What is there to say that isn't true of everyone? I read a lot. I watch a lot of movies. I don't watch much TV. I go out to dinner with my friends. I gave up martial arts and do yoga now, and I'm only a little bit embarrassed to admit it.
I grew up watching Knight Rider and The A-Team. The first CD I bought was Tom Petty's Full Moon Fever, and I still have it somewhere, though I haven't listened to it in years. I did well in school. I don't dance. I spent seven years getting three university degrees, none of which has been very useful in my professional life.
I like to fix things. I make desserts with lots of chocolate. I write code, sometimes for myself, sometimes for other people.
4/19/06 - Latency
I think that the peak of trouble-free telephone communication may have been around 1989. It used to be that phone signals were analog and phone switching was done by human operators. You'd pick up your phone and talk to the operator, and they'd move plugs in a circuitboard to make a connection between you and the person you were calling. Over time, the human operators got replaced by mechanical switches, whirring and clacking in vast rooms, still making physical connections.
Then the digital revolution happened. This let phone companies put more signals on a wire, and let users enjoy crystal-clear static-free communication. The problem is that as the whole phone system becomes more like the Internet -- digital, packetized, adaptive -- it develops the problems of the Internet. We've conquered static, but we've got more and more latency. I just got a new mobile phone, and to test it out I called a friend of mine who was five feet away. He answered his mobile phone, and we talked to make sure the connection worked. I'd estimate the latency between the time I heard him speak and the time I heard his voice through the phone at about a third of a second. No wonder we interrupt each other so much when we talk on the phone.
9/12/04 - Space, Revisited
Slashdot linked recently to the article "Is Science Fiction About To Go Blind" at Popular Science. The article is all about how Vinge's Singularity is creating an obstacle a few decades hence beyond which modern science fiction writers feel they can't predict, can't even imagine:
"[M]odern science fiction is facing a crisis of confidence. The recent crop of stories mostly take the form of fantasy (elves and wizards), alternate history (what if the Black Death had been deadlier?) and space operas about interstellar civilizations in the year 12,000 (which typically gloss over how those civilizations evolved from ours)."
Back when I was a smart misfit kid, I used to read a lot of science fiction. Now I hardly read any, because I feel like most of the SF I encounter these days (and there's less and less SF in any case, amid all the heroic fantasy) shirks its literary responsibility to create new ideas. Mainstream literature is about characters and the universal human condition. Science fiction is about ideas and possibilities. Or at least it's supposed to be.
Officially, I guess the Golden Age of science fiction began with the pulps of the thirties. But my Golden Age comprised the stories that I read growing up. And thinking about it now, I think that my Golden Age began around 1957 with Sputnik and ended right around 1986 with the Challenger disaster. Sputnik was an explosion of hope. Challenger was an implosion not just of hope but of possibility. It wasn't just that we knew our future in space would be dystopian. But we knew it would be unmanned and uninteresting.
The writers I find interesting today are guys like Charlie Stross and Cory Doctorow, and I don't think it's coincidental that they're fellow computer geeks. Because the Space Age is dead and we're living in the Information Age now, and that's where the possibilities are, at least until the Nanotech Age or the Time Travel Age or the Teleporter Age comes along. The future isn't what it used to be.
2/2/03 - Columbia
I posted this to Quarter To Three the night after the Columbia broke up on re-entry:
NASA's broken my heart. I grew up reading all the usual science fiction. I grew up knowing that space exploration and colonization would be my generation's frontier, our wild west, our manifest destiny.
But I was born the year the last man landed on the moon. When I was a kid, I read all about the space shuttle, which would fly into space, land, and be ready to go again a week later. But then the shuttles started flying, and somehow they weren't quite as advertised. The downtime was enormous. Much of the shuttle needed to be rebuilt after every flight.
It costs more to launch a satellite with a space shuttle than with a dumb rocket. The government subsidizes the shuttle, though, on every flight, so it can compete in the satellite-launching marketplace. I don't know why. I think that as long as they keep the shuttle flying, they can pretend it's still 1979, and we're still looking boldly forward into yesterday's future. We've got a spaceplane and the Russians don't. The alternative would be to give up, the way we gave up on the moon.
So we keep launching these aging bastard spacecraft -- half reusable spaceplane, half dumb rocket, more expensive and less reliable than either -- over and over again. And when we lose one, when we lose another seven astronauts, the president says, "The cause in which they died will continue.... Our journey into space will go on." But our journey hasn't gone on. Our journey is stalled in 1979.
Maybe it's too soon for all this. Maybe like the Vikings in Newfoundland, we've explored too far too fast. Maybe we're ahead of our time. Maybe the trip is too expensive and the technology to survive out there is too complex. Maybe we should leave it to the machines. Maybe we should let NASA die.
This is what I think, now: I think that humans will move out into space when it makes economic sense for us to do so. And it doesn't make sense, yet. Private companies aren't putting up manned research labs in space because the costs are high and the rewards are small.
The costs won't be high forever, though. And the democratization of space isn't going to come because of anything the government is doing. Check out the X Prize if you want to see where the real action on space flight is these days.
Shed a tear for those poor Columbia astronauts. And shed a tear for NASA, which is irrelevent now whether the shuttles keep flying or not. But hold out some hope for the little companies with big dreams that are competing to escape the Earth. And hold out some hope that, someday, the journey will go on.
8/6/02 - Dog Soldiers
"In the end there were not many things worth wanting -- for the serious man, the samurai. But there were some. In the end, if the serious man is still bound to illusion, he selects the worthiest illusion and takes a stand. The illusion might be of waiting for one woman to come under his hands. Of being with her and shivering in the same moment."
Dog Soldiers, by Robert Stone
7/11/02 - Immigrants
I was listening to NPR on the drive to work this morning, and The Connection was knocking foreign exchange students. I think The Connection must be desperate for material, because no matter how bad you think they are, foreign students have to be pretty low on anyone's list of evils in the world.
The reasoning went something like this:
Now, don't get me wrong, I hate the rest of the world as much as the next American, but I've always considered the way higher education and immigration are tangled up in this country to be something uniquely great. Our strength has always come from our immigrants. Now we have a situation where every country on earth sends their very best and brightest to the United States to learn. We inculcate them with our values and teach them useful knowledge, then skim off the very best and brightest of the ones that made it this far and give them jobs here and let them stay. If you want to know why America has stayed dynamic, inventive, and technologically innovative for so long, that's as good a reason as any.
7/8/02 - People Eating Tasty Animals
It occurred to me today -- and I'm only about a quarter serious here -- that if there are any people left in ten thousand years, that they're all going to be vegetarians. It's like this... Humans, let's face it, pretty much determine the nature of life on Earth these days. We change the weather, we change the landscape, and, here's the key, we kill and eat what we want. So, from an evolutionary perspective, we're unnaturally selecting those creatures that we don't want to kill, and letting them propagate their genes. Those creatures that are too cute to kill. We're breeding for cuteness. Yes, in ten thousand years, every non-human creature left on earth is going to look like a baby seal. Baby-seal-faced chickens will roam the streets without fear. Vast herds of baby-seal-faced cows will move as one across the prairie. And the humans who coexist with all this cuteness will read their history books and marvel at what savages we were to eat such beautiful creatures.
I'm so glad I was born now and not then.
6/30/02 - Left and Right
The difference between liberals and conservatives, I think, is that liberals care about process and conservatives care about ends. I think that's why liberals make movies about politicians and lawyers, and conservatives make movies about soldiers and cops. Liberals like to watch Erin Brockovich. Conservatives like to watch Dirty Harry.
This also explains why liberals have tended to dominate the legislative branch of American government and conservatives have controlled the executive. It explains why conservatives favor business interests over government: corporations exercise power only through persuasion, while governmental power is inherently coercive. And it explains why liberals favor government power over corporate: in a representative government, decisions are made by the people, while corporate decisions are made by a small oligarchy of shareholders.
6/29/02 - The Twenty-First Century
I've been thinking lately how geography is time. Someone asked me the other day whether I like to travel abroad. I don't really like it or dislike it, I said. What I have is an awareness that travel abroad is a way of traveling back in time. In America, it's the twenty-first century now, but that's not really true anywhere else. In Japan, it's still the early 1990s. They're still in the last recession. England is still in the first term of the Bill Clinton presidency. France is mired in the early eighties, but in some alternate world where Reagan lost and Carter won.
And from there it just gets worse. India is back in the early seventies, locked in the cold war and torn apart internally by ethnic strife and a huge young generation just coming of age. Most of the Middle East is back in the forties, where they drive big cars but they haven't invented the transistor yet. And Africa is in the twenties or thirties, maybe, and receding fast. The standard of living is sinking there.
So travel has a certain amount of historical interest. But mostly, my eyes are on the future. Francis Fukuyama is wrong. We haven't reached "The End of History". Rather, we stand at the beginning of history, at a point where the exponential acceleration of human progress is about to fundamentally reshape the nature of human experience -- an experience which has gone more or less essentially unchanged for the last 200,000 years.
6/2/02 - Becoming Human
The central ongoing function of our lives is the quest for identity. The goal is to define who we want to be, to create a whole coherent person out of thin air, and then, by our bootstraps, haul ourselves up out of the entangling morass of stimulus/response to become that person. (Though becoming that person is really more a matter of pretending to be that person all the time until the pretense becomes an unconscious and effortless act and you have become the thing that you have created.)
A human being -- a particular, conscious human being -- maps uniquely to a membrane stretched through the volume of the sphere of possibility, partitioning it into the realms of "that which can be done" and "that which will not be done." What we are and are not willing to do defines us. That's why I have so much difficulty respecting those postmodernists who take arrogant pride in their lack of inhibition. To have no morals or scruples, to be willing to do anything, is not to become a Nietzschean ubermensch. It's to become an animal. I object not on moral grounds but on aesthetic ones. Animals bore me.