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Victor Trac
Works at ROIKOI
Attended Clemson University
Lives in Austin, TX
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Victor Trac

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Texas Linux Fest returns to Austin on June 13th & 14th, 2014.

More details at www.texaslinuxfest.org
Texas Linux Fest 2014
Fri, June 13, 2014, 7:00 PM CDT
Austin Convention Center

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Victor Trac

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Snowing in Prospect Park
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What a huge contrast with the flat land and the mountain. 
 
Here's the rest of that story & image from yesterday. Which LOTR movie featured this mountain?

I just shared a photo of where I was flying with a chopper yesterday across the central part of the south island of New Zealand, and I thought you'd like to see another image from the same area.  This is the mountain you saw in the distance - Mount Cook.  I think it was in one of the Lord of the Rings movies?  Or maybe The Hobbit?  One of you smarties will know! :)  

Anyhoo, this shot is from a closer vantage point to one of the roads that heads down into a dead-end at the end of the valley...  I have more photos over at www.StuckInCustoms.com !    #HolyKaw   
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I've been thinking about complexity a lot recently, so this post puts into words some ideas I've had. Let's say overnight, all of our machines and other physical items that help us share knowledge all disappeared - no computers, no books, no factories, no hammers. All we're left with is everyone's knowledge inside their heads. How long would it take for humans, collectively, to get back on to a technological level of 2013? Would we just nearly instantly revert to prehistoric ways of life because we would be forced to spend all of our time foraging food? 
 
Dizzying but invisible depth

You just went to the Google home page.

Simple, isn't it?

What just actually happened?

Well, when you know a bit of about how browsers work, it's not quite that simple. You've just put into play HTTP, HTML, CSS, ECMAscript, and more. Those are actually such incredibly complex technologies that they'll make any engineer dizzy if they think about them too much, and such that no single company can deal with that entire complexity.

Let's simplify.

You just connected your computer to www.google.com.

Simple, isn't it?

What just actually happened?

Well, when you know a bit about how networks work, it's not quite that simple. You've just put into play DNS, TCP, UDP, IP, Wifi, Ethernet, DOCSIS, OC, SONET, and more. Those are actually such incredibly complex technologies that they'll make any engineer dizzy if they think about them too much, and such that no single company can deal with that entire complexity.

Let's simplify.

You just typed www.google.com in the location bar of your browser.

Simple, isn't it?

What just actually happened?

Well, when you know a bit about how operating systems work, it's not quite that simple. You've just put into play a kernel, a USB host stack, an input dispatcher, an event handler, a font hinter, a sub-pixel rasterizer, a windowing system, a graphics driver, and more, all of those written in high-level languages that get processed by compilers, linkers, optimizers, interpreters, and more. Those are actually such incredibly complex technologies that they'll make any engineer dizzy if they think about them too much, and such that no single company can deal with that entire complexity.

Let's simplify.

You just pressed a key on your keyboard.

Simple, isn't it?

What just actually happened?

Well, when you know about bit about how input peripherals work, it's not quite that simple. You've just put into play a power regulator, a debouncer, an input multiplexer, a USB device stack, a USB hub stack, all of that implemented in a single chip. That chip is built around thinly sliced wafers of highly purified single-crystal silicon ingot, doped with minute quantities of other atoms that are blasted into the crystal structure, interconnected with multiple layers of aluminum or copper, that are deposited according to patterns of high-energy ultraviolet light that are focused to a precision of a fraction of a micron, connected to the outside world via thin gold wires, all inside a packaging made of a dimensionally and thermally stable resin. The doping patterns and the interconnects implement transistors, which are grouped together to create logic gates. In some parts of the chip, logic gates are combined to create arithmetic and bitwise functions, which are combined to create an ALU. In another part of the chip, logic gates are combined into bistable loops, which are lined up into rows, which are combined with selectors to create a register bank. In another part of the chip, logic gates are combined into bus controllers and instruction decoders and microcode to create an execution scheduler. In another part of the chip, they're combined into address and data multiplexers and timing circuitry to create a memory controller. There's even more. Those are actually such incredibly complex technologies that they'll make any engineer dizzy if they think about them too much, and such that no single company can deal with that entire complexity.

Can we simplify further?

In fact, very scarily, no, we can't. We can barely comprehend the complexity of a single chip in a computer keyboard, and yet there's no simpler level. The next step takes us to the software that is used to design the chip's logic, and that software itself has a level of complexity that requires to go back to the top of the loop.

Today's computers are so complex that they can only be designed and manufactured with slightly less complex computers. In turn the computers used for the design and manufacture are so complex that they themselves can only be designed and manufactured with slightly less complex computers. You'd have to go through many such loops to get back to a level that could possibly be re-built from scratch.

Once you start to understand how our modern devices work and how they're created, it's impossible to not be dizzy about the depth of everything that's involved, and to not be in awe about the fact that they work at all, when Murphy's law says that they simply shouldn't possibly work.

For non-technologists, this is all a black box. That is a great success of technology: all those layers of complexity are entirely hidden and people can use them without even knowing that they exist at all. That is the reason why many people can find computers so frustrating to use: there are so many things that can possibly go wrong that some of them inevitably will, but the complexity goes so deep that it's impossible for most users to be able to do anything about any error.

That is also why it's so hard for technologists and non-technologists to communicate together: technologists know too much about too many layers and non-technologists know too little about too few layers to be able to establish effective direct communication. The gap is so large that it's not even possible any more to have a single person be an intermediate between those two groups, and that's why e.g. we end up with those convoluted technical support call centers and their multiple tiers. Without such deep support structures, you end up with the frustrating situation that we see when end users have access to a bug database that is directly used by engineers: neither the end users nor the engineers get the information that they need to accomplish their goals.

That is why the mainstream press and the general population has talked so much about Steve Jobs' death and comparatively so little about Dennis Ritchie's: Steve's influence was at a layer that most people could see, while Dennis' was much deeper. On the one hand, I can imagine where the computing world would be without the work that Jobs did and the people he inspired: probably a bit less shiny, a bit more beige, a bit more square. Deep inside, though, our devices would still work the same way and do the same things. On the other hand, I literally can't imagine where the computing world would be without the work that Ritchie did and the people he inspired. By the mid 80s, Ritchie's influence had taken over, and even back then very little remained of the pre-Ritchie world.

Finally, last but not least, that is why our patent system is broken: technology has done such an amazing job at hiding its complexity that the people regulating and running the patent system are barely even aware of the complexity of what they're regulating and running. That's the ultimate bikeshedding: just like the proverbial discussions in the town hall about a nuclear power plant end up being about the paint color for the plant's bike shed, the patent discussions about modern computing systems end up being about screen sizes and icon ordering, because in both cases those are the only aspect that the people involved in the discussion are capable of discussing, even though they are irrelevant to the actual function of the overall system being discussed.

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I think that the difference is access to natural resources. E.g. it doesn't do us any good to know that there used to be a lot of easily reachable oil under Texas if it's not there any more.

I also prefer the scenario of going back to a human-less earth-like state, simply because the other two are either too easy or too hard.

I suspect that many things would come back very quickly. With knowledge of the basic iron and calcium chemistry, plus understanding of the principles behind steam engines, and easy access to raw materials and fuels, we'd essentially restart immediately at the beginning of the industrial revolution.

Also, I suspect that it'd take us a few years at most to get a transistor computer running (it took only 13 years from the discovery of the p-n junction to the first such computer, and there was WWII in the middle delaying progress in that area).
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I hacked on a bitcoin app over the weekend:

CoinSpy: Get alerts on Bitcoin transactions for any address: http://coinspy.io
Bitcoin Transaction Alerts. Enter an email address and one or more Bitcoin addresses. CoinSpy will send you an email as soon as a transaction involving any of your BTC addresses hits the network, even before confirmation. [[alert.msg]]. [[ message ]]. email [[ errorEmail ]] ...
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I like it. Good work and welcome.
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I hacked on a bitcoin app over the weekend:

CoinSpy: Get alerts on Bitcoin transactions for any address: http://coinspy.io
Bitcoin Transaction Alerts. Enter an email address and one or more Bitcoin addresses. CoinSpy will send you an email as soon as a transaction involving any of your BTC addresses hits the network, even before confirmation. [[alert.msg]]. [[ message ]]. email [[ errorEmail ]] ...
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Thought you were going for the opening at around 1:04.
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Awesome.......
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    CTO, 2014 - present
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My building's dryer's broke, so I hauled a load of laundry here to use their dryers. They wouldn't let me dry my clothes here without also re-washing them in their washers. There was a wall of un-used dryers. This experience, along with a previous bad experience, makes me conclude that this business is horrible, and you should avoid it like the plague. They don't care about their customers.
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