A month ago, I had grand plans. Changing circumstances were delivering the best of all possible worlds: I’d now have the opportunity to write regularly. What better way to get started, I thought, than to get back in where I left off more than a decade ago, writing short fiction.
Well, so much for that.
My heart’s always been in longer forms, and so it was perhaps inevitable that as I developed my first project it’d end up well into novel territory.
That’s a challenge, of course. After many years of Continuous Deployment in the software industry, my sense of how to monitor my own productivity and progress towards my goals is well and truly broken. Part of me wants to solve that by simplifying the problem down to word count and validating progress based on words per day. And sure, there’s some validity to that, depending on the story or the stage of the project.
But for now, as I scrabble over the next mound of stones and shale and clamber over the day’s tasks involved in climbing this mountain, it’s exciting to take a moment to stop and look at the view. After a month, I might not be able to see the summit, but I can see that I’ve gained altitude, there’s a little bit more of a view; the project is taking shape and things are coming together. There’ll be plenty of time for counting words later.
The pages are still blank, but there is a miraculous feeling of the words being there, written in invisible ink and clamoring to become visible.
I sometimes feel my relationship with technology borders on the ironic. Having worked in the software industry in one form or another for around thirty years, I still firmly believe that software is one of those few enabling inventions with which we can lever great change in the world. It allows us to repurpose existing equipment in new and unforeseen ways, and certainly within the software industry a resulting constant is ever present change. Yet outside of work, I’m less of an early adopter: I still prefer paper books, free-to-air TV or movies on disk, and I’ve yet to hit up Ubereats or its gig-economy competitors.
I like to think it’s not because I’m a Luddite – hopefully I’m not just imagining the tech career – but rather because there’s a distinctly dystopian feel to where some of our contemporary tech trends are heading.
Take for example, electric motorcycles: I’ve been riding motorcycles for the last couple of decades or so, and so it’s with an avid interest that I have been watching their very slow adoption of electric power trains. The idea of powering my ride from the sun is glorious, as is the potential for a few new whiz-bang features; even simple ones quality of life ones like a reverse gear for parking, something taken for granted in cars but generally unavailable to a space constrained motorcycle chassis, becomes trivial with an electric drive.
It was with great interest and a little bemusement then that I stumbled upon Zero Motorcycle’s move to unlocking these features with microtransactions.
Indeed, as of their 2022 models you can purchase a motorcycle with heated handgrips all wired up and ready to go, but you’ll need to pay US$195 to unlock them. Even more egregious when shelling out for an electric vehicle for which range and charge time are key performance metrics is that you’ve purchased all the equipment for 10% better range and charge times, but you need to front up with an extra US$2,690 for permission to use the equipment in your garage.
Sure, that makes enough sense. But I’m purchasing a seat to which heating elements have been added, and which has been wired and fused in the power supply and vehicle’s communications bus. BMW aren’t going to give that added manufacturing cost away for free, so it’s included in the purchase price, regardless. Which is why I don’t buy into this notion:
You only really use heated seats in the winter, right? At $18 per month, if you pay for heated seats for even five months (adding a fall/spring month in there), that’s $90 per year. On a three year lease, that’s $270 total for heated seats, which is cheaper than buying the option outright. So both BMW and the customer can save some money.
If I was renting a car, paying to unlock certain features would make a world of sense. If I don’t use the heated seats, I (likely) don’t introduce wear & tear on the components and the rental company reduces the risk they’ll have to pay for maintenance & repairs. But when purchasing a car outright – or even leasing, where I’m paying depreciation on the vehicle’s total cost – this just doesn’t compute. I’m not saving money, I’m only paying more.
Let’s look at it another way, and imagine a future where we buy any new smart phone which includes a GPS module. To use the navigation system, you can’t immediately go to the App Store and choose a TomTom/Google/Garmin/Apple maps application, allowing the market to deliver competitive pricing. First, you must pay the manufacturer $100 to unlock the GPS module. I don’t know about you, but I’d be breaking out the string and paper cups.
But it feels like that dystopian reality is practically upon us. While some online games have reacted to criticism about microtransactions by moving to models where the purchases are purely cosmetic, these vehicle manufacturers are apparently including safety features in the lineup.
If we’re willing to put features for which safety is advertised as a key benefit into this emerging category, how long until deregulation sees even additional air bags and traction control become victims of this trend?
Perhaps it’s inevitable. We’ve already shown that our phones, being internet connected computing appliances, are very different to the bakelite rotary phones of yesteryear. We’re prepared to purchase a new product every year or four, and we’re prepared to subscribe to plans for connectivity, software, entertainment and more. That cars and motorcycles (and fridges and toasters) are entering this category isn’t surprising.
But I find it a little disappointing. Far from being an enabling superpower for good, the software ecosystem of these devices exists only to make us pay more – after we’ve already paid more for the hardware in the first place. While I’m sure the business engine behind it all is patting itself on its back about how these initiatives deliver record profits, I can’t help but feel that for consumers we’re one step away from a dystopian future servicing our technology-as-a-service overlords.
Otherwise I can just imagine a future where my kids are sitting in their car, unwilling to leave yet while they purchase loot boxes and try to unlock the racing stripes paint job for its e-ink surface.
I recently overheard a conversation about someone teaching their cat to talk using AIC – Augmented Interspecies Communication – and the concept caught my attention. As both the owner of a very intelligent shepherd and someone who’s worked with machine learning in the past it tickles many of my interests (and then there are treatments of the idea in fiction, such as in David Brin’s excellent Uplift series). So if like me you hadn’t encountered AIC before, here’s an entertaining introduction to the topic:
I like this video just as much for its final comments:
I think a lot of it feels like ego, to be perfectly honest. We want to hear our dogs say things that we know they’re feeling, or that we assume they’re feeling, but we want to hear it in our language. I would love for the greatest takeaway to be not that our dogs can talk, but that they’ve already been saying it all along and we just haven’t been listening.
My dog gets bored, worried, boisterous, hungry, thirsty, sick and tired, and he communicates these all the time (or I assume he does!). Having lived with humans all his life, he’s become adept at getting our attention, and we’ve become equally competent at meeting him half way to address his needs – just as with our children when they were infants. It’s not a huge stretch then to imagine we might teach a dog a slightly different (but equally accessible) communications method to use with its people.
Occasionally, I’ll find conversations steer toward much wider claims of interspecies sentience or rational thought using such communication as its lever. It’s perhaps an understandable leap, especially when we seem to be so good at anthropomorphising while interpreting animal responses. Way back when Koko’s signing was doing the rounds, it really felt like Penny was just interpreting what the audience wanted to hear. This example from when Koko was being interviewed by an AOL group might seem extreme, but maybe that’s the point:
AOL: Question: Do you like to chat with other people? PENNY: Koko, do you like to talk to people? KOKO: Fine nipple. PENNY: Yes, that was her answer. ‘Nipple’ rhymes with ‘people,’ OK? She doesn’t sign people per se, so she may be trying to do a ‘sounds like…’ but she indicated it was ‘fine.’
We’re human, and I suggest a tendency to be influenced by some combination of confirmation bias and the Barnum effect puts us in an awkward position when evaluating conversation. How much of our perception of a conversation is just us wanting to be talked with?
We see another compelling example of this when conversing with a contemporary machine-learning driven chatbot.
Modern general purpose chatbots (like Google’s LaMDA) are typically driven by probability engines that are themselves trained (programmed) using vast multi-disciplinary datasets available online. Given such a scenario, how do we rationally evaluate a conversation with a chatbot if it is the output of a complex pattern matching algorithm working from millions of conversations on a library of topics? We enter our questions, our input finds its way into the pattern matching algorithm (along with the rest of the conversation we’ve had thus far) and the engine forms a matching response to match the pattern. The patterns follow natural language patterns, so the responses look like natural language.
Is that a conversation?
From a purely objective point of view, perhaps so: It looks like a conversation, talks like a conversation, and smells like a conversation, ergo it is a conversation.
Apple had its ‘Far Out’ event this last week, in which they announced the latest in several product line-ups including AirPods, Apple Watch, and the iPhone. I’m not normally one to notice these things, having resisted the iAllure. That is, until this year.
A few things converged in 2022: My old budget phone found itself on life support while we travelled, I was looking for a way to more portably synchronise my writing work between my MacBook Air and phone or tablet, and I found myself reconsidering the Apple ecosystem as I listened to Walter Isaacson’s biography of Apple’s charismatic cofounder, Steve Jobs. After some debate, and while on a three-week road trip with intermittent network access and an increasingly dead phone camera and map service, I popped into an Apple store for the first time in my life and purchased my very first iDevice.
This all came after some serious head scratching: These are not inexpensive, after all. And quite aside from pricing a phone, is the current generation the right choice? I don’t have the money to buy every upgrade, so should I wait for the next release? Is this remotely good value? Am I locking myself onto a path I’m going to regret down the track?
I think we’re all familiar with analysis paralysis, and I had been going back and forth on this topic for a while before it came to a head during our trip. After jumping into the iDevice ecosystem I came across it again when deciding whether to adopt a new approach to managing my project information: If I’m going to change the way I keep notes, and move away from my old monolithic application and its poor sync towards something I can readily use on the go (because, frankly, a paper notebook is just more cruft) then which direction do I head? There are so, so many: Evernote, Obsidian, Notion, Todoist, Things 3, Agenda, Goodnotes, Google Keep, OneNote, Apple Notes, and many more.
On its face, Apple Notes seems like a no-brainer: It is pre-installed and does first-class sync between my Mac and iDevices. But it certainly lacks advanced features present in the others. Do I need them? How can I know? And once I start investing serious content into one system, what’s the cost of switching, both in transferring data and mentally jumping to a new process?
And so re-enters analysis paralysis. And maybe a more insidious problem: Switching. It’s a killer problem, and inherent in all these apps. After all, app developers want to market their product to new users, and that requires them to switch. Switching in turn means giving something up from the old system, even if it’s just comfortable familiarity, so there’s always at least some inherent dissatisfaction with the new product. Cue switching addiction, and off we go looking for the next shiny thing.
A recent Apple Notes related meme cropped up which illustrated this beautifully:
Sure, we can try and build some ultimate note-taking time-management guru workflow using a variety of apps, constantly tweaking it with the goal of achieving a productivity nirvana. Or, we could just use a simple notes app and actually do our job.
When all is said and done, these are just tools to get some other job done. In my case, replacing a physical notebook, and a hierarchy of reference material and notes. If I’m not a slave to the tool, I don’t have to adopt every bright idea from the latest app developer – I can use the tool most appropriate for today, and go all in.
So yes, I’m an Apple Notes user, wherever I may sit on the IQ spectrum. And the same decision-making process is how I answered the buy-it-now-or-wait-until-later iPhone question. If any other business needs a tool to get the work done today, are they going to say No, we’ll hold a committee to agonise about whether to wait until the latest version comes out in three months, or are they going to just purchase the tool and get the job done? Is there any reason our work is less deserving of similar consideration?
So yeah, there may be a new iPhone out, and later this year we may see M2 iPads, and whatever and so forth thereafter. The march of technology and product releases will move ever forwards, as it always does.
It’s not a perfect analogy, but it reminds me of something Kar says to the Monk With No Name in Paul Hunter’s Bulletproof Monk,
So, I figured it out. Why hot dogs come in packages of ten and hot dog buns come in packages of eight. See, the thing is, life doesn’t always work out according to plan. So be happy with what you’ve got, because you can always get a hot dog.
Seann William Scott’s Kar to Chow Yun-fat’s Monk With No Name
So yeah, Apple’s event has some new shiny gadgets, and it’s fun to see technology progress (and great to see no more touchbars or butterfly keyboards). But the work will get done with the tools at hand for some years to come.
Nine months before I was born, NASA launched its last Apollo mission. Eugene Cernan, Ronald E. Evans, and Dr Harrison H. Schmitt set down in the Taurus-Littrow valley aboard Apollo 17. In their three days there, Schmitt would become the world’s first lunar field geologist, and they’d collect over 110kg of samples, all the while fully aware that this was the end of the line for the Apollo programme.
I may not have been around when astronauts walked on the moon, but like people the world over, humanity’s ongoing achievements in space exploration continue to inspire. Yes, we may turn to fictional alternatives like For All Mankind or The Martian to imagine human feet on extra-terrestrial soil, but there’s so much amazing real science underway I can never seem to keep up. Upcoming terrestrial and space based telescopes such as the SKA, LSST, and JWST look set to further change the way we see the universe and our place in it (here’s looking forward to more cool events like Hubble’s light echo observations), and a new generation of players like SpaceX, Blue Origin, Boeing and others are changing what we consider possible for space flight altogether.
So it was with great interest that I sat watching NASA TV on August 29, waiting to see Artemis I get underway. With the SLS sitting on the launchpad like some homage to the space shuttle era, rearing to go, I could just imagine the engineering teams debating the import of their stuck valve and whether to launch: “Who wants to take responsibility for deciding whether we’re ready to launch our first moon mission in 50 years while that big red warning light is on. Really? Nobody?” Yeah, I wouldn’t either.
Having missed out the first time around, I’m going to be a complete sucker for this project as it goes through its flight tests. Come Saturday I’ll be connecting to the NASA stream again when Artemis hits its next launch window, and I hope you join me!
As Gene Cernan, the Apollo program’s last commander, stepped off the Lunar surface for the last time he remarked:
Bob, this is Gene, and I’m on the surface; and, as I take man’s last step from the surface, back home for some time to come – but we believe not too long into the future – I’d like to just (say) what I believe history will record. That America’s challenge of today has forged man’s destiny of tomorrow. And, as we leave the Moon at Taurus- Littrow, we leave as we came and, God willing, as we shall return, with peace and hope for all mankind. “Godspeed the crew of Apollo 17.”
Ever passionate about human space exploration, from his last step on the moon in 1972 to his passing in 2017, Gene continually urged others to see to it that his weren’t the last footprints on the moon. It looks like that wish is set to come true finally, and this time I might just be around to see it.