The Northern Spy: of birthdays and parables
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The Northern Spy: of birthdays and parables

By Rick Sutcliffe

Birthdays engender delays, which is why this tome is a few days late, being written on the third of July. Canada Day number 150 falling on a Saturday this year, meant the national holiday substituting for it fell on the Spy's own birthday. Nice of the country to celebrate for me, but really…

'Course, that other fractious country to the south had its birthday Tuesday. In view of recent national and other elections, the questions of course for pundits and historians are: (a) is either country (or the states/provinces therein) mature? and (b) can either avoid falling apart due to deep divisions?

Canada may be less far along the road to potential disintegration at the moment, but both neatly illustrate the Spy's old prediction that the Internet, when it came, rather then ushering in the global village, would more likely bring disparate people into contact only to exacerbate intrenched hatreds. Country vs city, have vs have not, technically literate vs-not, self-perceived elite vs hoi poloi, religious vs not, affirmers vs deniers, builders vs critics, super rich vs everybody else--however you define the divides, they are becoming worse, with is no good end in sight.

Note no mention of left vs right. Deliberate, for they are artificial distinctions baed on the demagogues of arbitrary political ideas that attempt to capture either satisfaction or dissatisfaction with perceptions of the shifting status quo at a given point in time--a (possibly deliberate) side-effect to the real underlying problems. Indeed, in their greatest extremes, they are indistinguishable, for their priority in extrema eventually becomes the silencing of dissent, the inevitable outcome of which is tyranny.

Also of interest, though of less importance in the grand scheme of things is this year's tenth birthday of the iPhone. The platform and imitators have come a long way, but are still far from the comprehensive PIEA the Spy envisioned in his novels long before the first smartphones were marketed. However, the delta and epsilon pace of innovation suggests that manufacturers consider smartphone technology as relatively mature, when they ought to be regarding it as in infancy compared to the potential for connectivity.

And somehow this seems a parable for innovation these days-it now moves at a glacial pace rather than at an insanely great one. BTW, the Spy has always thought that machine-human interfaces (including neural ones) would be far more game changing than self-driving cars. Hello out there. Anyone home?


No, not "Contents of Address Register" but the new Subaru again. The previous few automobiles the Spy and wife had purchased were all been off-lease (depreciation you know), but in older days when the downside of new was generally less onerous (as it is today with the Subaru) they always bought new, then began the deficiency list for the dealer to fix (there's always one more bug, don'tya know). But he realized the other day that apart from the too-aggressive hillside performance of the cruise control, he has yet to enter the first item on such a list for the 2017 Subaru Forester they bought at the end of February.

In today's retail world where foisting sub-alpha products on an increasingly cynical public is the norm, this represents a refreshing reboot for quality manufacturing and control, and respect for the consumer. No wonder these cars depreciate so slowly and appear in used lots so infrequently.


Continues in dreadful non-support mode. Another ticket not answered after three weeks. How long can this last before the entire customer base goes, daddy?

It never ceases to amaze the Spy that people can be so careless about safety in their own homes. A few years back when eldest son bought a fixer-upper, the whole amateurish basement and garage electrical wiring plant had to go in the dumpster. Imagine connecting thirty-two sets of lights and plugs on the same circuit as the microwave. Imagine hidden junction boxes, grounds not connected, hot and cold treated as interchangeable and splices made in the walls by twist-and-tape. Indeed.

Unlike the knowledge and safety-sensitivity of the typical homeowner, the electrical codes themselves have improved greatly over the years, and the Spy has been pleased to contribute to these. Among the new, arc fault protection is now mandatory on most living area receptacles, the quality of materials has improved, the codes have been harmonized with other jurisdictions, and one rarely sees non-UL, non-CSA materials offered on the market to tempt the unwary.

That industry attempts to take safety seriously, even if homeowners often don't. Look folks, if you value your lives and those of your children, do not attempt electrical wiring unless you know what you're doing.

Safety and reliability don't come immediately to mind with respect to the rest of the construction industry. Younger son was adding a room to the rear of his house, and the contractor removed gutters and cut off the shingle overhang to frame in the new roof. Though specifically commenting on the potential for water ingress, said contractor failed to take preventative measures or ensure the roofer would start work expeditiously.

Of course it poured rain and the back wall of the house was soaked inside. This isn't just a simple insurance-funded repair job. Water in a wall births mould and fungus, which in turn pose potentially serious health threats, especially given severe allergies.

All this is a parable for the (with a few exceptions) lack of safety standards and quality control in the software industry. There is no excuse for this; we have known better for decades. Sooner or later customers are going to shed the mindset that software is too hard to get right (much harder than rocket science) and when they do, malpractice lawsuits will become the order of the day.

It would be far better PR and much cheaper to prevent errors in the first pace than to rely on being able to clean up the mess afterwards. Use better tools, follow what we have long known is sound software engineering practice, test against specifications, so getting it right before kicking a lemon out the door.

BTW, the Spy returns to the construction site tomorrow to continue working on wiring up the addition. Sixty ampere subpanel with six of the eight circuits planned to be used. The inspector should be happy. And, yes, the rules specifically allow a parent to work under a homeowner's permit.

Speaking of family and birthdays, the Spy's grandson shared the Sunday afternoon family celebration as his seventh birthday is this coming Friday (and he even knows what fraction that is of his gramdpa' advanced years). When the Spy was that age, a Meccano set was the ideal present for a budding mathematician/scientist. Indeed, building blocks or something like is still the best way to give a child an engineer/physicist mindset.

The modern building choice: We gave him a Raspberry Pi kit, with a few spare components thrown in for good measure (keyboard and mouse--lots of those around). He'd already seen one at the university and been introduced to programming in Scratch, so was able to resume quickly. He'll be well positioned to make his mark someday.

--The Northern Spy

Opinions expressed here are entirely the author's own, and no endorsement is implied by any community or organization to which he may be attached. Rick Sutcliffe, (a. k. a. The Northern Spy) is professor of Computing Science and Mathematics at Canada's Trinity Western University. He has been involved as a member of or consultant with the boards of several organizations, and participated in developing industry standards at the national and international level. He is a co-author of the Modula-2 programming language R10 dialect.

He is a long time technology author and has written two textbooks and ten alternate history SF novels, one named best ePublished SF novel for 2003. His columns have appeared in numerous magazines and newspapers (paper and online), and he's a regular speaker at churches, schools, academic meetings, and conferences. He and his wife Joyce have lived in the Aldergrove/Bradner area of BC since 1972.

Want to discuss this and other Northern Spy columns or Rick's SF? Check out the Arjay blog at

URLs for Rick Sutcliffe's Arjay Enterprises:

The Northern Spy Home Page: http: //www. TheNorthernSpy. com
opundo : http: //opundo. com
Sheaves Christian Resources : http: //sheaves. org
WebNameHost : http: //www. WebNameHost. net
WebNameSource : http: //www. WebNameSource. net
nameman : http: //nameman. net

General URLs for Rick Sutcliffe's Books:
Author Site: http: //www. arjay. ca
Publisher's Site: http: //www. writers-exchange. com/Richard-Sutcliffe. html
The Fourth Civilization--Ethics, Society, and Technology (4th 2003 ed. ): http: //www. arjay. bc. ca/EthTech/Text/index. html

URLs for resources and products mentioned in this column
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