Family D.I.Y. Backup Solutions?

In my extended family, there are around a dozen computers which should be backed up, not counting an equal number of phones. Myself, I have an old Time Capsule and I do a weekly external drive bootable backup. Most of our computers are for personal matters, not work.

My son is an outlier. He is near completion of a Ph.D. in genetics and does some high-power statistics whose processing often runs for hours. He has many large files of data on a one year-old MacBook Pro. Loss of this would be catastrophic. He has an external drive for backup, but keeps it in his not-too-secure apartment in a ratty (in the negative sense) building. His chained bike was stolen recently from an inside hallway, and that event led to this entire inquiry.

It occurs to me – I like the idea of having my backup local – that the combined annual cost of online backup subscriptions for a dozen computers would quickly far exceed the cost of an online server set up as a personal cloud. For the cognoscenti among us – is this a worthwhile line of thought? Have you better suggestions? Anyone for hire to set it up for me (only half kidding).


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Game Review: Bioshock Infinite

Bioshock Infinite (game)

I’ve been writing about virtual reality, simulated worlds, and the new forms of entertainment and education they will engender for thirty years.  Other than Kerbal Space Program, which is more of a simulated world sandbox than a game (there is no specific goal and no conflict other than with the laws of nature), I have not played video games since the age of Pac-Man.  As we approach the threshold of the Roaring Twenties, I thought it would be a good idea to check in and see the current state of the art and whether it justified the things people were saying about contemporary games being a new art form and interactive medium of fiction.

The game I chose to play was Bioshock Infinite, the latest in the Bioshock series (but an entirely different story line from the previous games).  This game, originally released for consoles in 2013 and ported to Linux in 2015, was rated very high by reviewers, with most rankings 9/10 or 10/10.  The budget for the game was not disclosed by its privately-held developers, but was said to be around US$ 100 million for development and a comparable sum for promotion, larger than many major motion pictures.  It has sold more than 11 million copies since its release.  I learned of the game from a detailed description by James Lileks on his blog.

This review will be presented in a very eccentric manner.  I will not describe the plot from an omniscient standpoint (for that, see the links above), but rather things as I encounter them.  These are my notes, written in the style of a software development log or system narrative.  I will post items in comments, one or more per day, time permitting, running behind my play-through of the game (providing a buffer for days I have too many other things to do).  In each entry, I will provide links to an on-line play-through which will give you more details and screen grabs.  There’s no point in making my own, since the job has already been done superbly.  There will, of course, as in any play-through, be major spoilers in the comments.  I will make no effort to avoid or mark them.  If you want to experience the game without any foreknowledge, don’t read the comments that follow.

I am playing the game on an Xubuntu Linux system under the Steam gaming environment.  I am using 1920×1080 screen resolution in “High” resolution rendering mode with “Normal” difficulty.  As I am interested more in exploring this virtual world, how it is rendered, and how a visitor interacts with it than testing my prowess against the game engine, I am exploring it with the aid of play-throughs prepared by people who have made it all the way to the finish.  These are guides, however, not cheats—there is substantial randomness in the game and you’re on your own when the shooting starts—it’s generally up to you to figure out how to defeat the assaults you’ll face as you progress through the game.

This is a “first-person shooter” game: you are the protagonist and have to reach your objectives by defeating foes—human, mechanical, and supernatural—with weapons, wits, and capabilities you acquire as you pursue your quest.  If you find this repellent, so be it—that’s the model for many games, and it’s the one adopted here.  Personally, I find most of the combat episodes tedious, although it’s fun learning tricks to defeat adversaries and deploying newly-acquired weapons and “vigors” (supernatural powers) against them.  What is the most fun is exploring the huge, magnificently-rendered world here.  The production values are equal to contemporary CGI movies, but you’re not stuck in your seat munching popcorn but able to explore it at will, looking at things from various perspectives and interacting with this world you’re discovering.  The game is, as far as I’ve played it when I’m writing this, beautiful, with superbly-rendered three-dimensional models; an airy, misty ambience; and a musical track, both vintage and original, which complements the story line.  There is explicit violence (although nothing which would go beyond a “PG” rating in the movies), but no obscenity or nudity (at least as far as I’ve played).

I should note that the credits screen includes the following acknowledgements:

This software product includes Autodesk® Beast™ software,© 2013 Autodesk, Inc.,  Autodesk® HumaniK® software,© 2013 Autodesk, Inc., Autodesk® Kynapse® software,© 2013 Autodesk, Inc., and Autodesk® Scaleform® software,© 2013 Autodesk, Inc.

I had no idea Autodesk was such a player in the game space, as well as CGI movies.  You never know what the kids will do after they grow up and move out….  (Guys, you only need to use the “registered” or other marks on the first reference to the word.)

Remember that you can follow this post, receiving notifications for new comments without having your comment appear by posting  a comment consisting of just the word “follow”.

And here we go….


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Persistent Bugger (revisited) or REVENGE

This is related to the persistent bugger post I made a little while ago.

OK, I did some looking around on Youtube regarding “telemonsters” or Robo-callers. There was everything from actual conversations that people had with them, especially the hard to understand Indian scammers,to people with the technical know how to initiate their own robocallers to flood the telemonster’s phone center preventing them from making outgoing calls.

Continue reading “Persistent Bugger (revisited) or REVENGE”


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Book Review “The Autodesk File”

A comment John made (#18) on a recent post by 10 cents (“Programming Question”), reminded me I had reviewed one of John’s books. The review was posted a while back on the legacy site. As this is one of the most worthwhile books I have ever read, I thought it should be posted it here.

A work of non-fiction is understood in a context. A great work actually articulates the context before anybody else gets it. A review of such a book may go seemingly far afield, if the book’s power can be construed to provoke and, indeed, license the inspired musings of its readers. Such is the case here, as “The Autodesk File”’s roots are deep in the intellectual, technological, economic, financial, and even spiritual soil of this, the spring garden of the information age.

When was the last time you couldn’t put down a book which had not a single murder, courtship, love or sex scene? OK, I’m not counting some ancillary trysts consisting of mergers and takeovers, which some might construe as sexy, or at least allude to being on the receiving end of a certain Anglo-Saxon gerund. This book contains no obscenities, save a rare mention of taurine spoor. That serves as a welcome reminder: important ideas and even emotions are amenable to description sans vulgarity.

Lest one think this a narrow commercial exposition, “The Autodesk File” is in the public domain in multiple formats. Neither is it a mere exposition of commerce. About half way through, amidst essays explaining the nature of businesses dealing in intellectual property (rather than capital-intensive equipment), the reader is treated to a short science fiction story whose theme is no less than a plausible tale of the origin of human life. Our bodily construction is, after all, prescribed in lines of code, albeit compressed into helixes wound around themselves then wrapped around histones. Like some of their software counterparts, they, too, must be unzipped before use.

Also punctuating this eclectic opus are quotes from Aristophanes. It is a tour de force, a truly awe-inspiring account of much more than the building and workings of one trailblazing company. It encapsulates the noblest of human aspirations, idealizations, creativity, ingenuity and critical self-examination; inescapable is the conclusion that voluntary cooperation and exchange of ideas, knowledge and capital is a great boon to the world at large. If a business is built to serve the needs of customers by creating products of the highest possible quality, greed is not a good; it is irrelevant. Also inescapable is the perhaps ironic conclusion that ongoing success requires continual vigilance, lest arrogance take hold. The fruition of critical self-examination can be seen in renewal of that same humility which was so essential in powering that first whiff of success.

Nonetheless, apart from arcane sections dealing with technical matters of computer hardware and programming (these, too, may be great for the cognoscenti; this writer simply knows too little), this book is a spellbinder. Readers may be surprised to be persuasively regaled with the fundamentals of various disciplines, including economics, finance, taxation, corporate law, engineering, computer science, thermodynamics, rocket science, quantum mechanics, cosmology and the nature of reality. That is, readers who don’t know John Walker. For those who do, none of this is surprising.

Have you ever had a million dollar idea? I have – lots of ‘em. Have I turned even one of those ideas into a product? Nope. Why not? Because I lacked the understanding, the talent, and the single-minded discipline to even get one idea off the ground. This book, edited by Ratburger’s own John Walker (himself author of most of the collected writings), is a chronicle of birth, growth, crises and maturation of Autodesk Inc., whose products helped unleash the creativity and productivity of millions of people. It did so beginning with a key insight: that the infant personal computer was a general tool and not a specific workstation. As a general tool, through the intelligent design of software, it would rapidly evolve in utility in virtually every field of endeavor, beginning with design. Design, in this line of thinking, is a logical first step down the path which aims, eventually, to capture all of reality in the box we call a computer. This stunning insight occurred while all the rest of us still went through our days typing on an IBM Selectric, without once even using the word “computer.” Way back then in 1980, virtually none of us thought about computers or any of the other words and things without which our lives today would be unimaginable. Historically speaking,1980 happened yesterday.

An additional insight guided Autodesk’s ethos: that personal computers would grow exponentially in processing power and become useful by ordinary people (with no computer or programming skills) to undertake virtually any task. Autodesk’s first product,  AutoCAD, moved design from a small number of dedicated, expensive CAD workstations operated by highly-trained people, to desks virtually everywhere where drawing might be needed. In the process of “squeezing too much code into too small a box,” Autodesk did not compete with previous generations of single-purpose CAD workstations which cost 10 – 50X as much. Instead, it created and increased a market for CAD by the same orders of magnitude, by bringing this tool to the 98% of designers and draftsmen who could not afford dedicated CAD workstations.

In less than one year, this new company had a hit product. Time to rest on one’s laurels? How about after the IPO? Time to coast? Not quite. Going into the CAD business – and that is the business, as opposed to the software business (read the book to learn why), is something like launching a rocket from Earth and hoping to land on a comet and send back data – all except that the precise trajectory of the comet cannot be known, and its surface material and contours are completely unknown. The difficulties were perhaps not unlike those encountered by the ESA’s $1.8 billion Rosetta/Philae spacecraft which did rendezvous and land on comet 67P. Philae’s tether harpoons failed to fire, so the probe bounced and wound up in a permanently-shaded spot (due to an unanticipated hard surface, they likely would not have worked anyway), preventing use of solar power. Batteries enabled an estimated 80% overall mission success. AutoCAD’s launch – with $59,000 in capital, mid-course hardware and software corrections and “landing” on users, by contrast, remains successful to this day.

“The Autodesk File” attributes success to the company’s understanding that it represented what it coined “The New Technological Corporation.” This is an an enterprise which does not conform to traditional capital-intensive business, as it can deploy intellectual, debt-free leverage. Such businesses embrace an unpredictable but essential element: “wild talent.” This talent is a necessary but not sufficient condition for success when it comes to creating software, which is unlike most all prior businesses. Rather than capital, such entities require a peculiar kind of talent – one which grasps the present desires of a market, knows what is possible with present hardware and the correctly plots the trajectories of both the market and evolving hardware. I believe it to be objectively true that the editor is faithfully and humbly describing the truly awe-inspiring talent he, himself, brought to Autodesk. Other such individuals, like Jobs or Gates, are known in the early computer and software businesses. Few, however, have operated as willing members of an extended team with humility, dedication to excellence and human decency. If nothing else, “The Autodesk File” shows how this can be accomplished. 

Attempts to find individuals with “wild talent” are most difficult, maybe impossible. “Wild talent” illustrates the essential difference between aggregate information, traditionally used by analysts to “value” companies which trade on public exchanges, and actual events which take place within any company. For instance, money spent on R&D is aggregate data which subsumes the activities of many employees of a given company. Whether it means the company will grow really depends on what individual employees accomplish. When it come to software, the outcome will be notably different for R&D teams which play it safe versus ones which continually push the envelope of what may be remotely possible. Intellectual leverage is such that the cost of failure of 8 out of 10 ideas is far outweighed by success in only 1 or 2 of them. The presence of such loyal individuals is also a bulwark against hostile takeovers. You can lead a programmer to the R&D department, but you can’t make him plink – at least not in the way which is essential to success.

Perhaps most revealing about this unusual book is the ongoing critical self-examination engaged in by the primary author. These analyses were distilled into the form of internal company communications as essays and information letters.  At many points in the journey, the author is able to adumbrate the – sometimes previously un-articulable – principles which guided his often momentous insights. These usually arose in chaotic circumstances with incomplete information. The essential humility of this approach is demonstrated at various points in the book. Repeatedly, the author makes clear the importance of open communication and understanding of the roles of all the other parts of the company. A programmer, for example, must understand management’s plan, what customers want, how a product will be marketed and shipped, what competitors are doing, etc. Only then can a “wild talent” be effective.

 “The Autodesk File” is a much-needed reminder that human beings are still capable of doing awe-inspiring, creative and even noble things; that they can voluntarily collaborate and, working in their own self-interest, set off endless waves of non-zero sum games in their wakes. This is also a success story, then, a chain of decisions, clearly rooted in the philosophy of Classical Liberalism – in some of its untidy and altogether messy human details. Without aiming to, this story affirms the primacy and value of the individual, both as producer and consumer; it convincingly shows that communication – positive and negative feedback – between individual, voluntary buyers and sellers – is the essence of what a market is. This is in contrast to statist dirigisme, where aggregate data and arrogance rule, in derogation of the value of the individual. 

Diametrically opposed to today’s received collectivist wisdom, “The Autodesk File” shows how individuals create markets where none previously existed, to the betterment of all. From those roots emerge timeless operating principles: 1. build the best products, period – with open architecture so as to invite developers to customize and find as yet undreamed uses (an essential form of feedback for software companies), thereby further expanding markets; 2. invite, quickly assess and respond to this feedback from customers in the form of improved new releases; 3. employ owners, not merely ‘investors’ – pay well for results – with ownership whenever possible. This is a story which demonstrates the huge difference between owners, whose time preference is long and investors focused only on the forecast for the next fiscal quarter. The tyranny of industry analysts, a form of economic lunacy where short time preference is brutally and pervasively enforced on behalf of “investors,” operates so as to threaten the short-term existence of sound public companies which actually attempt to pursue the best long-term business practices.

In a somewhat philosophic interview around the tenth anniversary of Autodesk, the author/editor describes the operation of a new “design cult” of engineering as a “form of creationism, which thinks its members are so omniscient that they have no need for market-driven evolution to perfect their efforts.” This view, coupled with the information letters, again displays an essential humility in the ethos of Autodesk. Management must lead toward explicit goals. Every part of the organization must understand and communicate with all others, particularly as it affects product development. This is not the typical hierarchical corporate ethos. Neither is it anarchy. Management must lead, but not without listening, understanding and explaining. 

It is difficult for this writer to refrain from drawing parallels to the author’s description of this “design cult” of engineering. Such an attitude is not surprising, given that we live in a society which increasingly and officially denies the existence of a supreme being, while at the same time acting – through a “cult” of increasingly centralized authoritarian government – as though it were omniscient and omnipotent; as though its policies have no unintended consequences; as though no cost is too high to accomplish its goals, whose only feedback is its own reverberating positive-feedback echo chamber. It is hard to know which cult is imitating which. In either case, the state-erected obstacles to starting and running a business, while not emphasized, are on display in this epic. This common ethos of the state and large corporations has inevitably given us today’s pernicious corporatism.

It may be that the most significant intellectual error of our time is the belief that society can be modeled and manipulated as well as physical reality now can be, thanks in large part to private companies like Autodesk. Unlike government, though, companies are forced to relearn their limits – i.e., lessons in humility are given, at least annually, and enforced as necessary by balance sheets and owners. The fear of going out of business would be a highly salutary fear for modern government to experience. Instead of a healthy humility, however, the state often displays antipathy toward private enterprise – ironically, the very source of its own financial power. The public relations nature of this attitude  likely represents either envy of private successes and/or virtue signaling in an effort to garner votes in the incessant lust for yet more power.

God is traditionally described as a jealous God. Do you suppose that our deity/government has its own version of the Ten Commandments, the first of which explains its animus toward private enterprise? “Thou shalt have no other Gods before Me…” …otherwise put, “Trust me. I’m from the government.” “I’m here to protect you from those big, bad, corporations.”

Thus, as you may see for this reader, the story of Autodesk led to much contemplation of human nature and the whole spectrum our interactions – both voluntary and coercive. It is an inspiring and epic tale of the utility and nobility of voluntary cooperation.

“The Autodesk File” is in the public domain. It is available in several downloadable versions. All formats are accessible here: http://www.fourmilab.ch/autofile/


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HAL’s Legacy

On the occasion of the fiftieth anniversary of the release of 2001: A Space Odyssey, here is a SETI Institute talk by Dr David Stork on “HAL’s Legacy: 2001’s Computer as Dream and Reality”.  This was the title of a book he edited in 1998 comparing the technology envisioned in the film with that a few years before the year 2001.  In this lecture, he brings things up to date with progress toward achieving the capabilities of HAL in various domains in the ensuing twenty years.

We are now 549 days before the start of the Roaring Twenties.


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Identity and Heart Theft

I read this story  about Albert Lovato, a soldier who was stationed in Afghanistan. While he was away someone stole his identity and catfished women.   A person pretended to be him and had at least 30 women fall in love with him. That person swindled cash out of these women. Using the old trick, “My children are sick and I don’t have enough money.”  Naturally these women wanted to help.

It breaks my heart to know that a person would be that cruel to take advantage of vulnerable women. I does bother me that people are so gullible to trust a blind date. But people are so hungry to have someone they will believe lies. And when people are saying nice things about you, we let our guard down.

So these poor women are in love with him but he never contacted them. They have contacted him now and he can’t bring closure to their lives. Unfortunately their dream man was just a dream and a bad one at that.

Do you know someone who has been taken this way?


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A Montana Hello, and a Mess of Technology

Finally, some green grass and blue skies. I could never live on a Mars colony. No offense to anyone here. This is a side view of our house and shed.

Thank you to Ten Cents for allowing me on the site. I saw a lot of familiar handles “liking” and posting, so I decided to sign up. Life has been extra rich and busy. Partly what makes it frenzied is that my attention is splintered among five or so devices. I tried to simplify, and my effort backfired.

It started when my iPhone 5C, a pre-owned gift to me, failed. All it would do was show the Apple logo.  I had dropped it several weeks previously during my San Diego visit, right outside Scripps Aquarium. The screen was shattered in the corner, and I just kept using it because I didn’t want to pay $80 to fix it.  That could have caused it to fail–I don’t know. But I was going on a trip to Helena, and I needed some way to communicate with my daughter when she was at her band event there.

On a local FB marketplace, I found an iPhone with one damaged camera for a hundred bucks.  Then after communicating with that seller, I saw a brand new flip phone for forty. Wouldn’t I save a pile of money and be a lot less distracted with a flip phone? The idea was so appealing that I did a lot of driving before my trip to meet the seller and race breathless into our local phone store to get it activated. Which took twenty minutes of waiting  after closing time, cost a fee, plus required an immediate new $17 plan payment overlapping with the old plan.

I had some qualms when I got it home.  First, the original seller, when I told him my final decision, messaged that he questioned why I would choose a flip phone over a Smartphone. I said I questioned it a bit, too. (I didn’t tell him that while under time pressure to purchase a phone, his terse communication style didn’t draw me to his product. I had felt distrustful of him as a seller, but probably his phone would have been fine.)

I kept reasoning that this sleek little flip phone with the bright display would be good for making and receiving phone calls. Which it was. What a novel concept. And I could still receive texts at home on my new iPad, couldn’t I? I didn’t need to text in town, anyway.

The phone was perfect for the Helena trip. It would have been tricky to coordinate our activities without it. But while trying to take a photo of a stunning historical building, I found that the camera stinks. But I would be content with the thing, because I didn’t need all the fancy stuff. I did fine without Apple’s bells and whistles before my sister started gifting me with phones each time she upgraded.

After the trip, it didn’t take me long to realize that companies have not been laboring around the clock to improve flip phones since I last owned one. The device’s workings are still opaque to the average user, and it’s odd to me that this is what older folks tend to purchase, because its functions are not self evident. Its capabilities are layered under a standard keypad and a few other buttons. You have to fool around with it quite a bit to even get to the basics of what it does, let alone access updates they claim to have made involving Bluetooth. It’s hard to figure out how to turn the sound up, how to turn the ringer off, how to access messages.  The screen shows only a piece of the message at a time.  If someone leaves a voicemail, the phone doesn’t record the incoming number.

A couple of weeks ago, my husband updated his iTunes so that somehow my broken iPhone’s iOS could be accessed. He brought the thing back to life, and it felt good to have it back in my hands. It’s efficient for casual Web browsing and checking e-mail. Just because sleek flip phones with built-in cameras were the most amazing item you could buy eighteen years ago doesn’t mean the smartphone isn’t superior, a class by itself.  Its user-friendliness alone makes its features far more accessible than those of the old models. But I didn’t need to tell any of you that. I had to learn from experience.

Now it’s like this: some stray texts and voicemail go to my flip phone. Nothing with photos comes across, and then a few are received only when I drive down the road and cross some mysterious barrier. And then it’s painfully difficult to text back on that cramped keyboard besides a “K.”  Some texts and all FB Messenger notes appear on my wifi-connected, cracked-screen iPhone. And then, as far as I know, my iPad catches texts the others leave out. We installed Google Voice and a Google phone number on my iPad, too, where a few chats have taken place. I have a computer and an old Kindle Fire as well, for an exercise app and nighttime reading. I can Facetime on multiple devices, check Messenger and e-mail in three places, and so on.  I noticed that I’ve been feeling spread thin, and finally identified the source: having too much of a good thing.

My older daughter bought herself a new smartphone this week, a non Apple brand, that cost her forty dollars with a twenty dollar a month plan. The display looks crisp and attractive, and I’m sure it works fine. In my hurried search for a replacement phone before the trip, I’d had no idea that was an option. I eyed it enviously and immediately began plotting about how I could throw over that limited little flip phone for a pretty option like hers. Maybe there’s a charity that would gladly accept the donation of a basic phone, and I could start over. Time, energy, money–this downgrade has been an expensive bargain.

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