What shall I talk about now? Families?

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I thought that this week’s subject might be politics, but I decided to check if I had already selected politics as a topic to talk about. So I searched my posts for the word “politics” and lo and behold, I had addressed it, along with the Trump phenomenon just over a month ago.

I hope to produce something original, at least, original to me, in each post that I make. Clearly, there are topics that I return to time and time again. That’s very depressing! So I won’t be talking about politicians and why they are one of the least trusted professions, and I am going to talk about some aspects of society and how we as humans manage it.

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That sounds more high brow that it will no doubt turn out to be, and I’m not even going to bother to check if I’ve addressed it before!

The very basic societal unit is the couple, I’d say. Very few people go through life as a singleton, even the most anti-social of us. The bond between a couple is often lifelong, though breakups happen often enough that we are totally disbelieving when a couple does split.

Public art: anachronistic 1950s nuclear family...
Public art: anachronistic 1950s nuclear family plus lovable pooch in Edinburg/Scotland (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Stable and possibly lifelong couple are recognised by the state of matrimony. This not only recognises the bond between the couple, but adds a layer of legalisation to the state. Married couples may share possessions equally or one, usually the male in a two sex couple, may control their joint assets.

The female in a two sex relationship may have less say in the control of the joint assets, and in return will be provided with protection and can expect that any children would also inherit that protection.

English: Hindu marriage ceremony from a Rajput...
English: Hindu marriage ceremony from a Rajput wedding. ‪Norsk (nynorsk)‬: Rajput-par i ein hinduistisk vigsel. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Today, in most societies, assets are under the joint control of both partners in a couple, both may bear some responsibility for bringing an income into the partnership and both are responsible for the care and protection of any children.

In spite of the more equal status of two partners in a couple these days, it is evident that full equality has not been achieved. While there is room to move in the direction of complete equality, the fact that the female has to bear the children, seems to imply that full equality is not physically possible.

Family (mother, father, son, daughter)
Family (mother, father, son, daughter) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Obviously I’m referring to heterosexual couples above. Bonds between same sex partners have only relatively recently started to be recognised in our society and others. Since the partners start off more equal, one would assume that complete equality between the partners would be easier, but I think that roles would be assigned unequally in practise – one partner does the cooking, the other the cleaning. One may control the purse strings while the other does the actual shopping!

The arrival of a child alters the dynamics of the couple, and the three form the basis of a family. Of course the couple reside in a familial soup of siblings, parents, grandparents, cousins and so on, but the inter-familial bonds are a lot stronger than these looser ones.

English: Jiang Qing, Mao Zedong with extended ...
English: Jiang Qing, Mao Zedong with extended family. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

That brings up another point about familial bonds – they change and weaken over time. A baby is completely dependant on his/her parents, a toddler less so. A teenager even less, and a mature child may have only a remote relationship with its parents.

When a couple gets married, there is an implicit “hands off” warning to others. This warning can be ignore, and may result in a catastrophic break up of the couple. In the past this was frowned upon by the establishment, usually the local religious hierarchy, but these days things are a lot less strict.

English: Old marriage at Plac Kaszubski in Gdy...
English: Old marriage at Plac Kaszubski in Gdynia. Polski: Rzeźba przedstawiająca starsze małżeństwo na Placu Kaszubskim w Gdyni. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

While the strongest bonds are between the couple and their children, the other familial bonds are fairly strong too. Your parents don’t stop being your parents because you have moved away and are married to someone not part of the wider family.

There are other groups, like neighbourhoods, and even nations that everyone is part of. A person may profess membership or belief in a religion. One might take part in a sport and become a member of a team. One may be part of a group where one works, and such a group may be a part of a hierarchy at work, which is part of an industry, which makes up a significant sector of a country.

Strathcona neighbourhood
Strathcona neighbourhood (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The nuclear family, father, mother, and any kids, is often seen these days as the foundation of society,  which it is, and as the smallest functionally and financially viable unit of society. This latter is much more debatable. While such families have been around for a long time, it is only relatively recently that nuclear families have been able to operate as independent units.

In many countries and societies the nuclear family exists and operates within an extended family group. On a farm, several generations may have lived and often still do live in close quarters and may even live within a single large dwelling house. This has obvious advantages as aunties and grannies can share cooking, cleaning and babysitting chores, freeing up the parents for other jobs.

English: Family portrait taken in front of the...
English: Family portrait taken in front of the family home at Gayndah, Queensland, 1890s Portrait of an unidentified family in the Gayndah district, ca. 1890s. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The rise of the nuclear family as an independent unit can be attributed to the industrial revolution. The industrial revolution provided jobs outside the family business, it produced enough financial surplus to fund the provision of single family houses, and it spurred the transport revolution which allowed people to move from the countryside to the cities.

Transport and communications has enabled people to live in small family units, while still maintaining a slightly looser connection to other family members. Family members may live on opposite sides of the globe and still be in frequent contact with each other. We have lost the intimacy of having several generations and branches of a family being in constant physical contact, but we have the consolation of the looser electronic communication.

Highways in the USA circa 1825
Highways in the USA circa 1825 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In days past, even just over a century ago, emigrating to a new country thousands of miles away would mean only the possibility of sporadic contact with family members via letters carried over unreliable routes, but these days we can email from one side of the globe to the other and remain in contact with family thousands of miles away.

Contacts–from-email–scree (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Is the Brain a Computer?

English: a human brain in a jar
English: a human brain in a jar (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I’ve just read an interesting article by Robert Epstein which tries to debunk the idea that the brain is a computer. His main thrust seems to be that the idea that the brain is a computer is just a metaphor, which it is. Metaphors however are extremely useful devices that use similarities between different systems to perhaps understand the least understood of the two systems.

Epstein points out that we have used several metaphors to try to understand the mind and the brain, depending on the current state of human knowledge (such as the hydraulic metaphor). This is true, but each metaphor is more accurate than the last. The computer model may well be the most accurate yet.

Cork in a hydraulic ram
Cork in a hydraulic ram (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The computer model may well be all that we need to use to explain the operation of the brain and mind with very high accuracy. Brain and mind research may eventually inform the computer or information technology.

It is evident that Epstein bases his exposition on a partially understood model of computing – for instance it appears that he thinks that data is stored in a more or less permanent fashion in a computer. He says:

The idea, advanced by several scientists, that specific memories are somehow stored in individual neurons is preposterous; if anything, that assertion just pushes the problem of memory to an even more challenging level: how and where, after all, is the memory stored in the cell?

This describes one particular method of storing data only. It sort of equates with the way that data is stored on a hard disk. On a disk, a magnetic bit of the disk is flipped into a particular configuration which is permanent. However, in the memory of a computer, the RAM, the data is not permanent and will disappear when the computer is switched off. In fact the data has to be refreshed on every cycle of the computer’s timer. RAM is therefore called volatile memory.

English: Several PATA hard disk drives.
English: Several PATA hard disk drives. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In the early days of computing, data was stored in “delay line memory“. This is a type of memory which needs to be refreshed to preserve information contained in it. Essentially data is fed in and read out of a pipeline simultaneously, the read out being fed back to input again to complete the cycle and maintain the memory.

I expect that something similar may be happening in the brain when remembering something. It does mean that a memory may well be distributed throughout the brain at any one time. There is evidence that memory fades over time, and this could be related to an imperfect refresh process.

Schematic diagram of a delay locked loop (DLL)
Schematic diagram of a delay locked loop (DLL) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Epstein also has issues with the imperfect recall that we have of real life objects (and presumably events). He cites the recall of a dollar bill as an example. The version of the bill that people drew from memory was very simplified as compared to the version that they merely copied.

All that this really demonstrates is that when we remember things a lot of the information about the object is not stored and is lost. Similarly, when an image of the dollar bill is stored in a computer, information is lost. When it is restored to a computer screen it is not exactly the same as thing that is imaged. It is not the same as the image as stored in the computer.

Newfoundland 2 dollar bill
Newfoundland 2 dollar bill (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

It’s worth noting the image file in a computer is not the same as the real thing that it is an image of, as it is just a digitisation of the real thing as captured by the camera that created the image.

The image on the screen is not the same as either the original or the image in the computer, but the same is true of the image that the mind sees. It is digitised by the eye’s rods and cones and converted to an image in the brain.

English: Stylized idea of the communication be...
English: Stylized idea of the communication between the eye and the brain. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

This digitised copy is what is recalled to the mind’s eye when we remember of recall it. The remembered copy of the original is therefore an interpretation of a digitised version of the original and therefore has lost information.

Just as the memory in our minds is imperfect, so is the image in the computer. Firstly the image in the computer is digital. The original object is continuous. Secondly, the resolution of the computer image has a certain resolution, say 1024 x 768, and some details in the original object will inevitably be lost. More details are lost with a lower resolution.

Computer monitor screen image simulated
Computer monitor screen image simulated (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In addition the resolution of the image stored in the computer may not match the capabilities of the screen on which it is displayed and may need to be interpolated which produces another error. In the example of the dollar bill, the “resolution” in the mind is remarkably small and the “interpolation” onto the whiteboard is very imperfect.

Epstein also assumes a particular architecture of a computer which may be superseded quite soon in the future. In particular in a computer there is one timing circuit, a clock, that all other parts of the computer rely on. It is so important that the speed of a computer is related to the speed of this clock.

Clock signal + legend
Clock signal + legend (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

It may be that the brain may operate more like a network, where each part of the network keeps its own time and synchronisation is performed by a message based scheme. Or the parts of the brain may cooperate by some means that we don’t currently understand. I’m sure that the parts of the brain do cooperate and that we will eventually discover how it does it.

Epstein points out that babies appear to come with built in abilities to do such things as recognise faces, to have certain reflexes and so on. He doesn’t appear to know that computers also have built in certain basic abilities without which they would be useless hunks of silicon and metal.

An American Megatrends BIOS registering the “I...
An American Megatrends BIOS registering the “Intel CPU uCode Error” while doing POST, most likely a problem with the POST. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

When you switch on a computer all it can do is read a disk and write data to RAM memory. That is all. When it has done this is gives control to program in RAM which, as a second stage, loads more information from the disk.

It may at this stage seek more information from the world around it by writing to the screen using a program loaded in the second stage and reading input from the keyboard or mouse, again using a program loaded in the second stage. Finally it gives control to the user via the programs loaded in the second stage. This process is called “bootstrapping” and relies on the simple hard coded abilities of the computer.

English: grub boot menu Nederlands: grub boot menu
English: grub boot menu Nederlands: grub boot menu (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

But humans learn and computers don’t. Isn’t that right? No, not exactly. A human brain learns by changing itself depending on what happens in the world outside itself. So do computers!

Say we have a bug in a computer program. This information is fed to the outside world and eventually the bug gets fixed and is manually or automatically downloaded and installed and the computer “learns” to avoid the bug.

Learning Organism
Learning Organism (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

It may be possible in the future for malfunction computer programs to update themselves automatically if made aware of the issue by the user just as a baby learns that poking Mum in the eye is an error, as Mum says “Ouch!” and backs off a little.

All in all, I believe that the computer analogy is a very good one and there is no good reason to toss it aside, especially if, as in Epstein’s article, there appears to be no concrete suggestion for a replacement for it. On the contrary, as knowledge of the brain grows, I will expect us to find more and more ways in which the brain resembles a computer and that possibly as a result, computers will become more and more like brains.

Brain 1
Brain 1 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)



A woman searches for inspiration, in this 1898...
A woman searches for inspiration, in this 1898 painting by William-Adolphe Bouguereau. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In Terry Pratchett’s series of Discworld books, one of the characters, Hwel, a dwarf, is a playwright, and writes plays which are obvious references to Shakespeare’s plays. Indeed some of the books themselves have themes based around Shakespeare’s plays.

Hwel is tormented by inspiration. He is a dwarf, and therefore by heredity a dour reclusive and unimaginative entity, but because of his mind is full of myriads of ideas, he is compelled to travel among humans and write his plays.

The witches (Jennifer Hunt, Suzanne Curtis, an...
The witches (Jennifer Hunt, Suzanne Curtis, and Sonja Lanzener) surround Macbeth (Remi Sandri) in this 2004 Alabama Shakespeare Festival production of the Shakespear masterpiece. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

These ideas sleet through the Discworld universe impinging on and inflaming his dwarf brain. Hwel is also tormented by vivid dreams, which he then struggles to put down on paper. He is always dissatisfied with the result and is constantly revising and rewriting his plays.

Hwel is an excellent example of an inspired individual. His character is obviously a reference to Shakespeare, and many of his traits, such as his dissatisfaction with his inability to capture his ideas and concepts on paper, are traits found in many inspired individuals.

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Pratchett leaves the question of the source inspiration open. As above, they sleet through the Discworld universe impinging on the brains of all, especially those like Hwel, like neutrinos sleet through the material universe, only rarely interacting with other matter.

Everyone has ideas. Inspiration is a sort of high grade idea that has the wow factor and it is likely that simple ideas and inspiration have the same source. It is also obvious that ideas and inspiration actually spring from inside us, from inside our minds.

Inspiration (sculpture)
Inspiration (sculpture) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

There is probably not a particular part of the brain where ideas arise and inspiration is found, though some brain injuries result in people being unable to act voluntarily, these people however responding to instruction. (Caveat emptor: I’ve not been able to find an example of this on Google)

Inspiration seems to happen more frequently when a person is forced or required to look at a problem or issue from a different point of view, or when novel ideas are considered in conjunction with one another.

Think outside the box
Think outside the box (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

As I sit here, wondering what I should type next, I am looking for inspiration to come to me. In my mind I consider a number of possibilities, which run through my mind one after another, quite quickly. Some seem to be more attractive than others and the rejects seem to fade or drop back into the background.

So, it turns out that I decided to write about what goes on in my head when I get an idea. I can only assume that similar happens to others when the undertake a similar activity like writing a blog, or a novel, or even a letter to a friend.

Thoughts in the Night, Dreams During the Day
Thoughts in the Night, Dreams During the Day (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Often, I find, one idea leads clearly and obviously to another. I write one sentence and soon find I’ve written a paragraph or two, and then I pause for thought and the process repeats. Eventually I end up with the full completed letter or blog post or whatever.

Inspiration is thinking outside the box. Terry Pratchett once said “I’ll be more enthusiastic about encouraging thinking outside the box when there’s evidence of any thinking going on inside it”. That’s true indeed, but the point of the “thinking outside the box” idea is to encourage people to discard conventional thinking and think in an unconventional manner. That’s easier said than done.

Schroedinger's Cat
Schroedinger’s Cat (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

One way is to take conventional thinking and analyse it into facets or factors, and discard or reverse one of them. In a scientific but probabilistic setting, such as that of Schroedinger’s cat thought experiment, conventional thinking is that the cat must be either alive or dead. Thinking outside the box leads many people to consider that the cat is both alive and dead.

Some people seem to have success in deriving inspiration from a mind map or even a list of words. Some people have been known to use drugs or meditation to aid inspiration. It seems that the human mind is conservative and conventional in the most part, and that inspiration, when it doesn’t come freely, can be aided by persuading it to be more adventurous.

example mind map with Mapul
example mind map with Mapul (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Meditation and mind maps or whatever tool is used to free the mind for inspirational thinking may be necessary in some cases, but in many others inspiration comes without the need for such things. Some people, like the dwarf Hwel above can’t help being inspired and this, as in Hwel’s case, is not necessarily a comfortable feeling.

Inspiration come in small chunks, such as the decision to drop all plans and do something different from usual or huge blocks, such as Hwel’s and Shakespeare’s plays. As I said above, it does some to vary from person to person, and possibly from time to time. For instance, if I’ve done the same thing 20 to 30 times recently, I may be inspired to do something different, for a change.

weather symbol
weather symbol (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

If you search on Google for “inspirational” you will find that many of the search results are for “inspirational quotes”. Most of these are in fact trite homilies, intended to list the spirits of those who need it, exhortations to remember and to treat friends and families well, and similar.

They are not inspirational in the sense that I have been using the word above. Nevertheless, the sheer number of such quotes appears to indicate that some people feel the need to post them in the hope that they will help others. Whether or not they actually help others is something that it would be hard to gauge. I sometimes wonder if only the people creating and posting these posts get any benefit from them.

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Some people are inspirational in that they persuade people to do things that they would otherwise not do. This could be good (Mahatma Gandhi) or bad (Adolf Hitler). A truly inspirational leader can change the world.

Inspirational leaders can be bad because their rhetoric and behaviours can override the sensibilities and consciences of their followers, which is particularly true of Hitler. Even the followers of good leaders can do evil at times, instituting pograms and wars against followers of other religions.

English: journey of people's crusade
English: journey of people’s crusade (Photo credit: Wikipedia)


Would you Adam and Eve it?

A fig tree in Autumn colours. Willowbank Reserve, Tawa, New Zealand

I’ve been re-reading the story of Adam and Eve in the Bible and I believe that Eve has been given a raw deal! Nowhere in the Bible does God forbid Eve from eating fruit from the tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil. Eve had not been created when Adam was given the prohibition!

Secondly, before Eve ate from the tree, she would not have known that it was wrong, as she would as yet have no idea of right or wrong. She would not have known that what she was doing was evil.

English: Adam and Eve are being sent out of th...
English: Adam and Eve are being sent out of the garden of Eden Русский: Адам и Ева изгоняются из Эдемского сада (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Thirdly, why did God put the tree there at all? He had no need of it? The Garden of Eden was put there for Adam’s use, with two trees in the centre which Adam was told not to touch. What did God think was going to happen, given that both Adam and Eve were innocents and didn’t know Good and Evil?

And the serpent, described as “crafty” in the New International Version of the Bible. Its intent was obviously not good. Had it already tasted the fruit from the tree? Poor is loaded with the burden of the Original Sin and it should probably have been just the serpent that got the boot from the Garden of Eden with all his offspring.

Anglo-Catalan Psalter or The Great Canterbury ...
Anglo-Catalan Psalter or The Great Canterbury Psalter, folio 1 recto: Genesis (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

While the Bible cannot literally be true, given that we appear to live in a deterministic scientifically describable Universe, and the events in the Bible, the miracles, seem to be both non-deterministic and scientifically highly improbable, we can use examples from the Bible to investigate moral and ethical matters.

The Bible story is an early attempt to investigate moral concepts. A mountain exploding is neither good nor evil, but if we tell a little story about the original people and how they came to know good and evil we can begin to get some idea of the concepts.

English: Bible of Lilienfeld
English: Bible of Lilienfeld (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

According to the story God is responsible for the whole shebang. Why on earth did he introduce good and evil into the world? For that matter, what are good and evil?

In the story the Original Sin was Eve doing something that a higher authority (the Highest Authority!) told Adam, and by extension Eve, not to do. This then opened a Pandora’s Box of things good and evil, like not romping around with no clothes on.

Philosophers note that this does not actually answer the question of where good and evil, bad and good, arise from. It doesn’t answer the questions of what exactly good and evil are and why they exist in the first place. The Universe would no doubt be a less interesting place without the concepts.

While good and bad are similar to good and evil, there are differences and the word “good” is used in a different sense in the two pairs of concepts. A good harvest means a plentiful one and there is no moral aspect to it (except possibly if it is a reward for serious toil), whereas giving part of the harvest to someone in need is a good deed and is good in a moral sense.

Charity (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Similarly a bad harvest is a light one, and again has no moral aspect to it, but refusing to spare a part of the harvest with those in need or stealing the harvest of someone else is morally bad thing to do. It is an evil act.

So, Eve was set up. She had no concept of good and evil, she was persuaded by the serpent who it appears might have already sampled the fruit, and God had placed the trees in the Garden of Eden to tempt her, and for her to be the channel by which good and evil entered the world.

English: Bronnbach Abbey. Choir stalls by Dani...
English: Bronnbach Abbey. Choir stalls by Daniel Aschauer (1778): Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil Deutsch: Kloster Bronnbach. Chorgestühl von Daniel Aschauer (1778): Baum der Erkenntnis (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The end result, apart from the expulsion, was the question of what was allowed and what was not. Obviously, doing what you are told by authority is high on the list, as is walking around with no clothes on.

Theologians of all religions have spent a great deal of time and effort deciding what is good and what is bad. Much of the thinking is encapsulated in the “Ten Commandments” (in Judaism, Christianity and Islam at least), and Jesus’ First Amendment to love others as one loves oneself.

The place of Ten Commandment made from Murano ...
The place of Ten Commandment made from Murano glass at Kedumim Synagogue SHetibe, up from the stand. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Other attempts to codify the concept of good and evil have been attempted over time. One such is the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, as advocated by Eleanor Roosevelt. This document is good in its intent, but lacking in its understanding of the realities of life. For example, during a war many of the so-called “Human Rights” may need to be abrogated.

For instance, an individual should never undergo torture. However, what if torturing one individual one can save millions of others? I don’t answer this question – I merely pose it. Indeed did God breach the Human Rights of Adam and Eve by evicting them from their home in the Garden of Eden, perhaps?

Adam and Eve ( )
Adam and Eve ( ) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Arguments like this abound – is it acceptable to transport a man to “the colonies” for stealing a loaf of bread? What if he did it, not for himself, but for his family? The law, which is at its base a codification of good and evil, said at the time that this was acceptable, and indeed necessary, but today it seems barbaric. Morals seem to be mutable.

Poor old Eve gets the blame for everything. Literally everything. For pain, childbirth, and the whole Human Being thing, not to mention venomous snakes. Snakes may, if they were conscious beings might consider themselves hard done by, because after all, if God had not put the tempting tree there would have been no problem.

Red milk snake (Lampropeltis triangulum syspil...
Red milk snake (Lampropeltis triangulum syspila) User licence kindly provided to Wikipedia under the GFDL by photographer: Mike Pingleton Mike’s page (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

What about all those fleas and mosquitoes too? They have probably killed more people than snakes ever have. Maybe it wasn’t the serpent’s argument that persuaded Eve. Maybe it was a mosquito whispering in her ear that tipped the tables.

It’s a great story, a story of innocence lost. It conveniently encapsulates a reason for good and evil, and accounts for the fact that humans have to toil for a living, either by tilling a field and fighting weeds and thorns, pest and crop diseases, or by piloting a desk in a modern city.

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But it is unfair that Eve gets all the blame. If Eve were being tried in a court of law, I’d believe that she would have a good case, being set up by God and beguiled by His servant the serpent, all when Eve was in a state of innocence, not knowing at the time that what she was doing was wrong. Yes, I reckon she’d be let off with a caution.

Depiction of Adam and Eve being cast out from ...
Depiction of Adam and Eve being cast out from the Garden of Eden in the Dispersed Falnama (Photo credit: Wikipedia)




English: Upgrading Menu
English: Upgrading Menu (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I’m a little late with this post because of an issue with my computer. An upgrade resulted in me not being able to send and receive emails. While this is partially fixed I still have work to do.

I’ve been in the business for decades so I’m acutely aware of how things can go wrong in an upgrade. Sensible systems administrators take backups, plan out the upgrade in as much detail as they can and probably spend more time getting ready than in actually performing the upgrade.

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This pays huge dividends, but still, not infrequently, things can go wrong. The wrongness can be major, with a totally destroyed system, or minor, as in niggling irritations like something behaving slightly differently after the upgrade.

Computer firms and software suppliers often make huge efforts to make an upgrade work easily and cleanly, and many have put in place systems to make it easier to upgrade their software or back it out if something goes awry.

Microsoft Windows wordmark
Microsoft Windows wordmark (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

There are various levels of upgrade – a small part of a program may need to be upgraded, or the whole program may need to be upgraded, or indeed the whole operating system, Windows or what have you, may need to be upgraded.

In the early days of computer systems upgrading would mean downloading some source code or source code changes called “patches”, making changes to the existing source code, compiling it and then installing it into a particular location on the computer.

English: C++ source code for an (unfinished) p...
English: C++ source code for an (unfinished) program, shown in the geany editor, screen shot Svenska: Källkod (c++) för ett ofärdigt program visad i geany (textredigerare), skärmbild (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The technical terms don’t matter too much. I just want to convey how complex and manual the process was. That is fertile ground for errors to creep in. You download a bunch of code, trusting that it will work and fix some problems, some of which you may not even be aware of, and then transfer them to the existing source code.

You may mistype something, or mistakenly overwrite something in the existing source, feed the new code into the compiler, and out pops a new program, which you then transfer into the correct location and cross your fingers and test.

English: Works Records System - schematic
English: Works Records System – schematic (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Incidentally a compiler is also a program and as such it has bugs which need to be fixed. What if you update or patch the compiler and it breaks? You can’t remove patch and re-compile as you just broke the compiler!

The solution is to reinstall the original compiler that came from the supplier, and potentially patch that to the point before you broke it. Or, if you a sensible system administrator, you restore the original compiler from the backup that you took before the upgrade. Either solution is tedious and frustrating.

Administrator interface in WordPress blog system
Administrator interface in WordPress blog system (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Operating systems are the biggest upgrades that can be done. They are also the most dangerous because they are big and complex, which multiplies the chances of hitting problems or ending up with a system that doesn’t work.

Operating systems upgrades used to come as a magnetic tape or two, and a small book or manual of instructions. IBM for instance used to supply several books of instructions, hints, cross references, dependency lists and so on for each major upgrade. The necessary books for looking after IBM mainframes amounted to a library and that was what it was called.

Reel of 1/2" tape showing beginning-of-ta...
Reel of 1/2″ tape showing beginning-of-tape reflective marker. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

IBM and others quickly realised that something needed to be done to help the system administrators to install, maintain and operate their big computer systems. Otherwise people would end up with unusable systems, and IBM would have to spend time and money helping them fix them up.

So the concept of a package was conceived and from very early in computing history, everything was supplied to the customer as a package from the actual operating system down to the programs that ran the printers.

English: The Siemens SIMATIC S7 SATEP 7 V5.4 S...
English: The Siemens SIMATIC S7 SATEP 7 V5.4 Software Package. Deutsch: Das Siemens SIMATIC S7 SATEP 7 V5.4 Software Paket. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

A package was a cluster of programs that provided some feature or facility on the computer. Packages requisites and dependencies on other program – it would be no use installing a package that needs stuff printed, like an accounting package, if there was no printing package already installed.

Computer manufacturers also moved away from providing source code to customers. They supplied, for example, a printer driver or a compiler in binary, ready to run, form, so that the program binary could be simply dropped in place and it would run right away.

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I’m simplifying a little, as there were other program chunks that, while they weren’t compilable source code, could not be run as supplied and which had to be intimately connected to other program chunks to produce a runnable program.

Nowadays the average user, professional or home, of the Windows operating system has never seen source code. All updates through Windows Update, and programs like browsers, games, utilities and other programs, are binary distributions, binary packages that the operating system installs for you. The Windows operating system doesn’t even provide a compiler.

A Nuon DVD player with a video game controller
A Nuon DVD player with a video game controller (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

This whole distribution system for programs and updates requires very rigid interfaces between the bits of the operating system itself and other programs which are not part of the operating system, and this is, when you know what is going on in the background, truly amazing.

Indeed, a Brazilian Windows systems operator can confidently install a program on his computer, which communicates with him in Portuguese, and so can a Windows systems operator in Finland or even Japan. All can expect that the program will work almost perfectly on all these diverse systems.

中文: (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

It’s slightly more blurry in the Unix/Linux world. There the operator or maintainer is given an option – use packages similar to those used with Windows or use source code. Many Unix/Linux users these days will never have knowingly compiled source code packages, though sometimes the package maintenance system may compile code for them. However this is rare.

Some Unix/Linux users however like to compile some things for themselves, so that they can get the very latest versions of things, and some even compile their whole systems from the ground up though this is rare.

Diagram of Monolithic kernels
Diagram of Monolithic kernels (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

So when you complain about your Windows system installing updates when you shut it down, reflect that things could be worse – you could have needed to compile them yourself.

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