]> Sojourn in the Middle East

Sojourn in the Middle East

Part 6 of 9
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This is a blog of some of my impressions during a seven-month period living and working in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (the "KSA") in 2007-08.

For the Geeks Among Us

This blog is so far going the way of so many others started up by Americans visiting this fine country and wanting to tell their story to the world. An initial outburst of description, fueled by the storms of nerve cell firings that experience of novelty alights in our brains, followed by a growing silence, punctuated fitfully by attempts to revive the creative process. Piece by piece we build a social life here, perhaps even find romance (but that's another story), and the time on our hands for stirring the creative juices evaporates away.

In my case work has also claimed its fair share of my time. So today I'm going to write about that. I'll make some token attempts to render it accessible to laypeople, but consider yourself warned -- if you're not a computer person you'll be bored stiff before very long.

We're building software here in the KSA, and for that we're using a programming language called "Java". Java is more than language though; it introduced a number of innovations to programming activity. (Many of which were actually pioneered by the NeXTstep framework which Sun worked on with Apple in the early 1990's, producing the OpenStep specification. But that's another story.) One of these innovations relates to the packaging of software components. A component is a chunk of software kind of like a car part, or better, a tool. In Java a related set of components (think of a toolbox) is packaged together in a single file, called a "Java ARchive", or "jar" for short. Sitting together with the components are resources such as images or sounds that they use to perform their job. Like drill bits, nails, other such supply items in the toolchest.

Jars have a number of properties that make it far easier to actually use components to do things than in other computer languages. First, they are self-describing: they list their contents in a form readable by the "unzip" tools available on most computers. Second, the contents themselves can be read by other tools used by programmers such that the exact capabilities and usage methods for the components are revealed. And finally, the simple fact that all of this is packaged in a single file, easily transferred and tracked, seems like a small thing, but has a great effect on practical reality.

Because of this all-in-one nature of the jar, the Java archive produced by a programming project is referred to in some circles as an "artifact". The term from its Latin origins literally means "something made", but the common understanding involves the notion of something representative, indicative, of a body of activity. "Body of activity" -- usually a culture, but in this case a team working together to reach an engineering goal. A goal formulated in the context of other teams, indeed an entire milieu of engineering, social, and business activity -- in fact a kind of culture after all.

So the term is an appropriate one, but the association with archaeology gets one to thinking -- suppose an alien civilization were attempting to understand what we -- mankind -- were long after we were gone. And all they had to go on was an "artifact" discovered inside the one flash memory chip that survived, deep underground, the swelling of the sun as it cooled. Indeed, the sun had expanded to engulf the Earth, but was by now long abandoned in our ascent to the stars. (Or the memory chip survived, by being underground, the tremendous heat generated by thermonuclear explosions set off in the last, all-out war between powers scrambling after the last dribs and drabs of fossil fuel in the latter years of the 21st century.)


We will skip over the process, interesting though it may be, through which latter-day interstellar prospectors painstakingly analyzed the electromechanical structure of this memory chip (found inside an iPhone, let us say), and came to recognize aperiodic patterns of on and off, presence and absence, one and zero, superimposed upon a regular crystalline structure. The equivalent of a Nobel prize was awarded to the team that managed this feat, remarkable because this alien civilization, though it, too, had developed efficient means of large-scale miniaturized pattern storage, had accomplished it in so different of a way to our own that a fundamental leap of insight had been required. We will skip over too the even more impressive work that led to the discernment of the first structure within the patterns thus read off of the physical medium. The notion of a "file system" was profoundly alien to this investigating civilization because they had never conceived of or had need of such a means of organization. To them a storage medium was a monolithic thing, simple stimulus patterns fed in to read off more complex patterns, like vectors being multiplied by a matrix, to produce another matrix. We skip over this, because interesting as it is, it is not our story today.

Instead we will cut to the chase, one xercesImpl-2.8.1.jar, a contiguous pattern unit discovered on this aperiodic crystalline structure, an artifact produced by the combined efforts of hundreds, standing on the shoulders of thousands, supported by millions -- in short, a culminating representation of the entire state of Human civilization circa 1428 post-Hegira of Mohammed. Discovered by a grad student sitting in the lab alone one Sunday (equivalent) morning in the far future, fishing around for a thesis topic. This xercesImpl-2.8.1.jar was clearly a unit of some importance, occupying a place very close to the beginning of the memory chip. A fundamental basis pattern, perhaps key to the rest of the contents of the memory itself.

It was already known, of course, that the means of accessing this memory differed greatly from the vector-in, matrix-out approach of our student's own civilization, but the idea that a single key could unlock contents of the whole was a persistent one. "If only I could decipher this unit, I could lay the entire structure bare. I'd be a hero!" our student reveried. But was it a practical project?

The first thing to do was to look for patterns within it. What about self-similarity? The list-and-chain structure of the whole crystal (the filesystem) seemed not to be there. Or was it?

The student decided to plot the patterns in the file out in a visual form, to see whether anything jumped out. He used some of the tricks he'd gleaned from his last reading of the celebrated "filesystem" paper, in particular the one about grouping the pattern elements into clusters of eight. (This apparently being a number of no small importance to this ancient race.) And this is what he saw...

At first sight of this our student (let us call him Lars-elwon) gaped and his jaw hit the floor. For this is exactly what a plot of the entire memory crystal, using the groups-of-eight approach, had looked like. Lars-elwon knew he had his thesis topic.

The next thing he did was logical in many ways, blindly intuitive in another. He decided to zoom in on the first part of the plot, the less "random" looking part of it. (He hesitated to say "random" -- why would these creatures of old use valuable storage for information with no content -- but had no better word at the moment.) But in addition -- and this was the intuitive part -- he decided to use color.

"Interesting..." he thought, but no further insights were jumping out. It was getting late, and he copied the files over to his laptop and headed home. Before he left he emailed the image to his younger sister, who was studying art at Central University back on Zorkon. The image was reminding him of something, but he didn't know what. Maybe she would see it.

* * *

The next day he had classes all day and didn't have time to think about the artifact aside from stray musings during lectures. In the evening he checked his email and was surprised to find this in his box.

His sister hadn't sent any text, just this image. Of course he could see she had just messed with the colors, apparently discarding most of their variation. "You ruined the structure," he wrote back to her unceremoniously.

"No, I just brought it out more clearly," she wrote back. "What does it remind you of?"

That's just what he wanted to know. Grrr..

But wait.. there was something. Something else from the artifacts found on the same planet in fact. He pulled up one of the paleontology articles from the early surveys on his laptop. Nope, not that one. He paged through a couple of others. There!

Some aspects of the scaling were different, and of course the spectrum could be shifted a little bit, but there was little doubt in Lars-elwon's mind that he was looking at the same kind of thing. But this was some part of the plant life of that ancient world. In fact the ancient race had used it for constructing dwellings. Neither the material itself nor the organism producing it had been intelligent, or at least, it wasn't responsible for the civilization whose artifacts he was now helping analyze. What could it mean?

To be continued...

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