Unpredictable Results

“Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” —Third Law of Arthur C. Clarke’s, inventor of the communication satellite1

Unexpected results from invisible reckoners are problems. Screens and other facsimiles appear to offer control. Exerting our will at devices, we turn knobs to summon volume, flip switches to silence warnings, mash buttons to receive soda. Everything works. When it doesn’t, we respond with frustration; we curse and prod the thing, demanding the response we expected.2

A complex system confronts us in defiance of our formative years.3 This machine does not follow logic. Our up is its down, and its square means sphere, but its circle means cube, and more somehow does less. While we glower nonplused at the damned device, some nerd laughs, “It’s not rocket science.” Derisively calls us “noob,” short for newbie, juvenile, child. Like children, we feel vulnerable, as if all the rules, if there are any rules, are unfamiliar.

They get it. Confidently, they stride over to do what we swear is exactly the same thing we just did. Delight! It doesn’t work for them either. It’s not us. We’re not stupid, and if we are stupid well then so is everyone else, just as lost as we are as to why it won’t do what by every reasonable observation it should certainly do. No one knows what’s happening.

Mutual Delivery

“Let's dance
Put on your red shoes and dance the blues
Let's dance”
—David Bowie

Gesture to play song. Actor pushes, control transmits, song plays—each denoted by its own noun and verb. Given you want this, when you do that, then each lines will have run into the next in cascading relationship until the song comes banging through the speakers in a story that ends with a sway.4

A milieu of unseen constraints and requirements have defined what’s possible here.5 The songs available, how much musicians are paid, if the machine is mechanical or if it has a touchscreen, and should the volume go to eleven, and who can get a buzz while listening, and how much of one they’ll have, all of this is significant.6 Each of the people involved—bar owner that installs a jukebox, patrons that jam coins, artists hoping for a little cash, record labels collecting—are stakeholders.7 This apparatus offers income to makers and escape to dancers. Dancers sway. Dancers watch the colors playing on the walls looking for a little escape because the same year Bowie sings “let’s sway while colors light up your face” the world is edgy. Sunlight nearly causes a war.

First it’s one orange blip. Then four. Then a cacophony of sirens and alarms bursts open, an orange sign flashes “START,” and in the blare everyone gazes at him. The early warning compute checks all thirty levels and confirms the highest probability to Lieutenant Colonel Petrov. As officer on duty, his orders are to inform his superiors the United States has fired on them. They will launch a counter-strike in the few minutes before the American bombs arch over the arctic and do to Moscow what has been done to Hiroshima and Nagasaki. He waits.

“As I was the first source of this information, the danger was that as soon as I made a decision that this rocket is real, the rest of the chain of command could have been hypnotized by my conclusions.” So, he waited.

Today, this edges on camp… really, nuclear war… silly, hyperbolic. Script to a kitsch military drama. Everything in that if-then-logic network—if they shoot, he sees, he tells us, we shoot, then cruel bombs crossing paths—went as designed. Petrov malfunctioned. By waiting for visual confirmation rather than immediately reporting to his superiors Petrov correctly estimated the system was wrong. He was summarily reprimanded.8

Those that designed that impossibly complex network of radars and missiles and tools for mutually assured destruction thought the world could be quantified. If enough information is gathered, then a perfect system is built. The world is safe in our scheme’s ascendancy. Subterfuge in the red shoes dances the blues.


“History doesn’t repeat itself but it often rhymes.” —American proverb9

A modest apartment on an upper floor designed to offer social distance between consumptive outings is the modern era’s bunker. News in the time of quarantine reports a shortage of yeast. Shelves are stocked with bread. Yeast, leavened bread’s foundation, is unavailable due to a run on stores that happened when the news broke that everyone would have to self-isolate for at least two weeks. With the mantra ‘stay home,’ the public hobby is creating the prime global food, dating back for millennia, as varied as each culture in which it is made.

Beginning with recipes passed between generations, they get at the word’s ancient Latin meaning: recipere, to receive. To activate a recipe is to receive its offering. These sets of instructions for how to survive—Latin root ‘vive,’ to live—have been recorded for their progeny, refined over the years, modified for different locals, changed for the weather. And now they, like yeast, offer a foundation to start anew.

Limited to our homes, we attempt new experiments, adventure through movies, bake varied bread, challenge ourselves to revive old talents. The ambitious write goals for themselves. If they work in software, these goals are called “features”—and everyone is confused because a feature sounds like a new setting on the coffeemaker that allows it to brew twice as much in half the time—in fancy list they call “backlogs” to further confusion.10 If you want to bake bread, you’ll need a backlog.11

The backlog is the universe in Carl Sagan’s “If you wish to make an apple pie from scratch, you must first invent the universe.” It is a list of small goals to accomplish. It is ambition written with structure. Written with willingness to change the ambition itself. It’s the foundation upon which the fire is built. With quantified time and a lists of objectives, the whole world is a kiln.

Mistakes that Make Themselves

“The Board recognizes that mistakes occur on spacecraft projects. However, sufficient processes are usually in place on projects to catch these mistakes before they become critical to mission success.” —Mars Climate Orbiter Mishap Investigation Board Phase I Report

“Mistakes were made” is one of the more cringe inducing vocalizations attributed to Richard Milhous Nixon. He said it repeatedly to reference the charges that forced him to resign. However, allusion without admission, particularly by elected officials, long predates Nixon. President Ulysses S. Grant wrote in his 1876 report to congress, “Mistakes have been made, as all can see and I admit it.” It’s endemic. Over a century later came NASA’s “The Board recognizes that mistakes occur on spacecraft projects.”

Admitting who made the mistakes is difficult. NASA was reluctant to confess even collective fault for their failure to convert metric to American standard units.12 The forty-four page Investigation Board Phase I Report mentions testing over twenty times—if only there had done more testing, and if only the testing had happened in a certain way. It seems the only thing more difficult than saying one has made a mistake is stopping one’s self from making them.13

The Americans were dealing with their own issues at the start of what become the race to out science the Soviets in a game of blind man’s bluff. The one Stanislav Petrov would find himself tagged “it” in thirty-six yeas later. On 26 September 1947, an unforeseen error in the U.S. Navy’s Harvard’s Mark II, a twenty-three calculator used for ballistics calculations, earned the term “bug” its place in tech parlance. Problems had been described as “bugs” for decades, but Rear Admiral Grace Hopper affixed the term, figuratively and literally, to computers when she taped a moth in her logbook with the entry: “15:45 Relay #70 Panel F (moth) in relay. First actual case of bug being found.” The warm machine was exactly the kind of snug environment attractive to moths, a quickly evolving creature that poetically might have a decent changes of surviving nuclear winter on humanity’s only habitable planet.


“Wonder if he'll ever know
He's in the best selling show
Is there life on Mars?”
—David Bowie

At the end of the 1990s, perplexed BBC journalist Jeremy Paxman converses with David Bowie. Paxman wants to discuss the Internet, which at the time is capitalized to indicate its radical divergence from private computer networks. No seemed to know what Internet is. Fewer than half of Americans have a computer at home. Bowie explains that he was attracted to being a musician because it is subversive, it can affect change; he says now “the Internet carries the flag of the subversives and possibly rebellious.” Paxman, thinking this is ludicrous, smirks.

Dressed in professional blazer, Paxman leers down with near-mocking credulity at the open-collared, purple-sunglass wearing Bowie. The claims must exaggerated, Paxman insists. It’s just a tool, the internet. It’s “simply a different delivery system.” Bowie passionately disagrees, “The interplay between the user and the provider will be so in simpatico it’s going to crash our ideas of what mediums are all about. It’s an alien life-form and it’s just landed here.”14

Investigating the consequences of human spaceflight to Mars, psychologists have written, “In the history of human beings, no one has ever been in a situation when Mother Earth, and all of her associated nurturing and comforting aspects… has been reduced to an insignificance in the sky…” Psychologists agonize over this, worrying that when one can longer orient one’s self with home, there will be a loss of reality, a decoupling of norms and values.

Hidden bits flip through circuits to represent our complications. We do not navigating systems so much as try to make sense in a world shaped by their results that feedback into themselves and into us, creating a strange loop where the difference between user and interface is no longer certain. As we sustain ourselves, beam ourselves along satellites and towers and cables, through systems we create yet cannot see, and doubt there is anywhere else we can be, it serves us to consider why we want to go.

footnotes | back to top

  1. Clark’s other two laws:
    1. When a distinguished but elderly scientist states that something is possible, he is almost certainly right. When he states that something is impossible, he is very probably wrong.
    2. The only way of discovering the limits of the possible is to venture a little way past them into the impossible.
  2. From the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission:
    In 1995, CPSC received reports of at least two consumers who died and one who was severely injured after the soda machines they were rocking fell on them. CPSC is aware of at least 37 deaths and 113 injuries since 1978 that have resulted from consumers rocking or tilting the machines in an attempt to obtain free soda or money.
  3. Merriam-Webster definition of system: a regularly interacting or interdependent group of items forming a unified whole. Systems are by no means limited to software. A 1968 essay by computer scientist Melvin Conway provides an excellent explanation:
    That kind of intellectual activity which creates a useful whole from its diverse parts may be called the design of a system. Whether the particular activity is the creation of specifications for a major weapon system, the formation of a recommendation to meet a social challenge, or the programming of a computer, the general activity is largely the same.
  4. Formally, a description of what the system should do, an attribute the system should have, is recorded in a user stories, written in natural language. Importantly, a user story does not describe how the story should be implemented. Rather, it says why.
  5. In the context of system design, a requirement is any attribute a system may have, regardless of if that attribute is implemented. Requirements define what the system does, not what it does not do. Constraints are limiting factors that cannot be changed in the system context.
  6. System context is the environment of the system, including: business documents, legal requirements, and other systems that influence the system. For example, a jukebox must be designed to work with the power supplied by the electrical outlet where it is installed. System context includes the people using the system. The *context boundary* defines what is in the system from what is not. Often it becomes possible to change something, shifting the context boundary.
  7. A stakeholder is anyone with an interest in the system and the project to create the system. This includes those with have an adverse interest, such as hackers. All stakeholders should be identified and considered.
  8. Petrov understood the system context better than the politicians who created the system and defied their business rules. A business rule is a formal directives that defines what can and cannot be done, what is true and false, about an organization.
  9. Scholars disagree on attribution to Mark Twain.
  10. Features are the goals to be accomplished by completing a group of requirements. “Bread” is not a feature. “Eat bread” is.
  11. The backlog is the document containing all the features decomposed into the requirements to be met to accomplish them. In 15th-century English, the backlog is the large log at the back of the fire on which other logs are stacked. Usage as “an accumulation of tasks” may trace to a ship’s backlog.
  12. This likely would have been noticed had user acceptance testing (UAT) been performed. UAT is the process of running the system on a real device for stakeholders. This allows for addressing bugs before the system is officially released (or launched, as it were).

    “UAT” is also used to refer to the UAT *environment*. In software development, there are typically at least four environments: development, where developers write code; testing, which is a copy of production, where quality analysts assess the new functions against the requirements used to write the code; UAT, also a copy of production, where the functions are tested by stakeholders; and production, the version released to the public.
  13. Testing is aided by *continuous delivery*: frequent deployments to a test environment before the code changes are merged into production where they affect the public.
  14. On 4 October 1999, with the release of his album “hours…” online, David Bowie became the first major label artist to release a complete album for download on the internet.