Monthly Archives: September 2011

Religion, Science, and Hail

hail guns, circa 1890

In ancient times, the people of the busy town of Cleonae (near Corinth) had special watchers, appointed for and paid for by the state, who stayed vigilant at all times: the hail guards. These brave souls watched and waited for storms to approach so they could take immediate and decisive action.

And what kind of action did they take? According to Seneca, who found the entire thing ludicrous, it wasn’t to make themselves safer. They didn’t run and put up a bunch of protective gear, or cover the crops. Nope. Instead they hurried to the temple to offer an appropriate sacrifice, usually a chicken or a lamb. Seneca, who was writing during the same time this all happened, wondered if the people really believed that that all the gods wanted was a little blood. Provide them some now and the storm goes away? Really?

“Are you laughing at this?” Seneca continues, “Here is something to make you laugh even more.” He goes on to explain that if there wasn’t a lamb or chicken available, the people would prick their fingers and allow that bit of blood to be the sacrifice. How did the hail magically ascertain the value of a man’s blood? Why would a hailstorm be as willing to turn away from the fields from a finger prick as it would from a more expensive chicken or lamb? More to the point, why are we paying for this?

Most modern people think that the ancients thought of their gods as all-powerful people who lived in the sky. And while there was a lot of that, there was also a lot of agnosticism, cynicism, and skepticism. Most learned men felt that the gods were just extended metaphors for stuff we don’t know — the same as people today. The common man wasn’t as interested in making cosmic choices for the future of his soul. He was just covering his bases. Hey, maybe those priests were on to something. The priest is sthe smartest man we know. He can read and write. Who has his knowledge? After all, hail had happened in the past, and it killed a lot of people. Isn’t it better just to play it safe?

Finishing up a cool book on the weather this past week, it looks to me like if you want an honest look at how science and religion work in the heart of man, weather events are custom-made for it. Let’s continue with our hail example.

Time moved on, and new religions took the place of old ones. In AD 800, Charlemagne constructed tall “prayer poles” in the fields as safeguards from the hail. Attached to each one was a small strip of parchment with a prayer to protect from hail. It’s unknown what the prayers were. Perhaps they were hail Marys?

But of course the enlightenment changed all of that. It’s a good thing we have reasonable men of science, like the mineralogist who in the late 1800s observed that since hail was caused by the buildup of ice particles, the injection of a smaller condensation nuclei could either turn it to rain or make the resulting hail much smaller.

Enter the hail gun. Large weapons created for shooting smoke rings into clouds.

These guns are science, that is, they use established scientific principles to control the weather. Can’t argue with science now, can we? No reasonable person could. Maybe some luddite wackos, but not reasonable, modern men.

More to the point, they worked. Put a hail gun in a field and you were almost guaranteed not to see hail. At least not hail like you used to. Of course, the odds of getting a hailstorm are pretty low to begin with, but that was not deemed important. What was important was that a loss of crops to a bad hailstorm was unacceptable. Couldn’t hurt, could it? Better to take action and be safe. Today we call this “the precautionary principle”

And hail guns became very popular. By 1900 over seven thousand hail guns had been sold and placed in Northern Italy alone. Everywhere you looked, people were putting up hail guns and being pleased with the results. It was generally accepted that using explosives to attack storm clouds in various ways was the most scientific and logical way to minimize hail damage. And who could argue? Even today, we know that some form of storm modification is possible. Just not a military assault.

Not that there weren’t people who had doubts even back then. Turns out the “safe bet” wasn’t so safe after all. In Venice and Brescia during one year alone, seven people were killed by hail guns and 78 people were injured. Plus there was that pesky problem of whether or not all of this was actually stopping hail.

Enter more scientists, who took a look at the guns. In Venice, 222 hail cannons were all set off to see what effect they had on an approaching storm. I bet that was a pretty loud test! In 1906, another 200+ cannons were launched at an approaching storm in Aulagne. Researchers even went so far as to explode a series of one-ton bombs — all with no discernible results. How would you tell if it was working or not?

Of course, once something is established, it stays established. Scientists who still believed in the effectiveness of hail guns modified their design. More noise, more rockets, different kinds of dispersals. Noise-only guns were created.

But, you might think, after it became obvious that this had limited value the practice was discontinued, right? After all, science and reason always win out, right?


As late as 2005 China was using rockets to “soften” hail. India still has many hail guns in operation. A internet search for hail guns shows all kinds of percussive contraptions created to attack storm clouds as they approach. As far as I know, hundreds if not thousands of hail guns are still being used.

The problem? The principle of hail guns was sound — changing the dynamics of hail creation should change the hail. Hailstones form around particulate matter. Therefore, changing the particulate matter should change the hail. None of this is extreme or crazy.

It was the application that didn’t work out. The reproducible experiment part of science, which is why the reproducible part is so important. It’s very easy to argue generic principles, very difficult to reduce them to practice in an unexplored dynamic system.

Part of growing up, I think, is beginning to realize that people who lived a long time ago acted and thought just the same as you do today. We look back on ancients as being primitive, but here’s Seneca lambasting this town — and the state! — for paying for a bunch of nonsense just to appease superstition. We might look at these hail gun guys as being superstitious or backwards, but they’re not, no more than any of us are. They’re simply using creative speculation — the heart of religion and science — to guess things that might work. The scientists who proposed this weren’t “wrong” — we just don’t know. There are a lot of things that we are not as sure about as we would like. Instead of denouncing things some things as false, and saying others are true and beyond debate, we have to live with fuzziness. Hey, you want to buy a hail gun, have fun with it. But I’m with Seneca: should the rest of us have to pay for it? I don’t think so.

Remember, science does not progress in a linear fashion.

For all I know, somebody somewhere has perfected the hail cannon, but I doubt it. The energies involved are too vast and the current mechanisms feeble. An average storm cloud towers over five miles into the sky, holding millions of tons of water. A few hundred pounds of chemical explosives aren’t going to do much, I think. And noise? What are some cannons compared to the thunder that’s already there as part of the storm? But more importantly, what do I know? I’m just guessing a different way. This problem seems to me one that will hinge on technique. Perhaps a reproducible experiment can be fashioned — scattering silver nitrate ahead of advancing cold fronts maybe?. If so, hail guns could make a big comeback. Wouldn’t that be neat?

hail cannon, modern

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Nerd Wars: Star Wars Versus Star Trek

Over the past month, I’ve re-watched the entire Star Wars series. Also, as part of a morning exercise routine, I’ve re-watched many shows from Star Trek, The Original Series (STTOS)

So yesterday, when I saw Bill Shatner say that Star Trek beats Star Wars easily? I felt I had to give this some thought. It’s Star Wars versus Star Trek. Who wins?

Small Impact. It’s obvious to me that Star Wars wins in the small arena — cultural impact over 1-10 years. The movies were bigger events, the hype more, the audiences much greater.

Large Impact. Likewise, it’s obvious to me that Star Trek wins in the large arena — cultural impact in the 10+ year range. After all, people became scientists because of Star Trek. We named a space shuttle test-bed “Enterprise.” Areas of scientific research were started (or continued) because of Star Trek. Even to this day, there are people working on problems and writing books because of being inspired by ST.

Attractiveness of Actors. I think Trek wins here as well hands-down, as Shatner points out. Whether or not this is an important metric or not I leave to the reader.

Special Effects. Star Wars dominates here. It is nothing if not great eye candy. The third movie, Revenge of the Sith, starts out with one of the most incredible special effects spectaculars I’ve ever seen. Trek is no contest.

Addressing deep questions. Star Wars doesn’t even really try, as far as I can tell. Yes, there are a few questions in there somewhere, like the question of when to do the “wrong” thing in order to save those you love, but this isn’t serious stuff. This is space opera. Good movies overall, no doubt, but nothing to make you a bit introspective.

Powerful storylines. I really don’t want to give this to either set of shows. Yes, Star Wars is really a six-movie drama about Anakin Skywalker, but re-watching it, I don’t think that storyline is very powerful at all. It looks like, well, it looks like somebody who made a couple of good movies, then tacked on a few more movies around those in order to claim to have a set. If you press me, I’d pick Star Wars, but only on protest.

Amount of creative material produced. Again I don’t think there’s any question, Star Trek has churned out hundreds, perhaps thousands of stories, characters, and plotlines. Most of these stank, yes, and the ST universe quickly reached a very bad place where it was all so much nonsense. But it was a lot of material.

Cage match. So the question everybody wants to ask: you take all the ships and technology from one series and have them fight the other one. Who wins? I have to give it to Star Trek, which reached the point of having a deus ex machina early in the series and still managed to pound out dozens of shows. Not that I think this is important. Once again, it’s the reader’s call.

Re-watching Star Wars, it occurred to me how much the first two movies in the series stunk. Jar Jar Binks anyone? Lucas really screwed the pooch with those films, and it’s a testament to the power of the fanbase that he made so many billions from them. There a tremendous amount of bad Star Trek as well — easily the majority of episodes — but the numbers work out where, overall, there’s a greater number of interesting and provocative stories in the Star Trek world. After all, Lucas really only had one shot at it. Star Trek just kept going at it over and over again.

So in the Star Wars Star Trek Wars, I have to give the prize to Star Trek. But please, no more from either series. Enough is enough.

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Mastering God

This is a post about God. It is not about theology. It is not about religion. It is not about the idea of life after death, or how or why the universe came into existence.

It’s just about that word that we use, rhymes with “bod”, and have been using for many thousands of years. It’s a plea for sanity in the atheist-theist debates.

I took a short self-education excursion a few years ago on the existence of God. Not as a religious person — I’m agnostic — but as an tour of how great thinkers through the ages wrestled with tough problems. I love watching smart people argue.

Here’s what I found.

There are four sets of things in the world

Set Description
A Things that can be proven true or false. These are things that we can describe, manipulate, and experiment with. To be able to prove or disprove something, we use a system of inductive logic, experimentation, isomorphic systems, and deductive reasoning. Example: 2+2=6, or the valence band of copper.
B Things that might be able to be proven true or false, but just not right now. These are things that we can describe, manipulate, and experiment with, but all the pieces required are not immediately available. Given enough time and energy, we can make reasonable determinations. Example: A pink elephant is orbiting Jupiter, the Higgs Boson exists, I am emperor of China.
C Things which cannot be proven true or false. These are things that we can describe, but we cannot manipulate and experiment with them. Things that, due to their nature, we cannot and will not be able to make conclusive conclusions about. They are intermittent, non-reproducible, outside or our ability to observe, or subjective in nature. Until better instrumentation, metrics, concepts, or models are created, they will remain in a fuzzy place. Most of these items have “common wisdom” associated with them, or personal belief, but because they do not lend themselves to scientific reasoning, we cannot draw the same kinds of rigorous scientific conclusions about them as we could in the other two sets. Examples: UFOs, history, moral theory
D Things which reside outside our descriptive ability. These are things for which we do not have the language yet to describe, much less begin to come to any other kind of grips with. No examples can be given due to the nature of this set, but imagine talking casually to a cave man about quantum mechanics. Without a common set of metaphors and analogies to map from one world to another, some systems are inaccessible to us. It’s not that we have the language to describe things and are unable to come to conclusions about them (set C). It’s that they exist completely outside of our current descriptive system of nouns and verbs.

Note that there is a temporal nature to these sets. The things in set D two thousand years ago might be in set A today. Or not. Some folks will tell you that everything will eventually end up in Set A — or maybe in set A or B. This has yet to happen in three-thousand years of recorded history, so the burden of proof is on those who make this assertion.

What I found, looking at dozens of different religions and cultures, was that there were always things that were unknown. And people — of all belief systems — used a word which translates roughly as “God” to describe those things. Sometimes these things resided in Set A. Sometimes set B. And sometimes set C. But never — due to the definitions of the sets — set D. Whatever the subset of things that could be spoken about and reasoned over, there always existed those things outside of that group. There’s always stuff you don’t know.

This concept — the key generalization of the word across cultures and timelines — has an interesting side-effect: the belief in God is an admission, deep inside of us, that we do not know things. A deep sense of just how little mankind knows. We do not know things that we can partially observe. The Roman Legionnaire looking at the thunder storm and the astronomer looking at the night sky all feel this, a feeling of wonder, awe. An acknowledgement of the great unknown. This feeling, this, for lack of a better word, humility, is an acknowledgment of God. Somehow this acknowledgment of simple set theory produces a deep emotion in man. Interesting.

More to the point, there are many, many things that we don’t even know that we don’t know — things outside any of our experiences. Things in Set D. Stars didn’t stop having supernovaes four million years ago simply because there was nobody around to understand it. Quarks didn’t pop into existence sometime in the last hundred years or so, and you can be assured there are many more things happening and going on now that we also cannot describe (because we have no empirical data to begin both a nomenclature and a scientific exploration)

From this deep sense of wonder many people are left uncomfortable, so they create religions. Religions are a form of absolute system. That is, people who participate in them seek to use them to provide all the answers to any question they might have. This gives them comfort as it takes away any uncertainty about life they might have. Religions take the unknown, God, and provide a structure of known and rational (sometimes!) things around it.

I find that some people in absolute systems are insufferable. After all, the reason for joining such a system is your discomfort with not knowing things, so these folks are very self-assured that, while they might not personally know everything, the system in which they reside will provide them all the answers. They’re like the teenager who just beat his first video game; they are master of the universe.

People are certainly free to decide for themselves about whether or not to give any additional attributes to God. Most folks want certainty: they will provide lots of little details and associate themselves with others who feel the same way. They may not know why people suffer, but their religion either provides them with the answers or assures them that there will be answers. Other folks also want certainty, but this drive pushes them to eliminate the concept of God altogether, substituting a religion of science for a “normal” religion. This is like solving the problem by denying it even exists. To these folks, science either provides them with answers or assures them there will be answers. Welcome to the new boss, just like the old boss.

But, really, this generic concept of God is a no-brainer. Yes, maybe the way God is being described to you by the scientist or the Mormon down the street is offensive to you. Welcome to the club. At some point, though, you must grow up and abandon this need for certainty and stop quibbling over the details. I personally believe that this emotional experience of humility and awe that everybody in the world experiences is a natural and vital part of a healthy existence. You must come to a deep personal understanding with the unknown and your relationship to it. If “God” isn’t a good enough word for that, I don’t know what is. There isn’t a better word that I’ve found.

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How do I Promote Myself Online?

Yesterday I posted a long blog article about how much I love photographs. Nothing really great, but something I felt like writing.

Last night I get a wonderful reply from reader J.C., who corrected some mistakes, provided some great stories about his own experience with really old pictures. At the end, he said something like “It was a good article, but really the reason I read it is because I am studying how to self-promote myself on the internet. You’re a guy with a lot of karma on HN. How do you do it?”

What a weird question. I think it presupposes that my online existence is all about self-promotion. I have a severe problem with the premise. I think what bugs me is that somehow I was expected to respond with some formula for self-promotion. Something like “Well, first you get a big karma score on HN, then you write content with cross-promotional links that — blah, blah blah” An instruction book on how to have lots of traffic (and presumably make lots of money) online.

It’s true. When I started blogging, I did so because I wanted a way to market my consulting services. But guess what? That didn’t work out for me. So I ended up blogging about whatever I feel like. Yes, sometimes I mention other projects that exist to help people and make money, like my new site I plugged yesterday, but that’s never the purpose of my writing. It can be a useful add-on, yes, but it can never be the purpose.

I found, over time, that there are two kinds of things I can do. 1) One-shot micro-sites that I write to concentrate on one subject and try to help folks with it. Sites like the few I did on neuropathy a couple of years ago. A lot of work, then move on to something new. And 2) Sites where I create whatever I feel like, but which go on for a long time. Like this blog.

For me, if I started blogging just to “promote myself”? I couldn’t stick with it. I can’t get up every day and write targeted SEO material on X. It’s just not in me. Even for subjects I am very familiar with. I can write highly targeted material that is part of a set project, however. So that’s what I do. I like doing both of these things, but they are entirely different animals in my mind.

One of the weird things I’m finding is that, as I create more and more online content, I am gaining a gaggle of followers who are only interested in get-rich-quick kind of schemes (No, J.C. is not one of those, but he’s an example of folks concentrating on weird things I hadn’t considered). Whenever I have a successful post on HN? I get link-spam for a few days afterwards. Seems like HN is being monitored by a lot of SEO folks who are only after a short-term fix — using their powers for evil.

So I think if you are reading me to learn how to promote yourself online, or if you are buying books about making your fortune with your blog, or if you are thinking of SEO knowledge as a way to manipulate people? You’re probably going to have a very difficult time of it. This is like trying to be a jet pilot by reading lots of books on airplane construction. If you just want mechanics, there are a million other folks just like you who will buy links, pay for blogspam, or create bots to grab clicks. If, however, you have a passion and like creating in a new format, then learning all that other stuff is extremely helpful. But the money, the technical details of creating work, and the nuances of having friends who like what you do is all secondary to your personal relationship to what you are creating. To think otherwise is to get the cart in front of the horse. Emotion has to be the primary driver of both content creator and consumer. The mechanics and technology of the thing can only exist as a multiplier, a secondary consideration. Oddly enough, this was the entire point of my article yesterday to which J.C. responded!

There are great self-promoters online. You and I are probably not one of them. There are guys I’ve read that could sell ice to Greenlanders. There are folks making a million dollars with various schemes. If you want to do that, if you want to actively go after the maximum amount of money for your efforts? Blogging or micro-sites is not a good approach.

But if you like creating useful content, work on your creating process, then work on the technical details, then work on putting the two together into something you love. It’s like Seinfeld: the formula is that there is no formula. There are various heuristics you put together in various creative ways determined by your personality. This is the difference between learning how to paint a painting and being able to color-by-the-numbers. Online content creation is a long game and you have to have to know both sides of the coin, the technical and the artistic, to make it work. If I had to give you one rule, it’d be this: learn some technical details of making content online, find something you like to create that somebody else will enjoy consuming. Then get better at putting both together in your own unique way.

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Photo Love

There’s a scene in Idiocracy where one character turns to the other and says something like “I like food, sex, and sleeping” to which the other one, amazed, says “You too?!”

Of course, the joke is that everybody likes those things. We’re all going to end up being zombie consumers of cheap sensations.

So when I say I like images — specifically photography — there’s a danger that I’m not saying very much. Or at least much that’s new.

When I was 13, all I wanted for Christmas was a 35mm SLR camera. Specifically, the Minolta XG-7. My parents couldn’t afford the entire purchase, but they told me that if I saved up a certain amount, they’d see that “Santa” would make up the difference.

Christmas Day came, and there was my shiny new camera. I’ll never forget it. The first picture I took was of my sister Joy carrying out empty soda bottles. I had to carry in firewood and take out the trash. She had to feed the cats and help clean the kitchen. Oh the horror! Making children work on Christmas Day! I was sure I was already onto a great media prize. Maybe the Pulitzer.

I took pictures of everything. Stairs. Food. Dinner tables. Clouds. My shoe. Bugs. Various self-poses involving mirrors. I had a job, a newspaper route, I saved up money, and I spent it on ASA-400 speed color film. I had a dresser drawer just for pictures. Within a year there were so many pictures you could barely shut the thing.

And it just got worse. I would spend my time looking at photography equipment in catalogs. I could tell you the difference in specs of various equipment and exactly what I’d want to use if I could. Because of my love for photos, I ended up on the High School newspaper. It was a good gig — I got free passes into any of the sporting events, and the pretty girls always wanted to appear in the paper. Why I never parlayed this into a masterpiece of a youthful social life is a question for another day. Youth is wasted on the young.

It was there I met the workhorse of professional cameras, the Nikon FM2. That thing would shoot in just about any conditions. Wayne Joness, who was a, gasp!, senior at the time, took me aside one day to show me how to develop black-and-white photos. If I remember correctly, we watched TV while we did it. Wayne, as incredibly senior-ish as he was, wasn’t too careful about light discipline. But I learned a good lesson: some things you should be anal about in art and some things not. It’s up to you to decide which things are which.

A few years later, when I lost everything I owned, the things I missed the most were the pictures. Most material stuff isn’t important, you see, but memories are. And good pictures remind you of good memories.

I went on to work as a freelance writer, sometimes taking one of the newspaper’s FM2′s along with me on the story. It was great fun interviewing folks, taking pictures, and putting it all together into a narrative. A hundred years from now, when somebody wants to know what happened in sleepy little Bedford, Virginia, they’re liable to be reading a story with my byline on it, with a picture I shot sitting above it. Neat.

So I was very happy several years back when I bought my second SLR camera, this time a DSLR. It was the Nikon D80. This time, coming from a bit of experience, I wanted to get the technical details exactly right. I picked up a nice 80-200mm zoom lens. You can compose more with a good lens than you can with a good camera. Lenses rock. I remembered my lesson. Concentrate on the important things. The other things will follow.

I’m having a lot of fun with my D80. I wish I had time to play around with it more. I’ve gotten into HDR work, landscapes, and even some extreme low-light work. Lots of unusually challenging setups. As I get older, it also fascinates me how photography can have such an emotional impact — even when we were never involved in the picture-taking to begin with. In fact, the more I think about it, the more I think I may have missed the point all along.

When we talk about photography, most of us gravitate to the technical details: the type of camera, the resolution of the CCDs, the lighting available, the exposure, the composition, the bracketing. Seems like there is a million technical details we can kick around. And we love doing it.

But that misses the entire point. Images take us places, combined with our own imagination, that we’ll never actually visit. Take some pictures I was looking at over the holiday weekend. As I was thinking about the invention of photography and how much I love it, it occurred to me that it’s really a lot older than many of us think — the earliest photographs were taken in the late 1830s. I think most folks associate photographs with the Civil War period or later, when in fact people were taking pictures for 25 years or more before the Civil War even started. Could I find some of these really old images on the web?

I could.

Older American man with cane, 1939

Take a look at this fellow. All dressed up in his Sunday best, it’s 1839 and nobody he knew had ever heard of anything like a photograph. What? A painting? Except it’s an exact replica? How is that possible? Sounds too good to be true.

He went in, sat very still for the photographer (exposure times of ten minutes or more were not uncommon) with his best award-winning smile. Perhaps he was a celebrity, or an actor. Like many, he probably spoke with a slight British accent. It’s obvious, to me at least, that he knew he was making a recording that people many years away would be viewing. He was probably a man of some means. We’ll never know.

But in 1839, when this picture was taken, when our subject sat there smiling holding his cane, there were people alive who knew George Washington, or Thomas Jefferson. He himself may have been a revolutionary, although it’s highly unlikely. He lived in a time where the United States was just a small collection of cities mostly along the Eastern Seaboard. “Indian Country” began just a few hundred miles to the west, long before you got to the Mississippi.

Out of all the people he knew, he is most likely the only one of his age group to have his image recorded. And I think he knows it.

Looking at it like that, using some creative speculation to put yourself in his shoes, it’s incredible.

House from the 1840s

Here’s another picture, this time of an house. Nothing much to see here, unless you think about the time this picture was taken — 1840s or thereabouts. There was no electricity (of course), no telephones, no paved or gravel roads, no electric cookstoves or microwaves. When it got hot in the summer, it got hot. When it snowed, there was no snowplow to come and clear the roads. Being in the countryside like it is, this house had to exist entirely as an island — in ways that modern houses do not.

So look again. Check out the upper windows. The large spread of buildings — cooking was probably done somewhere far away from where people lived. Servants or slaves made all this happen. A large family helped out.

Visitors approached on carriages, or just on horseback. Horses and people had a much different relationship back then. Jefferson used to ride many hours in his time off between his house in Monticello and his summer home in Poplar Forest, near where I live. He and his horse were one. It was a much more personal relationship that people had with transportation than we do today.

I imagine, but don’t know, that this picture was taken soon after the house was finished. It seems the kind of thing you would want to have, especially if you had spent a lot on something. A nice image to hang in the foyer. Something for guests to look at. See! This is what I created!

How many sunsets were viewed from the porch of this house? How many people came for holidays? How many birthdays? Today the people that built this house, the people that lived in this house, hell, the people that even knew about this house are all gone. All we have left is the image of somebody’s dream. Like many of the images from this period, we don’t even know where the picture came from.

But we know it was important.

Last one.

Here’s a typical rich family of around 1840. The man — what a cranky-looking old fellow! — is holding his bible. You’ll find many pictures from these times had folks holding their bibles. They wanted future generations to know how important the good book was to them. He even has his finger in a certain spot, perhaps a favorite passage. Was this man pious? A reverend or a pastor? I don’t know, but I doubt it. He was just a product of his time. This was a time where “literature” consisted of the good book, and “music” was something people either learned how to make for themselves or spent a lot of time and money watching. Social events revolved around church and civic organizations. The way we gathered, the way we shared, the way we remembered — all much different than our age of Facebook.

Check out the kids in the back. Look how short the two older sons are! As I understand it, people of 150-200 years ago were noticeably shorter than folks are today. Both of the older boys have that Napoleon-hand-in-the-vest thing going on. I never understood that, but it was a big thing to do in that time when you had your portrait done.

The girls are up front, as they should be. Little sister, on the right, couldn’t be much more than seven or eight. That means she was born sometime around 1832 or so. She was in her mid 30s when the Civil War broke out and. Assuming an average life, she never saw the year 1900. Maybe her grandkids fought in the Great War. If she lived long enough to have any kids.

Mom is on the far left, dressed in a darker color and wearing gloves. Beside her, in a very cherished position, is a portrait of another daughter, lost to illness as a child. Mom looks sad and weary. It was not unusual to lose many children early in life in those years. You had to have large families just to make sure that somebody, anybody, would be around to remember you after you were gone.

Is the daughter recently deceased? Perhaps so. Perhaps this family picture was something they decided to do while everybody was still alive. A way to remember the lost daughter, to remember all of them, before it was too late. Before they were all lost to time.

And that’s the kicker. You see these scenes with people or buildings and can’t help but think that not only did these people see and do things you could only dream of, not only did they live lives that you probably would have problems understanding, but it’s all gone now. These images are all we have of anything at all to do with these folks.

So when I think about how much I love pictures — heck I love them so much I even recently started a new blog just for my funny picture collection — it’s not just the mechanics of images, or even what the subject of the images are. It’s the stories that the images help us share, many times in ways that moving pictures or other forms of simple data capture never would.

I thought good pictures came from good equipment. It was the technology. As hackers, many times we think of picture uploading and sharing as primarily being about data collection. It’s as if we think of currently-popular social networks like Facebook as being successful because the allow the easy transfer, organization, and sharing of data. But, as anybody that knows and loves images will tell you, it’s about the experience — the stories, the emotion, the friendship, the creative imagination. The data in the images themselves have little to do with anything.

I like images because I like the emotional role images play in my life.

Successful technological startups, just like successful images, don’t deploy technology; they hack people’s emotions. These companies are no more about bits and bytes than these images are about daguerreotypes or the chemical properties of various silver compounds.

Very neat stuff.

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Late Summer Existentialism

After spending the last two months deep into pulp sci-fi (what can I say? It was fun.) I’m taking a bit of a detour over the next month or two back into existentialism.

Recently I finished reading the “Night’s Dawn” series of books from Peter F. Hamilton. Peter really annoyed me with his use of commas, plodding plot line, and cut-out characters. But overall it was a fun read. I had forgotten how much fun pulp sci-fi reading was — just getting into an author’s head, following along, then watching the dramatic tension resolve. You don’t have to be Tolstoy to write fiction. I liked it.

I also am finishing up “Halting State” this week by Charles Stross. Stross manages to combine a high degree of technical knowledge with, of all things, a police procedural, and somehow he makes it all work. Plus it’s a book I can burn through quickly — even more fun.

But all good things must come to an end, and with trying to start up an exercise regime again, I need something a little more meaty to bite into while I’m pounding away bored on the elliptical. For that, I ‘m starting with “No Excuses: Existentialism and the Meaning of Life” by Robert C. Solomon presented by the Teaching Company. Loaded it up on my iPod and listened to the first lecture this morning.

This is my second or third time into this lecture series. Out of many dozens of series that I have purchased from the Teaching Company, I’ve loved most all of them. But only a few stand out — listening to them deeply changed my ideas about who I am and what is important in life. This was one of those series. So I’m looking forward to diving back in.

I’ve also bought “Existentialism For Dummies“, a book which, oddly enough, I found too difficult to read the first time around. Perhaps I am not even a dummy? Maybe I should purchase “Existentialism for the Garden Slug” or something like that? In any event, I’m going to make an effort at it again. Wish me luck.

Finally, I’m on the lookout for some good existential fiction. Perhaps an anthology. Camus, of course, must be included. I’m sure there’s something out there along those lines.

I’ve done Nietzsche thing — went through a couple of lectures about him and his work. Great guy, but I’m comfortable passing him up this time around. I think philosophy is best sampled and not studied religiously. I’m really looking forward to another “tasting session” over the next couple of months!

If you've read this far and you're interested in Agile, you should take my No-frills Agile Tune-up Email Course, and follow me on Twitter.