Saturday, February 28, 2009

You would think

That a guy who worked, long ago, on machines that were fed their instructions on paper tape, would remember the difference between a byte and a word.

Setting up the new ansible for the new droid, I configured the machines to read the data stream in 32 bits, and the robot and the machine were communicating nicely but wouldn't pass data. They yapped back and forth for four hours but would not give me the data I wanted for love nor money.

I kept scratching and never did figure out what was going on, so I put on the headset and linked directly in.

Anyone who has never been inside has only a dim idea what it's like, and it ain't pretty. Imagine being in a barrel where you can hear the voices of a thousand people all apparently reciting numbers at random. You have to somehow find and zero in on the data stream you want, while ignoring the ones you don't like. It can cause madness but I'm a little more immune to it than others, having been slightly modified during my recovery when I hit the planet.

Anyway, I put on the headset and listened until I could hear the distinctive voice of my droid, and the machines it was speaking with. I managed to drown out all the other voices on the subnet, and I could hear the pinging back and forth, and I ended up having to unplug the headset for a minute to back down the baudrate so I could understand better. I jacked in again and saw the stream loud and clear, and then it dawned on me, the data coming out of the droid was two words and the machine wanted four, the machine sending four and the droid expected two.

Odd how that hundreds-of-years-old convention is still biting us in the ass, after all this time.

Thursday, February 26, 2009

New ansible

The philotic stream stays the same but the ways to tweak it are numerous and complex. Seems that some full-bore tank geeks (guys with brain enhancements that force them to open their crania and allow their cerebellum, chemically enhanced, to expand into a small tank of sterile solution) (it looks like one of those old Luge helmets) discovered a way to add a layer of subnet to an existing philotic stream, and then abandoned the knowledge. We have figured a way to access this datapipe, and will be using it to pass manufacturing info to the droids from the machines- the droids, having a slighltly higher level of sentience than the machines, can then make some sense of the data they receive and make decisions based on that data.
Yeah, exciting stuff, right? But this is what I do, and it means higher quality parts, and better response time, and less downtime, which is all part of bringing things to the consumer faster, better, cheaper.

Thursday, February 19, 2009


I grew up on Old Earth and have- obviously- taken only one interstellar trip. So when I got here there was a lot of culture shock. See, Old Earth had become such an artifact that very little in the way of new had been added in thousands of years. I was perfectly familiar with the way early 21st century humans would have lived, because I lived that way. Hell, I still do. here, on the other hand...

Like the cars. Big thirsty rides. Lots of petro industry here, the cars run efficiently from a pollution standpoint (precious little exhaust but water). I'd never seen an engine of more than 6 cylinders outside a museum, but now I have two cars, and the small one is a V12. It's considered an economy car. Screaming fast. A lot of tech like that. Animals are another thing. There's hunting and fishing, though it's considered very bad form to wound an animal- but just about every animal has been domesticated through genetics. Sure, a tame housepet lion isn't exactly a lion anymore, but some people have odd fetishes.

Me, I'm happy with a housecat. I ended up with a stray that sat on the hood of my car one day, and claimed me. He seemed perfectly ordinary for over a year until one afternoon, napping off the throes of a particularly nasty hangover, he crawled up on my pillow and loudly said "WER IZ MAH DINNR?

I rolled over, certain it was an hallucination, but he stood on my throbbing coconut and repeated "WER IZ MAH DINNR?"

A little stunned, I wandered out into the kitchen and opened a tin of catfood, put it in his bowl.

I went back to bed and wrote the day off as a bad dream, and tried to forget. And then later in the year I mentioned my cat to a co-worker (this was after Ben had moved out). My co worker said "Oh! Has he started talking yet?"

I forced my mouth closed, unaware that my hallucinations were visible to others, and said- cautiously- "yes".

"It's great when they talk, innit? I mean, I can't imagine how lonely I'd be if not for my kitties"

SO cats here talk. Mine doesn't say much, and it still freaks me a bit when he does, but mostly he tells me when someone has been around when I'm not home, how many times the phone rings while I'm gone, and a lot of "WER IZ MAH DINNR". There were a few more revelations and adjustments I'd have to make, but this was one of the first ones.

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

One trick pony? Not today

Today I began by running to the central offices of Redd Shyft to get some new documentation proofread, pickup a handful of modified matter-transformer brackets, drove back to a customer to help pull out a bad coolant pump and replace it with a new pump/offal separator, design a new fixture for a cartesian matter transformer, and finally put some new tooling in a rotary machine. A half dozen different disciplines, without any transition between one and another, all continuous.

As I do this, I work with a dozen or so colleagues, all specialists of one type or another. SOme are OK at what they do, some are good. Three, today, are classic One Trick Ponies. Guys who do one thing, and do it extremely well, do it so well that when they do it it looks like poetry. A guy, today, setting up a droid transit unit that alows the droids to deal with loads even beyond their normal payload. He tightens the bolts and gently taps the rails, using a microscope with an optical comparator to make sure the rails are perfectly aligned, his every motion synchronized, his every move coordinated with his apprentices and his tools. It looks incredible and when he's done, a piece of equipment will exist where it didn't before, and it will outlast him and me, and our children's children, if maintained properly.

Sometimes I look at the incredible elegance of those one trick ponies, and think, man, I wish I could do one thing, so well, so elegantly, so wonderfully. Instead, I do the things that I do with some measure of skill, and some level of learn-as-you-go, but I get the job done. And I rely on te masters for some projects that wouldn't otherwise be possible. And I learn when I can.

I master some things. I've mastered a half dozen disciplines, am adept at a dozen more, am adequate at a thousand. It's my nature to be bored by repetition. Still.

Monday, February 16, 2009

When I landed here

those seventeen years ago, I stayed heavily sedated for most of the four months that I underwent treatment. THe starship company whose cruiser i rode was more than generous and got me housing for several years after. I took advantage of the situation by subletting the spare room, which paid most of my education expenses. My roommate at the time was also suffering from the latent aftereffects of HFD, and we kept a close eye on each other lest we began to be a danger to ourselves.

Ben, my roomie, was a student like me, and while I was studying engineering he was trying to avoid an educaton in Chemistry. He never quite did, but he managed to drag the normal two year process out for five. Most of the time he spent laying around in his underwear, watching old videos and farting. We got along fine.

One night, when he and I were both in our cups, he confided to me that he'd wanted to be a skypilot as well, and tears welled in his eyes for a moment as he spoke lyrically of the huge deepness of space. I tossed back another shot lest I lost control myself, and poured another round. 'To lost opportunities" I toasted.

He went on to found a major petrochem company, but I can still remember him sitting there on the couch with his sweaty BVD's on, scratching his ass, picking zit scabs off the back of his thighs and absently eating them. Eyes moist from the thought of his loss, breath smelling of scotch. What happens to lost dreams that are replaced by newer, less bold ones?

Friday, February 13, 2009

Are we men or are we machine tenders?

Well, for the most part, we are machine tenders. In order for the quality of your eggbeater, or your alternator, or your squirt-booster engine to be predictable, and reliable, and dependable, it has to be manufactured to pretty exacting tolerances, and humans are not capable of the kind of precision required to produce these things in large quantities.

A single human- skilled human, that is, can make a single part so perfect as to defy the imagination. But the system falls down when you get to a thousand of those parts, or a hundred thousand, or a billion. At that level, when you are supplying parts ot the known universe, they have to be perfect, and every one has to be perfect. And there can be no failure.

Ande no human can do it. It is at the core of human nature to despise the repetetive (though left to our own devices we won't change a thing about our lives). We hate doing the same thing over and over again, because it drives us batshit crazy.

Additionally, a lot of the piece parts my customers make are damned difficult to manufacture, and or even pick up without heavy lifting equipment. Let alone dangerous, or sharp, or toxic, or gamma-hot.

So droids do the work. Built to do the repetitive. Built to do the drudge work. Incapable of reason, they are capable of repeating a task for as long as their servos and bearings and lubricants hold together- and Big Yellow makes droids that have a mean time between failure that I wish I could get for my knees.

Subsequently? Humans tend to clean up machine poo. Each type of machine manufactures a specific type of component with a specific set of materials, and the by products pile up quickly and need to be removed lest the machines get covered in it, and encased in it.

The machines are well trained, and tend to leave their offal in neat piles inside containers, which humans with forlifts take off to be re-fired or refined. It's not hard work, it's usually not too dirty, and it's essential. And the people cleaning machine poo tend to be better paid than their skilled trade counterparts a generation earlier.

I decided I would never spend my life cleaning the litterbox for an oversized cat, so I design and implement systems. The work isn't hard, though some tasks can be, and the overall impression is one of creative goofing off.


Most of the equipment I deal with is droid serviced. Humans could do it, but are incapable of the speed, accuracy, and sheer capability of the droids- many of them pick up loads in excess of the mas of a groundcar. But Sir Isaac was a fool. The idea of a positronic brain that can be programmed to obey laws? Rubbish, pure and simple. No brain of any value to anyone can ever be made so it is even remotely "safe".

So here are the three rules of robotics that are actually true:
1: The droid will do precisely the stupid thing you told it to do, with maximum efficiency.
2: No droid will do what you want it to do, unless you specifically tell it to.
3: never make a droid that cannot be overrided with perfect ease.

I have one in the system I'm working on now. When it gets ramped up another will join it . I have it under power, and last week I was teaching it the new ansible links, and getting very frustrated. It simply wouldn't respond to the comm, and I kept pinging and pinging and pinging, and it would return the ping, but little more.

So finally I backed off, asked it why it wouldn't talk to the machines on the subnet and it said "What machines on the subnet?"

I had uploaded all the comm parameters and all the subnet info, and had failed to establish nodes for all the ansible links. I typed in the nodes by hand- a little laborious, and kinda silly, keying info directly into the droid's face- but the machines all came online and started yapping back and forth. I let them yap all weekend and they have a solid link established which I'll just copy/paste over to the other droid on wednesday, when the next one arrives.

Thursday, February 12, 2009

What I do

I do it all. Well, I think the better answer to this, is I take the things other people make, and use them to make things other people use. The company I work for sells cartesian mass modifiers, and rotary mass modification equipment, industrial droids, and a variety of other stuff. I take those things and turn them into factories. The factories make everything you see every day.

This is what I do. I don't make the things you use and see every day, I make the factories that make those things. Yeah, that's probably the most elegant way to put it.

At the bottom of a well

I landed here seventeen years ago, a blue and brown dot at the bottom of a gravity well.

I have a malformation in a portion of my brain that causes me some trouble outside of normal space. Not common but not fun. I spent four months in a hospital getting my thoughts unscrambled before I could function again, and the bottomline is, I won't be doing any squirting anytime soon. I can survive it, and the recovery process has become faster so people with my condition (Hopkin F-dysplasia) can even travel after some prep and caution, but I won't be doing it again. Six hours at a time for four months on a table with the top of my head unscrewed was enough to convince me.

I came here on my way to the academy. This was a short hop before the long trip, i was going to be a squirt booster pilot, and I had ranked top in my class back at home. I had promise. And then I discovered I had HFD.

So here I sit, in the butthole of the universe. It's not so bad, actually, and i like it here fine. Warm summers. Not so cool winters. Sandy beaches and clean water. Decent folks who work hard, government which is so unintrusive as to barely exist.

It's a factory planet. I discovered that the same attention to detail i enjoy when I was studying for my pilot's exams lend themselves to my skills as an induistrial engineer, which I matriculated at in record time, and now I work for Redd-Shyft.

I still have a little hollow in my soul for the deepness of space, and the fact that I won't be out there folding space annoys me a little. On the other hand, the things i do, the parts my customers make, the whole of the universe needs. Right here, I have control over the manufacture of every klystron, every squirt booster tube, every piece of hardware that is used in the entire industry- not to say just about every flatscreen, happy meal, and can opener in use. More later.