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Category Archives: science

An open letter to the creators of “The Expanse”

the_expanseC/O Everyone That Creates ‘The Expanse’

Possibly Somewhere in Hollywood? Dunno. Well, these are the Internets, so wherever you are…

 

You’re going to be cancelled.

You know it, the executives know it, and we know it. Yup, we, the audience, even those of us who forked over the cash for the iTunes season pass.

What? How do I know? While I have neither heard or read any news in this regard whatsoever, I am absolutely certain that after you have put out several more episodes of what is without a doubt the best hard Science Fiction show in years you will face the obvious result: imminent cancellation.

That’s right. The show is too fucking good. You could have plodded along with some aliens invading or apocalyptic something-or-other, or zombies, all goo with some crappy plastic models hanging on strings, but no. You had to focus on gritty realism, character development, and seamless execution of what the day-to-day reality of a spacefaring civilization would be like. Visual and sensory detail and beauty that put you above a majority of all science fiction ever put on screen. Evolving complex plots or characters that would need several hours of “Previously on…” previews to get anyone up to speed. A worthy successor to every good show we’ve loved in recent years: Battlestar GalacticaStargate Universe, Firefly …. Hell, the pilot is on par with some of the best movies in the genre (save for, naturally, the fact that the plot is not appropriately compressed).

Btw, speaking of Firefly. Get some Joss Whedon juice in there. A few more jokes. You need one character who isn’t brooding. Someone has to be fired up about being in space, right?

Anyway, you have chosen to put your show on TV, Syfy of all places, which as we have seen pretty much guarantees you will be cancelled in the most unexpected, gut-wrenching way possible.

Granted, you may be able to advance painfully for a few seasons, as you are constantly actually shut down or threatened with cancellation, and then brought back from the brink in what at this point is, I think, a concerted effort by certain television executives to whip up a fan movement that will continue to buy every book, movie, pin, photo, shred of set, or any kind of other artifact of the show for years to come. Merchandising rights. That’s what they go for, isn’t it?

Regardless. This is going to happen.

So, I beseech you to get ready now and, furthermore, I would also like to extend any offer of help I can for the campaign that will follow your upcoming cancellation. Maybe we can come up with a hashtag?

To all space nerds! Get ready as well. We should start the online howling now, just to be in shape for when it matters. Plus, I’m sure we all have some forms leftover from BSG or SGU that we can use.

To everyone else: you know, could do us space nerds a solid and just watch this goddamn science fiction show for once. You ignored our pleas with BSG. Fine. Same with everything else really.  Just once we would like to have nice things. Put it on mute, we don’t care. Give it ratings. You can keep CSI, Survivor, and whatever else.

IMPORTANT RE: THE LAST TWO PARAGRAPHS — getting people to watch the show will not, as you would expect, stop it from getting cancelled. It will get cancelled. It will. This is a fact. The sooner we all accept this, the better. Having more people watching might make it easier to have a return season after the outrage though, so the effort still counts.

HAN SHOT FIRST!

Sincerely,

d

PS: Alternatively, you could let the quality of the show go to hell. This will not stop it from being cancelled, but at least it will hurt less when it happens.

PPS: And, again, Syfy? Syfy!?! Syfy has perfected this process to an artform: create a great science fiction show, then either starve it or cancel it for no apparent reason, usually “lack of audience” or “high cost.” Science fiction has an audience. Star Wars, The Martian, even  Interstellar, all made tons of money. Meanwhile on TV Duck Dynasty gets eight seasons. Something’s rotten in Denmark. In some cases I understand they pick up stuff produced by others by they seem to have a spectacular record of just butchering whatever falls into their lap. Or maybe this is all a vast, shrewd conspiracy.

PPS: Syfy, get your game on. And before cancelling stuff, talk to Netflix or Amazon. Those guys do TV now! They can help. Hell, I’d even take Hulu.

 

 

 

 

Star Wars Life Lessons, Part 1: Choose Your Childhood

In preparation for watching The Force Awakens, I thought I’d revisit some of the useful everyday life lessons we have learned from Star Wars in what regards to how to appropriately choose your early childhood setting to have the best options later on in life.

So you’re a baby! Congrats. Being born is hard, I know, but you really need to focus on choosing which way to go. It’s never too early. Some kids today are fighting for placement on those sweet AP Fall Advanced Calculus Classes in 2025, and you are no different.

You need to choose your childhood correctly. By the time you’re 18 or so, you will be unsure of which way to go, and it will be too late. Trust me. You’re going to be confused and kind of in a bad mood or scared a lot of the time, but pretending not to. Plus you’ll be waaaaay too distracted with one or more of: chess, math, sex, booze, the two or three other teen humans in your clique, music, video/board games, books, movies, role-playing, to make any long-term, carefully measured and balanced life choices.

So we’re agreed you need to do this now. While you have time, ie., while you’re a baby. If you choose right, here’s what’s in store for you. You can:

  • become a super cool hero with  extremely cool buddies and great hair and fly on even cooler spaceships and with holograms and computers and lasers and swordfights and robots and leather jackets and being funny and fixing hyperdrives by hitting consoles and robots and furry friends that can also fix and drive your spaceship and robots.
  • fix, design, or build fully formed cybernetic organisms with true AI that nevertheless can only either produce beeps or speak with a British accent and an unintended wry wit. How cool and smart these droids are will be inversely related to their ability to speak english, and will directly correlate with the velocity and cuteness with which they can emit different beeping sounds.
  • achieve the unique state of being  wise, poised, thoughtful and courageous while simultaneously remaining unbearably naive and being subject to dangerously unpredictable outbursts of blinding rage and/or passion.
  • fix, design or build hover vehicles propelled by jet/antigrav engines that would put the old Lockheed Skunkworks engineers to shame
  • be the best effing pilot anyone’s ever seen regardless of terrain or type of ship (perhaps, even, the best in the galaxy!). That’s not all — though you have might have spent most of your short life driving oxidized chunks of metal in a desert you WILL be able to instantly apply those skills to any kind of zero-g multi-vector thrust vehicles with faster-than-light capabilities running on a parallel supercomputer platforms, just like that. Guaranteed.
  • eventually be trusted with either destroying or saving the galaxy or and entire galactic army or something along those lines. Plus having some serious issues with your parents, but that’s for the sequel, I mean, another post. We’ll just hint at that here.

I think we can all agree these are terrific skills and abilities. You’d be a bit of a wildcard, sure, unpredictable perhaps… a bit of a tyrant? ….  but what could possibly be wrong with that? It’s not as if you’re eventually going to be trusted with either destroying or saving the galaxy or and entire galactic army or or anything, right? Jeez. Relax.

Anyway, this is were the choice of childhood is critical. You need to focus. Concentrate. Don’t be a baby. Think.

To reach these goals, would you:

A) Live in a cathedral of silence and well being that allows the necessary concentration to obtain multiple degrees in engineering, relativistic quantum physics, mathematics, biology, astronomy, computer science and train 6-8 hours a day for both physical perfection and mental acuity in a way that would put most of SEAL Team 6 to shame,  maintain a successful side business to provide you with the millions of space credits you’ll need to buy all those CPUs, memory banks, jet fuel, and rare minerals as well as paying the lawyers and lobbyists you’ll need to convince the space government you are not some kind of bizarre tiny genius-evil-mastermind-terrorist while simultaneously greasing the skids in said space-government to obtain all the supplies you need for your droid and spaceship building experiments.

B) Live more or less isolated somewhere in a desert planet *(1) as a farm-hand (?) in your family’s desert farm(?) living in mud-igloo-like-structures (?)  with possibly no doors or windows or under a tarp, much less air conditioning or heating, access to schools, socialization, or even basic reading materials and where super complex tasks like helping your mother or communicating with moisture vaporators *(2) are left to other droids that you don’t even have yet. (However, you will obtain/build said droid just before you embark on the adventure to do the hero stuff at which point you won’t really need the droid… errr… okay nevermind. Look, the droid is going to say some funny stuff is what I’m getting at.)

C) Be a scrap junkyard jockey in a desert planet *(1)  with access to any number of CPUs, circuit boards, rare metals, fiber optics, micro fusion reactors, tools and jet fuel with which you can repair and build droids and sand speeders. This one is, I’m afraid a bit more of a downer, including indentured servitude, and in spite of said access to advanced and presumably expensive hardware, you will have relatively poor nutrition and higiene, no healthcare and no access to school, much less textbooks, notebooks, keyboards, monitors, reading or writing devices or toys of any kind. Not that you’d need those to build the droids or the ships, or to grow up without turning into some kind of Norman Bates-type character. Right?

D) Have at least ONE of your parents be: Anakin Skywalker, Luke Skywalker, Carrie Fischer, or Midichlorians (not sure what those are, but I think you can get a deal on a 5-lb bag of them at Costco*(3)). YOU WOULD THINK THAT whoever were the parent(s) of Yoda, Sam Jackson, Palpatine, Darth Maul, the green tentacle-on-head lady or any of the other dozens or hundreds of Jedi would be a good source of earth shattering hero Force-enabled dude/dudette material… but no. It’s gotta be Skywalker blood. You know, like Tolkien talked about fair-skinned ancestors…. wait… anyone can be a hero!…. bloodlines? not that we’re getting into eugenics or anything. God no. Why did you have to make it weird? *(4)

 

Answer: D. Obvious. Right?

But also, surprise! B and/or C are pretty much required. So it’s (B/C)+D. Kind of cheated there. I know. These are difficult choices.

What? You picked A?

Nerd.

 

Footnotes:

*(1) This is important. Desert planet. Not just a desert. You can’t get away with this by spending the summer in Aruba or something. A whole planet that’s just a desert. Oh, and it needs a cantina and a band of weirdos playing in it. Not sure that’s 100% required or not, but check that box, just to be safe.

*(2) in case it wasn’t clear, the stated purpose of the creation/acquisition of C3PO in Episode I/IV, respectively.

*(3) Safeway is out of stock*(3a).

*(3a) This is more of a West Coast joke. Because Safeway. Get over it.

*(4) Seriously, though. At some point we’re going to need heroes than can do stuff because they train and are dedicated, not because the have the right chromosomes.

the planet remade: now, with asteroids!

the-planet-remade-book-coverLet me begin with a book recommendation: The Planet Remade: How Geoengineering Could Change The World by Oliver Morton.

I would change the title of this book to “The Planet Remade: How Geoengineering Has Changed The World And Will Continue To Change It As Long As Humans Are Monkeying On It, In It, and Around It.” But I understand that might be a less catchy title.

Look, I accept the distinction Morton makes between ‘willful change’ and not, and he needs to establish some boundaries for the discussion. It’s pretty clear we’ve already created massive changes in the planet’s systems. We have altered its features, most obviously by redirecting rivers, creating dams, digging giant tunnels into mountains, covering hundreds of thousands of square miles with concrete, cement, asphalt and all kinds of other crazy stuff (like, say… putting golf courses in the middle of deserts), and (mostly for bad reasons) blowing up lots and lots of different places. We have pumped and continue to pump trillions of tons of gases and chemicals into the biosphere. Geoengineering is already happening, so how about we do it for something other than manufacturing complicated barbeque grills, phone cases and christmas tree decorations?

The book’s discussion on the transformation of the nitrogen cycle is particularly interesting, since this was a key factor in making Norman Borlaug’s high-yield dwarf “superwheat” a feasible crop at large scale (dwarf wheat consumes more nitrogen). Much is frequently said of Borlaug’s work and the Nobel prize he got for it (and with good reason) but less is known about the massive geoengineering activity that started before that work and made it possible.

Geoengineering will be a key element in reversing some of the effects of climate change, since it is pretty clear that “just” reducing emissions won’t cut it.

Just sulfate it.

If I had to bet on a method for climate engineering that’s going to be used in the next few decades, I’d go for stratospheric sulfate aerosols — which the book covers well. Why? As The Joker in TDK said of gasoline and dynamite: “They’re cheap!” If none of the world powers is going to do it, any one of a number of other countries will eventually decide that it’s time to stop the ocean from erasing their coast sooner rather than later. The consequences of this could lead to (surprise!) war, perhaps even nuclear war, which Morton discusses as well. Nothing like some optimism about saving the planet sprinkled with apocalyptic thinking. Just kidding, that’s something important to discuss too. (Nuclear winter is also discussed in terms of its climate impact).

Near the end the book spends a good amount of time talking about asteroids, but not in the way I thought would be … kind of obvious. It focuses on asteroids as an Extinction Level Event. Dino-killer, etc. The point he makes is that the various ideas discussed around how to stop an asteroid from crashing to earth are in a way similar to the idea of using geoengineering to save us from a different kind of cataclysm.

This is an interesting argument but….

Asteroid Mining + Stratospheric Aerosols = Profit!

Fine… maybe not profit, just saving the world. My point is, what the book doesn’t discuss is the use of asteroids for geoengineering… and not as an argument. It mentionsasteroid wranglingbut all hope is dashed when we see that it’s talking about moving an asteroid off-course to prevent it from hitting earth. Ridiculous. We have Bruce Willis for that!

One of my personal obsessions is the topic of asteroid mining. Yes, within the next few decades we will begin mining asteroids, there’s no doubt in my mind about that. And it seems inevitable to me that we’ll also be using some of the results of that for climate engineering via the stratosphere (and later to create massive structures in orbit around the planet).

Why? because the biggest cost in seeding the stratosphere is energy, specifically, the kinetic energy you need to spend to move millions of tons of what essentially is dust from the ground (where it is manufactured cheaply) to its stratospheric destination over 8-10 kilometers above the surface of the earth, depending on latitude. This “cost” is more of a logistical cost rather than a pure energy cost. How so?

Option A: Airplane!airplane-movie-poster

(Not the movie). Let’s say we are going to seed a million tons of sulfate aerosols into the stratosphere.

The energy required to lift a mass of a million tons of material to a height of 10,000 meters would be ~98.1 terajoules (give or take a Joule, E = x x h) = ~27 GWh (gigawatt-hour) = 27,000,000 kWh. In the US (with average energy cost of 12c/kWh) just lifting the dust would cost at minimum 2.7 million dollars. Add to that the necessary costs for stamps, copy paper, printing receipts and office parties, copies of Microsoft Windows, safety goggles, and such, and the cost would rise by several million more. So round it up to 10. 10 MM USD = 1 million tons of material at stratospheric height.

Now, the Mount Pinatubo eruption in 1991 is estimated to have injected 20 million tons of sulfates and resulted in an estimated 0.5 C cooldown across the planet within a year. This cooldown dissipated as quickly as it arrived (at least in geological terms) so a long term geoengineering operation would require adding sulfates for several years, perhaps decades.

With this we could derive a “baseline cost” of 200 million dollars to make global temperatures drop half a degree centigrade within a year. Sounds cheap! We could have a 2×1 offer and make it an even degree cooler.

The energy transfer, sadly, is not “pure”, and so, therefore, neither is the cost. If you are spreading the material from, say, a plane, the weight of the plane, the fuel, transport to airfield form the factory and so forth also comes into play. The logistics chain and equipment required becomes really complicated, really fast. Not impossible by any means, just complicated and much more costly, running into billions. For a less hand-wavy (and more systematic but way longer) analysis, see Geoengineering Cost Analysis and Costs and economics of geoengineering.

Here’s where asteroids come into play.

Option B: Asteroids!asteroids-arcade

(Not the game). Using asteroids for this purpose seems to me like a perfect match. Any nasty by-products of the mining and manufacture remain in space, where hazardous chemical waste is not a problem since a lot of the stuff out there is already hazardous chemicals, plus no one can hear you scream.

Asteroids contain enough material to either obtain what you need directly or by synthesizing what you need using micro factories landed/built (by other micro-factories landed on the asteroid) for that purpose.

The energy required for the deployment of the material will be far lower (you’ll always need some amount of energy expenditure in the form of thrusters and the dispersion device), but you would be able to rely on gravity to do most of the work (if the asteroid in question has been captured and placed in orbit around the earth, even better). Instead of fighting gravity, we’d use it to our advantage.

Most of the maneuvers involved in transferring material would rely on gravity assist rather than rockets (plus aerobraking for atmospheric reentry when needed) which makes them cheaper, and, something that is hardly ever mentioned, less prone to failure simply because there are fewer components in the system, particularly components of the very large, very explosive kind, like the Saturn V’s S-IC of the Space Shuttle’s SRBs.

Now that people are excitedly talking about the possibility that we may have found a Dyson Sphere in our own neighborhood (KIC 8462852 FTW – only 1,480 light years away!) talking about these types of projects could sound to people more like science and less than science fiction. As a bonus, this gets us closer to a Type II civilization. We’ll definitely need to throw a party when that happens.

TL;DR go read this book. It’s very likely that stratospheric sulfate aerosols will be used for climate engineering within the next few decades. But why wouldn’t we use asteroid capture and mining for that? Can this possibly be a new idea? Also: Dyson Spheres!

PS: I haven’t found discussion of this type of sourcing of material for geoengineering, so should this be a new idea I fully expect my fair share of the massive profits. Just let me know and I’ll send my bank information. Can’t send funds myself though, most of my money is in the hands of a nigerian prince who is using it to process an inheritance.

affordances matter post #96482828

Great article: How The Ballpoint Pen Killed Cursive. Ok maybe the title tries to be a bit too flashy, given the topic — plus ballpoint pens aren’t murderers… I keep thinking that if cars were invented tomorrow we’d see headlines like “How Cars Killed The Horse,” or “The Death Of The Carriages: Gas vs. Grass.” Anyway.

Quote:

[…M]y own writing morphed from Palmerian script into mostly print shortly after starting college. Like most gradual changes of habit, I can’t recall exactly why this happened, although I remember the change occurred at a time when I regularly had to copy down reams of notes for mathematics and engineering lectures.

During grade school I wrote largely using a fountain pen, but as I started high school I switched to ballpoint. Not sure why, but probably cost had something to do with it. By the middle of the first year I was writing mostly print. I didn’t even notice I was doing it our “literature” teacher started berating me, and then threatening to fail me if I didn’t write cursive. It should be noted that the following year when requesting books for the class to read she scoffed at my suggestion, The Lord of the Rings. “Some fantasy garbage,” she said. Everyone laughed and moved on. So, yeah, she wasn’t very enlightened.

The result of this pressure was that by the end my handwriting was a complete mess, a print-cursive hybrid that even I had trouble reading at times. Over time I switched over to more readable print, but by them I was doing most of my writing on keyboards anyway, and that was that.

Back then I wondered why I switched to print. My younger self decided that the reason was some form of underhanded rebellion at the backwardness of cursive (note: the nerd rebellion: That book was great, but I’ll write that book report any way I want to!). I remember thinking that writing print hurt but I was damned if I was going to relent.

At times in later years I would occasionally wonder about that switch form cursive to print, thinking that perhaps technical drawings (drafting — hand-drawn plans for engines, houses, and the like), math, physics, etc, had played a roled too. I hadn’t thought about this for years until the article this morning. Now I’ve got a much better explanation: It wasn’t writing in print that hurt; print was in fact the least uncomfortable writing style for the new device: the ballpoint pen. From the article:

Fountain pens want to connect letters. Ballpoint pens need to be convinced to write, need to be pushed into the paper rather than merely touch it. The No.2 pencils I used for math notes weren’t much of a break either, requiring pressure similar to that of a ballpoint pen.

[…]

[…] the type of pen grip taught in contemporary grade school is the same grip that’s been used for generations, long before everyone wrote with ballpoints. However, writing with ballpoints and other modern pens requires that they be placed at a greater, more upright angle to the paper—a position that’s generally uncomfortable with a traditional pen hold. Even before computer keyboards turned so many people into carpal-tunnel sufferers, the ballpoint pen was already straining hands and wrists

As usual, there’s more than one factor at play. Drafting requires print. Working with equations and their references contributed as well. And perhaps even rebellion. But the ballpoint’s affordances were surely a big factor, perhaps the determining factor. Affordances matter.

PS: yeah, I used a semicolon. Deal with it.

the importance of Interstellar

iDo not go gentle into that good night,
Old age should burn and rave at close of day;
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

                                                    Dylan Thomas (1951)

Over the last few years a lot of movies -among other things- seem to have shrunk in ambition while appearing to be”bigger.” The Transformers series of movies are perhaps the best example. Best way to turn off your brain while watching fights of giant robots and cool explosions? Sure. But while mega-budget blockbusters focus on size, many of them lack ambition and scope. Art, entertainment, and movies in particular, given their reach, matter a lot in terms of what they reflect of us and what they can inspire. For all their grandiose intergalactic-battle-of-the-ages mumbo jumbo, Transformers and other similar movies always feel small, and petty. Humans in them are relegated to bit actors that appear to be props necessary for the real heroes (in this case, giant alien robots) to gain, or regain, inspiration and do what they must do. And always, always by chance. Random people turn into key characters in world-changing events just because they stumbled into the wrong, or right, (plot)hole.

Now, people turned into “the instruments of fate (or whatever),” if you will, is certainly a worthwhile theme and something that does happen. But stories in which the protagonists (and people in general) take the reins and attempt to influence large-scale events through  hard work, focus, cooperation, even -gasp!- study, became less common for a while. Art reflects the preoccupations and aspirations of society, and it seems that by the mid-to-late 2000s we had become reliant on the idea of the world as reality TV – success is random and based on freakish circumstances, or, just as often, on being a freak of some sort. This isn’t a phenomenon isolated to science fiction — westerns, for example, declined in popularity but also turned “gritty” or “realistic” and in the process, for the most part, trading stories of the ‘purity of the pioneering spirit’ or ‘taming the frontier’ with cesspools of dirt, crime, betrayal and despair.

Given the reality of the much of the 20th century, it was probably inevitable that a lot of art (popular or not) would go from a rosy, unrealistically happy and/or heroic view of the past, present, and future, to a depressing, excessively pessimistic view of them. Many of the most popular heroes in our recent collective imaginations are ‘born’ (by lineage, by chance, etc) rather than ‘made’ by their own efforts or even the concerted efforts of a group. Consider: Harry Potter, the human characters in Transformers (and pretty much any Michael Bay movie since Armageddon), even more obviously commercial efforts like Percy Jackson or Twilight along with other ‘young adult’ fiction and with pretty much all other vampire movies, which have the distinction of creating ‘heroes’ simultaneously randomly and through bloodlines, the remake of Star Trek turned Kirk joining Starfleet into something he didn’t really want to do; the characters in The Walking Dead; the grand-daddy of all of these: Superman… and, even, as much as I enjoy The Lord of The Rings, nearly everything about its view of good and evil involves little in the way of will and intent from the main characters. Characters talk a great deal about the importance of individuals and their actions, but in the end they’re all destined to do what they do and the key turning points are best explained as either ‘fate’, simply random, or manipulated by people of ‘greater wisdom and/or power’ like Gandalf, Galadriel, Elrond and so on. Good and evil are defined along the lines of an eugenics pamphlet in a way that gets to be creepy more often than not (the ‘best’ are fair-skinned, with blue or green eyes, and from the West, the ‘worst’ are dark-skinned, speak in hellish tongues and are from the East, along with an unhealthy obsession with bloodlines and purity of blood, and so on; Gandalf “progresses” from Gray to White, while Saruman falls from being the leader as Saruman the White into shrunken evil serving Sauron, the Dark Lord… as “Saruman of Many Colours”… you get the idea).

All of which is to say: I don’t think it’s a coincidence that in this environment good Science Fiction in general and space exploration SF is always relegated a bit, particularly in movies. There is nothing random about space exploration: it requires an enormous amount of planning, study, effort, hard work, and money. You can’t inherit a good space program. It has to be painstakingly built, and supported, across decades. When a not-insignificant percentage of society flatly discards basic scientific theories in favor of religious or political dogma while giving an audience to Honey Boo Boo or Duck Dynasty, it’s not illogical for studios to finance another animated movie with talking animals than to push people beyond their comfort zones.

Even so, there’s always been good SF, if perhaps not as frequently as SF fans would like. And over the last 20 years we have started to see  Fantasy/SF stories that combine a more “realistic” view of the world, but mixed in with the more idealistic spirit of movies like The Right Stuff. In these we have characters succeeding, or at least ‘fighting the good fight’, through exertion of will, the resolve to change their reality. And even if there’s an element of ‘fate’ or chance in the setup, the bulk of the story involves characters that aren’t just pushed around by forces beyond their control. Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy, Avatar, Serenity, most of Marvel’s new movies: Iron Man, Captain America, The AvengersWatchmen. In books, the Already Dead series and the Coyote series, both of which could make for spectacularly good movies if ever produced. In TV, Deadwood, which is perhaps the best TV series of all time, was a good example of the same phenomenon — it felt realistic, but realistically complex, with characters that weren’t just swept up in events, and that exhibited more than one guiding principle or idea. We got ‘smaller’ movies like Moon that were excellent, but large-scale storytelling involving spaceflight that wasn’t another iteration of a horror/monster/action movie is something I’ve missed in the last few years.

What about last year’s Gravity? It was visually arresting and technically proficient but fairly mundane in terms of what actually happens. It’s not really inspiring — it’s basically the story of someone wrecking their car in the middle of the desert and having to make it to the next gas station… but in space, the focus on experiencing a spiritual rebirth, and in case we were confused about the metaphor the see the main character literally crawl out of mud and water and then slowly stand and start to walk. Bullock’s character in Gravity is also one of those guided by circumstances, frequently displaying a lack of knowledge about spaceflight that even the original monkeys that flew in the early space missions would have slapped their foreheads about.

Which brings me to Interstellar. No doubt it will be compared to 2001: A Space Odyssey (with reason) and with Gravity (with less reason). Interstellar is more ambitious than 2001 in terms of science, matching it or exceeding it in terms of story scope and complexity, while leaving Gravity in the dust.  2007’s Sunshine shares some themes and some of the serious approach to both science and fiction (… at least the first 30 minutes or so, afterwards it shares more with Alien) as well as with the (in my opinion) under-appreciated Red Planet (2000) and even some elements of the much less convincing Mission to Mars. It also reminded me of Primer in terms of how it seamlessly wove pretty complex ideas into its plot.

We haven’t had a “hard” SF space movie like this for a whileKey plot points involving gravitational time-dilation, wormholes, black holes,  quantum mechanics/relativity discrepancies… even a 3D representation of a spacetime tesseract (!!!!). 2001 was perfect about the mechanics of space flight, but Interstellar also gets as deep into grand-unified theory issues as you can probably get without losing a lot of the audience, and goes much further than 1997’s Contact. There are some plot point that are weak (or, possibly, that I may have missed an explanation for, I’ll need another viewing to confirm…), and sometimes there are moments that feel a bit slow or excessively, shall we say, ‘philosophical’, although in retrospect the pauses in action were effective in making what followed even more significant.

Comparisons and minor quibbles aside, Interstellar is spectacular; the kind of movie you should, nay, must watch in a theater, the bigger screen the better, preferably on IMAX.

The movie not only has a point of view,  it is unapologetic about it. It doesn’t try to be “balanced,” and it doesn’t try to mix in religion even as it touches on subjects in which it frequently is mixed in the name of making “all points of view heard.” Interstellar is not “anti religion” … and it is not pro-religion either. There’s a fundamental set of circumstances in the plot that allows the movie to sidestep pretty much all of the usual politics and religion that would normally be involved. Perhaps someone can argue whether those circumstances are realistic (although something like the Manhattan project comes to mind as an example of how it can actually happen). But the result is that the movie can focus almost exclusively on science, exploration, our ability to change things, either individually or in groups.

This, to me, felt truly refreshing. Everything that has to do with science these days is mixed in with politics and/or religion. This also helps the story in its refusal to “dumb things down”…  its embrace of complexity of ideas, even if less focused on a lot of specific technical details than, say, Apollo 13 was, which is a natural result of having the Apollo data at hand.

How many people, I wonder, know by now what NASA’s Apollo program really was? Sometimes it seems to be relegated to either conspiracy joke material or mentioned in passing to, for example, explain how your phone is more powerful than the computers that went to the moon. Somehow what was actually attempted, and what was actually achieved, isn’t remarkable anymore, and the true effort it took is less appreciated as a result. With that, we are making those things smaller, which gives us leeway to do, to be less. It makes “raging against the dying of the light” sound like a hopelessly romantic, useless notion. It justifies how approaching big challenges these days frequently happens in ways that makes us “involved” in the same way that Farmville relates to actual farming. Want to feel like you’ve solved world hunger? Donate $1 via text to Oxfam. Want to “promote awareness of ALS”? Just dump a bucket of ice water on your head. Want to “contribute in the fight against cancer”? Add a $3 donation while checking out of the supermarket. No need to get into medicine or study for a decade. Just bump your NFC-enabled phone against this gizmo and give us some money, we’ll do the rest.

I’m not saying that there is no place for those things, but recently it seems that’s the default. Why? Many commentators have talked about how these days we lack an attitude best described by Kennedy’s famous line “Ask not what your country can do for you, as what you can do for your country”. But I don’t think the issue is not wanting to do anything, or not wanting to help. I think the issue is that we have gotten used to being scared and feeling powerless in the face of complexity. We’ve gone from the 60’s attitude of everyone being able to change the world to feeling as if we’re completely at the mercy of forces beyond our control. And we’ve gone overboard about whatever we think we can control:  people freaking out about the use of child seats in cars, or worrying about wearing helmets when biking, while simultaneously doing little as societies about the far greater threat of climate change.

When education was a privilege of very few, very rich people, it was possible for pretty much everyone to accept a simplistic version of reality. That was before affordable mass travel, before realtime communications, before two devastating world wars and any number of “smaller” ones. Reality has been exposed for the truly messy, complicated thing it is and always was. But instead of embracing it we have been redefining reality downwards, hiding our collective heads in the sand, telling ourselves that small is big. Even heroism is redefined — everyone’s a hero now.

Interstellar is important not just as a great science fiction movie, not just because it is inspiring when it’s so much easier to be cynical about the past, the present or the future, but also because beyond what it says there’s also how it says it, with a conviction and clarity that is rare for this kind of production. It’s not a coincidence that it references those Dylan Thomas verses more than once. It’s an idealistic movie, and in a sense fundamentally optimistic, although perhaps not necessarily as optimistic about outcomes as it is about opportunities.

It’s about rekindling the idea that we can think big. A reminder of what we can attempt, and sometimes achieve. And, crucially, that at a time when we demand predictability out of everything, probably because it helps us feel somehow ‘in control’, it is also a reminder in more ways than one that great achievement, like discovery, has no roadmap.

Because if you always know where you’re going and how you’re getting there you may be ‘safe’, it’s unlikely you’ll end up anywhere new.

diego’s life lessons, part III

Excerpted from the upcoming book: “Diego’s life lessons: 99 tips for survival, fun, and profit in today’s baffling bric-a-brac world.” (see Part I and Part II).

#9 make the right career choices

Everyone will have seven careers in their lifetime, someone said once, and we all repeated it even if we have no idea why.

The key to career planning, though, is to keep in mind that while the world of today ranges from complicated to downright baffling, the world of tomorrow will be pretty predictable, since as we all know it will just be a barren hellscape populated by Zombies.

So the question is: post-Zombie Apocalypse, what will you need to be? Survival in the new Zombie-infested world will require the skills of any good D&D party: a Healer, a Warrior, a Thief, and a Wizard — which in a world without magic means someone to tinker with things, build weapons, design shelters with complicated spring traps, and knowledge of how to brew a good cup of coffee.

Clearly you don’t want to be a Healer (read: medic/doctor), since that means no one will be able to fix you — you should have friends or relatives with careers in medicine, however, for obvious reasons. Being a Thief will be of limited use, but more importantly it’s not really the kind of thing you can practice for without turning to a life of crime as defined by our pre-Zombie civilization (post-Zombies, most of the things we consider crimes today will become fairly acceptable somehow, so you may be able to pull this off with the right timing).

That leaves you with either Warrior or Wizard, which translates roughly to: Gun Nut or Hacker. And by “Hacker” we mean the early-1980s definition of hacker, rather than the bastardized 2000s version, and one that is not restricted to computers.

So. Your choices for a new career path are as follows:

  • If you’re a Nerd, become a Hacker.
  • If you’re neither a Nerd or a Hacker, just become a Gun Nut, it’s the easiest and fastest way to post-apocalyptic survival. This way, while you wait for Zombies to strike you won’t need to worry (for example) about a lookup being O(N) or not, or why the CPU on some random server is pegged at 99% without any incoming requests.
  • If you’re already a Gun Nut, you’re good to go. Just keep buying ammo.
  • If you’re already a Hacker… please don’t turn into an evil genius and destroy the world. Try taking up some activity that will consume your time for no reason, like playing The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim or learning to program for Blackberry.

NOTE (I): If you’re in the medical profession, just stay put. We will protect you so you can fix our sprained ankles and such.
NOTE (II): there is also the rare combination of Hacker/Nerd+Gun Nut, but you should be aware that this is a highly volatile combination of skills which can have unpredictable results on your psyche.

#45: purchase a small island in the Pacific Ocean

As far as having a permanent vacation spot, this one really is a no-brainer. Why bother with hotels when you can own a piece of slowly sinking real estate? Plus, according to highly reliable sources, you don’t need to be a billionaire.

True, you will have significant coconut-maintenance fees and you’ll probably need a small fleet of Roombas to keep the place tidy, but coconuts are delicious and the Roombas can help in following lesson #18.

NOTE I: don’t be fooled by the “Pacific” part of “Pacific Ocean.” There’s nothing “pacific” about it. There’s storms, cyclones, tsunamis, giant garbage monsters, sharks, jellyfish, and any number of other dangers. Therefore, an important followup to purchase the island is to buy an airline for it. You know, to be able to get away quickly, just in case.

NOTE II: this is actually an alternative to the career choices described above, since it is well known that Zombies can’t swim.

NOTE III: the island should not be named Krakatoa — see lesson #1. Aside from this detail, owning a Pacific Island does not directly conflict with lesson #1, since the cupboard can be actually located in a hut somewhere in the island (multiple cupboard hiding spots are also advisable).

#86 Stock up on Kryptonite

Ok, so let me tell you about this guy… He wears a cape and tights. He frequently disrobes in public places. He makes a living writing for a newspaper with an owner that makes Rupert Murdoch look like Edward R. Murrow. He has deep psychological scars since he is the last survivor of a cataclysmic event that destroyed his civilization. He leads a secret double life, generally disappearing whenever something terrible happens. He is an illegal alien. Also, he is an ALIEN.

Does this look like someone trustworthy to you? Hm?

That’s right. This is not a stable person.

Add to the list that he can fly, even in space, stop bullets, has X-ray vision, can (possibly) travel back in time and is essentially indestructible. How is this guy not a threat to all of humanity?

Lex Luthor was deeply misunderstood — he could see all this, but his messaging was way off. Plus there were all those schemes to Take Over The World, which should really be left to experts like genetically engineered mice.

The only solution to this menace is to keep your own personal stash of Kryptonite. Keep most of it in a cupboard (see lesson #1) and a small amount on your person at all times.

After all, you never know when this madman will show up.

santa claus conquers the martians

Part 2 of a series (Part 1Part 3)

PRELUDE

I’ve had a busy week, and have been trying to sit down and put together a followup to my response to the NYT’s article on data centers.

I write the title, and I soon as I do, my mind goes blank. I read the title again. What the hell was I thinking? I am looking at the screen, white space extends below the blinking cursor, mirrored by something somehow stuck in my head, alternating on/off, rumbling lowly like an idling engine: I swear I had a point.

So naturally I start to think that this, perhaps, should be the new title. Which, in the expected recursion path that would follow naturally ends up in another meta-commentary paragraph (also with a simile close to its ending), which I decide not to write. Recursion upwards, probably to conform with an implicit image of happiness we may or may not feel (or is in this case is really quite unwarranted and even more, even worse: unnecessary) but we should generally imply anyway, because these days if you’re not explicitly happy something must be wrong, and therefore it must be fixed. Neutral has become a bad state to be in, apparently, long after being “with us or against us” became a common way to think about nearly everything. No, recursion has no direction except, perhaps, into itself, but it now occurs to me that years of looking at function call stacks have trained me (hopelessly comes to mind, but that’s also not happy) to think of recursion as up or down, rather than, say, horizontally from right to left.

Fascinating, I know.

— oOo —

I will eventually get to Santa Claus and the Martians, but for the moment, back to the article.

The series was titled “The Cloud Factories”, and right there it broadcast ever-so-subtly that it was to be something intended to get worked up about.

“Factory” can mean “the seat of some kind of production” but in this case the weight of the word is in the manufacturing angle. This doesn’t quite feel right, though. A factory is where things are built, sequentially, or at least mostly sequentially, and a cloud is anything but built, and the process is anything but sequential. A cloud emerges, and if we switch to the definite article and the proper noun with all its implications and uppercaseness, it’s also true that The Cloud is an emergent phenomenon. Metaphors are often misapplied, can be incorrect, but it’s not that often that a metaphor involving an overloaded term (“cloud”) is both misapplied and incorrect in the exact same way for nearly all the meanings of the term. This takes some skill.

So, yeah, the point of the title of the series was not to be accurate as an analogy, but to evoke. Specifically, an image. Much like the factory in which they make Itchy & Scratchy cartoons in The Simpsons has chimneys and dark dense smoke coming out of them, as does every factory in The Simpsons, regardless what it’s for. The “factories” in the “The Cloud Factories” seem to intentionally or not (but can this really be unintentional?) transmit the idea of dirt we associate at a reptilian level with “factory”. Dirt. Pollution. Guilt by association. Then — the title of the article, the first of two so far, drops the subtle imagery: “Power, Pollution and the Internet.” Strangely enough, beyond the title the word “pollution” appears exactly once in the entire article.

Pollution and the Internet. How could one not react to that? What I wrote a week ago was pure reaction, if nothing else to the reactionary tone of the article, but by now I have accumulated enough in my head to maybe add something else to this topic, which, perhaps predictably, has a bit less to do with the contents of the article itself (not that that topic is exhausted by any means) but on what is one possible way to look at its main thrust through the lens of discourse on technology nowadays, how we use metaphors and analogies to convey something that we haven’t yet internalized, and the factors at play in sustaining a reasonable and reasonably deep conversation in an environment that doesn’t lend itself to that. And if all of this in retrospect looks obvious, consider this the admittedly convoluted way in which I am creating a reminder, a mental note: something to pay more attention to.

On to it, then.

ACTION REACTION RETRACTION

Action — argument (paraphrasing, summarizing): “That which powers our online services and more generally the Internet is really a hidden pollution machine run by people fearful of reducing waste, even though the means to do so are readily available.”

Reaction — counterargument (now really summarizing): “Not true.”

That the argument isn’t true may be indeed true, and yet to not just agree with the counterargument because, for example, you respect whoever made it but to understand it requires a degree of experience and training and knowledge that is well beyond what most people could get to because, quite simply, they have their own jobs and lives. Indeed, if it’s not your job and it’s not your life (and for most of the people for whom this is a job, it’s also our life), you really shouldn’t bother. The modern world, and to some degree the very basis of our progress is that we use things that we can’t build, and in many cases can’t even understand. We travel by plane even though many people have no idea how it works, let alone are able to build one.

And that is just fine.

We trust the plane, though, don’t we? Well, now we do, but 150 years ago the thought that you could pack tons and tons of baggage and instruments and hundreds of people into a tin can and by pushing air at unimaginable speed through smaller tin cans attached to the larger tin can with bolts you would get the thing to fly was unpopular indeed.

Bear with me for a minute here. I’m getting somewhere. Promise.

As I was writing a week ago I was typing frantically and in the process of switching windows I entered “action reaction retraction” into Google, and the last result visible before I had to scroll said “Robert H. Goddard. The New York Times.” which seemed intriguing enough, and following there were notes on a retraction that seemed almost too appropriate. Really? was the thought, so I went to the Times archives and found the quote, but in the process lost the bizarre way in which I stumbled on to it. I spent almost an hour yesterday, I kid you not, going through the browser’s history to see what I’d done, and I still can’t remember why I was typing that except to think that I must have read this before, and further googling just for the quote shows that it’s been mentioned a few times in the last several years. Sarah Lacy included the quote in her followup, along with her own thoughts regarding an earlier Times story on Tesla motors which shows if not a pattern at least some concordance of mistakes all going in the same direction, or misdirection.

The quote was a retraction from the Times in which it acknowledges:

“Further investigation and experimentation have confirmed the findings of Isaac Newton in the 17th century and it is now definitely established that a rocket can function in a vacuum as well as in an atmosphere. The Times regrets the error.”

This was triggered by Apollo 11’s flight, when, one presumes, a 50-year-old takedown of rocket pioneer Robert Goddard on the very pages of the Times might have come to their attention:

“That Professor Goddard, with his ‘chair’ in Clark College and the countenancing of the Smithsonian Institution, does not know the relation of action to reaction, and the need to have something better than a vacuum against which to react — to say that would be absurd. Of course he only seems to lack the knowledge ladled out daily in high schools.”

The Times regrets the error. This reminded me of what we could call the case of Catholic Church v. Galileo. At least the Vatican actually apologized to Galileo directly, although in fairness to the Times, it took the Vatican closer to 400 years to get to that point.

The reason I bring up the quote again is that there’s a certain tone of mischief detectable in it, since no one can possibly believe that they are seriously a) realizing just now that rockets actually work in a vacuum and b) that the way to correct for this is to say that “this confirms the findings of Isaac Newton.” Points for whoever wrote it: it was funny.

And just to be clear: this isn’t about giving a pass to the Times, but to try to figure out why this seems to be a recurring problem from which the Times seems far from exempt, even when we may be inclined to think they are exempt from it.

The question is, then, why would they, the nebulous they but that nevertheless is actually people, talented as they may be, would have originally thought that trashing Goddard, someone with enough credentials to presumably give him the benefit of the doubt at the very least, was a good idea?

Perhaps because in doing that they were reflecting, ahem, the times — the prevailing sense of what was or wasn’t possible in the age. The “truth” as they saw it, because truth and facts are two different things. To top it off, in this particular case a giant rocket traveling at some 11,000 meters per second was, as an undeniable fact, still very much in the future, but when the rocket was actually up there, actually carrying three people and countless gizmos and measuring devices and chemicals of all kinds, you didn’t have to know anything about physics to realize that there was something to this seemingly crazy idea of rockets in space after all.

Back to trusting airplanes at last: We trust the plane because we see it. We feel, down to our bones, the effort of the engines as it takes off and lands. If someone started to argue that the typical turbine was somewhat wasteful, I don’t think I’d be alone in thinking Well, while I’m inside the plane and on the air, I’d prefer a little waste to not being, you know, alive.

So is there something to the idea that, in the popular imagination, not seeing is disbelieving, to invert the well-known dictum?

More importantly, given the complexity and sheer scale of the systems involved in running the Internet, what would it take to “see” when what we’re talking about can’t, ever, actually be seen?

…AND YOU ALWAYS FEAR… WHAT YOU DON’T UNDERSTAND…

That’s a line from Batman Begins uttered by Mafia mob boss Carmine Falcone while he is explaining to a young Bruce Wayne why he should just stop acting all flustered about crime and go home. It’s a critical line not only in the film but in the overall story arc of the trilogy, since within it we find Bruce Wayne’s drive to become Batman. Bruce agrees with Falcone’s thesis but not his solution, decides to understand, disappears into the underworld, then returns, seven years later, as Batman.

Understanding — not fearing — takes knowledge, and knowledge takes a long time and effort to develop.

Convincing people that flying rockets in space “only” required that we actually fly a rocket in space. What would be the equivalent for getting people to accept that how data centers work is not some perennial waste, where secret gerbils run mindlessly within wheels, most of the time doing nothing at all, wasting energy and in the process laying waste to the planet as well? Well, one way would surely be to getting everyone to spend the equivalent of Wayne’s “seven years in the underworld” which in this case would be not only getting a degree in computer science but spend a good amount of time down in the trenches, seeing firsthand how these things are actually run.

That this is an impractical solution, since we can’t have the whole planet get a CS degree or work in a data center, is obvious. It leaves us with the alternative of using analogies and metaphors to express what people still haven’t internalized, and probably will never be able to internalize, in the way that they have the concept of a rocket or an airplane. Before planes flew, the idea of them also had to be wrapped in analogies and metaphors, usually involving birds. The concept of a factory would have undoubtedly required some heavy analogies to be explained to people in, say, the 16th century. We grasp at something that is known to make the unknown intelligible.

The analogies we choose matter, however. A lot. Which is why I keep talking about planes not factories. A modern commercial jet is a much more apt analogy for the type of “waste” involved in running a modern data center.

There is waste and pollution involved in running a jet, as anyone can plainly see. Sometimes the waste is obvious (empty seats), sometimes it’s not (unnecessary circuitry), but generally people don’t doubt that the good people at Boeing et. al. are always doing their damnedest to make the plane as efficient, safe, and effective as possible. The same is true of Internet infrastructure.

WHERE WE FINALLY GET BACK TO SANTA CLAUS CONQUERING MARTIANS

You may or may not agree with the plane analogy, there may be better ones, there are more things to discuss and there certainly is a need for us in the industry to engage more broadly and try to explain what’s going on as long as everyone in the world doesn’t have a CS degree (a man can dream).

So for all the faults I could find with the article, I think it was good that it triggered the conversation, and herein lies our second conundrum.

This “conversation” — it will require effort to be carried out.

A brief detour: reading Days of Rage a commentary in the latest issue of The New Yorker, which references Santa Claus Conquers The Martians while talking about the “Muslim Rage” of recent days over a YouTube video no one had actually seen, certainly not before the protests. I agree with a lot of the article, except on one point:

“The uproar over “Innocence of Muslims” matters not because of the deep pathologies it has supposedly laid bare but because of the way the film went viral.”

Psy and Gangnam Style was viral. This video wasn’t. If anything, from what we know, it seems to be quite the oppositeof viral, since apparently it was simply an excuse used by people in power to rile up the unhappy (there’s that word again) masses so they could have something to do: “Angry? Unemployed? Bored? Feel you have no future? Here, go burn an embassy.” And how irrationally angry you have to be to somehow find that looting and burning and killing either solves a problem or makes up for anything or is even, just, a remotely justified way to react. How displaced you have to be from yourself and disconnected to what surrounds you. I can hypothesize, only. At points in my life I’ve had little or no money but never felt in a way that would ever lead me to react in that way. Not that this is about money, I know, it’s just one of the factors (probably), but one that I can try to relate through. But I digress.

SCCTM is indeed an actual movie and the reason I bring it up is that I had seen it years ago in an MST3K episode, and when remembering that it occurred to me that what happened in the Middle East was a more, perhaps the most, extreme version of a pervasive phenomenon, that of reacting to what our perception is of something rather than to the thing itself.

Mind you, this isn’t one of those “things were better in my time” type of arguments. While there was a time decades ago when in-depth roundtables in media were more common fare, this happened in an environment in which the amount of raw data to process was far, far less than it is now. We are overwhelmed by data but lacking in information. This isn’t a matter of access to technology, either. I’d bet a lot of the people doing the burning and killing in Benghazi had cellphones. We all do.

This, deep in the weeds of this post (essay?), is what triggered the topic in my head. The end of the chain of associations: that what we’re often doing these days to handle all the information that we’re exposed to would be tantamount to MST3K dispensing with the actual viewing of the movie and simply skipping to the part where we make fun of it. It wouldn’t be the same, would it? Context is critical, but we react in soundbites and generate storms of controversy over a few words which can’t possibly have context attached, because there’s simply no space for it, anywhere.

Twitter and to some degree Facebook are often blamed, unfairly I think, with a supposed devolution of our society into people trapping their thoughts into contextless cages 140-characters in size. I don’t think there’s any question, though, that we humans are and have always been lazy if we can get away with it, and that the deluge of information leave us with little time to reflect on it, so the mind recoils and defends itself with quips and short bursts, and Twitter (and Facebook) are a good mechanism for that. It just so happens that this constant jumping around topics superficially is both a) effective as a dopamine release mechanism –read: addictive– and b) the perfect way of thinking of yourself as informed and on top of everything and yet truly involved in nothing. Why isn’t Twitter or Facebook to blame, then. Let me give you a Twitterless example: sad advertisement on TV, people starving, a catastrophe somewhere. Text a number and give $3. Done. Back to watching Jersey Shore, or 60 minutes, or whatever.

Twitter, Facebook, all of them, are not the proximate cause. They are an effect. A reaction.

The environment we live in has fundamentally changed because there is readily available, quite simply, more data about everything, a large part of which is a barrage of trivia and gossip — which is to be expected since they are, ahem, trivial to generate. If Lindsay Lohan having a traffic accident is enough to generate massive news coverage and the cascade of reaction that follows, topics that are deeper and more complex and are more difficult to grasp will find it hard to compete.

It’s something new, or relatively new in historical terms, and I don’t think we know how to handle this deluge yet. We are drinking from a seemingly limitless flood of information but we haven’t yet figured out how to close the faucet every once in a while. We don’t necessarily drown in it but this flood that is constantly rushing around us leaves us with no time to reflect on any one point.

Information overload! Pfft. This isn’t a new idea! I bring it up not only because I think that we are increasingly using (creating) media that is suited to how we are trying to deal with it, and the edifice we construct with all of it is not well-optimized to transmit complex ideas (this, also, is not at all original), and so it seems critical that we have to work hard at finding the right metaphors and analogies, the right tools to talk about how the machinery of the Internet works. Tools and machinery, here, somewhat ironically encapsulating the point.

AND NOW FOR THE SURPRISINGLY SUCCINCT CONCLUSION

Analogies matter, metaphors matter, and we need to find better ones to talk about what the Internet is (for example, a “global village” it is not, and this term has luckily fallen by the wayside, but the many reasons why will have to wait for another time). We also have to contend with a shifting media environment in which a conversation like this can get all too easily lost in the noise, not because, as a cynical interpretation would have it, people only care about Snooki or the Kardashians or whatever, but because until we figure out how to live and engage with complexity when soaking in data there will only only surface and precious little depth.

And if there’s an additional meta-point to “Power, Pollution and the Internet,” something else that is important beyond the specifics in the article, it is that we as an industry have left a void that can be filled with anything, and if we don’t engage and try make what we do more comprehensible for everyone who, rightly, doesn’t have the time to understand it because they’re busy running the rest of the world, then we in the industry have no one to answer to for it but ourselves.

Part 2 of a series (Part 1Part 3)

diego’s life lessons, part II

Excerpted from the upcoming book: “Diego’s life lessons: 99 tips for survival, fun, and profit in today’s baffling bric-a-brac world.”  (part I is here).

#6: sign up for every personalization app available

“Big data” is all the rage these days. We are told that a few machines running Hadoop can figure out the deepest triggers in your psyche from only a few Facebook ‘Like’ actions. Companies crop up every other day promising to figure out what kind of ice cream flavor you’re going to like because you buy a certain color of bath towel. And they’re right, of course. A human being’s life can absolutely be defined by a linear regression on a few loosely correlated data points. It doesn’t matter if what they’re correlating is a couple dozen people in Tennessee having burgers, while you live in Sweden and like to unwind watching The Seventh Seal over and over. People are people, it doesn’t matter who they are, where they are, why they are, or how much they are. Humans are just not that interesting or different from each other. If you need proof, go look for videos of stake boarding puppies on YouTube and count the views.

It used to be these were websites, but now they’re just apps. They follow you, track your every move, and give you suggestions about all the things that you should be doing. By signing up for every one of these apps, you not only ensure that you will be doing as little thinking as possible, you will be ahead of the curve on this I-don’t-need-to-think-or-do-anything trend. Soon, apps will shift from giving recommendations and predictions to just telling you where you should go. The inevitable next step is that the app will do it for you — you won’t need to move a finger. An app will tell you that you should be having dinner somewhere (eventually even skipping the part where it tells you), check you in, tweet for you about how delighted you are with the dinner you’re supposed to be having, all from the comfort of your home while you’re eating canned beans. Then you can hide in a cupboard in peace (See rule #1).

In time, the apps will even date and have their own, um, applets. Which will let them achieve the app singularity and just bypass humans altogether (for the most part. We will still have to keep the phones plugged so the apps can run. We’ll basically be tasked with providing electricity for them, something that The Matrix got right).

So get on board. Before an app does it for you.

#18: raise your own tiny robot army

Wake up call: Do you really think that people are getting Lego Mindstorms just for the kids? We have been warned time and again of the consequences of a decaying civilization, impending apocalypse, and whatnot. What we have not been told is what happens when someone else in your block has a robot army. Trust me, you need one.

A tiny robot army comes in handy in countless ways. Whether you’re engaging in hostilities with the jerk from the apartment right above yours that won’t stop playing loud music, or just escorting your dog while you take him for a walk, a robot army will always come in handy. In peacetime, the robots can be deployed to do various chores, like washing dishes, cleaning your house, or carrying bags from the supermarket. And every once in a while, you can use them to invade a nearby property if you’re suspicious that they may be threatening your way of life, by, for example, hiring a new gardener to change the shapes of their shrubbery. In a pinch, if, say, your Internet connection is down, they may be dressed in hilarious tiny costumes and made to enact Shakespeare plays for you. You haven’t really experienced Hamlet until you’ve seen it performed by a tiny robot army.

And I know what you will say: “I’ll call Aquaman!” But, really, Aquaman is useless outside of water, and he isn’t real. Batman only works Gotham, so unless you live there, you’re on your own. Get a robot army ready, or suffer the consequences.

#50: be friendly with squirrels

Godzilla has battled many enemies: Mothra, Space Godzilla, Megalon, Mechagodzilla. All worthy foes. But Godzilla never had to face a horde of angry squirrels.

Squirrels are a force to be reckoned with. They have multiple powers: blinding-fast movement, jumping, crawling up surfaces, high-speed sniffing, some can even fly. They are fearsome foes of cabling: squirrels can chew through pretty much anything, given enough time, including but not limited to fiber optic cables, coax and the wiring system of your car, which I have personally experienced.

Some people have said that squirrels are just fancy rats with fur coats, but nothing could be further from the truth. They’re highly advanced creatures, as you can see from the following photographic evidence:

That’s right. Anti-tank weaponry. Tiny violins. Lightsaber fights. Squirrels can handle them all. They even had the forethought, thousands of years ago, of preparing for today’s Jurassic Park-like experiments with plants.

Naturally, squirrels cannot be true friends of mankind, since we compete for the same lightly-forested Internet-enabled high-garbage-density habitats known as the suburbs. So “friendly” is the best you can hope for. If your interests happen to match theirs, they can be a powerful ally, and, in case you ignored Lesson #18 above and don’t have a tiny robot army, you may be able to entice them to fight for you by giving them a box with assorted lengths of wire and some nuts.

#76: always have a miniature EMP device handy

Ever have that problem where your neighbor keeps construction going all the time? Or been at the movies and some jerk doesn’t stop talking on the phone? What about that meeting in which people just won’t stop playing Angry Birds on their iPads?

All of these problems have one solution: a miniature EMP pulse generator. This wonderful device will wipe out all circuits within a reasonable radius, returning your immediate surroundings to something like, say, Victorian-era England. What a time that was, when you could hold a world-wide empire that controlled hundreds of millions of people from a tiny island thousands of miles away from nearly everything and no one really worried about pesky things like human rights, child labor, and such. On the other hand you had to be constantly at war for all sorts of reasons, which really put a cramp on the Queen’s croquet schedule, but hey, nothing’s perfect.

Speaking of croquet: I don’t get it. Cricket, either. And who named these things anyway? Football, basketball: those are sports you can understand just by hearing their name. But croquet? Sounds like a side for breakfast, not a sport.

Anyway, back to the portable EMP. Procuring this device may be slightly tricky, and customizing it properly is not for the faint of heart. The best way to do it is to build it yourself: spend a few years becoming a nuclear physicist and then following that up with mechanical and electrical engineering degrees. With any luck, civilization will still be around by the time you are done.

Once you have your device, be careful how you use it, since it will likely also wipe out some or all of your own devices — not ideal, but in the end a small price to pay for peace and quiet.

not with a bang but a whimper

This is the way the world ends

This is the way the world ends

This is the way the world ends

Not with a bang but a whimper.

–T.S. Eliot, “The Hollow Men”

While apocalyptic fiction stories are a dime a dozen these days (what with the anything-with-zombies craze that’s been building up for a while now…) the genre isn’t new by any means. In western culture, we could trace it back even to Revelations in the bible. We’ve been worrying about our impending doom for a long, long time.

If eschatology isn’t new, perhaps our awareness of its human scale is. In the last half-century the advent of nuclear and biological weapons has changed how we think about the end of the world as we know it: we’ve grown less focused, I’d say, on the extraordinary events that we imagine as prerequisites for such a thing to occur, and more focused on the impact on individuals and everyday life that this would have. Simultaneously with the cold war we got a much clearer picture of how thin the edge of the razor on which humanity’s existence stands really is. Nuclear war, bioweapons, a super flu, an asteroid, Yellowstone, you name it. That is — not only we know the world can end, we also know that there’s multiple sure-fire ways in which it can happen. The question becomes, then, more often than not, what happens to us, shifting the view away from the pyrotechnics to the quiet that remains. A whimper, not a bang.

Two of the earliest, fullest realized examples of this is that I can think of are Richard Matheson’s I Am Legend (1954) and Nevil Shute’s On The Beach (1957). Granted, I Am Legend was ahead of its time in terms of the cause of the end of the world but I’d argue its focus nevertheless is no longer from “how could this happen?” or “why?” but rather “now what?”

More recently there are many others I could mention, but a great example is Cormac McCarthy’s The Road (2006) which had a (surprisingly) fairly faithful adaptation in the 2009 movie. Incidentally, The Road contains one of my favorite passages in any kind of fiction:

What is it? she said. He didnt answer. He went into the bathroom and threw the lightswitch but the power was already gone. A dull rose glow in the windowglass. He dropped to one knee and raised the lever to stop the tub and then turned on both taps as far as they would go. She was standing in the doorway in her nightwear, clutching the jamb, cradling her belly in one hand. What is it? she said. What is happening?

I dont know.

Why are you taking a bath?

I’m not.

The subtlety and quiet power of that moment, all that is said and all that isn’t, get me every time. But I digress (if only slightly).

To this list I now have to add Will McIntosh’s Soft Apocalypse. I won’t spoil the story, and I’d recommend avoiding reviews and just reading it. What I found interesting is that it deals with a fairly complex set of causes, albeit in sketch form — not unlike the “Why are you taking a bath?” paragraph from The Road. It communicates as much in silences, in what it doesn’t say, as in what it does. In the specifics, the only weak point I can remember is that it references the frog-in-boiling-water urban legend, but I’ll even accept that as something a character thinks he knows, but isn’t true.

In any case, it’s a great book. Highly recommended.

the wrong metaphor

“The end of television and the death of the Cable TV bundle.”

Such is the title of this article in the Atlantic published a few days ago. Every time I see one of these articles pop up, I roll my eyes and wonder when we’re going to stop treating markets, technologies, products and services as if they were living things, and therefore as if they could die and disappear from one moment to the next.

Because, the thing is, they don’t.

AOL still has something like three million dial-up subscribers. Three million people paying hundreds of dollars a year! Vinyl is still around. So is radio. Windows, which is quickly becoming less relevant, sells three hundred million copies a year or more. Books have been around for hundreds of years. Even print newspapers, under relentless pressure from digital media, also sell hundreds of millions of copies every day. And on, and on, and on.

Technologies that have reached mass adoption can’t be “killed” by other technologies that may replace them. Very large markets have a momentum of their own, and even as the generation of people that grew up with them passes away, there is usually some level of replacement as some people in the new generation carry it forward. Even products, which are specific instances of a technology or specific solutions to a certain market need, take a long time to die off, and can really only be “killed” by whoever is making them. Even then, many long-time users will hang on to them for as long as they can.

I think we have trouble seeing this accurately because of the multi-generational timespans involved. Not unlike the trouble we have in reacting to long-term, multi-generational challenges like global warming.

A more accurate way of describing this process would be to say that markets, technologies, and products fade away, rather than “reach their end” or “die”. Some fade away very slowly, others a bit faster. If the technology allows it, there can be tipping points were a transition to another dominant technology happens fairly quickly, perhaps in a few years. One example of this would be Facebook vs. MySpace, where the switching costs involved are so low-cost (from the perspective of the user) and so strong, as far as self-reinforcing feedback loops go, that they can happen in a few years. Even so, MySpace is still around, and the situation isn’t as clear-cut as we’d like, with Facebook “killing” MySpace, because if anyone was primarily responsible for MySpace’s fast decline, it was MySpace itself.

This is important because how we talk about something matter as much as what we think of it. What we have to avoid is the wrong metaphor becoming the basis for an inaccurate mental model.

Ok, I get it. A headline that says “TV will fade away faster” is less catchy, and sounds stranger, than “TV is dead.” Mass media doesn’t do nuance and subtlety well. But if we can’t expect it to be gone from the headlines, we should keep in mind that this isn’t how the world really works.

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