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.