Rustic Cyberpunk

Coffee & Cabins

Durable Technology

7 min read

It was still windy in New York as I was thinking of writing this. Last week, a storm passed though most of New England, including New York, and my area saw quite some damage. Since I live in an apartment some floors up, I was mostly spared, with the exception of a bit of lights flickering and Internet pauses.

My biggest concern was the windows blowing in during high winds or debris strikes. A worry that was more acute during Hurricane Sandy. Naturally, I wanted to experience the winds first hand because of my weird proclivities so I had one of the windows open the whole time. I didn't step outside this time since I'm not totally mad yet.

While the wind was raging, I was reviewing the technology that supports my lifestyle.

The largest power drain at my place is the fridge. In hot months, the AC is on par. Apartment life is largely impossible without AC, especially in upper floors when bombarded by the Sun, due to the way buildings are usually constructed here. Likewise, a cold fridge is hardly a luxury since most of the food we get is perishable and only economical when purchased in bulk.

While heating in winter isn't so much a concern for me due to concrete being a fairly consistent thermal mass and rising heat from lower floors, it's a huge concern to my neighbors close to the ground floor. There isn't much direct sunlight there to make use of the thermal mass. My fridge has a microcontroller that's a mystery to me since I don't want to take it apart. Likewise, there's one in the AC that keeps a timer and temperature sensors going.

A lot of the technology we rely on to stay connected and comfortable is also extremely fragile. Our quality of life depends on so much of it working flawlessly that I fear we're largely spoiled to some degree. I won't miss the era of struggling to find clean water and food or not being able to reach friends and family any time of day. But I'm sure there's a happy middle to self-sufficiency where we're less reliant on the infrastructure we take for granted.

It's ironic that I have a significantly smaller buffer to survive in civilization than when I'm out camping.

I enjoy mild discomfort in small doses while outdoors. I consider it an acceptable trade for peace of mind in solitude, but I also enjoy being comfortable most of the time. I'm used to a certain living standard that I don't really want to lose. I also don't want to pay a high price for it, moral nor fiat.

I also enjoy meeting and chatting with friends, much more than I used to back when I was younger. The Internet gifted and robbed the joy of detached communication, but I still want to keep that option.

While brainstorming all manner of connectivity and sustainability ideas can be fun, at some point, I really do need to put my foot down and decide what I actually need vs what's just nice to have. I do know at at least some of the structures I'm planning to build will have power, but maybe not all. At least one will have running water. All will have sensors to give me status on temperature and any potential damage during bad weather and such to ensure I can intervene in time.

I had already decided that I'd like to have some manner of mesh connectivity, but I realized that this is ripe for over-complexity and so I must be careful about the time I devote to this versus the rewards I'll actually reap.

I remembered the story of the ancient Commodore Amiga, first released in 1985, running a school AC and heating systems for more than 30 years.

While hardly perfect and prone to some failures owing to its age, I view this as a remarkable triumph in simplicity and durability. The weak parts have all been moving components, such as the mouse and hard drive. And the monitor, which is prone to EMF sensitivity and requires high voltage flyback transformer for the electron gun in the CRT. These components notwithstanding, the rest of the system is vastly more resilient than I would have expected. It's also a testament to the skill of the programmer who initially wrote all this software.

The systems and processes that enable my comfort should probably be left in the "low-tech" side in lieu of better features and speed. What I've noticed repeatedly is the benefit of engineering for loose tolerances, both in signals and user handling. And the benefit of designing for harsh environments. It's not unusual to see ancient computers running industrial control processes for decades. We seem to have sacrificed durability for features somewhere along the way and I'd like to get it back.

I've briefly toyed with the idea of a "smart cabin", but immediately dreaded the thought of coupling technology too tightly to my lifestyle again. I think the best kind of technology disappears into the background while performing its duties. There are also the privacy issues of smart-as-a-service and I distrust anything from a connected company. Not just because I don't know what information they collect and sell, but also what information will be walled off at a future date with built-in obsolescence.

An alternative, along the same lines as my DIY writing computer, is to make my own durable technology as best I can. While there are varying definitions of "durable", I'd like to start by reducing my reliance on things that are hard to repair with rudimentary tools, require some specialized technical knowledge

that is also hard to obtain. And I'd like to avoid things that need such high tolerances that conducting repairs in the middle of the woods in a cabin is out of the question.

So I'll need to practice welding some more and try to improve my carpentry skills. I'll also need to brush up on practical electronics. In terms of material, I'd like to limit plastics to the essentials that can't do without them while returning to wood and recycled metal whenever possible. I'd like to make all my constructs last as long as possible with minimal maintenance and replacement.

It's highly unlikely that I can make my own fridge, but I'm sure I can enable monitoring. Likewise, temperature control could probably be managed with off-the-shelf components, especially for the structure that has running water. The last thing I need is burst pipes due to freezing temperatures. If I go the wood heating route, manual intervention will be absolutely necessary, but I'd like to know when temperatures drop so I'll be ready to start a fire and keep it monitored so I don't burn the thing down. If I go the solar heating route, I'd like the vanes connected to thermal mass to open at the right time. These need not be mutually exclusive.

I'd also like to keep tabs on the composting toilet since I'm the forgetful type.

I think I would like to build my own durable technology going forward with simple electronics and replaceable, easily sourced, components. I absolutely do not foresee DIY semiconductor manufacturing in my immediate future, but I do see a path to some general purpose, simple computer that can be programmed for specific tasks and run on little power and oversight. On that subject, my favorite video series is by Ben Eater, in which he goes over each component of a simple 8-bit CPU built with discreet logic chips and hand wiring.

The series is quite long, but it's quite possibly the best visual explanation of any CPU on the Internet.

This is a custom architecture with its own instruction set that's specifically geared toward teaching computing and operations. It's a great starting point to build on, but I'd like to make something more capable which can be programmed to handle additional hardware. I've been looking at the RISC-V instruction set as a possible starting point for a durable, general purpose computer that can handle most automation tasks that I'm likely to need.

To that end, there's another video series I've been watching by Robert Baruch which specifically is a RISC-V computer with DIY registers made from RAM chips and such.

Although, he takes a different direction than I expected, this is a great introduction to RISC-V and how it may be implemented. The true value of the series to me is learning the intricacies of the instruction set, which I feel will be far more prominent in the future. I found the ALU design video showing the operation of the Arithmetic and Logic Unit very illuminating.

I think I'm confident that this is the path to a general purpose computer to handle my day-to-day tasks in limited automation that I don't feel needs much fiddling once programmed and can be left alone. Possibly for years on end.

I don't see myself abusing any technology I'll utilize for the heck of it or leaving it all at the mercy of the elements, but living in solitude is bound to let the things I make encounter some harsh conditions from time-to-time. I'd like to start down a path of reasonable comfort and maintain my lifestyle choices in the future as I withdraw into the woods. To me, this is the essence of "Rustic Cyberpunk".

My Least Favorite Need

2 min read

I need a computer to pay for things. Proving ownership still isn't a reliably solved problem and it's unlikely to go away as long as we have a concept called "ownership". From a programmer's perspective, transferring funds is just "authentication + value > source + destination". There's more to it, but those are the fundamentals. In fact, almost all computer transactions of any sort involve some form of this.

Computers are funny beasts. On one hand, the Apollo Guidance variety had absolute reliability for specific tasks and a specific mission. On the other hand, the general use phylum has gotten better at being worse. I'm not sure if that's the hardware, software, user assumptions, or a combination of all.

Simplicity is the hardest problem in computer science.

Spending isn't the only thing I need a computer for. Most of my thoughts, including this collection, now get copied to digital storage at some point after being stored on processed cellulose.

I also need to routinely update my black boxes because humanity, like the harsh environment of space, tends to impart entropy on anything it encounters. Worse than radiation, human influence doesn't follow a straight path, even when accounting for spacetime distortions.

Building structures solely for convenience of assembly eventually leads to their collapse. That's true of both concrete and code. Most software we see today is heavily write-optimized; The rationale being, clarity and maintenance are more important than pure efficiency and simplicity. Maintenance is the MacGuffin in the story of computers that is never actually revealed.

Last week, I tried upgrading my laptop, which has an encrypted hard drive. It went spectacularly wrong as it did the the last two times I upgraded. The software I use is Manjaro, which looks and works very well, except for those instances of upgrading while encrypted. I can confidently say, It's not ready for encrypted use. I'm still going to keep using it because I haven't found an alternative that I like better. Before this, I used BunsenLabs which is simple and reliable, but didn't have the functionality I needed to keep using at work.

Compatibility is the second hardest problem in computer science.

Moving Homes

3 min read

This blog was originally hosted on a retired Lenovo ThinkPad from the mid 2000s. It had a dead battery and a chipped screen, but the cost of replacing both would have been close to the price of another used laptop from eBay. So when I bought the replacement, I relegated the old hulk to hosting duties. It had performed admirably for more than a year now, but I've noticed a steady uptick in the amount of traffic I'm getting and things have slowed down a bit.

At one point, all my Tor sites were down due to a crash that I didn't notice. For some reason, the clock had reset to an earlier period and that was causing some issues with connecting to the Onion network. This might be due to failing hardware or another problem that I haven't figured out yet. Either way, I decided this was a good opportunity to avoid this and future limitations. I moved everything to a "proper" server.

Since about a month ago, I was experimenting with my home rack that I used at one point to host all my sites. The burden of hosting an email server hasn't lessened over the years so I gave up a while ago and the rack was sitting idle. My other concern was the noise. Since avoiding the phone more, I think I've become more sensitive to ambient distractions when they previously blended into the background. I managed to quiet the server a tad by installing an SSD and using only the CPU and power supply fans to cool the case. So far, it has worked quite well.

This level of nitty-gritty server work was very exciting to me in the past, but now it's become a chore. Like a farmer who has grown to dislike his tractor. I hope this will be the last time I have to meddle with computers just to write my thoughts.

I've also been working on something of a forum as well, and having a better system may allow me to actually follow through. It's something I've been thinking about since I left all social media. I wanted to create "rooms" with a good ambiance and a cozy feel to discuss things. Not quite chat rooms with their near-instantaneous chatter, but something with a built-in pause to reflect before posting. I think we're missing the "let's just think about this" buffer on social media and we're seeing the effects spilling over to the real world. It's causing us real harm. Something like a mood room to slow down and talk about things feels like a better option to me. I'll try to work out how this will be implemented soon.

I have a bad habit of starting things that I don't finish. Sometimes, it's just being busy, but other times, I'm genuinely drained of all interest. I don't know if there's a cure for this, but I'll try to mend it by actually finishing this time.

Are Computers Humane?

3 min read

My connection here is spotty so I don't know if this will post correctly. It's early morning and this is the only time I can grab a few meager bits of bandwith to transmit.

I'm away in the boonies for a while, staying with people whose grasp of our magic boxes isn't very strong. Watching them struggle, intervening when asked, and responding to questions has made me wonder if the esoteric language of modern computers is really to our benefit.

The litany of things to learn and understand to simply participate in society today is much greater than just 30 years ago. But 30 years ago, the relative lack of sophistication in our computers, compared to today, also made it possible to actually learn what the machine was doing and, if necessary, dive into the internals.

Today, dissecting the instruction path of a piece of code is nearly impossible. Complexity, optimization, obfuscation, and a patchwork of propiertary bulwarks against competitors has all but ensured that we don't completely understand how a computer actually functions, even if we are the ones to give it instructions. The instructions themselves are largely out of reach of the vast majority of people who use computers.

A computer now has layers of functionalty built up on millions of lines of code, none of which is understood by any one individual at once. All of this is ostensibly progress as we can do more with our devices, including share posts such as these. It has come with a terrible price.

The word "cyber" has so many uses and is thrown about so freely at present, it doesn't even have a consistent meaning anymore. In the programming world, non-specific placeholders are often called "foo" and "bar". The word cyber has become our "foo" for anything computer related.

In the original context, this used to refer to the near-future of spaces and possibilities that came with the connected computer revolution. Nowadays, it is a prefix applied to everything remotely computer related and it also implies tech esoterica thanks to a largely tech-illiterate media and public. Cybercrime, cyberspace, cyberpunk. That last part is what's relevant here.

Cyberpunk fiction has all sorts of connotations implying ubiquitous familiarity with computers and networks, rebellion against authority, as well as undertones of dysfunction and dystopia. Depending on the author, the intensity of each can vary significantly. We're not living in a cyberpunk dystopia yet, but the undretones are already here.

It's greatly problematic that people have their lives facilitated, governed, and even curtalied with the use of computers which they themselves do not understand. The end effect of this fundamental reality is that a perveasive shadow layer obscured by complexity, jargon, and ignorance is now interwoven with the fabric of society.

The shadow layer underpins much of the infastructure of civilization. And yet so few understand the critical aspects. None understand it in its entireity. We're asked to remain aboard a steam ship navigating the rough seas of life and no one understands how the boilers work, save for a lone engineer who we hope has our best in interest in mind.

We have systematically excluded people from understanding the mechanisms of society and computers play a large part in the exclusion. As arbiters of technology, the programmers, designers, artists, and those who conceptualize the inner workings and outer manifestations of our magic boxes owe a duty to society to be transparent. Instead, they build upon past layers for convineince while the mechinanics of predatory economics and current social strata are embraced; They are as opaque as volcanic ash.

Computers, as they are currently used, are not humane.