Tuesday, March 02, 2010

Subsidiarity - A View From the Real World

Yes, my friends, it was ten years ago today - a third of a billion seconds ago - that Subsidiarity stopped being an abstraction: something only written about, or argued about, or doubted, or debated, or derided, or praised. For on March 2, 2000, it entered the Real World, and so this day shall ever be kept as the Feast Day of Subsidiarity. (Note for liturgists: the Proper for the day has not been selected yet. If you wish to commemorate the day, you might consider either the Wedding at Cana - "do whatever He tells you" or the Washing of the Feet at the Last Supper - "I have come not to be served, but to serve".) And just as I began my posting about fiction with a picture of reality, I begin this posting about reality with an illustration from fiction:

That's "Joe the Control Room Guy", a fictional character who WATCHES Subsidiarity in action, standing in front of the big dish by which it occurred.

But today let us hear a little about the reality from which that story sprouted, even if it reads more like fiction. After all, "we have made fiction to suit ourselves". [GKC Heretics CW1:67] But the big dish was not fiction, nor was the machinery associated with it, nor the workers who made it happen.

Very early in the morning of Thursday March 2, 2000, one of the Field Techs at a certain cable television company had driven to a headend (the local distribution site for the viewing public) in central Pennsylvania.

There he installed six inserters. These are large black boxes, each weighing about 80 pounds. They contain a computer, two huge hard drives (huge for 2000, that is) and eight MPEG playback cards. These six computers were linked with each other into what we call the "subtree" - an ethernet network, much like what everyone calls "the INTERNET" except there was neither e-mail nor web pages there. Here's what one with four inserters (a portal and three leaves) looks like:

But on that Thursday, there were five leaves connected with the portal. A portal contained two satellite communications cards, which were linked to a four-foot-wide satellite dish, enabling it to communicate with our headquarters, back in the suburbs of a certain city in southeastern Pennsylvania. (Bear in mind that the leaves cound not communicate directly with headquarters - that's where the interesting part begins.)

The Field Tech then set the satellite dish in precise alignment to a satellite, moving in geosynchronous orbit somewhere over the midwest. He broke into the headend connections in the video and audio lines for 48 different cable networks, linking each of them into the corresponding playback cards within those inserters. By now it was sometime in the late morning. He started all the computers working, he checked that the satellite connection had been made, and then called in to our headquarters.

Here's our headquarters, showing the flow of spots from customers through various departments and machinery, outwards towards the Field (the headends scattered across the mid-Atlantic region):

Then, at headquarters, the lunatic software developer who had written some 50,000 lines of code in the past year, connected to the distant headend by telephone, checked everything, cleared the various conveyor belts, and put the various wheels into motion - the Engine which received the cuetones that trigger the playback of spots, and the Ferry which handled transport of files among the computers of the subtree; on the portal it handled tranport over the satellite to our headquarters. The work of the system began that day: in the Field, the inserters at the headends played spots according to their instructions, requesting them when necessary; at headquarters, the PUMP program sent out spots when requested by the portals in the Field, and informed the Operators of needed spots - and all the many other activities which went on, far too many and too complex to note here.

This work continued for the next 2000 days, that is about five and a half years. Around another 100 headends received their inserters. Every day about 200 schedules were sent out, which caused some 1200 requests for spots to be sent - an average of 120 spots were delivered. Every day over 100,000 spots were played. All these processes were made visible in the Control Room by a program called WATCHER - in particular the needed spots and the spots being transported. That activity of spot transport became known to the Control Room Operators and to workers in Traffic and Field Services as "Subsidiarity" - the software which had been written according to papal encyclicals which proposed an orderly method for handling complex activities - like spot transport.

No longer was Subsidiarity an abstraction. No longer was it just a theory, no longer was it just an idea, or just a suggestion of how things might be done.

Subsidiarity was real. It was visible - you could watch it happen. It worked, and it worked well. It was relied upon by a multi-billion-dollar business, one of the largest media companies in the world.

Do not feel any qualms about whether machinery can perform something so radically human. This system was "doing" Subsidiarity in the exact way that the followers of Jesus are "salt" or "seeds" or "wise or foolish virgins carrying oil lamps" - that is, by analogy. But as in those cases, the analogy was instructive - indeed, highly illuminating.

In ten years, the electromagnetic beams of those spot requests and spot transports have extended past Sirius... Subsidiarity has been proclaimed to our Galaxy.

I told you a week or two ago I had found a remarkable Chesterton quote which bears upon this matter - it voiced something I had not been able to express. It was really astounding, and I think you will also find it so. Here it is:
It has been the boast of religion that all religious acts are irrevocable; the rite of baptism, the vow of celibacy, the vow of marriage. But, indeed, all acts are irrevocable; hence all acts are in their nature more religious than words. Many truths follow from this; one truth that follows is that the only actual, rugged, realistic, robust, and practical religion is the thing called Ritualism. But one other thing that follows is this, that an overt and defiant act is always the best way of arousing controversy. Argument never really begins until someone has gone beyond argument. We can all reason about actions, but it bores even a rationalist perpetually to reason about reasonings. The discussion gets too far away from life if there is not some solid palpable proceeding within approximate reach to be discussed. As the not unknown writer of the Vixere fortes knew very well, heroes depend a good deal upon poets, but poets depend upon heroes also. One does not like to think of what a miserable condition poets would be in if they had nothing but poets to write about. Therefore, I look with pleasure upon any positive action done anywhere in a good cause. It ought to raise the question better than questions raise it. The best way to raise a question in the modern world is not even to ask the question yourself. The best way is to answer the question yourself. Then you may have some faint and far-off hope that other people may begin to ask it.
[GKC ILN Dec 15 1906 CW27:347-8, bold added.]
Yes. There you have it. This event of ten years ago was an overt and defiant act. It went beyond argument. It was the all but incredible yet highly fruitful result of letting a Chestertonian computer scientist "revert to the doctrinal methods of the thirteenth century" since he was "inspired by the general hope of getting something done." [GKC Heretics CW1:46] Like St. Paul he appealed to Roma [Acts 25:11] - and Roma answered. [See Rerum Novarum and Quadragesimo Anno but especially Centesimus Annus.]

You may say this is all a matter of argument - all a matter of words, of analogies, of an odd verbal parallel. But 200,000 TV commercials, which played over 230 million times, which were requested by the Field by means of some 2 million PSRs and which were delivered by multicast via satellite to an average of 6.5 portals each time - well, that goes quite a bit beyond argument. You might as well discard the "Good Samaritan" parable because it doesn't actually define what a neighbor is! [We recently considered Fr. Ricciotti's comments on that parable and its application to our topic.]

Here's the real picture of the big dish by which everything happened:

I would like to write more, but I can't do it now. Rather, I already have: there are two books, one fiction, one non-fiction, waiting for you to read them - they tell everything you might wish to know. (Except how to write the software, but that's the boring part anyway.) There's even a poem, if you prefer that form.

People are still asking "What is Subsidiarity" as if it has to do with economics or government, as if it were something abstract and most likely a useless academic speculation appearing in just another journal article. That possibility, that view has been closed permanently. For not only from design but from careful observation of this real world system over 2000 days, I have proposed this answer: "Subsidiarity is like unto a cable TV spot distribution system for local ad insertion, made of leaves and portals and HOME and the Control Room, of FERRY and PUMP and WATCHER... Now go and do likewise."

--Dr. Thursday.

PS. My thanks to my friends, the co-workers who helped make it happen. It really is an everlasting adventure.

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