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By The Sea

Sometimes I get this feeling that the world we live in is alive. I don't know why - maybe I'm just completely deceived (and likely so) - but somehow I believe that we, especially as Christians, should and could be in touch with Creation in perhaps a special way. Or maybe it's just the storytelling, romantic side of me that likes to think that we can perceive Creation the way God meant it to be.

I was out by myself, walking by the sea in the evening (we had one of those company retreats); and I stood a long, long time alone by the sea, listening to the sounds of the waves crashing upon the shore and of the distant harbor far off; looking up into the starry sky and pondering Man and his place in Creation.

This is the part where it perhaps gets a little flaky, but I felt, somehow, that I could extend my feelings into the night and pick up traces of ... earth. Sometimes it amazes me what I pick up, it surprises me; that's why sometimes I believe maybe I'm actually picking up something real because I know I'd have a hard time thinking those things up by myself. And, of course, maybe it's not true; but in that case, at least it's a pleasant fiction to enjoy. :)

The earth, and the beach, felt old ... way, way older than I could understand. I could sense millions and millions of years of rock, the foundations of the earth beneath me, in slow and silent slumber. I listened to the waves of the ocean and sensed the silent, numb forgetfulness of the waters. My mind drifted away to the thousands of thousands of men and women lost at sea... sailors traveling the far-reaching oceans, fishermen lost at night in raging storms, soldiers on D-day... and there was no memory of them at all that I could pick up on; they had all disappeared and vanished in the deep, forgetting waters. The wind blew gently on my face, and I knew that wind had not long ago swept the plains of Mongolia, and brought to me a sense of remote villages and nomads with their herds traveling over the plains...

Above me the stars twinkled at night. Some clouds blew in, but the stars twinkled on, having been put there billions of years ago. Still singing their harmonic melodies of raging fusion storms, broadcasting their presence in the sky like beacons in the great, vast nothingness of space...

It's always difficult to go back inside to the guys playing around in the pool when this happens to me. Our little activities seem so temporary, so... like a big paranthesis throughout the millenias of time. And yet we're here because God created all this and put us here to inherit it as our planet, to take care of and protect. Given the vastness of the time and space we live in, and the awe and respect that this Creation commands, I think we've been a spectacular failure so far.

On the plus side, I saw a satellite. :)


Swedish Film

I have a colleague at work who likes Swedish film.

Like, for instance, Sällskapsresan.

Fascinating.


On The Use Of Overwhelming Force

The current military doctrine of the United States army is the use of overwhelming force. At the U.S.Army website, there is a document published called Field Manual 1, a document that serves as an introduction to the Army doctrines and core values.

The concept of overwhelming force is ... well, it may be difficult to initially grasp exactly what it means. But Chapter 3 of FM1 details it in what I think is an amazing description of modern battle. The way the American Army fights is through an "operational concept [of] seizing, retaining, and exploiting the initiative with speed, shock, surprise, depth, simultaneity, and endurance." For one who is used to sales leaflets and pushy marketing departments, it may sound as bogus, but each of these concepts has been carefully thought through: (quotations from FM1, 3rd chapter)

  • Initiative means "setting or dictating the terms of action throughout an operation". When the initiative is yours, you determine the nature, tempo and sequence of action in the battle. This means that you control the situation and how the action unfolds.
  • Speed means the ability to act rapidly. "Rapid maneuver dislocates the enemy force and exposes its elements before they are prepared or positioned". It means acting before the enemy has time to react.
  • Surprise "involves the delivery of a powerful blow at a time and place for which the adversary is unprepared". Surprise can effectively double the strength of your force, because the enemy is unprepared, and needs time to grasp the situation, understand precisely what is happening, and effectively counter your threat - time which he does not have.
  • Shock is the result of rapid and relentless action against the opposing force. It is "the application of violence of such magnitude that the enemy force is stunned and helpless to reverse the situation". It may be a result of continued surprise, where the force is relentlessly applied; or it may be the result of such a destructive blow that the enemy is in a state of incoherence, unable to grasp the situation and will make wrong decisions or no decisions at all.
  • Depth "is the ability to operate across the entire area of operations". The battle is not only fought on a single front, but taken all over the theater through superior intelligence, interdiction and mobility. It is characterized by airstrikes, advance elements and special forces securing objectives deep within enemy territory.
  • Simultaneity "confronts opponents with multiple actions occuring at once". It is much easier to defend yourself if only one attack occurs at a time. The United States Army opts to conduct operations all over simultaneously, thereby overloading the enemy's command and control structures, and exploiting weaknesses wherever they are found.
  • Endurance, the ability to perform extended operations and persevere over time. It means proper rotation of forces, functioning logistics, and the willpower to stay the course until the campaign has been brought to an end.
These core principles form the backbone of today's fighting forces. Thinking about myself and how I would act in a conflict, I have no doubt that I wouldn't last more than minutes. I try to imagine the terrifying sight of heavy armored vehicles speeding towards me with 105mm guns firing with pinpoint precision. I try to imagine the fear and terror of even trying to hold the ground against an aggressive enemy acting furiously upon me with combined arms. I try to comprehend the shock and confusion of constantly discovering that the enemy is way ahead of me, and when I've scrambled to face that threat, they have already moved on, continually acting quicker than my ability to react.

The only possible way to defend yourself is to be just as violently aggressive and proactive as the attackers. Move in to surprise, act quickly, apply relentless and overwhelming force, retain initiative, find the enemy's weak spots, exploiting them and destroying him before he can act as decisively upon you. "I will attack him and destroy him", Rommel said about his opponent Patton in the movie (Patton, 1970), "before he does the same with me."

And sometimes I try to imagine running a business with that same ferocious aggressiveness. And then a wicked smile spreads across my lips.


The U.S. Army In Transformation

The United States Army is presently going through a large transformation. It is adapting and restructuring itself to meet the objectives of the 21st Century fighting force; in short, this means that the old 20th Century concept of building an army around divisions has got to go.

Instead, the army is focusing on the brigade as the functional building block. Focusing on brigades means that you have smaller forces that are easier to handle. Coupled with new technology and a tighter joint forces integration, this means that the new army will be smaller, more agile, more adaptive and responsive, and more efficiently deployed to face emerging threats while at the same time packing enough punch to knock out any serious opponent.

One of these new brigade teams is the 172nd Stryker Brigade Combat Team ("Arctic Wolves"), stationed in Fort Wainwright, Alaska. It is (I think) a mechanized infantry brigade built around the concept of the Stryker vehicle, and its integral components are three infantry battalions, one field artillery battalion, a cavalry squadron, and several addititional signal, engineering and military intelligence companies, etc. As this article is being written, it is presently deploying to Iraq to replace the 1st brigade of the 25 infantry division. They're going to move into some of the more dangerous terrority in Iraq: the northern part, probably the area around Mosul and other places where terrorist activity is high.

I personally believe that the Brigade Combat Team structure fits the purpose well. It is difficult to field a division because of its inherent size and logistical trail. Brigades are smaller and can be fielded much more easily, and I think it will serve the new army organizational principles well. Still, it means moving somewhere in the estimate of 3500-4000 soldiers along with their equipment across the world and is no small feat to pull off. But I bet they will be successful.

I don't think there exists any similar organization throughout the world quite like an army. It is designed to be flexible, fast, aggressive; full of people doing their jobs in the midst of enemy fire. I sometimes imagine applying the same concept to my line of work; and I try to picture a company full of computer software engineers, frantically hacking away at their programs, while the enemy keeps firing volleys of 7.62 rounds at them. Not a pretty picture, but that's what the army does, all the time. And they sure do it well.


Upgrading Delphi: From 5 To 2005

Our company is currently preparing to upgrade our development system from Borland Delphi 5 to Delphi 2005. While the process is pretty much straightforward, there are a few issues that have come up.

First of all, it's a big process. We meant upgrade to Delphi 6 when that came out, then Delphi 7, and now we have to upgrade to 2005 before it's all too late. Since we're planning on doing this in a Big Switch, all of our software needs to be updated. This involves the two major product lines we're running, as well as a serious number of little nifty utilities we've developed along the way. Fortunately, Delphi is in itself pretty much a seamless upgrade: The language and the VCL is entirely backwards-compatible - Thank God - and if it all comes down to Borland, all it takes is a recompile.

The trouble starts with the components, though. Over the years we've amassed a serious library of components, which we've incorporated into our programs. Some of them we've purchased, some are open source, some are ... well, just found online and if the author isn't dead by now, development sure is. Torry.Net usually is a terrific place to look up Delphi components, but some of them are bordering on old.

The migration of open source components is usually a bit tricky, if enough time goes by. Every two years it seems like the authors decide their old version is dull, throws it out and develops a new version with an incompatible API. Such was the story of ZeosDBO, an excellent library of database components (just plain source code, no big install, no BDE/ODBC..); our 5.4.1 version is now horribly out of date and the 6.1.5 version is an entirely new API. Fortunately enough not too dissimilar, but it still means going over every single project and update every single database component. And that takes time.

Purchased components are easier, but sometimes big changes happen there too. Upgrading could mean different components, different licensing, and in the worst case scenario serious incompatibilites. The big lesson learned here is to always, always buy with source code included: that means you can hack the components yourselves and add all those little {$IFDEF VER170} that Delphi 2005 sorely needs.

In one case, we even settled on a rather unconventional solution: Instead of upgrading, we chose to completely reimplement a purchased library with a "fake" version, exactly mimicking the original API (even identical .bpl files), but writing our own components instead. It takes time, but with no other solution available, sometimes it's worth it. In this case, a TCP/IP component library that we reimplemented by using WinSock directly, with good measure.

Still, faced with a major deadline, we've pushed the upgrade off a bit. For now, we're migrating to ZeosDBO 6.1.5, and the rest of Delphi 2005 comes later.

To summarize what we've discovered:
  • Upgrading Delphi itself is seldom difficult. It's extremely backwards-compatible.
  • Upgrading components, however, takes time and effort.
  • If possible, use open source components, and stay with the releases as they update. You don't want to get too far behind. (On the other hand, you want to use stable versions too. It's a fine line.)
  • If you purchase components, always buy the source included. If you can't get source code with it, consider an alternative.
  • Try to depend on fewer, but larger, component packages. It's easier to replace a big package than twenty small ones.
In maintaining the package libraries, we've developed a small program which automatically rebuilds and installs multiple packages with a single mouse clicks (okay, maybe a couple of mouse clicks). It allows us to keep all our components in a central VSS repository and switch between packages and Delphi versions pretty seamlessly. But that would probably be a topic for another post.


I Saw Captain Speirs Last Night, I Swear It

When you play America's Army long enough, you're bound to see some extraordinary things happen once in a while. Yesterday on FLS Assault, I swear I saw Capt. Speirs.

Capt. Speirs - for those of you who haven't watched Band of Brothers - was the meanest, toughest officer in the entire 506th PIR. Rumors flew that he shot enemy prisoners, killed his own men when they refused to obey orders, and he ran straight through enemy lines like a ghost.

This night, our squad from 1-504th, 82nd Airborne, had jumped in over an airfield which we were going to secure to use as a resupply point. We counted on pretty light opposition, but found out that the enemy had dug in with machine guns and we were forced to attack facing possible heavy losses.

Me and this other guy, we were in an open field northeast of the trenches, approaching a group of humvees and concealing our movements behind a fence. Beyond the humvees were the enemy trenches where four or five enemy kept us pinned down with RPK's. For the moment, things were quiet, and we kept scanning the trenches, crouching down behind the fence, and looking for movement.

Suddenly, I hear a noise from behind and this guy from out of the blue comes running past me. I see him going straight for the humvees, and then past them towards the trenches. I have time to think to myself "man, this guy's got guts" and prepare to give him covering fire, as I believe he's going to crouch down there and open fire to take them out ... but he doesn't stop. He keeps running along the fence, and then continues along the side of the objective building, turns a corner, and then disappears out of my view.

Three seconds later, we win the round. No one fired a single bullet at him.

Tomas the Apostle once got rebuked by Jesus when he refused to believe the other apostles' reports that Jesus had risen from the dead. "If I don't see him myself, I won't believe", he said. Then Jesus appeared to him, walked up to him and spoke in his mild-hearted manner "Do you believe now? Blessed are those who believe without seeing." I wonder were I would have ranked last night -- I couldn't for the life of me believe it, even though I saw it happen with my very own eyes.

I'm telling you. It must have been Capt. Speirs.


Artificial Intelligence: A Robot Psyche

Steven Spielberg's Artificial Intelligence takes place in a world a few hundred years into the future (the exact time is not known) when the polar icecaps have melted, flooded the whole earth and left mankind struggling to maintain its way of life. With increasing environmental pressure, legal sanctions against childbirth have been introduced; and as a result, robots provide much of the necessary workforce in society.

Robots are not the crude implementations of machinery we saw in the 20th Century; they are sophisticated pieces of electronics, looking like men or women, with hundreds and hundreds of miles of fiber inside. Capable of interacting with society, they have begun to blur the distinction between man and robot. The blurring of this line between creator and created raises several different questions, among those the question of what responsibilities the creators have towards its creation? With less sophisticated robots, the distinction is clearly visible and it's relevant to treat them as different. But Cybertronics Corporation, under the leadership of Dr. William Hurt - having recently lost a son - bridges the gap between human and robot by building a child robot, which can love.

When Henry Swinton, employee of Cybertronics, is offered to test the new child robot "David" in a pilot experiment, he accepts. His real son, Martin, is in a coma and has been for some time, with doctors being pessimistic about the chances to awaken him and bring him back to life; Henry figures this could be a way to let his wife, Monica, let go of her inhibiting and denying attachment to Martin.

Monica's first reaction to David is violent: David immediately - unconciously, but by programming - taps into her emotions of motherhood, and she reacts repulsively, out of fear of letting go of Martin. David, however, in the state in which he is introduced to the family, does not feel any love towards them. He is as of yet "void" to those emotions; for he sake of the family all those capabilities are locked away until the family decides to keep him and goes through a special "imprinting" protocol, where these patterns are activated. Henry, the father, explains that if a family no longer wants to keep a robot child, it can never be re-imprinted; the attachment is permanent and the robot must be returned to Cybertronics for destruction.

The next few days are trying. Monica deals in frustration with David, who acts in sometimes a typically child-like manner, and sometimes not. Being a totally unemotional robot, he possesses the looks of a real human being, but is lacking in emotional response. This adds a certain tension to the family, because the robot constantly and by design plays on the emotional connections of human beings, and yet not conforming to them. It's like dealing with a totally unpredictable stranger living with you.

Eventually, Monica decides to keep him. She sits down with the robot - David smiling as always - and starts carefully reading a list of words designed to confirm the imprinting process. It is at this point in the movie when we first get to see the amazing transformation in David: As Monica reads the last word - "Monica" - David's eyes change. Hundreds of billions of synapses are suddenly flooded by emotions; parts of emotional understanding and reasongs that were unlocked now spring open and floods his "soul" with one thing only: a genuine love for his mother. "What were those words for, mommy?" he asks her, not realizing that this is the first time he's called her "mommy". Monica, barely containing her tears, whispers back: "Who am I, David?" He leans over and hugs her. "You're my mommy."

From this moment, David tries to deal with his world through his new capabilities of emotional reasonings. Like a child growing up, he attempts to figure out how to know if Monica really loves him. This is all he wants; to be loved back. But for a robot with little experience of society and the ways of the world, this gets a little tricky; especially when he is confronted by the concept of death. He himself having no expiration date, he struggles to grasp if Monica's fifty years is a long time or not.

Early on, Monica gives him a toy so he won't be so lonely: A little teddy bear, a little teddy mini-robot that walks and talks, and in a typical Spielberg-like manner becomes his companion through life. And his life isn't that bad, as long as he can just know for sure how much Monica loves him.

All this changes when Martin suddenly wakes up of his coma.

For children it can be difficult to suddenly have a new little brother or little sister. It means that all of the affection that previously went to them now is largely diverted to the newborn. For Martin, this means waking up to a situation where a robot is competing for mommy's love; for David, this is catastrophic - especially since Martin constantly reminds him of his robot nature, indicating that he is not a real person and therefore mommy can not love him. And this is where David's psyche takes its first serious damage; for if David is a robot, then he can not be loved. But that is unacceptable; without mom's love, he can not exist, since this is his only reason for existing. In trying to solve this complex equation, his psyche begins to split: the emotional self, which needs love, turns against his robotic self and thus denies his very own nature. This develops into feelings of hatred, but interestingly enough not towards Martin, but to Teddy bear; because Teddy is a robot, and thus reminds him of his own robotic nature that he cannot accept.

The situation abruptly changes again, when the rivalry between Martin and David becomes so strong that the family decides to return him to Cybertronics for destruction. Monica, however, strongly reacting to the emotional pull of David, is unable to go through with this and instead abandons him deep in the woods, warning him desperately to stay away from human beings while David finally starts to realize in horror and anguish that he will never see Monica again. In a heartbreaking scene, he watches Monica drive away, as he is left only with Teddy bear as his company -- alone.

How does a child robot deal with this trauma? His robotic synapses search for a solution, and in its cognitive data banks finds one that just might work. While in Monica's bed, Monica once read to him and Martin the story of Pinocchio, whom the Blue Fairy turned into a real live boy. Impossible as it may sound, his reasonings are remarkably accurate for a child with little understanding of how the world works, and with no external impulses to guide and correct him, he sets out on a journey to discover the Blue Fairy; for surely therein lies the great solution to how he can make Monica love him again. If only he can be a real, live boy; then he must be accepted back into the family and then Monica will love him forever.

Cybertronics is, of course, watching with intense scientific curiosity, to see where his motivations may lead him, for never before has any robot set out on a journey to fulfill himself, motivated by dreams and fueled by desire. They provide a little push in the right direction through a secret, encoded message that David finds, ultimately leading him back to the place where he first was created: in an abandoned skyscraper reaching out through the waters in the now lost island of Manhattan.

This is where David's psyche receives it's most serious and fateful dent: An awful awakening to reality. Confronted with Dr. William Hurt - his creator - as well as other "Davids" - machines just like him - he realizes the terrible truth: He is not unique and he is not one of a kind. Faced with this, his synaptic reasonings collapse one by one and folds neatly together into one final insight: There is no Blue Fairy, he will never become a real human being, and Monica will never love him. He eventually surrenders, and tries to commit suicide by falling from the skyscraper, plunging into the ocean waters beneath.

And so David makes his final discovery: Beneath the surface lie the remnants of old New York, with a theme park featuring an exposé over the story of Pinocchio - including, in a strange twist of events, a life-like statue of the Blue Fairy. David, emerging from the waters, takes a hovercraft and goes down there, and by accident becomes trapped under a Ferris wheel that cracks under the weight of centuries of water and rust, and is locked in right in front of his Blue Fairy. And having come this far, hundreds of feet under the ocean surface, in near total darkness - and finally at the one object that he believes will make him real - David's little psyche with no other options left finally and irrevocably locks into the fatal and unbreakable "10 GOTO 10" loop. He starts praying to the Blue Fairy to make him real, and continues to do so, until the seas through the millenias of time eventually freeze over and everything fades into darkness.

The movie doesn't end there, but for the sugar-sweet and highly Kubrick/Spielberg ending, go watch it yourself.

While some people may find the movie somewhat dull and boring (or even extremely so), to me it is fascinating beyond all comprehension, because we get to study a real robotic/electronic brain deal with the world based on the same premissions as we human beings do, and being so unprepared for it ultimately develops a type of split personality that very closely mimics a human psychatric disease. Its little electronic synapses struggles to grasp, identify, parse and transform all the data it receives. Ultimately - faced with an impossible requirement: the need for love and the inability of meeting that need - it locks down into an irreversible loop of internal reasoning. On today's PC computers, such loops merely freezes the computer; in David's case it causes a cognitive inability to act or react in any different way, his thinking now focused upon only one thing for the rest of his existance: In this case, in praying to the Blue Fairy to become a real, live boy; and the only thing that can ever break the loop is if the Blue Fairy statue actually answers his prayer.

It is interesting to see the parallellism between human psyches and robot psyches. Exposed to similar traumas, they both start to malfunction in similar ways. But the created brain still inherits a few properties of its original design: while a human being at some point would see the futility of going on and ultimately losing the will to live; the computer brain locks down in an irreversible loop where the same behavior continues repeatedly, over and over, until all remaining energy cells are spent and it dies.

But the real question is still unanswered: What responsibilities does the creator hold towards his creation? Is David real, or is it only a simulation? Is it right to simply terminate him, given the fact that his psyche still is only a computer program? Or do his emotions, feelings, and his capability to dream somehow guarantee him human rights? How should we deal with this in a situation where we are unable to differentiate between human and robotic life?

In the end, the movie asks us the question "what are we human beings really?" Are we simply biologic programs - infinitely advanced simulations of reasonings and thought through our cells, synapses or DNA - or are we more than that? And that question is left for the viewer to answer himself.


 

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