Formerly Two Essays for All Humanity
The World of Madness is Round
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This is an Incomplete Rough Draft.
Writing this book will require a year at the very least.
I value any comments you may have; send them to:
swift@softwareproblem.org

Revelation

Jonathan Swift
swift@softwareproblem.net

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Not only was I desperate to get my phone to boot, I was frightened of the consequences that were certain to befall Dialectical Telecom as well as all my coworkers were I to fail in my mission. You see, software engineering is very serious work: if we shipped the new model even one week late, it could cost Dialectical Telecom millions of dollars. Worse, if we were late to market, a more-nimble competitor might get the drop on us, resulting in our product's utter and complete failure in the market.

While uncommon, there are many ways that just one single software bug could put even a large and highly regarded company as Dialectical Telecom completely out of business.

What made my bug so hard fix was not that there was some subtle edge case in the boot loader or the memory set up. It was a simple failure of perception, not my inability to see the bug with my eyes, but the inability of my mind to recognize what the bug really was. I had to go to Hell and back to get my phone to boot because I refused to recognize what should have been plainly apparent because it was right in front of my face the whole time.

A simple dumbshit mistake, I thought, finding myself overcome not only with a profound sadness, but with an aching loneliness of such a depth as I have never known. Even a child could have prevented it.

Even so, I knew not to feel too bad: the vast majority of bugs I have ever fixed, not just in my work here as a Cybernetic Entomologist, not just in my work as a Debug Meister at Apple, not only in my twenty-two year career of paid work as a software engineer, but also during all of my unpaid work for the many years I was a student before I took up my trade, were simple dumbshit mistakes of one kind of another.

That's why I find myself not only excited, not only privileged but actually honored when I find myself faced with a bug of any real subtlety.

NASA once lost a Mars lander from such a simple mistake, that any child could have prevented: while NASA wrote the specification for the lander's guidance software using Metric units - kilometres, kilograms and so on - the clueless government contractor hired to write the code implemented it all in British units - miles and pounds. NASA only realized the error of the contractor's ways as a result of the forensic investigation that NASA mounted of, not just the guidance software, but absolutely every aspect of the lander when, rather than descending safely to the Martian surface, it disappeared. Stopped phoning home. Fell right off the edge of the Earth.

I clicked the icon for Firefox at the top edge of my Ubuntu desktop. Once the window appeared, I selected the bookmark for our product's ClearCase bug database, typed "won't boot" into the search form, clicked the Search, then clicked the link for my bug's ticket on the resulting page.

Next to "State" I clicked to change the state from "Investigating" to "Fixed". Not "Closed" - a coder isn't permitted to close a bug that he himself has fixed. No, that would be done by the Quality Assurance engineer that verified my fixed, after our Configuration Management team had prepared a build from the source that included my fix then put the build out on the server for QA to pick up.

I knew better than to get a big head about my brilliant insight: it happens all the time that my fixes turned out not to actually be the correct fixes. Sometimes my fix is correct, but in fixing one bug, another that long lay dormant rears its ugly head. QA might set the state from "Fixed" not to "Closed" but back to "Investigating". A trap door would drop open in the floor beneath my chair, then it would be straight down to Hell again for me to start the debugging process all over again. It happens all the time. It can get old, it really can: a Cybernetic Entomologist's work is just like the Labor of Sisyphus.

Editorial Note: I'm wrong about Sisyphus' crime in the following paragraph, but correct about his fate. I'll revise it after I read up on Sisyphus some more.

You see, Sisyphus so angered the Greek Gods by giving fire to the mortals, that he was condemned to spend eternity by rolling a big rock up a steep hill. But when he finally got the rock all the way to the top of the hill, it rolled right back down to the bottom.

My entire twenty-two year career as a software engineer had been just like that.

I clicked my mouse into the Notes field, then rested my fingertips on my keyboard intending to write up my explanation of the bug's nature, yet I hesitated. I found myself strangely unable to find the right words.

I sat there for a little while, puzzled as to why it should be so difficult. The bug was so very simple and straightforward that I expected it wouldn't take more than one sentence, maybe two at the most to cover everything anyone would ever need to know about it. I set my hands back on the keyboard again, now knowing just what to say. Even more strangely, though I knew just what to write, I found myself unable to get my fingers to move.

I looked first at my right hand, then my left, back and forth for quite a long time. Finally I raised both my hands then held both hands with my palms before my eyes, studying them quietly. I then turned my palms away then studied the backs of my hands. Finally I lowered both hands gently and rested my palms on my thighs.

I sat in quiet contemplation, eyes open looking towards my display but not at it. I grew aware that they sky outside the window to my right grew lighter, until the Sun rose.

Srini came in - Srini is always the first in because he's such a lark. He started to greet me, then caught himself. He and I have been here before. He booted his own Xeon box, checked his email then after a few minutes brought up ClearCase himself to see what his own tickets for the day were. We both sat quietly, not speaking to each other, Srini now setting up the Android debugger so he could investigate the problem on his own prototype. I continued to sit in quiet contemplation.

After about an hour, Srini got up then without saying a word, walked behind me, around the end of the large table we all sat at - we were all together in a big conference room rather than the usual cubicles - and sat at Bill's workstation diagnonally opposite mine. Srini logged in, brought up a terminal, then typed sudo shutdown -r now to reboot the computer. After waiting to see that Ubuntu really did reboot, he returned to his own workstation to my right.

Bill works remotely from his home in Chicago, coming in over the Internet to work on the box that Srini just rebooted. Sometimes it gets hung up so he emails me to kick it for him. Bill must have tried to email me just now, but when I didn't respond, he emailed Srini instead.

Still I sat in quiet contemplation. Shafaq arrived, paused as he entered the door, looked quietly at me for a moment, then sat at his box directly opposite mine without saying a word.

The last of my colleagues finally arrived, then sat at his table at the edge of the room to my left. When Mahindra transferred to Paradise, there was no longer room at the conference table for him, so he got facilities to give him table of his own.

Still I sat in quiet contemplation.

Now, I know you might be surprised, but every single one of my colleagues in my office there in Paradise was a Cybernetic Entomologist himself. They have all been here before. If you think my methods are unconventional, you should see what their lot have to go through when their own phones won't boot.

Still I sat in quiet contemplation. The Sun rose high in the sky. Eventually the Board Support Team in the large room next to the MiB Team Office all arrived. The entire building became a hive of activity.

Still I sat in quiet contemplation.

The shadows grew long. Gradually the building became quieter as my coworkers left for the day. All my C.E. Team colleagues stayed into the evening, eventually leaving themselves. For the entire day, not one word had been spoken by any of us Cybernetic Entomologists. All the Board Support engineers eventually left too, all but one: James stayed until Midnight, working on a firmware problem with a JTAG debugger. Eventually, and again without saying a word, James left as well.

I saw a flashlight out in the BSP room - Thai on his rounds. He almost stepped into the C.E. Team room to chat, but then saw me sitting quietly. Thai gave me a sad smile, nodded his head then turned quietly, then turned and left.

Somewhere around four in the morning, the answer came to me. Not what to write in the ticket, but why I was finding it so hard to figure out what to say.

You see, software engineering is very serious work. It is plainly apparent to me that the problems of software quality are fundamentally human problems. Purely technical solutions fail to effect truly meaningful and lasting change. Every software problem could be solved if we all changed the way we think, the way we work, and the way we interact with each other.

That my phone wouldn't boot was not my problem and it never was. Neither was the coding error that led to the phone's failure to boot. In fact, the reason that Dialectical Telecom hired me to come work here as one of the Cybernetic Entomologists was not to fix the bugs in the company's mobile phone software. No. That was not the reason I was hired, it was never the reason I was hired by any of the shops I've worked for, nor will it ever be.

Not only has no Cybernetic Entomologist nor any Debug Meister ever lived or ever will live whose job was to fix programming errors, neither has any software engineer ever lived or ever will live whose job was to implement features. Neither has any Quality Assurance engineer ever lived or ever will live whose job was first to discover a bug, then after a patch was checked in, to verify that fix.

No.

None of us here at Dialectical Telecom are the least bit concerned about any kind of smartphone software nor have any of us ever been. No: what we seek is The Grail.

The Holy Grail.

The quest for The Grail began in the mid-nineteenth century when an opium trance revealed its existence to a British mechanical engineer named Charles Babbage. He set about building history's first computer, not an electronic one but a purely mechanical one, a wondrously complex device of whirling gears, spinning shafts and rocking levers. But Babbage's first computer fell far short of the development tool he required: the Difference Engine was not in any way programmable; it could not run any kind of software.

He abandoned his first effort completely, then after submitting a Want Ad to the Times of London's Classified Ads department, set about on his second: an even more wondrously complex device of even more whirling gears, spinning shafts and rocking levers: the Analytical Engine. A completely mechanical yet fully programmable computer.

When ten days passed with nary a resume in his mailbox, Babbage became concerned that he might be unable to staff his development team. It's not that way anymore, but back in those days, software engineering was not yet a popular profession.

He cried with joy when finally, two weeks after placing his ad, he found a letter in his mailbox. His heart racing, Babbage ripped it open then gazed with awe and with gratitude at the resume found within.

Ada Lovelace! Babbage could not believe his luck. There is absolutely no substitute, he thought, No substitute whatsoever for paying absolutely whatever it takes to hire the very best coders.

If a technology startup is to fail, he knew, it will be because it refuses - not that it is unable, but that it refuses - to invest in competent engineers.

She's not going to come cheap. Would I do well to seek investment?

Ada was not only the very best software engineer on the planet, she was the only one. Ada Lovelace was the first software engineer who ever lived, and it was Ada who wrote the very first computer program. After her interview, Babbage made a generous offer, she hired on then she wrote that first program for Babbage's Analytical Engine.

Tragically, their product never shipped, nor did Charles nor Ada ever get to see their program run. Because of the limited accuracy of the machine tools of the day, Babbage never got all the hardware bugs out of the Analytical Engine, so it was never able to run Ada's code without crashing.

While Charles and Ada rightfully assumed their place in the Pantheon of Computer Industry Gods, they finally faced reality and folded their operation, as it had been a complete and utter failure. Their historically unprecedented contribution to our industry was not any kind of computer, mechanical or otherwise. Neither was it any kind of software. It was the simple discovery that the The Grail existed and that one would do well to seek it.

Had they not got that far with their development work, the lot of us would still be naked savages, swinging from the trees.

The Holy Grail is but a simple, inexpensive Cup. It's not the Cup, but the Wine: the very Sweetest. It is composed not of fermented grapes, nor the Blood of the Lamb. To all but those with the most advanced training the Cup appears not just empty, but evacuated: the Cup appears so empty that it seems to contain not even air.

Memorial Wall in the Lobby of the CIA Headquarters

In Honor of Those Members
of the Central Intelligence Agency
Who Gave Their Lives in the Service of Their Country

From Amnesia to Amamnesis
Nicholas Dujmovic

The Wine is so sweet that not only is It devoid of mass, It is utterly and completely without any corporeal form. The Wine consists purely of Information; that's the whole reason there is even such a thing as the software industry, because software is concerned largely with the processing and manipulation of various kinds of information.

The Cup holds not just any information: the Information in the Grail is a very rare and precious kind of Information. What's more, it is Secret Information: the Information conveyed by the Cup is classified Top Secret ULTRA. Carved into the marble wall of the lobby of the Central Intelligence Agency headquarters in Arlington, Virgina just outside Washington, D.C. are five rows of stars.

Each star is a memorial to a CIA agent who gave his life in his own search for The Grail. All but a very few know not of their sacrifice. All but a very few don't even know their names. These men as well as, I expect, some women gave their lives far behind enemy lines, far out of reach of any hope that their countrymen could help were they to get into trouble. None of us know for sure that they actually died; they might be rotting away under solitary confinement in some Soviet prison. All we know is that they disappeared. Stopped phoning home. Fell right off the edge of the Earth.

Software engineering is very serious work: every single one of those men and every single one of those women kissed their loved ones in unconsollably tearful farewells knowing how unlikely it was that they would ever see them again. They set off on their missions deep behind enemy lines knowing full well not only that they were unlikely to succeed in their missions, but with the knowledge that failure would result in their own certain deaths.

Yet they did so not just without fear, but without any manner of hesitation because they knew just how valuable that Information really is. There is a War on you see. This War has raged from the very earliest moments of the Big Bang, when God Almighty Himself created the Universe. The War is fully expected to rage throughout Eternity, until the very End, a time so very far from the present that it is completely beyond the ability of any mere Mortal to even comprehend just how long it will be.

Software engineering is very serious work: the only hope of ever bringing this murderous and genocidal War to an end is that one somehow might obtain the Cup, drink of the Sweet Wine therein, then somehow find a way to decrypt Its deeply encoded Message.

But the War is fought not by Soldiers, by Commanders nor Generals. There are no tanks, no battlefields no guns and no bullets. There is no draft, but both armies have no trouble whatsoever meeting their recruitment quotas. The concept of consciencious objection does not even exist in this War. One cannot hope but to enlist, because the reason every single one of us Mortals that has ever been put on this Earth or that ever will be put on this Earth was put here was for or will be the sole and the solitary purpose of killing or being killed. Our Basic Training starts that instant during the night of our parent's passion when our father's seed finds purchase in our mother's field. No one ever comes home alive because not only are there no wounded, there are no survivors of any kind. There never have been, nor will there ever be. Absolutely every single one of us has no hope whatsoever but to give our lives in service to our country. Our service ends when we hear not the bullet that kills us.

The War is between Good and Evil.

The Nation of Good's Commander in Chief lives high above in Heaven: while commonly known as G-d Almighty, as well as The G-d of Abraham, and by our troops in the Middle East as Allah, for reasons I have never been fully able to understand, no one actually knows His real name. In fact, The True Name of G-d is classified Top Secret Ultra. The Commander of the Army of the South is known as the Holy Spirit; the Army of the North is led by Jesus Christ.

Far below, the Armed Forces of the Empire of Evil is headquartered in the Seventh Level of Hell. Evil's Commander in Chief is known as Lucifer, who was at one time a Commanding General in the Heavenly Armed Forces until he accepted a bribe for the low, low price of thirty silver pieces, thereby betraying every single one of his countrymen. The instant of Lucifer's fall from Heaven was when the War began; the Big Bang was the muzzle flash of the shot Lucifer fired to take out a certain member of the nobility. It is not quite right to say that Lucifer was bribed; instead he was a hired assassin; the Angel who Lucifer was paid to take down was forgetten for an entire eternity after he lost his life, but became well known after he was returned to the Material Plane through his reincarnation. You might know the Mortal name of this Angel: Archduke Ferdinand.

But the Information in the Cup would not by any means allow Good to triumph over Evil. The best the Wine can give us is a peace treaty. But it would not only be a lasting peace, this peace is absolutely the best that any of us could ever hope for. Not only would all of the Doughboys of Good and all of the Infantrymen of Evil lay down our arms, but we would would all rise from our respective trenches, each taking with us our ration of bread and a small bottle of wine, that we might break bread with the men and the women that had been but seconds before our sworn and most bitter enemies.

While the transformation between Universal War and Eternal Peace will take but seconds, the negotiations over the terms of the treaty will be so intractably complex as to be completely beyond the ability of even God Almighty Himself to negotiate. Therefore a disarmament specialist will be brought in, a certain well-known Indian prince whose education and training in conflict resolution took much the same route as my own education and training in software engineering.

Perhaps you have heard of him: His name is Siddhartha Gautama. But His real name is largely unknown among those who don't practice Gautama's trade themselves. After His Graduation and upon His completion of Basic Training, Siddhartha was given what most people think is a name but is in reality a job title: Buddha.

Insight.

Because its message is so powerfully compressed and so deeply encrypted, The Holy Grail possesses but one bit of Information, and that Information is known as Insight. Insight is the Killer App not only of the entire Universe, but also of all Eternity as well. Find some way to ship that product, then within nanoseconds of your Insight title hitting the download sites even Bill Gates himself would find himself unqualified to tie your shoes.

More Coming Soon

[ Next | Previous | Contents | The Call of Duty | The Enemy Within ]
The World of Madness is Round
Formerly Two Essays for All Humanity