Saturday, August 25, 2018

Technology, Anti-fragility of Property, and Ferrets

Over the past few years, I've continued mentally putting together a bunch of thoughts on technology, the internet, reading, "social" media, property design, and resilience - or, better stated, anti-fragility.  Some of them may turn into full posts at some point in the future, some of them almost certainly won't.  But I've had plenty of time to think over the past few weeks as the nasty smoke has kept us all inside (or at least not getting much done outside - it's seriously nasty outside lately), and some of it has solidified enough to make a blog post out of.

Why ferrets?  Because I've just managed to organize my photos library from the past decade and change (so I can find stuff), and because ferrets are awesome.  And cute.  And hyper.


Join me and see where this week goes!



Wait, Ferrets?

Yes, ferrets!  I've had ferrets continuously since the start of 2005, and while they're not the longest lived critters out there (sadly, the Marshalls ferrets just don't live that long on average), they're an awful lot of fun, they don't take particularly much space, and, well, just look at them!  All of my ferrets over the years have been rescues, and they've all had interesting and distinct personalities.  Some of their quirks probably come from previous owners (I had one ferret that was absolutely terrified of vacuum cleaners and would go hide in the center of the longest tube he knew about when one was in use), but I think they all just come with their oddities.

Bilbo, just being adorable.

One of my most esoteric ferrets was Eowyn.  Tiny, strong, fearless, and would not give up for anything.  She got herself into endless amounts of trouble stealing and relocating computer parts into the ferret cage, climbing anything that she could climb (with no thought to how she might get down), and sampling anything she could sample - even if it took a mess.  At one point, she discovered a mostly empty glass of milk on a coffee table.  Well, curious ferret was curious, so she knocked it over and helped herself to milk.  What goes well with milk?  Kibble.

A few minutes later, she learned, and I learned, that ferrets are violently allergic to milk, and it will come back up the way it came in the form of projectile vomiting.  A ferret's exit path that way is a straight shot, and when it's been bulked up with chewed kibble, this little girl had some genuinely impressive range.

Have you ever experienced the wonder and utter, baffling confusion of having a ferret looking down on you during a shower?  This girl figured out how to climb a shower curtain.  It was a double layer one - rubber on the inside, fabric on the outside, and she worked out the details of pressing her back against the rubber and using her paws on the fabric to climb the inside of a shower curtain.  What did she do once she was up there other than stare at me?  Why, climb to the top of the cabinet over the toilet!  And then stare at me more, waiting for me to get her down.  I folded the shower curtain up after that so she couldn't climb while I was out, but she continued it - for a while.  I can only assume I left the curtain where she could climb it one day, and she discovered that getting down from over the toilet without me around was no fun at all.

Eowyn, having just dragged the ferret donut up the outside of the cage to get it there.

Should you get ferrets?  No, probably not.  All of mine are rescues from people who thought they were a good idea, and when we got one of our sets of ferrets, they were 8 months old - and we were their third owners.  Great little critters, for the right people.  Don't get one, and seriously, go rescue some.  I don't search on Craigslist for ferrets unless we have a spot for more.  They have a way of finding me anyway.

Technology, Focus, and Kids

Those who keep track of my blog know that we had another kid a few months back (this is two, and we plan to stop here).  New-kid-sleep-time stuff has led to me getting sloppy with reading, computers, phones in the middle of the night, etc, but I've tried to cut that back and get back to doing most of my reading on my Kobo, with Pocket, in long form articles.

Why does this matter?  Quite a few studies have shown that if you don't exercise a skill (say, long form reading), you lose the skill.  Long form reading is one of the best ways we have to communicate long, complicated thoughts, in a form agreeable to "chewing on it."  You can flip back and forth in a book, read things slowly, skim over sections, and generally absorb information in a way that video (and spoken audio - podcasts come to mind here) lack.  Plus, I find the information density far better in books.  I often describe video as "A paragraph or two of information expanded into 10 minutes of some guy talking, delivered in a couple hundred megabytes of data," and that describes an awful lot of the "content" floating around in video form.  There's some video content that's well done and useful in the form of a video, but most of it?  Worthless.  If the video is "A guy talking into the camera about something," I struggle to come up with a less efficient way to communicate actual information.  Maybe do it in 4k?  Wait, I know!  Let's upsample it all to 8k!

Read books.  Read lots of books.  Read books from people you don't like and don't agree with.

I've talked about it before, but the combination of a Kobo e-ink reader and Pocket is amazing.  In 2018, computers are a truly dreadful way of consuming written material.  Websites that still publish much in the way of written material are a toxic cocktail of ads, auto-playing video content, and regularly interrupt the actual content midway through with "Hey, you should totally go click on this and that and the other thing and please, please click you won't believe how amazing this one stay at home mom's trick to eliminate..." type rubbish.  You've seen it.  It's distracting because that's the whole point.

Frodo mid-leap.  This is an excited ferret!

I have no particular hope for this as a truly long term solution, but for now?  Pocket + a Kobo e-reader is pretty awesome way to read internet content.  You can buy a used Kobo Aura for for under $50 on eBay (that's the unit I have).  They swallow just about any ebook format (other than the DRM'd stuff from Amazon, but that's easy to remove), they support Pocket, and they're nicely hackable.  If you're not happy with some aspect, there's probably a way to tweak it.

If you find yourself reading PDF formatted books, Briss is a great little tool to crop PDFs to the actual content.  It makes a big difference reading on a small screen.

For reading larger stuff (like normal academic paper formatting), it's hard to beat an iPad and GoodReader, but I spend far more hours on my Kobo than I do on my iPad.

Log your Kobo into Pocket, install the Pocket gizmo on whatever browsers you're using (I have it on both my computers and my phone), and when you come across a long article, save it to Pocket, close the window, and go on your way.  Let the browser be for things browser and computers are good at, and let the e-ink display be the way to handle things that e-ink is good at.  Backlit e-ink is genuinely awesome, lasts roughly forever on a charge (I charge mine every week or two whether it needs it or not), and is cheap.  There's a huge amount of free material out there for the reading, and it's good for your brain to read it.  It's also far, far better for your brain to read long form articles from the internet in uninterrupted form.  The Kobo lets you add new articles to Pocket from existing articles, but it doesn't break your flow like new tabs do, and it certainly doesn't do auto-playing videos.

Another advantage of this is that my kids don't see me endlessly on a computer in the evenings.  I'd really they rather not grow up with, "When you're bored, grab a computer/tablet/phone and surf the web" as a default action.  My wife and I both have e-readers, and our kids know they're "books."  There's a difference between an e-ink reader and a tablet, as much as I spent many years trying to pretend there wasn't.  I try to avoid too much computer time when the kids are up, except for deliberate purposes.  "Ok, we're going to go use the computer to print a property map" is fine.  "We're going to go build a rocket in Kerbal Space Program and see how it does" is fine (my daughter thinks this is properly incredible, and has been drawing a lot of rockets for me to build).  Mindlessly browsing or scrolling through autoplaying videos?  Eh.  I should find something more productive to do, and they shouldn't be picking up that habit from me.  We can go outside and work on the property or something.  There's no shortage of stuff to be done.  I can work on a computer during the day or after they're in bed.

Also, if you haven't installed f.lux (or are using your OSes weaker version of it), go set it up.  It red-shifts your screen in the evening to help prevent the blue light from messing with your sleep schedule as badly.

Feromir: You otter be in bed right now!  I otter be dry!  Get me out of here!

"Social" Media: Dopamine Delivery Device

Expect more on this later in the year, but in 2018, "social media" is not social, and it's not really media.  It's a hyper-optimized system for selfishly keeping you on their particular site, consequences be damned, at any cost (to you).  And that attitude extends beyond just the typical "social media" places - look at what YouTube and NetFlix have done with auto-playing videos.  Or trailers.  Please stay.  Oh, please, please stay on our site!  You are so very valued and we want you to stay and throw the ball engage our content!  SQUIRREL!

(not a ferret)

It may have started usefully enough, but social media has been weaponized against the users - and it's been going on for a while.  Ever since they stopped showing "all content, ordered by most recent" (the original feed style), the race has been on to figure out how to best "engage" the user.  This means, from their perspective, keeping the user on the site at all costs.  Exciting post?  Outrage post?  Awwww post?  Baby pictures?  Travel pictures?  Political gossip?  Whatever it takes, your feed is now ordered to deliver the proper dopamine hit, at the proper interval, to keep you on the site (or in the app) as long as absolutely possible.  Or, if it's video, to keep whoever on the site.  Unsupervised YouTube time for kids, at this point, is basically dropping them off with the local drug dealer to babysit them for the evening and expecting them to not come back with some new addiction.  You can search for the reviews of the content if you want, or even go watch it.  If you have kids, you should.  If not, just be satisfied with "Disturbing and creepy" as what's being algorithmically fed to kids.  Kids should be playing with toys, not watching videos of adults playing with toys or unwrapping surprise eggs, or Peppa Pig doing... whatever weird algorithmic thing she's doing, or... etc.

If you haven't tried quitting social medias for a few weeks, just do it.  Cold turkey.  No drama, just... stop checking it.  Or, if you do have to check in for events and such, check once or twice a week, look at events, and no scrolling on the main crack delivery system feed.  If you're not happier by the end of the experiment, go get more sun.

Fermoir, just done "browsing social media!"  Yes, I moved the thing he climbed on after this photo.

Annoyingly, almost all the old methods of communication and scheduling have been replaced by FaceBook.  I don't have a great solution there.  Email and Hangouts is my normal mix, but there has to be something better.

If you haven't read Zuckerberg's "Building Global Community" post, you should.  It's a quite disturbing read, given the direction FaceBook has gone in recent history.  It basically boils down to, "We can fix all the problems FaceBook has caused by making sure everyone is on FaceBook a lot more and moving important things like elections to FaceBook systems because totally trust us, we're awesome!"

Property Anti-Fragility

Finally, I want to talk some about property design, fragility, and anti-fragility.  This is aimed more at those with enough land to do something interesting with, so if that doesn't apply, you'll have to be a lot more efficient!

I've talked about American Empire before, the likely end of it, and various other things that related to the fact that no nation lives forever, no civilization lives forever, and the evidence would tend to point to the American experiment being on the backside of our arc through history.  To me, Trump isn't a cause, but a symptom.  And, disturbingly, one that showed up about 8 years before I expected.  I figured we'd get to 2024 before someone like him got elected, though he certainly won't be the last.

We're into hurricane season again for parts of the country, and I'll bet on some more record settings storms this year.  We've been dealing with heat waves and record setting heat, massive wildfires, and the sort of excitement we just don't need - but, again, I'll wager there's an awful lot more excitement where that came from.  It turns out, using the atmosphere as a gaseous sewer for a few centuries turns out to be a pretty bad idea with some actual consequences.

Eowyn: It's not that I'm a princess, it's... oh, wait, apparently I am!

Meanwhile, US infrastructure isn't amazing.  It's not in good shape at all, in many areas, and I'll bet that, going forward, it continues to remain in "not good shape."  Or get worse.  PG&E has discussed just flat out turning off power to areas if they think conditions are risky for fires, which is probably a good idea, unless you're in those areas.  Power grid demand continues to set new records around the world, and that sort of stress on the grid does, more often than it should, lead to blackouts.

Given all this, I'd suggest a useful metric for property improvements: "Does this improve my anti-fragility?"  Or, to phrase it differently, "Does this let me ride through a wider range of expected and unexpected events?"

Grid tied solar installs get the death glare here.  The vast majority of them cannot run without the power grid.  You can design it to be somewhat useful without grid power, but it's not done because it's more expensive.  If the power grid keeps running, yes, they may save you money (depending on how the projections made by solar salesmen map to reality - as the grid gets more solar and wind on it, I expect the forecast rate hikes won't quite match the projections), but if the grid goes down, well... they're sure shiny up there!  At least you get a bit of shade from them!

Even if the power grid remains operational, can you monitor your system locally, or does it all go through a fancy cloud interface that you use (which almost certainly doesn't provide fine grained data)?  If your internet gets less reliable, will you still be able to monitor your system?  If the company providing the backend goes out of business, can you?  Solar companies don't have a track record for longevity.  Stuff like this matters, because anything that relies on a huge diversity of infrastructure to run is going to have trouble in the long run when parts of that infrastructure stop working reliably.

If you find yourself somewhere the news is playing (possibly an airport) when a major storm is around, watch for the scenes of empty grocery store shelves.  That's what happens when a "just in time" supply chain meets unexpected demand.  Lack of "just in time" delivery leads to the same results in a hurry.  Consider this, if you live in a region where supply may be disrupted for any variety of reasons.

Bilbo: Yes, I'm in the exact center of your bed.  It's obviously the most comfortable spot.

My interests, somewhat obviously, are based around systems that are both useful in a wide range of conditions, and that I can monitor, maintain, and control - myself.  Without needing external connectivity to The Cloud or whatever backend might be down.  Or, at least, that give me some level of local functionality.  I've got a Nest thermostat running my heat pump, and I've tested it - it works just fine without internet, though I lose some features like it knowing the overnight weather.  A better system, IMO, would be the Nest, interfacing with a weather station outside the house.  It can get the outdoor temperature data without leaving the local network (or, if it just had a long probe, without even needing a network).  Good enough for local decision making without relying on much in the way of infrastructure.  Does the Nest outperform an Arduino based thermostat?  Well... I may have to see about that!

Next year, you'll (hopefully) see a very, very interesting looking solar power system being installed for the house.  By most standards, it's weird, and more than once I've been told it's a waste of money (because I may not need the full capabilities all the time).  But, done properly, it's wonderfully anti-fragile.  Grid up?  Great!  Grid down?  Great!  Grid erratic?  Whatever.  That's valuable to me - and, amusingly, I should be able to build it, with storage, for about what local installers want for a basic grid tied system.  It'll be fun, massive, overkill, and entirely my style.

For similar reasons, I intend to put some water storage on the property (in the next few years).  I have to run an awful lot of power into the well pump to feed the irrigation lines, and I'd rather use rainwater off my various roofs.  Plus, that'll feed the firefighting lines better.  The firebreaks this year aren't just for show - grass fires are a very real problem out here.  Will the system have filters such that I can feed the house water from it if needed?  Yup!

I've been very interested in greenhouse based aquaponic methods as well.  You grow fish, and use the fish water to fertilize grow beds for vegetables and leafy plants.  Done properly, it's a very robust method of growing protein and other foods.  Done in a greenhouse, it should tolerate an awful lot of local weather variety and still produce for most of the year!  That project is a few more years off, though.  I'm considering some varieties of lightly armored garden beds as well, for fragile plants.  We had an interesting microburst this spring that ripped branches off quite a few trees.

Finally, have you thought about what sort of communications works in the absence of most infrastructure?  Almost everything relies on the power grid and the internet now - except HAM radio.  If you have the time for another hobby, consider getting your license, some gear, and working out the local (and not so local) communications networks.  With the right licenses, radios, and antennas, a HAM operator can literally talk around the world on a few watts of power.  A solar panel, a 12V lead acid battery, and a radio make for a pretty good backup plan!

Frodo on the move.

So, just some things to consider as you go forward with property, projects, systems design, etc.  The latest super-whizz-bang awesome cloud cell IoT gizmo may or may not be the right solution from this perspective.  Maybe it is - but maybe you can build something yourself that's cheaper, better, and more anti-fragile.  Sounds like a win to me!

Flying Pie Habanero Pizza

Is awesome.  If you find yourself in the Boise, Idaho area during the summer, absolutely go and get yourself one.  Split it with friends, if you must.  Level 1 is pretty good, Level 3 is basically a massed pile of pepper on your pizza, and Level 4 adds a drizzle of ghost pepper sauce for that extra something at the end.  Totally worth the pain!

It's amazing how few photos of ferrets I have once I switched to using a camera phone most of the time.  Ferrets are almost impossible to photograph without either a large lens or a proper flash - and a camera phone has neither.  I need to fix this.  I got my wife an Olympus TG-5 "tough camera" to replace our previous camera that, near as we can tell, got swiped by a maid during a car meet.  It does an amazing job inside, and I've started borrowing it for some blog post photos as well.  But it will capture ferrets, quite crisply, even without a flash!

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