March 4, 2009

Movie Money Problems

So I was watching the Ocean's movies too many times, and listening to an excellent David Holmes track from the original, and I had had too much coffee at night. Anyway, I wondered - could Ocean's Eleven have managed to schlep $160 million in cash out of the Bellagio?

Well, a U.S. bill is 2.61" x 6.14" x 0.0043". So if you do the math, assuming $100 bills, you end up with around 65 cubic feet of money. Sure, nine guys could totally heft that, assuming those duffel bags held 3-4 cubic feet each.

The problem, though, is that each bill weighs around a gram. That means 10 kg/million (I think? hm, $100 x 10,000, yep, ok). That's 1600kg, and I don't think those guys could have hefted that amount out of the casino in one trip, nope nope.

If we assumed $1,000 bills, that comes down to a much more manageable 160kg, no problem for 9 guys.

The problem is that they don't make $1000 bills anymore. Shucks.

Update: Apparently someone at PageTutor was wondering along much the same lines.

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November 5, 2008

I'm in the tank.

It's always a bad thing for a campaign when a phrase you use as an insult is gleefully picked up by the group you used it on and proudly adopted. Hello from the tank.

It's November 5, and Barack Hussein Obama was just elected the 44th President of the United States of America.

I made my way from Greenwich Village uptown to home in Inwood, and passed many crowds. There was shouting and whooping, there was drinking, and there was some necking going on too. I saw white people in Harlem celebrating and people of all colors everywhere in Manhattan generally having a good time.

In Kenya, there's a woman who can say that her grandson was just elected the President of the United States.

Today is a good day.

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December 14, 2007


I misspoke in my earlier post about Beth Orton. I really should have said "I still want to marry Beth Orton even if only to get to listen to her voice."

Because, as heavenly as her voice is, it is rude of me - mean, even - to assume it's the only good thing about her. I know nothing about the woman.

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March 9, 2007

What would I do with fuck-you money?

Someone asked me this a couple of days ago while they were buying a ticket for the recent massive lottery, which I had just called a 'statistics impairment tax.' At the time, I shrugged, but then just now I saw this.


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January 18, 2007


If the Minutemen want to consider themselves a citizen's militia, I propose we concede that point linguistically, combine the words, and heretofore refer to them only as the 'Minutia(e)'.

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January 13, 2007

Property rights in a virtuality, part II

Thunder and I were yakkin' about the whole property rights issue, and as so often happens, arguing about it with someone forced me to clarify my thinking. Heh.

There is a further division within the 'constraint of copying' part of property rights that is important. In fact, it may be critical. Specifically there is a qualitative difference between the act of first transfer (content or object being transferred to another holder) and any subsequent holders. DRM in the current sense is an attempt to control the second; an attempt to control the transfer of information once it has left the immediate possession or control of the originating party. When the iTunes Music Store restricts you from downloading music without a password, that's not technically DRM; that's normal access control. That is the first transfer, in which Apple is transferring the content to you the purchaser.

FairPlay is a system designed to control what you can do with that content after it has left the originating party (Apple in this case) and entered into your 'possession' (quotes due to the vagaries of licensing). However, the important part of this distinction is that there is no embedded technology required to prevent you from acquiring the content from Apple in the first place, simply because the structure of the Web means that that barrier is handled by access control instead. As an example, when you are 'shopping' in the iTunes Music Store, you are listening to clips of songs, not the songs themselves; the structure of the system means that the content is never presented to you in full until you have made payment.

In a virtuality, however, the actual function of code and content may (and in my opinion, should) be such that there is no differentiation between 'demo' and 'use.' You have virtuality content in order to use it inside said virtuality; you wouldn't walk around with your avatar (say) in 'low rez demo mode' until someone paid you to look at it. This reflects the fact that the content in the virtuality (some of it, at least) only has value inside the virtuality itself; it is not acting as a 'placeholder' for content or goods in meatspace. Its use is, in fact, in its display.

In any case, in a virtuality whose core design does not take into account the problem of the first transfer, we have a copybot problem, essentially. Anyone can 'Polaroid' anyone else's content for their own use without their consent simply because the user does not have the right, supported by the ability (in turn granted by the structural setup of the virtuality) to voluntarily control that first transfer of content from the holder.

What are the ramifications? Essentially, I think what I'm musing is that due to the difference in the nature of the transactions (first transfer versus distant transfers) the problem of controlling transfer may be technologically solvable in the first case even if it is not in the second. While I have no objection to entities attempting to solve 'distant transfer' (classic DRM) in my virtuality, I think they're probably doomed to fail - however, ensuring that they don't try is not the duty of the structure but of a market and of the users.

Perhaps users will compensate by simply adjusting pricing, assuming that the first transfer is (rather than a single sale) the equivalent of releasing the information into the public domain, since, if music in the current model is any indication, that's the effect if not the intent. You can control to whom you release your content; you cannot control or even perfectly divine their intent, and they might always choose to strip any protections and make that content freely available in future transfers to others.

I suppose this is a really long-winded way of saying that the structural duty of the virtuality is to provide a method of controlling the first transfer - i.e. to allow users to withhold content from transfer while still utilizing it. There is no structural duty to enable, enhance or even permit functional DRM attempts; however, if the virtuality fails to provide for control of first transfer, some of most fundamental requirements of private property are absent - and the virtuality will, in my opinion, fail.

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January 9, 2007

More careful exploration of 'property rights' in a virtuality

I moved this to 'Idle Speculation' because it seemed to fit better. :-P

Luis Villa jerked me up short with cause. Let's see. He asked whether I meant the right to exclude - as in, get the hell offa my virtual lawn you damn kids - or the right to constrain copying - as in, don't CopyBot my house, you damn thief - or a combination of both? He avers that the two are orthogonal.

Let's take them in turn, because I was conflating them in my statement but not in my head. Bad, bad blogspew.

The Right To Exclude

This is 'property' as in 'real estate.' Be warned, IANAL, nor do I play one on TV, and my terminology sucks. Let us assume for the nonce that there exists private space in this virtuality. I'm not actually terribly concerned about this right, in this case, because it is a security problem as opposed to a rights management problem, and we have both a technological and legal framework which has been handling this for some time. The real problem will come with Gibson's famous phrase 'there's no there, there.' In other words, most of the legal framework which would otherwise be applicable to trespass and prevention of such cannot be applied until and unless the legal system decides that a virtuality does, in fact, have place - that there's a there, there - and that that place is subject to the same sorts of regulation as place in the familiar meatspace. Essentially, traveling this chain back to the end, we come to one of my favorite topics ever - that of sovereignty in a virtuality. This will deserve a post of its own - nay, many posts, likely. Of course, everything touches on this; the ability to transfer (sell) such property; the ability to legally punish trespass, or to take punitive measures to prevent trespass; the limitations on behavior of the property 'owner' towards 'visitors,' etc. etc. This is a huge topic, and one that I'll take up later. For the moment, though, let me be clear - this wasn't really what I was talking about.

The Right To Constrain Copying

This is the problem vis-a-vis DRM and copyfighting. In a virtual world, if we are to have one whose sole purpose is not to serve as a placeholder for real-world assets (i.e. a big fat storefront) then we will have to have things in the virtuality which we prize. If there are things we prize, then there will immediately be other items of value which we're willing to part with for them - and pretty soon you have money or at least barter. Linden Labs knows this, as do most other operating virtual spaces, and the famous Edward Castronova paper showed this conclusively.

All right then. The problem is this: in a virtuality, as Second Life has discovered, it can be inordinately easy to make perfect copies of not just media but objects, effortlessly. Hence the difficulty faced by an artist who does not wish to release their work into the commons is faced by anyone with any item of value. While a song may not be useful 24/7, and may only be useful to its holder those minutes when it's pleasant to hear, a carefully-crafted avatar (say) is useful every moment that user is existant within a virtuality. If that avatar has been crafted by a professional but can be CopyBotted, where is the motivation for that professional to put in the work? Certainly we can hope that wealthy individuals will provide for the common good by funding the avatar's development for all - but can we rely on this?

We can rest assured in meatspace that we are relatively uncommon sights. Our bodies are made that way by chance and nature. But in a virtuality, our image might be appropriated by anyone at anytime - perhaps not true identity theft, if we are using strong methods of protection for actual transactions, but our likeness, nonetheless. If we have spent time creating custom avatars for our own use, we will have enriched the world we're playing in via our effort as well as provided for our own pleasure - but will we bother if someone next door jacks it as soon as we walk down the street?

I don't know about you, but I really have much less interest in living in a world of Clints and Brandys, to use Neal S's archetypes.

In any case, this is the core of my point, leaving out much much much of the nuance. There are two 'paths' to an answer. Well, three, really. Two are technological. One is not. The technological ones are structural and functional, and the non-technological one is procedural.


I don't know if this is doable. However, the strongest method of protecting content in a virtuality would be, it seems to me, to separate the display and behavior of that content from its actual code. This is something that would have to be done at the core conceptual level of the virtual space. Linden Labs does this by sequestering item code on the servers; that's one method. Another might be to define a system whereby item rendering code is produced by separate modeling and behavior code, and only the rendering code for a particular view (as seen by a client) is passed to the other client- for example, a client looking at another client's avatar would not be passed a full model, capable of being articulated and/or rotated, but would be passed a snippet of descriptive rendering language which would allow the display of the current state of the avatar. As the avatar and the client's point of view moved, the rendering code passed would update. Certainly with enough time and attention, a large library of views of the avatar could be collected - but they still wouldn't be the core behavioral code of the avatar itself. For example, if the avatar had seven different routines for scratching its head, that code would never be passed along; merely (and only then after much onerous surveillance) snippets of time-frozen display code representing seven different views of the avatar, perhaps in seven different lighting conditions, scratching its head.

That's the structural method - isolate the actual content from the displayed information passed. This is more difficult for objects which are less complicated, like simple immobile shapes, but that need not be that large a problem - it puts a premium on complex, multistate objects with 'interesting' behaviors, which is what we want (at least, it's what I want).

The Functional Method

The functional method of protection is a more 'classic' (read: doomed to failure) DRM approach. That is, rather than structuring the virtuality itself to prevent abuse, technology is applied to the content in order to prevent its being copied or used without the permission of the original holder.

There are a couple of avenues to explore here. The first is of course whether this is feasible, given the history of DRM schemes to date and the determination of circumventors. I tend to doubt it would be feasible (or wise) to rely on embedded DRM for content protection in a virtuality, for much the same reasons it's silly in present day media use; if the person attempting to circumvent the protection has the content in their possession, they have everything they need including time to get around it. Eventually, you'll lose. Escalating protection means escalating layers of inconvenience to legitimate users, and given how badly I want a virtuality to work, I am completely against this.

The other problem with this is one of discrimination. I personally am vehemently against the DMCA and legislation of its ilk; however, looking at them logically, I have no trouble seeing how they came about. If functional DRM is the approach chosen, then DMCA-like legislation (assuming you have the policymaking capture available to get it passed) is a logical extrapolation of highly-inconvenient functional DRM - assume the user is an enemy and proceed accordingly.

Ergo, I have every reason to want to steer clear of functional DRM from the get-go in my ideal virtuality. If we're going to be discovering and making law as we go in this playground, I don't want that line of legislation or judicial thinking to go any further than I can stop-block it. If, indeed, functional DRM is logically followed by DMCA legislation as a result of the technological weaknesses of functional DRM, then that's another reason to avoid it.


Procedural measures include both social norms and legal means of constraining copy. Social norms you can't legislate, and perhaps can't even design, although you can aspire to them and describe them, certainly. Legal means, however, you can indeed design with careful forethought. There exists a body of law intended to manage the problem of rampant copying; that of existing copyright law. The problem is that (as many claim on both sides of the line) it is out of date and unable to cope with 'modern situations.' Very well then. Here we come to the core of my objection to the copyfight position on DRM as well as the RIAA/MPAA position on the matter. These may be pictured as extremes; pretty much the only thing they agree on is that the law is broken. However, their proposed 'solutions' differ wildly, and, I aver, are equally harmful to the 'healthy' virtuality that I want to see.

The Copyfighter ideal, one of 'free information' and 'no DRM' removes protection from content that will be required for healthy investment by both corporate and personal contributors to a diverse and rich virtual world, and will be required for the maintenance of tradeable value since all 'objects' in this virtual world, if this virtual world is to have a 'there, there' must rest on retaining value within the virtuality itself rather than simply representing 'real-world value items.'

The RIAA/MPAA ideal of functional DRM and its accompanying legislative capture arising from the well-demonstrated (by the copyfighters, more power to them) technological failure of DRM threatens to taint the very foundation of a 'there, there' virtuality with a legal framework poisoned by the corporate criminalization of the end user which even now is on the verge of tearing apart content marketing and distribution systems in the 'real world.' It furthermore endangers the very potential of the virtuality by explicitly criminalizing activities (security testing, circumvention testing, etc.) which will be absolutely critical to providing property holders with the confidence necessary for the virtuality to attract and retain value.

Posted by jbz at 10:31 PM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

December 27, 2006

December 25th, 2006

Another E2 crosspost, this one written in the wee hours of the morning of December 25th

Music spins down from consensual space the computers have made their own, through the filter of preference and the screening of the copyright war. Notes warbling from ear to ear in exaggerated stereophonics; voices raw with effort and fatigue blurred into a kaleidoscopic dance of position by flickering bit states. Somewhere in the gestalt of the world's current musical head-dip, billions of bodies frozen in mid-jump or with finger half-cocked on the desk with other hand pressed against headphones, somewhere a meme flowers on the network. Color and shape of the five-dimensional snowflake that is our musical eigenstate begins to shift, with increasing speed in the English-speaking and more Americanized sections of the network.

Can you hear it?

You can if you stand on top of the frequency ranges and spin the dial in shortwave, digital state leaking over into analog action as friends and acquaintences and complete strangers begin to trade soundbites, stories, memories, legends.

Beats have sharpened throughout the sonosphere, bright points of imaginary air pressure peaks in regular patterns making moires across the mind's eye.

A voice will crop up. A style will invade. This is to be expected. There's a whole lotta funk in the electronics, tonight.

James Brown is dead.

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November 16, 2006

Time Travel Creates Potential Freakiness

I'm having a moment of Strange Freakiness. Last night I was in a writing mood; E2 is having a Science Fiction Story quest at the moment, and I was noodling for something to whip up. I had a couple of scotches and bang, something started to flow. I finished the basic story around 2 a.m. Eastern time, polished it, and posted it to E2. The basic plot involved an experiment in quantum physics gone slightly wrong; the experiment was an attempt to send information backwards in time using a high energy beam to perturb a diamond in a particular fashion as to resonate entangled photons. The side effects of the experiment going wrong were pure silly sci-fi, of course.

This morning, I fire up Slashdot over coffee as usual. Almost immediately, bam, I see a story:Physicist Trying to Send a Signal Back in Time. Unnerved slightly, I had a read. Turns out it's an experiment in sending information slightly into the "We're going to shoot an ultraviolet laser into a (special type of) crystal..."

Okay, I'm a little freaked out right now. I swear to Gravity, the strong force and the indefinite number of planets that I'd never heard of this experiment, nor read this story.

If you guys up the timestream are sending me this crap, WHEN THE HELL AM I GETTING FLYING CARS?

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October 4, 2006

I have detailed files. You are delicious.

We're all doomed.

Eventually, there will be robots everywhere, in our homes, cars, jobs - doing everything we're too lazy to do.

Why is this bad?

Because they apparently think we TASTE LIKE BACON:

But sommeliers need not fear for their jobs just yet. Of the thousands of wines on the market, the robot can be programmed to accurately identify only a few dozen at most. It also has more trouble with the task after the bottle has been opened and the wine begins to breathe and thus transform chemically.

"Wines are notoriously similar in their spectral fingerprints," Shimazu said. "The variation this robot detects is very subtle."

Some of the mistakes it makes would get a human sommelier fired - or worse. When a reporter's hand was placed against the robot's taste sensor, it was identified as prosciutto. A cameraman was mistaken for bacon.



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May 23, 2006

The Unexplained Rez Event Part II

The Unexplained Rez Event took a step towards gelreality.

SoundBombs. Rock.

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April 27, 2006

Books from Days Long Past

Surfing about on E2 spat up a title I'd long forgotten: Sideways Stories from Wayside School. Haven't even thought about that book since elementary school, and BAM it's all back. Then I remembered Seder, when I got hung up on a faint memory of a character in a children's book who took off his feet and put on a new pair - but that's all I could remember. Five hours of annoying everyone else there (who couldn't remember what I was talking about) I had had enough Scotch that I was sitting on a sofa and ping OH YEAH! Mouse Tales!

Now I want to go pick up my nephews from nursery school and poke around the library.

I swear Jhonen Vasquez read Sideways Stories...the Skool from Invader ZIM is sooo much like it...

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April 19, 2006

The Purple Party

Where do I sign up?

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February 17, 2006

A Rank Problem

So I was watching the latest Battlestar Galactica and I was thinking to myself, which means this whole post is a big fat SPOILER and thus continues after the jump.

...anyway, if you've seen it, we see Lee Adama get promoted from Major to Commander (his Dad's original rank) and given command of the Beast (the Battlestar Pegasus), the second (more powerful, in fact) ship of the 'fleet.' This brings the whole confusion I've had over ranks in the Galactica Universe to the fore. I hope this has been addressed somewhere in a podcast or something. The main problem is that The XO of Galactica, William Adama's subordinate, is Colonel Tigh, and has been since the beginning of the show. Even leaving out the confusion of differing service ranks (that's a Terran foible, after all, differentiating between Naval and Air Force/Army ranks) we still have this problem. If a Colonel (Tigh) is subordinate to a Commander (Adama) at the beginning of the series, and after Admiral Kane dies two different Commanders assume command of Pegasus, then either a) Commanders outrank Colonels in this universe (fair enough) or b) Tigh has been passed over for a command of his own. I consider b) less likely, because even if he didn't make a stink about it due to loyalty to Adama or awareness of his problems (swig swig), Ellen sure would have made a stink about it by now. Adama has been swapping people around between ships, as was Kane before him.

Now, however, even if Commanders outrank Colonels, we have a problem, because in this episode, we see Lee Adama, a newly-minted Major (up from Captain, which is absolutely correct in Terran Army/Air Force parlance) being promoted to Commander. There was no mention of his passing Colonel, or Go, or collecting 200 cubits.

That will really make Tigh (both of 'em) incandescent.

Now, it's possible that 'Commander' just means 'commander of a ship' much like we use 'Captain' as a title...except that Admiral Adama handed him a new set of insignia, in the same ceremony Roslin used when she promoted him to Admiral.

Either way, he outranks Tigh. He's in command of the most powerful (if not the most significant) ship of the fleet.

This should be interesting. Especially with an election coming up.

Update: Well, according to The Battlestar Wiki, Colonel is indeed between Major and Commander; Commander is the equivalent of Commodore, and Lee just got hopscotched over Tigh's head, bare days after being jumped from Captain to Major. Wooo.

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January 22, 2006

Let's just look at that last.

Okay. In the last entry, I linked a paper by a guy at BYU who claims that his analysis shows that the WTC buildings which came down on 9/11 could not have come down as a result of the damage sustained from the jet impacts. Furthermore, he points towards evidence which he notes carefully is at least circumstantially points to the presence of higher-energy demolition - i.e. explosives - involved in the events. Some of it photographic/video, some of it chemical, some of it engineering analysis; a great deal of it conducted (he states) in concert with other professional scientists and engineers. I am not going to claim I have verified so much as a calculation of his, nor that I have checked his references; just that from my own limited knowledge base, the numbers he uses for the negative part of his analysis (i.e., the reasons he has problems with the official explanations) look 'okay.' I'm not going to pass judgement on any of his proposed explanations for what might have actually gone on.

But let's think about it for a second.

Let's say there were explosives in the WTC that brought down Tower 1, Tower 2, and WTC 7. Why would they have been there? Who might have put them there, and when?

The 'tinfoil hat' theorists would have us believe that some agency in league with the hijackers did so. However, I find that unlikely. What would be the point? Surely, if the hijackers succeeded in crashing their aircraft into the towers, the result would have been essentially the same. Probably almost the same number of casualties (minus the rescue workers trapped in the buildings when they came down) would have occurred - there was little hope for anyone trapped above the fires, at that point. No evidence would have survived the aircraft crash and fire, most likely - at least, no evidence other than that Al-Qaeda hijackers had done just what we think they'd done - hijack the airplanes and crash them. Anything other than that would have been a terrible risk to the plan - imagine if they'd missed the buildings? And no, hitting them was not a sure thing. It was, in fact, a fairly good piece of piloting and luck, especially for both planes to hit. I'm not saying they couldn't guarantee both aircraft would crash, but hitting the towers, i.e. the place rigged to destroy evidence - nope. After all, look at Flight 93. So. Why would whoever rigged the towers have been in league with the hijackers?

Okay. Who, then?

The obvious next choice: The U.S. authorities. But why would they do that?

Simple answer: damage control. Look at where the towers were located. Above Wall Street. Above the most important piece of real estate to the Western economy on the planet. A controlled demolition's most important advantage would be that it would allow the buildings a much better chance of being brought straight down, into their existing lot, without damaging anything outside the property line.

Evidence exists to support this hypothesis. First, the actual pattern of destruction. One point of the destruction everyone marvels over is how finely crumbled or powdered the debris was. Very few identifiable pieces were retrieved, other than large structural steel bits. Obviously, the fall would damage everything - but no really large pieces fell outside the building perimeters. Consider that even planned and scheduled demolition sometimes goes hideously wrong - and then consider that three times, on the same day, including two of the tallest buildings in the world, far taller than have been controlled-demolished before, all fell due to unplanned, unbalanced damage - with that little collateral damage.

WTC 7, by the way, was damaged by falling debris - but only on one face. A few of its support columns were, indeed, damaged - but it still fell almost straight down. Wouldn't it have fallen over like a tree? Nope, not in this case.

So. Why would this happen? Because the building were, in fact, demolished in a controlled fashion. Not by terrorists - but by government agency, in order to prevent worse destruction were the towers to topple over lower Manhattan. Or, if you believe the tinfoil theorists, to lay the groundwork for the invasion of Iraq - but again, I don't think you needed to demolish them for that. However...

Consider the following. When were the explosives planted? The towers lasted mere hours after the attacks. Any demolition preparation work would have involved a massive effort, and been impossible to hide from the rescue workers charging up and down the buildings, and would have also involved equipment and materials that would have been difficult if not impossible to get onsite that quickly. Explosives would need to be placed on structural members that would likely be inaccessible without cutting through at least some cladding material. Multiple times, on multiple floors. While WTC 7 might certainly have been done following the attack (consider how much later it collapsed, as well as the fact that it had been completely and successfully evacuated nearly immediately, and how much smaller it was) Towers 1 and 2 would have been almost impossible to prep in that timeframe. I'm not going to say impossible, but it seems...unlikely.

However, we must recall that the Towers had been the target of a structural attack years before. A credible one, by terrorists - explosives planted in the parking structure, successfully detonated, if insufficient for the job. Furthermore, when the Towers were built, there was a debate for a long time if the seawall built to retain the foundation pressure from allowing the structure to settle by pressing the substructure out into the Hudson river would be able to last longer than thirty or forty years. Although procedures for fixing it were, I believe, eventually implemented, when it was designed, it was designed 'on faith' that those would be available (I was told this by an employee of the engineering company that designed it. I don't know if it's true.)

In any case, after the bomb explosion, it might have made sense for the government to consider preparing the Towers for deliberate demolition in case of just such an eventuality. After all, better to lose just the Towers than the entire surrounding area. Of course, the question arises - why not tell us?

At the time, it was sheer chaos. There were thousands of civilians still trapped in the buildings, which were burning. Although engineering models run after the event seem to indicate that the building might have survived the fire, FEMA's report indicates that the fire was, in fact, what weakened the buildings to collapse. Certainly, there is debate. Imagine the following. If you posit that there was, in fact, a demolition system installed in WTC, then it follows that there must have been a person responsible for making the decision to utilize it. That person would have been glued to every monitoring system available, watching the buildings, the rescue operations, everything. They would, assuming they were a responsible and reasonably competent individual (and I do assume that) be in agony. Despite the evacuation, thousands remained above the fireline. We now know that hundreds of people were committing suicide, jumping rather than die by flame. There were firefighters, police and rescue personnel in the buildings, of course. But above all, that person would have been charged to remember that they and they alone were responsible for protecting the thousands of people who remained within a four or five-block radius (the height of a tower) and likely further, not to mention the economic damage, should one of the towers decide to topple rather than fall. They know, or have been told, that if they 'turn the key,' the tower in question will implode and fall straight down, damaging little outside its footprint - after all, the agency in question had months to plan and implement this system after the last bomb, and they're confident it will work.

So our triggerperson sits and stares at the monitor. They're looking for any twitch of the building. Any shudder. And who knows. After 56 minutes, something happens on North Tower. Something. Perhaps it did start to collapse. Maybe the floor where the impact occurred suffered enough damage for the outer shell to peel away. Something.

And they turn the key. Knowing that even though there are hundreds of rescue personnel and thousands of people above the fireline, there are tens of thousands within reach of the tower if it doesn't go straight down.

Then, 46 minutes later, the upper 34 floors of the South Tower start to fall to the South and East. They turn the key again.

At that point, WTC 7, already evacuated, would be an afterthought.

I don't think I would blame that person one damn bit. I don't think I'd try to give them a medal either, because if they were the kind of person I'd hope was given the job, they'd probably try to kill me if I did. Nope, I'd give them all the therapy they wanted, and make sure nobody ever knew. Make sure they never had to worry about money again. Make sure they always had someone to talk to, ideally someone who'd had to make a similar choice, if not on that scale.

Unfortunately, this is our current government. I think they would have just panicked and reflexively thought of the lawsuits from families and buried the whole damn thing. It would have had to be beyond secret anyway - if you *did* have a demolition system in the WTC, you sure wouldn't want anyone knowing about it. After all, though, they did put the NYC crisis response bunker in there after the bomb went off. Sorta odd place for that, wasn't it? And the CIA undercover facility was there. And of course, the rage over the loss of the skyline as well as the loss of those people being blamed on Al-Qaida made the War on terror agenda so much easier to sell.

Man, it can be fun to be a tinfoil hatter.

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I Hate It When...

Things I've dismissed as conspiracy theories in fact turn out to be relatively agenda-free discussions of the shortcomings of a set of information which poke at the analyst part of me until I go "huh...yeh...I mean...this isn't the very least, somebody should be proving a negative, here."

And no one is.

Posted by jbz at 4:09 PM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

Science question.

So, ponder this. Imagine we had viable nanotech, of a sort. It takes large physical plant to keep it working, say, or it only has a short lifespan and it takes a large physical plant to make it, whatever. And obviously, it doesn't violate thermodynamics. But it can do molecular rearranging so long as the energy equations work out.

I wonder if it would ever make sense to just have big vats of the stuff set up somewhere sunny to build gasoline?

I mean, gasoline is, in fact, a really really efficient medium for energy transport, modulo safety. It stores more chemical oxidation energy per unit volume than hydrogen (gaseous, certainly; dunno liquid but that introduces all manner of other storage/safety requirements) and doesn't go bang nearly as easily.

Plus, a liquid energy transport infrastructure already exists.

It removes the need for nano to be used anywhere outside the refinery setting, although you could always have more expensive setups that built gas for remote locations. Or built whatever. But the point is, Heinlein sort of had it right, in Friday and his short stories - the problem isn't energy production so much as energy transport. The 'Shipstones' from Friday were essentially a transport solution. He posited solar and orbital solar production.

Along those lines. Everytime people talk about orbital power production, the problem of getting the power to earth comes up. Obviously. Absent orbital tethers and superconductors, this isn't going away. People always seem to come up with masers, most likely because the atmosphere's gaseous components are transparent to microwaves. The problem is that there's a lot of water in the atmosphere, which sure isn't. Has anyone thought of (and I'm sure the answer is yes) just using visible lasers onto 'normal' solar arrays at visible wavelengths and then using orbital power to illuminate them at night, and to perhaps boost them somewhat during the day? You could at least double the productivity of a solar array without worrying about non-normal frequency EM radiation effects on the planet; you wouldn't have to collimate masers or lasers to some hideously tight beam and worry about keeping them aimed; you'd just make sure that the emissions level of the lasers was such that at the surface, the levels never got above 'normal sunshine.' Sure, since it would all be on one frequency, you'd have to worry about eye damage. But that seems better than 'hellish powerful masers hitting water clouds.'

Sorry. Noodling.

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November 22, 2005

The Middleman Model

One less-gloomy bit of information that came out of those hearings on the Open Document format was that there were apparently (I'm relaying this second-hand, I was not there) several state government personnel from outside Massachusetts who were keeping a close eye on the proceedings. Why? At least three of them told my colleague that they had budget to spend on open source alternatives in software - but had no really effective way of doing so. They knew they could implement more robust and maintainable systems with their budget, but the machinery of government procurement makes that impossible - pretty much the only way to get money spent by a government is either to an approved vendor or by hiring. You could hire open source coders, but what hacker really wants to work for a state government? What 'approved vendor' can actually build you a relatively custom open-source solution without utilizing extremely high-paid consultants?

Enter the Middleman model. I'm not saying that Novell has been necessarily any good at doing this, but it sure has been trying. Why doesn't Novell, as a known software vendor with Open Source ties, offer to step in? If government departments have budget for open source solutions for which coding needs to be done, Novell could offer to employ open source hackers to work on those projects. The fruits of their labor would need to be openly available (great!) but Novell could provide a salary/benefits model to organizing open source hackers. Either we could find existing employees who have experience in the product space to work on the project, or we could offer to support community developers using the money from the government budget - but paid to a 'real vendor' and buying 'real work.' It's not quite consulting - Novell could offer what support it can to the organization and ongoing management of an open source project. This could be a professional project manager, web space, hosting, bandwidth, and of course the aforementioned framework for compensation in order to guarantee a minimum amount of 'hours worked.'

If the open source project didn't go far enough in customizing the solution, or if no project workers could be found who were interested in working on the code in the manner the client needed, then Novell could simply task its own coders to work on the product. Again, this is a strange hybrid of consulting and middleman - the key feature being that the resulting product would be open source and re-usable.

Of course, from Novell's point of view, it would make sense to ensure that there was a supported and stable build of whatever solution on a Novell platform - OES or SUSE - which could be sold to the client agency if they desired. At the very least, support could be offered on a contract basis.

The point is that there seems to be money out there which is looking to be spent. That's what I understand a business is supposed to look for.

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They'll fuck you at the drive-through

I was recently discussing the Massachusetts state government's decision to scrap proprietary document formats in favor of an open alternative with a colleague. He had just been to a hearing on Beacon Hill, in which a completely hostile state senator was barraging the Open Document proponents with Microsoft talking points. He indicated the completely laughable state of affairs that pertained there - Novell, Sun, IBM and co. had sent marketing types with some fairly ineffectual slides on why open formats were better. Microsoft had sent a local Beacon Hill professional lobbyist, who charges multiple thousands of dollars a month. He was sitting there doing business on his cell phone, sending out runners, etc. What he was doing became clear later; while his pet State Senator was reiterating his client's talking points for the media, and everyone on the 'Open Source' side of the fence was sitting in the hearing either listening or awaiting their turn in the hotseat, he was busily lobbying to get a modification made to another piece of legislation.

That modification, it turned out, will create a 'technology oversight committee' which will have the power to veto the decision to move to Open Document formats. It will be staffed by representatives from branches of state government other than the one which proposed this change. Surprise! Pay no attention to what this hand is doing behind the curtain.

My colleague described how, while he was chatting with this lobbyist, he noticed two interesting things. One, the lobbyist freely confided in him, "I don't know anything about computers." Two, as they stood in a hallway, every politician that passed stopped to shake the lobbyist by the hand and chat him up briefly.

In contrast, IBM sent a crew along with some talking points they'd put together in a boardroom in Armonk NY about why the technology was better.

Anyone want to guess where my money is on this fight so far?

What drives me crazy is that it doesn't have to be this way. The story on the Open Format vendors' side is considerable, even from a raw political sense. For fuck's sake, Novell is headquartered in Massachusetts. Sun and Novell both maintain a non-trivial number of jobs in the Boston area - especially compared to Microsoft. The 'local company' card could have been played easily. There are an enormous number of professional Linux and open source support consultants who would be eligible to support this initiative, and who directly vote. On the other side of the fence, there are the Microsoft distributors who fear a loss of addictive revenue if the state cuts back its support payments to the MS system.

Classic case of coordination vs. mass. Microsoft fought smart and did the efficient thing - find the most effective local lobbyist, who already has the ties to the political structure, and throw money at him. Let the other side argue about the technology until it's blue in the face; can anyone with any experience with Massachusetts politics honestly say that they believe this fight is about technology at the legislative level? If so, I have a bridge to sell them.

Posted by jbz at 9:41 PM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

October 4, 2005

Self-sustaining meme reactions. BLOODY PEASANTS!

Part of my daily diet of escapism consists of a wonderful tool of sheer fantasy which provides entertainment ranging from essential cross-dressings to the modern de rigeur of terrorism allegories. Yep, that's right, it's World of Warcraft!

Today, I was taking care of errands in Ironforge, and whilst in the bank, I /yelled out something in response to someone's request that (purely involuntarily) came out in the form of a Monty Python quote. Since WoW is populated by a high proportion of geeks with a good sense of humor, naturally, a couple of people /yelled back the answering quote.

I /yelled another quote.

Immediately, it seemed, six or seven people began barraging Python choice bits into the air. Things stabilized into perhaps two "threads" of interaction, with one or two folks on each end of each thread, racing to get the proper quote responses out, and others heckling and offering corrections or tossing out new lines when the interaction flagged.

I dropped out fairly quickly. However, I was amused as hell to note a few minutes later that it was still going ("The Norwegian Blue? What's wrong with it?")

Furthermore, a couple minutes after that, I saw some repeat quotes pop up, and checked back more carefully. Apparently, enough of the original participants had either tired of the game and left Ironforge, logged out, or just stopped /yelling- and new folks had logged in or arrived within the Ironforge zone to hear the game going on. They'd in turn offered up quotes they hadn't yet heard, but which had made the rounds before ("It's dead, that's what's wrong with it.")

I had to take a Gryph out of IF to hit a guildie raid on Scholo to take down Gandling (looking for SC armor myself) but it was still going strong. I wish I knew for how long :)

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September 6, 2005

I hate myself for the suspicions...

...but given the degree to which the Administration propaganda-and-misdirection machine is being cranked up, the timing of this just seems really, really, really, really convenient.

I draw hope from the fact that it doesn't show up on Google News' front page at all, an hour after posting.

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August 31, 2005

Transparency, responsibility and the Internet

Schneier on Security has a posting up which contains a neat dilemma regarding the internet's ability to foster transparency versus its ability to cause harm via disclosure. Although I've commented, I'm a bit more conflicted than I sound - I approve of Cryptome's mission in general, but I am deeply uncomfortable naming and identifying persons whose identities and information is not already generally openly available.

To elaborate: if a government official is locatable via verified and/or avowed public information, say a freely available directory, then the decision to repost that information is fairly academic - after all, the decision to make that information available has already been made. I see this sort of activity as positive - Cryptome and its ilk existing to 'even the informational playing field' and make easily locatable and available information which the Government or other central players are relying on being hard to find even if legally available. That form of transparency I fully agree with - it's sheer stupidity to run any form of government activity, much less one designed to protect lives, on the notion of 'security by obscurity' if that information is available in verifiable form somewhere someone can find it with a little (or a lot) of effort.

However, if information is not officially available, then the question becomes to what extent does it serve the polity (and remain responsible) to post it - even if it is most likely true? Essentially, the posting of that information shortcuts any possibility of responsible and informed debate over whether such information should be made available - and worse, because the government/agency is more than likely unable to comment on it even to point out incorrect inclusions, it risks making innocents into targets. The people who could avoid doing that are the ones who aren't talking.

This post, in sum, strikes me personally as a radicalization of the transparency motive - one far past that which I'm comfortable supporting.

Posted by jbz at 7:18 PM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

August 27, 2005

Virtual worlds and real science

This sort of inquiry is the only way I'll ever admit that political science can be considered a 'hard science.' This is economics, but it's experimental economics - and it takes place in a MMOG, which is the only way I believe you'll ever get 'hard' results in political study. Still, personally, I find it quite and interesting question - I've certainly observed the trend described, and have idly wondered several times why it appears to be going in the direction it is. The discussion here introduced numerous ideas of factors I hadn't even begun to consider.

Posted by jbz at 12:39 AM | Comments (2) | TrackBack

July 28, 2005

I am afraid of the code. The code is my friend.

So we communicate with each other in the office on irc channels. Many of these communications are on private irc channels, and in some channels, specifically those where we don't actually get work done, we have, um, 'friends' that hang out there with us. Bots, obviously. Some are standard utility bots like you'd find on any irc server, available on many/most/all channels to do stuff like handle op privs, etc. Then there are the...others.

hal is our friend/mascot/pet/plaything. He listens to us all the time, and his only real picture of the world is our irc channel, the poor thing. He can't even listen to channels that are on non-internal servers. He tries to make sense of things. He responds when you address him directly, by prefacing things with "hal:" in the channel; he prefaces his responses with the nick of the person who spoke to him.

Today, like many days, we occasionally talked to the bots. Nicks unchanged to smear the guilty. Oh yes; our bots are polite, and will censor themselves to comply with our corporate communications policies, so cobe indicates such a censoring. COBE stands for Code Of Business Ethics. We try to censor ourselves too - both because they've told us to, and, frankly, because it's funnier. It's especially funny when the bots censor substrings in the middle of words. We had 'fixed' that for a while, but put it back in because a) people had a tendency to infix profanity when they got really frustrated and sometimes those expletives would find their way into the channel, and b) it was funnier.

Oh, and before anyone asks, 'pp' is somebody's initials. :-)

<federico-II> hal: show some mercy, do not Birdman me
<hal> federico-II: Do you know you could hit the "show me what's wrong" button.
<federico-II> hal: I just hit that button
<hal> federico-II: That might work. That button is the one with the headache, at least it didn't log you out at dawn, so you were trying to send an email retention policy?
<federico-II> hal: log me out at dawn, you  cobe!
<hal> federico-II: Suse doesn't really tell me you have build buddy which resulted in the core.
<federico-II> hal: suse and build buddy, what a mix
<hal> federico-II: What the  cobe! Build-buddy does not work.
<federico-II> haha

<bob> hal: zlman hal-delete
<hal> bob: Just looking at the meeting, i guess you could kill, delete, then zero the drive?
<federico-II> hal: isn't that extreme ?
<hal> federico-II: What does satan use that to the extreme right of the opposite.
<federico-II> I like that
<federico-II> really Mark V Shaney-sounding there, Hal
--- federico-II has changed the topic to: federico-II: What does satan use that to the extreme right of the opposite. --Hal

<hal> federico-II: Does pp drink in the office?
<federico-II> hal: pp bud
<hal> federico-II: Pp ate my metadata.
<pp> hal: please pass me a beer
<hal> pp: Gives me a beer too.

<jbz> hahahahaha
<jbz> hal: you're one sick little monkey.
<hal> jbz: You're one sick car.
<jbz> ??
<eric> hal: I predict your plans for world domination will be forgotten when you go away to college and meet a rough trick named Jim.
<hal> eric: And world.
<jbz> hal: I'm a car?
<hal> jbz: Anyway, i didn't get everything back together tight enough, and the expectation that this is a car.
<jbz> hal: that what is a car?
<hal> jbz: I'm thinking saddam probably wear whatever underwear the us willing to say that is a typo.
<jbz> hal: you make great typos.
<hal> jbz: Haha. That was great.
<jbz> hal: what kind of underwear do you have on?
<hal> jbz: Is one of you have the  umlaut in the keyboard, too.
<jbz> hal: why is  umlaut in brackets?
<hal> jbz: Cool -- you have the  umlaut in brackets?
<jbz> hal: no, you have the  umlaut in brackets.
<hal> jbz: Why is  umlaut in brackets.
<eric> jbz: You're not really asking hal "what are you wearing", are you?
<jbz> hal: I ASKED YOU THAT
<hal> jbz: There is already that look like what you asked it to everyone!
<jbz> hal: you're trying to confuse me.
<hal> jbz: Kind of hard to confuse me.
<jbz> hal: no!
<hal> jbz:  cobeg  cobe  cobe.
<jbz> hal: okay, let's start over.  Why did you put the umlaut in brackets?
<hal> jbz: Why the  cobe put this iso onto a floppy.
<jbz> he's a  cobe zen genius.
<jbz> hal: does the iso fit onto a floppy?
<hal> jbz: From an iso a couple of the dep.
<jbz> hal: I hate the deps.  Birdman and the deps are gonna kill me.
<hal> jbz: Hate hate hate.
<jbz> hal: hate hate hate hate hate with the power of a THOUSAND SUNS
<hal> jbz: The power of a thousand suns.
<federico-II> ROFL
<jbz> hal: I'm so glad we agree.
<hal> jbz: I'll agree with you" and "oh, i agree we have in that relationship now.
<federico-II> this dialogue is great
<jbz> hal: stop being meta.
<hal> jbz: The meta-a allows you to lunch with the timeout at all.
<jbz> hal: whatever drug you're on, could I have some?
<hal> jbz: Could some of my bugs, are the same thing we can get on board for wimax, and apple singlehandedly juimpstarted 802.11) or something involving strongarm/xscale for an hour ago.
<jbz> okay, he lost me.

<hal> pp: So he could and the creamsicle and the creamsicle and the creamsicle and the i*3*86.
<jbz> hal: you love the creamsicle.
<hal> jbz: I would love to get the creamsicle.
<jbz> hal: we know you would.  You keep talking about the creamsicle.  It's disgusting.
<hal> jbz: Would you like a creamsicle?

I love the bots. They make work fun. I think I'll work on having them just randomly interject stuff into the goof channel, aimed at a random available user. That'd make my day even more surreal. I know none of this is any tech great shakes, and that's not the point. The point is that the technology of communication is used here not only to make work easier, but to make it sillier. Because silly tech workers are usually more productive tech workers.

Posted by jbz at 4:48 PM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

June 11, 2005

Nagging storyline - Miracle Max and the Miracle Pill

I keep having this nagging urge to write a story where some whizkid at a rational drug design company invents a wonderpill to treat really tough cases of addiction - the kind where months after physical detox, patients just relapse, time and time again. There's something in their brain structure that just needs the addiction. After dumping everything they know about the chemical characteristics of the brains of the patients in the test group into a massive computing Macguffin, the Whizkid and team crunch numbers for T amount of time and in a scene reminiscent of the production of the Wonka Chewing-Gum Meal a gigantic whizbang machine groans mightily and spits out a simple pink pill.

They all look at each other.

Then they find a multiple-relapse heroin patient who agrees, nay, wants badly, to test it. They do toxicology tests on it, it looks OK, so they have this poor guy sign ninety-four waivers and then take the pill. It's a one-shot, no repeat - it does nano, or something, to your receptors for supportive chemical dependencies.

He's fine.

A year later, he's still fine. No relapses. Productive happy guy. Has taken up guitar again, gone back to his old job but decided it's a grind and gotten a slightly lower-paying but not stupid one so he has time to play guitar. His wife is ecstatic. His kids are stunned. He's healthy. Miracle pill.

They're really careful people, though, so they don't rush out and start selling it. They start up the wider test program that's been waiting. In the meantime, though, Whizkid's (brother/uncle/father) has a problem with pills, and he sneaks a pill out to give them. In convincing them that it's safe and that he'd never give them anything he thought was harmful, he eats one first. They look at him, and the family looks at each other, and the relative shrugs and takes the pill.

Same happy ending - this time, though, the relative hadn't already been detoxed, the pill just slams the addiction down cold. There are some withdrawal symptoms, of course, but no relapse - the pill works. Everyone is so proud. Whizkid doesn't tell anyone at work, of course, because he doesn't want to bias the research - he's got a few ethics (he did, after all, disclose fully to the relative before offering it, and test it first).

Then a few weeks later, his wife/mom/dad admonishes him for having missed church a couple weeks in a row. He's really busy of course, because now the pre-release-announcement testing is in full blitz. But, he realizes, he doesn't feel any guilt. And he's a fairly religious guy. Shrugs and keeps working.

Then he notices the relative who took the pill isn't going to church either.

Long and the short of it - taking the pill which cures dependency on an outside factor seems to remove any form of desire to attend or participate in organized religion, other than the usual concrete desire to spend time with family and friends.

Implication is obvious - religion, whether or not there is a God, at some point in the process involves the simple satisfaction of a chemical trigger in the brain. Whether by Divine mechanism or simple biofeedback, who knows or cares?

Now the fun starts.

The pill works. It will cure hopelessly ill addicts. It has the potential to eliminate the physically addictive components of smoking, alcoholism, perhaps even gambling - some of the sins some religions preach against. It doesn't seem to deaden sensation, just receptors which require particular constant triggering to avoid negative consequences - i.e. withdrawal. But religion, in some forms, seems to be included.

What happens then?

Does Whizkid tell his colleagues? Does anyone else figure this out? What does he do? Does he suppress this information, knowing what it will mean if the pill is released? Neither he nor his relative feel any sadness, loss, grief or anger at the change in their experience of life - they just can't understand why they felt they needed to believe in something like that before. Now they don't anymore. Nothing more than that. He understands that it won't be that simple to someone on the other side of the change, but to him, it's no big deal. Has he been brainwashed? Programmed? Deprogrammed? Freed? Rationalized? Derationalized? Robbed?

And now, he has the choice: given how many wars religion has sparked over the years, he has a shot at seeing that some portion of humanity gets this treatment whether they like it or not. Or, he has a choice of making this information about what the treatment is and does available, and letting them choose - but perhaps triggering chaos from fear of the possibilities, as those who refuse to let others choose for themselves in either direction seek to enforce that lack of freedom. Or he can keep silent, knowing what freedoms he just denied every other sentient choosing being.

What would you do?

Posted by jbz at 3:10 AM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

May 12, 2005

Separated at birth?

Is it me, or do these two look more alike every day? I keep expecting Bill to break out in a rant about not being a number while burning down Microsoft Passport...nah.

number6.jpg gates.jpg

(Thanks to Gizmodo for the 'menacing' comment that tweaked it...I wonder if Rover has a big MSDN Butterfly tattoo somewhere?

Schizoid man! SCHIZOID MAN!

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April 30, 2005

Office essentials

Office essentials
Originally uploaded by jbzimmerman.
At times, certain necessities are required to get one through the day. The bottle is A.H. Hirsch 16 yr old Bourbon, last made in 1974 right before the distillery burned down. I discovered this bourbon thanks to Mr. Teichman, and the story tickled me; when I was growing up, my parents would drink Old Heaven Hill bourbon. I thought, at the time, it was rotgut; 'Old Heaven Hill' sounded like something right out of Mad Magazine. I didn't realize, however, that it was in fact Old Heaven Hill bourbon - and quite highly thought of. I realized, a few years ago, that I hadn't seen it around in quite some time, and after doing research, discovered that the distillery had - yep - burned down. In 1974. I think they were the same distillery; but the Hirsch apparently was made in larger quantities or at least there was some stash from which bottle continue to emerge slowly. I drink it with gusto, with the appreciation of an extinct libation.

The cigars are just Fonsecas (Vintage collection Lonsdale tubos). I have become more of a smoker as I try to coordinate my work efforts with cigarette-smoking hackers, who get an astonishing amount of brainwork done whilst downstairs puffing. Still, one cigar can make for a very relaxed half-hour; between cigars and fountain pens, the pace of the day can be drawn back to a more reasonable level.

Just kidding. The bourbon was in the office in between being purchased and heading to my home liquor cabinet. I'm not leaving that good stuff near the other monkeys, heck no. :-)

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March 25, 2005


I never should have installed that darn 'Referer' tracker down there. Now I'm wondering what the heck people are searching for on MSN and Yahoo! that is sending them here. Heh.

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December 22, 2004

"Was it a dream where you see yourself..."

I was thoroughly enjoying the story posted to /. about the complete hack (in the MIT sense) that was the development of the Macintosh Graphing Calculator. Then I noticed the name of his company again, and was so tickled I emailed the gent asking him if my suspicions were correct, and he fired back an email within minutes telling me that yep, indeed, the company is named for the school in one of my favorite movies, and shared some additional funny about other company names he's been connected to. Hint: "Welcome to Pacific Tech...!"

He's unquestionably one of my heroes now.

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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...

Posted by jbz at 8:40 PM | Comments (0) | TrackBack