|Jack Ganssle's Blog
This is Jack's outlet for thoughts about designing and programming embedded systems. It's a complement to my bi-weekly newsletter The Embedded Muse. Contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org. I'm an old-timer engineer who still finds the field endlessly fascinating (bio).
For novel ideas about building embedded systems (both hardware and firmware), join the 40,000+ engineers who subscribe to The Embedded Muse, a free biweekly newsletter. The Muse has no hype and no vendor PR. Click here to subscribe.
A Canticle for Leibowitz
November 2, 2020
There are two books that I buy constantly, as they are so good I'm often giving them away to friends. The first is Collected Poems, by Robert Service. He was America's bard of the artic and his work spans the humorous to the deeply insightful.
The second is Walter Miller's A Canticle for Leibowitz. Though framed in science fiction, this is a dystopian novel of the future after nuclear war has devastated the planet. Written in the 1950s just a decade after the atomic age began it's prescient in imagining the aftermath of that cataclysm.
While books of this nature focus on the horrors of the war, Canticle starts hundreds of years after that event. Long before the book opens mankind had turned on the scientists and engineers who made the weapons. They killed all of the technologists in the Great Simplification, blaming them for the world's destruction. Many mutants roam, victims of the Demon Fallout, though no one remembers what that means.
In the first of the book's three parts, a monastery has escaped much of the damage and turmoil. For centuries a band of monks devote themselves to preserving ancient knowledge against the day humanity will rise from its embrace of ignorance. The patron saint is St. Leibowitz, an engineer in the prewar defense industry. Some of his drawings and schematics survived the Great Purge. The monks raison d'etre is to preserve these precious fragments. They degrade, so like the copyist monks in the real dark ages they spend their lives painfully redrawing the documents by hand.
None have any idea what the material represents so they take no liberties and faithfully replicate every nuance. Blueprints are copied by coloring in blue on a white page, as they have no idea the reverse image is a product of an inexpensive way to duplicating drawings.
Centuries go by. In part two some light has come into the world. Indeed this section is titled "Fiat Lux," Latin for "Let there be light." A brother at the monastery has created a dynamo and an arc lamp. A prominent lay scientist (a few such people have now come to acceptance, particularly for their ability to make engines of war) has heard about the monastery and Leibowitz cult. He travels to learn what knowledge the monks have preserved and is stunned by the arc lamp, a technology far beyond what he has accomplished.
Much wrangling ensues; the scientist wants to cart the monastery's artifacts off for his king's use, but his efforts are curtailed.
Part three takes place thousands of years later. The prewar world has now been surpassed and space travel is common. But the rumblings of war are again upon the land, and indeed the war in all of its monstrosity comes. The monastery's technology has advanced, but it is still a center of knowledge and learning. The abbot is faced with a number of difficult ethical choices, some of which we're fumbling with even today, like euthanasia. Miller presents these quandaries in a nuanced way even as they manifest themselves in the guise of science fiction. For example, a two-headed parishioner, a descendant of one of many mutant war victim millennia earlier, is looking for absolution that the abbot is loath to give. The government wants him to set up an assisted suicide camp for victims of radiation on the grounds of his abbey, which he refuses on ethical grounds. And the ending, which centers around that dual-headed human, is frankly stunning.
It's a very Catholic book, written from the perspective of that religion's ethos, but anyone concerned with deep moral issues will find themselves moved. Though a knowledge of Latin isn't needed to enjoy it, I find my three years of it in a Catholic high school adds color and forges biblical connections to the volume.
I'm now in the middle of The Best of Walter M. Miller, Jr, a collection of his short stories from the early 1950s. It's pretty good science fiction and at least one of these tales bears some resemblance to Canticle.
I recommend Canticle to anyone who enjoys thoughtful books.
Feel free to email me with comments.
Back to Jack's blog index page.
If you'd like to post a comment without logging in, click in the "Name" box under "Or sign up with Disqus" and click on "I'd rather post as a guest."
Recent blog postings:
- Non Compos Mentis - Thoughts on dementia.
- Solution to the Automotive Chip Shortage - why use an MCU when a Core I7 would work?
- The WIRECARE - A nice circuit tester
- Marvelous Magnetic Machines - A cool book about making motors
- Over-Reliance on GPS - It's a great system but is a single point of failure
- Spies in Our Email - Email abuse from our trusted friends
- A Canticle for Leibowitz - One of my favorite books.
- A 72123 beats per minute heart rate - Is it possible?
- Networking Did Not Start With The IoT! - Despite what the marketing folks claim
- In-Circuit Emulators - Does anyone remember ICEs?
- My GP-8E Computer - About my first (working!) computer
- Humility - On The Death of Expertise and what this means for engineering
- On Checklists - Relying on memory is a fool's errand. Effective people use checklists.
- Why Does Software Cost So Much? - An exploration of this nagging question.
- Is the Future All Linux and Raspberry Pi? - Will we stop slinging bits and diddling registers?
- Will Coronavirus Spell the End of Open Offices - How can we continue to work in these sorts of conditions?
- Problems in Ramping Up Ventilator Production - It's not as easy as some think.
- Lessons from a Failure - what we can learn when a car wash goes wrong.
- Life in the Time of Coronavirus - how are you faring?
- Superintelligence - A review of Nick Bostrom's book on AI.
- A Lack of Forethought - Y2K redux
- How Projects Get Out of Control - Think requirements churn is only for software?
- 2019's Most Important Lesson. The 737 Max disasters should teach us one lesson.
- On Retiring - It's not quite that time, but slowing down makes sense. For me.
- On Discipline - The one thing I think many teams need...
- Data Seems to Have No Value - At least, that's the way people treat it.
- Apollo 11 and Navigation - In 1969 the astronauts used a sextant. Some of us still do.
- Definitions Part 2 - More fun definitions of embedded systems terms.
- Definitions - A list of (funny) definitions of embedded systems terms.
- On Meta-Politics - Where has thoughtful discourse gone?
- Millennials and Tools - It seems that many millennials are unable to fix anything.
- Crappy Tech Journalism - The trade press is suffering from so much cost-cutting that it does a poor job of educating engineers.
- Tech and Us - I worry that our technology is more than our human nature can manage.
- On Cataracts - Cataract surgery isn't as awful as it sounds.
- Can AI Replace Firmware - A thought: instead of writing code, is the future training AIs?
- Customer non-Support - How to tick off your customers in one easy lesson.
- Learn to Code in 3 Weeks! - Firmware is not simply about coding.
- We Shoot For The Moon - a new and interesting book about the Apollo moon program.
- On Expert Witness Work - Expert work is fascinating but can be quite the hassle.
- Married To The Team - Working in a team is a lot like marriage.
- Will We Ever Get Quantum Computers - Despite the hype, some feel quantum computing may never be practical.
- Apollo 11, The Movie - A review of a great new movie.
- Goto Considered Necessary - Edsger Dijkstra recants on his seminal paper
- GPS Will Fail - In April GPS will have its own Y2K problem. Unbelievable.
- LIDAR in Cars - Really? - Maybe there are better ideas.
- Why Did You Become an Engineer? - This is the best career ever.
- Software Process Improvement for Firmware - What goes on in an SPI audit?
- 50 Years of Ham Radio - 2019 marks 50 years of ham radio for me.
- Medical Device Lawsuits - They're on the rise, and firmware is part of the problem.
- A retrospective on 2018 - My marketing data for 2018, including web traffic and TEM information.
- Remembering Circuit Theory - Electronics is fun, and reviewing a textbook is pretty interesting.
- R vs D - Too many of us conflate research and development
- Engineer or Scientist? - Which are you? John Q. Public has a hard time telling the difference.
- A New, Low-Tech, Use for Computers - I never would have imagined this use for computers.
- NASA's Lost Software Engineering Lessons - Lessons learned, lessons lost.
- The Cost of Firmware - A Scary Story! - A hallowean story to terrify.
- A Review of First Man, the Movie - The book was great. The movie? Nope.
- A Review of The Overstory - One of the most remarkable novels I've read in a long time.
- What I Learned About Successful Consulting - Lessons learned about successful consulting.
- Low Power Mischief - Ultra-low power systems are trickier to design than most realize.
- Thoughts on Firmware Seminars - Better Firmware Faster resonates with a lot of people.
- On Evil - The Internet has brought the worst out in many.
- My Toothbrush has Modes - What! A lousy toothbrush has a UI?
- Review of SUNBURST and LUMINARY: An Apollo Memoir - A good book about the LM's code.
- Fun With Transmission Lines - Generating a step with no electronics.
- On N-Version Programming - Can we improve reliability through redundancy? Maybe not.
- On USB v. Bench Scopes - USB scopes are nice, but I'll stick with bench models.