Thursday, November 29, 2012

World building: deconstructing Dinosaur Train

For those of you without children in the 3-7 age group, Dinosaur Train is a PBS series revolving around Buddy, a Tyrannosaurus Rex, and his adoptive Pteranodon family. They live in the late Cretaceous (probably the Santonian Stage) on Western Interior Sea. Then there is the train--operated by Troodons--which can traverse various "Time Tunnels" to visit other ages of the Triassic, Jurassic, and Cretaceous epochs.

I've watched the entirety of Season One with my daughter, and a few smatterings of Season Two. I'm struck by how much world building clearly went into this series. Despite the focus on adorable preschool-aged T. Rex buddy and his loyal and compassionate sister Tiny, the world they live in a wholly a construct of time-travelling Troodons. They are the masters of the universe.

The Troodons run the train that links all the Mesozoic together. They have the only stop that has the word "town" in its name, everybody else is an "acre" or "terrace" or "station." They may have the only city in this world, and from the looks of things, only Troodons are allowed in it. In all the episodes I've seen, we've never seen Troodon Town proper.

They're civilized. They're the only one to wear clothes, usually a jacket, sometimes a hat or jewelry, but none of the other dinosaurs come anywhere close. Junior Conductors wear a hat, but only while on the train. This indicates that Troodon society has access to textiles and manufacturing.

They are benevolent. They never charge for a ride on the train, but insist on every passenger having a ticket. They're concerned that not every kind of dinosaur can ride the train. For instance, Arnie Argentinasaurus can't ride the train because he's too big--that is until Tiny and Buddy recommend converting a flat car to transporting him and his even larger dad. After a brief engineering meeting, they reprovision the flatcar. They've even gone so far as to create aqua cars to accomodate their sea-dwelling passengers.

They are educators. Mr. Conductor cannot help but educate his passengers on the various extant dinosaur species and actively encourages cross-species cultural exchanges. They even host concerts with King Crylosaurus as the main attraction (a popular singer across the Mesozoic).

More importantly, they have taught every sentient or near-sentient species in the Mesozoic how to speak the same language (and based on the puns, it's English, which opens up a whole new can of nemotodes). Tiny Pteranodon even claims to be able to read the brochures at the train station, which if true means that they've been active in universal literacy despite the obvious lack of libraries, books, and magazines among non-Troodons.

They are social engineers. Though it's never explicitly stated, they are probably the ones who put Buddy's egg in the Pteranodon nest. Tyrannasaurus lived during the late Cretaceous, much later than when pteranodons ruled the skies. The only species with the power to transport eggs across eras and in cross-species harmony are the Troodons. No doubt they felt that Buddy would be better bred in an earlier time with a larger, less meat-centric, up-bringing. Or they were just fucking with their power.

The troodons, despite a round house of the Dinosaur Train existing in the early Triassic (which a pump car to get to the sticks), and the second at Troodon Town near the Cretaceous-Paleogene event horizon   have visited the late Victorian era, if the makes of their trains, their clothing, and their decor are any indication. Thus, their time tunnels aren't limited to the Mesozoic.

Lastly, and most brilliantly, each station in stage exists in a fixed timeline along a continuum. What I mean is, if I live in Pteranodon Terrace, but I visit the late Cretaceous on the Dinosaur train (say T. Rex Station), then the same time passes back home as it does in the ostensible (and poorly named) future. So every major stage of the Mesozoic is linked as though they exist in the same timeline.  I'm floored. This is awesome.

Why would the troodons go to so much trouble to uplift nearly every major species of the Mesozoic?--even frogs and turtles and hermit crabs are considered worthy of linguistic education. Maybe they truly are benevolent and want to usher in a millions year rule of Dinosaurs as the undisputed  masters of Earth--which if you do the math of years between stations, that's how long their nascent society should last without stepping into the next era. But it seems based on their train technology that's taken right from the 20th century our time, they know what's in store for the the reign of dinosaurs, and thus are they looking for an escape from the Cretaceous-Paleogene extinction, and trying to engineer a species and a society to side-step the inevitable?

Or maybe I watch too much Dinosaur Train.

Thursday, November 1, 2012

The next big thing

Thanks Micah for tagging me on The Next Big Thing. He claims I've taught him something, I hope it was something good.

1. What is the title of your book?


2. Where did the idea come from for the book?

My life. Specifically, getting laid off in 2008 from my second post-college job, then having four jobs over the next four years.

3. What genre does your book fall under?

Satire. Maybe spec fic, but satire draws from the extraordinary to highlight the ordinary absurdities in the everyday.

4. Which actors would you choose to play your characters in a movie rendition?

Jason Schwartzman, but with make-up to make his boyish face look even younger, like he did in I Heart Huckabees. And my female lead would be played by Zooey Deschanel at the age she was in The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy.

5. What is a one-sentence synopsis of the book?

Perennially down-on-his-luck Nathan just wants to work for the biggest, most-profitable Silicon Valley company ever to exist, but is he willing he make a dog of himself to get in?

6. Will your book be self-published or represented by an agency?


7. How long did it take you to write the first draft of the manuscript?

Can I get back to you on that? I actually haven't finished the full first draft, and I've been working on and off on this MS since 2009.

8. What other books would you compare this story to in your genre?

White Noise by Don DeLilo, Catch-22 by Joseph Heller, The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, by Douglas Adams, and Slapstick and Breakfast of Champions by Kurt Vonnegut.

9. Who or what inspired you to write this book?

If I said that out loud, I might never work in the Silicon Valley again (which could be a good thing, depending).

10. What else about your book might pique the reader’s interest?

Silicon Valley. Satire. I need to say more? Alright, fine. Aztec-goddess possessed AMC Gremlins. Fembots with furry cat ears. Dog-cat hybrids. Really cheap Chinese food. Human-sized hamster tubes. If your interest isn't piqued by now, you're dead inside (or not my target audience, same thing, really).

Include the link of who tagged you and this explanation for the people you have tagged.

Micah Joel tagged me because he's a good friend and the founder of our writers' group, Foglatch. Thank you for spurring me on. A good kick in the rear is exactly what I need right now.

Tagging forward, I've selected two of my favorite authors whose as-yet-unpublished works of awesome I've had to privilege to preview. The world is made better by their art being in it.

Kelly Swails

Stephen Gaskell

I'll link to them when they give me the go ahead. If you'd like to be tagged, too, let me know!

Monday, August 13, 2012

The Persistence of Memory

This is the oldest book I could find on my book shelf. It's over 100 years old, printed in 1909. It's holding up quite nicely. It has a musty smell, but all the pages are intact and legible. Based on the pages count (355) and the words per page (29x29=841), I'd say there are about 30,000 words in the book. At an average of 4.5 letters per word, there are 135,000 characters in the book. It takes 8 bits to encode a letter, so this book holds 10.7 million bits of information, or 10.2 kB. Its volume is 1,457 cubic centimeters.

This second picture is a 5 1/4 inch floppy. I couldn't find one in my house, so I borrowed the image from Wikipedia. According to Wikipedia, this technology was introduced in 1976 and was nearly obsolete by the end of the 1980s. But in their heyday, they were ubiquitous. They hold (at their maximum) 1.2MB. Its volume is 53 cubic centimeters.

Comparing the two, we see that the floppy takes up significantly less space and holds an two orders of magnitude more data. For the same volume as my book, it can store 32 MB of data. The floppies are more delicate though, and my experience with them as a child was that they not infrequently bent to the point of being unusable. This was a known design flaw, and they were later replaced with 3.5" floppies which were studier and had 1.44 MB.

These, too, have practically disappeared. There are modern hard disks, which can take being dropped much easier and store upwards of 1 TB (and climbing). But they're mechanical, and do catastrophically fail from time to time. Solid-state drives are coming down in price, and provide must better data persistence, and I have one with 128MB. Their failure rate per bit should be much much lower than either HDs or floppies or books.

Now here's a picture (also attributed to wikipedia) of a medieval manuscript from China, predating the 13th century.

I don't know how to calculate the bit rate of Chinese, but it's pretty cool that something so old is still around and readable. If you know Chinese, can you tell me if it's readable? Unlike several medieval manuscripts I found in Latin, this actually looked like something legible, whereas medieval Latin script can sometimes be an eyesore to modern readers.

As a civilization, we have a lot invested in our collective knowledge. That used to be housed in libraries in books. Now it's gone digital. It takes up much less space, is better indexed, and infinitely more accessible to a much wide breadth of the literate population. But is this transition for the better?

Books have been recovered from Pompeii that are still legible (with a bit of reconstruction), there are legion extant medieval documents that are readable and translatable and transcribable, books printed 200 years ago adorn bookshelves which can even be read without translation.

A floppy disk from 1976 is unusable, and any data it once stored, if it wasn't copied, is lost. Same for 3.5" microfloppies. While we're surrounded with tons of storage media (USB fobs, HDs, SSDs, "The Cloud"), all of that relatively recent, and there is nothing to say that any of it is more persistent than its digital predecessors.

What has changed is our transcription error. Now computers convert from one format to another instead of zoned out medieval monks. The prospects to save more information from century to century are rosy. But we have that with the printing press, too. What makes us think that the digital age will preserve our data? If Facebook or blogger goes away tomorrow, or in twenty years, those pictures are lost for good (in twenty years do you really think your CD backups will still work or even be around?). But your photo album will still be there on your shelf. As will the diary beside your bed.

Our collective memory is being uploaded right now to the Internet with the false assumption that it will always be there, but what will happen to us when we wake up and realize that most of our memories, without our consent or knowledge, had all their bits flipped to zero?

Friday, May 18, 2012

On TED talks

I wish I had penned this:

I think TED talks are the worst example of modern faux-intellectualism. Audience flattering, based on ego and personality, dripping with self-congratulation, they contribute to one of the great lies of our time 
-Freddie deBoer

Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Cloud computing

Browse any major newspaper (digitally, of course) in the last three years and there's bound to be some misrepresenting story on cloud computing. There's Amazon Elastic Compute Cloud, Google Apps, Microsoft's Azure, the Apple iCloud,, and a host of others that are kind-of "Cloud-lite" (Dropbox,, et al.)

They all use the umbrella term "cloud computing" and any article on them tends to conflate what it is they're comparing to amorphous water vapor.  For instance, Amazon's cloud is run like a standard data center, where there are computers running operating systems and it's up to the system administrators to configure those systems in mostly the same manner as they would the rack-and-steel versions. By contrast, Google's cloud is not a cloud-computing bank at all (at least relative to Amazon): it's rentable services. So instead of configuring a computer, a Google cloud developer is only concerned with the programs. Apple's cloud is also another beast, it's Internet storage with the Apple brand name stamped on it.

So then, what is cloud computing? All three of those examples are very different and not interchangeable. I do most of my development in Amazon's cloud, but if I wanted to switch to Google, I would need to change everything up.  I'd have to learn a completely different architecture and give up a lot of control to the system controls I'm accustomed do. Is that bad? Not really, but it's not practical for my company. Amazon is really good for shops that need more computing power and already have a data center infrastructure. Often (but not always) getting the services to work in the cloud is just a matter of uploading a few configuration files to a virtual cloud host.  With Google, we'd have to start from scratch, which might explain why established businesses are loathe to adopt the platform (so far). And with, even though it's more like Google than Amazon, it's success pivots on it core competency: it does financial, sales, and marketing calcs like Microsoft Excel, which is well known in the business community, and not in python or ruby (like Google), which is not.

I'm getting at whether cloud computing even means anything. There are other buzz words and jargon around cloud computing (Iaas and Saas being high on my hit list), but none of these terms help clarify what should be simple to explain. So simple, that virtual computing designers dropped "virtual" in favor of "cloud" a long time ago.

If we stick to the metaphor, imagine a cloud. It has a shape and a size, but it's ever-changing and always moving and yet we still call it a cloud even when an hour has gone by and it no longer looks like a pinwheel and has moved out of sight. Cloud computing is like that in that the resources available to any given user at any given time change internally, but externally it's function is always recognizable.  Under that model, all of the above are cloud-computing environments, and just like real cloud they have different specialities and functions.  In that regard, I'm not a cloud-computing purist: it doesn't need to be AWS-like to be a cloud.

But I do think that cloud computing isn't so so special or game-changing. It's more bar-lowering, since small businesses can get access to fast computers and hunks of storage cheap. But before virtual computing, we still had fast computers and hunks of storage. And that's the same hardware that's powering all these clouds. And even though this has conceptually been around for a while and companies have always had their own internal compute farms (basically private clouds, whether virtualized or not), it was Amazon that sparked this change when they experimented with leasing their excess xmas computing capacity.

Tuesday, March 20, 2012


Dēclīnātiō - Latin - third declension masculine noun - a swerve, a step to the left; a grammatical construct to indicate the relationship of the noun to verbal phrase; the name of this blog

All roads lead to Berkeley

For a digression on the Silicon Valley, I don't seem to talk much about life on US-101 between Bernal Road in San Jose and Brannan Street in San Francisco.

I have always lived in the Silicon Valley, which may have been done much to influence my outlook on life. It's why I embrace minimalism (in spirit more-so these days than practice). The excesses of being surrounded by the top 3% of income earners on a daily basis affects the way we think. It's no wonder that so many successful techies embrace libertarianism, what with the echo chamber rooting them on the whole way.

My first real foray outside the confines of the bubble occurred in college, when I went fifty miles north, up the east bay (gasp!) and spent four years at UC Berkeley as an undergrad in some engineering discipline or another.

I confess that I once thought that being a libertarian was a clever and thoughtful political position. I am also the co-founder of Lydon Larouche's on-campus club. Such are the vagaries of college fortunes.

I don't want to blog about politics, but I suspect it will color my dēclīnātiōnes. Also, too, there's no such thing as free will.  But we'll get there, one swerve at a time.

Thursday, March 1, 2012


While scouring the Internet for inexpensive fiber-optic transceivers (for work), I found that I can buy the parts used at half the price.  I would have preferred to use our old transceivers, but such is the pace of technology that even two Cisco switches, because they are different models, can't share hardware.

The technical details are usually what I try to avoid writing about, so don't worry about what a network switch is, or what a fiberoptic transceiver is. The point is, in order to make sales, Cisco has to change standards to force its customers to buy new hardware, even with incremental upgrades. The trade is so lucrative, that there's a site devoted exclusively to reselling used Cisco parts.  Which means someone, somewhere, upgraded (or dissolved, or looted, I can't know) and then someone, somewhere sold it to this company, who then test that it works, warranties it, and resells it at half the cost.

This amazes me. It's a very different world than home electronics. Laptops are rarely repurposed outside of DIY hobbyists. Desktops aren't even upgraded anymore. Every part is sent to the e-waste dump (or worse, the landfill) and is replaced by nearly identical--if judged by constituent molecular elements--hardware. It too will be junked after it is obsolesced.

I'm also doing a upgrade on my home PC, and like the old-school tinkerer that I am, I'm reusing whatever I can. But this is a major upgrade. Just by replacing the mainboard, I'm shoved down a path of new memory, CPU, and cables.  I even need to get get a different DVD player, as the IDE standard isn't even implemented on newish mainboards.  The only constant is the case and the harddrive. It's like I've gutted it, replaced the organs, but left the skin and memories intact.

Where does this technology take us? The disposable nature of our flatware, phones, and Ikea furniture is changing the way we think our habitation and its environment. Minimalism is difficult in the modern world precisely because its easier in terms of time and treasure to replace than to covet.

I'm not nostalgic for the family television or making the car run despite all signs that it needs to be parked at Pick'n Pull. I'm OK with change. But the massive amounts of usable but useless garbage we're generating boggles my mind. There are no incentives in the system for the frugality. We reward destruction.

Now I think I'll go find a rock to crawl under until the next big thing comes along.

Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Res publica: Santorum

Anyone who has spent more than five minutes with me (in a non-work setting, unless you're name is John Quaresma) knows that I'm a political junkie and Democratic partisan.  The next logical question might be: why don't I blog about it (anymore)?

One important reason: Other people do it better. Much better. With more snark (though no finesse, but one can't have everything).  I'm a fan of the The Great Orange Satan, where I occasionally post under the name "Vince CA" (lovely pseudonym, n'est-ce pas?).

Recently I put to the community whether a Romney or Santorum majority of delegates at the GOP convention would be a boon or bust for the Democrats. My thesis: Romney is better for Democrats in the general because he's so blah that he can't inspire the base to vote and would be a disaster to down-ticket races (where control of Congress lies). The counter-thesis was that Santorum is better because he's so incredibly despicable that he turns off all voters of all stripes so long as said voters are literate and have a pulse.

My contention is that there are voters who are basically zombies: they have a heartbeat, can read (or at least watch Faux News), but other than that, so far as civics are concerned, think that Cokie Roberts is representative of the heartland and that David Brook's Applebee's salad bar was a funny.

That's a problem.

But for all that, my echo-chamber compatriots have convinced me that Santorum is better afterall, if only because he'll make the blue states bluer.  The red states were a lost cause anyway, partially because of Nixon and the Southern Strategy, but mostly due to low information voters being unable to distinguish their own personal fortunes waxing and waning tied to the Republican plutocracy exploiting religion ZOMG BIRTH CONTROL!

And thus I don't write much about it. People I know and love dearly vote Republican anyway, despite their intrinsic abilities to know better, insisting that they vote for the fiscal conservatives, not the god-breathers. But mostly it's because what god, or Bill O'Reilly told them to, because, you know, they're like this (graphic: pinky of god and white male locked together is eternal friendship)

We have our own crazy coalition, we Democrats. It's full of Greens and Hippies, Unionists and Altruists. And until recently, our group was the disorganized one. Centrists would try to hold together the left--even though they agreed on 99% of everything that was important (birth control, anyone?)--while the right would laugh and keep the christianists onboard with the atheist bankers as though Jesus himself was a Wall Street banker.

My own politics, as I've said, are Democratic, though I have some right-leaning sensibilities that are no longer represented by the American conservative party.

The accusations against corporatists are true: there is no god. Bill Mayer is like an odd broken clock. He's right three times a day.

But... for some reason, the godless heathens of SOHO have joined forces with the anti-science, young-earth creationists of the "heartland" (where no one lives but are still given two votes in the Senate) so that they can promote the pro-capitalist Jesus who makes the poor poorer and the Caesars more caesarly?

Jesus, it's like only the atheists have read the Bible.

So, this night, as MI votes in the GOP primary to nominate either a disgusting vicious fluid or Rick Santorum to represent the GOP come this November, let us recall a few key myths that unite all Americans.

We are for religious plurality (unless you belong to a denomination that doesn't have Christ as interpretted by St. Paul has its godhead, or if your religion starts with an m and ends with an ormon.)

We are for free-market capitalism (unless you've already made it, then you may pass Go and collection $2 billion dollars)

We are free (unless your skin color is wrong or your name--even if you're ten years old--comes up on some watch list put together with glue stick, card stock, and fuck-you that's why!)

We are brave, even when led astray.

We are democratic, and we respect the majority rule (for the most part, unless you're a "judicial activist" who doesn't love Rick Santorum)

We are odd.

We are Americans.

And this is our democracy.

So vote. Vote with whatever information you've got.  But if it can at all be helped, vote for yourself, your own self-interest. Vote for your pocket book. Vote for your job. Vote for your livelihood. Vote as if the next generation depended on it.

Friday, February 17, 2012


In an effort to facilitate the size of our family (recently grown to four with the birth of our son) we're adding on a room to our house.  Several rooms actually, all rather small by national suburban comparison. While many (if not most) have endured having a commode-to-resident ratio less than 25%, the constant interruption while trying to read my Science News is just to much to bear. Thus, our decision to add another bathroom. While we're at it, another closet, a bedroom, and a study seemed in order, because as long as we're expanding, why not move the parents' bed out of the living room and into its own room? This doesn't mean that I'll be sleeping in the master bedroom any time while our son is young, but at least our daughter can have more space in the living room for her doll house and craft table, and I can set up a camp stove and sleeping bag for the long, lonely nights in the living room.

Alternatively, we could have moved to ANY PLACE OTHER THAN THE SILICON VALLEY, sold our house, and bought a McMansion, complete with tea boys and servant girls. But that would mean leaving Sunnyvale, leaving behind the best diversity of cuisine this side of the Mississippi--not that we dine out much anymore, but still--I can sense the presence if Indian, Thai, Mediterranean, and Mexican in my every pore (especially my nose pores).

We would abandon all hope of teaching our children a second language natively. We would have to learn to explain atheism and vegetarianism and love of arduous international travel. I would worry that the next home owner would poison Tree (the ginormous shamel ash in our front yard) and convert its timber to firewood. Somebody might convert my garage into long-term storage for conspicuous consumption. Worst of all, they might burn some of Tree's wood in the vestigial fireplace.

So I stay.

Annuit coeptis

A beginning is a very delicate time. Know then it is the year two-thousand-and-twelve, and the empire is ruled by President Barack Obama. In this time, the most precious substance in the empire is the Apple iPad. The iPad distends life, the iPad numbs consciousness, the iPad is the most vital substance to the flagging economy. The Apple Corporation and its Geeks, whom the iPad has mutated over several thousand hours, use the backlit iPad screen which gives them the ability to waste time and space. That is, travel to any part of the Internet without moving from their couch. The iPad exists in only one planet in the entire universe, a desolate, dry planet with vast deserts. Hidden away within the studio apartments and three-story flats of these deserts are a people known as the Hipsters, who have long held a prophecy, that a man would come, a messiah, who would lead them to true freedom. The planet is Santa Clara County, also known as The Silicon Valley.