Happy Black Friday!

And it’s Black Friday, which isn’t a holiday here in the good old US of A, but many people are more excited by it than by the actual Thanksgiving Holiday, so…

Anyway, slight vacation (and major illness), hence the 20-hour-late post. By way of apology, here’s a random Cracked link:

6 Movie Scientists Who Suck At Their Job. Starts off with Tony Stark, so you know it’ll be good.

Happy Thanksgiving!

And it’s Thanksgiving here in the old US of A (and just two years to go before the rotting plague kills us all). Thanksgiving is an odd holiday to the rest of the world, it’s a time to celebrate what, in your life, you’re thankful for.

In all sincerity, I have a lot of things to be thankful for. A partial list:

This world is a giant bowl of hurt, and has been for thousands of years. I am thankful I live free of murderous criminals, bandits, and guerrilla fighters. I am grateful I live in a country where — even now — we settle political differences by voting and not shooting. We don’t lock up and torture people just for opposing the ruling party, and I am deeply grateful for that. My country isn’t occupied by a foreign country, we aren’t ruled by a fanatical clique of brutal and murderous megalomaniacs, and we aren’t dominated by a close neighbor who seeks to rule us to satisfy their own pride.

There are literally billions of people for whom these things aren’t true, and I read news stories every week about it. Had I the power, I’d try and make them safe. I don’t, so I just appreciate my safety.

I have available simple inventions, complex devices, and personal conveniences that earlier generations could not have imagined: antibiotics and other medical innovations, indoor plumbing, agricultural breakthroughs that allow for unprecedented amounts of healthy food, the Internet, tablets and smartphones, my personal computer, clean water, hot and cold running water. And that just scratches the surface.

Most humans, for most of human history, lived under a death sentence from simple scratches, broken limbs, and a myriad of untreatable and mysterious diseases. Famine — where large parts of the population simply died from starvation — was common everywhere. Part of learning about history, for me, is comparing my life to theirs and realizing how fortunate I am to be born in the 20th century.

Those who have known me for long, online or in person, know I’ve been struggling with a long-term illness (which still plagues me, even today). I am grateful my condition is no longer as dire as it was just a couple of years ago, and I look forward with hope that someday I’ll be able to return to full health.

I am grateful for my family, who have loved me and supported me throughout this process. I am also grateful that, even in the midst of this sickness, I’ve been able to get to know my family better (especially my younger siblings, who were just children when I left for college). Jimmy, Carla, Caryn, Cathryn, Wesley, Laura, Lynda, Bryan, Jennifer, Michelle, and Mary Kay. I love you all and value your help and support more than you can ever know.

I am also thankful for my friends, who have been supportive and patient with me, who have read my stuff and given me feedback (and who are honest enough to tell me “that’s crap!”), and who have helped me out when I needed it (especially Bryan, who went above and beyond the call of friendship last moving day). In chronological order: Jake, Ron, Amber, John, Thomas, Bryan, and Jennifer.

I am grateful for the online friends I’ve developed through the cold, cold computer screen, many of whom followed me to this silly little blog with the promise of new Torg stuff. (Uh, any day now, guys.) Winstoninabox, Glen Taylor, Kazeffu, Dustin Reindl, and anyone else I’ve forgotten because I’m a big old jerky jerk, thank you.

I was born with natural gifts, gifts I didn’t earn, as was everyone else. I am grateful for the talents I have, that let me see things in a different way, that let me create things I can marvel at, and that let me communicate in ways that move and entertain people. I’m glad I can use these gifts to give other people some small moments of delight.

I am also grateful I live in a society where my future, my role in life, and how I use my gifts aren’t dictated to me by religion, tradition, or a ruling clique. Simple freedom is easy to overlook, but it is the most important gift a human can be given.

Gratitude requires humility, and it’s humbling to contemplate the things I’ve been given. My life isn’t perfect, but many others have suffered far worse than I, have lived in conditions far more appalling, and have suffered indignities and offenses nightmarish to contemplate. I cannot help them, I can only hope their lives improve and give thanks for that which I have been blessed with.

That’s what I’m thankful for. Happy Thanksgiving, people, and may we all be grateful for that which we receive and enjoy.

(Also, I’m grateful for the Macalope.)

Skywave [GiTO]

The name “Skywave Mesh” sounds outrageously florid, almost Bond-worthy, a name a science fiction writer would give their fictional technology to make it sound all badass (while wholly failing to do so). In this case, it isn’t badassitude at all, but rather the name of the two different technologies that were smashed together to make the Internet of 2039.

But first, let’s talk about acoustic couplers.

The first modems were ridiculously low-tech, low-fidelity devices. They operated by means of an acoustic coupler, two circles of rubber, shaped like cups, attached to a plastic device. You clipped the handset of a bog-standard AT&T-issued home telephone into the device, the speaker in one cup, the mic in the other. The computer made noises in one cup, and listened for sounds in the other. By means of this baroque (nearly steampunk, almost Rube Goldbergian) device, computers could “talk” to each other over the phone lines.

Ingenious.

They took an existing technology and repurposed it, allowing it to do things the designers never intended. (The quintessential characteristic of humans.) And in so doing, allowed everyday computers to communicate without expensive, dedicated infrastructure or specialized equipment emplacements.

Let’s talk shortwave radio. Shortwave radio has an odd characteristic called “skywave propagation”: radio signals sent out from one station (which can be as small as a breadbox, or smaller) can bounce off the ionosphere and reflect back to Earth. These signals can be received across the continent, on the other side of the ocean, and even on the other side of the planet.

Literally, on the other side of the Goddamn planet.

Using a shortwave radio, you can talk to anyone, anywhere on the planet. (Intermittently. Depending on time of day, the season of the year, solar flare activity, available channels, and so forth.) Without satellites or transcontinental cables, shortwave is the easiest way of establishing worldwide communication.

So what? What good is shortwave radio to computer communications? Can it even be used for that?

Sure. *Acoustic coupler*, bitches.

Not the same piece of equipment, obviously, but the same general principle: transmit and receive sound over a communication channel. Encode digital data in sound, send it, receive sound, decode it. This is a common piece of equipment, called a modem, which was the successor to the acoustic coupler.

In extremis, you could literally stick a microphone in front of the speaker of the radio, and receive information that way. (Reverse it to send.) Of course, this isn’t very effective.

The smarter, and easier way, takes precisely two cables: radio speaker out to computer sound in, computer sound out to radio mic jack. Two cables, and a piece of software to do the encoding and decoding, and all of a sudden you can talk to computers on the other side of the planet.

Simple. Ingenious. Effective.

You can send data. Receive data. And have your own little network.

Slowly — real time video streaming is O-U-T. (As are graphics heavy websites. You’ll take your painfully slow Unicode text transmission, and thank God for the privilege.) Intermittently — as affected by the health of the skywave bounce. And unreliably. (This is the Outlaw.) But it can be done.

A communications channel is just one part of setting up a replacement Internet. The other part was done via an existing technology called Mesh networking.

Skywave propagation + Mesh networking = a new Internet. And a name a Bond villain might have employed: the Skywave Mesh.

(“No, Mr. Bond, I expect you to die.”)

A Vulgar Broadside Against Bad Web Design

And when I say vulgar, I mean really vulgar. Eddie Murphy-level of vulgarity times the profanity of a Quentin Tarantino flick. Enough F-bombs to level LA, is what I’m getting at.

But for all that, it makes some good points. Plus it’s short and loads like lightning. (Part of the point.)

Marinate in the F-word, and learn a little something, right here.

Computing in The Outlaw [GiTO]

The Collapse blew up the existing social order. Most people died, and most of the rest were uprooted as they fled violence in the cities, consequential diseases, and famine.

With few exceptions, the nation’s infrastructure was largely abandoned. No one maintained roads, rail networks, power lines, substations, power generation facilities, telephone lines, switching stations, cellphone towers, Internet nodes, transcontinental backbones, DNS servers, and on and on. These emplacements gradually fell into disrepair, or were damaged in fighting (often for control of the facility), or were sabotaged or scavenged. (Copper thieves have, in the 24 years since the plague, stripped nearly all of the powerlines outside the Fed, and much inside.)

(Again, there were exceptions. Places which largely escaped or survived the violence, for whatever reason, suffered from degradation, but their infrastructure could be salvaged. This included Jefferson, California, the Dakotas, and other polities.)

By the end of the Collapse, and the beginning of Reconciliation (in 2018), there was no national power infrastructure, no national telecommunications infrastructure, and no Internet. (Local networks did survive, in some places, as did LAN’s, in places with access to power.) Road and rail networks were degrading quickly, often due to simple weather conditions. And satellites, used for telecommunication, weather prediction, and the GPS system, fell from the sky or gradually broke down. (Space debris, power failure, or just the march of time and the second Law of Thermodynamics.)

(And that was just the Collapse. The Emergence didn’t do anyone any favors, in these areas.)

People responded by adapting to the new conditions. “Mankind Adapts.” When phone lines went down, they used radios. When the Internet collapsed, they used jerry-rigged signal amplifiers to establish links to other extant sites. They repurposed underground phone cables, that weren’t damaged or scavenged. They established makeshift cellphone towers, using mobile cell hotspots. They stuck laptops high in a tree, with a signal amplifier, and established an ad hoc WIFI network that spread for 100 miles.

All of these solutions were ingenious and amazing, no less so because they actually Goddamn worked. In limited places, for a limited time.

Remember the borders. Dip your fingers in india ink and flick it at a white piece of paper. Each black dot is a city or settlement.

WIFI nodes, or signal repeaters, or power substations can only exist at or near one of those dots. (And that’s assuming the dot has some kind of power source. This isn’t always true.) But around each one is the Outlaw. Powerlines, run through the Outlaw. Roads, run through the Outlaw. And each individual component of a wireless network is isolated from all the others, in the middle of the Outlaw.

A bezerkergang attacks. Down goes the phone switch. An Emerged creature blunders into power lines. Down goes the power grid. (And anything attached to it.) A fire breaks out in the forest. Down goes the Internet node.

Telecommunications, power, and other infrastructure is fragile, requires constant maintenance to avoid degradation, and requires multiple emplacements to operate over a wide area. This is a problem in the Outlaw.

The Internet uses multiple computer mainframes (nodes) to route communications from one computer to another. It was built to survive a nuclear war, and when one node goes down, signals are rerouted to other nodes. It is highly robust.

But what if the signals themselves are stopped? What if nodes simply cannot communicate with each other? In such a case, the Internet ceases to exist.

So, with no telecommunications network, no root DNS servers, and no reliable nodes, how do you establish and maintain a computer network across a continent or, God forbid, between continents?

The answer was the Skywave Mesh.