Believe It Or Not, We're Getting Better

Like many people around the world, Star Trek played a huge role in how I perceive the world and my role in it. While it's a work of fiction, the truths explored in many of the better stories show us both how far we've come as a species and how far we have yet to travel. We are capable of incredibly generous acts of kindness in one moment, and incredibly heinous acts the next. What's fascinating about this is that a person can directly contradict themselves without even realizing it.

Patrick Stewart — Better

The world has undergone an incredible amount of change over the last forty years. More people are educated today than ever before. More people are fed than ever before. More people are connected across cities, borders, and continents than ever before. More people are financially secure than ever before.

And yet ...

And yet people are angry. There are good reasons to be angry, too. A lot of what we see in the news is not what we want to see. But there's a lot of good, too. We just need to know where to find it or — if we're proactive — know how to create it. We can all be a little bit better. Looking at how far we've come in just my lifetime, I'd say we're generally making some positive progress.

Ownership vs. Ownership

There is a growing movement online that has the wonderfully optimistic slogan "Own Your Content". This is a concept that I fully agree with, though I will admit to being incredibly confused for quite some time by the meaning of the first word in the sentence. What does it mean to "own" your content, and can the people who encourage others to take back control honestly say that they own the digital information they share online?

To the best of my understanding, "Own Your Content" is a movement by people who do not wish to keep their data in silos around the Internet. People have recorded well over a decade of events into Facebook, yet that data is not portable enough to be extracted for your own archives. Same with Twitter, Medium, and the vast majority of places where people congregate online to share words, pictures, and audio. If any of these services were to disappear, like App.Net or PicPlz, then vast swaths of a person's online history could disappear. More than this, a number of the big services that encourage us to share information through their networks earn money through our participation. We are essentially using our free time to create content for other people to profit on, while (arguably) seeing very little in return. We are not the customer, but the product to be sold.

It's easy to see why some people are opposed to this and combating the commoditization of their time, creativity, and identity with software and systems that they have more control over. Rather than blog with Medium, one can set up a site of their own on Amazon, Digital Ocean, or other vendors. Rather than rely solely on Twitter or Facebook, people can use that same site to distribute their messages. Often times this means "cross-posting" the information stored on their virtual server to the silos they've worked so hard to escape. For many people, this is content ownership.

I disagree. While this is a step in the right direction, having our words on a hosted WordPress installation is content management and little more.

If a person truly wants to own their content, they cannot rely on Amazon, RackSpace, Linode, or any other corporate provider to host their information. Otherwise they are just trusting another party to not take advantage of them or interfere with the distribution of the data. To own content, one must own the hardware and have it on-premisis1. This way, if a vendor decides they no longer wish to host your content or if a government entity decides to swoop in and take the out of the data centre, you still have the content.

But how many people can actually do this? How many people would even want to try to have a server at home as well as one that's openly accessible to the public and broadcasting content to Facebook, Twitter, and other services? Despite the marked improvements in server management and software installation, there is still a rather large learning curve people need to overcome. We need something simpler ...

Which brings me to something I've been thinking about for roughly two years.


Over the last few years I've become quite acquainted with the ins and outs of Ubuntu, and I've seen a lot of what it can do when given the right hardware. This is where the idea of owning one's content becomes real, because there's no reason why a person could not have a tiny, pre-built computer at home running Ubuntu which then synchronizes with a machine that is open on the web. Ubuntu, despite all its strengths, is still very much Linux. This means that the software that the home computer ships with would need to be pre-installed and painfully simple to use and update. The standard LAMP2 stack cannot apply. Instead, something new would need to be used: Snaps.

A Snap is a universal Linux package that works on (just about) any distribution or device. Snaps are faster to install, easier to create, safer to run, and they update automatically and transactionally so the software is always fresh and never broken. What this means for a normal person is that a tiny computer the size of a Starbucks coffee could be shipped to them and run on their home network. This would then interface with another server they have running in "the cloud". Rather than SSH into a Linux machine and install a bunch of disparate software packages, fiddle with configuration settings, and rage at Apache misconfigurations, a person would instead type something like the following into the public web server:

sudo snap install 10centuries

From there the package would be downloaded from a trusted source and started. People would see a message like 10Centuries Node started. Visit http://{server_ip_address} to configure the server. and then be off to the races. The public node would synchronize with the private node in their home and, should a person decide they want to change VPS providers for whatever reason, they could do so and simply reinstall a snap then re-sync the node. More than this, people could connect their nodes to those run by friends and family in order to share encrypted backups so that, if a server did disappear from the web, the data would not be lost. The nodes would also be configured to communicate with each other when social interactions are taking place. This would, for all intents and purposes, create a mesh network where no single point of failure could take a person offline indefinitely.

This has been the long-term vision for 10Centuries, but the software just hasn't been there for the average person. The open projects I've worked on or lead in the past have all suffered from a staggeringly high learning curve, and it's resulted in many people giving up in frustration. We've got to do better, and Snaps appear to be the way forward. I've been doing a bunch of testing with packages, deployments, and node synchronization over the last few months. A shippable product is still quite a ways away, but it's not at all an impossible project. More than this, there's a possible revenue stream available in mini-server sales that would make the project financially tenable for a small group of people.

Imagine buying a small home server for $50 and having it synchronize automatically with a web server running the blogging and social services that you operate. Apps would be written that would interact with your servers rather than commercially-backed systems. If you're at home, you'd interact with the local machine reducing latency. If you're at the coffee shop or in a plane, the apps would use the public server. In every case, your data is synchronized and distributed just the way you want, all through a mesh network that can be configured to be more resilient to failure.

I've long considered the idea of content ownership implausible until the tools became simple enough for everyone to have their data safely stored in their own house. This idea makes it just a little more realistic.

  1. or be very, very strict with regards to data backups and automated collection and storage of that information
  2. Linux + Apache + MySQL + PHP

It's Not a Software Problem

Is the difference between information and misinformation something we want to leave in the hands of yet another algorithm?

This is the question I asked after reading this Guardian article where Tim Cook, Apple's CEO, laments that fake news is "killing people's minds". He goes on to say that technology companies should be doing more to tackle this problem and stemming the spread of falsehoods without affecting people's rights to free speech. While I am just as frustrated as anybody else over the excessive quantity of misinformation online, a technological solution to the problem would be the ultimate precursor to a form of censorship the likes of which authoritarian governments salivate for.

I appreciate what technology can and has done for us, but I must question why this particular human flaw needs to be addressed by software and social engineers. Humans have been lying to one another for as long as we've had language, and probably longer still. Children tell us they didn't eat the last cookie in the jar despite the crumbs around their mouth. Companies tell us they appreciate our business on receipts but never through actions. Politicians tell us they can be trusted. Would an algorithm catch these fibs? If so, how would any algorithm know what is accurate versus inaccurate? Somebody would need to be the gatekeeper of "The Truth", while the definition of that very concept varies so wildly from person to person that any form of censorship of an article that is aligned with a person's current beliefs would instantly render the entire system suspect and untrustworthy.

The issues surrounding "fake news", "alternate facts", and outright lies are not recent creations that have caught a populace by surprise. Growing up before the Internet, I remember my father and I laughing at tabloid headlines at the grocery store. Stories so over-the-top that it's a wonder anybody took them seriously. Some of the headlines that stand out the most in memory include:

  • Horse born with human head. Farmer ashamed.
  • Woman abducted by aliens from Saturn
  • City of Atlantis discovered under Brooklyn

If any of these were even remotely accurate, there would be a lot more press coverage and a whole lot of academic papers1. What my father tried to teach me by reading these at the grocer was that you cannot trust everything you read. Some of the best teachers I had while growing up would say the same: it's okay to read, but verify.

This is what people need to do if they are to separate spin from fact. It's not easy, but critical thinking is the only way we can overcome the mountain of misinformation that exists both online and off.

  1. any one of these would result in a lot of follow-up studies

Remembering to Breathe

Like many people around the world, I tend to work a little too hard when sitting in front of the computer. I'm very fortunate to be working on not one, not two, but four different projects for different groups of people to solve different objectives with ultimately the same goal. Very few people can say this. And while I might shout and holler when managers get in the way and make decisions I strongly disagree with, things could genuinely be worse. So why get worked up about things?

A few weeks ago I changed my desktop background to this one showing Calvin & Hobbes enjoying an idyllic day in a tree. The colours are gorgeous and these two friends are enjoying so much of what makes life great. When I start to feel the buildup of stress and anxiety, I make it a habit to minimize all of the applications currently open on the various computers I use to essentially stop and breathe.

Calvin & Hobbes — Chilling in a Tree

When the rage and frustration that comes from being too invested in a thing starts to get a little out of hand, it's important to step back for a few moments to ask ourselves if what we're feeling is really worth it. In my case, I need to remember to read emails twice, wait fifteen minutes before responding, and above all, breathe.

Keeping a Dry Nose

Dameon has recently announced that he's going to take a break from releasing episodes of his PhoneBoy Speaks podcast, and I don't blame him. A lot of the English-speaking web (that I generally stick to) has lots its mind over the last 12 months, with the most recent two weeks being particularly difficult to parse. A lot of people are expressing an abundance of emotions and, given that both Dameon and I have difficulty parsing people's actions at the best of times, the last few weeks have been nothing short of exhausting. This isn't to say that everybody should ignore what's going on in the world, but we should make a little bit of space in order to rationally think about what's happening, how it affects us and the people we know, and then focus on what we can do to improve the situation for everybody.

More than this, though, I've been wondering what I can do to help the people who wish to actively campaign for their causes. Lots of people are using services like Medium and to share their message with the world, but could 10Centuries be used in the same way? It's nowhere near as popular as the big names, but the tools are there for people to use. There's also the podcast distribution element with iTunes and Google Play support that people have at their disposal, which — while not as popular or visually compelling as YouTube — is an effective way to communicate ideas.

As a Canadian living in Japan, there's very little that I can do that can directly bring about positive change in the numerous countries around the world. What I can do, however, is make sure that tools exist to allow others to effectively bring about that change.

Alien Showed Us an Optimistic Future

After a recent discussion on 10C Social, I thought it would be interesting to watch the first Alien movie again. The last time I remember watching the film was sometime before 2002, and I'll admit that I've forgotten quite a number of the details. One such detail being the incredible amount of optimism that is portrayed throughout the shadows and gloom.

Alien takes place somewhere between 2122 and 2127 on and around LV-426, a very dense moon1 some 39 light years from Earth. The ship where all the horrible action takes place is a massive ore mining and processing vessel with a grand total of 7 crew (and 1 cat) on board. Not only is there a human-friendly atmosphere on every deck with enough intelligence to handle flame throwers and t-shirts, but there's consistent gravity on every deck, faster-than-light communications systems, and cryogenic stasis chambers so the crew doesn't need to be conscious during their down-time.

This is nothing short of amazing.

The Nostromo

Let's take a look at what all this means.

In a little over a century we have faster-than-light vessels capable of traversing a light year in 7 days2, artificial gravity without spinning ships, cryogenic stasis, incredibly reliable software that can power these ships and androids, ample power for unscheduled course changes and wanton disregard for things like using fire inside a closed environment. Then there's the fact we're travelling dozens of light years in castle-like ships for ore. Unless this is an incredibly rare, incredibly amazing ore, this seems like a really poor use of resources ... unless these resources really are limitless. Judging from the size of the triple explosion at the end of the movie, maybe they really are.

Ripley, the last human to survive, hops into a shuttle that she knows does not have enough coolant for the atmospheric scrubbers, but never once worries about how much energy the vessel has. This shuttle also has cryogenic stasis chambers, which means that it's clearly designed to support long-distance travel, and it has proper gravity and all the other fun things that one would hope for in a modern interstellar craft. It even has its own faster-than-light engine that seems to be faster than the Nostrom's.

All this in 100 years.

While the Weyland-Yutani Corporation, the company that owned the mining ship and wanted a live specimen of any extra-terrestrial life form returned for study, is said to be a multi-planetary big corporation that is greedier than anything we could possibly understand today, the economy that would be required to make such an organisation possible would mean incredible benefits for a lot of people. Entire groups could head out to the frontier to colonize habitable planets. Terminally ill people could be "frozen" until cures for their conditions are found. Humans would never need to work in dangerous jobs ever again.

There would undoubtedly be social strife and the common complaints about over-reaching governments and excessive capitalism, but this comes with being human. To see this kind of technological advancement in such a short time and to see people take it all for granted? That is what's optimistic about this movie. Not only do we have the various technologies to effectively live as kings and explore the cosmos like science fiction heroes, but we have had these technologies for long enough that people just expect them to work.

So long as we don't have to battle the Xenomorphs, I would look forward to this future.

  1. given its 1200km radius and 0.86 Earth Standard gravity
  2. This was calculated by looking at the 39 light year distance and the 10-month travel time back to Earth. Math is fun!

The "Dumb Alien" Problem

What is it about loud proclamations of extraterrestrial visits that makes me roll my eyes and stop listening? There are a lot of bits and pieces about the universe that I take as fact because they come from people way smarter than me with job titles way cooler than mine. Climate change, in my mind, is a real threat to the long-term survival of our species1. Black holes are incredibly powerful gravity wells that can rip sections of space and time to shreds. In Japan, traffic lights permitting cars to move are said to be "blue" despite being green. The idea that an intelligent species with technologies far superior to ours would travel all this way — faster-than-light speed or no — just to hover in the sky or otherwise observe us while we observe them is a bit too ridiculous for me to take at face value.

Crop Circles

Earlier this morning I was watching some "soft news" on various strange phenomenon around the planet that couldn't be immediately explained, and the morning show tried to make it appear as though these rare oddities were a sign from life elsewhere. The immediate question that popped into my head was along the lines of: "They can't speak our language? You know ... there are schools that specialize in that kind of thing."

Any species that can cross interstellar space will have the concept of communication. They would need to in order to work together. They may do so differently than we do, but there would be nothing preventing a species to learn how we communicate and create a rudimentary translation tool that could operate in one of the many languages used across this planet long before they arrived. Leaving strange circles in a field or coloured rocks in a pond just wouldn't cut it as any form of first contact.

The other problem that arises from aliens being completely visible while observing us is the underlying premise behind scientific study. If you're going to study a species, you want to be as invisible as possible. Hovering in plain view above the subjects will change the result of the test2 and lead to highly suspect behaviour results. This is true whenever we study humans in captivity already, so it wouldn't be any different when studying humans who are "captive" on their planet. Besides, why enter the atmosphere at all? Human hackers have shown us just how poor system encryption really is in the early 21st century. Why not hide out in orbit near a telecommunications satellite, hack the scientific centres that are conducting the research you're most interested in, and read the data out? Are the visitors from another world completely unaware of how binary code works?

Somehow I doubt it.

I strongly believe that there are many intelligent species throughout the universe. I strongly believe that, if any travel from place to place as humans are wont to do, they would find us a very interesting subject of study. I'm sure that there have even been attempts at communication throughout human history, as it would be very worthwhile to study a people from the very beginning of their civilization right up to the point of open dialogue and communication. What a fascinating area of research that would be. But to do any of the visible things that people on TV or the Internet claim would be tantamount to career suicide. Cultures would change. Political goals would change. The ultimate results of the study would change. An intelligent species wouldn't let that happen. Even if there was a loose cannon somewhere on the Earth trying to mess with the experiment, covert actions would be crucial.

Aliens from other planets who travel all this way — again, faster-than-light travel or otherwise — would not do so to hover in our sky and leave. If anything, making themselves known would likely be a precursor to their open communication with us; peaceful or otherwise. I simply cannot believe that "smart" creatures would be so dumb3.

  1. The planet will be fine. We won't.
  2. Yeah, yeah. "Unless that's the test". Whatever.
  3. Yes, I realize that humans are also very smart creatures that can act very dumb.

Welcome to Earth

Today at 4:52pm local time our long wait was finally over: Reiko and I are now the happy parents to a very healthy boy.

Hungry Baby

It's hard to believe just how much the world has changed in the 37 years I've been on this planet. This little human will see even more change take place in the first 37 of his. My job now, is to make sure he's well-equipped to handle it.

Battling Self-Perceptions

The human experience is an interesting one in that if we're not being attacked by forces outside, we're being attacked by forces inside. A common theme seems to be working its way through some of the blogs I read where the authors, experts in their fields, are struggling with topics for upcoming talks. They're worried that the subjects they plan on covering are uninteresting or that the audience will know more about the subject than they will. They're concerned that the skills they've actively developed over the last few years are already morbidly out of date. They wonder if it's better to dedicate more time to learning about this, that, and the other thing rather than try to teach. The vast majority of their readers will send notes of encouragement in an attempt to help the reader get out of the mental schlump but, reading about very smart people struggling with their self-doubt leaves me wondering just how little I know about anything.

I read their sites to learn things. If they don't feel they have anything of value to contribute, just how far down the chain am I?

Impostor Syndrome

This is something I've been thinking about quite a bit over the last few weeks as I looked at the 2016 numbers for my 10Centuries project. By all accounts, one could say that this is the start of a successful project. Almost 80,000 posts were written to it in the first year, with more than 50% of accounts seeing some sort of activity on a regular basis. The project cost a lot more than was budgeted, but it did manage to earn just a bit more than the budgeted amount meaning that — theoretically — the project could have been self-sufficient in the first year. Bugs are squashed regularly and new features are released and generally used right away. All very positive things.

And yet ... I can't help but feel the project is being held back because it's me running the show. Over 95% of the code that runs 10Centuries was written by me, and the servers are running on a custom build of Ubuntu that I optimized given some of the limitations and traits of Amazon's EC2 infrastructure. There's too much of me in the project and not enough of other people, which is limiting growth or even a passing interest in using the ad-free, fun-filled platform. I look at all the tickets in GitHub staring at me, some over a year old, and wonder just why I'm re-inventing the wheel when I could have followed other people's lead and simply built on top of WordPress or some other open software package.

I know the answer to the question, of course. But this doesn't help dissuade the inner voices that laugh in my general direction like the French Guards in Monty Python's Quest for the Holy Grail. When the self-defeating thoughts stick around long enough, I wonder if I'm good at anything at all.

Silly, right?

Nozomi Sleeps

Nozomi Sleeps

On my lap, Nozomi sleeps, the afternoon away.
She's had her fun, her morning walk, and now needs to hit the hay.
Almost seven years, this puppy is, if a "puppy" she still be.
And these quiet moments we shall cherish, both Nozomi and me.

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