Read on paper, love better?

Five years after it was published, I finally just finished reading The Shallows by Nicholas Carr. It was a sobering read. Sobering in the sense that he makes the compelling case that digital media is changing us, in possibly irreversible ways. We are adapting to distraction but may be losing our ability to think deeply in exchange. What he doesn’t address as much is the anxiety that many of us feel as part of the change.

The the book is a downer in that if offers no solution. It painstakingly describes how our brains are changing, and what we are losing, but it doesn’t offer any magic bullets. This is the neurological equivalent of all those conversations we have about dying newspapers. We know that digital media is killing them, but ten years in we have no clear idea how to keep journalism alive. Digital media, it seems, puts us in a perpetual state of epiphany-delayed in whatever area of endeavor it attacks. When it comes to dealing with digital distraction I think we’re all be waiting for our epiphanies for a while.


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A World Without End – I wish it were more real

This piece, World Without End, in the New Yorker got me really excited. Briefly. And then it disappointed me. Mostly. This is the opening that grabbed my interest:

“The universe is being built in an old two-story building, in the town of Guildford, half an hour by train from London. About a dozen people are working on it. They sit at computer terminals in three rows on the building’s first floor and, primarily by manipulating lines of code, they make mathematical rules that will determine the age and arrangement of virtual stars, the clustering of asteroid belts and moons and planets, the physics of gravity, the arc of orbits, the density and composition of atmospheres—rain, clear skies, overcast. Planets in the universe will be the size of real planets, and they will be separated from one another by light-years of digital space. A small fraction of them will support complex life. Because the designers are building their universe by establishing its laws of nature, rather than by hand-crafting its details, much about it remains unknown, even to them.”

My mistake was to assume that they were using real physical laws to create this universe. I jumped to the wrong conclusion though. Like every video game, they are relying on made up algorithms to create realistic-looking-but-ultimately-artificial places. The distinction here is probably minor, because no application of math could recreate the universe as it is, but I was hoping, naively I realize now, that they were attempting to re-create a universe at least based on some basic physical laws.

Why do I care? Why not just have a game that, like any fiction, conforms to an internal logic that doesn’t need to be derived from the real world? Maybe it doesn’t much matter, but I increasingly find fiction and games that play fast and loose with basic physics empty and dissatisfying. The tropes of infinitely available energy, hyper drives, and the like, in my mind at least, feed a kind of false optimism about our prospects off of this planet that are at some level counter-productive. We are not going to save human kind by finding another planet. If we can’t make a go of it on the one we evolved on we’re screwed. Let’s take better care of this one.

Also, and maybe more pragmatically, I grew up in a world of physical things. I made model airplanes, worked on cars, and took apart every toy I ever got. Working on (and breaking) things in the real world gave me useful intuition about how that world worked. Intuition that was useful to me later as an engineer. Today, virtual worlds like Minecraft are a substitute for a lot of the real world play of my day. They are amazing playgrounds that let the imagination go wild, which is really cool, but I don’t think they help intuit how our actual world works. In fact, I think they create false intuitions in the way they tweak physicality.

Anyway, this still promises to be a really interesting game when it becomes available. The sheer scope of the universe they are building will be vast, and probably the biggest problem they’ll have to face with gameplay (just like we experience in real life with our still silent SETI endeavor) will be coaxing interaction between players who start off billions of light years apart.

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Run a vanilla Minecraft server on Raspberry Pi

My partner has a teenage son, Michael, and like a lot of adults with a kid in their life I’ve come to know Minecraft. I even kind of like it. I was scared the first time night fell in survival mode, but I’ve made it from uber-noob to mere noob now and can usually make it through the night huddling in a basic wood block structure. I won’t get points for the aesthetics of my creations, but I survive and even have fun with it. Michael still makes fun of my noob’ness and will regularly switch to creative mode, grab a diamond sword, and off me just for fun. But whatever, I’m learning.

Michael and I have been playing with a Raspberry Pi lately. Actually, we bought two of the 1Gb Pi 2 Model B’s. These things are actually quite powerful little quad core computers so after a few simple projects we decided to use one of them as a dedicated Minecraft server.

The Raspberry Pi already comes with a cut down version of Minecraft that you can play directly on it, but that’s not what interested us. We wanted to create a “real” Minecraft server that we could leave running indefinitely and connect to from our local LAN anytime we wanted to.

There are quite a few tutorials out there on how to get this working, but most of them are of out of date. For example, we wasted a lot of time on our first try installing Java onto a Pi that already had it as part of the OS install. So, having gone through the process a few times, we figured we’d write this up for anyone else looking for a how to.

We should start with a note of caution. This is an installation guide for a vanilla server, and it frankly doesn’t perform very well on the Pi. On our first installation we got lucky and ended up with a seed for a really simple island world. The server runs flawlessly with that simple world. However, other worlds with more complexity have consistently crashed the server with two users. We’ll include the seed for “Michael and Jim’s island world” later in this post so you can use it if you’d like. Or, you may decide to modify this tutorial and install a Bukkit server. It should perform better but we haven’t tried it.


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Buy an alarm clock

I’ve blogged recently (and often) about my struggles with technology addiction. Since writing this piece in March I’ve made some progress. I make good use of a simple word processor when I’m trying to write, I regularly use a dumb feature phone sans data plan to stay in contact without staying connected, and I’ve been meditating almost every day.

So when I read Turning off technology is about mental wellbeing – not becoming a digital hermit about managing ones digital lifestyle I thought I had it covered. Different person, same journey. But the advice at the end of the piece stood out. “Buy an old-fashioned alarm clock so you can leave your phone in the other room at night.”

I already put my phone on do not disturb at night, but sometimes I still reflexively grab my phone in the morning and check my email despite my stated intention not to look until noon. So I like the idea of just not having the phone in my room at all. I think I’ll try this.

Of course, there are other good reasons not to have your phone in or near your bed.

Anyway, I’m getting that alarm clock. I still have a landline nearby (which is crazy, I know) if anyone really needs to get hold of me at night.

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New home

Hi, welcome to the new home for Limn This. I decided to move it from Typepad to a self-hosted WordPress instance. I’m still trying to fix and clean up some issues so I apologize if it’s a bit of a mess around here.

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The Dash Button – Can you say lock in?

Amazon announced the Dash Button this week and most of the buzz was of the “is this an April fools joke?” variety. That’s unfortunate because it’s a really interesting development and deserves more careful consideration. The Button is simple but it demonstrates the impact of inexpensive inter-networked things.
Simon Wardley’s take was probably the most interesting I’ve seen, if a little bit breathless. The Dash Button is best suited for recurring consumables and while that will hurt local grocers, I don’t see it cratering their businesses despite the importance of paper towels and milk to their bottom lines. I also don’t buy into the idea that Bezos bought the Post (and Buffett bought Media General) to turn it’s printing presses and delivery trucks into a Button manufacturing and distribution engine.
To put my money where my mouth is I bet Simon a cup of tea that Warren Buffet won’t be making a “small fortune” by 2030 on the manufacture and distribution of digital electronics via printing presses. He should have said “Berkshire Hathaway” because I’ve got not only the weight of my argument on my side but the actuarial probability of Warren’s expiration by then as well. If I lose, I’m counting on the mists of time to intervene on my behalf and maybe Simon will just forget our bet by then.


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Getting out of my Skinner Box

When I was a kid my teachers told me I was “hyperactive,” and they gave me lots of demerits to emphasize their point. I’m pretty sure, had I been born later, I would have been considered ADHD. I coped reasonably well for most of my life, but the advent of the smart phone was not good. Since then I’ve struggled to stay focused long enough to write and do other things that require stretches of solitude and flow. These days the one two three punch of laptop, smart phone, and Twitter are enough to keep me nearly always distracted.

I have tried all of the things people try. I used RescueTime for a while but I really didn’t like all the tracking. So, I tried Freedom but I tended to just re-boot my computer when I thought to myself “I just need to look up that one reference, I’ll turn Freedom back on as soon as I do.” An hour of surfing later I’d ruefully contemplate the inadequacy of a reboot to inhibit distraction – it simply doesn’t cost enough.

More recently I set up a second computer that doesn’t even have a working web browser on it and started working in an attic room with the wifi turned off downstairs. I figured at least then I’d have to make a trip down and back up the stairs to turn the wifi back on. Sometimes it works. Sometimes I just get more stair climbs on my fitbit. I’ve also used all the minimalist text editors. Whatever. They are nicely distraction free in their design, but they’re just a screen away from the distractions. When the itch starts to build they do nothing to prevent the quick alt-tab into the rabbit hole.


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Public vs. Private Cloud: Price isn’t enough

Last October Simon Wardley and I stood on a rainy sidewalk at 28th St. in NYC arguing politely (he’s British) about the future of cloud adoption. He argued, rightly, that the cost advantages from scale would be overwhelming compared to home-brew private clouds. He went on to argue, less certainly in my view, that this would lead inevitably to their wholesale and deep adoption across the enterprise market. 
I think Simon bases his argument on something like the Rational Economic Man theory of the enterprise. Or, more specifically, the Rational Economic CFO. If the costs of a service provider are destined to be lower than the costs of internally-operated alternatives, and your CFO is rational (most tend to be), then the conclusion is foregone.
And of course, costs are going down just as they are predicted to. Look at this post by Avi Deitcher, Does Amazon’s Web Services Pricing Follow Moore’s Law? I think the question posed in the title has a fairly obvious answer. No. Services aren’t just silicon, they include all manner of linear terms, like labor, so the price decreases will almost certainly be slower than Moore’s law, but his analysis of the costs of a modestly sized AWS solution and in-house competition is really useful. 


• • •

Net Neutrality: They’re too mad, we’re too happy

The Net Neutrality vote is over and to some people the results suggest an end of America as we know it. To the net neutrality haters an un-elected body just voted on an impenetrable secret protocol whose true purpose is to enslave our minds with the Obamanet. Or, according to Mark Cuban, it’s little more than a vendetta against the cable companies because, I don’t know, a Jim Carey movie made us hate them or something.

On the other hand, the regulation = freedom crowd seems to think that this 300 pages of unseen but inspirational prose has finally secured the unicorn future we’re due. We’ll graze on an equal access commons of high-rez candy corn planted by anyone with a network connection, and flitted to us at light speed without regard to its maker’s race, creed, or ability to pay. But to me, it’s mostly disappointment with how policy gets made and some agita about when and how the inevitable unintended consequences will reveal themselves. Even now it’s really hard to know what we’re cheering for, or angry about, and whether the policy we haven’t seen but still manage to love or hate will come even close to achieving its lofty goals.

I count myself as part of the “we’re” on the happy side because I’ve been generally for doing something to improve net neutrality in the face of increasingly obvious monopoly power at the telecom layer of the Internet. Prices are high, speeds are low, and the network innovation the haters are afraid of choking off isn’t happening anyway. Unless you count what Google is doing. But they’re doing it as a defense, and they aren’t doing it in enough places to matter.


• • •

Hacking Authenticity

Have you heard of Shinola? I first heard of the company when my brother called: “Hey, there’s a really cool new company making watches in Detroit. They’re the first watch made in America in a long time. I pre-ordered one.”

I’m originally from Detroit and the house where I lived as a child is abandoned and broken.  It's a pretty good stand in for a city as a whole. Once the "Paris of the west” we all know that it has seen much better times. So any good news from Detroit makes me happy, and naturally I wanted a Shinola too. Then last year I got one as a gift. I love the watch, and the packaging was over-the-top well done. It even came with a little tin of leather cream to use on the band now and then. Nice touch.

When the little orange lightning bolt thread in the strap unraveled, I made the trek to their Tribeca flagship store for a replacement. The place had an uncannily well done retail presence that brought to mind Anthropologie’s  temple of too-expensive-to-be-real cool. And it was filled with a too-perfect collection of leather goods, bicycles, and watches in an awesome space replete with a hipsterific 3rd generation coffee shop in the foyer.


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