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Category Archives: art

The universe doesn’t do straight lines

“Everything you’ve learned in school as ‘obvious’ becomes less and less obvious as you begin to study the universe. For example, there are no solids in the universe. There’s not even a suggestion of a solid. There are no absolute continuums. There are no surfaces. There are no straight lines.”

– R. Buckminster Fuller (1895–1983)

horizon

If you haven’t thought about this before, it’s one of those ideas that generates a special feeling, something you’ve always known but never articulated. The kind of ideas that make you look up into the sky, eyes lost in the distance and say “Yeah, that’s right,” while you smile and nod slightly.

It also lends itself to pseudo-myth busting: Of course there are straight lines! Here, let me show you, after which we are look at a high-altitude image of salt flats, deserts, rocks, and any number of other things that appear to have reasonably straight lines here and there at different resolutions. But there’s no “reasonably straight” in math, geometry, topology, and that’s what we’re talking about.

Even the most ubiquitous, inescapable “line” in nature, the skyline, or horizon, is not a line at all, but a curve of such diameter that it can’t be discerned by the naked eye unless you’re, well, flying.

But… why? There’s no law of physics or biology expressly against straight lines, 90-degree angles, or perfect geometric shapes. DNA is a construct of incredible complexity. Surely a straight line wouldn’t be a problem if it had an advantage.

Thinking about it from an evolutionary/natural selection perspective it becomes clear pretty quickly that there’s little advantage to something being perfectly straight compared to anything “reasonably” straight (in the few cases in which you need it). On the other hand, “perfection” has a very clear cost.

Consider — Anything that can bend will eventually bend and cease being straight if that was its initial state. Therefore, the only way for something to remain straight for a long time with all the environmental uncertainty created by nature is for it to be extremely rigid, not flexible. So you end up with something that will not bend but that, no matter how strong, will have a point at which it breaks.

Flexibility matters. Bending is better than breaking, a fact that becomes a problem for humans since our bones get stronger as we grow, but the strength translates into less flexibility and therefore more of a chance of breaking outright.

It seems logical then that a perfectly straight line isn’t a thing you’d want in your evolutionary tree.

Speaking of trees.

Trees are interesting when you think about them in terms of construction. When we (humans, that is) started building really big things, we needed the help not only of straight lines but also of the simplest convex polyhedron possible, the tetrahedron, aka pyramid. (Even though the pyramids humans tend to build are not tetrahedrons, since they generally use a square, rather than triangular, polygonal base, the point remains.)

tree-pyramid

It’s taken us 8,000 years to figure out how to build high without building wide. Meanwhile, many trees grow tall enough and strong enough that humans can live in them, and yet their weight distribution is not unlike a pyramid standing on its tip, supported by the root structure, which while smaller in mass is generally larger in surface covered. (The triangular areas I marked in the images above reference mass, not surface.) The tensile strength and toughness of the materials used matters a lot of course, but so does what you’re trying to use them for.

If you’re just getting started at the whole civilization thing, and you’re going to build a hut to protect yourself from the elements, or a small vehicle to carry stuff, it is better to use artificial constructs (straight lines, circles, etc) because they make calculations easier, it makes reproduction easier, and it makes verification easier. Early on, at small scale, knowledge can transferred verbally, but as soon as you start writing things down, simple geometries become even more important. You could carry the design to another city, and the master builder that came up with it wouldn’t be able to verify your construction. The certainty of mathematics becomes a necessity, and the simpler the design, the simpler the concepts behind it, the easier it is not only to propagate but also to verify.

For us, then, up until well past the point when we’ve moved beyond simple construction capabilities, it pays off to expend the additional energy necessary to approach mathematical perfection. The advantages are many. The time and energy invested in, say, turning a tree trunk into lumber is acceptable not only because it is easier to use, but also because it’s easier to measure, partition, buy, sell. This, in turn, makes markets and therefore whole economies function more effectively and efficiently as well.

787-test

787 Dreamliner Wing Flex Test (source: Wired)

As you advance in building your civilization you start to see that evolving past a certain point both requires and enables flexibility in how and what you create. It’s not just about architecture, or mechanical engineering. Clothing, for example, also had to pass through a period in which mass-production constraints around what you could deliver resulted in straight lines everywhere. Think back at the sharp edges and angles in suits and dresses of the late 1940s and 50s, when mass production of those items became commonplace.

madmen.png

Now, Betty & Don probably aren’t fooling around with mass produced stuff,but manufacturing capabilities invariably affect design and therefore fashion — even for high end goods since, after all, they are part of the same ecosystem.

Attack of the rectangles

Now, this has all been very entertaining so far but my point is really (you guessed it) about software.

Straight lines are easier in software, too. Software interfaces have been somewhat stuck in the same era of rigidity as architecture, engineering, and even clothing were stuck in until the very end of the 20th century, when new processes and materials allowed us to start creating strong, bendable, curved surfaces.

Take a step back and look at your phone, or laptop screen. Start counting rectangles, or, as we could also call them, boxes.

boxes2

There are boxes everywhere! Invisible boxes contain other boxes all over the place.

Don’t get me wrong, I am not saying boxes are evil or anything like that. Rectangles are fine, they’re our friends. They’re cool. In the 80s, I think it was even hip to be square for a while. But we’ve become overly reliant on them. We use them as a crutch. Instead of trying to figure out how to make something work for a specific task, we use rectangles everywhere, because we know they work, even if they aren’t perfect.

This matters because rigidity propagates directly from the interface into our thoughts. It is not the same to have an open white space to write in than to be given a small box and a 140 characters. It is not.

In that vein, I don’t see it as a coincidence that there’s so many great text editors around that focus on eliminating everything but what you’re typing.

Circular/Rotating dials are better than vertical knobs because the human hand has more precision on radial movements than on linear movements. Our extremities are well adapted to rotating and sliding along curves, but everything in our computers is stuck within the vertical and horizontal confines of 2D cartesian coordinate space. With touch on devices (and 3D) we can create interfaces that are both more natural, organic, and can be better adapted ergonomically to how we operate in the real world. The moment you add any kind of spatial analysis using IR and so forth (e.g., Kinect, Leap) significant vertical and horizontal movements, while definitely useful, become secondary to the expressive power of the hand.

Some calendaring systems have now added margins around events to account for travel time, and if you happen to allow enough of your information to be constantly provided to a server, they can help find routes in advance, be smarter about alarms, and so forth.

The event itself though, fundamentally, is still some text in a box.

anevent

To begin with, no ‘event’ of any kind that you put in a calendar ever fits in a box. Aha! You’d say — Many calendaring systems let you add text, attachments, and locations, and change colors, and so forth.

But you just put those things in a box, metaphorically, and literally, as far as the interface is concerned.

If you open the event you get even more boxes within boxes that contain some of these files and information, much of which is also in rectangle form.

And when you’re done, as the clock marks 1 pm, that box remains forever frozen to collect digital dust, exactly the same as it was when it started.

Finding meaning and purpose in actions

But that’s not what the event is, is it?

Whatever it is, it’s fluid. Maybe it doesn’t exactly start at that time. Maybe it doesn’t exactly end at that time. Can’t software take note of that?

Have you ever been to any kind of event, meeting, presentation, appointment, that could be properly described by the boundaries of a box or a rectangle? Something that starts here and ends there? Ever?

Say it was a meeting. What about the things that happened during the event? Why can’t you keep track of the links you loaded, the documents seen, changes made right there?

Phone calls made?

People that came and went? We had a list of participants, but we got Joe to come in and help us with something because, duh, he’s actually the one in charge of…

Right? See what I mean?

Maybe you can’t say exactly what shape all of that stuff takes, but it sure as hell doesn’t feel like it fits in anything that has right angles and a preset width and height.

Because N3xt

These ideas are obviously important to me and fundamental to how I’ve approached thinking about N3xt, but this isn’t about one system. It’s about trying on new ways to think about what we build, how we build it, and for what purpose.

We need to expand how we think about data and information to the point of challenging the modeling, storage and processing of long-standing fundamental constructs like pages, folders, lists, and so on, on “clients”. It’s a change that’s already been happening in the “backend world” for a while now, and it’s long overdue on the other side. It’s time we move past from using metaphors and concepts anchored in a paper-centric, office-centric, container-centric view of the world. It’s time we let go of linear organizational schemes. Lists are great for some things, but surely they don’t have to be the foundation for everything.

All the major online services rely on incredibly complex infrastructures in which data exists and interacts in a virtual world that is so… removed from what happens when you squeeze it all into http://… and a grid of pixels that it might as well be in another universe. Backend filesystems at scale stopped looking like filesystems a while ago, just to take one example. It’s time to bring some of the magic pixie dust over to the other side and see what happens.

We also have to consistently push against rigid structures to create interfaces based on grids and boxes and lists and menus. We have lived with the same fundamental ideas for almost 50 years now, since the great Douglas Engelbart cracked open the fire pits of invention with theMother of All Demos. Desktops, files, folders, pages, “cabinets”, a digital approximation of the American Corporation in the 50s and 60s.

We’ve got the tools. We’ve got WebGL, and 3D frameworks, and inputs and sensors up the wazoo.

People aren’t going to be confused or terrified or anything like that. People are constantly adapting to new ways to interact, and we now have a generation that has grown up without knowing what a dialtone is.

In client software in particular, layers are closely linked, more interdependent than in backend software. In the server world hardware homogeneity and network layers actually help a bit in creating more elastic relationships between endpoints — so you can have something amazing likePresto, which gives you new possibilities: an aging squirrel in a wheelchair (SQL) strapped to the nose of a Space Orbiter (Presto) which can turn various toxic-otherwise-unusable solid and liquid fuels (in my metaphor, all the various horrible data sources that you can tap into… I’m looking at you, Oracle-over-JDBC) into precisely guided propulsion that will get you into orbit and back, so the squirrel gets to see space and we get to do something useful with all that horrible toxic stuff while still actually using something cool and shiny and moving things forward in between the two.

On the client, you can’t quite do that. The coupling is too close, the constraints too tight, so if your data model is literally a SQLlite table with 1,000 rows and columns, and you actually use row-access mechanisms and even, God help you, normalized table structures, then it is kind of inevitable that what’s going to show up on screen will look like that. And if it doesn’t, if you’re smushing up the 1,000 rows into a neural network that will give you the ONE row you need and display just that, then why the hell are you storing and fetching stuff using SQLlite? Why not just have a blob of 1,000 other blobs that you read and write atomically, along with whatever you preserve of the neural net between runs?

But!

This doesn’t mean that we have to throw everything away and start from scratch.

Not what I’m saying.

When I see something like what Microsoft proposed here for HoloLens, I have to concentrate pretty hard keep myself from hitting my head against the wall repeatedly.

Because while what we already have is ok at what it does, we just have to let go of the notion that we can keep juicing it forever.

What I’m saying is that we’ll rethink how we approach everything new, and, sure, some of the old stuff might be replaced, but that’s not the point.

So for a quick glance at your watch, just some text that says “Event, 1 hr, starts in 5m” may be fine. You could even have a little colored rectangle around it.

But back in our growing mixed reality world, dealing with ambient sensors, phones, holographic lenses and wall displays … a BB-8 replica that rolls around the room beeping and whistling quietly…. and supercomputers in our pockets, in our desks, and in the infrastructure all around us, the only straight lines should be there only when we create them in our minds.

Just like the horizon.

(cross-posted to medium)

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.

totally like whatever, you know?

Something that continues to resonate, years after I first saw it: Taylor Mali‘s “Totally like whatever, you know?”. Spend 3 minutes and check it out, you won’t regret it. (Clip from HBO’s Russell Simmons Presents Def Poetry)

I implore you, I entreat you,
and I challenge you: To speak with conviction.
To say what you believe in a manner that bespeaks
the determination with which you believe it.
Because contrary to the wisdom of the bumper sticker,
it is not enough these days to simply QUESTION AUTHORITY.
You gotta to speak with it, too.

And here’s the original version, slightly different than the one in the video.

Bonus: something I wrote a couple of years ago “honestly, let’s unpack this: it’s like, you know…very unique?”

all your tech are belong to us: media in a world of technology as the dominant force

Pop quiz: who held the monopoly on radio equipment production in the US in 1918?

General Electric? The Marconi Company?

Radio Shack? (Jk!) :)

How about the US Military?

The US entered World War I “officially” in early April, 1917. Determined to control a technology of strategic importance to the war effort, the Federal Government took over radio-related patents owned by companies in the US and gave the monopoly of manufacturing of radio equipment to the Armed Forces — which at the time included the Army, the Navy, the Marine Corps, and the Coast Guard.

This takeover was short-lived (ending in late 1918) but it would have profound effects in how the industry organized in the years and decades that followed. The War and Navy departments, intent on keeping the technology under some form of US control, arranged for General Electric to acquire the American Marconi company and secure the patents involved.

The result was Radio Corporation of America, RCA, a public company whose controlling interested was owned by GE.

Newspapers had been vertically integrated since their inception. The technology required for printing presses and the distribution networks involved in delivering the product were all “proprietary,” in that they were controlled and evolved by the newspapers themselves. Even if the printing press had other uses, you couldn’t easily repurpose a newspaper printing press to print books, or viceversa, and even if you could secure a printing press for newspapers (a massive investment) you could not hope to easily recreate the distribution network required to get the newspaper in the hands of consumers.

This vertical integration resulted in a combination of natural and artificial barriers of entry that would let a few key players, most notably William Randolph Hearst, leverage the resulting common economic, distribution and technological foundation to effect a consolidation in the market without engendering significant opposition. Later, Movie studios relied on a similar set of controls over the technology employed — they didn’t manufacture their own cameras but by controlling creation and distribution, and with their aggregate purchase power, they could dictate what technology was viable and how it was to be used.

Radio, early on, presented the possibility of a revolution in this regard. It could have allowed consumers to also be creators (at least in a small scale). The ability to broadcast was restricted by the size and power of the transmitter at your disposal, and you could start small. It was the first opportunity for a new medium to have the evolution of the underlying technology decoupled from the content it carried, but WWI and the intervention of the US government ensured this would not come to pass. The deal that resulted in the creation of RCA created, in effect, a similar vertical integration in Radio as in other mediums (in Britain, a pioneer of broadcast radio and later TV, the government had been largely in control from the beginning through the BBC, and so already was “vertically integrated”).

This is a way of thinking that became embedded into how Media companies operated.

RCA went on to be at the center of the creation of the two other subsequent major media markets of the 20th century: music and television, and in both cases it extended the notion of technology as subservient to the content that it carried.

For every major new medium that appeared until late in the 20th century, media companies could control the technology that they depended on.

Over time, even as technology development broke off into its own path and started to evolve separately from media, media companies retained control of both the standards and the adoption rate (black and white to color, vinyl to CD, SD to HD, etc.). Media companies selected new technologies when and how they wanted, and they set the terms of use, the price, and the pace of its deployment. Consumers could only consume. By retaining control of the evolution of the technology through implicit control of standards, and explicit control of the distribution channels, they could retain overall control of the medium. Slowly, though, the same technology started to be used for more than one thing, and control started to slip away.

Then the Internet came along.

The great media/technology decoupling

TV, radio, CDs, even newspapers are all “platforms” in a technical sense, even if closed ones, in that they provide a set of common standards and distribution channels for information. In this way, the Internet appears to be “just another platform” through which media companies must deliver their content. This has led to the view that we are simply going through a transition not unlike that of, say, Vinyl to CDs, or Radio to TV.

That media companies can’t control the technology as they used to is clear. What is less clear is that this is a difference of kind, not of degree.

CNN can have a website, but it can neither control the technology standards or software used to build it or ensure that the introduction of a certain technology (say, Adobe Flash) will be followed by a period of stability long enough to ensure recouping the investment required to use it. NBC can post shows online, but it can’t prevent millions of people from downloading the show without advertisement through other channels. Universal Studios can provide a digital copy of a movie six months after its release, but in the meantime everyone that wanted to watch it has, often without paying for it. These effects and many more are plainly visible, and as a result, prophecies involving the death of TV, the music industry, newspapers, movie studios, or radio, are common.

The diagnoses are varied and they tend to focus, incorrectly, on the revenue side of the equation: it’s the media companies’ business models which are antiquated. They don’t know how to monetize. Piracy is killing them. They can’t (or won’t) adapt to new demands and therefore are too expensive to operate. Long-standing contracts get in the way (e.g. Premium channels & cable providers). The traditional business models that supported mass media throughout their existence are being made increasingly ineffective by the radically different dynamics created by online audiences, ease of copying and lack of ability to create scarcity, which drive down prices.

All of these are real problems but none of them is insurmountable, and indeed many media concerns are making progress in fits and starts in these areas and finding new sources of revenue in the online world. The fundamental issue is that control has shifted, irreversibly, out of the hands of the media companies.

For the first time in the history of mass media, technology evolution has become largely decoupled from the media that uses it, and, as importantly, it has become valuable in and of itself. This has completely inverted the power structure in which media operated, with media relegated to just another actor in a larger stage. For media companies, lack of control of the information channel used is behind each and every instance of a crack in the edifice that has supported their evolution, their profits, and their power.

Until the appearance of the Internet it was the media companies that dictated the evolution of the technology behind the medium and, as critically, the distribution channel. Since the mid-1990s, media companies have tried and generally failed to insert themselves as a force of control in the information landscape created by the digitalization of media and the Internet. Like radio and TV, the Internet includes a built in “distribution channel” but unlike them it does not lend itself to natural monopolies apportioned by the government of that channel. Like other media, the Internet depends on standards and devices to access it, but unlike other media the standards and devices are controlled, evolved, and manufactured by companies that see media as just another element of their platforms, and not as a driver of their existence.

This shift in control over technology standards, manufacture, demand, and evolution is without precedent, and it is the central factor that drives the ongoing crisis media finds itself since the early 90s.

Now what?

Implicitly or explicitly, what media companies are trying to do with every new initiative and every effort (DRM, new formats, paywalls, apps) is to regain control of the platform. Given the actors that now control technology, it becomes clear why they are not succeeding and what they must do to adapt.

In the past, they may have attempted to purchase the companies involved in technology, fund competitors, and the like. Some of this is going on today, with the foremost examples being Hulu and Ultraviolet. As with past technological shifts, media companies have also resorted to lobbying and the courts to attempt to maintain control, but this too is a losing proposition long-term. Trying to wrest control of technology by lawsuits that address whatever the offending technology is at any given moment, when technology itself is evolving, advancing, and expanding so quickly, is like trying to empty the ocean by using a spoon.

These attempts are not effective because the real cause of the shift in power that has occurred is beyond their control. It is systemic.

In a world where the market capitalization of the technology industry is an order of magnitude or more than that of the media companies (and when, incidentally, a single company, Apple, has more cash in hand than the market value of all traditional media companies combined), it should be obvious that the battle for economic dominance has been lost. Temporary victories, if any, only serve to obfuscate that fact.

The media companies that survive the current upheaval are those that accept their new role in this emerging ecosystem: one of an important player but not a dominant one (this is probably the toughest part). There still is and there will continue to be demand for content that is professionally produced.

Whenever people in a production company, or a studio, or magazine, find themselves trying to figure out which technology is better for the business, they’re having the wrong conversation. Technology should now be directed only by the needs of creation, and at the service of content.

And everyone needs to adapt to this new reality, accept it, and move on… or fall, slowly but surely, into irrelevance.

the multichannel conundrum

(x-post to Medium)

I’ve been writing online for quite a while now. My earliest posts date back to late 2001/early 2002. I tried a bunch of different platforms and eventually settled on MovableType running on my own server, and a few years back I moved to hosted WordPress, where my primary weblog remains. As I’ve been revving up my writing in recent weeks I started wondering about other options.

why write where

Now, some people may think of posting in as many places as you can in purely utilitarian terms, as a way to “increase distribution” or whatever. I, however, think about it in terms of the mental space the tool creates, and how it affects my output. Which affects me. This effect is not restricted to online writing, where social feedback loops can be created instantly. I think the tool has a direct, real effect on what you write. All things being equal, writing on a typewriter will lead to something different than if you used, say, Notepad on Windows 95. I’m sure there are studies about this that confirm my completely unfounded assertion. However, I am not going to go on a yak-shaving expedition in an attempt to find out. Let us assume there are, and if not, then let’s agree there should be… and if not we can disagree*.

*Should someone object and try to say that we can “agree to disagree” then I will point out that, no, “agreeing to disagree” is just plain disagreeing but pretending you don’t, probably to avoid an actual conversation. “Agreeing to disagree” is to “disagreeing” what “agnostic” is to “atheist.”

A lot of what I write, of what I’ve always written, is long form. And a lot of what I write, of what I’ve always written, is connected. Not superficially, not just thematically, but actually connected, a long-running thread of obsessions and topics that expand (and, less frequently, collapse) non-linearly. Sometimes I’ve written hypertextually, simultaneously creating meaningful minor blocks of meaning and greater ideas that emerge out of the non-directed navigation of references between those minor blocks. By the by, I know “hypertextually” is not really a word, but I think it conveys what I mean.

While that structure is amusing to my brain (and possibly other brains!), it can have a fate worse than becoming incomprehensible: becoming invisible. If you see something that you don’t understand you have a choice to spend time and try to understand it, but if you don’t see something, regardless of complexity, well…

content survivability

So trying to keep that structure somewhat visible means lots of cross-referencing, which means what I write has to have exceptional survivability. This is less easy than it sounds. Services start and close down. Linking mechanisms change. Technically, theoretically, there’s nothing really preventing hyperlinked content to remain available for referencing in perpetuity, in practice perpetuity can and often is a very very short time. An easy example is Twitter and the tweet-boxes that they insist people must use to reference tweets. Some people take screenshots, most use the tweet boxes. Eventually Twitter will change, morph, be acquired, shut down, or maybe not, but I guarantee you that at some point in the next 10–20 years those boxes will simply stop working. At that time, regardless of how standards-compliant the HTML the pages that contain those tweets, they will be crippled, possibly severely. How many times have you read a news story recently that talks about how so-and-so tweeted such-and-such and it’s outrageous? Archive.org and its wonderful Wayback Machine don’t solve this issue.

Now, in general, this is not necessarily a bad thing. I’m sure that not everything has to be preserved forever. With distance history loses resolution, and that’s alright for lots of things. Even during crises a lot of what we do in life is mundane, inconsequential and it rightfully gets lost in time. Now that a lot of what we do is either in cyberspace or is reflected by/in it, it’s natural that inconsequential things end up there. We don’t care what Julius Caesar had for lunch one day in October as a teenager. Likewise, the fact that an Instagram photo of a future president’s lunch is lost in time will do nothing to alter history. However, if the choice for lunch leads to losing a bus that later crashed, then the entire incident will generally be recorded. Psychohistory comes to mind.

But I digress. The point is that I like the idea, personally, of knowing that I can maintain cross references valid for what I write, and that means having both a level of control over it as well as reducing the number of outlets in which it appears. Hence my weblog being fairly static in structure (I converted the MT weblog to static pages back during the transition).

This also limits the tools that can be used, to some degree, and according to my theory of how the tool shapes the message, it would naturally lead to stagnation, at minimum, stylistically, of what is said.

Which results in this so-called conundrum.

TL;DR
Trying new things is important though. That’s why I’m here. I may cross-post to my weblog for now, just for “backup,” but I am going to give Medium a try, and see what happens. This entire post resulted entirely from this experiment, and that’s a pretty good start.😛

letter to a rooster

c/o The ROOSTER
Somewhere North of my residence.

Dear Sir/Madam

As a modern man, I am reasonable accepting of other lifeforms and their possibly bizarre rituals or traditions. For example, I both accept and embrace expats of New York or Chicago, who seem to never tire of extolling the virtues of their city of origin while not actually living in it. I am also fond of librarians and their index cards, whether printed or digital, and can even tolerate so-called “Foodies” as long as they maintain an appropriate distance (usually around 50 feet, depending on voice volume).

Now, with my bonafides established, I would like to lodge my complaint.

Whatever possessed your race (presumably millennia ago) to invent the screeching call you insist on perpetrating everyday at the break of dawn, surely we can all agree that, given your current sub- or semi-urban circumstances, the time for such barbarism is now past.

In this modern world of ours we have a large number of items that are designed to wake people up as well as put them to sleep, in the form of smartphones, State of the Union addresses (both live and recorded), alarm clocks, movies starring Steven Seagal, or the occasional blunt instrument. I have no doubt that Fowl in general and Roosters in particular would be equally well served by any of the products that can be procured for little expense at your local Wal-Mart or Barn, Pottery or otherwise. Furthermore, were you to resist this notion one could almost call your obsessive clinging to this forgotten Alarm-Clock-less past pitiful, and you, Sir/Madam, a Luddite. And I do not believe that Sir/Madam wishes this notion to propagate among your contemporaries.

I am a gentleman; I do not wish to escalate matters. However, at this point I must inform you that, should you continue in this course of action, I will be forced to take measures to end this daily attack on the senses. These include, but may not be limited to: SEAL HALO drops on your present location, various types of artillery, grenades, arrows (both wooden and metallic), colored confetti, and low-yield nuclear-tipped ICBMs. Should you persist beyond that point I am also prepared to deploy offensive mechanisms banned by the Geneva Conventions, for example, non-stop rebroadcasts of Jersey Shore at high volume in your general direction.
I beg that you will listen to reason and relent, before the madness consumes us all.

Sincerely,

me.

PS: by “SEAL” I don’t mean the cute animals that hang out in pools at the Zoo or the Marina clapping at the tourist folk, and by “HALO” I don’t mean the critically-acclaimed game from Bungie. Although a shower of marine creatures and DVDs would probably range from inconvenient to downright annoying, it’s far tamer than what I am actually referring to.

PPS: Somehow it has gotten in to my head that when not “roosting” (or whatever your call the screeching) you actually speak with the voice of Sir Sean Connery. Should this be accurate, please let me know. I am not about to declare war on 007. I am not a moron.
PPPS: Jimmy McMillan 2016.

2 idiots, 1 keyboard (or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Mr. Robot)

I’d rename it “The Three Stooges in Half-Wits at Work” if not for the fact that there are four of them. We could say the sandwich idiot doesn’t count, though, but he does a good job with his line (“Is that a videogame?”) while extra points go to the “facepalm” solution of disconnecting a terminal to stop someone from hacking a server. It’s so simple! Why didn’t I think of that before!?!?!

Mr. Robot would have to go 100 seasons before it starts to balance out the stupidity that shows like NCIS, CSI and countless others have perpetrated on brains re: programming/ops/etc.

Alternative for writers that insist in not doing simple things like talking to the computer guy that makes your studio not implode: keep the stupid, but make it hilariously, over the top funny, like so:

We’ll count it even if it’s unintentional. That’s how nice we computer people are.

PS: and, btw, this, this, is why no one gets to complain about Mr. Robot’s shortcomings.

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.

here’s when you get a sense that the universe is telling you something

In the same Amazon package you get:

    The latest Thomas Pynchon novel.
    The World War Z blu ray.
    Soup.

Telling you what exactly…. well, that is less clear.

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