The Creature From The Tech Lagoon

I first saw the kid in the corner of a “meeting space” about two months before the end of my contract. Tall, skinny, basement pale, awkward bowl haircut, bewildered look. Polyester slacks. Yellow stripe shirt with these absurd white contrast French cuffs and collar. Two-thirds of a prom outfit from the white-trash site of urban Columbus, really.

The purpose of this particular meeting was to hear a mutual pitch from RedHat and Microsoft, trying to get our department to set up its own little kingdom of servers and “container architecture”. This is a constant struggle in pretty much any major corporation, a battle that’s being fought behind the scenes 24/7. Once upon a time, each company had a mainframe and it was under the direct control of the tech department. Then when minicomputers like VAXen came along, you had individual departments setting up their own systems. When small “servers” came along, the problem got a thousand times worse. Then you got Sarbanes-Oxley and HIPAA and FINRA, laying a complex web of compliance regulations on all those small servers. So the Fortune 500 companies swept everything back up into one central department. This made life much tougher for all those individual departments, who now had to go to corporate IT and wait a year for something they used to get done in a month. So they started… cheating, setting up their own stuff on the sly.

My ex-wife had a job for a while where she would sniff out these “shadow servers” and even the “shadow helpdesks” set up to support their users. Hundreds of $20,000 computers and hundreds of full-time jobs, all shuffled off the books and reported to headquarters as something else just to avoid the hassle of dealing with central IT and their deliberately difficult processes. Once she arrived in a city to find that the department she was investigating had built a whole server room, a million-dollar operation listed as something else entirely. She tore the place down to the ground like Samson. A couple years afterwards, she heard rumors that it was being set up again. The heart wants what it wants, you see.

Anyway. The company for which I was contracting had spent a billion-with-a-B dollars on a central tech architecture and container platform. But that didn’t stop my sub-department from wanting to spend a million-with-an-M dollars on its own private little playground. So the RedHat and Microsoft people had arranged a meeting to show us all the benefits we would get from buying their products. And that’s where I saw the kid, whom I would later come to think of as The Creature From The Tech Lagoon.

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Enter The Bitcoin, Part One: Hashes Explained

This morning, we published a guest post by Pete Dushenski about Bitcoin. Tomorrow, we’ll have the conclusion to that.

In the meantime, I want to briefly discuss “hashes”. In my experience, the inability to understand hashes is what keeps a lot of people from getting a grip on modern technologies like encryption, security, and cryptocurrency.

What follows is an explanation of hashes that I absolutely guarantee you will understand, even if you’ve called tech support in the past because your computer was on but your monitor was off — Hi, Dad!

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Ghosted, Buster

A few right-of-center blogs are having a field day with a certain Ms. Aimee Lutkin and her borderline heartbreaking story entitled “When Can I Say I’ll Be Alone Forever?” Ms. Lutkin, a writer for Jezebel, has openly and honestly spoken about her inability to find love or even consistency in a relationship. In the above-linked article, she writes that

It’s your life, and a life that confuses and depresses people… I wanted to cry at that dinner table, because keeping up the farce that I’m still waiting means staying still. It means diminishing the life I do lead, which is a good one. I’ll never be free to say that I’m alone forever, only that I’m in a holding pattern until real life begins.

The alt-right take on her predicament is obvious: a not-terribly-attractive woman “rides the carousel” until the music stops and then she has to face the consequences of her decisions. The feminist take is equally predictable: she’s a strong woman who “used men for sex” and just needs to get back in the habit of dating so she can be fulfilled again. The question of whether or not “casual dating” is fulfilling for a woman as she heads towards her fifties and sixties is never asked, because it’s irrelevant to young feminists and terrifying to old ones.

So far, none of this is terribly interesting. Here’s what is interesting: what she did to try to fix her loneliness problem, and why it failed to work.

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Zeno’s Left Arrow: A Story Of Interface Design

The more we understand about the human genome, the more we understand just how vague its directives truly are, and how thoroughly we are reliant on external forces and pressures to shape our eventual form. There was a time when we thought that DNA controlled everything about our appearance and that creating new species would simply be a matter of learning the language of the genome. Now we know that it is a combination of DNA, the rate at which various tissues can grow, and environmental effects, creating our eventual characteristics through the long and patient application of gravity, blood pressure, and so on. Human beings who grew up on the moon would be deformed; human beings who grew up under even light water pressure would be shaped differently. In outer space we might develop like the most horrifying teratomae, tumors with teeth, hair, and brain tissue intermixed to repugnant effect.

This is bad news for people who were charmed by John Varley’s Gaea Trilogy. In those books, the genetic wizard known as Gaea uses its mastery of DNA to create unbelievable creatures, ranging from the merely mythical (centaurs!) to the oddly inventive (creatures that grow film inside their bodies, use a lens to “shoot” with it, then excrete the film into the mouths of “producers” that develop the film in a chemical-bath stomach) to the batshit crazy (biological jet planes that grow, then fire, explosive rockets). We now know that DNA just doesn’t have that much creativity built into it. It relies on a lot of natural processes to direct development. You can have a pressurized poison gland, no problem; you’re not going to assemble cellulose film of a precise width in a series of mucous-secreting chambers.

In that way, potential DNA-manipulating superbeings are in the same position as engineers from what I think of the First and Second Eras Of Interface Design. The First Era was the era without electricity; think about the first person who created a hand-crank drill or the fellow who designed the first H-pattern manual-transmission shifter. The Second Era was the electromechanical, pre-general-purpose-microchip era; that would be the folks who came up with the astounding Nakamichi Dragon or the first remote-controlled cars. These engineers had some distinct limitations in designing the interface between their products and the human beings who would use them. Most of us think of those limitations as second nature because we grew up with them.

Consider the following example: If you’re a motorcyclist, you’ve no doubt had to stop short at some point while you were in a gear besides first or second. Once you’ve stopped, you then have to kick the gears down to neutral. That’s an example of a mechanical limitation at work. The obvious way for a shifter to work is this: If the motorcycle is stopped, pressing down should engage first gear every time, no matter what gear you were in when you stopped. But with a mechanical shifter, you can’t just magically “skip” gears. If you came to a halt in fourth, you need to kick down three times. Also, you’re expected to remember what gear you were in: comp-sci people call that “maintaining state”. An old-school motorcycle has no way of telling you what gear you’re in. You just have to know.

Well, we are now in the Third Era of Interface Design, where all those limitations have been removed. Virtually every interaction we have with a machine nowadays is moderated by a microchip. It doesn’t matter if you’re operating an automatic transmission, changing the temperature in your home, or choosing which song you want to hear next on your phone. You’re no longer directly connected. You express your wishes to the computer, and the computer decides how to make them happen. Which leads us, quite naturally, to Zeno’s Left Arrow.

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The 80/20 Rule And The Civil War To Come

The often-perceptive folks at the Economist have uncovered a link between polygamy and violence. If you read it through, you can learn some stuff that you might now know — I certainly didn’t know it. Turns out that a lot of terrorist/paramilitary organizations recruit members by promising them access to women and/or access to the tools they will need to acquire women in explicitly polygamous societies. It also appears that young men are rendered more susceptible to participation in terrorist organizations if their personal circumstances deny them access to women.

The prime example cited by the Economist is South Sudan, which gained its independence just five years ago and which has been the target of a comprehensive but indifferently successful campaign on the part of China to mold it into a satellite state for purposes of resource exploitation. Some dudes in South Sudan have a hundred wives. Some have two. Some just have one. And the vast majority have no wives at all. As you’d expect, South Sudan’s involuntarily-celibate crew has little to no interest in preserving the current political situation. They’re willing to do anything from cattle poaching to mass murder to outright political revolution if it gives them a chance at getting laid.

In other words, South Sudan is a place where 20% of the guys are getting 80% of the action, leaving 80% of the men disaffected, angry, and ready for trouble. Does this sound familiar? Maybe just a little bit?

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The Day We All Went Underground

He was ten feet off the cave floor, bike and rider stretched and twisted in the old-school BMX trick that was called a “Judge” and a “Leary” before settling into the modern appellation of “lookback”. Then he disappeared down the backside of the jump and we all heard the thump echo back across two hundred feet. The two thirtysomething men who were pedaling back up to the rest of us in the staging area dropped their bikes then broke and ran in that direction. Silence fell as the chattering children to my right picked up on their parents’ vibe, shut up, and turned to face the incident. Three, four empty seconds and then there was a loud cough. After thirty-three years behind the handlebars of a BMX bike I can heard blood in a cough and this time I heard blood.

More silence. Then: “HE’S UP! HE’S OKAY!” At the trails or the skatepark, “okay” doesn’t mean “unhurt”. It means that the ambulance isn’t coming. A wave of guilty relief swept through seven of the twelve riders surrounding me. They’d come down from Fort Wayne as a group, vans filled with bikes of all sizes for them and their children. An ambulance trip would have ended everybody’s day. I saw the fellow who had crashed stumble out from behind the jump. Someone else carried his bike away. We sat up in the staging area and fidgeted. Nobody wanted to be the first person to hit that section afterwards. You could call it respect or superstition or cowardice; it is all of those. Finally, one of the socially awkward spandex-clad mountain bikers who had arrived right before the wreck clicked into his pedals, rode down the slope, and bumbled through the line, accompanied by the bounce and clank of chain and derailleur. We frowned at this crass incompetence but in truth we were grateful. The spell was broken. Four of the Fort Wayne guys rolled in a tight line after him. The third one boosted a sky-high lookback over the recently-cursed jump and landed it with fingertip delicacy. Then the kids flocked after them and the noise of conversation rose again in the humid, dusty air.

I took a run down the center line and walked my bike back up the incline to conserve energy. When I got to the picnic benches up top the injured rider was sitting there in slack-jawed shock, his helmet still on, twisting his body to get both hands on his drooping left shoulder. He looked like he might vomit in the near future.

“Did you dislocate your shoulder?” I asked. His response was delivered in the patient monotone that always follows a direct impact of helmet to ground.

“I have metal in here,” he replied, “from an old wreck. A lot of metal. And I think… it’s bent.”

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Twilight Of The Trijets

I saw it lifting from the runway at RSW, plain white with the windows masked off and not a single bit of livery to be seen, nose up and stretching for the sky with the exuberance you’ll sometimes see when there are no passengers to be placated or drinks to be kept level. “That’s… a DC-10,” I told Danger Girl, “or… wait… it’s probably an MD-11.” As we rounded off the main road and headed to the rental return area I saw two more of them parked at Terminal B. Were they military? NASA? Some sort of black-ops equipment that dare not speak its name on the fuselage but which also didn’t need to be hidden too carefully from the retirees, golfers, and snowbirds that use the Fort Myers airport on a daily basis?

None of the above. These were MD-11F freighters operated by Western Global, part of its eleven identical trijet fleet. Western Global is a very new airline, having recently celebrated its fourth year in operation. You won’t ever take a ride on a Western Global plane, unless you are a specialized piece of cargo or possibly a FedEx package on an overflow weekend. (And if that’s the case, how are you reading this site?) The last passenger flights to use an MD-11 happened three years ago, with a KLM plane named “Audrey Hepburn”. That final flight occurred just a few months after the MD-11’s predecessor, the occasionally star-crossed McDonnell-Douglas DC-10, took its final passenger flight with a Bangladeshi airline.

The trijet era is a footnote in aviation history now — but it’s worth taking a quick look at how these early widebody aircraft both exemplified and influenced some of the tropes in both engineering and marketing that continue to raise their ugly heads in the aviation — and automotive — world even today.

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In Which The Author Bets On His Son, And Loses

As we walked hurriedly through Ai Weiwei’s feel-good-psuedo-art beneath Washington Square Park’s famous arch, hustling towards the Uber driver in his Accord who was unconcernedly blocking traffic in at least two of the intersection’s three possible directions, John shook his hand free of mine and glared up at me.

“I didn’t even learn anything!” he snarled in that furious close-to-tears voice I’ve come to expect after everything from a lost game of dodgeball to a failed attempt at clearing a jump on his BMX bike. He’s not particularly sensitive to pain or physical effort but he anything he perceives as a loss or failure enrages him. “And you wasted five dollars of your money betting on me to win!”

“Well, John, I’m not sure that I agree with you about what we did and did not learn,” I replied, yanking the Accord’s door open and tossing him into the center seat before our driver could lose his courage and bolt from the scene, “and it’s not really my money, you know. You’ll inherit everything when I die, so that was really your five dollars, you know.” This was intended to add some humor to the situation but instead my son threw up his hands and yelled, “Why did you waste my five dollars, then! That’s even worse!

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In Which The Author Conducts A Technical Interview On The Shoulders Of Giants

I was in the gig economy before the gig economy was cool, you know. In the past two decades I’ve been a consultant, a third-party service provider, a contributor, a self-employed technocrat, and just a plain old temp. Sometimes it’s been remarkably lucrative and often it’s been remarkably depressing. Sometimes both at once.

Last month I said goodbye to the last of my technical support customers and took a new full-time contract. I’m surrounded by very nice people there. The commute is short and the parking is free. It’s a little hard not to get depressed when I’m sitting in my cube and seeing all my various journo-friends and journo-foes traveling the world and enjoying all the perks that the business can provide. The best I can tell myself is that Hawthorne started his adult career in the Custom-House and Melville spent his final years there. At the end of every day I do not worry about whether I sold my integrity cheaply or whether I failed to fight for the truth on any given subject. Such things have no meaning or relevance in the eternal late-fall twilight of that seventy-four-degree flourescent office building.

I make no decision on any subject beyond the technical. There are a thousand dreams and ambitions in that building and there are people who are compensated to a truly stunning degree and there are people who spend their lunch hours in worried dialogue about bills and childcare but it matters not to me. I show up in the morning and I do my work and I leave and by the time the oil is warm in my CB1100 on the road home all thoughts of the job have slipped from my mind with that same light viscosity.

This past Wednesday I assisted one of the fellows in the office in conducting a short technical interview. It was my intention to ask a couple of bland questions and shut up, but things got a bit out of hand.

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In Which The Author Suffers A Failure Of Parenting Ability And Is Literally Burned As A Result

Approximately ninety seconds after pulling up at Adkins Raceway in eastern Ohio for John’s first race in the Junior Sportsman class, I realized that I was the only father who had not pulled a trailer to the event. The concrete path to the pre-grid was lined with the kind of hardware that in my world is used to haul pampered Bimmers from one CCA pretend race to the next; twenty-footers, twenty-four-footers with big side doors. While I was realizing this, a massive Fleetwood RV pulled into the spot next to me and an arrogant-looking tween-ager popped out to effortlessly set the stationary jacks with the aid of a Snap-On electric ratchet.

“We don’t have a trailer,” John said, and he looked up at me in much the same way that I suspect Chris Pirsig would look at Robert during the worst parts of their cross-country trip. Dad didn’t plan. Dad doesn’t know what’s going on. We are different from everybody else. This cannot be good.

“Not yet,” I chirped, “I didn’t know if we would need one.” I grabbed John’s shoulders and steered us both out of the way of a hurried-looking father pushing a brand-new TonyKart on a electric-lifter rolling stand. The man’s son strode behind him, imperious and unworried behind the mirrored visor of the same $1,500 carbon-fiber Impact! helmet that I use in my racing. I get ten years out of mine; if this kid was anything like John, his helmet would be outgrown and junked by Christmas.

We were late, we were underprepared, and John’s kart didn’t run. Things looked pretty bad from the jump. Naturally, I figured out a way to make them worse.

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