Wednesday
May172017

Social Media for Shy People

“The photos we keep tend to be flattering.”

~ Black Mirror Be Right Back

The Uncanny Valley of Human Interaction

This note marks a new step in the progression of Pikasoft. I’ve always loved Computer Science and Software Engineering, and part of living up in the Forested North is the chance to finally complete a long-sought Ph.D. in Software Engineering. It’s great to be diving deep into Software again, but what software?

The choice presents an interesting challenge. As I’ve noted in previous presentations and posts, the Nobel Prize that Bardeen, Brattain and Shockley won in 1956 was a) going to create a $Trillion-dollar industry (no matter what), and b) going to give a fantastic ride to anyone who could stay fully onboard. A 10 Myths of Venture Capital presentation that I used to give back in the early-2000s, quoted a Worth Magazine article of that period that noted that the VC-industry routinely divided $20B in profits among about 3,000 VC-industry-workers every year. Not a bad business to be in, but what happens if the Moore’s Law music stops?

It was a great business to be in, but I’m coming to believe that it’s over. I’d love to replace my 2013 MacBook Pro, but Apple doesn’t make a machine (almost 4 years later) that’s as fast or as powerful as it is. Any step forward would be two steps (and lots of dongle-cables) back. I believe that this is true across the industry. Moore’s Law on the desktop is over.

I think we’re also seeing a “Moore’s Law Crash” in software. Big data and advanced analytics solutions are great, but they don’t live in desktop-land. The desktop and our handhelds are ruled by social media — the Facebooks and Instagrams and Snapchats that link us up but otherwise don’t (in my opinion) move us forward.

Friends are better than Friend-requests, and I don’t think that social media are any substitute for genuine human contact. With that in mind, I’ll be using this space to explore what I will call “Social Media for Shy People.” Here I accept that Social Media have a purpose, but that in their current incarnations give us a creepy uncanny valley of human interaction.

What I’m describing here was magnificently presented in a 2013 episode of the British television program Black Mirror, entitled Be Right Back. The idea here is that our social media posts are not Us, but instead present a perfect, idealized version of the us that we think we are. We are, as people, best characterized by both our strengths and our failings, but our social media image is just an idealized snapshot of that reality. This may be fine, to a point, but you don’t have to watch too many Black Mirror episodes (for example: Hated in the Nation, or Nosedive) to see the Uncanny Valley all around us.

We need contact and I believe that it’s possible to create a media that helps us engage as us — not as an idealized snapshot of us. I’ll be writing about that in coming posts.

I am just getting started — Much more to follow…

Copyright 2017 - John Repko

Monday
Nov212016

Another Life

Lifepower W40

“I think the machines are going to fail, the political systems are going to fail, and a few men are going to take to the hills and start over.”

I looked at him. He lived in the suburbs, like the rest of us … I could not really believe that he came in from placating his tenants every evening and gave himself solemnly to the business of survival … What kind of fantasy led to this?
~ James Dickey -- Deliverance

Deliverance

Living in Northern Minnesota is different. Practices that might get you labeled as a Prepper in other parts of the country are just getting ready for Winter up here. To live a happy life in the North Woods you have to expect a) that things you count on every day might not work when the subzero blizzards come, and b) maybe you can’t count on things, but you can count on people. We get by — even more than that, we thrive.

We thrive. Even in a world that seems to be proceeding backwards in time.

With the worries in Gretchen Bakke’s The Grid and the recent election circus, we might be seeing the machines and political systems fail. But it is better to believe Jeff Goldblum — here “life” — people — find a way, and we can weave new technologies together to design the “art of the north woods” and solutions for an uncertain age.

Let’s put the pieces together and see where they lead:

  • Climate change is here, and think globally, act locally compels us all to lessen our “footprint.”

  • Environmental action through politics will probably come only after it’s obviously too late. Let’s follow Jim Collins’ words instead and fire bullets before cannon balls - let's start small and build relentlessly

  • As Wilhelm Steinitz said of chess - let’s focus on the accumulation of small advantages

  • As a chemical engineer, it seems clear that only thermodynamic solutions can help to solve the problem. We have to make use of only the energy that already comes to us. In my world that means solar-powered solutions. The sunlight is already here — let’s use it!

So here’s what we can mix for a better life:

  • Pare back — less really is more, and we can choose to live with less wasteful practices.

  • We’ll add solar incrementally, keeping that good life while shrinking our footprint as we go.

  • On the consumption side, lower power is better, so (for example) as our lightbulbs burn out we’ll replace them with LED bulbs at 1/10th the power draw. Poco a poco se va lejos!

  • We can also use technology to manage the power we use. Homes in the 2000s have less central control than the industrial plants I built in 30 years ago. We must choose to power only what we need.

Here’s where the path has taken my wife Kate and I so far:

Our solar-paneled south deck keeps my computers powered during the day, and is a lifesaver when the blizzards come and grid power fails. The panels here power portable batteries, and those batteries keep our world up even when “the grid” is down.

Lifepower is a Belgian company that has invented much of the world that I’m seeking. In the picture above, we’ve suspended from our south-facing deck a couple of SUN40s and a SUN20 solar collector, all daisy-chained together to recharge our Lifepower A2 and A2L batteries. Even this far north, a nice sunny afternoon will get me recharged, and I have two more SUN40s on the way. Once the setup is complete, a couple of good hours of sun will get us hours of runtime on our computers, (and our refrigerator, our freezer, and our water pump…!).

We’re evolving so that all of our electronic devices are low-power and rechargeable by USB -- Lifepower to the rescue! Our refrigerator and freezers are max-energy-efficient, so Lifepower works in power failures and might (with evolving battery technology) work more generally. As our light bulbs burn out we are replacing them with LED-bulbs. We have TP-LINK smart plugs on some of our outlets, so (for example) instead of heating the garage all night when it's 40-below (I like 40-below because C = F degrees at -40!), we turn on the block engine heaters on our cars when we wake up, and the engines will be warm in an hour when it's time to leave. Add in a great new Sedore wood burning stove , and while we’re not trying to be "off the grid", at least we can impact the grid minimally while we are still on it.

Again — this is just getting ready for Winter. Even now, our lives stay mostly up even if the grid goes down. Lifepower is at the core of our solutions, and with Lifepower we have power when we travel and power when we need it at home. The first European settlers of Minnesota thrived (enough to send word back to the Old Country), and we thrive similarly today — we can thrive better! We are just getting started — Much more to follow…

Sunday
Jun122016

The Path to a More Independent Life -- Getting off Google

“Power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” ~ Sir John Dalberg-Acton, 8th Baronet

“Don’t Be Evil” ~ Google Employee Paul Buchheit

Why Even Try?

Yes, it’s Google’s world and we just live in it. As I’ve often noted, MIT professor Jack Dennis foretold and designed the architecture for all that Google is today — with the sole limitation (expressed in an advanced computer architectures course I took as a grad student) that nobody would ever spend enough money to create the mesh of computers necessary to achieve his vision. To Larry Page and Sergey Brin’s great credit they envisioned it, created it and got the funding to build it out. Add fellow MIT alum Robert Metcalfe (of Ethernet fame) and Metcalfe's Law and it’s clear why a Google should have a natural monopoly on Search, and how a such a firm could grow to great prominence and power.

Sadly that brings us to Lord Acton (quoted above). When your company name becomes a verb you have achieved absolute power, and the human condition can’t help but dictate the result. This week’s adventures involve accusations that Google has manipulated search results to help Hillary Clinton. CNN Claims Nonsense!, but somehow their commentary neglects to mention that CNN’s parent Time Warner is one of the top contributors to the Hillary campaign: both career and during the current presidential cycle.

No matter. I dream of Search as a public utility that offers insight without any bias introduced from anywhere. When you connect an object you change that object, and in this light it's time to disconnect from Google. My passage is now complete, and if you are curious, this note outlines a path that you might follow.

Choose a Path with Heart

My passage was probably easier than many will find. I had two Google Gmail accounts (one for me personally, and one for my Pikasoft company), one measly video (a snippet from ABC Sports “The Thrill of Victory and the Agony of Defeat” - that I will miss), about 1,300 contact-records that I have copies of elsewhere, and maybe a half-dozen photographs. I also have used Chrome as a browser and Google Maps for road guidance, but Chrome has gotten buggy and ponderous with age, and the Apple Maps adventure awaits me post-Google.

The main task, then, is moving off of Google Gmail.

The Road Ahead — Completely Revised and Up to Date!

  • The first step to migrating off of Gmail is to cut down all your subscriptions to your Gmail account! In the course of years on Gmail I had subscribed to literally hundreds of services, and rather than have them all bounce on delete I decided to find them and unsubscribe to them manually. I spent about a week unsubscribing to services as they reappeared in my Gmil, and in this effortI found at least three positive benefits:
    • "Opt-out" and unsubscribe is generally quick-and-easy these days. Check the email footer for "unsubscribe" -- click the link and you're done.
    • I was forced to realize how much spam I was taking on myself. My subscriptions weren’t evil, but there’s only so much time in a day and I won’t miss most of the subscriptions.
    • Clearing out the subscription pile has already saved me all kinds of time. I saved the subscriptions I wanted to keep, but these were maybe a dozen out of hundreds of mail feeds.
  • The second step away from Google is to save the information you have on Google. Google (though a process called Google takeout) makes this possible. The steps are simple:
    • Log into your google account
    • Go to the Account information for your account (by selecting your icon on the top-right of the screen
    • Maneuver your way to Products
    • Select Delete

This is where the miraculous part of Google takeout steps in:

Google’s warning that you’re about to delete everyone in your account is not the “usual yada yada” because you really are about to delete EVERYTHING, but otherwise is the usual yada yada. What goes beyond the usual yada yada is the link at the bottom of the dialog: “You can download your data before deleting your account.”

By all means download your data. Google has been a rich and involving service, and even someone with as limited an access as I’ve had can still pile up a remarkable amount of data and history online. So when Google lets you create an archive, press the button to create an archive.

Creating an archive is (as Google freely admits) not fast. I’ve been in Gmail since the mid-2000s, thus I wasn’t that surprised that it took Google two and a half days to create my archive. Nevertheless, in the fullness of time Google created my archive: two compressed files with images and contacts, and the magnificently-named All mail including Spam and Trash.mbox file — in my case 12GB of various correspondences and goodies. All saved for posterity.

This leads to the final step in de-Googlization: Agree to legal terms and then press the Delete button.

With one button press, in the blink of an eye I was no longer in Google!

When you stare into the abyss, the abyss stares back into you. ~ Nietzsche

Now that I’m no longer staring into the abyss, does the abyss no longer stare back into me? We’ll see, but in the meantime I need to replace the fallen Gmail accounts. I’m not the first to try, and fortunately a diverse cottage industry has sprung up for people who want an alternative to Google mail.

There were lots of choices and I looked at Kolab Now based on positive reviews, but I finally settled on Fastmail. Fastmail also has great reviews, and uses a neat form of 2-factor authentication called Yubikey to generate unique passwords every time it’s used. So Fastmail it is for email.

To avoid complications. She never kept the same address…

We’re almost there, but we need to make the linkages all work. Gmail is now turned off and Fastmail is turned on, but the following challenges still remained:

  • Run my email @ pikasoft.com over Fastmail, but keep it looking like the old Pikasoft
  • Point my web address to www.pikasoft.com, a hosted server independent from my pikasoft email

To accomplish these things we’ll need to dig in a bit to the hosting of pikasoft.com — a challenge but not a showstopper that I accomplished with 3 quick changes. So into DNS we go:

  • Fastmail gives great instructions for setup with custom domains (my situation with pikasoft web and email), and the following reconfiguration worked to give me mail:
    • I can keep my nameservers pointing to my pikasoft.com website, but need to make my MX records point to Fastmail. Mail exchanger records (MX records) are resource records in DNS that specifies the mail server responsible for accepting email messages on behalf of a recipient's domain. I need to make Fastmail accept messages on behalf on pikasoft.com to turn pikasoft.com mail back on. This required a short step into Domain.com and a quick update to point my MX records to Fastmail.
    • Check to ensure that my CNAME points to my hosted website. Canonical name records are aliases for web addresses, and I made the update here to assure that pikasoft.com pointed to where the pikasoft site actually ran. I’ve used Squarespace and Wordpress in the past, and it was a simple matter to get my hosting address and set it as my CNAME record.
    • The final check is to ensure that the A record for my domain also pointed to the hosted website. This was accomplished in much the same manner by which I set the CNAME, and one quick edit and I was done.

Well, the Internet settings work was done, anyway. In the nature of Internet things, the proper settings for nameservers, MX records, A record and CNAME take a while to propagate across the Internet, but with the expectation of “a day or two,” in actual practice there were signs of progress in the first hour or so and my mail and website were fully migrated within a day.

So now I’m off Gmail, with a non-Google, secure mail service and my pikasoft website happy as always. I am now in the rare fold of former-Facebook, former-Google web users; seemingly moving backwards in web-time while I move forward in web-experience. I remember writing what a wonder “sharing networks” would be back when I was at HP in 1986 or 1987, and I think I’ve kept the connectivity and resumed the search for the magic and promise that that world held. Don’t be evil? Let’s see what wonders a connected, collaborative world still holds…

Monday
Jun062016

The Greatest … and the path to a more independent life

"Impossible is just a big word thrown around by small men who find it easier to live in the world they’ve been given than to explore the power they have to change it. Impossible is not a fact. It’s an opinion. Impossible is not a declaration. It’s a dare. Impossible is potential. Impossible is temporary. Impossible is nothing."
Muhammad Ali

King of the World

It’s hard to imagine a world without Muhammad Ali in it. I am not a black man and not a boxer, and before Ali I never would have thought that a such a man could have changed the world that we live in. The great wonder of Ali is that he was such a man, and if he called himself The Greatest he wasn’t praising himself enough. Yes, he became Heavyweight Champion of the World 3 times, but our world is full of great athletes who are marvelous on their stages but inconsequential everywhere else.

Ali was world champion and had won 29 straight fights when he was called up, and at 25 years of age he probably hadn’t even reached his athletic peak when Howard Cosell asked him “Why don’t you take the step?” Ali was and remained a conscientious objector, and he never took the step into military service but in doing so he took the step into something even greater.

Muhammad was Jonathan E, the protagonist in the 1975 movie Rollerball.

It’s OK if you don’t remember Rollerball. Despite having the greatest party scene ever shown in a movie (either proving (or disproving, depending on how you feel about it)) the notion that “open carry” at parties is/is not a good idea), the movie was a product of 1975 (Best Picture that year: Rocky). It was born into 1975 as the leisure suit era’s dystopic vision of the future, and for most people it’s stayed there. To bring it back a little you might check out the Rollerball trailer — this is the movie that seared Bach’s Toccata in D Minor into public consciousness:

“No player is greater than the game itself.”

No player is greater than the game itself… That is the wonder of Muhammad Ali, who was a champion in a sport that defies champions. In boxing the amount of time it takes to build the skill to become champion is perilously close to the amount of time that it takes to become too old and beaten to be able to compete. Boxing is a sport that eats its young.

What’s My Name?

Muhammad Ali was greater than the game itself, and the wonder of Ali was the causes that he engaged with that greatness. The former Cassius Clay adopted Islam and became Muhammad Ali. Because he wouldn’t “take the step” he lost three years of his career in his absolute prime — years even his greatness could never bring back. He was and remained a black man in a white culture — true to his own ideals, and an absolute internationalist who has probably been, for most of my lifetime, the most famous man in the world. Muhammad Ali’s life freed Lew Alcindor to become Kareem Abdul Jabbar, and Ali showed how greatness could carve a path in the wilderness.

Carving a Path in the Wilderness

I am now a transplant — coming home to a place I’d never been before in Bemidji, Minnesota. My work is Internet-based, a world where on some level it’s possible to live almost anywhere, as long as I have an Internet connection and a good airport nearby. Kate’s work is also mobile, and life events led us to ask the question: How do we want to live?

Minnesota it is. People laugh when I tell them that we “discovered” Bemidji in a spreadsheet, but Bemidji rises up naturally if you’re looking for a college town with a northern climate, with a reasonable cost of living and lots of things to do. We found a home and up we came. There are loons out on the lake, frogs in the swamps (making nighttime MUCH louder than daytime!) and ticks in the forests. “How you we want to live…?” ...As harmoniously as possible.

Tuning Out the Noise

One of the wonders of Northern Minnesota is the quiet. We may have fiber-Internet out to the house, but there’s not a human-made sound to be heard if we turn everything off at night. Turning down the noise outside only made it seem natural to try to turn down the noise INSIDE — in the online world where Google lives.

Google was a superb search engine, but Google has evolved into (and maybe always was) something that at the fringes is just creepy. Just try entering the phrase “Google accused” in the alternative browser DuckDuckGo and read the “Don’t Be Evil” == FAIL wonders that appear:

  • Hiding news to swing elections
  • Wiretapping
  • Invading student’s privacy

And all that’s before we even get to inversion and tax evasion. Google was a great step forward, but it might be in the way of harmony so it’s time for Google to go. Google can remain a great company for many, but it’s time, as former Denver Broncos head coach Mike Shanahan used to say: “…to head in a different direction.”

How do you want to live?

It’s possible to live Google free. Next time I’ll lay out the details of how:

  • to get off corporate GMAIL
  • to start getting of regular GMAIL
  • see video without YouTube, and finally…
  • to search Googlelessly and browse outside the realm

It’s been an interesting adventure. To Google’s credit, so much of today’s web experience begins and ends with Google.

We can live independently — let’s create our own world…

“I’ve made my share of mistakes along the way, but if I have changed even one life for the better, I haven’t lived in vain.” ~ Muhammad Ali

Thursday
Jul302015

Beyond Scrum - Summary: The Cargo Cult of Scrum

During the war they saw airplanes land with lots of good materials, and they want the same thing to happen now. So they've arranged to imitate things like runways, to put fires along the sides of the runways, to make a wooden hut for a man to sit in, with two wooden pieces on his head like headphones and bars of bamboo sticking out like antennas—he's the controller—and they wait for the airplanes to land. They're doing everything right. The form is perfect. It looks exactly the way it looked before. But it doesn't work. No airplanes land.  ~  Richard Feynman

Summing it Up

Scrum wasn't a bad thing when it started.  The Internet was a new medium, Java, ASP/.Net were new platforms, and we had a long way to go and a short time to get there.   I'd venture that nobody knew where software came from, and Agile arose in response to the death marches that so characterized "waterfall" development.

Well it's been 10 years and agile and Scrum have given us lots of software - all delivered but much of it staggeringly mediocre.  Scrum is clearly a cult -- with certified scrum masters and the enduring belief that the software would suck less if only you could somehow have been more agile!  The no true Scotsman rule applies: Scrum didn't fail you and your team -- your team failed Scrum...

Enough already.  We can take the lessons that Scrum taught and evolve to a better way to deliver / offer / present not only functional but exquisite software.  Let's wrap up the rest of the pieces.

The New Rules

The most basic rule of software development is that software projects are first-and-foremost projects, and the body of knowledge that we've gathered running all kinds of projects in all kinds of other disciplines needn't be left behind just because it's software.   The Project Management Institute is way ahead of the curve on this, and doesn't waste words (or letters) in calling the Project Management Body of Knowledge the PMBOK.  The principles here really are timeless, and while the PMI does love its own language the rest of the cult artifacts are kept at bay.

From that basis there are some other guidelines that we might follow to produce better software for this new millennium.  Rather than try to spin up a new cult, let's look at the science underlying software development:
  • Time -- really is nature's way of keeping everything from happening all at once.   If you try to give Time more meaning than that you are asking for trouble by bending the concrete to fit the abstract.    The more you bend the worse-off you are, so all development is trying to focus on the smallest increments possible.  The goal is then to come as nearly as possible to these ideals:
    • Builds (per Spolsky) should be instantaneous at the press of a button.
    • Deployment should be continuous (hello Jenkins!)
    • Availability should be continuous.  Stakeholders should be able to try and run "the latest" from a standard source at any point in the project.
    • Checkpoints should match external milestones, not periods on the calendar.   Once upon a time Sales Sonar was released by Innovadex at the American Coatings Show on a June 3.    Our audience was assembled -- no other dates on the calendar mattered.
  • Information -- should be universally available, subject to access and security constraints, and instantaneously available as it is needed.   So:
    • Software check-in happens when software passes tests and reviews -- not nightly or weekly, but continuously.
    • Status and project information is available everywhere (thank you Yammer/Campfire/Basecamp/JIRA/Skype...) and updated continuously.
    • Meetings take place virtually whenever they are needed -- for screen sharing, planning or status updates.   Pair programming is the rule here -- the old rule of "one office per developer" may have been fine for reducing interruptions, but it's terrible for collaborative software review. Team meetings are great for human bonding and comradeship; using the morning Scrum status meeting as an attendance-check is idiotic.
    • Product design updates happen continuously with requirements drafted and rolled into the project for specific checkpoints.   There's no reason to try to cram Design solely into Scrum Sprint Planning meetings, and (perhaps unlike in the Chrysler Payroll days) Product Management is an organizational activity that happens continuously, not just on Sprint Planning Meeting day.
As noted in the conclusion of my last post -- if you believe these in these ideals and you strive to follow them, then you are on another, better path and calling it "Scrum" doesn't make it so.  Scrum is a cargo cult spawned off of sound PMI principles.   Stick to the PMBOK.   Use technology to compress Time and distribute Information. Seek in all things to build great software.  It's hard, but beautiful software is one of the most exquisite and ennobling things of our time.
"The impossible missions are the only ones which succeed."   ~ Jacques Cousteau