Many years ago I read a short story by Isaac Asimov – The Last Question – which was my first introduction to the principle of entropy. The fact that everything is cooling down, like a giant cup of tea left forgotten on the corner of God’s workbench and will, one day, simply run out of energy and grind to a cold, dark halt at absolute zero is one that fascinates me. However, more prosaically, entropy is something we all have to contend with on a daily basis… Everything ages, becomes frail and, eventually all things slow down and fail, and usually they do so in accordance with Seren’s 9th Law: ‘If something is going to break down, it will do so in the most annoying and inconvenient way possible’.
Printer ink never runs out when you accidentally print out half a million copies of the wrong page of a document and have all the time in the world – but it will run out midway through printing anything that you need immediately, against a deadline and for which there is no substitute for a paper copy – death row pardons, boarding passes and the like. To add insult to injury, it will always be yellow ink that runs out and brings your printer to a grinding halt, no matter that you only ever use black.
Cars only break down, when they are geographically furthest from population and in a mobile phone dead zone, and usually just a couple of days after they’ve been serviced and given a clean bill of health. Batteries only run out, when you need to make a critical life or death phone call or on a long, lonely night, when frustration sets in, (girls, you know what I’m talking about!)
When the universe finally does come to an end, it’ll almost certainly do so according to Seren’s 9th Law, on a Friday evening, when you’ve just spent hours cleaning the bathroom, are looking forward to a fun weekend, and after you’ve shelled out on a pizza for supper, but before it gets delivered… That’s the Laws of Physics for you.
There is an addendum to the 9th Law, which states ‘Just when you think you’ve solved the problem, something equally annoying will crop up’; perfectly illustrated by my experiences this week, after one of my monitors went ‘phut’, turned black and died.
The issue – an expired backlight, and for an ageing monitor, it simply wasn’t worth the time and effort to attempt to repair it – even supposing I could get the part, so I gritted my teeth and ordered a new one. Remember what the Law says about inconvenience? – Well, this would of course be a week when I was working away, so delivery wasn’t an option, and I was left with the option of collection, within a 30 minute window, squeezed in between traveling back home and the store closing, after which I wouldn’t have a chance until the weekend, by which time my order would have expired. Somehow, I managed it and, once again, I was up and running.
Then, this morning, my mouse decided to die… No reason, no warning, no mouse. The lights were on, but there was definitely no-one at home. Of course, I was in a hurry, with a train to catch, and of course, my ticket details necessitated a mouse for retrieval… A perfect example of the Addendum to the 9th Law in action.
Annoyingly, computers are experts when it comes to breaking down in this fashion, and that’s where I think Asimov got it wrong… There’s just no way that a computer like Multivac and its subsequent iterations could ever have functioned for any length of time without crashing, breaking down and suffering critical errors that would have brought the system to its digital knees. When computers fail in movies and books, it’s always in a quirky, weird, spectacular and fun way – in the real world, computers die in far more boring, and infinitely more irritating and fatal ways – that’s the one thing he just didn’t consider.
It’s something that most of us don’t consider either. A huge number of us expect our devices to function perfectly without ever considering how that can be achieved. We neglect updates, backing-up, general housekeeping and management of bloat, and then, when it all goes horribly wrong, we think we’re hard done by. We like to complain that SL is often booked, but – trust me – if most of us were in charge, SL simply wouldn’t work at all, ever!
Much as we love to deride them, the Lindens do a pretty good job of working behind the scenes to make sure that everybody’s favourite virtual world runs error free and does what it’s supposed to, (sort of). Not only that, but but they have to make sure it’s up to date too – whilst we have the choice as to whether we want to break our machines by installing Windoze 10, the Lab don’t get to choose: They have to ensure SL works on 10, as well as everything that went before, and let’s not mention all those other operating systems us awkward types like to use. Then there’s a million different graphics cards to cater for – I struggle to cope with my own – and goodness knows how many different system set ups. It’s a wonder SL ever works for anyone at all!
Despite these challenges, SL development still goes on… Projects Bento and Valhalla, VMM, and more to come in the pipeline, including a 64 bit official Viewer – all very exciting, and a bit of a kick in the teeth to the Laws of Physics, if you ask me… Things are supposed to slow down and become a bit of a shambles as they grow older – I speak from experience – but SL just refuses to die. It seems our virtual world likes nothing better than to give entropy the middle finger.
And maybe, by being part of this virtual grand design, so do we… Our bodies may age, but our minds stay young, and our avatars retain their vitality… And when the universe does eventually collapse in an untidy, worn out heap at the end of time, it wouldn’t surprise me in the slightest if SL is still going strong, right up to the bitter end!
I’ll stick with you baby for a thousand years
Nothing’s gonna touch you in these golden years, gold
David Bowie – Golden Years