Margaret Hamilton: Pioneer Software Engineer

Enjoyable, if brief, interview with Margaret Hamilton, who lead the software team for the Apollo moonshots. I can’t help but notice how few men are ever asked how their lives as parents ever collides with their work.

Q: Did your life as a software engineer and a mother ever collide?
A: Often in the evening or at weekends I would bring my young daughter, Lauren, into work with me. One day, she was with me when I was doing a simulation of a mission to the moon. She liked to imitate me – playing astronaut. She started hitting keys and all of a sudden, the simulation started. Then she pressed other keys and the simulation crashed. She had selected a program which was supposed to be run prior to launch – when she was already “on the way” to the moon. The computer had so little space, it had wiped the navigation data taking her to the moon. I thought: my God – this could inadvertently happen in a real mission. I suggested a program change to prevent a prelaunch program being selected during flight. But the higher-ups at MIT and Nasa said the astronauts were too well trained to make such a mistake. Midcourse on the very next mission – Apollo 8 – one of the astronauts on board accidentally did exactly what Lauren had done. The Lauren bug! It created much havoc and required the mission to be reconfigured. After that, they let me put the program change in, all right.

Children do make good testers – no fears about pressing the wrong buttons! Also, reassuring to know that even the ‘well trained’ make mistakes.

The Numbers Stations

The Numbers Stations, Documentary BBC Radio4.

As a kid, I used to scan the radio waves at night, trying to find something different or unusual. I even added extra cable to the aerial in an effort to pick up more signal from further away (I don’t know if it worked, I never examined the physics of it!). The heaviside layer moves up as the solar wind is blocked, allowing radio transmissions to travel further. I’d sit there, sometimes with the curtains closed, sometimes with the light off and the curtains open, looking out at the stars, or the glow of Dublin city on the horizon, slowly moving the dial across the bands, the hiss of FM, the whee-whurr-whucks of medium wave, the vast emptiness of long wave.

Sometimes you’d pick up the Dublin based pirate stations on the FM band. Very occasionally, I could hear taxi conversations on their radios at the very end of the FM band, which was fascinating. It felt like I was some sort of spy, eavesdropping on secret chats deep in the night.

Long Wave was dominated by the local Atlantic 252 station, and RTE1 which broadcast on LW at the time.

AM always had a sprinkling of european stations, in all sorts of languages, mostly French and German. Picking out each station from the fuzz of interference, nudging the dial fractions at a time to get a better signal. It also had bizarre stations that broadcast pips, strange sounds and otherworldly noises.

Maybe one of them was a numbers station, sending it’s signal out to some secret agent in Cold War Europe. Who knows? I hadn’t heard of them at the time, it was only years later that I found out about them on the internet. I’m strangely drawn to these enigmatic voices broadcasting out into the ether, with their intriguing names: “Yankee Hotel Foxtrot”, “Russian Man”, “The Lincolnshire Poacher”. I find myself picturing some spy furtively writing down the numbers before using a one time pad to reveal the message they’d been sent.

Even more sinister are the mechanical broadcasts from the Russian station known as UVB-76 (listen), rumoured to be part of a ‘dead-hand’ doomsday device created in the 1970’s. The idea is that even in the event that a surprise first strike that took out all the top Soviet leadership, retaliation would be guaranteed by whatever nuclear forces remained. A chilling concept indeed. Although, as Kubrick pointed out in Dr. Strangelove:

Dr. Strangelove: The whole point of the doomsday machine is lost…if you keep it a secret! Why didn’t you tell the world, eh?!

Russian Ambassador: It was to be announced at the Party Congress on Monday. As you know, the Premier loves surprises.

Dr. Strangelove

Letting your mind breathe

Modern life is making us anxious:

Keeping calm in modern life is difficult and even our sleep is under threat from a surprising source. “I love watching Netflix and streaming TV shows, but that’s having an impact on our sleep. Recently the head of Netflix said that his main competitor isn’t another TV company – it’s sleep,” says Matt.

“Sleep is where they can make their money. If people aren’t going to bed until 2am because they’re watching the latest show, that will boost their business model.”

The market driven world we live in has put vast amounts of time and effort into attracting and keeping your attention. I think it’s important to remember that there’s a vast array of dedicated, skilled people employed at thousands of companies, all working to take you attention and keep it. So don’t feel bad for losing yourself in your twitter stream or tumblr, but when you do, put it down. Make space for your mind to be free.

Desegregation in Iran (just a bit)

For the first time since 1979, women in Iran are allowed to attend a men’s game in a stadium with a mixed crowd.

For nearly 40 years, half of Iran’s population was not allowed to go to a stadium to watch soccer, the country’s single most popular sport. The defacto ban, instilled by religious clerics after the 1979 Islamic Revolution, had prevented women from attending a majority of men’s sporting events, and women who challenged it risked arrest and imprisonment. But the long-standing segregation policy loosened during the 2018 World Cup, when thousands of women poured into Azadi Stadium, Tehran’s largest sports stadium, to watch live broadcasts of their national team playing in the group stage.

The deadening hand of organised religion. It’s all about power and control.

Catholic Adoption

In the news, more adoption issues in a case that further illustrates the attitudes and social mores of catholic Ireland as detailed in The God Squad. The fudged adoption papers, un-vetted placement, obfuscation and misdirection of the supposed Sisters of Charity is sadly unsurprising yet still awful to read:

His client became pregnant shortly before her 21st birthday. It was then arranged for her to travel to Ireland, for work experience and she ended up at a house in Clontarf in Dublin through the St Patrick’s Guild, which was run by the Sisters of Charity Nuns.

Counsel said she gave birth to a boy on 13 March 1961 at the Marie Clinic in Clontarf.

She was “sternly warned”, not to touch the newborn as it would be “bad for the child”, who was to be put up for adoption.

However she defied this warning, counsel said, and baptised him with holy water she had in the home in the hope that someday she would find him.

Shortly afterwards she was taken away and signed various forms consenting to the adoption. Counsel said the form was “false”.

Counsel said the documents she signed were legal nullities and had none of the normal safeguards required.

In addition, counsel said the contents of the form about the mother’s details were fudged and lacking in detail.

Counsel said that over the years his client, following her marriage and the birth of her other children, made visits to Ireland in attempts to get information about her son without much success.

She was brushed off by the nuns she dealt with at the Guild, it was said, and a person who worked at the place where she gave birth to her son suggested the boy was among those infants who went to the USA.

 

Read: The God Squad

The God Squad is the remarkable true story of a survivor, told with an extraordinary lack of bitterness for one so shockingly and shamefully treated. In Paddy Doyle’s own words: ‘It is about a society’s abdication of responsibility to a child. The fact that I was that child, and that the book is about my life, is largely irrelevant. The probability is that there were, and still are, thousands of ‘me’s.’

While strolling through Blackrock Market a while back, my partner in crime picked this up for me. Highly readable and fascinating story of life in the industrial schools of Ireland, written in 1989 by Paddy Doyle. The casual cruelty meted out to a young child is terrible, yet it continued year after year, for decades. It reflects an Ireland that is both within living memory yet feels far away. Particularly worth reading in the context of the coming Papal visit, an organisation that continues to cover up it’s past and deny justice to it’s victims. The harm doesn’t cease when the laundries close, the schools shut, or the abuser dies – it can affect the next generation too.

Dalmatia’s fjaka state of mind

What a beautiful description of a state of being, languishing in the Mediterranean sun:

The Croatian poet Jakša Fiamengo said that fjaka is a specific state of mind and body. “It is like a faint unconsciousness,” he wrote, “a state beyond the self or – if you will – deeply inside the self, a special kind of general immobility, drowsiness and numbness, a weariness and indifference towards all important and ancillary needs, a lethargic stupor and general passivity on the journey to overall nothingness. The sense of time becomes lost, and its very inertness and languor give the impression of a lightweight instant. More precisely: it’s half somewhere and half nowhere, always somehow in between.”

Oh, I wish we were there : http://www.bbc.com/travel/story/20180118-dalmatias-fjaka-state-of-mind

The Chain of Destruction

I’ve just finished the excellent documentary “The House I Live In” (thanks to D for recommending). It’s a fascinating look at the consequences of the so-called ‘War on Drugs’, which is really just a proxy war against an entire class of humanity with no end in sight. It’s created a criminal problem from a public health issue and applied policing solutions to it, the wrong answer to the wrong question.

Near the end of the documentary, this particular piece caught my attention. I think it summarises well just how something like this can happen and continue to happen in a society. It also speaks to a wider issue – the marginalisation of certain out groups and how that identification process can lead down a dark road.

“My father was a war crimes investigator in Europe after World War Two, and we often talked about his experiences. I was reading the work of Raul Hillerg who wrote about the destruction of European Jews in the Holocaust. I realised that there was a chain of destruction, that what he was talking about could be expressed as links in a chain.

Around the world in more than one society, people do the same things, again and again, decade after decade, century after century.

Now this chain of destruction begins with the phase we can call Identification, in which a group of people is identified as a cause for the problems in society. People start to perceive their fellow citizens as bad, they’re evil. they used to be worthwhile people, but now all of a sudden for some reason their lives are worthless.

The second link in the chain of destruction is ostracism, by which we learn to how hate these people, how to take their jobs away, how to make it harder for them to survive. People lose their place to live, often they are forced into ghettos where they are physically isolated, separate from the rest of society.

The third link is confiscation. People lose their rights, civil liberties. The laws themselves change so it’s made easier for people to be stopped on the street, padded down and searched, and for their property to be confiscated. Now, once you start taking peoples property away, you can start taking the people themselves away.

And the fourth link is concentration. Concentrate them into facilities such as prisons camps. People lose their rights, they can’t vote anymore, or have children anymore. Often their labour is exploited in a very systematic form.

And the final link in the chain is annihilation. Now this might be indirect, by say withholding medical care, withholding food, preventing further birth. Or it might be direct, where death is inflicted or people are deliberately killed.

These steps tend to happen of their own momentum, without anybody forcing them to happen.

I think a lot of people would be disturbed and outraged by the thought that any part of this process could be going on in America. But it wasn’t until I began studying the drug war that I realised some of these same steps were happening.

[..}

It’s important to remember or realise, it isn’t that the war on drug users is the same as what happened in other societies, but that both are a wars on ordinary people, people who are just like us.”

— Richard Miller

These five links – Identification, Ostracism, Confiscation, Concentration and Annihilation – are important to recognise. Look around you. Who has been identified as an other? Any marginalised group that can be identified by some apparent or manufactured identity is on the first link of that chain. Once fear has been generated, people on the edges begin to scramble away from the target group lest they too be lumped in with the new ‘enemy’. The power is with the identifiers, not the identified. People tend to want a quiet life, most people have enough to do day to day without getting involved in political action, so they either undertake a form of ‘working towards the Fuhrer‘ as Ian Kershaw termed it, or at best simply keep their heads down lest they become one of ‘those people’ by association.

Nothing ever starts with the last link in the chain, and the time to stop it is at the first link.