Tuesday, February 13, 2018

Commandments without Confabulation

My wife, Sara, and I are reading the Old Testament this year, and we're now well into the book of Exodus, also known as the Second Book of Moses.

In chapter 3, "God called unto him... [and] said, I am the God of thy father, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob." Moses was not the first man to talk with God. There are accounts of Adam, Enoch, Noah, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob who each had a personal relationship with God (as recounted in the First Book of Moses, called Genesis).

Moses had not been looking for God. He was living his life herding sheep for his father-in-law when he turned aside, curious about a bush that appeared to be burning but was not consumed. God gave him a mission, which involved the exodus of the posterity of Jacob from the land of Egypt, and a journey which consumed the remaining forty years of his life.

After freeing the people from Egypt, "Moses was in the mount forty days and forty nights." During this time he was talking with the Lord, receiving instruction, and obtaining a "covenant, the ten commandments"  which he brought back into the camp on two "tables of stone, written with the finger of God."

There are two kinds of people in the world: those who believe that humans were created first and later invented God as an explanation, and those who believe that God came first, created humans, and revealed himself to them.

Moses was of the second kind. Though Moses had not been seeking an explanation, God revealed himself to him, and the two of them thereafter had a solid and real relationship.

Moses was not making this up, so the commandments that he obtained were without confabulation.

While he was gone, the people wearied of his absence, and entreated Aaron to "make us gods, which shall go before us; for as for this Moses, the man that brought us up out of the land of Egypt, we wot not what is become of him." So Aaron collected their gold and made a "molten calf ... and they said, These be thy gods, O Israel, which brought thee up out of the land of Egypt."

These were people of the first kind, inventing gods to make sense of their situation.

Moses believed, because of his own experience, that God came first and revealed himself to humans he had created. We get the sense that God would have wanted to reveal himself to everyone, but could not because of their lack of belief. Lack of belief was not an option for Moses, who knew God and had a relationship with him.

What to make of the two kinds of people? Today, they are at odds with one another. Those of the humans-invented-gods camp are certain that they are correct. They have a creation story, based on remnants from a distant past which can be observed today, such as fossils and the background radiation of the big bang*.

Those of the god-created-humans camp are equally sure that they are correct. They have a creation story based on revelation from the God whose prophets knew him personally.

So, which story corresponds to the reality of the universe?

Were humans created by chance and necessity without any intervention from a pre-existing being? Did they then invent gods and creation stories to explain the incomprehensible?

Or, did a pre-existing God create humans, and then reveal himself to (some of) them? Did he provide an account of creation suitable for keepers of flocks and herds?

I acknowledge that two positions exist and claim that a person's choice of one of these alternatives is an act of faith**. The choice is based on which story seems most reasonable, and upon which authorities one finds most persuasive. It can also be based on a personal relationship with God, respectful of commandments and without confabulation.


*According to wikipedia, "The Big Bang theory is the prevailing cosmological model for the universe."

** It seems unjust to me that "the prevailing" view should be taught by the school system as fact while the "religious" view is forbidden to be taught, and is ridiculed and persecuted by militant groups who believe life is an accident. Justice demands that each person be free to choose what she or he believes, with both beliefs having equal rights.

Wednesday, November 8, 2017

Collection without consent

Household budget. Generally a household has monthly income and monthly expenses. These can be lined up in two columns, and decisions can be made about how much can be spent each month in each of a number of areas: housing, food, clothing, entertainment, etc. This process is called making a budget.

This post is about dealing with expenses which do not occur monthly, and which in the limit may not occur at all. One way to handle these is to "save for a rainy day." Another is to purchase "insurance." Personally, I prefer to avoid insurance, and purchase it only when--and in the amounts--required by law. For other types of expenses, I prefer "self-insurance" which is to say saving for that possible future rainy day.

The family car will one day need to be replaced. The water heater will one day need to be replaced. For this kind of thing, "insurance" doesn't apply, because the event is certain to happen. The only unknown is when it will happen.

Insurance applies only when the event is not certain or when its cost would exceed an amount that the family is willing to save. Paying an insurance premium is a way of saving for the un-hoped-for event. Purchasing insurance means pooling those savings with others, preferably many others, so that the risk is spread around.

"Health insurance" is a ridiculous concept. Why? Because the event (needing to consult a doctor or visit a hospital) is pretty much sure to happen, and the cost usually doesn't exceed an amount that a family could reasonably be able to save.* So pooling your savings with other people is absurd. Why? Because the "insurance" company will take a cut (generally at least 20%), and they will set up all kinds of road-blocks and barriers to your being able to tap into your savings.

Much better to save for future health care needs.

However, our country has made this impossible! We are required, by law, to pool our savings with others pay "premiums" to "health insurance" companies. If we choose not to, we are penalized by increased taxes**. If we choose not to, we are lumped in with others who can't afford premiums and are counted as part of the number of those who "do not have health insurance."***

We don't want it! We think it is stupid! We reject the notion that we must pool our savings with others. We don't wish nameless companies to take part of our savings for their own use and profit and then tell us what we can and cannot do with the rest of it.

May we please have legislation that makes it unlawful for anyone to profit from our relationship with health care providers!

no more collection without consent

* The exception is the only health insurance that can correctly be called an "insurance" at all: catastrophic health insurance. By all means, purchase this if you want to be saved from cancer, etc.

** This is outrageous. First, it was imposed as a way to get around the fact that a law requiring citizens to make a purchase is unconstitutional! Second, what guarantee do we have that that tax penalty will benefit someone else who is unwilling too poor to save for their own medical expenses?

*** It is somehow considered a bad thing to be without health insurance. Obviously, I disagree and think of it as a smart thing, and resent being counted as a victim when it is something that I freely choose.

Monday, August 28, 2017

Communication without correctness

In contrast to my previous post, which also contains some writing done when I was eighteen years old, this one was published. It was a work of non-fiction, and contained some inaccuracies.


"All who have meditated in the art of governing mankind have been convinced that the fate of empires depends on the education of youth."
Those were the words of the ancient philosopher, Aristotle, commenting on the vital role of education in his time. In our time, the need for education is much greater. Our happiness, economic success, and well-being in the future depend on the extent of your education.
Our technology today is expanding more rapidly than it has ever done before in the history of man. Many new books, especially those on scientific subjects, become out-dated within five to ten years from the time they are published. The use of automation is increasing. Computers speed up the handling of business; run all sorts of establishments from airports to libraries; and are an indispensible aid to scientific research. They are also essential to national defence. The heart of the NORAD defence system is a giant computer which keeps tabs on hundreds of flying objects simultaneously and warns of enemy attack. These remarkable devices are the products of the well-trained minds of the past. But many people are needed now, and many more will be needed in the future, just to keep our defense systems up to date. It is indeed true that the fate of impires depends on the education of the youth.
We graduands have, for the past twelve years, been learning the facts which will enable us to take our place in the future. We have not been alone in this effort. Many teachers have laboured to give us the knowledge of past centuries. Facts which have been accumulating for hundreds of years are now our personal possessions thanks to their efforts. To our parents we also extend our personal gratitude. They have given us the rather firm encouragement that we have needed at times. Yes, our thanks go to all those who have so painstakingly prepared us for success in the future; a future full of promise.
We will be sorry to leave these familiar hallways and classrooms. They have been the scene of so many happy moments, and the backdrop for so many distressing problems. They will remain in our memories forever.
Our high school preparation is now complete; we are ready to go our separate ways and face the great challenges that lie ahead. May we forge forward fearlessly and make our lives as successful and enjoyable as our high school days have been. The future and all it holds is waiting.
Besides some typos and spelling mistakes (some due to the customary usage of British English in our school), the most glaring inaccuracy is my (younger self's) prediction that we would always remember the "familiar hallways and classrooms." After I delivered the speech, my classmate, Ian Miller, took me aside and pointed out that this was not true, that we were not "sorry to leave [them]" and that we would never think of them again.

Another inaccuracy, by omission, is that I failed to predict just how ubiquitous computers would be during our lives, and that most of my classmates would one day own a computer more powerful than the one highlighted here, and that furthermore we would be carrying it around in our pocket or purse and sometimes even use it to make phone calls.

In any case, I am happy to have this valedictory address on the Internet record, and recorded here for posterity.

Here is a picture of the page (including a picture of that younger self) scanned from our high school yearbook.

Tuesday, August 8, 2017

Composition without communication

Just found a story that I wrote when I was 18 years old and using the pen name "Solar Scout." To my knowledge it was never published.

It's Only An Owl

The awesome notes of the hoot owl woke the Ericksons. Martha shivered, and sat up in the dawning air. The forest frightened her, but her husband Eric enjoyed its many moods. She turned over and attempted to go back to sleep, but the rising sun shed its rays on her pillow. With a sigh, she got up to fix Eric's coffee. Shuddering as the owl repeated its performance, she sat down on the crude bench to wait for Eric. She knew it was useless to plead with him to go home. He was determined to obtain the prized grizzly skin. Everytime she though of the huge monsters, she became cold and felt her skin tingle.

After breakfast, Eric left with his gun. Martha bustled around, putting the things away, trying to dispell the nagging fear. Though she had never seen a bear, she trembled at the thought of her beloved Erid going out to hunt them. Her reverie was burst assunder by a blood curdling scream. "Eric!" she cried. She rushed through the door of the cabin almost hysterically. She stumbled down the path and screamed. Eric was lying motionless just one hundred yards down the trail. A huge grizzly growled surly and lumbered off along the trail. Martha was completely hysterical by this time, but she grabbed the gun and shouted angrily at the retreating giant. Sobbing wretchedly, she pulled the trigger twice, then fainted. Minutes later, she woke looking into the worried, yet somehow exultant eyes of her husband. She flew into his arms with a thankful gasp.

Favoring his gashed leg, Eric helped her into the cabin. "After dinner", he said, "I'm going out to bring in that fine bear you bagged." Martha's eyes widened. For some strange reason, she never shivered again when the hoot owl mourned. She loved the forest.

Solar Scout, 18
Taber Alberta

If it was published it would have been in the Winnipeg Free Press Weekly.

I made every effort here to type it exactly as it was, and a photo of the original is shown here.

Tuesday, June 6, 2017

Correlation without confusion

In other words, the assumption of eponymity.

At the Wendy's fast-food restaurant, part of the ordering process is giving the cashier my name. That name becomes a prominent part of the receipt. Moments later, the person finishing my order calls out the name so that I can go to the front and pick it up.

McDonald's on the other hand assigns each customer a short number to serve the same purpose.

In computing, such things (the name or the number) are called correlation identifiers.

Some years ago, when I ate at Wendy's every week with my friend Thom Boyer, the cashier would most often ask, "May I have your name?" On occasion, however, the question was subtly different, "Will you give me a name for your order?" Always one to pounce on subtle differences in meaning, I began naming my order "Boris."

For picking up my order, this worked out just fine. Until one of our regular visits, when upon walking into the restaurant, an employee greeted us by name. In that restaurant, I had become known as Boris.

The assumption is that a person will give his or her own name. The assumption of eponymity.

In other languages (such as French and Spanish) one gives one's name not by saying, "My name is Boris," but rather by saying (in translation), "I call myself Boris." In English, we take a similar stance when we say things like, "My friends call me Boris."

The fast-food correlation identifier is short-lived. Just a few minutes. The way it is used gives a clear example of the fact that identifiers in general are part of a relationship between the identified and another party, rather than an attribute that I own. Things like my given name, my parents' names, my date and place of birth, and even other dates of significant events in my life are also less attributes, and more part of my relationship with society. Mathematically, we could say that an identifier is (part of) a relation and not a property.

This came to my attention recently during a conference session run by Joe Andrieu at the Internet Identify Workshop in Mountain View, California. From the notes of which, this quote, "Identity is about self, but in practice, it’s about how we relate to others."

Another influence in these thoughts is this post by Phil Windley about anonymity. My fast-food example is really an instance of this. Even though one of the restaurants asks for my name, I am free to give any name that I wish, and my anonymity is intact.

[Added June 21, 2017 this facsimile of the folium rectum of a Wendy's receipt which clearly shows the correlation identifier used for the associated order]

[Added June 22, 2017 showing the McDonald's correlation in action, with the correlation ID clearly visible on both the receipt and the order itself]

Monday, February 6, 2017

Contrast without comfort

I just finished reading the book Rainbows End, by Vernor Vinge.

The quote that stuck with me, from page 355 is, "Back when I was young, you could have got a patent off of it... Nowadays, it should be worth a decent grade in a high-school class."

Yes, technology changes, and skills that would have been impressive twenty years ago are of little worth today.

Friday, December 9, 2016

Consequence without compassion

There are some things in this world that are unforgiving. This post is about a couple of things that you can type into a computer's command line with devastating results.

Just today, I needed to use a file named SROSTERS.TXT, which had been written by a DOS program on a Windows machine. But, I needed to use it on my MacBook Pro. It was important to today's work, but I noticed that each of its 33,000+ lines ended with a carriage return, line feed. Those two characters are invisible, so I only noticed it because one line of interest was exactly one character longer in the file than the equivalent line produced on the Mac, although they appeared to be identical.

There is a handy Bash command that will remove all the carriage return characters, leaving only a line feed at the end of each line, which is what the Mac expects. So, I set out to use that command:
cat SROSTERS.TXT  |  tr  -d  '\r'  >srosters.txt
 The cat command outputs the file contents to standard output, which is then piped (notice the vertical bar aka "pipe") into the standard input of the tr (translate) command, with the option to delete all  carriage return characters (-d '\r'). It was my intention that the output of the translation would go into a new file named srosters.txt which could then be used on the Mac.

Now the greater-than sign (>) in Bash has two different roles. It is followed by a file name, and if the file doesn't already exist, it is created (empty) before the command runs, which was my intention. But, if it does exist, it is truncated to an empty file, again before the command runs.

In my mind, based on years of experience using UNIX® and various linux systems, the two file names SROSTERS.TXT and srosters.txt would be for different files. Not so on the Mac's OS X version of linux. These two* names are both names for the same file!

So, when I pressed the enter key, my computer first truncated the file to an empty file, then sent its contents (also empty) through the pipe into the translate command whose output went into the file (still empty!).

And that is how I experienced a severe consequence, with my computer expressing no compassion.

You know, the greater-than sign has bitten me before, so maybe I should have been more careful.

As a graduate student, 30 years ago at the University of Calgary, I had spent most of a day working on a class assignment. When I finished at six o'clock, I did what I ordinarily did at the end of a day, which is to type this command to remove all of my backup files:
rm  *.bak
This would remove all files whose names ended with ".bak" and that is what it had done every day before. But that night, I was in a hurry, and my left pinkie finger didn't leave the shift key quite fast enough as my right ring finger went for the period key. So, that key got shifted and the command that I actually typed was instead:
rm  *>bak
Ouch.  If only I'd had time to look at the command line before pressing the enter key, but my fingers were on automatic. After running the command, I did, as always, check to see that the backup files had indeed been removed. To my astonishment, all of the files were gone, and there was a new one, named bak, which was empty. The rm (remove) command removed all of the files (as specified by the wild-card *) and sent its (empty) output into the newly created file named bak. Just as my command specified. Again, no apologies from the computer!

That night, I learned that sometimes you can do a project better the second time you try it. I had to have the assignment done, so I stayed another hour or so and re-wrote all of the code from memory.

Today, I'm going to resolve my problem by having a friend who works near my desk in the office find a USB key in my drawer and email me the file contents.

A bonus story, where a great deal of much-appreciated compassion was shown, from 20 years ago, when I worked in the Advanced Technology Group of WordPerfect Corporation as a senior scientist. Our administrative assistant (who I will call Virginia) was having some trouble with her computer and emailed the group a screenshot** of a rather ominous warning message. I flippantly fired back an email message saying (as best as I can remember)
It looks like you have the dreaded M$ Windows virus on your machine. It's easy to get rid of. Just type DELTREE C:\WINDOWS and that'll take care of it.
About half an hour later, when I'd forgotten all about my little joke, I was called into my boss's office. He tried to keep a straight face as he reprimanded me. Virginia hadn't seen my message as a joke, and had issued the command, which completely removed the operating system from her computer. A technician came and it took most of the afternoon to get her machine working again.

The compassion came as my boss chose to forgive me, and we still laugh about it when our paths cross.

* And not just these two names, but all of the 2,048 possible variations, mixes of upper and lower-case letters, of this file name. Whichever of the variants you use, you will be referring to the same file.
** Unfortunately, I no longer have access to that email system, or I could have displayed the warning message in this blog post.