in an environment where they are the center of attention become conditioned to be self centered. Additionally, children need inter action with other people of all ages to learn how to be kind, show respect and compromise. They are not going to learn such things simply from watching a cartoon singalong or chatting with peers on social networks.

Discipline is also becoming more difficult. When most kids rooms are stocked with video games, cable TV and smart phones, sending little Johnny to his room is not much of a punishment. Likewise with out the timeout from electronic media how does a child have the time to meditate on any discipline he's been given. Any strong council from his elders will be quickly forgot as soon as he logs on to his XBox or starts surfing Youtube.

To be sure, I love the convenience of our machines. I personally am an avid user of the microwave and I really enjoy being able to order stuff online or download a movie. There is, however, a price to pay. Qualities such as patience, self control and kindness are being eroded by the instant gratification and lack of direct connection to people that technology affords.

Thursday, May 16, 2013

How Healthy Is Modern Life?

Technology has made some aspects of life better. Some would say that one of these aspects is our health. I would disagree.

The Modern Diet
The modern diet consists of way too many calories usually in the form of carbohydrates and in particular refined sugars and starches which have a very high glycemic index. This is in ironic contrast with most of human history in which not getting enough calories was the problem. The modern diet also includes many unnatural chemicals which may or may not, depending on which studies you believe, have strange and undesirable side effects. Pioneer families like the Ingalls never had to understand, let alone pronounce, things like methylchloroisothiazolinone.

The dangerous effects of preservatives and other unnatural chemicals aside, even just the refined sugars and starches are enough to kill us. When you eat things like donuts or even the supposedly healthy cereals like Shredded Wheat you are sending way to much sugar into your blood stream. Sugar is necessary for your body to function, but too much sugar in you blood can destroy your blood vessels. The Insulin reaction, our bodies way of trying to save us from the dangerously high amounts of glucose in our veins, causes us to get fat by making the fat stay in our fat cells so the hungry cells can burn up the sugar first.

Today, mostly due to globalization, there is a greater number of fruits and vegetables available at your local supermarket. Unfortunately most of them are full of pesticides and contain far less nutrients than they used to decades ago. Similarly with vitamins and supplements, there is a greater variety and availability, but you wouldn't need most of them if you just had nutritious food at every meal.

Physical Exercise
Before the industrial revolution all work was done by either humans or animals. This naturally required large amounts or energy from food. For the average working stiff getting fat was not a concern. Today because of desk jobs and a generally more sedentary lifestyle most people are concerned about being overweight.

Sure we have gyms on every corner and even inexpensive exercise equipment at Walmart and if you live in a relatively safe neighborhood you can always take a walk, but most of us find it hard to make the time to get enough exercise to keep a healthy weight. If you are burning calories as you are making a living that time crunch goes away. So I would say technology doesn't make up for the much more accessible exercise as you work method of the past.

Stress has been a part of the human condition ever since our first parents decided to leave the safety of their creators protective headship. There has always been crime, poverty and war, but the level of stress felt by most, whether living in a developed country or the third world is much greater than it has ever been. Obviously things like drought, famine and civil war are stressful. Africa and Asia have seen more than their share of this. Like wise corruption and narco gangs are a terrifying specter to live under, just ask anyone from Mexico or much of Latin America. But its also no picnic living under the corporate oppression and economic uncertainty in the U.S.

Technology has not helped in this regard. Modern life in the U.S. and other developed lands has generally been made more stressful by technology. In fact much of our stress comes directly from technology, such as the constant interruptions and demand for our attention that the proliferation of media and communications affords.

A more indirect effect of technology is the way it allows us to be independent and live almost anywhere. At first this sounds great, but then there is the natural consequence that most of us live amongst strangers. Our family members live far away and most of us don't know all if any of our neighbors. This also contributes to stress and for some depression and a sense of disconnectedness.

While its true that much technology has been devoted to safety, its also true that much of it wouldn't even be necessary if it wasn't for some other dangerous technology. A perfect example is seatbelts & airbags. Great ideas and I'm glad they were invented, but they are only necessary because automobiles are the sixth leading cause of death in most developed countries.

Then there are the obvious hazards found in modern industrial places of employment where chemicals, heavy equipment and other dangerous activities cause many to loose life or limb. Some times in the case of a person working with hazardous materials like asbestos or carcinogenic petrol chemicals it takes years for the affects to manifest themselves. Other times its instant death or dismemberment such as in the case of oil rig operators and electric linemen.

Finally there is war which has been made exponentially more deadly by the invention of nuclear, chemical and biological weapons and there oh so efficient delivery systems. Man has always put great effort into finding more effective ways of killing his neighbor. Now. however, he has the ability to kill all his neighbors.

Heath (Sick) Care
Advances in medicine, particularly over the last 100 years, are nothing less than awe inspiring. What used to be a death sentence is now often a simple trip to the pharmacy for antibiotics or an out patient surgery. Our knowledge of how the body works and how we can tweak it to cure disease or repair damage saves and improves lives.

There are some blunders in modern medicine too be sure. Things like drug interactions, blood transfusions, or deadly cures like chemotherapy. Also the general dependency on drugs and the focus on treating of symptoms rather than finding the root of the problem and curing it. Of course It could be argued that these are problems that arise from human nature and attitude rather than technology, so I think maybe this is one area where technology helps more than it hurts.

So, as I usually find to be the case, technology giveth but it taketh even more. I much prefer a quiet life free of frankenfoods, dangerous jobs and weapons of mass destruction to a modern life of deadly convenience.

Monday, January 28, 2013

The Codist

A treatise on the oft misunderstood and much maligned programmer.

To most non-programmers the art of making a computer do something can seem like black magic, but its really just a mixture of art and engineering. To be sure programmers, especially if they are good, are a special breed. They usually have certain aptitudes and abilities that can't be learned. Of coarse this in no way discounts the part that experience and hard work play in making an excellent coder or application architect, but just as is true of great artists, athletes or scientists there is an element of raw talent that must be there.

This aptitude is usually accompanied by certain personality traits. Its as if the same hard wiring that imparts the mental ability to code also creates a certain kind of personality. Perhaps this accounts for some of the stereotypical traits of a programmer such as being aloof, less able to communicate with non-programmers, irritable when interrupted, working alone in long stretches of 12-14 hours while paying little attention to normal human activities such as eating properly or bathing. For the record I shower regularly and do not subsist on Twinkies and pizza, although I do often appear aloof and prefer to work without interruption for long stretches of time. However there is another reason why programmers exhibit these traits: The task of designing and coding an application requires you to work in just such a way.

What I mean is a computer program is often very complex and requires the programmer to load and hold in his mind all its moving parts at once. This takes time and the slightest interuption can cause you to loose that mental model and have to start all over loading each class, method and variable into your brain. For those who aren't programmers and don't have experience with this imagine you're building a house of cards one card at a time, you've built it five layers high and someone comes along and bumps you and the whole thing comes tumbling down. If that was your job, you'd be in a basement, away from others where no one could interrupt you too.

The creative aspect of designing and coding an application can also require long stretches of uninterrupted time thinking about or examining different approaches to a problem domain. Like an artist or a scientist, programmers are often deep inside their heads even when they are surrounded by others. This can make them appear aloof to others. I've even noticed in my own experience some people becoming offended or irritated believing I was intentionally ignoring them, when in reality I was just so consumed with the creative idea I was exploring that I was barely aware of their presence.

The truly great programmers and designers are driven people. They can be bold and daring. They also tend to be extremely honest and unrelentingly logical. As such they may not consider others feelings to the degree they should and are sometime perceived as rude. They may also appear to have a one track mind. Seeing the problem they are working on from all angles draws their full attention, as a consequence everything else in their life can become neglected, even the a fore mentioned eating and bathing. All these traits though they may make them a brilliant engineer can often estrange them from the general population.

Because of being so focused on whatever project they are working on they can often lack skill in social situations simply because they have neglected to exercise such skills. After a period of time, especially if they are not around people who understand them they can become uncomfortable and just choose to avoid such situations all together. When this happens you end up with the stereotypical nerd, geek or whatever epithet society gives to the intellectually gifted yet socially inept.

Not all programmers fit this stereotype, in fact no one fits any stereotype exactly because we are all individuals with free will and a complex personality that emerges from both our genetics and our experiences. However understanding why some of these traits exist in programmers or by extension artists, scientists, mathematicians, etc. helps us to see them for who they truly are and not just who the seem to be.

Sunday, December 16, 2012

Complexity, Entropy & Maintenance

This post is inline with three other posts I made here, here & here. They all touch on the exponential increase in complexity and the limits to the continuation of that complexity. This post is about an oft overlooked limit to complexity: Entropy and the maintenance required to counter it. The degree of complexity of a system increases the cost of maintenance. When you get to a point where the maintenance of a system consumes all available resources you can no longer increase the complexity of that system. There are many reasons why I believe we are at or close to that inflection point.

As a seasoned software developer I am always interested in reducing complexity. My many bad experiences with having to make changes to kludgy code have made me very conscious of writing clean, simple, easy to understand code. Anything I can do to reduce the amount of code or simplify how its put together makes my job easier latter on when I'm required to maintain or update it.

Many times you start out with bad code because of inexperienced or uncaring developers. Other times you start out well but over the years you accumulate layer upon layer of cruft from different updates, often by different programmers with different ideas on how the app should work. I have seen some legacy systems like this that were mission critical and yet over the years through the process of neglect and entropy they had reached the point of collapse. The same principle applies to any system. As it grows and adds layer upon layer it requires more and more maintenance to keep running. Once the maintenance required reaches a level that resources can no longer sustain, it collapses.

A system's complexity can be composed of not just its size or the number of its parts but more importantly the interconnectivity of those parts. As an example the internet is quite large expanding over six continents. It also has many different parts ranging from a handfull of DNS root servers to billions of individual server nodes and telecom cables. What makes this system really complex though is the interconnectivity of each of those nodes.

For all those pedantic Thermodynamic sticklers I am using the word entropy in a more general sense of the word to mean the tendency for things to go from an ordered state to a disordered state or, more specifically in this article, from a usable state to an unusable one. From my experience, it appears the more complex a system the greater the force of decay. This would also seem to be in harmony with the thermodyamic definition of entropy (S = K * LogW).

Every system exihibits this characteristic. From the virtual world where your codebase becomes more bug prone with each new feature to the real world where servers and fiber optic cable break down and malfunction with time and use. This constant decay makes a system less reliable and in some cases unsafe. Of course any system can be repaired or rebuilt. A codebase that is regularly refactured can stay clean and functional. Likewise a city that is regularly maintained can be kept clean and safe. The real dilema occurs when the complexity of your system has outgrown your ability to maintain it.

When a software department has more decaying systems than it does maintanence programmers to keep it tamed, it has reached a point where collapse is inevitable. The company has two choices at that point. Either it acquires more maintenance programmers, perhaps pulling them off of new development, or it has to reduce complexity by elliminating services. The third option, which unfortunately seems to be the one most often chosen, is to just keep limping along with decreasing reliability and squeezing more out of your programmers.

Like a sprawling legacy codebase that has reached critical mass, the U.S has reached a point where its urban infrastructure is so complex that the cost of maintenance has become too high to sustain. In some areas that have been recently built this may not be as noticable, but in older areas its painfully obvious.

A really critical area where this effect can be seen is the interstate highway system. Here in the united states life for the last 60 years or so has revolved around the automobile. So natuarally the increase in popluation along with that popluation's desire to drive anywhere at anytime has created a need for more road space to contain them. The result today is millions of miles of aging asphalt, bridges and tunnels.

The highway system is not the only aging system in the U.S. The sewer systems, the electric grid, dams, schools and government buildings especially in older cities are all decaying. Of course some of these systems are being repaired and rebuilt all the time. Unfortunately there aren't enough resources to keep all of them in safe working order. For that reson we are seeing reports like these more and more frequently:

NY Parks Close Due To Severe Budget Cuts
ND Asphalt Is Replaced By Cheaper Gravel 
America's Aging Bridges
America's Aging Electric Grid

Since there are strong indications we have reached a peak in resources of almost every kind, its only a mater of time before the force of entropy takes our civilization to greater and greater levels of disorder.

Sunday, November 25, 2012

Wilderness Getaway

New River Mesa
Backpacking in the wilderness for a few days is a nice way to escape the anxiety of modern life. Its also a great way to renew your appreciation for the comforts and increased survivability modern life affords. When you are completely on your own with nothing more than what you can carry, you quickly realize that civilization and modern technology have their advantages.

One of the biggest reasons people get into trouble in the wilderness is they get themselves lost. There are no street signs in the wilderness. Having a topographic map and compass is a must if you are going into a remote area, but just having them isn't enough. You need to learn how to use them.  Here are two good videos to start you off: Compass Use & Navigation.

Be very careful when bushwhacking. Its easy to start off in a direction thinking you know where you're at and find yourself hopelessly lost. I make sure I turn around every so often and look back at where I've been. This helps me remember what the way back looks like. If you don't do this the path will look unfamiliar when you try to backtrack. Another method to help find your way back is to place visible markers like these.

Don't Out Hike Your Water.

Another big mistake people often make is underestimating the amount of water they will need. Water is an especially limiting factor in the Sonoran Desert. Water weighs 8.35 lbs per gallon and you can use 3 quarts or more a day. I personally can only carry up to about 50 lbs comfortably and I use the word comfortably loosely. If I used only the minimum 3 quarts per day (That means I didn't sweat much) 5 days of water would weigh 31 lbs. That doesn't leave much payload capacity for gear or food, So you better know where the streams or springs are if you plan on being out there for more than a few days.

Tonto Creek

You also need to contend with the weather. If you pack for warm weather and it turns cold or a sudden violent storm occurs with flash flooding you could be in big trouble and, keeping in mind the previously mentioned payload capacity, you obviously can't pack for every contingency.

Technology Can Be Wild.

Ironically enough, technology can actually make your escape from modern life a little easier. New lightweight materials for making tents and heat retaining sleeping bags can keep you dry and warm without weighing you down. High tech water filtration devices can make bad water drinkable. There are also many high tech electronic devices that are a valuable resource for making your get away from civilization a bit more civilized.

Some of the electronic devices that are nice to have include GPS navigators, pocket weather stations, altimeters and pedometers. One of the most valuable and versatile electronic devices you can have is your cell phone. If you need help and your in an area that's close enough to a tower you can call for help. Coincidentally many cell phones now have many of these other nice to have devices built in. I use a Casio Ravine 2 with G-Zone software. It has a compass, GPS with marking functionality, Sunset/rise times, tide chart, pedometer and thermometer. Its also ruggedized to withstand  a lot of abuse. In addition most phones today have a camera which is a great way to take pictures for your blog.

Mogollon Rim

I try to make sure I match the equipment I carry to the type and duration of the hike. On most hikes lasting more than a few hours and going more than a couple miles from my car, I carry a first aid kit and usually some emergency shelter equipment like a bivy tent and pocket sleeping bag with heat reflective foil. Additionally I make sure I have at least two methods for starting a fire and two methods of purifying water. Its also a good idea to carry some form of protection, even if its just bear spray and a buck knife.

Tonto National Forest
On my 2-3 day hikes I like to carry the same as the day hike but with a thicker bed roll, some dried food and at least 1 gallon of water per day I plan to be out, unless I know there is water where I'm going. I also make sure I have a jacket, beenie and scarf or shemagh for the cold night air and of course a compass and topographic map. Additionally its a good idea to have flashlights and a radio to hear weather reports. I have one that operates on hand crank and receives NOAA broadcasts. It also has a handy USB plug so I can charge my cell phone.

The More You Know The Less You Need.

Aside from good equipment the best thing to help you survive in the wilderness is knowledge. Being aware of how much water you're going to need, understanding what the clouds and wind are telling you about the coming weather or just having enough sense to know where and where not to pitch a tent, these skills are a must before leaving the safe and familiar urban environment you're accustomed to. You will also find the more you know, the less you need to carry.

Fig Spring
Much of this knowledge can be gained by reading books or listening to those who have experience in wilderness survival, I recommend reading any books by Cody Lundin, but you really do need to practice these skills and build up your physical stamina as well as your mental and emotional tolerance to being truly on your own before you attempt to venture to far from civilization.

Hiking in the mountains of central Arizona or whatever unspoiled land is near you is good physical exercise and mentally refreshing. It is a great way to get away from civilization and find some peace and quiet. A place where there's no email, no honking traffic, no smog and no obnoxious advertisements. However, If you're going to enjoy it and be safe, you better make sure you have the right equipment and know what you're getting yourself into.

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Lazy Gardening

With the recent crop failures and drought here in the United States food will soon be getting more expensive. In addition to this you may have noticed the declining quality of produce at your local market. These are very good reasons to begin a garden.

Gardening can be a lot of work, but it doesn't have to be.  Of course I'm not saying you're going to get something for nothing, like anything else in life the more you put into it the more you get out of it, but there are many things you can do to make it easier.

Lazy Gardeners Look for High Yield Crops
As a lazy gardener I look for plants that require minimum attention with maximum yield. A few plants that seem to fit this category are potatoes, sweet potatoes, onions, garlic and swiss chard. Swiss chard has been particularly successful. It doesn't seem to mind either the extreme heat, over 100° in the summer, or cold, below freezing in the winter. It literally grows like a weed. The second best is the sweet potatoes. I've been able to produce enough to overfill a five gallon bucket from one small tuber in three to four months.

Another way to make your garden less labor intensive is to set up drip and soaker hoses with automatic valve controls. I started with a twist timer that I would just turn as needed. It would flood the garden for an hour and shut off. This was nice because I would often turn on the water and then forget to turn it off. However getting a programmable timer is much better. Now I don't even have to think about it. Of course you'll still need to check your garden periodically to check for pests and weeds as well as making sure your watering program is set to what the plants need.

Work with Nature, Not Against It
I try not to use chemicals to control insects. After all I could buy produce from the store with petrol chemicals on them. Fortunately I don't have a big insect problem where I'm at. I do however have a bird and varmint problem. One thing you can do to protect from these is to build a cage to protect plants they most like. Another thing you can do is get a cat that can hunt. I had rodents all over the place until I got a good mouser. She got rid of the them all in about four months. For organic insect and weed control one solution would be to let chickens periodically roam through your garden. Keep in mind you don't want them to be there too long or they will start to eat your crops. They will eat the bugs first then look for leafy greens, these could be weeds or your lettuce seedlings. 

Plants also need nutrients put back into the soil. As with pest control you are way better off doing it the natural way. In fact this is probably the best principle to take away from this post: Work with nature and not against it. Working against nature is inefficient and usually ends badly.

Manure from the nearest barn yard herbivore is the best. I like to use goat since that's what I have. I usually don't even need to compost it. I just scoop it straight from the pasture and bring it to the trees or vegetables. I can work it into the soil or even leave it on top for mulch and moisture retention. Some manures like chicken are so rich in nitrogen they need to compost some before they can be used or else they will burn the plants.

One other excellent and inexpensive fertilizer, and I might add soil conditioner, is coffee grounds. You can probably get the old grounds from your local coffee shop for free and it adds valuable nutrients such as magnesium, potassium and calcium. Add to this any of your table scraps and you'll be replenishing the soil with more than just the nitrogen and other major nutrients found in chemical fertilizers. Using what's available and keeping it simple that's lazy gardening at its best.

Gardening Takes Time To Learn
Gardening takes time to learn and is very specific to your area. What works in my area where the weather is warm and dry and the soil is alkaline will not work in an area with cold, wet weather and acidic soil. This is one of the reasons you can't just pick up a gardening book and after reading it expect to be a successful gardener. You have to try different things and use what works for you. Keep in mind you will have many failures, but look at these as learning experiences rather than evidence that you can't do it.

Aside from the benefit of eating great tasting nutritious food, gardening can be very good for you physically, mentally and emotionally. Its good exercise, a nice break from the hustle bustle of daily life and it feels good to produce something from nothing but water, dirt and a little seed. Its actually what humans were designed to do - Gen 2:15.

Friday, October 12, 2012

This Is Not Your Grandpa's Paper Airplane

One of the lesser, yet still important, duties of parenting is to supply toys for your youngsters. Something inexpensive and requiring imagination like a paper airplane is good for the child's mind and your pocketbook. Paper airplanes are the kind of simple fun that seem to have just about disappeared among the younger generation. It seems that today if it doesn't use electricity and cost lots of money its not on their radar. With a little effort you may be able to avert them from the overpriced and often valueless toys to something a little more beneficial.

There are the usual paper airplanes that every school boy is familiar with like the dart and the flying wing. But its not that much harder to make something a lot more interesting. Below is a model that anyone can build and requires nothing more than one sheet of stiff paper, some glue or tape and a paper clip.

Step 1. You start with a standard 8.5" x 11" piece of paper. You then cut this piece into four equal parts.
Step 2. With one of the pieces you fold a triangular prizim. This is done by folding the paper long wise in half to make a crease and then opening it up to fold each half toward the middle. Then fold each half toward the middle again.
Step 3. With one of the remaining fourths you can now create a wing. Fold two corners down toward the middle. Then fold them over again so the next corner fold is aligned with the first.
Step 4. Take one of the remaining fourths and divide it into fourths. Use one of these fourths to create a smaller wing according to the instructions in step 3. This will be the rear stabilizer.
Step 5. The final piece you will need to create is the tail rudder. For this you can take the final forth you cut from the original 8.5" x 11" paper and fold it in half. Then cut a fin shape with a base portion you can use to attach it to the tail.
Step 6. Now that you have all the parts created you will need to assemble them. Take the fuselage with the side that was glued face down and place it on top of the wing which should have a bead of glue running down the the very center. Next glue the rear stabilizer in a similar way. Finally glue the tail rudder to the peak of the triangular fuselage with the flaps at its base. You can also insert a paper clip in the nose of the fuselage. This extra weight will balance the plane and pull it through the air.

View the video instructions here.