Monday, October 02, 2017


My poor old pickup, a Ranger S 1990, had a quirk.  Sometimes it wouldn’t start, often when I was in the parking lot of some big city.  If I could get it to roll, I could start it that way, but it always scared me to be stuck a hundred miles from home.  I replaced the battery.  That was a good thing to do since someone had sold me the wrong size, but it wasn’t the problem.  The best mechanic in Valier looked at the key mechanism, the starter system, etc. but he couldn’t even get the glitch to occur.  

Finally I thought, “when all else fails, read the directions.”  It turned out that the problem was in the pickup computer, which had given trouble when I first bought the vehicle.  But it was not a malfunction — it was a feature.  When the onboard computer is confused by unclear directions, it stops everything for thirty seconds.

When I’m coming back out of a big city big-box store, I’m often distracted and a little confused, likely to give the pickup contradictory or immediately cancelled orders, as when backing out of a tight spot.  “Go!  Wait!”  “Go!”

“In the summer of 2015, a pair of American security researchers, Charlie Miller and Chris Valasek, convinced that car manufacturers weren’t taking software flaws seriously enough, demonstrated that a 2014 Jeep Cherokee could be remotely controlled by hackers. They took advantage of the fact that the car’s entertainment system, which has a cellular connection (so that, for instance, you can start your car with your iPhone), was connected to more central systems, like the one that controls the windshield wipers, steering, acceleration, and brakes (so that, for instance, you can see guidelines on the rearview screen that respond as you turn the wheel). As proof of their attack, which they developed on nights and weekends, they hacked into Miller’s car while a journalist was driving it on the highway, and made it go haywire; the journalist, who knew what was coming, panicked when they cut the engines, forcing him to a slow crawl on a stretch of road with no shoulder to escape to.

“Although they didn’t actually create one, they showed that it was possible to write a clever piece of software, a “vehicle worm,” that would use the onboard computer of a hacked Jeep Cherokee to scan for and hack others; had they wanted to, they could have had simultaneous access to a nationwide fleet of vulnerable cars and SUVs. (There were at least five Fiat Chrysler models affected, including the Jeep Cherokee.) One day they could have told them all to, say, suddenly veer left or cut the engines at high speed.”

“We need to think about software differently,” Valasek told me. Car companies have long assembled their final product from parts made by hundreds of different suppliers. But where those parts were once purely mechanical, they now, as often as not, come with millions of lines of code. And while some of this code—for adaptive cruise control, for auto braking and lane assist—has indeed made cars safer (“The safety features on my Jeep have already saved me countless times,” says Miller), it has also created a level of complexity that is entirely new. And it has made possible a new kind of failure.”

“Halt and Catch Fire”  It was a thing that Toyotas did.  No one could figure it out until after years of study, it came down to one XO that was OX or … the opposite.

Even though I have no interest in the technical depths of using a computer to write — since I want all my energy focused on the ideas and words — there has begun to be a scary idea: that by now the technical drivers and deciders are so complex and powerful that we have lost control of them.  While we’ve been visualizing little tin robots taking over the world, it is invisible complexities that have been turning traffic light networks or airport landing protocols into something that does what it wants — not what is right or safe.  And cloaked messages basically elected our disfunctional president.

When I was working as a cashier for the City of Portland Bureau of Buildings Permit Center, an attempt was made to modernize our computer system by networking.  At the time we had to put every transaction through two free-standing machines, one for the permit and one for the money.  But the techie, who was not as smart as he thought he was but cheaper because he was in-house, had everything so confused that every transaction was in doubt.  We ended up with little piles of cash and checks, clipped or rubber-banded together with notes attached, sliding off the counter to the floor, getting mixed up, losing their notes.  Finally, we just marked everything we had that day paid in full.  Some people must have picked up a few hundred dollars, but they didn’t complain.

Clearly, computers don’t just do passive bookkeeping anymore.  Even “Halt and Catch Fire”, the TV series with its plot amounting to a history of computing, traces whole new paradigms emerging.  I’m now watching at the eBay stage.  They have not come to the recent problem of “spaghetti code” which is such a tangle of tiny X and O interactions, each of which has the potential of unraveling the whole intended action, that no one could fix it — not even another computer.

And all the time that things like a “vehicle worm” are developing, it’s imperceptible.  There’s no way to “see” that hostile nations are invading the country because there’s no physical object involved.  Now that we have realized that things are happening because of code, a complete reconfiguration of paradigms is needed.  But like the nutso coders of the series, who never consider consequences, everything is code, code, code.  No one goes outside the lines.

One of the most interesting figures working on all this is the speaker in this video: Bret Victor.  I don’t know whether any of the characters in the TV series are based on him, but he’s pretty intriguing.

Here’s an Atlantic article by James Somers:   “The Coming Software Apocalypse. .A small group of programmers wants to change how we code—before catastrophe strikes.”

And this article is about something I don’t understand at all.  Maybe you can get it.  I guess it’s for sale.

I’m not good at code or whatever this "scope" machine is.  So I’m going back to think about Bret Victor some more.  I have some psych theory about the space between people who are really attuned to each other that I think is relevant, though a techie probably never heard of it.  Think of two people having a quiet conversation in a parked car with rain pattering on the roof.  Maybe some place high with the lights of a night city in the distance.  A safe but visionary place.

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