Fiction as a way to experience reality

It is a common conception that people come to fiction, especially the speculative, to escape reality. And that is indeed one of the purposes it can serve. Another is that conversely to escaping, people come to fiction to encounter or experience reality…reality has different facets, different windows, like eyes, that reveal different vistas. – Oghenechovwe Donald Ekpeki


Dystopian fiction is when you take things that happen in real life to marginalized populations and apply them to people with privilege. – @Hugo_Book_Club

On face computers

Given my history with face computers, every time a new one launches people ask me what I think about it. This time it’s Apple’s turn to try to make face computers happen.

I thought I’d write up a few of the things I learned in my Glass experience that apply to anyone doing this:

  • People really, really care about how they look. Especially how their face looks. If you wear eyeglasses, think about how many pairs you tried on the last time you got new ones. Then imagine the glasses store had only one style available.
  • Plus, when something covers your eyes, it’s hard to see what you look like to others. When you find out later, it’s often unpleasant.
  • Speaking of eyeglasses, over 50% of the world’s population already wears them. Especially the older, richer people. Are you replacing those glasses? If not, how will you work with them? Most face computer designers forget about or willfully ignore this, perhaps because they’re young people with young eyes.
  • Face computers are often pitched as the replacement for phones. But people love their phones! So far every new type of wearable device has only made phones more important (for sync, setup, handoff, etc), not less.
  • And the business case for mass-market face computers depends on them replacing mobile phones. If you aren’t replacing a phone, you’re an accessory, a productivity device, or an entertainment device. Game consoles are a $20-50B market; laptops ~$150B; phones are >$500B. That’s why Glass focused on a highly mobile device rather than an immersive, more stationary one; it’s a completely different market.
  • Comfort is only slightly behind fashion in priority. Weight especially matters. Every additional gram makes the experience worse; anything over 50 grams makes it time-limited. You can play some tricks by shifting weight rearward off the face to the ears (as we did with the battery on Glass) but that buys you only a bit more.
  • The critical experience point is not using the device, but charging it. Any charging friction at all makes you have to think about whether and when you’ll need to use this device again. If that time is not in the next few hours, most devices won’t get charged–and they’ll be dead when you next think to use them.
  • Business uses change a lot of these equations. If it helps you do your job, people will use (and charge) devices far more willingly. Glass eventually pivoted to enterprise and found more success there.
  • “The killer app for glasses…is sight!” My colleague Ricardo Prada expressed this once in a brainstorm and it crystalized better than anything else what features, constraints, and use cases were going to be most important for Glass. Does it help you see more about the real world? Then it has a chance. If it’s trying to replace the real world, it’s much more challenging.

I still believe that the glasses we already wear (to help us see) can and will do more for us. I don’t believe people will make any compromises to how they look or feel in order to have those improvements. Unfortunately I expect this will limit the appeal of face computers to niche (or business) purposes for the foreseeable future.

I’d love to be wrong about this. Apple in particular has a history of succeeding where others have failed, and I fully realize I’m opening up myself to a “less space than a Nomad” moment. But this area has fundamental human physical and social challenges, and I haven’t seen any device yet that is up to that task.

When technology advances to the point where lots of face computer styles are possible at 50 grams or less, I think things will get interesting again.

Volcano power!

A new approach to geothermal power generation posits that we might solve our green power needs and defuse the civilization-ending Yellowstone supervolcano at the same time.

Pick a crank, any crank

There have been many attempts to quantify the ideal crankarm length for cyclists of different heights. At just under 6’7″ (2.0m) I’ve been particularly interested in this subject. I’ve ridden cranks from 170-200mm on various bikes over time, and broken several sets in the name of experimenting.

This CyclingTips article collects some of the research highlights, including one from 2002 which establishes that “mechanical power output and pedal speed, a marker for muscle shortening velocity, are the main determinants of metabolic cost during submaximal cycling”.

In layman’s terms, that means that longer cranks at a lower cadence will have the same cost as shorter cranks at a higher one. This was confirmed in 2017 by a study that found that crank length didn’t alter metabolic cost, but cautioned that too-long sets could cause joint issues.

So in the end, as the CyclingTips article suggests, cyclists can feel free to choose a crank length based on what feels best to them. For me, that’s 195-200mm for hilly road rides to help with low-cadence torque; 180mm on the rollers for seated spinning; and somewhere in between for flat roads and off-road riding (where pedal strikes are a concern). Anything shorter–and even 180s when standing–feels like I’m Homer Simpson riding the clown bike.

Finding cranks outside the 170-175mm range is still challenging and expensive, but worth hunting down a pair to try, especially if you’re on the extreme end of the height spectrum.

Cosmic clock

For years I’ve had a memory of a video showing the rise and fall of a city, over hundreds of years, from the top of a nearby hill. In particular I remembered being stunned by the way an entire civilization would appear like a blip, to an observer with a much longer timespan.

I’ve searched for a long time and finally found it; a clip called Cosmic Clock by Al Jarnow, originally shown on 3-2-1 Contact:

In my mind it was a rock on the hill; looks like it was a kid with a stopwatch instead. Thanks to Jason Kottke for the link!

Waking up

I think we didn’t evolve sleep, we evolved wakefulness – Paul Shaw

Happiness is what you make it

While negative events can cause ongoing unhappiness, “hoping for happiness from positive events appears misplaced.“. Oof.

On the plus side, it might be freeing to understand that waiting for that promotion/relationship/event won’t make a difference to your happiness. Embrace who you are and what you have today.

Reduce emissions, save a life

A new study estimates the mortality cost of our carbon emissions.

From The Guardian:

For every 4,434 metric tons of CO2 pumped into the atmosphere beyond the 2020 rate of emissions, one person globally will die prematurely from the increased temperature. This additional CO2 is equivalent to the current lifetime emissions of 3.5 Americans…

While it takes just 3.5 Americans to create enough emissions in a lifetime to kill one person, it would take 25 Brazilians or 146 Nigerians to do the same, the paper found.

While emissions are still something best addressed by government policy and economic incentives, and “carbon footprint” is a concept popularized by BP to shift blame to individuals, understanding the mortality cost grounds even individual decisions (including voting) with the opportunity to save lives.

The territory to be mapped

It’s more like the job of a science fiction writer is not to map the territory, but to point out that there’s territory to be mapped.

Science fiction is about pointing out that there are things that are out of the frame [in real life] that don’t properly belong out of the frame, whose ruling out is arbitrary—or customary, which is another way of saying the same thing.

Intelligence as skill acquisition

The intelligence of a system is a measure of its skill-acquisition efficiency over a scope
of tasks, with respect to priors, experience, and generalization difficulty. – François Chollet, On the Measure of Intelligence