There is an old maxim about “cattle vs pets”. Naming machines for personal use (naturally?) falls into the category of pets.
I was first exposed to “naming machines” during temporary sys-admin work, eighteen years ago. Up to that point, I had been limited to one computer at home, and the concept of it having a name hadn’t occurred to me.
I saw various themes over time: famous people, characters from mythology, literature and science-fiction, animals, etc. When it came to machines that I owned, I decided to go with planets, in particular planets from science-fiction.
I’ve never had more than half-a-dozen name-able machines (a laptop, a desktop, the odd Raspberry-Pi, a VPS, another VPS) and often had just one, or two. And so over the last decade or so, two planet names have dominated.
These were “well-known” but generally obscure enough that most people who came across these names hadn’t heard them before.
This year, however, saw the release of a movie and a TV series, each based on books that gave these two planetary names, so I feel they’re both a little less obscure now 🙂
I’ve been at Confluent for a year and half now, and it was fun in many ways, but I’ve decided upon a change, and I’m joining Sigma Computing next week.
Another instance where I was looking for a different “local maxima” but ended up finding a global maxima instead.
Everyone wants different things at different points, but Sigma feels like a sweet spot for me right now.
It’s not too big and not too small, with a rapidly growing engineering team, there is a whole different bunch of tech to learn from scratch, an opportunity to work on an end-to-end full-stack product while also having significant infrastructure challenges.
I’ve learnt a lot from the folks I’ve worked with at Confluent, and I’m excited to begin the new year on a new adventure 🙂
In my previous post I talked about how the realm of what was possible expanded when we got a better, faster computer … but it took a whole other leap with the first “on-line” experiences.
I think the first way of knowing anything about this was Internet for Dummies (probably this). Having literally no other point of reference, I read and re-read this.
It was wild.
Part of it was about the various “walled gardens” that were the most popular options: Compuserve, *America Online * (or so the dummies book told me, we had to start with what was available at the time, a “text” connection with a national telecom provider).
Part of it was gobbledygook about setting up PPPoE settings with an ISP (as an aside, folks who actually ventured into all this without a technical background in those days must’ve been effing brave. There was a lot of stuff to configure back then, none of this “oh is the WiFi on?”, no)
But all of it was about how cool it was to interact with people online.
I have a vague memory of this, but there was some sort of an “internet course” I signed up for (or rather my dad signed me up for). It was supposed to be a few days of an hour each, and was a bit dry, but in the end there was, yes, some time with an actual browser.
I’m sure there are millions who experienced it the first time this way: Netscape Navigator, the coarse-grained meteor logo with its brilliant flash … and then the page loads … what is this thing?!
If this sounds lame, well, I was lame, but this was also a genuinely rare experience at the time.
On-ramp to the information superhighway
The way magazines talked about this new thing was pretty funny too, in retrospect (and given where we’ve ended up, painfully idyllic). The world-wide web, the information superhighway, all kinds of phrases trying to describe what people thought about it, all of it optimistic.
Well, nearly all: I watched a talk by Neil Postman towards the end of the 90s, it was a devastating critique of the impact of television, it sounds like an early warning today (if you like that sort of thing, byte-sized versions: 1, 2)
“Cyber cafes” sprung up like weeds, offering 30-minute slots to be online. Just imagine that, having your entire web presence — not just your laptop or desktop, not just your smartphone or smart tv, everything! — being limited to this tiny slot of time, not just per day, but per week! This was, for many people, the only chance to catch up on emails, chat, whatever.
I used to go for a sort of computer class … think of it as a sort of after-school activity … and there was time at the end when I was waiting here, when I opened the browser (the wars were swiftly over by now, Internet Explorer had already won, though I kept trying out new releases of Netscape Navigator (later Communicator) on our home computer) and just randomly go places.
My early web
I wish I could remember more, but I don’t, so here are a few initial forays that come to mind.
I wouldn’t watch a minute of this today, but back then I was about-to-stop-being-a-fan. So I printed out a t-shirt design and my mom (yep, I had a great family) actually copied it onto a real t-shirt with fabric dyes. Totally lame, but it felt epic.
I was a legit fan (maybe I still am, at some level … more on that later). So the official X-files website was the first one I devoured in depth-first fashion.
Then discovered fansites. Then discovered the shipping sites. And now you know more about me than you want to. Okay.
Ooh, Geocities, such a 90s thing. A utopian take on having different tribes and communities(there was already such a diverse bunch) have clusters of home pages.
Obviously, I hung out at “Area 51”.
Someone tried re-inventing this recently with “Neocities”, but … you know, you can’t repeat the past.
My first email. Probably one of the first “email-as-a-service” offerings. At this point it might be possible to guess my first password.
Yes, for a long time, this was the only password I had: there were no other places to “log in” to, and the computer at home was single-user!
(It was a whole six years before I switched to Gmail, but I shouldn’t jump ahead)
There weren’t blogs as yet, just stand-alone websites (this was when people actually wrote html! Think about that! People are capable of so much more, and yet …)
Every online activity wasn’t directly related to “surfing the web”. There were a bunch of things like downloading themes and desktop backgrounds that happened because it was easier to do them.
MSN Messenger! AOL Messenger! (yes, the one part of America Online that survived longest)
ICQ! (what a weird name, now that I think about it … and having to memorize numerical userIDs … sheesh)
I forget which came first, but I ended up using all of these extensively, and (naturally) all of these chats and contacts are now lost.
There is definitely some tradeoff between keeping records and throwing them away. While I’m apprehensive about having everything I do recorded these days, I also like coming across at least a few key images or emails etc from the past.
I didn’t really use a lot of this, only knew about it from the Dummies book in fact, and … really one of those “alternative routes” that never really got taken because “the internet” and “the web” became synonymous, and that was before “the web” became “2.0”.
Hoo boy, Napster. The way people got music — and also the way music really became globally available and accessible, in the days before Youtube/iTunes/Spotify/whatever.
Run software. Search. See results. Download. Wait
I didn’t even have a fast internet connection (it was measured in kbps), in the beginning, so I waited a whole day to download one measly MP3.
I’ll tell you, it felt wonderful to listen to that one little MP3 over and over.
Yes, I know. It sounds … pathetic, now. No real takeaway, except perhaps that we value whatever we put in effort for, heh.
Time to stop, and hit publish, or this’ll never be done.
Next time? Dunno, maybe my first (and now that I think about it, also the last!) “personal desktop”.
A long time ago, when I was busy trying to read everything by Enid Blyton1, I came across The Magic Faraway Tree. And. I. Loved. It.
This being the age before Amazon and not having a large library around, I never got around to reading the other books in this trilogy, which was … frustrating at the time, for several years.
So it’s a bit … exciting? … to have bought this as something to read along with my daughter. We read the first chapter today, and I feel that … as “children’s books”2 go, this one has definitely aged3 well.
Speaking of which, I’m surprised I don’t see books by her around today (even a search at a place like Barnes and Noble comes up nearly empty). Possibly because they’re dated, but still … ↩︎
genres are so fluid these days, where does children’s literature end and young adult begin? While we’re here, I’m also not certain where young adult ends, or whether (judging from what I see) if it ever ends! ↩︎
the first book in the series was written in 1939 (!), and the third in 1946↩︎
Old computers sometimes had a “Turbo” or “Boost” button to manually switch to a higher clock speed. Toggling this on and off could count as a valid game-playing strategy, if you needed to “speed past” obstacles, etc. Yes, it’s just as bizarre as it sounds.
In the last decade (and half, roughly) people have gotten used to a lot of niceties in our operating systems, smooth integration between different devices, nifty apps, wonderful cameras, and more — but not increases in speed.
It is hard to convey how different this aspect was in the 90s. Every year, sometimes twice a year, there were glossy magazine advertisements about faster computers.
A new computer
So around 1998, it was possible to buy a new computer, with a CPU rated at 233Mhz. Two hundred thirty-three megahertz. It also had a fancy new operating system, the just-released Microsoft Windows 98 (ooh 😐).
There was an actual sound card (something that isn’t thought of as a “pluggable thing” any more), which meant it was possible to get speakers to play actual sound (today if you buy speakers, it’s as a part of your room, not as a part of your computer).
The display (or “monitor”; heh, no one uses that word any more) had color, and there was a mouse that could be plugged in, and this computer didn’t just have a floppy drive, but a new optical media, the CD-ROM.
Aside: relative speed evolution
The first computer at our home, mentioned in the earlier post (late 1994), had a CPU with a clock speed of 33 Mhz. Thirty three megahertz (btw this seemed huge to me at the time: “so many calculations in a single second!”)
My first ever personal desktop (mid-2002, more on this later), had a single-core CPU with a clock speed of 1Ghz. One thousand megahertz, or a 30x increase.
My first MacBook (mid-2008) had a dual-core CPU rated at 2.0Ghz. Two thousand megahertz, or a 2x increase.
My current MacBook Pro (mid-2019) has a 8-core CPU rated at 2.3Ghz. Two thousand three hundred megahertz.
My iPhone (early 2018), uses the “A11 Bionic” with a maximum clock rate of 2.39Ghz. Two thousand three hundred ninety megahertz.
You can imagine the graph in your head.
QBasic was gone, to be replaced with … Visual Basic. This allowed a lot of experimentation with simple forms, but I didn’t really have any ideas on what to do with it, so I let it lapse.
There was also Turbo C , which, despite the name, was a reasonably popular language environment (from Borland, which is not a name most would recognize today, but at the time, it was … like JetBrains plus Visual Studio, and more). There weren’t a lot of materials to learn from, though I remember at least being able to copy in a few examples, and so on.
Still later on, around 2000-ish, I got some game programming books, and really liked learning from them, since it was very straightforward to build something with DirectX (never mind) in C .
Nothing comparable to the vast tools and materials available to kids these days, but … good times.
There were a whole bunch of computer magazines that came with CDs, containing free trials of all sorts of stuff, and it was something to look forward to every month — to try out whatever was new that month: install it, fool around with it, then delete.
I wish I had pictures or notes or anything, but I don’t, so this vagueness will have to do.
Something else that stands out: Microsoft Encarta. It was the first digital encyclopedia and they did a really good job of it. There were audio and video clips, lots of articles to read and switch between.
The pros and cons with paper should’ve been apparent already: the content was beautiful, though I can’t imagine someone spending hours and hours interacting with Encarta they way I can imagine someone spending that time with a paper version (but maybe that’s just me).
Aside: the time of Microsoft
In case it isn’t obvious: yes, this was the decade of Microsoft domination, something that people have no gut feeling for anymore — but twenty years ago, before big-Google, big-Facebook, big-Amazon, big-Twitter, big-Netflix, big-Apple, there was only big-Microsoft.
This was the highlight of my time with the machine 🙂
First of all, I finally had something to play Quake with (the minimal RAM requirements were 8MB; our earlier computer had 4MB, while this one had 64MB. As a fun exercise, try to find out how much a single tab in your browser is using right now).
Quake was made by the same company (ID Software) that made Wolfenstein (which we had played so much of on our earlier computer), and Doom (which I missed out on for whatever reason). Again, this is something hard to convey now, but these were iconic first-person shooter games, the very first ones, in fact … which is probably why they were popular, since they seem quite boring by today’s standards.
Anyway, Quake was just the beginning, this machine was in a sweet spot to play most of whatever came out, and the free apps on the CDs in the monthly computer magazines were usually free games.
Aside: single-player gaming
Although much remains the same in games over the decades (apart from the massive improvement in their visual appearance), something that is very different is the experience “un-connected” solitary game.
Most games today either directly involve other players, or indirectly (through comparison in a leaderboard, etc). I think the only equivalents of “playing something alone, immersed in the world” are certain mobile games, like Monument Valley, etc. where you own the game, you play the game, and no one else really knows about how you played, the experience is yours alone.
Early on, everything was like this (although it was quite common for friends to sit along side you as you played, so there’s that).
Just as ID Software dominated gaming in the first-person shooter genre, in the first part of the decade, another company, Blizzard Entertainment (of the two, still going strong!) dominated role-playing games.
All that’s needed to convey this are a few names: Diablo, Starcraft, Warcraft, each of which I probably spent hundreds and hundreds of hours on.
It’s worth mentioning that there was a lot of competition early on, and the only reason these stand out is that they balanced a lot of factors in RPGs very well, designing the details very, very well.
Note 1: If I had to pick a favorite, it would be Starcraft.)
Note 2: But, more on all this some other time, especially an account of this one game that was insignificant but that I liked: Microsoft Urban Assault
Aside: storage media
Going from a floppy disk that stored 1.44MB to a CD-ROM that stored 650MB was a big change, one that really opened up a whole variety of new, rich content.
DVDs and Blu-Rays went an order of magnitude higher each, but have been used for richer and more detailed versions of existing content and not newer kinds of content (in my opinion).
There were other stops along the way, and not just for alternatives like HD-DVDs that no one remembers. For a while it was quite common to have a “Zip drive”, awkwardly between a floppy and a CD.
(Of course, a new laptop today has neither of these)
Aside: man and machine
I should point out something: I had a certain sort of … affection … for the first computer we had (I remember being upset and crying once (embarrassing, right) when it didn’t start and appeared to be broken), in a way that I didn’t have for the second one (which was “just a machine”), or any of the countless ones (laptops, desktops, tablets, phones, watches, appliances) since.
It might be a pets vs cattle thing, dunno.
I haven’t really thought through the episodic nature of this series, which means there isn’t any plan of having “equal chunks”. But yes, we’ll plod along steadily. Next time: the internet (!)
In a previous post1, I mentioned how my experience of Twitter is actually quite nice and I don’t encounter any of the craziness that other people report.
Is that still true? Well, yes and no.
The problem: “political” content
There isn’t really any escaping (hmm, what should I call it) “unexpected content” on Twitter, as long as the entity being followed is a Person and not a Topic2.
I had earlier decided to be “casual” in my use of Twitter, which led to me randomly following and liking posts and people in my stream.
The problem is, the “information ecosystem” for all “political facts”3 is extremely polarized. There are competing narratives4 for each “event”, and being neutral as a matter of principle, I end up seeing both sides.
This isn’t bad per se, and is … at least informative, but it puts me at odds with the (hmm, what should I call them) “reductionists”, who want to neatly classify profiles (people) based on who they follow and what they like.
So there really isn’t any more “casual use” on the platform, and there is much more that could be said about why that is, why the incentives turned out this way, “what could have been“ and so on, but either way, there is a need for a more guarded interaction.
Give up on Twitter?
For better or worse, I have found, and keep finding, really interesting stuff on Twitter. There are people who share interesting images, or links, or articles. There are people who provide expert opinions on topics I like.
For me, this is a supplement to Reddit, except without strong subreddit boundaries.
Which is to say: there is real utility for me on Twitter, and I don’t want to lose that.
A task for myself: I should try to figure out what I’m really following on Twitter anyway. What are some themes in what I like, etc. Again, I don’t actually have time to do this thoroughly, so maybe just broad impressions.
What I’ve decided to do for now, slowly, gradually, is filter out any profiles where I judge most tweets are political.
I don’t have time to sit down and do this at one go5
So instead, each time I find myself scrolling through my feed, and I see too much political content6, I’ll ask myself if there is any topically interesting tweets at all from this profile, and if not, simply un-follow.
I’ve done this a bit already, and I expect it’ll be a few months before I’ll (probabilistically) get close to examining all my follows, but that’s the plan for now.
Digression: what is the best way to “thread” posts?
Retro-actively go back and apply a common tag? Create a linked list of posts? Lazy right now so will do neither.
There are a bunch of non-linear textual tools I use locally for this, but what’s the online equivalent? Again, lazy right now, will stick to WordPress, with its linear post timeline. But later … maybe one of TheBrain, Roam, or Notion.
Some other options
Just to brainstorm alternatives (for my future self, in case he has more time and interest)
I could create multiple twitter accounts, for different “bundles of interest”, each me7, but a part of me.
I could create a pseudonymous account and allow that one to be the one where I resume casually browsing stuff8.
Though well-visualized in Twitter’s new conversation view, so good on that. ↩︎
The total number of profiles I’ve ended up following is surprisingly high, nearly 5000! It would take a couple hours, at least, to go through all of them. ↩︎
Sometime later, I should mention how my news consumption patterns changed for the better in general. ↩︎
Like namespaces within me, which is how I would really want profiles to be, dis-aggregated and reflecting our true sub-selves. ↩︎
The right way for this would have been a single “read-only” view that everyone could have, of the entire graph of tweets. Imagine if we had the contract “you can either be authenticated and share/comment, or be pseudonymous and like/follow, but not comment.” ↩︎
Looking at my “online activity” for the past 5 years, I’ve been writing at:
A Static Blog
Of these, (3) is basically dead, and is around merely as a a personal homepage for now
The use of WordPress consists of
Periodic life updates
Occasional long-form “articles”
The use of Twitter consists of
Likes and re-tweets (duh)
Extracts (pics) from either books or online articles
The static blog remains in its “homepage purgatory”; I don’t have time to migrate that content over, and I don’t have any other plans for it
I’ve been bringing “my whole self” to Twitter, but I might reconsider that in the current … er … environment. I’m a self-described “centrist liberal” (I think?) which has been been an un-interesting position for as long as I can remember, but which in the context of current polarizing sentiment amounts to roadkill (so maybe a new pseudonymous account? we’ll see)
I’ll consider hiving off a separate WordPress blog that will basically be “my own Twitter”, the same way my current one is “my own Facebook” (wait, isn’t this what Tumblr was supposed to be? Lol, plus ça change …)
As mentioned earlier, I’ll try out Medium again, as a “duplicate” for any long-form content
There are a bunch of movies I’ve liked, over the years, in different genres, from different times. But there is an unusually large cluster of them around a single year, 2006 (about fourteen years ago now).
Among Darren Aronofsky’s movies (I still haven’t seen Black Swan (trailer), but I remember the revelatory feeling of watching Pi (trailer) a long time ago), I like this one the most (perhaps The Wrestler (trailer) would be a close second).
The trailer isn’t as bad, but (with the explicit dates and sections) it gives an overly structured view of what is (or feels like) a layered, mixed up, overlapping, interwoven something.
I’m pretty sure I saw a poor-quality, poor-audio version all those years ago, but I’d recommend watching it at night with good headphones, alone1.
The trailer for this movie was terrible; it makes the movie sound very gimmicky, focussed on merely some inter-personal drama between magicians (why should anyone care about that?) And yet, of the movies in this list, it is my favorite, and the one I have re-watched the most.
It is not at all, in my opinion, about the particular details in the story (though Hugh Jackman, Christian Bale, and Michael Caine give a magical performance), but something more. Of Christopher Nolan’s movies, I like this more than Inception (trailer) — if the latter is “a movie like a dream”, this one is “a movie like a magic trick”.
Fun fact: the novel it is based on won the World Fantasy Award2.
It seems as though Borden (Bale) and Angier (Jackman) embody two different paths. I suppose part of the reason I like this movie is that I identified with one of them.
This one is technically from 2005, but I watched it a few months late, so it gets to be in this bucket.
It was one of the first Blu-ray movies I watched3 on a then-new-and-exciting 1080p 50” TV, and it felt tailor-made for a giant screen.
Gorgeous visuals, a sense of history (that moment when Sibylla watching4 from the castle wall whispers, “Salah ad-Din!”), and a great soundtrack (I like all the instrumental pieces, but especially the song5 at the end.
I think I like this for its “period feel” (Vienna, pre-WW1-ish) and high production quality more than the story itself. Also, I had first seen Paul Giamatti in The Lady in the Water earlier that year, which was a disappointment, and he was excellent in this.
(BTW if I had to drop a movie from this list, though, it’d be this one; not because it’s lacking anything, but because I like the others more)
One of my all-time favorites, both for the movie and the soundtrack, I’ve tried to find “more like this” — as in literally trying to Google for “movies like Little Miss Sunshine” — but failed to find anything. It is a one-of-a-kind, sublime experience. It feels fresh every time I watch it.
This has the most accurate trailer of this list, in the sense that it conveys exactly what the movie is all about 🙂
The movie is fifteen years ago, today, and the book it’s based on was published about forty-five years ago, but the themes of paranoid self-surveillance feel newly relevant.
That, and the style of the movie is quite unforgettable.
In those days I used to track movie reviews actively, and also watch movies immediately after release. These days, a year or more frequently elapses between release and viewing, and it’s very common for me to never watch and also never intend to watch the popular or critically acclaimed movies (or, tv shows) for a year.
It’s quite possible, then, that the reason these movies still appeal to me is simply because I was more engaged with movies at that time.
Still, it is my subjective list, and I do end up re-watching these, and re-listening to their soundtracks, so at the very least, I’m sure they are not bad movies.
or not. I don’t actually know if it makes a difference; I think it does require some concentration ↩︎
1996 winners of science fiction and fantasy awards (scroll down to ”WFA”) ↩︎
Rented from Blockbuster, back when they (a) were around, and (b) had the same rental rate for DVDs and Blu-Rays 🙂 ↩︎