October 31, 2004

O Brave New World II

Back to the question. I had, at some point, broken down Treknology into three components: Information, Energy, and Manufacturing. Applying those categories to transporting today's technology, information is the most easily solved. Energy? Assuming it's available, as mentioned last time, I like the notion of building a petroleum industry in situ since that's what we know how to use. Note to self: LNG as well? I'm not averse to heavily seeding solar and green/renewable energy systems, especially off-grid solutions, for indiviudal buildings and settlements! However, the main problem we have today here on Earth is not so much getting energy as it is storing and moving it. This is why petrol is such a sweet spot. Other than capital-hungry cabling, electricity is really hard to move around, and damn near impossible to store in large quantities without utilizing kinetic solutions like dams.

For fixed base needs (town grids, facility grids, etc.) electrical power should certainly be as green and renewable as possible. Wind power, solar furnaces, hydroelectric if we can site ourselves near some, tidal if available, geotherm, all the stuff we know how to do now. The caveat: maintenance has to be doable with minimal tech. If we do lose resources or contact, we want our power supply to be as rugged as possible, or at least as decentralized as possible (ideally, both). Wind is good for this. If we had good fuel cell tech, that might be a good way to utilize the petrochem we're extracting and moving about, without the hassle of internal combustion generators or the moving parts of steam turbines...although, of course, cogen furnaces are a good thing.

Moving on, we come to manufacturing. Here's where it gets severely complex, and I cheerfully admit I don't know the first damn thing. Machine shops are a known tech. I don't know the limits and requirements of a machine shop that can operate without a full computer industry behind it. I don't know the limits of a machine tools industry that can be 'self sustaining.' Those would be interesting projects, perhaps. At what point do machining systems become von Neumann complete? Along with them, of course, comes more resource extraction - metal mining and refining. While a hundred thousand tons per FedExtra load sounds like a lot, one 'smallish' petrol tanker is more steel than that. I don't know if it would be possible to have full-on metal extraction industries until there's functioning local transportation and energy infrastructure, of course.

I would guess (purely a guess) that for the first several years, most manufacturing will be modular work done on Earth, parts shipped. We're pretty good at flatpacking buildings, bridges, etc. to ship to faraway places. When it comes time to build manufacturies on site, what will we need? How much will it cost? No idea. Here's where my wild-ass-guessing, even, breaks way down.

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October 28, 2004

O Brave New World

Thinking today. Do that too much, about too little, too often, to no avail, of no consequence. In any case, I was idly looking around whilst considering the trade deficit and the recent rumblings of consolidation-as-innovation in the American steel industry, or fiscal offshoots thereof. While doing so, I thought about a special I saw recently on Hyundai and its impressive shipyards, churning out enormous pieces of capital equipment to move the global economy. Then into the sorts of large bits of gear big enough that they still have to be sent around the globe by ship and rail - generator turbines, steelworking crucibles and machinery, all that sort of stuff. The Big Machines that shows like Modern Marvels are so fond of filming, with impressive classical music and showers of sparks.

That got me thinking further. Imagine, just for a second, that there was oil on Titan, or that we found some form of magic gateway to...somewhere else. Imagine that somehow we had a chance to establish a human colony somewhere else. Okay. Now (here's the really hard part) just punt all the inevitable religious bullshit, pseudoenvironmentalist handwringing, sheer psychosis and other normal human reactions that would occur, and jump on to the really technically sweet question:

What would you need to take? How much would it *really* cost? How would you go about it?

This is a question as old as the hills, since the first group with any sort of stable agriculture decided to check out what was over the next hill and see if they could do the Magic Thing with Plants again over there. But if you really push it, there's all kinds of nice system-level questions here. Here are just a couple that help lay out the ground rules.

What is the environment you're going into?

Okay, this is sort of key. For the moment, let's assume we're heading for someplace that looks (to us) pretty much like home - that is, it has a human-supporting atmosphere, gravity is roughly the same, it's got easily accessible water (albeit industrial quantities will require some form of purification akin to desalinization). There is native flora/fauna. We haven't found any we recognize, but it's DNA-based, and it's all dextrorotary amino acids - which means we can probably find stuff that we can eat, and that can eat us. We don't know if there are disease vectors that can jump the gap. There are seasons, not too extreme. I'm essentially picturing something akin to the colonization of an alternate Earth, but one we don't have all the answers to yet. Oceans, forests. This is sort of going to be a big, big game of Civilization, with a twist.

What kinds of resources are available?

Raw state, lots. Picture, again, Earth, with natural resources intact. Stuff found in roughly the same distribution and accessibility.

How is transport handled?

This is extremely important. For my purposes, for this to be interesting, I assume that transport is relatively reliable but slow - i.e. communications have a one-year round-trip timelag. I'm not factoring in the cost of transport - this means, for example, we might be being Uplifted by friendly Exsolar folk with a charitable taxi service. However, the one-year roundtrip is ironclad, and there is (let us say) a load limit. I rather like the notion of one hundred thousand tons payload per load, one load per month. Note that this must include lifesystems and power and environment for all non-vacuum-rated goods, so if you want to bring people/livestock/fragiles, you better include their needs in that total. The transport (let's just call it FedExtra) is benevolent but not responsive to puling from the passengers.

So, here the fun stuff starts.

One of the first questions I had was obviously 'how many people would you send?' before I realized that that was a really bad place to start. The number of people is going to be integrated very very tightly into the system you build. The colony, at least from the start and for a great deal of time, is going to have to be a very complex and very tightly managed system if it has any chance of survival. There is no way the 'drop 'em on the world and let 'em figure it out' approach is going to work if you really want to maximize your chances of having functional humans to talk to at the other end of the trip when you decide to take a vacation there in a couple years.

How about this: What tech level should this colony have? I'm assuming present day. Our technology can handle pretty much anything that nature can throw at us on Earth - assuming it has an industrial base to back it up. The real 'magic tech' in Star Trek and the like isn't the flashy gizmos the crew is holding when they leave Enterprise, it's present in three things - the Ship's Computer (sum total information), the Warp Core (infinite energy) and the replicator (infinite complicated stuff, when combined with the Warp Core, the Ship's Computer and interstellar hydrogen). We can do a fairly good job of packaging our current informational base without having to have Treknology, even without having to rely on computers - after all, if you don't want things to wear out, plastic is wonderful, and books are an old technology, if low-density. Even microfiche, if done using modern polymers with solar lensing, could provide a low-tech, high-density information storage that wouldn't require power to utilize.

The other two? Problem.

While our present tech base does use and have a lot of energy, it does so by using enormous volumes of nonrenewable resources that in turn require a huge fixed industrial base to extract, process and transport - something our colony won't have. Just building one of those is something we do know how to do (e.g. the North Slope, the North Sea, Siberia, the deserts of the Middle East, New Jersey) but again, it takes a whole world at the other end of the shipping line to do it.

Well. Wait a minute. We have that.

Perhaps the answer is to build an oil infrastructure out there first. This is not as stupid as it sounds. The oil industry has by now a century's experience at building technological installations in the middle of inhospitable wildernesses that are months away from anything else. This is a technology that we have, now. This is a technology that is well understood, and cheap to build and deploy. Tooling and suppliers for it already exist, as does a skilled and experienced work force who are used to rough living conditions with hazards that seem ridiculous.

Plus, the oil industry is experienced at dragging along whatever infrastructure is required to support their workers as they bild whatever ridiculously technological installation is required in the middle of Darkest Nowhere. Perhaps Phase I should be, then, the export and setup of a petroleum industry, from extraction to refinery and some storage. Once that's in place, the next bits get easier. Sure, there will be enormous hullabaloo from environmental concerns, but the alternatives suck even more - send nuclear power plants? While renewable energy is a great idea, the problem is that we're no good at transporting it. Electricity is just no good (at our current tech base level) for powering transportation - other than trains, and only then by laying down enormously capital-intensive track and cabling (not to mention generating) infrastructure, which is only useful between fixed points. In the early days of settlement, our notional Terra2 is going to need air, ground and ocean vehicles - which presently means petrol. Solar is nice, but the tech base required to make the relatively fragile (and still extremely expensive) elements to use it is huge, starting with a viable arsenic extraction and refining industry and adding in rare earth mining for gallium, selenium and all the myriad doping ingredients that go into modern electronics. While those could, of course, be shipped, the goal is for this colony to be as self-sufficient as possible. The advantage of the oil industry is that for the most part, most of it is simple metal-bending. Losing advanced computers and machinery loses you efficiency, but not total capability; people were mining and refining oil with steam engines and wind power. Batteries are not viable, requiring a huge industrial support pyramid as well. Nope, petrochemicals. Maybe fuel cells, but those have a much higher tech base requirement just to support them - internal combustion engines can be made to work (even relatively cleanly and efficiently) without computers, using hand tools for maintenance.

This brings up the next big question - that of the 'fallback tech base.' Is this something that you'd even need? It would seem only prudent to me. If you're going to have a colony like this, on the other end of a long and potentially unreliable transport and communications link, you have to assume that at some point you may lose contact with it for some period of time. While ideally the colony would then be able to support itself indigenously, the notion that it could simply carry on as before is unrealistic. There would have to be a scaleback emergency plan; one which redirected resources from expansion and exploitation into survival and accumulation of surplusage and additional sustainmnt development such as agriculture and native industry resource gathering. It might be beneficial to try to determine, in advance, what tech level that 'fallback position' would attempt to support, in order to maximize the efficiency and hence survivability of the switchover.

This would likely be a moving target. Initially, it would probably assume the loss of contact was temporary without evidence to the contrary, and avoid disrupting ongoing expansion projects. Eventually, however, the resources locked up in those projects (like pipelines, say) would become too precious and would need to be reclaimed for use in more critical roles (like plowshares, say) which, while lower tech, might be more important. The social problems inherent would be fascinating; how to avoid hoarding of tech and tech-related resources would be an enormous issue. You'd have to assume that weapons would be fairly freely available, given 'frontier' conditions; even the wholesale punting of the sociopolitical question of governance and management I've done so far, that would have to factor in heavily. Continuing, though, there would be 'pockets' of durable, high-advantage technology that would need to be emphasized, such as solar-powered radio communications and the durable information storage (as well as the means to create more!) I mentioned earlier. Without those, the danger of a cultural slide becomes (it seems to me) incredibly pronounced. Simple things like solar water heating, heat exchanger HVAC, solar furnace forges and possibly power stations - things which, while requiring some decent tech to invent and build wouldn't require much more than willing labor and knowledge to maintain or replicate.

Okay, enough for tonight. This is just an example of ten minutes of sitting in a car letting my mind go nuts. Like I said, of little consequence, but spinning mind games are better than playing Taipan on my phone...although, of course, were I ever to find myself in a simplified 1900 East Asia, I could trade my way up to being an opium magnate in no time flat...

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Idly wondering...

...if someone has yet stolen the 'Reverse (the) CurvSe' sign from Memorial Drive yet...

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Transcript of telephone call to my father's answering machine moments after:

(shouting, hoarsely, bourbon in one hand and phone handset held eighteen inches in front of face with other):



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October 27, 2004

Of such things are projects, messes and demonic unholy creations made.


In one hand, I have a Braun Espresso/Cappucino/coffee maker.

In the other, I have a Sony VAIO laptop that hasn't had working charge circuitry for years but otherwise seems OK.

At home, I have a Dremel MotoTool.

Here one can find an RFC for HTCPCP, the HyperText CoffeePot Control Protocol for internet control and monitoring of coffeepots.


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For those of you with iTunes...

(and, ideally, wheels)...

...I present my creation: the Archetypal Car Chase.




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They sure don't make it easy.

Mets, Red Sox, anybody playing the Yankees. That's the preference ladder in this part of my house. Ask my Dad, gleefully calling me those first three games of the ALCS, then grumpily refusing to leave the dinner table during game 7. When I was a small (well, okay, young) boy in NYC, say around six, Dad would refuse to go out walking with me because I had on my Red Sox T-Shirt that I'd gotten from my last trip to Boston. My uncle, who lived there, would take me to games with him, and thus was my love for this particular hard-luck case born.

But they don't make it easy.

Kudos to The Idiots for Game 3; congrats to Pedro for settling down and finding his rhythm, and pats on the back to all. At the end of it, just to remind us that they are, after all, the Sox - a Cards home run in the bottom of the ninth. Foulke, however, did what so many Sox have not over the years; he refused to collapse, sticking to a strategy of throwing strikes despite having just had one boomed over his head for a run. He still had a three-run lead, with no one on and one out to go, and he was clearly refusing to allow baserunners on via hit or walk even if that meant risking that solo HR. But giving it up didn't rattle him into changing his play, he just kept throwing strikes, and it paid off, taking down the final batter to end the game with that signature frisson (I love that word) of cardiac hiccup that The Faithful have come to associate with Sox wins; it just ain't the Sox without that last-minute panic.

One more, men. One more.

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October 22, 2004

Good lord, yes.

I add my small endorsement: go read this. Please. Whatever you may think of Dr. Thompson.

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October 21, 2004

House that Ruth built, my ass. Where's the bourbon?

Heh. I grew up in New York City. Always hated the Yankees. Damn good series, costing me fingernails and sleep...and now more sleep, 'cuz there's bourbon left in that bottle and I ain't done toasting. Good on ya, boys. Well fucking done. Where's that bottle, now...

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October 16, 2004

All hail the Bitchslap

It was refreshing as all hell to hear a heartfelt cry of pain and anger from a man using his hard-gained seat in front of the cameras exhorting the media to at least try to do its job. Kudos, Mr. Stewart, and keep that pimp hand strong.

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October 13, 2004

Imitation life imitates art imitating life, living art. Or something. Ad Astra.

Browsing around various newsbites today on MMORPGs (I am a confirmed junkie of Anarchy Online) I was touched by a recent...don't know a good word. Meme doesn't quite cut it. Fad? Hope not, too insulting. Phenomenon? Maybe. In any case, inside the online massively multiplayer game City of Heroes - which, if you don't know it, is a superhero based game - people have apparently been gathering in virtual flashmobs and leaving their toons online under landmark statues. The pix I saw showed several dozen toons gathered under a Statue of Atlas, all standing in a circle. Most were at attention, saluting; some were on their knees in mourning. Many had dressed their toons in replicas of the original costume of Superman, in homage to the subject of this 'living memorial' - Christopher Reeve, who just passed away.

The sight should be silly - a bunch of virtual people standing there mourning while their 'owners' could be off at work or school for all you know. But it wasn't, to me. Superman lived in that world, a world of shared fantasy, and Reeve embodied Superman to many people. Reeve is being mourned here by many of us. His alter ego, 'the Chris Reeve Superman,' is being mourned by these silent electronic avengers in their patient vigil.

I think he sees them, somewhere, and accepts their respect along with ours. For whatever it's worth, and who am I to say?

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October 7, 2004

Old skool, newer me?

Dammit, I took that test a year ago. I just took it again, and now:

What Video Game Character Are You? I am a Light Cycle.I am a Light Cycle.

I drive fast, I turn fast, I do everything fast. I even breakfast. I tend to confuse people with my sudden changes of heart. Sometimes I even confuse myself, which tends to cause problems. What Video Game Character Are You?

Must be the damn coffee. Really. That or the amphetamines. Anyway, I don't have a Tron machine. May have to look into that. I wonder if there's a way to be classified as a Tempest spinner. Hm...

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Old Skool, me-style

This has cropped up on a buncha monkeyblogs. I've had mine on my monkeypage for a while now:

What Video Game Character Are You? I am a Thrust-ship.I am a Thrust-ship.
I am small and tricky - where you think I am, I probably am not. I can work very fast, but I tend to go about things in a round about way, which often leaves me effectively standing still. I hate rocks. Bloody rocks. What Video Game Character Are You?

This result is really interesting, given what I keep on the wall of my office:


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Sources of the Red Red Haze

It's not really that I hate my job. This is not the case. I actually like my job quite a bit. This has led several of my friends and family to ask me why, if this is so, have I recently been driven to damage my manual infrastructure against the office's vertical superstructure?

This is a fair question. It deserves an answer that contains a bit more thought than my typical content of flip sarcasm and self-satisfying in-jokes. So here goes.

I came to work at Ximian for several reasons. It wasn't because I needed a job. At the time, I was, in fact employed, and I took a pay cut to make to move. While the dot.com I was at wasn't on the most stable of ground, neither (at the time) was Ximian looking much more so; a few more months, perhaps, barring something breakout happening. I came to Ximian because someone I respected asked me to, because the company was making things I used myself, and because (after coming over and chatting with a few of the monkeys) it appeared that it was populated by people who Gave a Shit.

Many dot.coms Gave a Shit. These guys, however, Gave a Shit about something other than (well, besides, and before) getting fuck-you money. The technical people had almost all already been doing what they were doing for love not money, and Ximian was supporting them as they did it. Some were hired on and Got It. Some others didn't get it but worked hard. A few (but fewer than in most firms) didn't get it, and had to be worked around. The CEO of the company, though, ran Linux on his laptop and bitched about the fact that his kids ran Windows at home.

These guys Got It.

To a sysadmin who had been running from Windows for as long as he could, it was a fricking godsend. The environment alone would have been that - but the entire purpose of this little place was to bring this to everyone trapped inside corporations, as I had been in the past. To bring what we had, there, to those suffering in cube farms everywhere. Hell, we used it every day, why couldn't everyone?

There were (and still are) reasons why some people can't, people with situations ranging from the complex and custom to the very mundane. We try to fix the products, to get rid of those reasons. That's what we do. (Note: I say "we" in a very self-aggrandizing manner, here. I don't write code. I don't do QA. I'm just an Op.) Still, we get to work on problems here (even as Ops) that you don't see every day. We get to try to solve problems that may not have come up before, using tools that are so new the developers haven't finished them. We're figuring out how to deploy stuff that doesn't even work fully yet, making it do stuff it was never designed to do because we have it sitting there to play with and someone else has something they need done. We can walk out the door, because Ximian was small enough and our office remains tight enough even as part of Novell, and grab a developer and say Yo, homeslice, that shizzle no worky. Make fixy or I cut off yer pr0n feed. And they will; not because they believe our crude threats (usually) but because they, too, want the damn thing to work and be worth something. When us Ops come to them and say it doesn't work, they know it's because we're trying to use it, and that counts.


These guys are fairly young (younger than I, at least) and they work hard. They're here late. I'm here late, sometimes, but I'm older now and my job doesn't usually generate the kind of deadlines or late night inspiration chasing theirs does. I try to be here when they need me here to make things work, or when things break of course, but still. While sometimes there's creative slacking, on the job and off, an awful damn lot of oil gets burned around here. This is mostly because they care about this stuff, and did before Novell, and did before Ximian. Novell bought Ximian, and Ximian came to be (at least in part) to harness that culture and energy.

Back to me.

The problem is that in every company, there seem to be a certain percentage of people whose skill set seems to consist mostly of parasitic bureaucratic manipulation. I have come to the conclusion that this is an unavoidable characteristic of any organization based on SOPs, a la James Q. Wilson's theories; but that doesn't make it any less annoying. These people exist solely to manipulate the organization to provide for their own job and security. They survive because it would cost the organization more to get rid of them than it does to simply tolerate them. Classic parasite behavior. They are usually spread out thinly enough that at no point in the organization is it worth rooting them out; if they clump too thickly, at some point it is cost-effective to simply burn down a big chunk of the org and start over (or, more efficiently, tie it off and let it wither).

Which brings me to Novell. Something very interesting is happening at Novell at the moment. A middlin' sized tech company is trying hard to reinvent itself around an entirely new (to it) concept. Not the Internet - it's fairly clear that Novell missed that commuter ferry entirely during the 1990s while getting pissed in the pub on Netware dividends. No, around Linux (which, if you read any form of trade rags, you already know). This is a fascinating process to watch, especially frm the inside, as it involves something new in my experience - a change process mandated from the top but pushed from both the top and the bottom via the acquisition of Ximian and SuSE, and the evangelism of members of those organizations and 'converted' technical personnel at the grunt technical levels and up the engineering tree, which at Novell should be 'those who matter' for the Company's future direction (it being a software company, after all). I'm not going to go into how well that evangelism is going - that's for analysts. We're still here, though, and haven't been standing around...and reading my colleague's blogs will tell you that Novell, true to its word, has in fact been supporting their Open Source efforts. No Ximian code that was Open Source when we were acquired has been closed (afaik), and some product that was proprietary has in fact been released to the community (Ximian Connector for Exchange, e.g.).

However, the parasites are still around. And in a lots of cases, they've managed to hole up in the non-PBU departments. Or perhaps just survive longer there. Why? I don't know; maybe when your department budget isn't based on revenue, it's easier to stay hidebound. Maybe overhead isn't viewed as critical to this new reorg, being viewed as one of those 'old fashioned' attempts at cost-cutting. All I know is this: I get work done when I don't talk to my department, which is one of those overhead departments. I get work done, and things completed, and people helped, when I respond to the needs and requests of the people I've always worked with here in my office.

As soon as I try to interact with Novell, the corporate structure, from my 'slot' within it, everything goes to hell in a God-damned handbasket. Resources? Well, sure...as long as I can pimp the budget from other people in the office. Servers? Same. Infrastructure? No, then it's gotta come from another person who also lives in Provo, which isn't itself a problem, save for the fact that our data center explicitly wasn't put in his cost center, so we're not in his planning cycle, so how? Not sure. Software licenses? Nope. We lost those. Wait three months. Mail client development stalled? Well, maybe two months. We'll call you.

Hardware? What kind? While being visited, a gent from the home office commented snarkily on the fact that my co-worker and I got Macintosh Powerbooks. No, I replied calmly, we don't.

What're those? He asked, pointing at the 12" and 15" Powerbooks in front of us.

Our day to day machines that we bought with our own money, we told him.

What kind of laptop did Novell buy you? he asked.

We had to laugh at him. Laptop? Not likely. My primary workstation was a Dell P3/500 that Ximian had owned when I was hired. I didn't (and don't) have a Novell laptop.

Let me stop and make something perfectly clear. I do not believe it is my right or privilege to have cool fast hardware on my desk. In fact, I have taken a perverse pride since coming to Ximian in being able to do my job on the hardware I have. I have also felt a quiet happiness at finding a job where I cared about the dev team to the point where their hardware was much more important to me than mine. However, I do feel very protective of the people I support, and the fact that (for example) the crappy NFS server appliance we had when we were acquired, and that was #1 on our list to be replaced, still hasn't been despite piecemeal buys of over $15K in hardware due to critical PO reqs sitting ignored in the requisitioning system - or lost, for all I know, either would have the same effect - these start to seriously tick me off.

Being told to seriously consider a $109 cheaper monitor for my colleague despite the fact that the one he was trying to purchase is the one every developer has on their workstation (and, hence, we have to support) while being told there is never any extra in the budget for computers for us - this starts to severely tick me off.

Reading on Provo department personnel blogs about wonderful fun family-included outings to AAA baseball games followed by business-day golf outings with the CEO that same week which we (politely) weren't informed of, because we are in a remote location and can't participate in them, while having to cope with the above-mentioned hardware and software license subscription shortages - well, one begins to feel a tad superfluous in one's assigned slot in the organization.

When the only contact one has with the head office is a completely fucking useless boondoggle of a training session which wastes three days of our time, three days which in fact we had been asked to contribute to an important product which others in our office had been busting their collective asses on for months, this is a problem. When said training involves training people who in no way do what we do in a task which we in no way do for a living nor have we ever really done for Ximian or Novell, well, then, it begins to appear that not only are we superfluous but completely fucking misfiled under a completely incorrect fucking heading in a completely fucking wrong department with many of those People of Special Bureaucratic Skills I mentioned earlier.

Add on top of this the loudly voiced opinion from more than one of those being trained that they cannot understand why we appear so frustrated, because, after all, this is just a job and they're just here for the paycheck and isn't that why we're here, and we're almost there.

Spice the top of the third day of this environment with what no doubt seemed like good natured joshing about my apparent naivete at believing the Democrats could do a better job, from people who by their own admission have no idea who Karl Rove even is, and you may, perhaps, begin to understand why that poor whiteboard had to die.

And this is how you end up with a broken right hand.

Hm. I wonder if this violates the ACLB.

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