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Who is the Space Traveler?

It's the hero, the astronaut. He's the man who defies all odds and travels in a tin can into the most inhospitable environment humans could imagine. There's no life there; it's empty, lifeless and dead. The tin can contains an abbreviated biosphere capable of supporting human life for a limited amount of time.

With the exception of the moon walk, there's not really been any human exploration of space. The experience is always highly mediated by the technology required to sustain human life. In the past (on earth), explorers had sensual experiences that involved direct interaction with the explored environment. Space exploration has mostly been a visual and interior experience. A more direct immersion in “space” would result in the instant death of the explorer.

The “I” who decides to on embarkation and narrates the story of space travel appears to be a cartesian subject. The astronaut must put his unconscious into abeyance for the duration. The unconscious must remain unconscious, only the trained ego of the astronaut flies, all internal demons are locked up. It's the pre-Freudian human who travels in space.

A little more difficult is the issue of the microbiome. We humans contain multitudes. We are both humans and a cooperative life form that requires a functioning of a vast internal ecology. When the human travels in space so do the hundred trillion microorganisms that live in his intestines. We do the best we can by scrubbing off the bacteria and crustaceans that live on the outside of our skin, but the creatures on the inside have to go along for the ride.

It's quite conceivable that the first life forms from earth to colonize mars will be bacteria that have hitched a ride on our rockets. Those bacteria will be the evolutionary seed that may start a whole new chain of events in a radically different biosphere. Martians will evolve to survive on mars. It's not that they'll be specifically adapted or “tooled up” to the martian environment. Evolution doesn't work that way, it's not an optimization algorithm looking for a single best solution. Multiple correct solutions can and will coexist. There are millions of right answers to the question of what a martian looks like.

Our scientists want to eliminate the possibility of “contaminating” Mars because it will complicate our search for life there. In this too we want to eliminate our unconscious. Somehow every aspect of ourselves and our voyage must be conscious and accounted for. Scientists are very good at this kind of self delusion. Once they fail at non-contamination, we'll hear about how they can keep track the natives versus the aliens.

Of course from a slightly different angle one could see human bodies as the space ships created by bacteria for transport to mars. Humans have been selected because they're quite clever with machines. Bacteria have survived in space and could easily flourish on mars. Except as transport, humans aren't very well adapted to the task.

 

I Like to iWatch

For some reason we're looking for a computerized wrist watch. I guess it's because everyone, at least before smart phones, used to buy a watch. The market for wrist watches appears to include just about everyone, but good quality watches are rarely replaced. It's becoming a niche market steeped in nostalgia.

A watch is for telling time. A computer isn't necessary for that function. No one needs an iWatch to tell time. The current networked wearables are small feature-reduced smart phones that can be strapped to the wrist. Not that phones are still telephones.

The etymology of the word “watch” isn't entirely clear, but it seems to have something to do with a schedule for keeping watch, for instance on the deck of ship. An iWatch would be a device for keeping an eye on the wearer. The schedule can be discarded because it's always on, although the batteries need to be recharged now and then. “Wearable” means attached via a strap or some other means–it's a device not meant for the hand or the pocket.

These new devices, if they actually appear, are personal data collection devices that will send information for analysis to a personal or feudal cloud. The devices themselves will have limited read-out capability. They are sensors. They're meant to suck in data, not to display it. And once it's “in,” there's little chance it will remain private.

 

Travel Economics: Peak Carry On

hand-luggage

There was a time in pre-history. Long before the Internet. When you could book a flight from San Francisco to New York and it would mostly be empty. It was common to find an unoccupied row and stretch out — making use of all three seats. That form of travel no longer exists. Based on a recent flight, I’ve concluded we’ve reached another inflection point in air travel; I’m calling it: Peak Carry on.

suit-carrier

In the early days of the carry on luggage era, it was only a small number of savvy travelers who packed everything into a small case, carried it along into the cabin and checked nothing. The suit carrier era was eclipsed by the rolling carry on bag. The rationale was simple. It takes too long to retrieve your checked luggage. A business traveler could deplane and go. No waiting around for a luggage carousel.

Over the years, all business travelers adopted this approach. To be the person in your group who checked luggage was to show you were hopelessly old fashioned. Clearly not management material. This approach spread from the business sector to almost all travelers. The carry on bag is everywhere.

The moment of peak carry on has occurred due to a confluence of events. Everyone believes they need to use carry on luggage to save time. In addition the airlines now work to fill every seat in an effort to make a profit. As part of that they generally charge $25 per checked bag. This means there’s an economic incentive to switch to carry on luggage which has no extra charges.

Steamer-Trunk

The terrorists have succeeded in degrading the experience of air travel. We’ve grown used to the security perimeter, to being searched and having our luggage scanned. We’ve completed the process of ruining air travel with carry on luggage. Boarding a plane is now a fight for space in the overhead compartment. If you’re last to board, it’s likely that all the overhead space has already been stuffed with carryon bags and you’ll need to check your carry on. Incidentally, there’s no fee to check your bag in this instance. When it comes time to deplane, it’s a scramble to pull carry ons from the overhead bin without cracking someone on the skull.

Getting on and off of airplanes has become horrible. And because carry on luggage is taking up so much space, often you’re sitting on your coat and you’ve been crammed into the ever smaller seating with whatever you’ve brought along to amuse yourself during the trip. Observe the upset that occurs when the person in the window seat needs to get up and use the restroom.

It’s within our power to fix air travel, or at least part of it. We just need to set some limits and change the incentives. First, assign overhead bin space to each seat. This is part of what you pay for when you book passage. If you don’t want your overhead space you can trade it for a discounted ticket. The airline can rent unwanted overhead space to other passengers. Second, limit the number of carry on bags to 30% of the passenger total — and charge $50 (double the checked rate) for a carry on. In addition, when deplaning, passengers with carry on luggage must wait until all other passengers have left the plane before removing their bags from the overhead bin.

These simple changes would make air travel better for everyone. I’m certain that business travelers would complain bitterly about these new rules and restrictions. However, by attempting to optimize speed and efficiency in every aspect of air travel, we’ve made it almost intolerable. The speedy part of air travel is the part where you fly through the air. Carry on luggage is only faster when a few people do it. When everyone does it you experience peak carry on. Airlines don’t need to introduce these new policies all at once. They could be introduced one flight at time — the key here is asking travelers about the difference it made in their experience of air travel.

To me the worst part of travel is the traveling part. Can you imagine an airline using actual footage of what it’s like for most of us in their television commercials? Imagine if we could make it better.

Zombie Microsoft Must Die

Zombie-title

These days so much of the world is seen through the lens of the horror movie. Even thinking about software seems to have that character. RSS is declared dead, but lives on. Software eats the world. Microsoft is declared dead by the cloud vendors, but continues to live on in zombie form. When the fundamental computing environment changes to such a degree that a particular software solution would no longer be generated from the new set of assumptions, it’s the beginning of the end. While zombie software still operates, its roots are in the previous computing environment. Uprooted, it continues to live, but lacks purchase for continued organic growth in the new soils of computing. In a zombie apocalypse, the undead triumph over the living.

I will knock down the Gates of the Netherworld,
I will smash the door posts, and leave the doors flat down,
and will let the dead go up to eat the living!
And the dead will outnumber the living!

Ishtar in the Epic of Gilgamesh

While the Stacks have settled into small group of feudal kingdoms, the raison d’etre of each of them is to be the One. A single platform would be so much more efficient, surely it’s the most rational way to proceed. At this level, platform software has the character of an extra-terrestrial virus that when mixed with earth’s biosphere rampantly multiplies killing all other life forms and replacing them with a version of itself. But in a nice way, with more efficiency and productivity. Imagine being undead as a positive thing. In the movies this fantasy plays out in a number of ways. The Andromeda Strain, The Thing, Invasion of the Body Snatchers, and my favorite, Five Million Years to Earth, all address our fear of being consumed and turned into alien beings. The malevolence we feel is not so much evil as the amoral neutrality of an algorithm executing until completion. In Kurt Vonnegut’s “Cat’s Cradle” it’s called “Ice Nine”, a substance that turns all water it touches into more ice nine.

From the Wikipedia entry on Ice Nine:

Ice-nine is a fictional material appearing in Kurt Vonnegut’s novel Cat’s Cradle. Ice-nine is supposedly a polymorph of water more stable than common ice (Ice Ih); instead of melting at 0 °C (32 °F), it melts at 45.8 °C (114.4 °F). When ice-nine comes into contact with liquid water below 45.8 °C (thus effectively becoming supercooled), it acts as a seed crystal and causes the solidification of the entire body of water, which quickly crystallizes as more ice-nine. As people are mostly water, ice-nine kills nearly instantly when ingested or brought into contact with soft tissues exposed to the bloodstream, such as the eyes.

In the story, it is developed by the Manhattan Project for use as a weapon, but abandoned when it becomes clear that any quantity of it would have the power to destroy all life on earth. A global catastrophe involving freezing the world’s oceans with ice-nine is used as a plot device in Vonnegut’s novel.

Many feared that Microsoft was on the verge of achieving 100% domination of computing before the consent decree from the justice department breaking up the monopoly. For many in the technology community that was the climax of the horror film, the invading virus was finally defeated by the United States Government. A space was opened up for other platforms to grow and prosper. But the seeds of a sequel were planted. As a practical matter, Microsoft was prevented from securing world domination, but the attitude that desired world domination remained dominant. In the new post-consent decree world the nascent platforms saw this as their chance at world domination. They took aim at Microsoft.

software-update-icon

Time passes and a key element in the computing environment changes. The mechanism and speed of software upgrades is fundamentally altered through network-connected computing. More recently cloud services offer that same speed for the most software infrastructure. Just as mobile devices disrupted desktop computing, the speed of network-based software updates have made the shrink wrapped software business obsolete. In a sense software itself becomes mobile, it has a speed and trajectory. The large installed base of enterprise software has remained locked into the slow upgrade cycle of the last era of computing. We now see the personal technology of the worker far outstripping the technology of the corporation.

The real innovation in software was creating the environment where updating, refactoring and completely revising software programs isn’t a painful event. In fact, it isn’t an event at all — just an everyday activity. The capacity to implement real-time upgrades and lower the cost of change is much more important than whatever software is currently in use. Because next week or next month, the software will be improved with a seamless incremental upgrade. It’s one reason that software version numbers don’t really make sense any more. The major version numbers used to signal to users and administrators the cost and level of pain involved in adopting the new version.

pirate_flag

As speed became important, Microsoft got faster too. So much so that the most current set of Microsoft products are qualitatively different than the previous generation. Microsoft has pulled so far ahead of Microsoft that a large gap has been created. Microsoft can now look back and see Microsoft in the distance. This is the moment in the horror movie where the monster is split in two. And while all the other technology platforms are fighting Zombie Microsoft, there’s a new piece of Microsoft that’s also fighting against the Zombie. Something similar happened at Apple when a separate team flying a pirate flag was broken off to work on the Macintosh. Microsoft has joined the field of companies competing against Microsoft. They find themselves in a strange situation — in order for Microsoft to live, Microsoft must die at the hands of Microsoft.

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