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It’s been said that when soliciting for bids on a project, you’ll know the expert because they’ll say it costs twice as much and will take three times as long. I’m paraphrasing, but you get the idea.

From experience, that’s mostly true. It’s not to say that you must always buy the most expensive car or house or clothing, because by being high-priced those are somehow automatically better. Rather, it’s that the expert has explored the space enough to know most of the things that the inexperienced person has yet to discover. They’ll cover the details better. That’s the bit that relates to the title of this post. We’re all kinda fumbling around in the dark in this life and we are each unsure as we hurtle into an unknowable future. Sure, some of us are more enlightened because we’re more immune to self-deception, but you truly never can fully know what you don’t know. The world is just too large and our ability to sense and store the knowledge of it too small.

It’s actually pretty amazing that we can make as much sense of it as we do! Even the most intelligent of us still have very limited capacity relative to the immensity of it all. Anyway, no conclusions to draw tonight, just some musings…

All the best.

Big Data can be used for many things, from ad targeting to improving medicine to, well these days, you name it. One area that seems ripe to apply it to is itself, or more generally, to use Big Data to find, categorize, and pattern-match fault signatures within software itself. Allow me to explain.

People have a hard time understanding software because you can’t touch it. In human readable form, it’s a bunch of loops, branches, and kinda math-like functions. But for the sake of discussion, for now, think of software as a little solid-state motor where the moving parts are tiny wave-functions…aka electrons. By analogy, based on this article about motor faults it seems possible to apply this same approach to “software motors.” If we were able to gather enough data about such beasts, and take this from science project to actual product, we’d have something interesting and useful to people.

An acquaintance of mine thought that a cascading set of log gathering calls implemented as callbacks into their respective sub-systems could be triggered as fault patterns were recognized and assuming they continued to match, once a confidence threshold were passed that this is indeed the *exact* problem we have a run-book for, kick that in and avoid an undesirable (and previously unavoidable) event. Effectively, this is the same outcome as a human getting paged, rebooting the right systems, and going back to sleep (the human that is ;).

If you’re still with me, I hear you asking, “But *how* do you know you truly avoided something rather than just perturbed the system enough to cause it to not happen? Hmm?!” It’s a fair and intelligent question, and to answer it requires data that we don’t have yet, but for now let’s say:

  1. we could compare KPIs (uptime, latency, calls/sec, etc.) across one system w/ the automated maintenance applied and another similar system without it and see if there were measurable benefits;
  2. does it matter?

#1 needs some careful, skeptical measurement and #2 is kinda a joke, but it’s also kinda not, being it’s the default remedy for many software problems today, whether you realize it or not. You see, we know our softwares work well for the happy paths that they’re usually on, but it’s easy for our data to wander off that and fall off a cliff, get eaten by a bear, or enter a goto portal that jumps it from where it’s expected to Timbukfoo. In short, I’m admitting that for now, a restart with some strategery behind it is better (and kinda the same, just not as rigid) as a cron’d reboot (which we know people do these days). I speak from experience here because I’ve recommended that exact thing, though we professionally called it a “scheduled therapeutic reboot.” 😀

Anyway, that brings us to the end of this episode. The alternate title was “On Taking a Big Data Selfie…” Hope you found it instructive and that it inspires you to build something new, amazing, and wonderful.

Today isn’t just a day of remembering. It’s a day of quiet contemplation and giving their sacrifices updated meaning. For no one wants to die and not be remembered, but neither do we want to go without our lives meaning something. Maybe those are the same.
Our evolutionary arc need not doom us to an endless cycle of violence. Perhaps today, like a tree planted for future generations, while we remember, we also sow a seed of Peace, finding that ground within our souls that will make death by violence a thing of the past. Not yet certainly, but as hope for a distant future. I can think of no higher honor to bestow upon a soldier than that in the end, their death actually meant Ultimate Peace.

Belief and non-belief stem from the same root. Namely, we believe that we’ve found all that can be found and we are certain how it all fits into everything out there. The believer sees what he wants the same as the disbeliever. We know all that can be known. Comforting as that sounds, doesn’t that viewpoint sound too limited and a bit smug?

Contrast that with the faith to accept we don’t yet know it all, yet trust that we can, while feeling the wonder and beauty available to us as we open our eyes and mind to what is actually out there while we’re on this journey called life…

To me, Philosophy is the beautiful arrangement and color coordination of our thoughts and mental models.
It doesn’t make them more accurate, but it can make them more appealing to a receptive crowd.

With all the social IPOs recently, there are complaints that the technical community isn’t chasing enough meaningful innovation, instead taking the cheaper and easier route to profit. I respectfully disagree.

You can’t connect the dots looking forwards, you only connect them looking backwards. This implies that we can’t know until later what all the future meaningful innovations will be. The best we can do therefore, is build on what we know will not be going away and seeing later how those dots look behind us. What might help is an example from prior history from which to draw meaningful parallels to the current Internet revolution in which we find ourselves.

To riff off Jeff Bezos’s talk, and his focus on household appliances — enabling for the Internet is most like enabling for electricity.

As he mentions, think of washing machines before electricity. Can you imagine doing all your laundry by hand? Or think of ice boxes. Or clocks & watches. Lighting. All done mechanically or chemically. Think too of new classes of appliances, possible only with electricity: radios, televisions, vacuum cleaners, and hair & clothes dryers come to mind. If we follow electricity’s example, without too much trouble, you can imagine there will be new appliances made possible only through a networked world. I can’t imagine what they will be, but I’m pretty sure no one imagined the hair dryer in 1912 either.

Do not expect all future net enhanced appliances to be shockingly different than their predecessors, but do expect them to be more convenient. Ultimately, it will be the design & craftsmanship that goes into them that will make them successful (or not). And this level of craftsmanship will take investment. Additionally, though there will be false starts and though not everything electrified always completely replaces previous versions (i.e. stoves & grills), they usually do offer some utility, especially in tight living quarters or other specialized conditions, such as travel.

So, our networked future and our investments into it need not be based on earth-shattering new science, but rather incremental, yet useful, improvements to much of what we already have. With a few surprises along the way.

We’re starting to see networked equivalents replace previous versions in Books and now Radio & Television. Some clocks & watches sync via radio, but how much more useful would it be to have them sync to a networked calendaring system?

I can’t imagine what need a vacuum cleaner will have for the internet, but if my refrigerator could sense that we were almost out of milk, knew I (or could tell me that my wife) were near a grocery store, and could remind me to get milk & coffee creamer, that would be handy. Or if I could program in a set of dinners, net-enabled appliances could synchronize to a recipe database and remind me on my way home to pick up that evening’s ingredients.

As Bezos mentions, we are just at the beginning of this wave and we have much more innovation ahead of us than behind us. Social just happens to be one of the lowest hanging fruits…we’ve been starved for such frictionless interactions, we have always liked being able to chat with our friends and the Internet enables that cocktail-party atmosphere across vast distances and allows us to share our experiences from anywhere, at anytime, with anyone interested enough to comment. So while we can’t know where all this integration will lead us, we can know it will take a lot of work to get there. It won’t end with Social, but that is where it has begun. It is time to be excited and challenged, not pessimistic.

Though likely unprovable, so long as one’s beliefs aren’t used to harm others, there is no ill effect to believing in what you cannot understand. Furthermore, there is comfort and societal acceptance in the concept. The primary benefit of Agnosticism is thinking for one’s self, but that doesn’t require proof or disproof of a higher power.

You’re encouraged to “not think” while meditating, but that proves more difficult to do than say. How can we turn our mind off? Here’s one thing to try: Ask your brain to think without processing words, images, or symbols. It should quiet down naturally.

Why this might work: I suspect below the conscious level, our minds have lots of work to do, work that might get backlogged by our busying it with other thoughts that impede a calmer state of mind. In allowing awake time to work on these tasks, we can keep a cleaner, more organized mind that can more quickly and with more confidence, make important decisions and prioritize rationally.

The beauty of a mental model (as opposed to a physical, real one) is the speed with which they can be iterated and updated. Combined with the accuracy of the results, it leads to amazing progress in a short amount of time. If we assume the power of the human brain to predict based on past events to be our primary differentiator, then this ability alone explains how our accomplishments far outshine the rest of the living world. It’s an ability that has given us an evolutionary survival advantage. However, we need not believe that this development, any more than other amazing developments in nature (for example, the wing of a bird) reflects divine intervention (other than the establishment of evolution itself…but that truly is the subject of another post). Amazing, yes. God-like, maybe. Equal to God, doubtful.

So, in acknowledging and examining this amazing ability of humans to model reality, we must also accept that there are limits…and it is at these limits where misconceptions, and from the Buddhist viewpoint, suffering exists. These limits exist because despite all the trillions of possible states and billions of cells in our brains, it cannot possibly model all of reality and all of its states. There just isn’t enough physical space between our ears to enable this. Need a more concrete example? Accept for a moment that pain is an opinion. It is merely one of our mental models that exists to protect us from doing damage to ourselves. However, as a model, it doesn’t necessarily reflect the actual reality of physical damage. I’m not saying all pain is made up; no doubt, anyone with a serious injury will attest to the severe reality of that pain. But accept that the pain you feel, is the result of your brain interpreting nerve impulses resulting in the perception of the “real” event. But how can we be sure? Pain certainly feels very real and cannot be easily ignored like most opinions. Here’s one special case that is persuasive. Amputees have phantom pains and itches in limbs that no longer exist. This is the result of a mental model that hasn’t been updated. Reality demands that something not there cannot generate a physical sensation. Widening this viewpoint, it seems reasonable to believe that other similar misconceptions arise in our other mental models, leading to misunderstandings in our mind about the reality of the world around us.

That our brains aren’t capable of modeling the entire universe isn’t a fault. In fact, it’s proven to be an amazing advantage. In the battle for survival, tiny competitive advantages make for large gains. But our ability shouldn’t assume we cannot improve upon it. The limits of our cognitive powers are just a reality that should be acknowledged so that we don’t fool ourselves into thinking we know more than we are capable of.

Unless we diligently work to update, test, and remove misconceptions, our suffering will not abate. It’s been said that the power of Science is that it keeps us from fooling ourselves. Our brains are so powerful that plausible, but impossible models can be created by it (i.e. believing that heavier objects fall faster). Our salvation is the application of reality to test and refine our mental models and the increased accuracy of those predictions leads to lessened suffering. Thus, the relentless pursuit of reality in our mental models equals the pursuit of happiness.

One of the more unique qualities you and I share as humans, is the extent to which we can shape our environment. We don’t have to wait for a cave to vacate, we can gather enough materials to make our own home, or pay someone to do it for us. We don’t have to have wings, we can build an airplane. You get the idea.

In this way, it presents a bit of a struggle for me to know when to fight against what is the current reality and dream some of how I wish things to be rather than just accepting things the way they are. For example, the very device, network and other “magic” that allows you to be reading these very words right now didn’t just happen – many people struggled valiantly to make it all possible and work seamlessly together. But to the person 50 years ago to dream of such a day, it would have appeared as folly. Yet we wouldn’t be here with these tools and newfound abilities if they hadn’t started dreaming.

So, I’ll accept that there are things that we cannot change right now but I shall always struggle with what is not worth investing in changing. For while we all share the same current reality, we need not share the same future one.