Calvary Movie Review

Darkness permeates the movie Calvary like a morning rainstorm. Aerial views of the imposing Ireland landscape are strewn throughout the scenes, turning the renowned Irish greens and blues into progenitors of impending doom. It’s a depressing palette for an equally depressing storyline, where salvation is expected to be just around the corner, but never comes.

One bad thing after another happens to the protagonist, whom I’ll simply call the good priest. The opening scene shows him at a confessional, with a man behind a screen saying that he’ll kill him in 7 days, because he was abused by a priest as a child, and desires to make a statement. As the movie progresses, we see his parish treat him with contempt, labeling him and jeering him as an antiquated, medieval man who’s “set apart”. His church is burned down, his dog’s head is cut off, and so and and so on. It’s not the constant barrage of not evil that most bothers me about the movie however. After all, Christ endured whippings, spitting, jeering, mocking, punching and eventually, crucifixion (our good priest suffered most of these too). But here’s where Christ’s calvary differs: there’s redemption at the end. Christ is resurrected from the dead, fulfilling the hope that he would come to save us from our sins. In the movie, there’s no such hope or salvation.

We see the good priest endure the evil taunts and sins of his people, and reply to them with heroic endurance and love. But we’re not given the reason for his loving. There’s only one scene where the priest’ faith is shown, and that is in the final scene where he briefly kneels in front of a crucifix, says a short prayer and goes out. When the killer asked the priest if he had any final prayers the priest replied, “I’ve already said them.” There’s no insight into the hope that the good priest has. We see him live and preach to his parish, but there’s no Christianity in it. What good is it for the priest to wittily reply to taunts, endure mockery and beatings, meet with his killer at the appointed time to meet his destiny, if we’re not given the insight on why his faith endured, and what, if any, is his hope?

All sorts of human dysfunction are on open display and entrenched in the wills of the townspeople. It’s unusual to see characters in a movie reveal their motives and thoughts as openly as this one, which is fascinating and shows the deep knowledge of human psychology in part of the screenwriters. Their reasons for acting out their evil are amply given, in way that is easy for the audience to empathize. It’s a pity that the same cannot be said of the good priest. We are not presented with any compelling reason as to why the priest behaves the way he does, endures evil with the stoic fortitude he does, or even the internal turmoil he might experience from dying.

The good priest’s daughter I think represents all of us watching the movie: saying out loud what a jerk this character is, or how much “shite” this person says, even if the priest won’t say it out loud. At the end of the movie, she visits her father’s murderer, and the string ensemble music hints that a good ending is at hand and thus she will forgive him. But the movie abruptly ends before she can say a word, so even this move for reconciliation is left ambiguous. I was mad the movie used me this way, I felt it mocked the audience as if by saying, “Ha! You thought there was a definitive, good ending to this story? You think all wrongs must righted? That salvation is to come? Here’s an ambiguous ending for you to remove any such peace you might grasp for.”

Forget about character arcs in this movie. The way characters are presented in the beginning remain the same at the end. This is in contrast to Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ, where every person who meets Jesus is touched to their core by him: they either entrench themselves in their sin or realize they’re in need of forgiveness. The good priest, through his actions and words, tries to reach out to his people but he never mentions Christ or his saving power. The word “God” is mentioned in some dialogues, but the watered-down context surrounding them could’ve been used for many kinds of gods and not specifically the Christian God. The Christian God has the overtones of King above all things, reigning for eternity and being the essence of love, giving up His only Son for the salvation of the human race from sin.

In all, Calvary is a beautifully filmed movie which I believe attempts to capture the passion/suffering of a particular priest who intends to do good. But the the good towards which this priest strives for is unknown. There is no redemption or glory in this calvary.

The Gutenberg Galaxy Book Review

Photo by Tejj on Unsplash

In The Gutenberg Galaxy, Marshall McLuhan takes the extraordinary step of trying to make sense of our digital world by tapping into the fundamental mediums of communication that we posses: hearing, seeing, smelling, etc. McLuhan argues that technology is a way to extend our primitive abilities. For example, a hammer is an extension of our fists, radio is an extensions of our voice and hearing, airplanes are an extension of our legs and their ability to take us places. Each of us uses our senses in differing amounts which he calls, “sense ratios.” When one of them is used more than the other, our sense ratios become unbalanced. McLuhan believes that early humans had their sense ratios shifted in the extreme to our auditory abilities.

Man relied on his hearing to communicate, interact and therefore, perceive himself, as being in a world of sound. This is an extremely important point, which serves as the catalyst for the rest of the book. In a world of sound, everything is immediately affected: one person talking in a room affects everyone in that room at the same time. This is opposite to say, texting a particular person: only that person is affected. To be in a world of sound, McLuhan believes, is to be in a state of constant terror and, drawing from the ethnological studies of pre-literate African societies, one where the individual, with his inner monologue, does not exist. For to live in an auditory society is to live in a place where all communication, even inner dialogue, is expressed in an outward manner. That is why (in the examples he provides), pre-literate African societies could not distinguish private thoughts from public expression, and why Eastern Europeans were dragged in Soviet courts to confess that they had thought of something against the Party’s interest, much less to have done it.

Mcluhan’s insights derived from observing behaviors in different societies throughout history becomes quickly apparent, and this early part of the book I considered to be the most engrossing. Partly also because it introduced for the first time the concept of the medium of communication as being a large part of the message itself. Thus, the sense rations being highly skewed towards the ear, the medium of sound affected the behavior of the society itself.

The second stage of the book concerns itself with the invention of the phonetic alphabet, and how it transformed the sense ratios of society to the visual end of the spectrum. Compared to Hieroglyphs and Logoglyphs, words in an alphabet have no relation to the subject that they are expressing. Their combination, and the sound they produce, are instead delegated that purpose. Hence there’s an inherent split between the meaning of the word and the letters it’s composed of. This, in McLuhan’s view, created a split in mankind’s psyche that forever affected it. The alphabet, he says, is a machine that irreversibly transforms primitive man into civilized man. No longer is the inner life connected to the outward expression. The phonetic alphabet instead teaches the reader to divorce his inner voice from the outward expression, enabling the pronunciation of words and the grasping of meaning. Thus the inner life of a person, apart from the life of society, becomes possible.

With this newly acquired ability, man was able to embark on a dramatic journey of progress -first led by the Greeks, then by the Romans. The alphabet taught us the ability to create homogeneous repetition; first in speech, and henceforth in industry. McLuhan believes this process to be irreversible: there’s never been a documented case of a civilization, once having acquired knowledge of the alphabet, to have fallen back to a primitive state. McLuhan’s ability to connect vast cultures with different languages and histories is admirable. In a sort of process by induction he endeavors to convince the reader by numerous cases how his hypothesis proves correct by touring the entire span of civilization.

Mcluhan is at his weakest when he tries to attach too much of history into the invention of the printing press. It is a topic that takes up about a quarter of the book and involves as diverse figures as Joyce, Francis Bacon and Shakespeare. In one instance, he argues that Shakespeare foresaw the coming commoditization of the written word through a small piece of one of his plays. In another, he argues that Joyce’s Finnegan’s Wake shows the fundamental nature of man now existing in a new state of altered sense ratios much in the way the printing press had done in the 15th century onwards. It’s almost like he cannot help but see the same patterns everywhere he looks – much like the entranced Africans he studies.

Still, The Gutenberg Galaxy should be required reading of any technologist, because it brings an understanding of the electronic age as the coming back of primitive man and his altered sense ratios as belonging to the ear. Think of the last time you looked at Twitter and saw a trending hashtag – how is that different to spreading gossip? Or the notifications that constantly beep from our computers and phones from all sorts of services that try to draw our attention – how is that different from people speaking to us and trying to catch our attention much like a Turkish bazaar? Instead of point to point communication which defined the 19th to 20th centuries (each technological iteration simply cutting down on the time for transmission), the new digital age is a graph, where multiple people affect each other in a multiplicity of ways. Thus, our modern age isn’t so different after all than that of a large gathering of cavemen by a campfire. The difference is that instead of clubs we have now nukes.

I believe that understanding the context of the media we use and how they affect us, simply be nature of the media itself, will enable us to be more conscious and thoughtful of the products and services we as technologists make. Perhaps in doing so we’ll purposefully create new mediums of communication that enable people to flourish in their lives instead of entrance them into submission.

Building a computer from scratch part III: Memory

univac

“The power of the memory is great, O Lord. It is awe-inspiring in its profound and incalculable complexity… The wide plains of my memory and its innumerable caverns and hollows are full beyond compute of countless things of all kinds.”

Confessions of St. Augustine, Book 10

Part I here.
Part II here.

So far, I’ve learned how to make combinational chips – chips designed to combine two or more inputs in different ways. In this section of the Nand2Tetris course, I focused on sequential chips – chips that control state within the computer. State fluctuates, it can be in one state at a moment in time, and in another state at another moment. The ability to recall this state, and change it at will is called the “memory” of a computer.

Human memory isn’t so much a collection of facts so much as impressions. These we can recall with decreasing accuracy as a function of time. Knowing this, if you could build a machine that could calculate anything and store its results, wouldn’t you want it to store things with perfect recall? Doing so would improve on our shortcomings and enable to do useful things with them. This is what a computer is able to do.

The simplest way to create and store finite values is through electromagnetic charge. We can turn the current on a chip to signify “on,” and turn the current off to signify “off”. Flipping in between these two states, we can create digital gates, called flip flops, that can store its previous state. The naming comes from how these chips behave internally – Nand gates flip in between true and false values thereby storing incoming values and outputting the previous value it received. Similar to how the ALU behaves by combining true/false statements and building complex operations from them, a computer’s memory is based on storing previous outputs and combining them into bits, registers, and eventually memory devices such as RAM, ROM, etc.

A flip flop is able to either “remember” its previous state, then output that, or output the current incoming signal. It can do this through a very simple digital gate design that combines a Multiplexer chip to control which signal gets stored in the flip flop:

A Neural Network design for emulating a 1-bit register
Source: Rick Dzekman

This is a 1-bit register, because it stores one value, 0 or 1 -or Bit. This is the fundamental building block of memory devices. We can easily chain multiple registers together to form registers that can hold inputs of arbitrary bus sizes. This creates a RAM, or Random Access Memory unit. So called because an input is able to access any register in constant time (it takes the same amount of time for the input to be stored in any register on the computer, even if there are 10, 1000, or a billion registers). To sum, we can visualize a unit of RAM memory through the following diagram supplied by the Nand2Tetris book:

The RAM unit has two inputs, a 16-bit “word” you want to store, and the address where you want to store the data in. There is also a “load” input, that controls whether the incoming signal will be stored or not. Finally, “out” will output the current signal it received (if load is false) or the previous state of it (if load is true).

Finally, there is a Counter chip that keeps track of the computations done in a computer. Because chips are located in different parts of a computer, and some calculations take more time than others, signals come to the ALU at different rates; if one signal arrives but another is still pending, the ALU will be outputting gibberish. To prevent this from happening a Counter chip is used to keeps all calculations done in a computer in sync with each other. The passage of time in a computer therefore, is measured in “cycles.” For each cycle, every gate in a computer will perform an action, then nothing more. Only after the counter chip increments time, or moves on to a new cycle, do the gates open up again and allow computations to be made. The cycle then repeats.

This sums the chapter on memory devices. Onwards now to machine language -the place where hardware and software meet.


Thank you for reading through this article. I haven’t stated what’s the purpose of these posts yet, so I’ll clarify now. The primary objective is to write out my learnings and thoughts in as clear way as I can about the subjects I’ve learned in the chapter. By writing and recalling what I learned, I hope to gain a deeper, more solid understanding of the material. The secondary object is simply to share with you all these learnings, and perhaps inspire you to explore on your own the questions you might have about computers in a way that is useful for you.

Building a computer from scratch part II

Part 1 is here.

After reviewing basic boolean operations and seeing how to implement them in their corresponding digital gates, we can now make boolean arithmetic operations. In chapter 3 of Nand2Tetris, we take the digital gates we created (And, Or, Mux, Xor, etc) and create an ALU, or Arithmetic Logic Unit. This is the heart of a computer.

But before going into the implementation of an ALU, it’s helpful to demonstrate how we can do basic arithmetic using boolean numbers.

Our numbering system is based on the decimal system, which was handed down to us by the Greeks, Roman and as far back as ancient Egypt. One way to represent a number, say 13, is by thinking about each decimal place as a digit times a multiple of ten, in increasing order. So, 5 could be thought of as 5 plus 10 to the power of 0 (since it’s the first position). 13 is 3 plus 10 to the power of one. 125 can be thus represented as follows:

1 * 102 + 2 * 101 + 5 * 100 = 100 + 20 + 5 = 125

Hieroglyphs of numbers carved into a temple wall in Egypt | Ancient history  archaeology, Ancient world history, Ancient egyptian
Egyptian glyphs for the number 1 million, three hundred thousand, thirty thousand thirty three hundred and thirty three.
AtoZChallenge X for X - that's ten in Roman Numerals - TravelGenee
Are those numbers or roman numerals?

In a generalized form:

(x_{n}x_{n-1}…x_{0}) = \sum_{i=0}^{n} x_{i}b^{i}

Where b is the base system we want to use (10, 2 or even 16!), x is the number we want to represent and i is the index.

Adding two numbers in binary is easy:

1 + 0 = 1
0 + 1 = 1
0 + 0 = 0
1 + 1 = 10

When two ones are added, we get zero and move a carry to the next place, just like we do in our own decimal numbering system. What happens if we get 5 – 3? What about subtraction? To calculate this, we have to include negative numbers in our computer. To do it, we use the 2’s complement system:

  1. We use the last bit as a sign operator (0 denoting positive, 1, denoting negative)
  2. We represent negative numbers by taking the 2’s complement of the number.

The number 4 in a 4-bit computer is 0010, and -4 is 1101, which also represents the number 13. We know this represents a negative number because the first sign bit is 1, meaning negative. To get the 2’s complement, we reverse the numbers so that 0s become 1s and 1s become 0s, and then add 1 to it.

Dropping In on Gottfried Leibniz—Stephen Wolfram Writings
Gottfried Leibniz’s explanation on binary numbers is unfortunately not much better than mine.

A special feature of using the 2’s complement system is that subtraction can be performed by using addition. For example, let’s say you want to do the following calculation, 5-3. To do it, we can represent the operation as 5 – 3 = 5 + (-3). To solve, we can just add five to the 2’s complement of 3 and get our result:

5 in binary: 0101

3 in binary: 0011
1’s complement of 3: 1100
2’s complement of 3: 1101

To subtract 5 from 3, add the 2’s complement of 5 and -3, then drop the overflow:
0101 + 1101 = 0010.

Which is 2. The implications of these results are significant, it means that a single chip will be able to encapsulate all the basic arithmetic operators on a hardware unit. This unit we call the ALU (Arithmetic Logic Unit).

The course was smart, in my opinion, in having the student create incremental chips that make up the ALU, rather than diving head first into it. Like many things in engineering, solving a really hard problem usually starts by breaking it into smaller, more manageable problems. Thus the following chips were incrementally implemented:

  • Half Adder: a chip that can add two bits
  • Full Adder: a chip that can add two bits plus a carry
  • Adder: a chip that add two binary numbers up to n bits (in our case, 16 bits)
  • Incrementor: Adds a binary number by 1, takes care of carry.

Compared with the rest of the chips that I previously implemented, the ALU is a monster of a chip:

Elements of Computing Systems

Let’s break it down. On the input side:
zx: zero the x input
ny: negate the x input
zy: zero the y input
ny: negate the y input
f: function that computes the output to be x + y (if f is 1) or x & y (if f is 0)
no: negate the output

On the output side:
out: output of the computation
zr: 1 if out is 0, 0 otherwise
ng: 1 if out is less than 0,  0 otherwise

Conceptually, we can think of the ALU as a chip that takes two input numbers and applies a series of boolean functions to it depending on whether those “control bits” are 1 or 0. The making of the ALU took quite some time to figure out, but it ended up being, as the previous lesson proved, an exercise in breaking down complex problems into smaller, more manageable problems. One thing to note is that this ALU was designed specifically for the Nand2Tetris course and the professors cautioned that this is a very simple version of an ALU, yet it is completely functional.

A small part of the logic gate design for my ALU

This was a great lesson where I was able to my continue learnings on how to make digital gates. It’s humbling to think, as a software engineer, that all operations and fancy code libraries we create are reduced to simple addition operations between two binary numbers – done billions of times over. I think it’s a testament to the rock-solid mathematical principles that underly these systems. The early programmers did not have a bunch of code libraries to help them: they had to rely on themselves to create these extremely complex systems at very small scale and I think the only way they were able to do it was by relying on mathematical certainty and reliable hardware engineering to enable their creations to work.

After this lesson, I wonder what methods or processes I can use to enable me to write code that accomplishes the task well and does it in a way that takes advantage of the hardware beneath it.


Building a computer from scratch

“People who are really serious about software should make their own hardware.”

Alan Kay

I grew up learning about software like what imagine many developers do nowadays: doing tutorials online and building cool apps in my spare time. I learned about algorithms and data structures and got to learn a LOT more in my job by seeing “how the sausage is made.”

While browsing though online forums, I came across a video of Alan Kay, the creator of the GUI interface and object-oriented programming – ubiquitous inventions that in their absence would make the current world unrecognizable. In this video he mentioned something that blew me away. To paraphrase:

Most ideas don’t scale well, they merely provide incremental change. What’s needed is a change in perspective, an opening up of the world, to look at something in totally new ways, that can provide order of magnitude improvements.

In my day-to-day job, I look at incremental improvements in my program by using shorthand notation, eliminating redundant dependencies, and using design patterns to solve common problems. But if I want to really make a change, if I want to become a really good programmer, I had to change my perspective at a fundamental level. More fundamental than software. More fundamental than the operating system. I needed to understand how a computer works.

Isn’t it amazing? As a software engineer, I have no idea how a computer works. I can say that I know how it works, such as “instructions are sent to the CPU which calculates stuff, and those results are in binary which get translated to assembly which get translated into code by a compiler.” But I don’t really know how that works or even what I am saying when I state these things.

That is why I decided to start the course, Nand2Tetris. It’s a freely given course with an accompanying textbook that teaches you, step by step, on how to make a computer from scratch.

The first lesson of this course focused on Boolean algebra. It’s essentially a branch of mathematics that deals with truthy statements. This is what computers boil down to. Statement are either true or false, 1 or 0. Combined together, they can form complex operations which, almost miraculously, give rise to the computer itself.

There are many different kinds of such statements, or Boolean functions. These include:

  • And
  • Or
  • Not
  • Nand
  • Xor
  • Mux
  • DMux

Each of these can be implemented through physical chips, called digital gates. These gates implement a a boolean function, which provide different outputs depending on their inputs. These input/output combinations are described by Truth Table, as shown below:

AND Gate | Digital Logic Gates | Electronics Tutorial
Credit: electronics-tutorial.net

The first week of Nand2Tetris involved creating the digital gates described above through a single, primitive gate, the Nand gate. Based on the truth table representation of the chip, and its API, I had to create the chip based only on Nand gates and other gates which I previously made. Thus, brick by brick, a house is starting to be built. Some of the gates were straightforward to implement. For example, a Nand gate is simply an And gate connected to a Not gate:

logic nand gate
Credit: electronics-tutorial.net

Another gate, the Xor gate was not so trivial. To come up with it, we can look at the desired truth table we want to achieve with the gate:

Credit: electronics-tutorial.net

Then, we can create a boolean function that could represent the inputs and output, as long as the output is true. One such function is the following:

Thus by creating a statement that fulfills the truth table’s conditions, and simplifying it to its canonical representation, we can create a digital gate diagram that corresponds to that.

These digital gates don’t necessarily have to take a single number input, they can take a group of them, called a “bus.” The course specifies creating a “16-bit” computer, meaning that it is able to compute binary numbers up to 16 bits in length at a time.

This was an excellent exercise in flexing my logic muscles and brushing up on my Math skills. The next week will be a big step forward: building an ALU and Memory that will be able to both compute and store the processes that my computer will perform.

De-cluttering your digital life

If you aren’t paying for the product, you are the product

There’s a popular movement in the West called, “minimalism.” Although it spans many fields, a particular application is the de-cluttering of people’s homes, the cleaning out of extraneous possessions. As it clears out a space, so it clears up the mind –even the soul. I would like to propose we do the same with our digital lives. Why bother filling your life with Netflix subscriptions and purchases of latest phones when we know that life is most clearly enjoyed in the company of other human beings? Why would you let someone else steal your personal information and profit from their sharing? To this end, I’ve compiled a few questions which you can ask yourself to de-clutter your digital life, and perhaps break the addiction of screens that are dragging your life down.

  • Do I store my music on my devices or with a cloud provider? If it’s by a cloud provider, do I have a compelling reason to do so?
  • Who do I share my personal information with?
  • Do I use an ad blocker? If not, you should get one immediately. I recommend Brave.
  • Can I list, on a napkin or post-it note, the number of services that I’m subscribed to online? If you can’t remember, you should research and know; if the number goes past the length of the note, it’s too much. Digital services should be considered utilities and given the same kind of attention to each month.
  • When I open my computer, do I know exactly what I’m using it for? In other words, am I using my computer to accomplish a task, or is the computer using me to accomplish a profit?

The computer and the internet were made to make men more free in their ability to know and create. However, a person lacking in virtue can easily let these freedoms overwhelm their temperance and cause one to gorge on the endless variety of pleasures it provides. A virtuous individual will be able to use these tools to make him/herself better. A virtuous citizen will be able to use them to make the community around them, and their country as a whole, better. If we cannot make the right decisions about how we use computers, we risk having the organizations behind them (whether it be the manufacturer, political party, etc.) take control over our attention, and therefore, our minds.

Welcome to class, this app will be your teacher

In becoming a teacher, I’ve lost my mind…but found my heart and soul.”  

Students looking at the Museum’s mobile app

When was the last time you downloaded an app to learn something? This month? This week? Today? Education is one the largest app categories on the App Store, and the advent of COVID has only increased the number of educational apps that assist with remote learning. The trend of online learning has increased in recent years thanks to the advent of machine learning and big data —an increased amount of data means recommendations and attuned instruction can be provided to users based on their previous behavior. This generated enormous success for software companies: apps like Duolingo, Coursera, Lynda, etc. have become household names, and the companies behind them became multi-billion-dollar enterprises.

At the same time, the number of education majors in the United States has decreased over 20% in the last years, one the greatest declines in all majors. The salary of a teacher, especially primary education, is one of the lowest in the nation. So much so that 1 in 6 teachers need to take another job to make ends meet. It is a difficult, stressful job with an enormous workload and little to no recognition.

If the success of educational applications are increasing, why is the number of people who live for education declining? What has happened that’s caused our society to shift the responsibility of learning, one the most fundamental aspects of being human, from teachers, to software?

Like an artist that draws lines and ovals to ketch a painting, I won’t be answering this question fully, but rather hint at where the answer may lie. This will be forthcoming in my next post…

The Culture of Space-Faring People

Up there, just above us, is the Moon…Unrubbed by wind. Unwashed by rain…Standing there, unblinking since time began.” — Moonwalk One, 2009.

Fifty years after men first walked on the moon, private corporations are readying to make space travel, in the words of Elon Musk, “as common as air travel.” The science of space exploration, much like the other sciences we study in the modern world, frequently eclipse the values and meaning we derive from them. What are we to do with the realization that space travel will be so common? How would we define ourselves as a species, as a community no longer bound by Earth? Is venturing out into the lifeless void of space even worth it? 

These and other questions linger about like dirty dishes we leave in the kitchen sink —they are ever present in our minds, and will start to stink if we don’t do anything about them. For decades, a techno-centric view of the world has been dominating the discourse of education and in the minds of our leaders: STEM-focused curriculums, the rise in engineering degrees coupled with a precipitous decline in the humanities, are evidence to the decline of “value-based thinking.” As the popular intellectual Sam Harris succinctly stated: “When you are adhering to the highest standards of logic and evidence, you are thinking scientifically. And when you’re not, you’re not.” That is, all human knowledge is scientific knowledge; if it isn’t scientific, it is not real knowledge. 

By reducing our view of the world in this strict sense, we become blinded to the other kinds of ways of knowing about the world, such as stories. But the stories our culture sells aren’t “fiction” anymore: they are “science fiction,” as if to indicate the supremacy of scientific thought in our collective imagination–now bound by the physical laws of our universe. No more talking animals, bring in the aliens instead! A wardrobe that leads to another world? Well that’s just a wormhole built by scientists. No heroes that hurl thunder, only genetically modified soldiers. I don’t want to give the reader the impression that I’m a science-basher–I am a software engineer after all. Science helps us understand the natural world by observing it and deriving laws that describe our universe at large; it does not tell us about what makes for a happy life, what a rose smells like, or why we should even bother to study the universe at all. In this sense, there’s a dire need to ask, and answer, the moral questions that arise from our exploration into space, and not just the scientific ones. This isn’t just an ethical question, it’s an epistemological one: if we don’t ask the whys, we will never attain a full understanding of the universe. 

One can think of the recent developments by SpaceX, NASA and other small companies in making accessible space travel as a distraction; a commendable but unnecessary enterprise that does more to fill up the ambitions of billionaires instead of the bellies of the poor and hungry. Isn’t our world enough to fill our needs? Can’t we instead spend our precious time and energy in creating communities of solidarity? Shouldn’t we learn to love one another first before venturing out into the void? 

I believe there are many answers to this question, but there’s one that stands out by its sheer compatibility with our biology and spiritual make up which I wish to make a case for. 

Fossil evidence tells us that man first appeared on Earth in the tropical heartland of Africa about two millions years ago. Since then, he ventured out: first into the Middle East and Europe, then India, China, the whole of Asia, and finally, the Americas. What drove those first people out of their evolutionary crib? Hunger? Competition? War? We don’t know. But then again, we surely know, as anyone who’s been forced to sit in a room for a long time can attest. Remember that time you were explicitly told not to do something and immediately felt a burning desire to do it? We all carry that fire within us — that curiosity, desire for exploration, rebelliousness even. Could this same feeling also have driven our ancestors out of their homelands? 

Our desire to explore is innate. What is the source of this desire is debatable, but to deny it exists is like saying we don’t feel cravings when presented with a delicious piece of cake. Like that piece of cake, we are compelled to engage in the act of discovery when given the chance, and the undertaking feels like a reward in itself. In the course of history, exploration has proven to be excellent at displaying the better parts of our nature: teamwork to accomplish a goal, patience in the face of overwhelming odds and suffering, ingenuity in crafting solutions, the list goes on. Aristotle tells us that something is most itself when it is able to demonstrate its own excellence. The function of excellence in man, according to him, is his reason. It is that higher capacity to think, discern and understand that separates us from the animals and makes us “a little less than the angels.” Isn’t this excellence present when man explores? Who can deny the teamwork involved to visit far-off places? Who can ignore the patience exercised in the face of overwhelming odds, of ingenuity required to craft solutions, of courage to face dangerous obstacles? To venture out into the unknown, is to venture into the deepest parts of our soul to find out what we’re made of. Outer space, the ultimate unknown, fascinates us in its ethereal brilliance and confronts us with cosmic dread. Space travel indeed can become the last, great frontier of exploration left for humanity to conquer. 

What does a society that accepts this proposition look like? What, in other words, does the culture of a space-faring civilization look like? Consider: the stories which space-faring people could tell one another will just, if not more outstanding, than any fantasy we can conjure up on Earth. By expanding our imagination to the literally cosmic level, we open up ourselves to a universe of unimaginable beauty, danger and excitement. These fantasies and stories meld closely with the amazing science which the civilization would have created. The achievements of the human mind would be in full display as people regularly bend the rules of space and time to travel vast distances to other worlds. The conception of what these people believe possible would be much more flexible than our own. The creation of such technologies and the incredible wealth of knowledge necessary to understand and describe them would probably mean that there would only be a few who understand how these machines function, with the vast majority of people content to go about their daily lives. It would be interesting to consider whether the common people would see the marvels of technologies which they come into contact with as “magic,” or accept a passing description of them much the same way one presses to ask a person how a plane flies.

Throughout the centuries, people have described the place they live in as a prologue to the history that took place there. A person born in France isn’t just born in the modern nation-state of “France” — she carries within herself a whole mythos of francophone culture, imbued with the spirit, blood and sweat that was poured within the bounds of the society she lives in. Even the first pilgrims that arrived to America could recognize that they weren’t alone, that the lands which they lived were inhabited far longer than their memories could imagine. But what of settlers who arrive on a new planet? What would they think of themselves as they start a new colony? With the only connection to the rest of humanity being the delicate strand of their own past, the new generations born out of their parents could feel far greater independence and self-reliance than societies on earth do. 

The increase in technological prowess will not change how people behave, merely the means and ways in which they can pursue the object of their desire. As our mastery over matter increases, will the mastery over our senses increase as well? Our appetites are infinite, and nothing in the universe can satisfy them completely. It is plausible to assume that, if the technology becomes available, some will tap into the Tree of Life to create (as oppose to capture) human slaves that do their bidding. As the creation of nuclear weapons, biological and chemical weapons have shown, the capability for man to commit crimes of depravity increase as his means (i.e technological power) increase. Cain killed his only brother in jealousy; will a future Cain kill billions in amusement? Facts can tell us how the world works, values tell us how we should treat it. It remains to the hearts of future explorers to discern how they will educate their progeny in light of their increased power. A person in the 1800s could only harm as much as his rifle allowed; the same person in the year 2300 could destroy an entire continent (perhaps he/she have enough access to anti-matter). Alternatively, if individuals are not as effective in self-government as their technology would allow them, we could imagine a government that maintains absolute control over them to effectuate the safety of its citizens. A Leviathan-like state that tracks its citizens’ every move and quickly effectuates justice could maintain the tight grip required to keep society from obliterating itself. For “at the end of the path of liberation lies enslavement. Such liberation from all obstacles is finally illusory, for two simple reasons: human appetite is insatiable and the world is limited” (Patrick Deneen, Why Liberalism Failed).

When God gave Adam the garden of Eden to tend, He gave him dominion over all creation. He did not say, “Everything under the atmosphere you can explore,” or “stay within the bounds of the garden I made.” Yes, for a long time, our species has dwelt in the circle of the earth and looked above to the stars as the plane of the gods. We can now expand our horizon of understanding to include this plane, acknowledging that the eternal fire wasn’t contained there, or anywhere else for that matter, for it dwells outside and inside all there is. We can venture out with confidence therefore, into the unexplored realm of the celestial heavens, assured that the sense of wonder that propels us is good and guided by the creator himself.

A prayer before coding

Lord, I am about to begin work on my computer. I thank you father, for having given humanity the light of reason to be able to make such wondrous machines. I thank you for my desire for knowledge, which I know can only be filled by knowing you.

I pray, dear Lord, that you may help me in the work I am about to begin. Help me stay focused and keen in my work. Help me to control my mind and heart so that I don’t drift into distraction. No, Lord, be the cloud ahead of me, the pillar of fire above me that leads me to clear thinking and piercing insight.

Thank you Jesus. In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.