Apollo and Wonderment

As a child in the 80s, I used to stare at the moon and struggled to grasp the fact that people had landed and walked on it. That people had considered having a serious go at it, and had succeeded.

It is one of the few emotions that remain unchanged to this day, as a grown-ass adult.

In fact the wonder and thrill is greater still, with photos from the Mars rover Curiosity, and the Cassini and Juno and New Horizons missions, and learning about the planetary slingshots used by Voyager 1 and 2 (which sounded like straight-up science fiction).

It makes me believe humanity, even in its current stage of evolution, is capable of most endeavours it can imagine, through science, creativity and organisation, if only it can learn to unite.

This optimism is tempered by E O Wilson’s quote “The real problem of humanity is the following: we have paleolithic emotions; medieval institutions; and god-like technology”.

Today I’m spending the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 landing in conscious enthralment, glad that I can still experience the same feeling I did as a child.

Autonomous F1 racing

I am reading the autobiography ‘How to build a car’ by the designer Adrian Newey. Quite absorbing and fast-paced, and mid-sized at about 400 pages.

Although it’s common knowledge, I’m only now really grasping how much of a role tech plays in today’s races, compared to the driver, who are the ones idolised.

It made me wonder if autonomous car racing is a thing yet. It’d be the ultimate engineering sport – the existing hardware and software of F1 with the new hardware of cameras/sensors and software of AI.

Turns out there is Roborace, which uses a standardised car and sensors across teams, and so the differentiator is only the algorithms. They’re organising races across Europe and the US this year. And there is F1Tenth, which uses scale cars, where both hardware and software differs between teams.

It’s going to be a while before they even get to Formala E levels of popularity, forget Formula 1, but it’s inevitable, and it’s going to be a lot of fun from an engineering standpoint.

The East India Company business model

This article I came across on Reddit describes how colonial Britain subsidised its industrialisation:

 The East India Company began collecting taxes in India, and then cleverly used a portion of those revenues (about a third)to fund the purchase of Indian goods for British use. In other words, instead of paying for Indian goods out of their own pocket, British traders acquired them for free, “buying” from peasants and weavers using money that had just been taken from them.

Some of the stolen goods were consumed in Britain, and the rest were re-exported elsewhere. The re-export system allowed Britain to finance a flow of imports from Europe, including strategic materials like iron, tar and timber, which were essential to Britain’s industrialisation. Indeed, the Industrial Revolution depended in large part on this systematic theft from India.

Ingenious. And devastating. The clear incentive was to invest Indian goods into Britain, not the colony. According to the study the article refers to, “Britain drained a total of nearly $45 trillion from India during the period 1765 to 1938” – that is over 17 times the GDP of India and the UK today.

“It feels fragile because of the Internet”

This blog post about using a 14-year-old PowerPC Mac Mini running 12-year-old OS X Leopard has this musing towards the end:

Something about using this feels very fragile, and not because of the machine itself, the operating system, or even the interface. It feels fragile because of the internet.

The internet has so aggressively taken over our lives that we can’t imagine a computing experience without it. And when it’s no longer there on a platform that didn’t really work properly without it, it becomes impossible to use in many ways. One has the feeling that even older operating systems won’t feel this broken in retrospect, because their experiences are otherwise separate from the internet and work without it being at the center of the experience.

I remember this period of “even older” operating systems in the 90s, of coaxing my Pentium desktop PC to run Red Hat Linux 5 and work on it for a whole day – tinkering, programming, writing, simple gaming – without connecting to the internet, or for that matter without any part of the OS being internet-first. I’d “go online” by dialling the modem via a shell script, look up what I wanted to all at once, then disconnect. The internet was like a trip to the library instead of being the environment itself. No chat client ran perennially, no mail client polled for new email. No iCloud Drive synchronised silently with the Cloud (the term didn’t exist then) in the background.

It wasn’t necessarily a better or worse time, just that it definitely was different.

My 2018 talk on crypto tokens is now online

This was before the 2018 crypto winter, when ICOs were still being launched every week for projects that hadn’t even gotten of the ground (many of the high-profile ones still haven’t, in mid 2019), and ads still ran for tokens that guaranteed returns. I described what made it more likely that a token-based project would be successful.