Forty Years, Still Good

I’m still waiting on my new lenses, so my opportunity to read lately remains spotty. Hopefully they’ll show up next week and the renaissance will begin! In the meantime, I had the opportunity to re-watch Ridley Scott’s 1982 film Blade Runner this week for the first time in many years (the Director’s Cut blu-ray, to be specific).

While in a few places the styles of the era stand out (Deckard’s apartment tiling wouldn’t be out of place in a Mos Eisley cantina), the film still holds up extremely well. Apart from the date (the real 2019 Los Angeles looked a little cleaner and lacked the flying cars) the film didn’t feel obviously dated. The thematic questions it raises, including the blind pursuit of justice, the desire to be a complete human, or how our treatment of those different to us reflects our own identity, held up as well for me today as any modern film.

I’ve been known to enjoy my fair share of hard sf, and speculation on and development of current science trends is always fascinating. Yet there seems to be a real danger in there: Current science is likely to date a story as assuredly as pulling out a slide rule on the bridge of the Enterprise, or sailing the canals of Mars. I remember reading Frederic Pohl’s gateway and suspending disbelief right up until (if I recall correctly) it specifically mentions LED readouts. 7 segment LEDs were a great display technology in the post Apollo era of 1977, but I don’t think you’ll find any in a SpaceX Dragon capsule.

This is where I think the more fantastic sci-fi really stands the test of time. Blade Runner doesn’t focus on the tech. Deckard’s Voight-Kampff test was a mystical contraption in 1982 and it’s still a mystical contraption forty years later. It allows us to say “ah, future stuff,” and remain immersed in the story’s reality.

It’s an interesting balance to find in my own work. Does my character care about the tech or the task? In my own life, do I really think about my iPhone’s processor or antenna or messaging app, or do I just focus on communicating? Yet being a turbo nerd, I really do think about those other things from time to time.

I’d certainly like to produce something an audience will enjoy long down the track. Why not, right? But mostly, my audience is necessarily me first, and as such I need to want to be there rereading it with them too.

Time to Just Read Already

Twelve years ago, I was reading voraciously, getting in around 35 novels a year, reading on my morning commute and lunch break. It comes as a perpetual shock — to me, anyway — but Times Change. My commute changed to driving and motorcycling, and my lunch break changed from an enforced hour break and dedicated space to unscheduled interruptions and eating at my desk. As career changes pushed reading out the window, eyesight changes also made themselves noticed in my mid-40s when I had to start wearing my first sets of glasses. Boy, what an adjustment that was.

The Glasses Apostle by Conrad von Soest (1403)
I wish I looked this good when reading.
Public Domain, via Wikipedia.

Having shifted my career and work arrangements further, I’m back in a position where not only can I make time to read, but I need to. Using my computer glasses for reading a book or academic text is a recipe for a headache, especially if I try to use my fixed focal length reading glasses from a few years ago (more accurately, an eye ache — it feels like I’m being stabbed through the eye socket). Thus, I visited the optometrist this week and signed up to get new lenses. No more single focal length, it’s time to adjust to a combined reading/computer lens. It’s going to be weird!

Of course, you might point me at audiobooks as an obvious alternative. Audiobook sales have been increasing steadily over the years, and having listened to a few recently there are some amazing narrators out there. Indeed, I listened to a discussion recently in which authors talked about writing novels for audio first. No surprise perhaps, but this raises a red flag for me. Might fiction increasingly become a type of radio play, driven by snappy dialog and short, invisible narration, but at the expense of time spent buried in a character’s thoughts, a narrator’s expansive description of their world, or philosophical contemplation of events? While I do love a good page-turning thriller, I also love to be able to stop and contemplate the page I’m on, or laugh at a clever reference to what went before, or flip back a couple of pages to finally comprehend something I missed. It’s this random access I miss most in an audiobooks and find clunky even with e-books. Having said that, there is still something magical about hearing a story well told; it is how stories have been told for thousands of years after all, regardless of genre or category or pace. Ah, to have it all!

Still, there’s a stack of books I want to read. I fear the eyesight’s only going to be the first challenge, of course. Responsibilities have changed a lot in twelve years, as has lifestyle. Making the time to read, committing to it, rediscovering its joy, those are all going to be additional bridges to cross.

I feel a little like Arthur Dent…

Arthur started to say something, then stopped. He started again, and stopped. He then stopped starting and started…

Douglas Adams, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy

Even the Minor Names Matter

Neill Blomkamp’s Elysium

I was watching Neill Blomkamp’s 2013 film Elysium again the other night, a visual spectacle which effectively builds a dystopian future which physically divides the rich and poor. While the economy of this setting isn’t fleshed out (and I struggle to find a way to make it really work) it nevertheless serves as a visual allegory for the problem of social mobility in the face of hard social stratification – a daily experience for many people in the world today. If you’ve not seen it and don’t mind a violent action romp, check it out. I’ll try and avoid spoiling anything significant here.

But I got a chuckle out of a very minor prop used during the course of the film. At one point, Matt Damon’s character Max is exposed to a lethal medical condition, and to manage this condition his workplace provides him medication. Now given that this takes place far in the future, in a dystopian allegory for an experience in the modern world, what should the writer have called that medication?

I can think of three obvious answers:

  1. Research current medications, scientific development in therapies, and project a convincing future technology based on this.
  2. Redirect the audience elsewhere and fix the problem off-stage.
  3. Make something up.

Answering this very question is something I was asking myself earlier this week when I found my own writing needed to address a future medical scenario, and it was fun to see just how different Blomkamp’s approach is to that of my current read, Kim Stanley Robinson’s 2312, a hard-SF epic where you’d expect to encounter the first option above.

This is the first novel of Robinson’s I’ve read, so I can’t comment on any pattern with his other work, but certainly a lot of 2312‘s appeal is it’s well researched look at the science of its fictional world. The book takes us on a future journey which affords us an exploration of the solar system, a place of wild and curious history, fascinating possibility, and amazing spectacle. With glimpses at uncommon facts of the moons of Jupiter and Saturn, the challenges of quantum computing or the effects of the relativistic precession of Mercury, it’s invokes the big picture wonder many of use go to SF for in the first place.

Along the course of 2312, main POV character Swan suffers from effectively the same condition as Max. In a novel there’s room to dig into the science of a situation, and in “Hard SF” we generally expect it. So does Swan’s therapy get a detailed treatment in this novel – option one above? No! It’s simply not the focus of the story, and medical technology isn’t what’s fuelling our sense of wonder here. 2312 instead goes with option two: It establishes there’s a wide variety of longevity treatments available, shifts the character off stage for a few pages and brings her back fully healed.

Miporol prop from Elysium, from user rkpeterson of

Elysium has 120 minutes to tell a thriller, but in this case we need the treatment visible, where it acts as a timer to help build tension. Being on stage it needs a name, and so the story goes with option three, introducing capsules of the fictional medication “Miporol”. We know it’s serious stuff when even people on the street know about it, like when Max says to Julio “they gave me Miporol, man.”

No doubt I’ll pick something else up from this film the next time I watch it, but for now I’m going to sit back and appreciate that Elysium didn’t choose option three as any lazy shortcut. As the story starts out, Max is an ex car thief who served time in prison and is out on parole. When he is inflicted with an otherwise agonising fatal condition he heads back to the underworld he’s been trying to escape in the hope of finding a way out, but even losing the ankle bracelet which ties him to his previous sentence he’s far from free: in the face of his otherwise terminal condition, it’s now the medication that’s his parole.

It’s Not What You Do but Where You’re Going.

My first blog, many years ago and on a long defunct website, was simply a journal of my motorcycle rides. Each weekend I’d plot a different route through the countryside near home, pack the SLR, and take the bike out to explore. It was a great experience, a way to combine several passions – motorcycling, photography and writing – into one place where I could develop and play with them. Nothing’s truly static, and as I sold my motorcycle this week I found opportunity to reflect back on the journey, and how that confluence of interests grew in new and unexpected directions. Perhaps the most fascinating aspect of that reflection was recognising just how much it had shaped what I considered my identity.

Out exploring the trails

Our experience of the world around us, and our place amongst humanity, is significantly – perhaps entirely – shaped by observation. As children, we see the behaviour of our parents and the people around us, along with what they say to us and each other. At times those are at odds with one another, as in the case of ‘do as I say, not as I do’ (as a parent I’d argue that this teaches us almost the exact opposite: Do as I do, but in order to fit into society, learn to say as I say). When we recall an acquaintance many years later, it’s their actions we recall, it’s what they did – and usually only peripherally do we recall what they said.

We see the same thing in fiction of course; Orson Scott Card makes this point explicitly right at the start of his book Characters and Viewpoint, noting that ‘People become, in our minds, what we see them do.’ If that seems a simplistic perspective, rest assured that he goes on to show how there is more nuance to this, and there are indeed many additional layers that define the well rounded characters that we most admire as being more than one-dimensional stereotypes. If you’ve not read it, check it out, it’s a great book.

But I’d like to take just that one dimensional aspect of people being what they do and propose that deep down inside, it’s how we identify ourselves. After all, if we’re defining others by what we observe, then we’re at least subconsciously expecting them to define us by the same measure.

For many years, I’ve owned and ridden motorcycles. I’d commute on a motorcycle, regardless of the weather. I’d sightsee on a motorcycle. My wife and I would put our kids on the back of a pair of motorcycles and ride out to the country to go camping. Motorcycling became very much a part of our identity.

It wasn’t always this way, of course. Growing up, my perspective of motorcycling was mostly defined by negative media attention: motorcycle gangs, speeding motorcyclists, crashes and injury. I might have known academically that that didn’t represent all motorcyclists, but it was an abstract connection. With some artistic and engineering interest I might have admired the aesthetic design of a superbike, or the engineering required to collapse the wide variety of technology found in a luxury car onto a frame not much larger than a bicycle, but it was an abstract interest. It was only after a well respected friend started riding a motorcycle to work that I began to make a connection between this abstract motorcycling idea and the real experience of lived life.

It’s also became an opportunity to give a gift, of sorts. Giving my kids the opportunity to experience motorcycling in a positive fashion, far removed from some of those negative portrayals in sensationalist media. It allowed them to see motorcycling as an exhilarating real life experience, or perhaps even more importantly understand how exposed a motorcyclist is to the elements, to the heat of the engine beneath them, to the conditions of traffic and whims of the drivers around them. Riding the motorcycle to the office was likewise perhaps an opportunity to give that same gift to colleagues, showing (hopefully) that those motorcyclists out there aren’t invisible, but might be friends and coworkers.

Four people camping on two motorcycles, you learn to pack light.

But times change, and my work no longer requires a commute. The country rides have been replaced by the joy of a walk through undeveloped natural wilderness near my home. It’s time for motorcycling to shift from part of “what I do” and become part of “what I’ve done” instead.

When we’re talking about character and identity, I think “what I’ve done” is where we start to get very selective. After all, “what I’ve done” isn’t just the adventures or our favourite achievements, but also the embarrassing and foolish mistakes we’ve made along the way.

And I think that’s where the whole notion of connecting identity to “what we do” begins to break down. What we do is a reflection of a journey – an ever changing journey we’re all on, wherever we are in life today. We might take a mental shortcut and categorise ourselves and others as what we do, but it’s only ever a snapshot, a temporary reflection – sometimes wildly distorted and superficial – of a deeper story we’re living collectively together.

So yeah, I might not have a bike or be riding right now, but perhaps it’s time to move beyond the idea that something like this defines me. It’s a place I’ve been, a tool in the belt, a lane in the the road. Perhaps I’ll be back in it again, perhaps not.

Either way, it’s time to move on.

The Walk is Waiting and Ready

I live adjacent to some curated wilderness and parkland, through which I can walk to a number of destinations – whether cafes, the grocery store, or my local library. When the weather permits, these walks are a high point of my day. And so it was that earlier this week I had been on just such a walk to my local library for some good old fashioned research, this time on the potentially dry and academic topics of economics and economic history.

The Dewey Decimal system puts economics over in the 330s, so it was a little surprising to see a book on conservation there (conservation’s normally a tiny subsection of the 630s) in the form of Bram Buscher and Robert Fletchers’ The Conservation Revolution. Reading it though*, you can see why: Despite being wholly concerned with the topic of the conservation of nature (the subtitle is Radical ideas for saving nature beyond the Anthropocene) it found its way into the economics section for good reason: It’s central premise is that conservation and economics are inextricably linked simply because wealth and capital growth are inextricably linked with the notion that the world in which we live is itself a form of capital on which we can draw.

While this might read like anti-capitalist Bolshevik fundamentalism, and certainly the Revolution of its title prompts a leaning in that direction, there is less a well fleshed out guide or manifesto for revolution in here. Rather, the book’s push feels more nuanced: The authors seem less inclined towards an institutionalised, regulated system of balancing nature and human wellbeing, and more inclined to revolutionising the notion of conservation in the first place. Rather than choosing between various forms of mainstream and alternate conservation (ranging from cherry picking nature areas when it’s commercially expedient to setting aside vast wilderness reserves and leaving them untended on the assumption that the way that we found them was the natural optimum and human involvement is by nature harmful) they encourage another option, one in which humanity is directly in touch with nature and no longer separated from it.

We’re constantly shaping the world around us, even if it’s second hand. View on a recent visit to The Super Pit, one of Australia’s largest open cut gold mines.

I’m not a big reader of academic papers, but there are some thought provoking quotes in here. Ivan Illich appears to have been one of several significant influences in their work, the authors drawing on his philosophy in forming their proposal of a conservation which is not merely one-sided in its exploitation. I quite liked this quote:

The richer we get in a consumer society, the more acutely we become aware of how many grades of value – of both leisure and labour – we have climbed. The higher we are on the pyramid, the less likely we are to give up time to simple idleness and to apparently nonproductive pursuits. The joy of listening to the neighbourhood finch is easily overshadowed by stereophonic recordings of “Bird Songs of the World”, the walk through the park downgraded by preparations for a packaged bird-watching tour in the jungle.

Ivan Illich, Tools for Conviviality

While I did read a few other books on economics during my session, I find myself resonating with the sentiment in this. I could have driven the car to the library, perhaps listening to a classical composer’s orchestral expression of the emotion when encountering the forces of nature in the seasons, the Alps or the Hebrides, or I could get out there, leave the headphones off, and get in tune with it myself.

Another book I worked through at the same time was Fred Schwed Jr’s Where Are the Customer’s Yachts?. Its introduction by Jason Zweig, while reflecting on the effect of bull markets on Wall Street on its denizens, includes this illustration:

Late one evening in January 2000, I left my office at 50th Street and Sixth Avenue in Manhattan and got into a taxi. The driver pulled forward, and we waited for the traffic light to change. Moments later, four young men in matching power ties and power suits came striding powerfully right into the street. One of them rapped on the driver’s window. The cabbie opened it a few inches, and the whiz kid barked, “We’re going to 49th and Park” – just four blocks and a few minutes’ walk across town. “I already have a fare,” answered the taxi driver, hooking his thumb toward me in the back seat. “Throw him out,” said the hotshot, “and we’ll give you a hundred bucks.” He wasn’t kidding: Reaching in through the window, he shoved a $100 bill in the taxi driver’s face. “I can’t do that,” protested the cabbie, pushing the money away. The light changed, my cabbie shut the window, and we sped away from the scene like two maidens escaping the tent of Attila the Hun.

Jason Zweig, in introduction to Fred Schwed Jr’s Where Are the Customer’s Yachts?

The grind to climb grades of value is always there, waiting to eat us up, and eager to turn us into the sort of person that would “rather fork over $100 and shaft a stranger than go to the bother of walking four city blocks” to quote Zweig’s later assessment. Or, in my case, waiting for me to burn more liquid fossils, dump waste into the atmosphere, and leave local nature paths untrodden, rather than simply walk those few extra minutes and stay in touch with the world around me.

Maybe I’ll see you out there?

* always on the lookout for a serendipitous confluence of events, I’m not one to turn away the unexpected when it crops up in the middle of something else.

Foundation, For All Mankind. Sounds like a Cosmetics Promotion.

Foundation, Apple TV+

My recent admission into the iPhone collective included a free three-month subscription to Apple TV, which has given me a chance to catch up on a couple of recent sci-fi series I’d not seen. I found Foundation to be a very enjoyable modern re-imagining of Asimov’s epic (we shouldn’t be surprised that a 1953 novel will have some dated cultural and technical language). Seeing how the scriptwriters have taken 30 pages of the novel and turned it into an episode is an interesting study in itself.

The other SF romp which caught my attention was For All Mankind. Kicking off an alternate history with the Soviets landing first on the moon is an interesting hook and provides a decent engine to the series. While the series can’t resist weaving a few 21st century social concerns into its many plot threads, it does so in ways which mostly seem genuine to the alternate timeline it’s created.

That being said, I generally don’t spend a lot of time watching TV – I’d prefer to be either at the computer or reading (or walking) – so it’s very easy for a series to make me grab the loud handles and punch out. And one of season two’s plot threads succeeded very well in getting the whole family to give the plane back to the taxpayers.

Warning: Some spoilers ahead.

In season one’s fictional 1974, Ed and Karen Baldwin lose their son Shane, who has been previously getting up to increasing mischief with Danny Stevens as a reaction to the family’s intense focus on the work. It’s an event which is all the more harrowing for the fact that they can’t support one another: Ed is currently on the moon and, playing into how we got into this problem in the first place, entirely mission focused. It’s a critical turning point for these characters and shapes much of their subsequent journey.

In season two we continue with these characters into the 1980s. They’re ten years older, but maybe no wiser: Danny has joined the Naval Academy at Annapolis, and while on break, works at the Outpost with Karen Baldwin, where he confesses to have feelings for her, and she takes advantage of the situation to remedy the lack of physical intimacy in her otherwise mission-oriented life in an extended on-screen steamy scene which just had me want to turn the TV off right there.

Now don’t get me wrong, there’s plenty else going on in season two, and a really great escalation of tension between US and Soviet space endeavours. But if you’re going to thread multiple plot lines into a series, do you really want one that is going to alienate your viewers?

A couple of things really trigger me in here. First is that as a parent, Karen’s loss of her son is not something she’ll ever really put behind her. As his best friend, Danny will automatically be an unofficial stepson in many ways, serving to keep her in touch with that lost aspect of her family, and she has the adopted Kelly, so isn’t disconnected from her role as mentor and nurturer. In short, we’ve seen no reason to break that expectation, so this arc feels contrived, something thrown in to ‘spice it up’ and provide a bit of sauce.

For All Mankind, Apple TV+

But there’s maybe another problem which becomes more apparent if we simply invert the characters’ genders. How would we feel if a young female student character appeared to be seducing her dead best friend’s father? Wouldn’t we see that as perpetuating societal problems around grooming and exploitation? Are we saying that the way towards a society with better gender balance is to perpetuate our very worst mistakes onto the other gender, rather than to perhaps stop propagating them in the first place? And even if there is a good reason to have it as a critical plot point, how much needs to be shown, and how much can be implied?

For All Mankind is a great show with a solid concept driving an excellent platform on which it can raise questions and social commentary like this, particularly if we’re willing to not just stop and question the plot, but what drives the industry, and the audience, towards some of these decisions. And with this property having gone this direction I’ll be very interested to see how Foundation’s second season pans out. Which… will see me having to renew my ‘free’ trial subscription.


Well played, Apple TV.

Relearning How to Monitor My Productivity

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.

Planning scenes and sketching out an outline in Microsoft Excel, with worldbuilding in Obsidian.

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.

Vladimir Nabokov

Does There Really Need to Be an App for That?

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.

Unlock features for the SR/S Standard in September 2022 –

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.

This isn’t the first manufacturer to do this, of course. Recently, BMW began offering the option to unlock features on vehicles using a subscription service. An article at the BMWBLOG offered this by way of justification:

By selling each and every car with heated seats, for example, BMW can have only one seat SKU, which actually makes manufacturing more streamlined and, therefor[e], a bit cheaper for BMW.

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.

BMW’s adaptive suspension. From it’s write-up: ‘…It is sensor-controlled and adapts to the respective conditions in split seconds, delivering complete safety even in difficult driving situations…‘ –

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?

How long until a software update from the manufacturer disables my entire vehicle because I didn’t renew my subscription? Or makes my vehicle slower because they think I should afford to purchase a new one?

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.

My Dog’s Not Socrates, and That’s Okay

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.

Alexis Devine

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.

But I don’t know if I’m going to use the same logic to decide my conversation partner has a soul, just because the chatbot’s topic of conversation touches on matters of religion or philosophy, regardless of how compelling the conversation it may seem.

To be fair, I tend to stay away from those topics with my dog, too.

How much the cost of satisfaction?

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:

A recent Apple Notes meme: Note taking app workflows as a function of IQ. Source unknown [1] [2].

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.

Here’s to the tools of the day.