Spacers and Earthmen

September 18, 2017 • #

This is part three of a series on Isaac Asimov’s Greater Foundation story collection. This post is about the first installment of the Robot trilogy, The Caves of Steel.

We’re still early in the timeline of Asimov’s epic saga. The short stories in I, Robot set the stage for dozens of future novels that take place in the same universe and along the same timeline. The far-future stories of the famous Foundation series have threads leading all the way back to the “3 Laws” and the Robot series, which starts off the action on Earth. The Caves of Steel is the first Robot entry, introducing the recurring character of Lije Baley. With this one, we set the stage for humanity’s eventual galactic expansion.

Caves of Steel

While I, Robot and Asimov’s other robot story collections lean toward the cerebral and philosophical, The Caves of Steel is a murder mystery, buddy cop procedural.

The setting is New York City millennia from now, on an inhospitable and mostly ruined Earth where humans are collected in domed megacities. In between the dense urban complexes the landscape is barren and in ruin. The city’s inhabitants never go outside, living 100% of the time within the “caves of steel”. As a result, Baley suffers from debilitating agoraphobia. Just outside of New York is Spacetown, a colony of “spacers” — humans from the 50 or so nearby “spacer worlds” that had been colonized hundreds of years before that return to Earth for trading purposes. Spacers look down on the “earthmen” as dirty, diseased, and lesser people. And while people of Earth have banned robots from their cities, spacers embrace them and promote the spread of human-robot cooperation.

Baley’s set on a mission to investigate the murder of Roj Sarton, a spacer roboticist from the planet Aurora that turns up dead in the outpost of Spacetown. Baley serves as the classic gut-driven detective cop, paired on the case with a humanoid robot partner named R. Daneel Olivaw, the straight-laced logical one of the duo.

The earthmen have a general distrust of robots, fearing that they’ll take their jobs. Most robots are machine-like, purpose-built laborers or assistants, but R. Daneel is humanoid, a spitting image of his creator, whom we later find out is the murdered Dr. Sarton. Baley is initially unaware that Daneel is a robot, but is impressed by his incredible investigative abilities. Through their work together hunting for the culprit, Baley comes around on his opinion of robots, eventually agreeing with the spacers that humans and robots should cooperate to expand to other planets.

The setting is fascinating given the year it was published. The urban sprawl megalopolis has been the host of countless sci-fi works over the last 50 or 60 years. Not to say Asimov invented the concept, but his version must have been in the minds of the creators of Coruscant, The Sprawl, or Los Angeles 2019. To his credit, Asimov does do a decent job with the political elements of spacer vs. earthman, the “medievalist” Luddites vs. the pro-robot camp. The resolution to that conflict is what plants the seed of the Galactic Empire trilogy. Given that he published these in all sorts of mixed up order, it’s impressive how well they hold together as a chronological series1.

Aside from being a passable mystery tale, Asimov forms something of a parable about the risks of unjustified prejudice and presumption. The medievalist hatred of spacer outsiders has for hundreds of years stifled the advancement of Earth livelihood. Human survival is dependent on moving forward rather than standing still, and the elimination of prejudice from both sides (Earth to Aurora and vice versa) is essential to each’s survival; the Spacers and Earthmen need each other. Without the spacer worlds the Earth is in a tailspin of destruction, and the spacers have created societies too uniform and isolated, with shallow gene pools that need an injection of diversity after shunning outsiders for thousands of years.

I was pleasantly surprised with the quality of storytelling. Asimov puts together a compelling “whodunit” that had me hooked until the final act when the crime’s details are uncovered.

  1. A little hindsight here, given I’ve already read a couple of the Empire and Foundation novels. Look for Han Fastolfe. 

Recent Links: Playing with Numbers, Logistics Networks, Vancouver Island

September 13, 2017 • #

🎓 Numbers at Play: Dynamic Toys Make the Invisible Visible

Great tools keep up with their users. They operate at the speed of thought, ever shrinking the feedback loop between conceiving of an idea and exploring its consequences.

Tools for thought must support communication not just from the expert to the novice: they should enhance conversation between collaborative peers. They should enact thought at the speed of speech. With tools this fluid, we can reinforce natural dialogue through novel representations without awkward pauses. We can support students in co-constructing meaning as they discuss and resolve their multiple interpretations.

Fascinating work by the Khan Academy research team. They’re exploring different types of tools for teaching using visible, tangible “toys” to visualize concepts like fractions, subtraction, and more with interactive models.

🚢 How Logistics Networks Respond to Natural Disasters

I just finished up reading The Box, a history of how container shipping came about and evolved the global economy. With the storms of the last few weeks, I always wonder what sorts of second- and third-order impacts there are around the world when supply chains are disrupted by natural events.

🇨🇦 The Wild West Coast of Vancouver Island

I enjoyed this piece in Cruising World about a family’s sailing trip down the west side of Vancouver Island. The wild, wooded, and rocky coast of British Columbia is amazing landscape. They took this trip with their daughters of 2 and 5. What an amazing experience for kids to see wild bears and the village outposts in those harbors.

Subscription Pricing Models

September 8, 2017 • #

Since Apple changed their subscription pricing options for App Store developers back in 2016, several high-profile apps that have made the switch from fixed pricing to the subscription model. TextExpander, Day One, and Ulysses are just three that I know of and use.

I may be biased as I’ve been building and selling subscription software for years, but I love that the Apple ecosystem is supporting this now. Ulysses provides a great example: their fixed model had the price at $45 for the Mac app and $25 for the iOS app. Their new subscription is for universal access on both platforms for either $5 per month or $40 per year, plus a 14-day free trial for new users. I’d long heard that Ulysses was a great editor for writing, but held out forever on really using it because, for one, there are a ton of great text editors, but also I didn’t know how much I’d really use it once I dropped the coin. At a $5/month subscription, I don’t have to feel bad, I can just cancel if I’m not using it enough and be out a $10 or $15.

There’s been some backlash from the community about this shift from fixed to subscription models. The AppStories podcast did an episode recently on the topic with some interesting discussion. To me the reasons for backlash are threefold:

  1. Users don’t like change — We’ve experienced this time and again with our product. Even when we release new features that seem universally fantastic, we’ll still get naysayers wanting a checkbox to “make it work like it used to.” Change that makes the price higher, even if it’s only perceived to be higher, or even when the alternative is the developer is no longer able to support the app, there are those that still can’t accept it.
  2. Users don’t get continued (or enough) value from the product — Even if the recurring price is super low, like $1.99 per month, some users will feel like they don’t use the app enough to warrant that price forever. A flat $10 might be okay. A fair enough reason. It comes down to who the developer wants as a customer. Are they building something for the few, higher-value niche customers, or a mass market?
  3. Most people are cheap — There are a shocking number of people who are willing to have subpar experiences to save some money. The frustrating part for developers is when users want the savings part, but don’t want to make that sacrifice in quality. The glut of free replacements out there makes it challenging for developers to charge anything at all for many users.

Of course it’s possible for a developer to misprice their app, to overpredict the value delivered to a user. I’ve seen it happen with SaaS products: something I use a little changes their pricing model a bit, it becomes not worth it to me anymore so I cancel. But I’m a believer that developers will tend to get this right more often than not (at least eventually). With subscription pricing, small pricing adjustments are easier decisions for a developer to make. Going from $5 to $2.50 a month is less momentous a choice than going from $50 to $25 in fixed price model. It’s better for the user, too; there’s less feeling of being ripped off, and no need for promo codes and refunds.

But hands-down the best feature of subscription models is that the apps you love get to stick around for the long haul. At this point we’ve all been burned by services we rely on disappearing on us. I’m happy to pay to keep things around that I use regularly.

Recent Links: Waymo’s Cars, ARCore, and Fantasy Maps

August 31, 2017 • #

📱 Google Announces ARCore

This is Google’s answer to Apple’s recently announced ARKit coming in iOS 11. After years of buzz with little substance, it’s great to see AR coming around to fruition with real commercial potential. The confluence of hardware fast enough for SLAM, mature OS platforms, and the APIs making it simple for developers to drop in and experiment with.

🛣 Inside Waymo’s Secret World for Training Self-Driving Cars

Waymo seems clearly in the lead in vehicle automation. This piece has some stunning figures on what they’re doing not only with their well known Fireflies and minivans, but also in simulated models for teaching the algorithms:

At any time, there are now 25,000 virtual self-driving cars making their way through fully modeled versions of Austin, Mountain View, and Phoenix, as well as test-track scenarios. Waymo might simulate driving down a particularly tricky road hundreds of thousands of times in a single day. Collectively, they now drive 8 million miles per day in the virtual world. In 2016, they logged 2.5 billion virtual miles versus a little over 3 million miles by Google’s IRL self-driving cars that run on public roads. And crucially, the virtual miles focus on what Waymo people invariably call “interesting” miles in which they might learn something new. These are not boring highway commuter miles.

The article mentions a facility where they’ve built real-life replicas of difficult lane configurations and traffic scenarios. I did a little hunting and found the location north of Merced, CA.

Here at the End of All Things

While cartographers have developed so many ways to present geographic information, the maps that accompany fantasy novels don’t vary a lot in terms of the information they display. They are about location, distance, and terrain for characters to hike through and for us to follow along. They are rarely political maps. They focus on geography over borders and on movement over status. The scholar Stefan Ekman suggests one reason why that may be: a lot of the borders and boundaries around fantasy realms are dictated by natural or supernatural features and have to do with states of being rather than simple movement in space. The kinds of borders we are familiar with — the result of historic processes or Gertrude Bell-style whim — are mostly banished. Concepts that we have grown distrustful of in our world — border, nation, identity — are magically appropriate in describing elf kingdoms, misty isles, or corsair ports.

I feel the same as the author. Fantasy novels read without their accompanying maps feels wrong for me. Any work that includes maps I prefer reading in hard copy. When I first read the Song of Ice and Fire books on Kindle, I would always have images of maps of Westeros open on another device for continued reference.

Recent Links: Glue, Org Charts, and Patreon’s Growth

August 16, 2017 • #

⚗️ Amazon Announces AWS Glue

AWS Glue is a fully managed extract, transform, and load (ETL) service that makes it easy for customers to prepare and load their data for analytics. You simply point AWS Glue to your data stored on AWS, and AWS Glue discovers your data and stores the associated metadata

Interesting new service from AWS (is there a need in computing they don’t cover at this point?), providing serverless ETL transformations on datasets hosted anywhere. The automatic discovery is particularly interesting for applications dealing in highly variable data structures.

🏢 The Strategies and Tactics of Big

A conversation between Benedict Evans and Steven Sinofsky on big companies, their org charts, and what makes each (and their products) different.

💵 Inside Patreon

Patreon is still tiny compared to Kickstarter, where 13 million backers have funded 128,000 successful campaigns, but it’s rapidly growing. Half its patrons and creators joined in the past year, and it’s set to process $150 million in 2017, compared to $100 million total over the past three years.

This is a fascinating company, creating a funding mechanism for independent creators with a different model than the Kickstarter structure.

Weekly Links: Ambient Computers, Drones, and Focus

June 1, 2017 • #

💻 The Disappearing Computer

For his final weekly column of his long career, Walt Mossberg talks about what he calls “ambient computing”, the penetration of IoT, AR, VR, and computers throughout our lives:

I expect that one end result of all this work will be that the technology, the computer inside all these things, will fade into the background. In some cases, it may entirely disappear, waiting to be activated by a voice command, a person entering the room, a change in blood chemistry, a shift in temperature, a motion. Maybe even just a thought. Your whole home, office and car will be packed with these waiting computers and sensors. But they won’t be in your way, or perhaps even distinguishable as tech devices. This is ambient computing, the transformation of the environment all around us with intelligence and capabilities that don’t seem to be there at all.

🚁 Drones Go to Work

Great piece from Chris Anderson on the prospects of the commercial drone space. He makes great points about the true success of the technology being its penetration into business applications:

Although it might surprise you, I hope the future of drones is boring. As the CEO of a drone company, I obviously stand to gain from the rise of drones, but I don’t see that happening if we are focused on the excitement of drones. The sign of a successful technology is not that it thrills but that it becomes essential and accepted, fading into the wallpaper of modernity. Electricity was once a magic trick, but now it is assumed. The internet is going the same way. My end goal is for drones to be thought of as just another unsexy industrial tool, like agricultural machinery or generators on construction sites — as obviously useful as they are unremarkable.

Can Do vs. Must Do

Another good reminder from Fred Wilson on the importance of focus. He suggests setting no more than 3 “big efforts” in a year, the “must dos”. More than that is lying to yourself and losing steam on the ones you really care about:

But regardless of whether you have two, three, or four big efforts this year, you should test all of your initiatives agains the “must do” vs “can do” test. Just because you can do something doesn’t mean you should. I’ve written about the importance of strategy and saying no. Strategy isn’t saying no. It is figuring out what is the most important thing for your company and deciding to focus on it and say no to everything else.

Weekly Links: LiDAR, WannaCry, and OSM Imagery

May 18, 2017 • #

🗺 LiDAR Data for DC Available as an AWS Public Dataset

LiDAR point cloud data for Washington, DC, is available for anyone to use on Amazon Simple Storage Service (Amazon S3). This dataset, managed by the District of Columbia’s Office of the Chief Technology Officer (OCTO), with the direction of OCTO’s Geographic Information System (GIS) program, contains tiled point cloud data for the entire District along with associated metadata.

This is a great move by the District to make high value open data available.

🖥 WannaCry and the Power of Business Models

Ben Thompson breaks down the blame game of the latest zero-day attack on Windows systems. This article makes a great case for the business model being to blame rather than Microsoft, their customers, the government, or someone else. a SaaS business model naturally aligns incentives for everyone:

I am, of course, describing Software-as-a-service, and that category’s emergence, along with cloud computing generally (both easier to secure and with massive incentives to be secure), is the single biggest reason to be optimistic that WannaCry is the dying gasp of a bad business model (although it will take a very long time to get out of all the sunk costs and assumptions that fully-depreciated assets are “free”). In the long run, there is little reason for the typical enterprise or government to run any software locally, or store any files on individual devices. Everything should be located in a cloud, both files and apps, accessed through a browser that is continually updated, and paid for with a subscription. This puts the incentives in all the right places: users are paying for security and utility simultaneously, and vendors are motivated to earn it.

🛰 DigitalGlobe Satellite Imagery Launch for OpenStreetMap

DG is opening up access to imagery for tracing in OpenStreetMap, giving the project a powerful new resource for more basemap data. Especially cool for HOTOSM projects:

Over the past few months, we have been working with several of our partners that share the common goal of improving OpenStreetMap. To that end, they have generously funded the launch of a global imagery service powered by DigitalGlobe Maps API. This will open more data and imagery to aid OSM editing. OSM contributors will see a new DigitalGlobe imagery source, in addition to imagery provided by our partners, Bing and Mapbox.

📷 Updating Google Maps with Deep Learning

If you’re in the mapping space, seeing any of this R&D that Google is doing is mind-boggling.

Weekly Links: Podcast Edition

May 4, 2017 • #

🚗 The Man Behind Uber

The Daily is the New York Times’ daily radio show, which I’ve been enjoying lately. This episode is a companion to their recent piece on Travis Kalanick, Uber’s CEO.

🚢 Containers

Containers is an audio documentary on global trade and container shipping. Alexis Madrigal dives into the processes that bring things like coffee from a farm in Ethiopia to your local hipster coffee shop.

🚀 Nukes

The crew from Radiolab looks at the nuclear arsenal chain of command. At their invention, atomic weapons were treated like other military munitions: the military leadership had authority to use them like other conventional weapons. Over time we implemented the system we have now, requiring presidential authorization.

Weekly Links: Cartography's Future, Interactive Maps, and Building Moats

April 27, 2017 • #

🚙 Cartography in the Age of Autonomous Vehicles

An excellent, extremely detailed analysis from Justin O’Bierne on how maps and cartography might evolve if autonomous vehicles negate our need for turn-by-turn navigation.

We can’t apply today’s maps to tomorrow’s cars – but this is exactly what those who think cartography is dying are doing. (It’s not that we’ll no longer be navigating, it’s that we’ll be navigating different things – and we’ll need new kinds of maps to help us.)

🌎 Few Interact With Our Interactive Maps–What Can We Do About It?

Brian Timoney’s done some great writing on this topic over the last few years. In the GIS world, enormous amounts of money are spent by governments to build and host map portals. The goals are typically noble (transparency, openness, providing access to citizens), but the results are mixed. Much of the spend is in making the information interactive. The dirty secret is that people don’t actually interact with these maps. He proposes a number of ideas of how to get the best of both: lower costs to create with the same (or higher) consumer engagement. For example, static maps cost much less to create and could even do better at directing a reader to the right information:

Just because you’re publishing a map to the web, doesn’t mean it has to be a web map. If a user is only going to spend 10-15 seconds with your map without interacting, why spend two weeks wrestling with your Javascript? And the great thing is the focus a static map brings–a single view, a single story: don’t bury the lede.

💡 The New Moats

Jerry Chen from Greylock thinks “systems of intelligence” will be the next business model for software companies to create defensible value. He differentiates “systems of record” and “systems of engagement” as two layers in a stack of software applications that have existed since the dawn of the IT revolution in the 1990s.

These AI-driven systems of intelligence present a huge opportunity for new startups. Successful companies here can build a virtuous cycle of data because the more data you generate and train on with your product, the better your models become and the better your product becomes. Ultimately the product becomes tailored for each customer which creates another moat, high switching costs.

Aerial imagery with the Mavic

April 24, 2017 • #

At work we’ve been building an integration between Fulcrum and DroneDeploy, a service for automating drone flight and data capture for aerial imagery. It’s compatible with the Mavic, so I gave it a shot with some test flights over my house.

The idea is simple: use DroneDeploy to draw on a map the area you want to survey from above, and their app handles building the flight plan, sending it to the drone, and flying the waypoints to take all the photos. You then take the pictures from the drone’s storage and upload to your DroneDeploy project for processing. It stitches them into a single mosaic and does a few other data processing functions to give you maps of NDVI plant health, elevation, and even a 3D model of the scene.

Aerials of my house

This data is from a 3 minute flight over my house at about 150 feet. The post-processed scene reports 0.75 acres at 0.6 in/pixel resolution. Only 13 stills required to create this image. It’s pretty impressive for a few minutes of setup and a few minutes of flying. In the full-res images you can actually see Elyse and I clearly standing in the backyard. She was a little spooked as it took off, but loved the landing!