Falling leaves, covering ground

I grew up in New Mexico and have lived in New York for over forty years now. One of the reasons I haven’t gone back where I came from is the New England Fall. [1] It is the most reliable of our transient seasons: spring and fall. Spring is finicky; it can linger or come and go in a flash. It just takes a late blizzard, or lots of rain, or an early heat wave to make spring very short.

But fall can be trusted — there are definite events that mark its progress. Each is be associated with a specific day or or a period of a few days. Here’s a list of my fall milestones:

When the red maple at the base of our lawn reaches its full splendor:

October06 066

The day when as I drive away from my house in the morning I first notice the sun’s light distracting me because so many leaves have fallen from the roadsite trees.

The day when there’s some wind and I first hear the soft rustle of falling leaves.

And last the day that this year came today. That’s the day the maple in front of our house starts to shed its all leaves, a sure sign that all the trees in our area will soon be bare.

I decided to take a few pictures with my digital camera, to see if I could capture some sign of change during the day — and perhaps even come up with a blog post.

I decided to start by taking a picture of a falling leaf. I went outside, found a branch, readied the camera, saw a leaf starting to tall, pushed the shutter button, and watched the leaf fall out of the field of view because I had forgotten the one-second delay that occurs between the time you press the shutter and the time the camera actually takes the picture.

That lag of a second is an example of what I call the “future is now” effect, an unexpected shift or warping of time. I first noticed it when I started blogging. I came to understand that it made no sense to post in a narrative order because blog engines such as WordPress display the most recent entries first. So as an author when each new story you should expect most readers will read a post you have yet to write before they read the one you have just written.

Similarly with a digital camera, though the effect here is “now is the future.” To take a digital picture — or at least with the under-one-hundred-dollar camera I use –is to take a picture one second in the future. That works fine for people trying to sit still, but makes it hard to catch a falling leaf.

So I decided to step back, so it would take longer for a leaf to fall out of the field of view. A leaf can fall far in one second so I wound up some distance away. Here’s a picture, taken around 9AM:

November 5 - Leaves 005

There is a falling leaf somewhere in there — I promise. They may even be a Waldo, though I didn’t look for him.

(By the way, one of my favorite childhood photos is one that I took with an old Kodak camera back in the 50’s at what was called “Armed Forces Day” out our local U.S. Air Force base. It was a chance to visit the base and see actual airplanes. I was so enchanted by a gigantic B-52 that I decided to take a picture of my mother and the plane. Since I was more enchanted by the size of the plane than of a close view of my mother, I kept walking back until I finally had the whole damn plane in the viewfinder. I must have wound up a quarter-mile away, because if you look at the picture you see just the outline of a B-52 and a small dot — my mother — underneath the wing.)

I then realized I had also taken a picture of the lawn under the tree, and so could mark the progress of the falling leaves by taking a picture later in the day.

I took several more more pictures. You can even see my shadow in one of them:

Dave's shadow

I got back from the gym a few hours later and decided to give it another go. I decided that I pointed the camera upward and took a picture as a leaf started to fall then I could keep it the field of view. That didn’t work. So I just started taking pictures, almost trying to anticipate when a leaf might start to fall.[2] I eventually captured a falling leaf:

A falling leaf

Note the tree with no leaves in the center background. It’s the same red maple pictured first in this post.

I took another picture of the lawn around noon:

November 5 - Leaves 016Lawn at noon

I thought about it a bit, and finally realized how the story told by the pictures relates to open-source.

Don’t look at the falling leaves — look at the ground. More of the ground is covered at noon than was the case at 9AM. Though each leaf is very small, collectively the leaves that fell in those three hours have covered a noticable new part of my front lawn.

And that’s just what happens each and every day in the world of open-source. Thousands of developers are working at all hours, all over the globe. Many times each day, one of them sends a patch to this project, or another one checks in a new module to that project, or another one announces the release of a new version of yet another project. This process of incremental change goes on constantly.

And each such action, however tiny, is like a leaf falling — it covers new ground. Open-source just keeps on getting better and better.

We’ve all heard the line often uttered just after someone tells a joke they particularly like: “Does it get any better than this?”

With open-source, it does get better than this. What open-source is available tomorrow will be better than what is available. While some projects may take a step back from time, collectively open-source just keeps getting better … and better .. and better. [3]


1. Re “back where I came from, ” see the page A. J. Liebling.

2. It is possible to do things in a very small time interval by using a random approach. During my college summers I worked at the Air Force Weapons Lab (AWFL) in Albuquerque. Much of my time the first summer was taking pictures of traces from an oscilloscope of events that happened in microsends. As part of that I had a microsecond resolution timer manufactured by HP. There were separate buttons to start and stop the time. By making many attempts to see how short a period I could put together, I was able to produced elapsed times in the microseconds, even though the muscles in the body respond at the milliseond level. Random samples produced what seemed an impossible result.

A similar use of randomness is the fundamental idea behind the ethernet as we know it today. It began as an experiment in sending messages between the islands of Hawaii. The key idea was not to synchronize the packets but to introduce a random delay between successive packets.

IBM took a different approach to coordinating packets, in the form of the “token ring.” Though it offered better performance initially it was eventually driven to extinction as the hardware needed to support the ethernet protocol became commoditized and thus eventually allowed ethernet-based networking to overtake the token-ring approach — good news for Cisco, bad news for IBM.

One could probably put together an interesting experiment for high-school science students based on this idea.

3. As it happens, WordPress took a step back recently. We’ll get to that in a puzzler to be posted soon.


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