When Sci-Fi Meets Cyberpunk

TheSkySoBigAndBlack

I went on a little sci-fi bender over the last month since there are few good game of note put out at the end of last year.  I started with Childhood’s End (weird,) then Rendezvous with Rama (good adventure story,) reread Ender’s Game and Speaker for the Dead (still awesome on repeat readings,) and slogged through Stars in My Pocket Like Grains of Sand.   Oddly enough, the one that stuck out in my mind ended up being The Sky So Big and Black by John Barnes.  It is a great blend of sci-fi cyberpunk.

The book is the last in the Century Next Door series.  It focuses a teenaged prospector Teri and shrink/friend during the colonization of Mars.  The story begins not long after an idea (meme) war breaks out on Earth.  This leads to the assimilation of everyone by the True One, a viral program that runs inside people heads that controls their action.

In the beginning, Teri works with her dad as a prospector hunting trapped water and gases on the surface of Mars.   They are one of thousands that are terraforming Mars.  Her life, outside making a big gas score, is rather mundane for a teen.  She graduates school, gets dumped by her boyfriend, and ponders the future.  During the first two-thirds of the book, I wondered this narrative was leading but soon all hell breaks loose.  The ending left me conflicted.  On the one hand, it is depressing to see what she went through and on the other the story end with her mostly happy.  It is weird to read about something were protagonist couldn’t tell you if any of the preceding narritives are real or made up by some computer program.

ghostintheshellWhile not be best best book I’ve read in the last month, the concept of a program running inside someone brain makes for fascinating reading.  Throughout the book, I wondered if what the main character is remembering is real or something concocted by the virus.  It reminds me of the excellent anime movie, Ghost in the Shell, where people’s brains get hacked and controlled. 

It is worth checking out if you are into sci-fi or a cyberpunk fan.  Though those not familiar with the series might want to start with the first book Orbital Resonance.

Never Let the Consitution or Rational Thought Get in the Way of a Good Story

Change

The House of Representatives wants to pass a “no budget, no pay” bill that encourages the Senate to pass a budget, something that it hasn’t done since the 2008 budget, less they forgo paychecks.  However, there is a slight Constitutional problem in that it likely violates the 27th amendment governing congressional pay.  I enjoy watching the hypocrisy.  Many of the same lawmakers are scare mongering that our 2nd amendment rights are about to be curtailed post Sandy Hook, but I digress.

This tiny issue aside, my interest is thinking about the behavioral motivation this will unleash.  Is the loss of some of a $174,000 yearly salary motivation enough for people with a average net worth of about 14 million

For those poorer congress people, the main incentive will be to pass something fast, not something good.  For instance, if Ford said to its workers, “no paycheck until you build 10,000 cars,” would you buy any of the resulting Pintos?  The would likely mean lots of pet projects inserted the final bill in a effort to bride enough lawmakers to vote yes.

If anyone did run short of money, there is always a trusted fallback, lobbyists.  These helpful people help write the laws anyway, I am sure many of them would pony up to pay for personal expenses, if the need should arrive.

The whole idea is good theater, but little substance since it fixes a non-existent issue.  Depending on your point of view, we spend too much or tax too little and a budget would fix this problem.

The 4K Video Revolution Will Not Be Televised

Blueraymovies

I am just getting used to Blue-ray and now tech company’s are pushing 4K video.  An odd rumor story on ArsTechnica about the yet-to-be released PlayStation and Xbox got me thinking about this new video format’s effect on the general TV viewer.  While I give better than even odds that one or both will support it, it is unlikely that people will care much in the end.

Today’s video quality is good enough.  Blue-ray disk, the best quality available, are to video as CDs are to music.  Both are slightly better than what the majority of users desire.  We sit too far away from the tele to notice 4K’s better quality.  In addition, the most popular formats for HD viewing, cable and internet streaming, both have worse quality than Blue-ray, but that doesn’t seem to bother people.  These are good indications 4K is doomed to a niche market much like SACD and audio DVDs are to audio.

If a company could get people to care, there is a need for yet another physical format (HD-Blue Ray anyone?)  4K doesn’t fit on a Blue-ray and even if it could, today’s hardware can’t read it.  Punters will need to shell out for both a new player and a TV to enjoy it.  Even if you ditch physical media, these two problems remain as well as the fact that cable and DSL internet pipes are too slow to accommodate the increased bandwidth.

Despite my poo-pooing, I do want 4K to succeed, but not for television.  The quality of computer monitors as peaked because TVs and computer monitors use the same technology.  Better TVs will naturally lead to better resolutions for computer screens.

Choosing Collaboration Software, Its Not a Technology Problem

yahoo groups no reflectionOne thing that I love about my job is that I’m on the lead end of some interesting projects.   Most of what I do, fails at first, but that rarely prevent me from having fun deciding doing it.

The main problem with these projects, especially at the beginning and tail ends of them is communications.  I started my career in the early 90s using three electronic communications tools, something to write documents in, something to enter numbers in and email.  Even 20 years later, I am still using Word, Excel, and email as the main methods of electronic communications.

Now the world has more tools, but few have replaced these time tested methods.   Now I’m looking into collaboration software and ways to integrate it into my division’s workflows. Now, collaboration software is nothing but a fancy term for software akin to Facebook at Work.  In the past, I have used a great many of these tools such as Yahoo Groups, Google Drive, Ning, Chatter, and even when I had to Microsoft SharePoint.

Most failed to work. The reasons are generally not technical but social.  Emailing a Word document is so damn easy.  If your going to attempt some like this at work or to get your friends involved in a community, remember these lessons:

  1. People over technology.  Generally group projects fail because the technology choice overrides how to get people to actually use the new tool.  Technology is rather unimportant so take a day or two and window shop for a product that is good enough and not perfect.  Spend the rest of the time harassing users into actually using the tool.
  2. People like to be told what to do.  This is why email is so awesome.  A user doesn’t need to do anything except fire up Outlook and wait for a report to come rolling in.  The problem with collaboration tools is that is requires effort on the part of the user to actually go out and look up the information (know as pull.)  People would rather have it pushed to them, even if the information is irrelevant and deleted it without being read.  To get around that, you need to make it the go to place to do their job, like a fashionable clubbing spot.  (I sometimes do this by shutting down the old tool, but that is playing dirty.)  Just be ready to field the inevitable complaints.
  3. People rather lurk than work.  Unless it is a small tightly knit community, you will have 9 lurkers for every one person enthusiastic enough to post.  Scale is the key.  Get as many people online as quickly as possible since few people want to be first poster.  Choose seeders if possible, especially managers or others with high status.  This will help kick start the community.
  4. People rarely see the need for new technology, until it becomes old technology.  A recent case in point is smartphones.  Dozens of people I spoke with never could figure out a reason they needed one.  Now most can’t put them down even when your talking with them.  Any communications software from chatter to IM to texting goes against the tried and true email.  You need to break people away by offering better content and relentless train to cut down on the learning curve. 

Opening Sourcing the Obama Back Office Code

Logo of Open Source Initiative

It looks like the Obama team will scrap their back office code rather than open source it.  Some of the software engineers complain that the less technical minded Democrats fear its use outside donkey’s tent.  I doubt that is the real reason.

The are many more logical reasons to abandon the code:    
  

  • Code is expensive maintain.

  Sorry engineers, systems cost a lot of money and open source doesn’t make it much less costly.  The Dems would still have to pay good money for someone to watch over the project, even if it is open sourced.  What makes the problem worse is its niche status and as such it has little chance for improvement.  Local candidates don’t even have the resources to operate these the tools let alone update the code and there are too few with the millions necessary to operate such a beast.

  • Data over technology.  Data is the life blood of any organization, political opportunist or no.  The technology team should document their design, so that in two years, the next group can hit the ground running with the better tools we’ll have invented.
  • People over technology.  What gave Obama the edge is he had really smart quants analyzing the data.  Having good technology makes it easier for users, but brainy people analyzing data for information is way more important.
  • Process over technology.  How a team decides to put all the processes and work flows together is more important than the user interface or any block of code.  This is likely the real reason it will never to see the light of day. 
  • Despite this, I do side with the software developers.  I’d like the code freed and see what they came up with and how it works.  I bet the design methods are the true innovations and I could see why the Obama team is a little leery about giving that competitive advantage away.   

    The Trillion Dollar Coin

    Admittedly, I missed the first roe about minting the coin to end all coins a few years back.  Now, the impractical idea has came roaring back, sparking debates, bills to ban it, and estimations of its size

    trillion_dollar_bill-simpsons
    Greatest theft ever

    The idea sparks the imagination, but in the real world the US Treasury would just print a bill or enter 1 and 12 zeros into an account.  It has been long tried.  Create money and spend it.  The coin is a euphemism for inflation.  Whether a coin, bill, or just a checking account the media makes little difference. 

    The hope is that it the coin would kick start our economy before inflation ate the spending power.  Today, this is done covertly though borrowing.  Minting coins would just make it more obvious. 

    If we do such they should give the resulting cash to the US citizens.  At least we could have fun with the $3 grand until the hangover hit.  However, this won’t happen.  Some would save or pay down debts.  Party poopers.

    Real Gun Control Won’t Happen

    I have been following the gun control debate after the Sandy Hook shootings with an interest toward how we’ll fail to accomplish much of anything lasting.  Sure, there will be laws passed at all levels of government as well as the inevitable lawsuits.  However, these will not solve the basic problems causing gun violence in the US.

    NRA is right; gun aren’t the cause, they are the tools of violence.  However, much of the rest of their rhetoric, such as if we ban guns only criminals will have them, is insipid and lends nothing to the debate.

    Gun control advocates are also have some facts on their side.  There is too many guns in the US today.  Though they are short-sighted to think that stricter laws or outright bans will do anything in the near to mid-term.

    The problems are societal.  Some are a part of our DNA, which started hundreds of years ago as the Europeans kicked out the Native Americans.  The solutions are difficult culturally but need not be expensive and insurmountable.

    1. Better mental healthcare, especially for young men.  Face it, men are more likely to murder.  It also takes an odd duck to go into a place and kill unarmed people.  One change is to update state and local laws to make it easier for people to get loved ones help.  Also we need religious, social,and charitable help lines for those who see help on their own.
    2. Increase work opportunities for ex-con and those with lower skills and education.  This would not have helped the children Sandy Hook, but at some of the 30,000+ deaths from guns a year could be prevented if people people had something legal to do.
    3. Legalization of drugs, starting with marijuana.  Gang deaths were around 29,400 in 2011.  Legalization of drug would significantly lower gun violence by taking the profit out of the trade.  Who would go to a dealer when you could pick up a pack of joints at Walmart?  Mexico would thank us too.
    4. Less ghettoization.  Most poor live in poor areas clustered together, especially in cities.  Current zoning laws play a heavy roll in this.  Richer areas set zoning laws that stifle affordable housing such as apartments and other high density living to protect their property values.  This puts the poor area with fewer job prospects.  It also makes it harder to interact with other classes to network, a key in finding better paying jobs.
    5. Social change to stigmatize gun hording and survivalist conduct.  The changes in public attitudes did more to decrease the cigarette smoking rate than any $1 a pack tax rise or law banning public smoking.  A concerted effort by family, friends, and society is needed to make it more difficult for the negative activity to take place in society. 

    As you can see, most of my ideas are local in nature.  The Federal government can do little to make a difference.  Even if they were to ban all gun sales, it would be decades before we’d see an effect as there is at least 310 million guns is the US today.

    Linus Torvalds Hurts Long-Term Viability of Linux with Outburst

    Linus Torvalds is a brilliant person, but often does detrimental things to the long-term viability of his pet project, the Linux kernel.  I’m not talking about coding, he is rather good at that, but the more important aspect of interpersonal relationships.  To see why, one only need to read this rant where he swore at a developer about a shoddy patch.  To quote:

    Mauro, SHUT THE FUCK UP!

    It’s a bug alright – in the kernel. How long have you been a
    maintainer? And you *still* haven’t learnt the first rule of kernel
    maintenance?

    While there is some indication that the developer was trying to blame other software that use the code in question, there is no excuse to berate a someone in public like he did.  It poisons the well and creates an environment to hostile to creativity. 

    In business, it is never a good idea to get this personal, especially if you are a manager.  It is harder to foster trust as subordinates worry they will be on the receiving end someday and become risk adverse.  Since people are now covering for themselves, they are less likely to bring creative ideas to the table.   This leads to the minimum amount of work being completed.

    Now Linus has to deal with the subtle fallout of his bad personnel decision.  This will hurt all of us who use Linux in the long-run as good coders overlook it for more hospitable environment in which to work.

    Recycling in McLean County

    In December, I decided to dig through my old junk in the basement and rid my house of all the stuff  that hasn’t been touched in years.  I sold some online, but I still had lots of unsellable items that I didn’t want to toss it in a landfill, so I decided to look up where to give it away or recycle it.

    I found that http://www.ecologyactioncenter.org is a good resource for McLean county, but was missing a few recyclers/donations places.  So a little more research I built this list:

    http://lostmidwesterner.com/bloomingtonnormal-il-recycling/

    Enjoy!

    Review: Capitalism Hits the Fan

    Over the Christmas break, I listened to Rick Wolff’s lecture/movie, Capital Hits the Fan, an interesting historical perspective on the build up leading to the credit crisis.  He historical points:

    1. The feeling of American Exceptionalism became ingrained from a consistent increase in prosperity starting in Industrial Revolution through the 1970s.
    2. Since the 1970s workers have felt the effects of wage stagnation.  This is due to globalization, increasing minority/women workforce participation, and productivity gains.
    3. People still wanted to increase their prosperity even if their pay checks were not getting bigger.  So they borrowed and worked longer hours to maintain their standard of living.  I don’t completely agree with some of his finer points, but the idea is solid.
    4. Banks and companies saw increasing profits from the great productivity gains of the digital revolution, which they then lent to consumers (and governments.)
    5. Consumers became overburden with debt…the crash happened.

    While I agree with his snarky historical reasoning about what led up to the housing debacle, he should have tones down the smugness of his presentation.  It made his solution seem idealist and hooky.  He wants workers to own their companies rather than the capitalists or managers.  This might sound like communism, but in is more nuanced than that political philosophy.

    American Airlines and parts of Volkswagen Group operate this way.  Instead of investors getting rich, the profits flow to the workers instead.  Sounds nice, but it is hard to run a large company in this way.  There are downsides to this method:

    1. When a downturn hits (as they always do,) will workers/owners downsize themselves?  Unions often can run a struggling company into the ground, what would happen if they also control the purse strings too?
    2. Workers don’t have the capital to expand without borrowing from bankers, the same people who overextended our economy in the first place.
    3. Not every company can be run as a flat organization like Valve Valve (New link.)  Someone will still need to make strategic decisions and get paid a lot of money to do it.

    Overall, there are some interesting things to be learned here, but how the content is presented makes it not worth the $20.

    Update 10/19/2015: Updated link to valve handbook.