Minds

Great minds discuss ideas. Average minds discuss events. Small minds discuss people.

So goes the quote, supposedly (though this is disputed) by Eleanor Rooseveldt.

But this is the sort of thing that only nerds could believe. Only people who view their bodies as a regrettable extension of their minds, and communication as a sort of small-bandwidth wifi useful only for the propagation of information.

There’s an entirely relational dimension missing here. People have always talked about people. People have always talked about events. Because those things are important. Because they’re relational. And because relationships are important.

This reminds me of what Sir Ken Robinson said about education:

Truthfully, what happens is, as children grow up, we start to educate them progressively from the waist up. And then we focus on their heads. And slightly to one side. They become disembodied, in a kind of literal way. They look upon their body as a form of transport for their heads.

Comments section

Yes, I know there’s no comment section. Yes, I know this is an egregious oversight. I’ll be working on it tonight. I hope to have something to look at soon.

Driverless cars, routing around damage, peer to peer communication, and unexpected vulnerabilities

Geof responds to my previous post. He generally agrees, but goes on to say this:

Take, for instance, a self-driving car. One of the assumptions we have is that allowing computers to drive cars will allow a lot more cars to be on the road, since computers are better drivers than humans (a fact I don’t want to dispute). But imagine we do fit 30% more cars on the road. Imagine a traffic disruption. There will surely be far fewer traffic disruptions because computers are better drivers than humans. But when they do occur, they will cause massively more congestion than now, because the system will have been optimised that much further.

A driverless car will be best implemented when it communicates with its peers in a networked way that mimics the old CB network band: “Get off at Exit 351 and take US 31 north; I-65 is a parking lot.” But there’s fragility, of course: not all cars will have humans out of the loop, not everyone will have a car that communicates in the same way, there will be network outages, etc. That’s why peer-to-peer on open technologies will make that work.

See, my technological bias is showing. But I will also admit my own bias against driverless cars: I’d rather drive, and if not, I’d rather take mass transit to have it be worthwhile.

I thought a bit about this when I was writing the original post. This is very true. If we allow cars to function like nodes on a network (the internet model) and route around damage to the network, we can probably mitigate a lot of the potential problems of driverless cars that operate in a vacuum, informationally sealed from the surrounding vehicles. Basically we start treating cars like packets.

I see a couple problems. Even assuming that all cars on the road are driverless (there are no pesky humans behind the wheel ever), we’re always designing our transportation system for peak loads. One of the points of driverless cars is to distribute peak load more evenly, and therefore optimize drive time by taking different routes that make sense depending on the situation. However, if the system is optimised so that peak load and a problem co-incide, there might not be anywhere to go to route around damage. That is to say, if the network is fully optimised, at peak loads, there’s a fine line between completely fine and completely chaotic. And building new roads makes laying fibre look like playing with LEGO.

The other thing I’ve though about is how focused we are on designing for and controlling a certain set of parameters. For instance, we might optimise for peak load, for shortest travel time, etc, and in order to do that we might have to network cars and let them talk to each other. And we’ve seen what that looks like with PCs. What happens when you take previously un-networked things and connect them to a network? It’s a hard thing to do. If we do network driverless cars, it’s likely that a lot of the damage to the network will suddenly take on a very much more sinister aspect: Hacking. We’d do well to consider the example of casinos: They design for and control their gains and losses so that the house always wins. Except when losses come from directions they simply can’t control for. Fire, earthquake, employees suing their bosses, catastrophic losses of life, etc. I worry that we might design for and attempt to control the variables of traffic without considering the very real possibility of damage that come from a direction we weren’t expecting.

Maybe we’ll find something even more exotic when we’re done making the perfect car. What I actually hope is that we rediscover the train. We may find that once we have the perfect driverless car, gas is too expensive to actually run a car. But that would mean we’d have to reconfigure our entire way of live. And that’s a lot less likely to happen.

My technology assumptions & biases

I have a few. I’m part of a generation or a class of people that grew up using technology to facilitate their lives in a way the previous generation never imagined, but I’m not so fully integrated into tech that I can’t live apart from it. It’s not yet part of the air I breathe, if you will. I see an upcoming generation raised on smartphones and tablets, and I don’t think they’ll have these techno-biases simply because they’re not living on the bleeding edge and don’t need to make any assumptions about their technology. My generation on the other hand seems obsessed with using tech to solving Big Problems, as if we somehow need to justify the existence of all these things. Of course we don’t. So without further ado, the list:

Today’s technology is better than yesterday’s technology.

This is part techno-utopianism, part confirmation bias. Lots of crappy technologies exist today that won’t exist tomorrow. A few crappy technologies persist into the future. But very few crappy technologies persist from very far in the past into the future. There’s a process of winnowing out. Thus an old technology is probably a good technology. The older it is the longer it has persisted and the longer it is likely to persist. I’m sure you can come up with a few examples. Today’s technologies may seem better only because they’re novel: Older technologies tend to be invisible until they’re replaced.

Technology is going to solve a lot of Big Problems.

This may be true. It may not. It may be that technology actually causes a lot of Big Problems, or that people trying to solve Big Problems with new technologies actually cause more Big Problems than they solve. (Take, for instance, the car; it solved a lot of huge problems like an overabundance of dead horses and horse shit in the streets, but contributes massively to climate change.) The assumption that technology will solve Big Problems isn’t an assumption that has been borne out, at least not yet. And we don’t really understand what might happen if we do solve these problems using technology.

Take, for instance, a self-driving car. One of the assumptions we have is that allowing computers to drive cars will allow a lot more cars to be on the road, since computers are better drivers than humans (a fact I don’t want to dispute). But imagine we do fit 30% more cars on the road. Imagine a traffic disruption. There will surely be far fewer traffic disruptions because computers are better drivers than humans. But when they do occur, they will cause massively more congestion than now, because the system will have been optimised that much further. What if we put this infrastructure in place only to find that commute time remains the same or gets worse, maybe even much worse? We’ll have to console ourselves with the fact that we can now do something other than driving (I would much rather read a book than drive, for instance), and purposefully forget about that other, older technology that already solves the same problem: the train.

Or take the internet. It hasn’t really solved a whole lot of Big Problems, though it has solved a lot of smaller ones that we forget about. For instance jobs like the travel agent, the journalist, and (hopefully soon) the real estate agent. Which leads me to my next point.

Technology makes us all richer or at least better off.

A lot of people have been taking stabs at why we seem to keep getting better gadgets while we get poorer. There are names for this, like The Great Stagnation. We wonder why the internet hasn’t created a whole lot of jobs like the last big technological revolution, the car, did. Instead of creating jobs, the internet has massively optimised our economy. And there seem to be less jobs to go around as machines start doing all the things that well-meaning but rather dull people used to do.

We assume that the internet (for one example) will make us richer, though there’s really no evidence for that. It has certainly made a few people very rich, but unlike the industrial revolution, the information revolution has very much concentrated wealth in the hands of a very few (inventors and the PHD holders they hire). There’s very little halo effect there. Where Rockefeller could become massively wealthy and also lift the standard of living for the millions in his employ, the headcount of Google and Apple together is something close to 125,000. That’s it. Consider Samsung Electronics (not even the entire Samsung Group), which has similar revenues to Apple but actually makes physical things and has almost three times the headcount. It’s not at all obvious that the world would be better off with more Apples and Googles than with more Samsungs.

I need the newest thing.

This is one of my personal failings. I feel like a poor person because I have a 3-year-old phone. It still works in its own way. But it feels like a dinosaur. I also have a laptop, a desktop, two tablets, and an e-reader. And yet without fail, each of those electronic devices seems old and decrepit roughly six months after I’ve bought it.

Yet every time I buy a new device I find something new to hate about that device. I become used the foibles of my old devices. And that takes a while.

But comparing the newest thing with other newest things isn’t particularly obvious. It makes more sense to compare, say, an e-reader to the thing it’s trying to replace (the book) rather than other e-readers. And it’s not patently obvious that e-readers are better than books. On an individual level they’re almost certainly not. A book with its sights, smells, and tactile sensations is an experience, and a pleasant one. It never runs out of battery, can be read at any viewing angle, and can be easily marked up (which is more important than you think!). An e-reader on the other hand fails at all these things. However on a meta level and e-reader can hold all my books, is searchable, and connects to the internet. Are these features enough to make the switch? Well, it depends on who you are and what your use case is. The answer to that question isn’t as obvious as Amazon might hope.

Or take a tablet. They’re wonderful devices for a lot of things, except when it comes to replacing really old technology. This all ties into the concept of a “paperless office”, which we’ve all been trying and failing to do for decades now. It turns out that writing on paper is one of the most useful and basic technologies around. While the tablet may (and should) kill the MP3 player, the laptop for certain uses, the CD player, the desktop for certain uses, and other things like that, it turns out that it absolutely blows at replacing really basic technologies like writing. Writing on a tablet isn’t easy. Again, it’s not obvious that if we replaced all paper in the world with a boatload of tablets we’d be better off for the substitution.

So these are my technology biases. I’m sure I have more. What are yours?

Bullet points for a Monday Evening.

I haven’t done one of these in a while, but I can kind of hear the psychic promptings of Chris Hubbs, so here goes.

  • Laura isn’t feeling well at the moment (she was up with Audrey for a good five hours in the middle of the night), so I’m taking care of Audrey and the dogs. Audrey is eating banana bread and drinking from her bottle, while the dogs are chasing each other around the house and trying to steal Audrey’s banana bread.
  • My favourite kind of yoghurt has to be Balkan style. Swiss is too thin, Greek is too thick, Balkan is just right. I also wish there were some way to gauge the amount of live bacteria in a yoghurt sample, short of putting it under a microscope.
  • I’m currently waiting for a steak to come up to room temperature. I know, two steaks in two days. This is what comes of shopping at Costco.
  • Our coffee pot seems bound and determined to burn the coffee no matter what we do. I’m not sure if the problem is in the water heater or in the element, but either way, the coffee is coming out tasting like Starbucks.
  • I present for your consideration this fine home-made meme:

    image

  • ISO implementation is going apace. Document control is something I’ve wanted for a long time but never had the time or clout to actually make happen. We’re also gaining an org chart, work descriptions, and proper tooling specifications. If you’re surprised that we haven’t had any of those things until now… well, so am I.
  • The novel is at 22,000 words. That’s the third novel I’ve gotten that far on, by the way. And, predictably, I’m at the part of the story where I start not to care about finishing it. I’ve decided on a novel (heh) way of getting around this: I’m folding the apathy into the novel itself. I feel apathy? My character feels apathy. I feel like I’m in the middle of a long slog that might never end and even when it does it might lead nowhere at all? Well, that’s a useful feeling. I’ll fold these thing into the book and we’ll see how it shakes out. Also, because I know some people are asking, no, the book and the stories within are not autobiographical. Some of the feelings are based on reality, but nothing more.
  • I have now lived in Mississauga for 10 years. Before that I lived in Bolton, Brampton, Orangeville, Vaughn, Rexdale, and Toronto proper. I have lived in a lot of places but also I haven’t lived in a lot of placed.
  • I learned a trick from Charles Dickens: Take whatever you want to say, break it up into two opposite but equal sentiments, raise them both to their superlatives, and present both as co-equal facts. It was the best of times, it was the worst of times. Everything happened, but nothing happened. Take it to the next level by then denying your own premise. I was moving ever forward, ever backward, or perhaps I was not moving at all. Throw in a little doubt. Suddenly it means everything, though it means nothing. Or perhaps this thing we call meaning itself is flawed.
  • I keep thinking about how small is beautiful. I don’t mean just in size, but in organizational complexity. Units of decision making need to be small. Layers of management need to be small. The small survives even when the large fall. This is true for book stores, for families, for churches, for governments, for works of art, and even for airplanes.

Cast iron cookware is a revelation

cast-iron-pan

I wish I had bought cast iron cookware long before now.

Laura went shopping this weekend and happened upon some very nice new cast iron cookware for fairly cheap. I’ve been on the lookout for used cast iron for some time, but it seems like used cast iron is getting pretty rare as people snatch them up to sell on the internet.

Either way, there’s something wonderful about cooking with cast iron. It’s not really one thing, more like a combination of things, and probably also an extremely favourable comparison to the free cookware we’ve been blessed (and cursed) with until now.

I’ve been frying with a non-stick (I think teflon) skillet for a while now, and if you know anything about teflon coated pans, you know they’re thin and light. After all, you’re not supposed to charge a teflon coated pan with heat, as teflon degrades at high temps. Because the pans are so thin, they warp easily, especially in challenging circumstances like deglazing (which is virtually impossible anyways, as there’s nothing to deglaze from teflon). To be fair, Laura got the pan for free from her old job. So it was free. But that’s about the only point in its favour.

My other set of pans are heavy-bottomed stainless steel. So not exactly non-stick in any real way. They charge with and hold heat fairly well, but even with all precautions taken, things like eggs just stick and don’t like to come off. Again, these pans were free. We inherited them from Laura’s still-living parents when they threw out their entire kitchen. They’re decent enough pans. They’re old-ish and quite nice for what they are. But they’re still just too light and too sticky to cook certain things.

So aast iron (pre-seasoned in this case) can be a little rough, but it’s wonderfully non-stick, and makes cooking steak and other meats an absolute revelation. (Even for eggs: my first over-easy was a bit tough to flip, but it was exactly the way I like my eggs.) For instance, I’d always had trouble controlling the temperature of our other pots when pan-frying a thick steak, so I’d end up with a steak seared to death on the outside and cool on the inside. Or tough all the way through. Either way, no fun to serve or eat. It sucks to have to ruin a perfectly good steak by cutting it in half lengthwise so it will cook all the way through.

I pan-fried my first steak on cast iron today, and it was perfect. Absolutely perfect. The outside had a perfect crust, and the inside was the medium-rare I love.

We also got a cast iron dutch oven, something I’ve wanted since the ceramic glazed cast iron piece of crap from Loblaws crapped out (the ceramic started chipping off the lid into the food… not fun).

Oh, and these things are heavy. Seriously. If we ever experience a home invasion (which we won’t, at least statistically; we live in Canada) it will be my weapon of choice. This is a problem if you’re used to tossing your stir-fries, but frankly I’m not that fancy yet. I like the heft of it. The pan just stays where you put it. No fuss with the thing moving about the kitchen as if it had a mind of its own like our other pots and pans.

Useless metrics

I was listening to CBC News the other day when a financial report aired, and I was struck by how useless most of the metrics they reported are, at least to me. And to most everyone I know. They reported a lot of stock prices, talked about the exchange rate, tracked the progress of the major exchanges, gave an inflation update, etc, etc. Do I care about those things day-to-day? No. I’m not a day trader or a currency buff. In fact, I can count on one hand the number of people I know (aside from enthusiasts) who can actually use that information.

So why does the news still report this stuff?

I know these things are economic indicators and that they tell certain people certain things. But the news isn’t for the 1%. I’m sure those people know about this stuff long before I hear about it on the 6:00pm news.

Wouldn’t it be better (though I’m sure a lot more work) to track something a little bit more useful to me? For instance, instead of telling me about rising wheat prices and 2% inflation, tell me, for instance, how much bread I can buy with a couple dollars. Or something. Instead of reporting on the unemployment rate, why not give me a labour statistic I can actually use, like what high-quality job sectors are currently experiencing labour shortages?

Brace yourselves: ASIC rigs are coming…

ASICMINER

So just in case you were thinking about throwing some GPUs in your home computer and mining Bitcoins, I wouldn’t bother. Not only will you barely break even based on current electricity rates, the amount of Bitcoin you can mine with your GPU is likely to radically decrease soon.

What’s happening is dedicated hardware is coming online. ASIC (or spplication-specific integrated circuit) rigs are starting to be built and bought and, though some thought they might never be, shipped.

This means that a massive amount of dedicated computing power is suddenly going to be pointed at the Bitcoin network, which means that the difficulty of mining new Bitcoins is going to rise.

Right now, the only way a person with a off-the-shelf GPU can mine and get anything at all is by joining a pool. The days of individual miners actually mining Bitcoins on their lonesome is absolutely over.

When this new ASIC hardware starts coming online, as I believe it already has, the difficulty will increase again and GPU mining will be (essentially) done.

Use your GPUs to render desktops and games again, folks. That is, after all, what they were made for.