Tuesday, December 18, 2007

PCT Talk!

There is a conversation that takes place in the household of former Appalachian Trail through-hikers. It doesn't always go the same way, but it's always something like this:

AT Hiker: "You know, the re-supply points aren't as remote as PCT through-hikers always made them sound."
Spouse: "Uh huh"
AT Hiker: "I mean really, I've been reading the PCT journals and the worst stretch is the Sierras. Outside of that, you got roads every sixty or a hundred miles or so, and it's a twenty-mile hitch, max. PCTers I met on the AT were all like, 'oh, you have to bury food caches' and 'there are no hostels' and all this crap. There's stores and kickass hostels, they were just being pompous bastards. Whatever, most of those PCT people dropped out in Virginia mumbling profanities about rocks and trail maintenance."
Spouse: "You've been reading the trail journals?"
AT Hiker: "Yeah, but it's not like I'm, y'know, planning to through hike the PCT or anything."
Spouse: "Uh-huh."
AT Hiker: "Yeah, anyway, it sounds like the hitches are a lot easier, too. Some of the campgrounds sound pretty sketchy, but there were some sketchy people near the AT, too."
Spouse: "So when are you going?"
AT Hiker: "No, I'm not going to through hike. Not for another, like, ten years. Maybe longer!"
Spouse: "Uh-huh"

I'm not saying that anything like this conversation ever happened in my household. I am, after all, not planning on through-hiking the PCT. As part of my not-planning, a couple of observations about the PCT, the 2,650 mile western sister of the Appalachian Trail

>>The cold is colder, the hot is hotter, the highs are higher, and the lows are lower- physically and psychologically. The Sierra- the most gorgeous stretch of the PCT, by all accounts- is a psychological low for a lot of PCT hikers. Chalk it up to a devil's mixture of altitude sickness and isolation. I can sympathize with the latter. 200 miles is a long way between towns.
>>The wets aren't wetter, though. It's a very dry trail until near the end, and an eight-liter water load is standard. Rule of thumb: when you hit water, act as if it's the last water you're ever going to see. Guzzle a couple of liters, cook supper, fill your bottles- do everything that needs water- then move on. Don't be afraid to dry camp. It's a race and thirst is the timer.
>>The water you do find is awful. We can be honest here: a good thirty percent of AT through-hikers don't treat their water. I was pretty lax about water treatment myself. This is not an option on the PCT. Water sources are, more often than not, lakes that have no outlet and have been hiked and camped on for hundreds of years. Water-borne sickness fells a larger proportion of PCT through-hikers than it does AT through hikers.
>>In spite of its vertical scale, the PCT is suprisingly mild in grade, rarely exceeding 5%. It's also missing the boulder scrambles that slow down AT hikers below the dreaded 2 MPH marker. The PCT was designed for pack animals, God bless them, and you can see it when you pan over the trail in Google Earth- the path actually tries to follow contour lines, as opposed to going up and over every piece of high ground it can find. Because of this, the PCT, although longer, generally takes less time than the AT.
>>The southern section needs special tactics to make miles in unshaded desert. Pack umbrellas are very cool, as long as their locking system can stand the wind. Desert walkers should siesta in a shady spot during the heat of the day (I did this myself on the AT in PA), and consider night hiking when the moon is out (with no rocks, it's not as dangerous as it was in Maine).
>>As always, ultralight wins the day, because it makes room for more water. I'm already pretty close to bottom on the pack scale, but there's room for improvement. A lighter pack like the Mariposa could take off another 30 ounces or so. Replacing raingear and shelter with a poncho tarptent shaves off 15 ounces. Swapping out the sleeping bag with a lighter model, a very expensive 15 ounces. I can ditch a lot of gear in the desert, and mail the cold weather gear to myself before the high Sierras. It seems sort of unfair that the coldest stretch is also the longest between resupplies, sticking you with a ten day food load along with your cold weather gear and your bloody freakin' ice axe.
>>The bears are not really bigger. You don't cross grizzly territory. You do need a kevlar bear cannister, though, not because the bears are more ferocious but because there are not many trees to hang a bear bag from. Everyone cautions about Yosemite bears, which are canny and persistent. They've learned to manipulate friction locks on bear cannisters and unlocked car doors. They'd probably have cell phones if they could find a provider with coverage, but who needs pizza delivery when all these crazy hikers keep bringing food for free?

Anyway, definitely not planning to through-hike the PCT! There's still the Superior Hiking Trail, with all its views of Lake Superior and its adorable Fargo accents. And its quaint three hundred mile length.

Wednesday, August 15, 2007

Back to the Future

Link to the photo album of my July hike through one half of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. I managed to revisit the site of my bear appointment without wetting myself, and even got a twenty two mile day in. It was strange in the utmost going through all those motions of hiking- taping blisters, getting water, getting rained on - after being back in the real world for a number of months. Something akin to going out to your garage and finding the Batmobile, or finding out that you're Tyler Durden. Probably more the latter, but without Mr. Pitt's personal charisma.

Wedding Site Up


Sunday, June 17, 2007

Mystery Advisors

We've know for some time that there were mystery advisers guiding the hands of the teenagers running Abu Ghraib. The question is . . who were they? Not CIA, not Army. Where did they come from?

Traitor and America-Hater Seymour Hersh explores the revelations of General Taguba.

Saturday, June 09, 2007

The Underrated Edward James Olmos

As many know, I do not own a television. I do, however, make exceptions when it comes to uncommon art. The combination of a New Yorker review (notoriously snooty regarding science fiction), and the recommendations of a friend historically loathe to sci-fi ("This Battlestar Galactica . . um . . it's rather good . . ") convinced me to view a DVD that perchance landed on my doorstep, that contained the re-imagined miniseries of Battlestar Galactica.

I agree, it is rather good. In fact, it might be some of the best television ever made. Commander Adama, played by Olmos, might be one of the most well-acted science fiction character actors to ever be portrayed. So little facial movement, and so much said, with just a twitch, or a shake of those acne-scarred jowels. So much so, I can say that when I grow up, I hope I grow up to be Edward James Olmos' Commander Adama.*

*This is a move up, because when I was 11 I was hoping I would grow up to be Commander Spock. Fate is cruel.

Thursday, June 07, 2007

Full World

Something strange happened in the mid 1990s. Liquidity- especially that controlled by the more ballsy investment houses- began moving into the developing world, rather than camp out in its normal homes stateside looking for reinvestment. This liquidity especially enjoyed going to Southeast Asia, and formed the precarious foundation of the "little tigers" that arose there. It came down in a big thump, of course, but the inner question- in my mind- is why they abandoned the traditional market in the first place.

Since the East Asian Financial Crisis, that free-floating global capital has been like a fleeing Frankenstein monster set afire, running back and forth from industry to industry, chased by a mob only it can see. The late Dot Com Bubble, the Real Estate Bubble, the so-far successfully mitigated China Bubble . . that Creature gets around.

Economists disagree about what causes financial bubbles, but it's easy to define it as "too much given to too little". Money, after all, is supposed to represent value. The problem here is that the judgment call of "value" is not lining up with what the real world thinks is worthwhile. That's what makes that monster so skittish. When we get an idea of how the values are going to realign, we not only have a better handle on the future, but we are in a better position to make a whole lot of money.

Money represents stuff. It's a given, but it assumes a constant demand into the future and a constant influx of materiel. What happens when we don't need -or even want- more stuff? It can happen, even to Americans. Furthermore, you aren't guaranteed an infinite world. The Earth is a (relatively) tiny globe of silica and iron floating about in space, not a blue dome maintained by Jehovah. Even if it were, you can't trust the landlord with maintenance a lot of the time.

What happens is that you don't have such an overwhelming interest in making things that make other things, i.e., capital. When you lose interest in that, weird things happen, because capital is very important. We call it"capitalism" for a reason. When the ratio of capital to resources drops, the capital is deflated in real value, and an awful lot of money floats away from the value it was supposed to represent, looking for a bubble to fasten onto. There's that pesky monster again.

It's not a particularly new monster. Locally, this sort of thing has happened all the time- and I do mean all the time- throughout history. There are two things right now that make the monster a lot scarier: one, that the money is so liquid that it presses against the definition of the word "money"; two, the world, unlike a nation, does not have a Federal Bank Chairman.

Ultimately, the safest economic activity will be in those industries that can find resource value in capital. These go all the way from mining old dumps for strategic metals to mining asteroids, or setting up a power grid based on home-unit energy production (imagine a neighborhood where each house gooses the flow of the grid), or something no one has thought up yet. Closed world economics involves a different type of thinking, but it doesn't mean that there isn't money to be made.

Friday, June 01, 2007

Google Streetview: Appalachian Trail?

For the past unknown number of unknown time increments, Google has been mapping city streets in various locations, like late-Antiquity monks frantically scribing every text they could get their hands on, like something from a Canticle for Leibowitz, but with higher data densities. No matter what might happen, it appears the Church of Google will have recorded our civilization for posterity, but open questions remain as to what a "record" is, and what effect it has on a readership that is, at this point, hypothetical.

There's no upper limit to the distortion an alien culture can make on a data without context- witness the sudden rise of lower case in the Roman script. Something the recorders assigned importance to- letter shape- was actually nothing more than the cursive handwriting of a common scribe.

I imagine artificial intelligences and bio-engineered organisms, survivors of some future catastrophe a thousand years hence, finding Google Streetview and shaping their culture after these pictures of huge cities, their mysterious inhabitants and inexplicable activities. Perhaps they would all choose to make themselves look like classic automobiles. Of all the possible futures, perhaps the one I look forward to the least is the one that resembles a real-life re-enactment of The Transformers.

In any case, it made me curious: would one day a hiker carry the camera and hard drive to do this on the Appalachian trail? There's a reason Google Streetview views mostly from the road. All that data storage is heavy, and I can easily see a through-hiker sacrificing the hardware to some strange god by, oh, Hot Springs. Images of shrines and burning also come to mind. Hikers abhor adding grams, let alone pounds, to their pack weight, especially if the weight is not peanut butter.

My hats off to the first hiker that does it . .

Friday, May 11, 2007


Michael Vlahos has some very interesting thoughts in the feature story of the American Conservative.

The piece is a commentary, the topic nothing you haven't thought of before, but gorgeously written and presented. Mr. Vlahos has a hand with verbal imagery.


Thursday, May 10, 2007

Searching for the Sphere of Archimedes

A really, really fascinating article for anyone with a passing interest in the history of science.


I had read of the Antikythera mechanism before, but did not quite realize its complexity. Also, I had no idea they found others. The author muses on how technology is abandoned by various cultures over the years. It's something worth pondering, because it goes beyond technology and history, or even design. It has to do with culture. It hurts to say it, and I know of at least one scientist who will throw things at me for saying it, but science is part of culture. Function does not live on a Tibetan mountaintop.

There is a set of alternate history novels in which a group of apartheid South African mercenaries go back in time to the American Civil War. They bring the shematics for the AK-47. In the novel, naturally the South manufactures this asynchronous assault rifle, and things happen as may be.

This article of the Mechanism reveals that such fantasies are exactly that. Our technology does not exist in a Platonic vacuum of absolute functionality, but in a thick atmosphere of our own values, the primordial muck of design. Worthies of the American Civil War would no sooner begin manufacturing AK-47s than we would begin manufacturing race-specific retroviruses. We design and build things according to our values, and not according to a single function.

That said, it's probably a good thing we didn't have tanks in 1600, or AK-47s in 1862. Hooray for values.

Wednesday, May 02, 2007

At the Mountains of Madness

One of the enduring literary innovations of H. P. Lovecraft is the idea of an infectious fiction. In his world, there are fictions- or texts, or words, or concepts- that, when read, have immediate and dire consequences in the physical world without a conscious intermediary. It's subtle, terrifying. It means that once you've read an H. P. Lovecraft story it's already too late. By the act of reading, you have tripped into motion a threat from beyond time.

There is a number (more) that I could show you that similarly, merely by the act of you viewing it, would cause you (or me) to be fined or even imprisoned. Those thirty-two characters only have to exist in front of your optic nerves to be illegal, according to the writ of the DMCA. I have chosen not to look at the number for this reason; I don't want to see anything that can get me arrested merely by virtue of being inside my brain. Theoretically the magic number allows you to do something involving movies and LINUX, but I don't care and I don't want to know. I don't even know what I just wrote. I have a very short memory.

As far as I'm concerned, these arcane digits are the Necronomicon, and our corrupt congresscritters are their Shoggoth. I know better than to goose Shoggoths in sensitive bikini areas. Let the movie industry have their magical textbooks and weird secrets.

EDIT: Or you can tempt fate and Death itself! And buy a T-SHIRT emblazoned with the fearful secret number! Or even the deadly secret as spelled in a fiendish hex color pallette! To what depths will these deviants sink?! Verily, I run out of exclamation points!

Dispatches from an Economic Boom

2006 was a record year for economic growth, said an official on the radio news. Good things to hear on your way to a client's site, a sign that the world is turning at least in some of the right directions. Corporate profits rising at record levels, continued the announcer. Profits mean reinvestment and improvement of infrastructure, said another. Wonderful, wonderful news to hear from a random talking head snorting coke off the teleprompter. It's probably just a moral failing of the people that this neighborhood looks like Tijuana on a bad day.

At 9 am a drunk on a bicycle weaves into heavy traffic, bumper to bumper at fifty miles per hour through a school zone. Chaos ensues as drivers try to make up their minds if they want to hit the schoolchildren, the drunk, or each other. If I was a crossing guard in this town I swear I'd carry a Javelin missile launcher, or perhaps a more rustic RPG-7. It would match the rust and crumbling concrete a bit better, I think.

The youths glowering in front of the Wal-Mart could be distinguished from ordinary gang members by their traditional blue vest and smiley face pin. It's a charmingly multiracial gathering of what I like to call "Future Carjackers of America". A particularly hostile Caucasian who looked to be about eleven sneered ferociously at me while sucking on his Doral Menthol, blowing smoke. I lower my gaze not because I am afraid of a gang of elementary school-age Wal-Mart employees but because I do not want to hit someone who should, at this time of day, be in a clean institutional building learning about multiplication and cooties. Later I check to see if there is some sort of school holiday or vacation that allows school-age children the liberty to be working at Wallyworld this fine Tuesday morning. There is not. Undoubtedly the rainbow coalition on break obtained permission to work all hours from their attentive guardians, parents, and/or grandparents. I remember one kid I used to work with in the restaurant business whose mother charged him six hundred dollars a month to live in a garage with a sink for a toilet. He couldn't get a real apartment because, hey, he was sixteen.

I met with an old friend for lunch, and the discussion got around to making money, and making your money work. "My 401k did one point eight percent for 2006," he said.
"You're kidding," I said.
"Nope. Would have done just as good putting it in the bank."
Actually, given the amount of money in the fund, he would have done better, assuming he put it in a money market, which there is no reason not to do if you are putting in more than about three grand. I was pretty incredulous. Someone somewhere is taking off with a lot of money- pretty much all the indexes did better than fifteen percent in 2006.
"They have a lot of fees they take off," he adds. I'll say. I poked around the story using the magic of the internet, and saw much of what I expected.
401ks all across the country look like this. If it weren't for the matching funds provided by employers, these managed assets would be dumped faster than real estate is getting dumped now. Even with matching, the returns are laughably close to what you could get from just taking all the money and putting it in under some sort of halfway-competent manager. Big companies are basically funding these incompetent managers so that they can get bargain buybacks and keep the roof under their feet, at the expense of investors, and, naturally, those employees stuck with the goddamn things. It does mean record profits, though. Profits are good. Good profits mean you have a good economy.

I got to Bed, Bath, and Beyond fifteen minutes early; I reclined the seat and took a good nap. When I got out, I almost ran into an older woman, about fifty, wearing threadbare clothes but otherwise looking like she took decent care of herself, or at least a good a care as you can take when you make nine thousand dollars a year. She was bleeding from a few places on her face and arms. "Some of the boys around here, they threw some rocks last night, shredded my tent"
"You behind DeSoto?", I asked, remembering a tent village I used to pass when I biked to the DeSoto Mall.
"Yeah, they got a bunch of folks . ." She paused, as if embarassed "Could I get a ride to the hospital from you? I thought I was OK, but . ."
I can't really describe the emotion I felt. It's like you asked a bartender to make the most revolting cocktail that he could imagine, then getting it and drinking it, and then having to pretend to have a good time for the rest of the evening. "I'm sorry . . I'm meeting my fiance . . we're doing our registry."
God bless her, she genuinely looked apologetic. "Oh! You get that done. Sorry, I saw you sleeping in the car, and I just thought . ." She thought I was a fellow homeless person. Someone who could help.
I'm about to mention calling the police, but remember what a buddy of mine in law enforcement mentioned about the Bradenton City police. "We get a call from them, we go to the scene with witnesses. Not from the City. We get folks from FHP, or county." I think about the Sarasota police whaling on those soup kitchen people with big flashlights, and the St. Pete police that tore down the tent city. I chuckle to myself thinking about calling police to help a bleeding homeless woman. I'd be better off calling the Humane Society.
"Take care of youself, ma'am"
"Oh I will. Bless you. And your sweetie."

Monica and I had a great time doing our registry. We are a fine couple, waltzing through dishes and food processors and All-Clad Stainless Cookware. I imagine the sweet, sweet foods I am going to be making with these boss new kitchen gadgets. It's some kind of joy ringing up the most expensive of every possible item. I hear China needs the money anyway. Their economy is growing too. Record profits. Things have never been better. Prosperity, America, that's where it's at.

Tuesday, April 17, 2007

Supersize Me, Edwardian-Style

Catering the 25 seat LCF Board Dinner went off smashingly and without a hitch. Last year's was somewhat more hectic as the recipes were more complicated, and there was the additional stress of me leaving for the Appalachian Trail in a few days. It gave everything a Last Meal sort of quality.

This year, the opening night's barbecue had a nice molded Greek salad and sides of hummus and harissa. As always, harissa is a big hit, though it is nothing more than a puree of roasted red bell peppers, eggplant, olive oil, salt, and cayenne. We followed with lemon bars (it is the South, you know) and baklava.

The board dinner's menu included cheese, olives, chopped salad with pine nuts, ciabatta,  ratatouille, various pastas, roast chicken, and sliced whole roast tenderloin with a marsala-garlic-basil cream sauce. This sauce had to be improvised since apparently no grocery store in the state carries Knorr bearnaise anymore, or even dried tarragon. Wal-mart does manage to find room to stock no fewer than seventeen different types of sausage gravy.

Tiramisu chased all this food down our gullet, although it would have been much better had I made the tiramisu one more day in advance. It was a bit runny the day of serving, but thirty hours later it had really come together.

All in all, I thought it was a decent meal, a seven or eight on my personal scale. It's a good thing all those leftovers are in a different house. All in all, though, when I groan thinking of the richness of this food, I just think about this article:


Compared to the Edwardian diet, the board dinner was practically a dietetic.

Bon appetit!

Wednesday, April 11, 2007

Perfect Storm

A very nice dissection of what happened at JetBlue in February. To summarize:
  1. Management strangely fascinated by idea of planes stuck to tarmac by ice.
  2. Sabre systems and Navitaire systems don't sit next to each other easily, claim other has cooties.
  3. Attack of the SAP Consultants!
  4. JetBlue ignoring the limitations set down by Navitaire system (who, it should be said, should have laid down the law a little more emphatically)
  5. More Navitaire system limitations: passengers can't rebook without learning SQL and purchasing secret Navitaire passwords from Russian mob.
  6. Serious system limitation in tracking baggage. No system, actually.
Good read.

Thursday, April 05, 2007

Thalatta, thalatta

Abandoned by a cynical and disinterested political elite, surrounded by hostile peoples and strange gods, a Western army battles across the badlands of Asia Minor. It might sound familiar, but not for the reasons you are thinking of. It's the story of Anabasis, related by Xenophon in the fifth century BCE.

In a republican form of government, the executive might be the lead singer but it is the legislative branch that owns the instruments. It is conceivable that the executive branch might engage in a waiting game, allowing logistic chains to disintegrate, so that the failure of military units may be seen as the fault of the legislative branch.

This would be an audacious gamble. If the executive misjudges the resolve of the legislative opposition, if it underestimates force reserves, if it misses a critical strategic asset in the ever-multiplying ranks of the enemy, ground units may find themselves trapped in their fortifications, with ever-dwindling air cover and a suddenly finite supply of fuel and ammunition. Air resupply is a tremendous fuel drain, and the ground logistics routes from Kuwait depend entirely on close air support so as not to be destroyed by a hostile populace.

It is not reassuring that audacity has been a hallmark of the executive during the past six years.

If the worst does come to pass, and the heroes of the United States ground forces are compelled to fight their way across the badlands of Asia Minor, we can only hope that they commend themselves to legend, and that the men and women who serve us so selflessly might at last come to sanctuary, as the Ten Thousand Greeks, finally sighting the sea.

The alternative, of course, is genocide. Victory through the extermination of an entire populace is one of the few proven counter-insurgency tactics.

Tuesday, April 03, 2007


Feeling evil today. I have resolved to sketch more during breaks..

Saturday, March 31, 2007

Fistful of Lemurs

I couldn't tell if Monica was falling asleep in the seat next to me or if the Sanford's Brown Lemurs in the back of the van were beginning to wake up. They make a sound that is a cross between a tauntaun and a spy pig. The sound I was hearing was most likely an angry lemur, but since Monica's asthma had been acting up, it could have been her soft girl-snores. I wondered what would happen if a police officer stuck his head into the vehicle, with its weird animals and strung out humans.

Realistically, nothing. We have completely certified this activity with virtually all levels of government, up to and including, I believe, Ban Ki Moon and all the necessary groups of drunk and corrupt old men in Washington. Still, what could happen if we faced that possible problem of Cop Having a Bad Day? It could happen. The CHABD would call the Department of Agriculture to check on our papers. It being the weekend and there being no one home at the FDA, he would loiter, hoping someone returns his calls, and probe the cages with his fingers, as South Carolinian CHABDs are sometimes prone to do to strange objects.

After assessment of his injuries, K-9 units would be called in by the CHABD to sniff the lemurs for drugs. From this point it is a matter of minutes until both directions of I-95 would be shut down by the scruffy scourge of eulemur sanfordi, being chased inexpertly by the CHABD, state troopers and hyperadrenalized German Shepherds.

In reality this would never happen. The GHP trooper would look at the papers, shake his head and go on his way. As it actually happened law enforcement was a non-issue. We picked up LCF's new additions from the Duke University Primate Center and went on our way, our mild speeding unnoticed amid the six lane brouhaha that results from the combination of 568,031 Spring Breakers and the Interstate system.

The only problem was driving fifteen hundred miles in two and a half days in a car half-filled with very primitive primates. Luckily these primates were not advanced enough to fling poo at us, or spit with the unerring accuracy that is the domain of the orangutan. No, the only thing the lemurs could fling at us were their strange cries, a surreal soundtrack passing through tidewater flats of South Carolina and Georgia.

Life is such a small and interesting thing, sometimes.

Tuesday, March 20, 2007


I have lately been regarding my laptop with venomous hate since that bloated make-work project for new Microsoft hires, Word, declared that "There are too many edits in the document. This operation will be incomplete. Save your work."

The dictatorial order to cease productivity must have provoked some sort of internet stroke, because I couldn't find any advice on how to fix this beyond the usual titter tatter about defragmenting hard disks. Great advice for time travelers from 1980, not so helpful here. Anyone who can turn on a computer nowadays runs scheduled maintenance, and it's mildly insulting MS recommends something like this when confronting a fatal error in one of their flagship products. Being frustrated with support, however, has become one of those computer rituals we do, like reinstalling Windows monthly and destroying AOL disks with surplus Soviet firearms. This weekend I plan to burn several copies of the Word install disk just to have the pleasure of blasting them to bits, and blasting those bits into even smaller bits.

Let us now sober and look at this thing, this laptop, this housing for obsolescence. It is amazing how little of its volume, mass, and cost is devoted to its stated purpose of computing. In its way, it is the Polish cavalry(1) of the 21st century. The whole thing is a container for human interfaces. The QWERTY keyboard is itself a legend in designed inefficiency, for if the keys were more optimized, old-fashioned typewriters would have jammed constantly under the high speed assault of typists' fingers. Meaningless today, of course, but that's information technology for you. People don't easily part from something that takes years to learn, which is a rather sensible attitude, all things considered. The toolmaker must always operate by the maxim: to make is to save.

So we must craft something so much better that no one has to learn anything. In its day the keyboard was such an invention, as you didn't need to apprentice to a typesetter to use one. The letters were on these little buttons, and when you hit a button with a letter on it, the letter appeared. Sure, eventually you had to learn to change ribbons and such, but it's still heaps better than putting together an inked press block, mostly in that you didn't have to change ribbons as often as you had to ink the block.

At the least one should not spend more time training than what was saved by switching to a new tool. Let's make that into a ratio so we can get a scale on these things:
[(Time spent on old tool)-(time spent on new tool)] / Time spent training
The typewriter is a great example of this. Training time was way less than the time it saved, so it makes money from the get-go, i.e., it had a percentage greater than 100%. Once your percentages drop below 100, you have to be very careful, because you are betting that the new tool will keep up its current rate of savings into the future, just to break even. Accountants have very sophisticated ways of calculating these things, but it is something technology people frequently forget, which is a shame, because it's how we figure out the need for a tool in the first place. To make is to save.

So whither computer? Many folks see the demise of the classic laptop in favor of something like a mobile phone on steroids- something with the computing power of a modern laptop in the form factor of a Treo or Blackberry. That's a no-brainer. The thing that takes some thinking is the interface, the thing that takes up so much space in conventional computers. If we could get over looking like a dork, HUD displays would make a great monitor substitute, but otherwise miniaturized projection systems can make any white wall into a screen. Keyboards are harder, but possible. I am reminded of a sci-fi novel in which the user, equipped with a HUD and a "virtual office", can type on any flat surface because his "virtual office" software displays a projected keyboard wherever the flat surface is. Such a system severely lacks tactile feedback, however, and it has the side effect of looking like a dorky virgin because you are wearing a HUD. I'd argue for some sort of flexible keyboard, or perhaps some way of scanning finger movements. Speech recognition is another great possibility, as most people type slower than they speak.

Eventually, however, we won't need an interface at all. When they release this system for people, we need to be careful that we don't lock people into a QWERTY system for the mind- something that locks thoughts just for the sake of an interface.

1.That's Polish Cavalry as the German and Soviet propagandists portrayed them- the actual Polish cavalry in 1939 disposed itself quite well against what was probably the most formidable invasion force in history. Poland fell so rapidly not because of its "Pollack" commanders but because they based their defensive plans around the rapid response of allies in the case of German invasion. Since the West preferred that Hitler kick Stalin around a bit, the rapid response was deferred. In proportion to its population, Poland suffered the wor

Friday, March 16, 2007

Google Rides

It's almost official: Google has plans for cell phones, or perhaps we should say, google phones. They will almost certainly be based on something more than 3G architecture, although I'd wager their service will exist in an abstraction layer on top of 3G and wireless data services.

An abstraction of the service will allow a single phone provider to divvy up bandwidth between cell networks and VOIP, then figure out how much money gets saved and pass along the savings to the consumer, who is otherwise forced to buy two or three different cell phones. I'm just talking out loud here, but bear with me. You have a VOIP phone and you are driving through East Fort, Nowheresville. Naturally your phone is going to the cell towers, because there is nothing here. There's barely any cell phone coverage, but still, it's breaking down your voicestream into bytes and going out through the cell network. But say this new service you have on it is always looking for wireless networks at the same time. As you get closer to the city, this system can start offloading bytes onto the internet through wireless networks, which are a hell of a lot cheaper than bytes over a cell network. Not quite as reliable, but if you are in a big city you probably have access to three or more wireless networks at any given time. Balance the books between your time on 3G and your time on the wireless VOIPers and you have a net savings. Unfortunately most of us poor schlubs don't have any way of doing this, and so have to carry two phones to capitalize on the discrepancy between 3G and wireless availability. It's not a problem that's insolvable, it's just one of those needs no business has yet tried to fill.

So just providing the service at something like forty or fifty bucks a month would get customers and pay the bills, but we all know that's not what Google does. It makes its money by knowing you better than you know yourself, and a phone that relays position is truly an advertiser's wet dream come to slurping life. It's not any more of an intrusion than cell phones already are, since the FBI can turn them into listening devices whenever they want. So we might as well get used to others knowing exactly where we are at all times, listening to our most private moments, or even enjoy the fact that someone, or something, might be hearing us in the bathroom. "Hey, I think I should let you guys know, in detail, that I had some very spicy food last night!"

One business arising from this that I'd like to see is Google Rides. Imagine: every person with a google phone lists whether they want to sign up for this service. You have a cash account, you post how much per mile you want to charge. When you need a lift, hit the "Thumb" button, and any google phone user in (roughly) the same area sees your "thumb", and can give you a lift, or send you a message, or what-have-you. When the ride's done, accounts are settled invisibly, and if I'm google, I can shave off a couple of cents per transaction- and see who goes where, and whether or not they might like a car or whatever else I can sell them. With fuel prices going up for the rest of my natural life, this is something that could get very popular, and, as a nifty side effect, reduce the national epidemic of loneliness.

Thursday, March 15, 2007


A continuation of the espionage story Skinless
Please be aware that this piece contains adult language.

Run: Central Asia

The skinless man who had once called himself Ahmed hid from overflights under an IR-reflecting blanket. He used no lights. It was easy to hide here. This was the soft place of history, where legion disappear into anthology. Five days later he hopped an overloaded bus through the Kaoshan and into western Szechua. Forty eight hours later in Hong Kong he had bought a freighter cabin, meal service, a carton of cigarettes, and a case of Kruggerands. The Kruger gold would have to be sat on for a while before it could be put into assets, and while that was happening he had to have zero profile. Working to clear his equipment from electronic traces it might have picked up, scanning for the RFID dust they were spraying all over creation. Working to clear himself of his PLA helpers, hooking up with old associates, and avoiding his family, who, over the years, had employed half of the former KGB to bring him back to Columbia.

It was one of those agents, long a hunter in Central Asia, who came after him, looking over the barrel of an entirely unfashionable Norinco QSZ-92, to go with the ugly PLA officer's uniform he stole from somewhere. Like 0SIG this man had only a nickname, something to use other than, "Sir" or, "Gaaah". 0SIG called him Ahaseurus. He had an equine face with a nose so long it didn't seem real, which was quite likely. His eyes tiny, extremely close together and painted black-black by contact lenses, watched 0SIG intently, flickering madly around the room with the smallest movement. 0SIG, for his part, stayed slumped in exactly the same position he had passed out in. The cabin stank of equal quantities sweat, hoisin, and rice liquor.

April 12, 2002, Hong Kong, passenger quarters of the COSCO TIANJIN

"Hey, shithead," said Ahaseurus. "Don’t make me scream in Mandarin."

0SIG looked at the older operative without moving his head, which hurt very badly. "Sino-Tibetan. All of it. Hate. Like listening to cat vomit."

"Yes, this is why I wish to dump it all over your head." Ahaseurus paused, stood and circled the room, as if giving a lecture in a graduate conference. "The Amis have their panties in a rock-hard bundle about someone hollering command signals, from an extremely obsolete geographical survey satellite. Funny eh?"

"Wow. That's something."

Ahaseurus slapped him, not entirely mindful of the gun in his hand, then bent low to scream at the younger man.

"You piece of shit. Your father is pissed. More pissed than usual. Everyone who knows what hemisphere you are in knows that you are tipping Ami bombs to blow out swimming pools for Hajjis or some goddamned thing. What the jumping fuck? Are you trying to give your mother a heart attack?"

0SIG shook his head. Ahaseurus' hot breath inches from his face, combined with the Mandarin, was urging an attack of vomitus. "I love my mum."

"Christ" Ahaseurus circled the room, saw that his inadvertent pistol-whipping had opened a fresh slice on 0SIG's head, pumping blood into the mattress. He brought out a towel from the head, pressed it tenderly against the younger spy's head. "I mean, what the hell? There's no amount of money in the world to make you do this. I mean the Americans will find something, your bloody shoe size or some goddamn thing. They will kill everyone with that shoe size. Because someone is stealing from them, taking their bombs. Using their bombs. That's . . pretty funny, it is, but still. Why? Why do you do this?"

0SIG shrugged, a hard gesture to perform when laid in a crooked, passed-out, pistol-whipped position. He looked like a hundred pounds of wet bleeding laundry.

"Listen. Come with me tomorrow. Get liquid. Get off this rusted tub, meet me at the Banana Leaf in HKG, with everything, you understand. Tomorrow, oh seven three oh. A job for you, special for you, you won't believe."

0SIG stirred, "Getting liquid that fast is going to cost ten thousand at least."

Ahaseurus half-opened the door, "Ten what? Eh? Forget about money will you? You're worth more than Harry Fucking Akande and Prince Bandar rolled up into one big money ball, alright? You're a cartel kid. Ten thousand! Shit, I paid a couple of thousand for fucking dinner at El Bulli last week."

"El Bulli? Really? I didn't think you could spend that much money there."

"Well, it would have been a lot less, but the family came along, you know. You can come next time too, eat and talk to your father. Airport, tomorrow." Ahaseurus left the cabin with a bang and whimpers as the crew grovelled before his PLA officer uniform, their attitudes genetically modified by four thousand years of authoritarianism. O-SIG lay unmoving as minutes ticked through the awful gray-green hangover, each second marked by a sick throb. Eventually the bleeding stopped.

Slowly 0SIG got up, vomited, stumbled around, slapped duct tape on his head wound. El Bulli had sent his soul spinning into the realm of infernal gluttony, a waking dream of the best food in the world, for fine food was 0SIG's one permanent addiction, like women to Bond, or melodrama to Jack Ryan. El Bulli could be only the start of a Continental tour of gluttony; it would probably be out of fashion by the time they got to it anyway. After Spain they could make their way through Brittany, Provence, the Aegean, never stopping. Carré d'Agneau à la Provençale, rabbit six different ways, osso buco, fois gras. Stilton and Madeira. Rheingau and Emmanthaler! 0SIG stared forlornly at the broken quail necks on the floor, pools of grim hoisin sauce, tasteless dumplings, godforsaken rice liquor. Without the family he'd be living on dim sum for months, speaking Cantonese through his nose at sailors who probably couldn't spell la dolce vita, or even acknowledge the alphabet of any Indo-European language. God, I hate China, thought the secret agent. 0SIG scambled for his appointment book, and mumbled an entry.

"HKG INTL BANANA LEAF 0730. Tomorrow”


As if readers of this page couldn't figure it out already, I work as a peripheral staffer in and around the IT industry. It puts food on the table and a necessary degree of clutter in the mind. Personally, I feel that the current state of IT is in the same state as agriculture around 8000 BC: clumps of smart guys wandering around finding seeds that they can occasionally cultivate. They're smart, and they've got good seeds, but the culture they live in has not yet put forward the infrastructure to allow widespread cultivation to take place. It's not because there isn't a will to do so; it's because no one knows how. We haven't yet figured out what makes a good alluvial plain for the soul.

A lot of people gripe about the IT business for this reason. Without permanent capitalization- the irrigation of this field of ideas, as it were- the economy lies in the head of each seed-gatherer. It's not a comfortable situation. The environment that makes good seeds today can change overnight, and suddenly all that knowledge you had about where to find good seeds is worthless. Worse than worthless, because you're used to the old ways, and Johnny Grad Student isn't. Then there's resource conflicts, and you have to starve, steal, or form militaristic states of violent nomads. There's a reason we came up with agriculture.

There's a certain class of management books that says we should be happy in the pre-cultural world of seed hunting. If I were a more bitter and cynical man, I'd say, of course the elite want to give you this advice. International capital is the equivalent of the lean, mean nomad. They don't want to see the settlement grow into a city, not while there are all these vulnerable and exceptionally busy seed-gatherers learning the same damn thing every spring. If you're big and tough you don't have to learn a damn thing.

We like these nomads. They are , without exception, the primordial heroes of every human culture, with their high survivability, low birthrates, toughened from conflict with each other and with the experimenters, the seed-eaters. We love our raiders. That shouldn't blind us to one very simple truth: the nomads always lose. Eventually the seed eaters figure it out, and they build a structure called civilization that is more powerful than a whole roomful of legends. Sometimes the seed-eaters have a setback, but it's always limited and nearly always localized.

I hope this doesn't appear to advocate some sort of "us-versus-them" philosophy of anthropology and management (and what is management besides applied anthropology?). Historically, some of the nomad leaders became some of the greatest champions of the seed eaters. Those are the ones we remember. We remember them for their greatness, but also for their ability to let it go, to leave their heroic age and walk with us into the human one. They acknowledged the experimenters and their quest to build a greater world.

On the other types of nomad, however, history shows itself at its most cruel. The wrathful and ignorant have passed beyond memory, expressed in the human consciousness as the act of writing. We never even wrote those guys down, or, even more humiliating, we gave them a name of our devising.

In the world of ideas- essentially, the IT world- we must then look at our virtuous raiders and our seed-gatherers, and figure out how ideas grow. How can they coordinate? What do we irrigate with? How much can we expect per unit? How do we defend it from the barbarians sweeping down from the hills with subpoenas and hostile takeovers? Big expensive questions, but if you get it right, you have the ground floor of a new form of cultivation, flowers and kernels of pure mind, an alphabet to be spelled in souls.

Tuesday, March 13, 2007

Behind Times

A space operetta

The spacemen burned down into the system, trading stories, smoking cigars, and generally making asses of themselves while they were still timeslipping behind the rest of the known universe. The current conversation had been on relativistic velocities, as most conversations were, and how it made it impossible to report bad behavior

“We’ll be well into our hangovers, showered and spectacularly grumpy by the time the report gets in. Hell, they probably have entirely different linguistic systems by the time the report gets in. Jesus Christ, are you sure this is mescal?” asked the Flight Engineer, Parsons Dornan.

“Yah”, said the captain, forty-year old veteran Jing Wu Kierns, buried in a massive nebula of cushions, “but mind you don’t . . you know . . don’t”

“Don’t what?” asked the Executive Officer. When the only constant in life was other spacemen, bonds could go deep. The Executive Officer, a hermaphrodite of indefinite age known only as Wei, knew that his captain was beyond the reach of language, and only a precious few moments from being beyond thought itself. Being around and sober was the predominant duty of the XO.

It was a last moment of pleasure for these men. In a few subjective hours they would be streaking through the planetary defenses of the Human League. There was no hiding the fact they were about to sluice through a civilization born just a few subjective days ago. The same great things about hauling all over the galaxy at the speed of light suddenly turned into horrible liabilities.

“Now, the fantastic thing about coming in out of the Perseus belt is that it’s just such a fucking desert. Almost sticking right out of the galaxy”, said ordnance controller Lt. Xian Soon. “Last time we were in action, it was against the Rogue Iron, they were in the Core, and we were, like, crawling,” Soon mimed the action with his hands, laughing.

“Yeah,” said Kierns, when I later asked him about the Core, “Parking lot assault. Geriatric parking lot. Twenty percent C. We were firing off kilo projectiles that had the energy a microgram projectile would have at our current attack speed. But even at twenty shields were freaking out, the plume from the coolant was glowing like the big fucking bang. It’s the goddamn core!” Privately, Kierns admitted that the attack had made him nervous: twenty percent c was slow enough for defense systems to engage his ship. “Sometimes you do wonder if the hive’s systems are completely on the spot. I mean, we got our orders against Rogue Iron fifteen hundred slipped years before we attacked. We know the hive’s prophecy is ninety-nine point nine nine percent accurate, but it doesn’t take a whole lot to make us go nova. A gram of mass and we look like the first second of the universe, in miniature.”

Does it every bother the men, that they find themselves warring on civilizations that had come into being during their voyage? Planets they had never, and now would never, know?

“It’s a job, you know? You know. It’s hard enough, spacing, your only buddies are the hive and the sleepers, but the living worlds you’re seeing a hundred, a thousand, ten thousand slipped years after you were there last. You miss cultures, not people. But worry about targets? No, you shut that out, trust the hive.”

Not too much later, individual hydrogen atoms began sparking against the particle shielding like little suns. Though deflected hundreds of kilometers from the body of the ship, their roar bucks the hull and blinds sensors too dumb to look away. Subjective time is slowed to nothing compared to the system we are bombing through, but that doesn’t matter: no one has any way of knowing we’re coming. Our light is only ahead of us by a kilometer.

Dornan charges the mass driver and adjusts the ship’s flexing spaceframe for the recoil of a two gram projectile. “It’s yours Soon”, he says. For all of the high technology and good times the crew had in cruise configuration, once the vessel is belayed for a system assault it feels like a mosh pit in the torpedo room. Every piece of the vessel is contracted into a tight wad that could fit into a few Metro compartments. I can feel Soon twitch with the control he exerts through the glass tubes traveling from his nerve channels to the trigger housing, smell his perspiration as the dank space goes pitch black.

“Power on rail."

"Good good good"

"Grams down the track and . . away!” The lights come back on.

“Evasive, Dornan. Lay down some light between us and that plug,” says Kierns, in an urgent whisper that seems to carry for kilometers.

Everything creaks under another ratchet of acceleration. We are going very near the possible here, when the human nervous system begins to fail due to the differences in velocity between body parts. When you are traveling at orbital velocity, the relativistic difference between your throbbing cardiac nerve and your spinal cord is inconsequential. In the upper nineties of C the difference between the nerves in your throbbing muscles and the nerves in your spinal column can prove fatal. “The nerve is moving that much faster that the sodium pump doesn’t know if it’s coming or going,” Dornan had explained, “once you’re close enough to C an extra meter per second can make a big difference. We’re all medicated to the gills at this velocity, but there are limits”. It’s another reason why these flights haven’t been automated; printed circuits of any microscopic scale fail during routine course correction in relativistic flight, due to the local variance in relativistic effects. The fabric of space has necessitated that humans be the only interstellar actors. Despite the immense mental powers of the hive's intelligence, it remains locked in the subjective time of stellar gravity wells.

“Proximity flashes from the far shield,” notes Dornan. Calm. He could be taking my dessert order. “Blue shifted . . redding out, port side. Carbon? Wait. . wait”

“Cloud! Cloud! Cloud!”, screams Wei

Without thinking, Soon flinches several times next to me, more projectiles hurtling off into God knows where. In the dark that ensues, the temperature in the cabin rises twenty degrees in an instant. I am sure that I am about to be reduced to an extremely diffuse cloud of hitherto-unknown subatomic particles. Shocks ripple through my entire being. Did I just remember the future?

The lights come back on, and after a sweating heartbeat, everyone piles on Soon.

“Hahahahaha!” screams Kierns. “You crazy sumbitch!”

Wei dances to stations, “Cloud separated. Really separated. We’re OK. Sort of. OK, ha OK, everyone, let Soon check his scope.” I understand. Soon shot off all his salvos at the Human League’s defensive cloud, insanely close, but the blast had separated the hard stuff enough for us to pass through. It was quick thinking and decidedly un-military. “We’re not real soldiers,” Soon confesses, “we just play them on TV. But since the signal's right-” he points over his shoulder "-there somewhere, we just do what the hell we want."

Dornan marvels at the scale of damage to the vessel. “Big impact with the far shields, some stuff hit the hull material. Some sort of quantum tunneling mass went glissading through the crew compartment, some exotic. I think the shock front actually went back in time a little bit. Hoo-ah”. Dornan smiles. External armor had nearly broken down all over the leading edges of the vessel. Soon notes that the crew had taken on a serious amount of radiation; we would be dead in months without organ transplants. Luckily the next leg of the trip would only take days in subjective time.

After high spirits have passed, we look back on the planet we swooped by so quickly. The defenses existed outside the prophecy of the Hive, and that had bought the Human League another untold number of years. Soon's first shot must have hit other clouds further in and given this system an ephemeral new sun. The home planet sits there in dumb blue perfection. We don't have the fuel to turn around. Some other crew, armed with the new information, will take on this League.

Over the next hour the compressed vessel opens like a flower for the next leg of its tour, gravity ring spinning up and generators cooling down. Kierns looks forward to the next peaceful port of call, someplace near Antares, where "there's supposed to be beaches. Another woman-only planet, too. Won't they be surprised."

The acceptance of these young men in the face of unprecedented isolation and danger is something I don't think I can ever leave behind me, even when I land for the last time, and send them off to their eternal lives among the stars. For now we look ahead, to the blueshifted light of Antares.

Tuesday, February 27, 2007

Trail Pictures

Although it seemed like I'd never get around to it, I've finally gotten my Appalachian Trail pictures up on the internet. I'm still in the process of captioning them, but they are in chronological order, so occasionally you can figure out where in the hell the picture is being taken from. This is probably somewhat better than I was doing at the time.
EDIT- Captions complete

Part 1

Part 2

Part 3

Thursday, February 22, 2007

Entry of Shame

A friend of mine owns something that is called "The Ultimate Avengers". What this is, is a modern re-telling of the Captain America mythos, post 9-11 and all, pimples and poxwarts included. It's pretty freaking brilliant, with a lot of tongue in cheek alien conspiracies and Asgardian deities that are sort of, but not quite, like Greenpeace.

For those of us with a more than advanced knowledge of the relationship between covert American activities and Sunni Arab terrorism, it gets just a bit funnier yet. In the twenty-first century, with our fantastic offensive capabilites available to the common man, we're all super-heroes. Or super-terrorists. That's for the tribunals to decide.

Wednesday, February 21, 2007

Capital Tide

For some reason, in Virginia I found myself in a herd of MBA candidates. They were out day hiking, taking a break from the sometimes surreal world of a full-time business school. It seems that a good deal of the MBA program is about how to lie to employees effectively. It also seems that there are proportionately a lot fewer economics majors in MBA programs than there used to be. I asked the crew what they did for their undergrads: three histories, an anthro, a psych, two journos and a lit. More troubling is that the MBA program, at least as far as these young folks had found, had precious little refresher material on microeconomic concepts.

This might have little to nothing to do with a trend I've seen, both in personal anecdotes and in the weeklies, about the failure of the mass offshore movement. By the end of the decade, mass offshoring of complex business processes will have destroyed more net capital than the 1997 East Asian Financial Crisis. It seems incredible than anyone could underestimate the costs of moving whole businesses overseas, but then again, we are dealing with a generation of business leaders that were as likely to memorize Yeats as Keynes, or were just as likely to encounter a business professor who burnt tiny effigies of Keynes in the mistaken belief that the macroeconomic scion was some sort of Marxist ne'er-do-well.

Back to capitalization. Capitalization is, very broadly speaking, when you spend money now to make (ideally) more money later. Offshoring is a form of this, no matter what they tell you in the PowerPoint slide. To offshore effectively you need working capital for the process, which means you need double the money for the period in which the offshoring takes place. That's if you design the process effectively, which is hard to do since humans and nations don't have a clearly calculated depreciation rate. Effective design also becomes difficult when you are blinded by raw greed. It is also hard to design something when you don't know what the design of your business is, which is more likely than you might think. It's possible to have a great business without anyone knowing exactly how it runs. I think this is a fact many people would do good to ponder.

Raw greed can be a bigger problem then it sounds. Much of the value created in capitalization is based on the amount of money you think you will save *right now*. That estimated saved money then goes back in time - I kid you not- as profit for whatever bag of hot air kicked the idea out in the first place (incidentally, perversion of this Back to the Future mechanism is what got Enron into so much trouble). Hence Mr. PowerPoint Offshore Consultant, for example, sells Company X on offshoring because ten million spent this year out of a hundred million net will save fifty million over the next five years. What he might not mention is that ten million spent on real capitalization will grow the net by ten percent, which is- surprise!- fifty million over five years, the same Bullet Point Brad "saved" you in his five year plan. Except one is growing the value of your company, and the other one is, at best, holding steady, or, at worst, resulting in value destruction. Hello Mr. Dell, what seems to be the problem?

Offshoring can work, and it can work damn well, but if you can't sit down at a table with someone and explain your business vision in a minute or less, you probably are not going to have much luck. Complex business practices are developed over decades (and sometimes generations) of interplay between skilled personnel, and unless you've developed Neuromancer-level brain uploading technology, there is no way you can suck their brains faster than they're growing them. If you can document your business faster than it can work, I suspect your business probably wasn't terribly vital in the first place. If you freeze the business for offshoring purposes, you better hope really hard that Bullet Point Brad was right about this offshoring business, because if he wasn't, you'll grow holes no consultant will be able to stitch back together. Better ready the golden parachute.

The real force at work here, I feel, is not so much good business practice as it is a vote of no-confidence on the part of our business leaders, who lack any faith in the ability of the American workforce to deliver past the current generation. History majors don't study much in the way of non-Western cultures, so perhaps it is natural for this new crop of MBAs to suspect that the East exists in some sort of timeless work bliss. Which is fine for people to believe. Watching dumb people learn new things is one of those little things that makes me so damn jolly.

Saturday, February 10, 2007

Adult Diapers

I'm not sure what I can add to what's already been said. Indeed, I think the act itself needs no embellishment.

An American city was brought to a screeching halt due to the placement of a few children's toys.


Friday, February 09, 2007

Homes are Graves for the Living

(*Tuareg proverb)

In 2008, most humans will be living in cities. This figure doesn't count the suburban, exurban, industrial, agricultural, and other types of settled humans required for the existence of cities, and perhaps it is a good thing that it does not. If it did, we would see that the entire Northern hemisphere, meridian to meridian, will consist of settled humans come 2008. It's another victory for human civilization, but the important thing to remember about civilization is that it is not you and it is not me. It is a discrete entity, and its wants are not necessarily aligned to our needs.

If I had a penny for every group that claimed to be "oppressed" by the advent of civilization, I wouldn't be writing this, because I'd be too wealthy to be chained to a computer this fine afternoon. The reason all these folks think they've been put-upon is because, individually, they have. Life gets worse in the cities. You have less children, your life expectancy goes down, and your nutrition goes to hell. Your typical medieval city would have depopulated in thirty years if it didn't constantly receive an influx of farm youths. In cities, women married themselves into domestic prisons for their entire miserable lives. Men submitted to a primate power structure that sent them into certain death for nothing better than the whim or pride of an elite. If you didn't speak our language you were not entitled to the protections of society, you were, in fact, suitable only for the menial jobs rejected by the young men who were themselves scheduled to die. Individuals did this so that this huge thing, the city, civilization, what have you, could continue.

The reason we urbanize is not for ourselves but because as part of a city we build a thing that is bigger than any of us. In times of ferment, when everyone is doubting culture, people stop working for the sake of the culture. They've stopped believing in their civilization. They work not because they are inspired by greatness but because they've forgotten how life could be lived otherwise. Anyone reading this remember how to farm? Hunt?

If I continue along these lines I start sounding oddly like Patrick Buchanan, but without the strange racial aspect. Weirdos aside, something is very wrong when people no longer believe in the society that they are part of. Something to remember the next time you say to yourself that government is part of the problem. If the problem is collective venture, then you might as well be a Tuareg tribesman.

Tuesday, January 30, 2007

Steering Away from Vista

If there's one group of Internet partisans I hate, it is the Linux cultists. They rank somewhere between pornographers and furries in the internet food chain, possibly because they are both. Why do I dislike them? Because they assume that my life is so empty of meaning that I would love nothing more than to manually config a three hundred line text file so that I can run a web server. I do not wish to empty my head of all knowledge so that I can fill it up with command line sequences. There are better things to fill my mind with than meaningless clockwork babble.

Things have, however, changed in the Linux world, causing an endless uproar among the "I love config files" crowd and a sigh of pleasure from the rest of us. By "the rest of us", I mean those of us who steer the ship of IT for organizations that can not afford Windows Vista.

Not afford Vista? But it comes preinstalled! Sure it does, and then:

1) I get locked into another upgrade cycle for MS Office.
2) I need to make sure everyone has a gig of ram.
3) I need to make sure everyone has a graphics coprocessor with DirectX 9 HARDWARE PIXEL SHADING. For the OPERATING SYSTEM.
4) 40 gigs of HDD space. Ha ha. Ho ho.
5) It rejects unsigned hardware. Printer? What printer?
6) The components encrypt messages across the backplane. As in, encrypting messages from the memory bus to the processor. It's encrypting the chokepoint in the system. This is analogous to feeding a bypass recipient crystal meth to make him get more exercise.
7) Forget about watching DVDs on your computer ever again.
8) I am leery of any software project that is running four years late.

All these things wouldn't really stack up if it wasn't for the fact that my client is a small non-profit that can't afford even a quarter of the computer that Vista is asking for.

Monday, January 22, 2007


The Pacific Crest Trail, I've determined, is just too darned long. It is also the home of my nemesis, Heat. The Wonderland trail circumventing Mt. Rainier, however . . there's a nice, tidy 95 mile trail. It's repeatedly been voted the most scenic long trail in America, and it's plenty challenging; the profile map looks like New Hampshire at its worst. Even going six or seven miles a day, I'll have to be in pretty decent shape to tackle it.

The rewards, though, are nothing short of staggering. The vertical scale of Rainier is to the Whites what the Whites are to the mid-Atlantic. Even though the Wonderland trail never summits, it still goes up and over each spur ridge, circling the final seven or ten thousand feet of the massif, which is a kind of loom I've never seen.

Good times. I just need to see if they'll get their bridges repaired this season. If not, it might just be some other adventure this season.

EDIT Well, so much for that idea.

Children of Bradenton

I had not even turned all the way around in my seat when the stranger slapped me. I set up to put my head in the slapper's face, but was advised otherwise by two of the slapper's companions. They placed their hands pointedly in their pockets and shook their heads, as if saying, don't try it buddy. I leaned back against the bar and said, "Let's discuss this outside".

What followed was a long conversation about respect, how I was apparently well-educated, and how this difference in education resulted in a failure to communicate. I literally apologized for being educated in a place like Trailside Bar and Grill, and they apologized for being stupid, giving me advice on how to look stupid in the future. I pondered burning down the bar with everyone in it. My higher consciousness intervened, quoting Gibbon at me. It's time to leave the cities, said Mr. Brain. You'd have better chances in the Serengeti. I never set foot in a Bradenton pub again. A few months later I was on the trail in Georgia.

Mr. Brain was right. In the months that followed, I learned that Trailside had been the location of several shootings and two arsons. A woman I had chatted with at the pool tables had been stabbed by a hilariously inept prostitution/kidnapping ring pissed off at inventory. A friend of mine later identified Slappy as a compulsive stabber of people he thought were looking at him funny; one story involved Slappy getting off his motorcycle to assault someone through a half-open car window. Slappy/Stabby is, at the time of this writing, doing an altogether too short time at a state facility for- get ready for the shocker here- stabbing someone.

The hostility of cities is not restricted to Trailside or even Bradenton. I've had beer bottles thrown at me while biking along 41. I've had a gang of young nitwits stopping their car so they could threaten to shoot me. I've seen a lone middle-aged woman, screaming and bleeding from a head wound, threading downtown Sarasota traffic, which, when the light turned green, accelerated around her howling body. I've picked up a mutilated girl left on the side of I-75, only to have her accuse my friend and I of rape (a charge the police luckily straightened out). There is all this and more, and the motorcycle accident itself, where a stranger left me a life disfigured.

The tyranny of this place, though, is not its tortures or violence. The singular thing about Florida that crushes the spirit is its lovelessness. Loveless, people inject pleasure; torpid they hurt and maim. It is a form without function. It is, as Malcolm Gladwell observed, "the Crucifixion without the Christ". Things are good. Good people are good things.

Children of Men is not a movie about 2027. The urban battles are taking place as I write this. In the movie you can see this machine clearly, practically smell the diesel fuel, burning metal, gagging cordite: the blood, bone, and shit of modern society. Amidst all the other terror, though, is the one fact most horrible of all: in a world without children, without love, the machine has more life than any of those trapped inside it.

There are a lot of other things going on in this movie, which might well be one of the best of this decade. In the words of Anthony Lane:

"The people I know who have seen “Children of Men” have admired its grip, but they had to be dragged to the theatre; it’s a film that you need to see, not a film that you especially want to."

Saturday, January 13, 2007

Diversity as Source

One of the failures of the conservation movement, at least the conservation movement as it has existed for the past forty years, has been its inability to explain how its concepts affect humanity's living standards. This is largely because conservation began as an elite movement, specifically, as a movement intended to keep the hunting grounds well stocked. This was back when hunters actually went into the wilderness to shoot large and occasionally dangerous wild game, as opposed to today, where well-to-do hunters go to small plots of private land to shoot farm raised animals.

To have a wilderness the wild has to function. This wasn't a problem in the early twentieth century. The wilderness worked because there was so darned much of it, but by the time of the latter twentieth century, things were looking a little different. Larger groups of species, whole families, in fact, were about to be gone forever.

Right around now is when the pragmatist in me says, "So what?". Everything has to die sometime. In one sense, this is correct. Cheetahs are probably overspecialized. Blue whales probably are stretching their environment to the limit, in terms of calorie per hectare. Why not accept fate? Even humans have to be extinguished sometime, don't they?

The difference here is a matter of attitude, an attitude of ownership. The difference is, do we want humans to be users of the system, or do we want humans to be administrators?

How does this work? Don't things come and go by chance? This is a situation similar to explaining the concept of source control. Source control is basically a way of preserving every step in a software project. Ideally, you can go to source control, say "I want today's application window with last year's login screen", and with a bit of pushing and huffing, get exactly that. At some point, non-technical staff- the users of the system- will say, "Why are we using all this disk space on historical source code?". The answer is, "Because we don't know how to make it anymore". We hold onto last year's login screen because- surprise!- it has a "Forgot my Password" widget that does things just so, in a way that no one can manage again.

So when we have an animal that eats this particular plant that no one else wants to eat, or if there's a termite that clears away all the shit, or if we have anything that fills a niche, we want a backup- because there is nothing else that can do what it does. Letting an insect leave this world is like removing a branch of the tree from a software project in the hope that something better will come up. Conservation, when you get past the cuddly animals and failed liberal arts majors, is a matter of source control. It's an attitude of ownership, of administering what is, after all, the most complex system of all.

Friday, January 12, 2007

Fun is Usable

A long time ago, some programmers I knew came upon a pretty familiar dilemma. The specifications required more data than could be efficiently queried from the database. Furthermore, the volume of data and the detail in which it was retrieved made it dubious that a mortal human of the early 21st century could make any sense of it whatsoever. What to do, what to do. In my naivete, I thought, Let's make a game! You could assign numbers to different levels of criteria, and when you total the numbers you get the cost of the query. Certain levels of staff could only "afford" particular kind of queries. It makes it a game to narrow down search terms. To make it really fun, the organization could assign goals, and when a staff member meets a certain set of goals, the system could let that user create more expensive queries. "SalesSteve has gained +20 Query Points". Which lets a bright employee do his or her job better, which gets better query points, etc. It seemed like a great idea at the time, but, well, I was younger and exceptionally excitable. Data mining isn't supposed to be fun.

Data might not be fun (for some people), but usability is. It's something I was thinking about during the holidays spent with my future in-laws, where I enjoyed a Christmas present of a computer game. This game, Knights of the Old Republic 2, is in many ways indistinguishable from work. You go through a somewhat repetitive series of number crunching exercises, face crises, deal with them by crunching more numbers . . . for what? Why, I asked myself, am I working for free? The reason immediately slapped me in the face: I'm playing to get Force Storm so I can really cream these goody-goody little Jedi freaks. Playing evil aside, I was playing because the game had a constant and consistent framework of reward and punishment. It was just that my character's idea of a reward was a goblet filled with the tears of the innocent.

In any case, the reason (good) computer games can get people to work almost indefinitely for free is because of this system. This is what makes them fun, and, ultimately, usable. All too usable, in some cases. Imagine, I thought, if when a programmer finishes a certain number of graph functions he gets a level up as "Graphmaster" (displayed in a tasteful little HUD below the IDE, like KOTOR's level up tooltip), or a programmer who is a rapid typist gets "Speeddemon". The guy who puts the smack down on the project could be "Finisher". These sorts of points could go towards awards, from micro-bonuses to extra training. Ideally the rewards help the player to work harder to get more rewards. Just like in the video game: you kill to shop, and you shop to kill.

All these different aspects or "levels"- Graphmaster to Connectrix- might not mean a hell of a lot by themselves. Probably the most important guy on the team will have high combined scores in all his levels. That's not the important bit (well, it is important to HR, but let's leave that out of this for now). The important bit is that each member of a team gets immediate feedback on something they're doing- and something they can immediately compare against everyone else.

Maybe when we start seeing the next generation of HR technology, we'll hear a new cry coming from the corporate office:

"Level! Woot!"

Monday, January 01, 2007


I saw that a publicly traded company I used to work for had been bought by one of the more Aryan private equity groups. I had mixed feelings. Big companies are sort of cool in that they are democratic, but they tend to be retarded for much the same reason. While I was still thinking about this, I noticed that my old company's biggest competitor (one of them, anyway) was going through the exact same thing. Another Death-Star sized ball of money sucking in a company in a dysfunctional sector. Then the company that bought my former company decided, hey, what the hell, and started buying other competitors in the sector.

What the hell?, I asked myself, and I did not have to wait long for the answer. "2007: THE YEAR OF PRIVATE EQUITY!!!", screamed at least five newspapers. I was seeing firsthand the tinest fjord of the 2007 Private Money Flood. While the transfer going on in my old company doubtlessly was taking place for the most innocent of reasons, the drama of boardroom money in general has been going on for some time.

It's an old story now. Public company with a fantastic deal of assets gets bought by private firm with a fantastic deal of cash. Perhaps said public company has not had the most honest of boards, and the stockholders will not say no to millions of dollars of clean private money. Voila, instant new ownership and transition from public to private. The shareholders call it a day and the executives crawl back into whatever hole they came from, preferably in a directorship of HBS buddies. Meanwhile the private firm sits down to figure out what kind of "fantastic" assets they just acquired.

This is easier than it sounds because, really, no publicly traded company has a transparent, honest board. They're not set up to be honest, transparent, or even to maximize the profits of the shareholders. For the past twenty years the average board has had the singular goal of raping as much money out of the company as humanly possible. Those huge salaries you always read about are sustained by a consummate kleptocracy that is magnificently free from any type of oversight, be it from workers, shareholders, or the government. No executive would dare call attention to this magnificent machine for fear of clogging up its pendulous money tit.

Shareholders were more or less satisfied with this arrangement so long as they got added value from their overpaid CEO monkeys. The shareholder was especially satisfied if he or she was a mutual fund manager, because then you could pretty much guzzle whatever fees you wanted without anyone asking questions. In the sweet fevered dawn of the 401k era, you weren't dealing with a sharp Grieco-style Wall Street wanker- you were dealing with Gramma, who doesn't know active management from a runny colon . Worse yet, there's no rule saying you can't take money from a company while managing a fund that has that company's stock in it. Ho ho ho. What do YOU want to be when you grow up, little boy? Why, I'd like to funnel Gramma's money while talking up Enron stock, grandpa.

So between the fund managers and the board members waiting to be executives, American stockholders and employees became accustomed to that huge thing in their ass. Trickle down indeed.

But nothing gold can last. Nothing like a seizure in the money supply to wake people the hell up. In the midst of inflationary pressures and imaginary capitalization, it's clear that the cash sums given to leadership superstars are not reflected in value. The townsfolk have rounded up with pitchforks and torches around the laboratory of the mutual fund manager, led by folks like Fidelity and Vanguard. The managers in the private firms are pissed the hell off, wondering exactly what these people have been doing for, oh, sixty years.

SO we can't really blame the shareholder who thinks, sincerely, screw this: just give me my cash so I can put it in a Chinese utility, ideally before the whole goddamn thing is revalued by someone who isn't some combination of incompetent, corrupt, or drunk.