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The Next ‘Internet’

I remember the moment when I became an entrepreneur, or at least when that critical epiphany happened that planted the seed. It was the early 90’s, and I was working in my first ‘real’ job after college as a tech professional in a major industrial electronics manufacturer. As a defense contractor, they were connected to the Internet. The Internet wasn’t the big, pervasive, commercial thing it is now. It was mostly universities and government labs and the like. The Internet backbone was still funded by the National Science Foundation, and commercial traffic was barred from it. Your average person had never even heard of the Internet.

But that was changing. The move to commercialize the Internet was already in motion. I was ‘the Internet guy’ where I worked, in charge domain name services and email accounts etc… so when this group called CommerceNet came around to talk about the commercial future of the Internet, I was invited to the presentation.

That’s when the light bulb went on for me.

It wasn’t a terribly flashy presentation. They showed off a prototype e-commerce web site, a first ever on-line store where a person could buy networking cables and adapters and similar gadgets. It was crude by today’s standards, but what it represented was huge. The restrictions on commercial traffic still made something like that impossible, but when that was lifted, the floodgates would be open. And I could SEE it. Not just shopping, but the broader adoption of email, the downloading of news and entertainment. The utility and advantages of connecting to the Internet was so great, nothing would stop the juggernaut once it started moving, and I knew I had to be part of that. I wasn’t sure how, but I was convinced that’s where my future was.

It didn’t happen immediately, but with the seed planted, it didn’t take long. One of my jobs included managing Novell Netware file servers, so I participated in some Netware specific technical forums (on something called Usenet… google it). The World Wide Web had just become a thing, and no software existed yet to turn a Netware server into a web server. I thought, “how hard can it be?”. As it turned out, not that hard. A few hundred dollars in software tools, a cobbled together server assembled from spare parts, and a couple weeks of late night development time, and I had a prototype.

I posted a request for beta testers on Usenet. My email inbox quickly filled with eager participants. I began taking pre-orders, and sales took off like a rocket. The growth was exponential. I quit my day job to dedicate myself full-time to my new business.

Those were heady days. I was running a global business from a spare bedroom. I hired a couple friends to do customer service, found a graphic artist to design packaging and promotional materials, and farmed out development of e-commerce features to two different external developers. I was running ads in magazines and renting booths in trade shows. My customers ranged from small mom-and-pop outfits to fortune 100 corporations and foreign governments. It was a niche market, but I had it all to myself, and the money rolled in.

It couldn’t last.

Web servers were becoming a ubiquitous commodity. In most other operating systems, web server software was bundled for free. Unix had the open source NCSA server. Microsoft was bundling IIS. It was only a matter of time before Novell woke up to that reality and included one with Netware. My worries were confirmed when I received a phone call from Ransom Love, then an executive at Novell. He made some cautious inquiries about purchasing the rights to my software. He also let slip that they were talking to a company called American Internet that was in the process of porting the NCSA server to Netware. I had beat American Internet to market, but they had far more people and resources than me, so in the race to become Novell’s preferred vendor, they had some serious advantages. They won that race.

But I at least had enough warning to reposition myself. I co-founded one of the first Internet Service Providers in Milwaukee, eventually sold my half of that, then redirected my software company toward consulting services. I’ve been making a decent living at that ever since.

But looking back, I can see the missed opportunities. I was a kid barely out of college making the leap into running his own global business. I made every mistake in the book and probably invented some new ones. It was a combination of crazy market growth and blind luck that kept me from crashing and burning. I had stumbled into an untapped, very profitable market niche, and I could see the need to diversify away from it, but I wasn’t able to leverage that into the sort of massive success that others did during the dot com boom (despite being ahead of the curve in many respects). I sometimes wonder what the result would be if I could go back and relive those early days of runaway Internet growth with all the business experience and confidence I’ve built up over the years. I think back to that day in a presentation about the commercial Internet when the light bulb went on for me, when I could SEE the inevitability of it even if I lacked the experience to fully capitalize on it. I’ve wondered for a while when the next Internet scale opportunity would present itself.

And then… a few days ago… that long dimmed light bulb burst into brightness again.

I’m not exactly ahead of the curve with this one. People have been talking about the inevitability of this trend for some time. Heck, it’s been a fixture in science fiction and popular culture for decades. But it wasn’t until I was playing with a friend’s Amazon Echo and marveling at recent advances in speech recognition that it struck me. We are reaching an inflection point with Artificial Intelligence. Decades of slow and steady progress are giving way to exponential growth in both the capability and deployment of A.I.  At some level I’ve always known this was coming, but I never really internalized what that meant, both for the world and myself as a computer professional. This will be as transformative as the Internet itself. And I need to be part of it.

That’s really what the light bulb was about, not a realization of where the world is heading… I think I already knew that… but the part I need to play in it. Suddenly I feel the same about Artificial Intelligence as I did about the Internet in the mid 90’s. This is the way the world is moving. And while lots of big money and large market segments are already on the move, there is still a lot of opportunities out there. Because while the Amazons and Googles of the world might see the potential, I think most people don’t really get it.

We are not really wired to recognize disruptive, exponential trends. We tend to see the future as only a slightly shinier version of the present. We play with these clunky, early versions of speech recognition, read stories about self driving cars, but it’s hard to fully internalize what the technology is evolving toward. The world is changing, and we all need to change with it. And I think my future is in helping people make that change. Just like I previously helped companies understand and embrace the Internet, the future will be about integrating Artificial Intelligence into our lives and business models.

I’m ready for that change.

 

What the #%&@* is Net Neutrality?

If you find yourself asking the above question, this post is for you.

As someone who used to own an Internet Service Provider and worked with the Internet for years before that, let me drop some knowledge on you about Net Neutrality. Contrary to what some would have you believe, Net Neutrality is not some new government intrusion on the previously free Internet, it is in fact the system under which the government created and nurtured the Internet in the first place. Back when the National Science Foundation funded the Internet backbone, Net Neutrality was a mandated rule… you couldn’t participate on the Internet unless you agreed to treat all traffic the same… no filtering or throttling based on who was sending the data packets or what they contain. Everyone got access to the ENTIRE Internet… not just the parts your provider chose to let you see. And those rules are what made the Internet massively successful. There were plenty of other competing network technologies, but none of them came with the Net Neutrality mandate, so they never really took off.

And even after the NSF funding was removed and we began to transition to a fully commercial Internet in the mid nineties, we mostly stuck with Net Neutrality largely because the FCC understood Internet Service Providers to be ‘common carriers’ and regulated to keep those rules in place. It wasn’t until the Bush administration and a reclassification away from common carrier status that the FCC began to treat ISPs as ‘content creators’ instead, allowing an erosion of Net Neutrality rules, with lots of nasty consequences like blocking of Netflix and other services, the creation of bandwidth caps, and other general badness for Internet customers. That trend was thankfully stopped by the Obama FCC when they reclassified the ISPs back to common carrier status to enforce Net Neutrality rules again.

But now under the new Trump FCC we have of course lurched back the other way. With the death of Net Neutrality, the way is cleared for ISPs to begin blocking and degrading traffic from competing service providers… so you will no longer have access to the entire Internet… only the parts that Comcast or AT&T or Verizon are willing to let you see. An Internet that was once an incubator for technology entrepreneurs will instead erect barriers to protect the markets of the entrenched monopolies. Free speech on the Internet will become a thing of the past.

That is what is at stake here. That is what Net Neutrality means.

Want to help preserve Net Neutrality? Visit this website: https://www.battleforthenet.com/

Our Frugal Path to Wealth

Yesterday I was chatting with a friend about financial issues and explained how Kirsten and I live very frugally even when I’m making bank on a really good contract. That philosophy pays dividends in times like this when I’m between contracts, and the long term benefit becomes more obvious as retirement grows closer. It was a useful conversation, so I thought I’d share some of the ways Kirsten and I save money on a regular bases. Feel free to mention your own ideas in the comments.

The first home I bought was a duplex. The rent from the other unit paid most of my mortgage. I bought the duplex I was previously renting, and my monthly out of pocket cost actually went down. This was a great way to build equity, and it has now turned into a nice little income generating property.

We don’t tend to buy pre-made microwave meals. Instead I make massive batches of stuff and freeze individual meal sizes in reusable freezer/microwave containers. Examples: rice and beans, Indian rice+vegetable dishes, chicken+vegetable+lentil stews, oriental stir fry, and chili. Added Bonus: I know exactly what is in my food, so I know it’s healthy.

We don’t buy bottled water. A high quality water filter will give you the exact same product and will pay for itself in a few months in most cases. Just invest in a few stainless steel water cans or thermoses and keep them in the fridge.

You can buy those water cans and other perfectly fine dishes at most thrift stores. There is also plenty of other things you get cheap used instead of new. I draw the line at buying used underwear, but I don’t mind a nice pair of jeans that someone else has broken in. Just launder the hell out them before wearing… many stores don’t bother.

I’ve completely eliminated soda and the like from my diet. I instead make my own beverages by adding fruit juice to sun tea and putting it in reusable bottles in the fridge. I also make lemonade+juice mixers. Again, way cheaper and usually healthier.

Buy in bulk when getting stuff that does not go off, like paper products, cleaning supplies, and even many foods. We buy stuff like rice, beans, lentils, pasta, and oatmeal from our local food-coop, getting the hippie organic versions, and still pay far less than the boxed stuff from the typical grocery store.

Shop counter-seasonally. Buy lawn furniture at the end of the season, not the beginning. The same with clothing. Shop for Christmas gifts after the season, not right before. Buy last year’s model of car when the new one comes out… you’re sure to find a few on the lot they are desperate to get rid of.

Get produce from your local farmers market, but wait until the end. Vendors don’t want to take stuff back with them, so you can aggressively haggle and get plenty of stuff for pennies on the dollar.

A Legal But Highly Addictive Drug

One of the most enjoyable parts of writing is when a character takes a story in an unexpected direction. I just had that happen in a big way. If you are not a writer, you might not know what I mean. It might seem that the actual writing process should have no surprises. You work out the basic plot, you flesh it out with some additional detail, then you sit down and type the story, filling in the prose like a painter painting by numbers. And for some writers, it might actually work like that.

But for many of us, not so much. Writing, at least really good writing, means getting yourself into the heads of the characters. Their actions, reactions, dialog, all become lived things, organically created from events as they unfold. And that means sometimes a meticulously planned plot point gets tossed out the window when it bumps up against how your character would plausibly react in a given situation.

When this happens, when your plot comes into conflict with your characters, the only choice (in my opinion) is to defer to the character and change the plot. The most carefully fashioned story will collapse if the characters are not believable, if the reader cannot identify with them. If your characters don’t want to follow your plot outline, they are sending you a message: You are writing the wrong story.

This just happened to me.

The Apocalypse Contract has reached a critical juncture in the plot. Multiple threads are coming together, secrets are being revealed, and we are about to dive into the exciting race to the conclusion. My main characters are well defined, and I know where the story is going.

Then, as I start a new chapter, I think: Maybe I should write this one from the perspective of this minor character. So I do.

Holy crap.

Suddenly this minor character has taken on a critical importance. Their inner monologue reveals capabilities and secrets nobody else suspects. It opens up potential for a whole new direction going forward, and the concept is TOTALLY FREAKING AWESOME.

You know that feeling you get when you’re reading a book or watching a movie and it hits you with a plot twist that you weren’t expecting, but it feels totally right and punches you in the gut with a visceral feeling of satisfaction?

Yeah… writers get that too. And if anything, its far more intense when creating a story than reading it. It’s why we do it. Basically we are junkies that have found a legal drug. Honestly, if you are not writing because you are addicted to writing, you are probably doing it for the wrong reasons (there are easier ways to get a paycheck).

That’s all I got.

Turkey Sweet Potato Shepherds Pie (sort of)

Yesterday’s Kitchen Experiment: Turkey Sweet Potato Shepherds Pie (sort of)

  1. Dice up two carrots and a sweet potato into a pot of of water. Boil until veggies become very soft. Mash up the veggies with potato masher (or large spoon).
  2. Simultaneously, brown some ground turkey in a pan. Add sliced, fresh mushroom. Spice with garlic and Herbes de Provence. Cook a few more minutes.
  3. Add the turkey and mushrooms to water / carrot /sweet potato mixture. Add additional spices if desired (you can’t go wrong with garlic).
  4. Add a cup of milk. Bring back to a low boil. Mix in dried potato flakes until it thickens nicely. Should be stiff enough to make a small sculpture of Devils Tower.
  5. Sprinkle grated cheese on top (your choice). Garnish with some parsley flakes. Put the lid on the pot and turn off the heat, wait a few minutes for the cheese to melt.

Recommended Sides: Steamed broccoli, asparagus, or brussel sprouts.
Pair with an amber ale or a white wine (like a Pinot Noir). Or not… Drink what you want, I’m not your parent.

 

The Immortality Contract

Here is the first chapter of a new story idea I’m kicking around. Current working title is ‘The Immortality Contract’, but that might change. Also not sure how long this is going to be. Anyway… here it is. I hope you enjoy it, and as always, feedback is very welcome.


CHAPTER 1

 

Sydney wasn’t accustomed to having aliens materialize in her apartment. In fact, visitors of any kind tended to set her on edge, so the sudden appearance of this strange pair left her nearly catatonic.

“Have you considered our proposal?” the being on the left asked. At least she assumed it was the one on the left. It’s mouth hadn’t actually moved, so she couldn’t be sure.

She tried to answer, but only a breathy gasp escaped.

“We are unfamiliar with the meaning of that vocalization. Was it agreement? We can begin your orientation immediately if so.”

Sydney sucked in a quick breath and finally found her voice. “Oh my god you’re real! You’re really aliens. You’re real, and you’re in my apartment.” Her eyes swept back and forth from one alien figure to the other. “And you’re naked. Why are you naked?” She realized it was a ridiculous question after she asked it. Why should she assume aliens would wear clothes? They looked more like genderless department store manikins than people anyway, so it wasn’t like the nudity was shocking. Maybe that was it. Manikins should have clothes on them. That was their purpose. A naked manikin was a job unfinished. A job once started should always be finished.

The aliens turned toward each other, their heads moving as if they were using their empty manikin eyes to confirm their nudity. Clothing blossomed on their skin, appearing in patches, then growing together to form full garments. “Do you find this acceptable?” the alien on the right asked. He was now wearing a gray pinstriped business suit, alligator shoes, and a derby hat. His companion wore a light blue polo shirt, beige cargo pants, and sandals. The polo shirt still had a price tag on it, reinforcing the manikin motif.

“I don’t like people in my apartment,” she managed to sputter.

“As we were telling you during our phone conversations, we are not people. We are extraterrestrial aliens. You seemed unconvinced. We find a physical manifestation can be persuasive.”

“Yeah, well… go manifest yourself over there on the sofa. You’re… all up in my personal space, and it’s freaking me out.” She hadn’t told them to get out. Why hadn’t she told them to get out?

The aliens walked around the coffee table and sat on her sofa. Sydney relaxed slightly but remained in her reading chair, hands clenched on the chair’s arms. Her phone was still lying on the floor where she had dropped it, the call still connected. Her cat Pixel was still sleeping on top of his favorite bookcase, completely undisturbed by the alien incursion.

Moments earlier, Sydney had been engaged in a phone interview with potential consulting clients, or so she thought. Sure, they seemed a bit odd, with their stilted speech and off the wall questions, but they wouldn’t be her first weirdo clients. When you only accept telecommuting jobs, you have to cast your net a bit wider. She was willing to overlook a lot of weirdness as long as the checks cleared.

“As I was saying, employment with us would involve unparalleled health benefits. We can free you from all biological maladies, including the terminal condition you currently suffer from.” It was the casually dressed alien that had said this. Well, she assumed so, since he was gesturing with his hand while the speech was happening. Was ‘he’ the correct pronoun? Did aliens have gender? They sounded male. Actually, they sounded like radio announcers. Maybe TV anchormen.

“How… how do you know about my cancer? That should be confidential. You could get in a lot of…” She remembered she was dealing with space aliens that could materialize inside locked rooms. Potential legal trouble over HIPAA health privacy violations was probably not something they worried about.

“Our data collection methods are proprietary and not pertinent to this negotiation,” Business Suit Alien answered. “We are prepared to compensate you financially at your current billing rate for the duration of the contract. We will also provide medical benefits as previously stated. In return we require your exclusive services for the duration of the contract. Your duties will include the piloting and maintaining of a single occupancy spaceship for the delivery of materials to a star approximately 15 light years from your solar system. You call it Ross 154.”

Sydney sat in stunned silence for several long seconds. “Space. You want me to pilot a spaceship. In space. You’re space aliens. That’s what you do. Why would you need me?”

The aliens looked at each other for a moment before Casual Alien answered. “We cannot function in isolation. Our species has evolved to require constant contact with others of our kind. This project requires a small vessel with a single occupant. Your species is better suited to such work.”

“Don’t be so sure about that. Most people go nuts if you lock them away by themselves for too long. How long are we talking about? You said fifteen light years. How fast can this ship of yours go? You’ve got some sort of fancy, faster than light warp drive, right?”

Her cat Zoe sauntered into the living area. Zoe sniffed Casual Alien’s right foot, rubbed against his leg, then sprawled under the coffee table and promptly fell asleep. If this was an invasion, it seemed her cat’s were prepared to fully accept Earth’s new alien overlords.

“We are constrained by physical laws,” Business Suit Alien replied. “The ship can approach but not exceed the speed of light. It will require approximately sixteen years, eight months, twenty-four days to reach it’s destination, accounting for acceleration and deceleration time. A return trip requires an equivalent amount of time.”

“More than thirty years round trip? I’d be in my late sixties before I’m back! Maybe you should have led with your pension plan.”

“Our health benefits package can alleviate all biological maladies. This includes the effects of aging.”

“So you’re saying I won’t age at all during the trip. What about after the job’s over? How long do I get to keep these health benefits?”

“We have no plan to rescind any benefits upon conclusion of our relationship or any time after that. You will cease to age for as long as you live.”

Sydney struggled to get her head around the immensity of what they were suggesting. “Holy. Shit. You realize you’re talking about immortality, right? Forget the pension plan. Lead with the immortality next time.”

“We’ve learned that some humans find the prospect of an indefinitely long lifespan disturbing.” Business Suit Alien shifted his position, crossing his right leg over his left and revealing a ‘Size 10’ sticker on the bottom of his right shoe. Sidney found herself staring at the sticker and wondering where the aliens shopped.

“Yeah, I’ve heard that too. I don’t really get it though. I would rather choose when and how I go out than have it creep up on me without any say in the matter.”

“Then our offer is acceptable? We can begin your orientation immediately if so.”

“Now hold on a minute. I didn’t agree to anything yet. There’s a lot to discuss. I’ll admit it’s tempting, but thirty years alone in space would probably drive anyone crazy, me included. I need details before I decide anything.” Was she really doing this? Was she negotiating a consulting contract with aliens?

“Our research indicates you are uniquely suited to this job. You have the analytical problem solving skills we need, the ability to learn quickly, and you shun contact with others of your kind. You rarely leave your domicile, and then only for critical tasks such as your recent hospital visit.”

“Well, yeah, you got me pegged, I’m a loner. But that doesn’t mean I can handle a thirty year stint in solitary confinement. How big is this ship? What sort of entertainment can I bring along? Can I bring my cats? I assume there’s no Netflix on this crate.”

“The ship is an oblong spheroid approximately one hundred and sixty meters long and ninety meters in diameter. We will create living quarters that approximate your current domicile. You can bring as much digitally stored entertainment as you wish. We can simulate your computers and electronic equipment using shipboard systems. We have no plans to accommodate other lifeforms beyond yourself. Contact with terrestrial entertainment sources will be impossible once the ship is in flight.”

“Huh. Approximate my current domicile you say. As much as I like my apartment, I’m not renting a one room studio because I like cozy spaces. I was hoping for an upgrade in that department. Also, if I can’t bring my cats, I think that’s a deal breaker.” She looked at Zoe, still curled up under the coffee table. “And they get full health benefits too. I don’t think I could handle them dropping dead on me halfway through the trip.”

The aliens looked at each other. Was that just for show, or were they communicating when they did that? “We can adjust the parameters of your living space,” Casual Alien stated, “but the issue of additional lifeforms will require consultation with our peers.”

“OK, well, check on that and get back to me. About that digital entertainment… I can really bring as much as I want? This ship includes USB 3.0 ports or what?”

“Current ship design would allow for approximately four point seven petabytes of archived data storage before impinging on other ship functions. We can interface with any storage medium you choose to bring.”

“Did you say four point seven petabytes? As in more than four million gigabytes? OK, so no worries there. I guess that leaves us with pay. If you want to lock me into a long term commitment like this, we need to adjust for future wage inflation, opportunity cost, that sort of thing… let’s say $150 per hour.”

“That would be acceptable,” replied Business Suit Alien.

“And it sounds like this is a 24×7 on-call sort of gig, so I’ll need to bill all those hours, not just forty a week.”

The aliens did their sidelong look thing for a few seconds. “That exceeds our current allocated budget.”

“I can go a bit lower. How about one forty per hour.”

“We could pay you $50 per hour, payable in monthly installments to an interest bearing account over the duration of the assignment. Funds would be made available to you upon your return.”

“Sure that works. Not like I would have anywhere to spend it until then. But $50 is too low. I could do $125.”

“We are willing to increase our offer to $75 per hour.”

“one twenty and not a penny lower.”

“We can increase our offer to $80 per hour.”

“I don’t think you quite understand what ‘not a penny lower’ means.” Sydney crossed her arms and tried to look determined.

“We understand the human tradition of haggling,” Business Suit Alien replied, “It is your turn to counter with a lower offer.”

“Fine. One hundred and nineteen dollars per hour.” She tapped her foot to show her impatience.

“We counter with $81 dollars per hour.”

“Wait a minute… you’re just matching my moves dollar for dollar until we meet at $100 per hour, aren’t you.”

“$100 dollars per hour is an acceptable rate. If you are in agreement, we could begin your orientation.”

“OK, fine, whatever, one hundred per hour it is… but you still have to get back to me about my cats.”

The aliens looked at each other for perhaps the longest interval yet. “We will contact you again in one week’s time.” They shimmered out of existence as enigmatically as they had appeared.

Sydney sat in her reading chair for several minutes before moving. Finally, she picked up her phone from the floor. The call had ended. She set her phone on the coffee table and scooped up Zoe. The cat complained but then quickly settled into her lap and fell back asleep.

“So what do you think, fuzz bucket? You prepared to become a space cat?”

Zoe’s only answer was a leisurely yawn.

Dreams of A Compromise Obamacare Fix

So after the GOP’s Obamacare repeal effort failed with three Republican Senators joining the Democrats to vote it down, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell made a statement mostly bemoaning the failure. He largely blamed the Democrats for not joining in the effort to dismantle Obama’s signature law but did at one point say, “So now I think it’s appropriate to ask, ‘what are their ideas?’ It will be interesting to see what they suggest as the way forward.” He even repeated the sentiment by later saying, “It’s time for our friends on the other side to tell us what they have in mind, and we will see how the American people feel about their ideas.” While his sincerity is undercut by the tone of his statement, I’m willing to be irrationally optimistic and take him at his word. With their partisan, one-sided repeal effort dead, let’s assume the road is open to bipartisan compromise and a real Obamacare fix. (more…)

The Bike Race (Max Synaptic – The Early Years)

 Max Synatowsky rode his bike toward the pier. It was early afternoon, so he was not the only young person there. The lake was a popular place to hang out on a weekend, and many of his schoolmates already lounged in the sweltering summer heat. The group had divided into noticeable cliques, the major division being those already in high school and those, like Max, who were yet to start. He pulled to a stop near a group he knew from the middle-school video club. They weren’t exactly friends, but they were not particularly hostile to him either, which was the most Max had come to hope for. Several of the video geeks nodded at him, acknowledging his arrival. Max took it as a positive sign.

“Nice bike, dickwad.”

Max recognized the voice. He turned toward the cluster of high school students and confirmed his suspicion. It was Timothy Brundy, loudmouth jock and bane of the student underclass. Tim was leaning on his own bike, an expensive looking ten-speed with curved-under handlebars and a shiny silver-blue paint job. One of his tires was probably worth more than Max’s entire bike.

“I bet it’s faster than yours,” Max responded. It was a ridiculous thing to claim. Max’s bike was an older three-speed. It was smaller. It had fat all-terrain tires instead of Tim’s skinny racing tires. He had wrapped sliver tape around some of the metal supports to hide the rust, and a cardboard box was bungee strapped to the carry rack over the back tire. It was the exact opposite of Tim’s sleek machine.

Tim laughed. “I’ll take that bet. How about we race. To the end of Lakeshore Drive and back. Loser forfeits his bike.”

Max looked around. Everyone was watching the exchange. He was beginning to regret his words… regret even coming to the lake. But backing down would be worse than losing. “We race around the gravel pit, and you’ve got a deal.”

Tim thought about it for a moment. “Sure, what the hell. Let’s do it.”

They lined up on Lakeshore Drive, one of the high school students stood in front holding a baseball cap in the air as she explained the rules. “The race will go down Lakeshore, turn onto Mill Road, go around the old gravel pit, and then onto Putnam Avenue and back here to the pier. The first one to cross the line back onto Lakeshore Drive is the winner. You can start when my hat hits the ground.”

Max took a deep breath. His heart pounded. Kids on either side shouted encouragement or taunts, but Max couldn’t make out who they supported. His eyes were laser focused on the hat.

“Get ready… get set… GO!” With a dramatic flourish, she tossed the hat down.

Tim shot off the mark with amazing speed. Max was only an instant behind, but he was already losing ground. He peddled furiously, quickly clicking through all three gears as Tim pulled away. When they reached the turn onto Mill Road, Tim was already three whole bike lengths ahead of him.

Max’s bike fishtailed as he flew off of the pavement of Lakeshore Drive onto the gravel of Mill Road. Ahead, he could see Tim slow as his thin racing tires lost traction. Max pumped his peddles with every bit of strength he could muster, and briefly he gained on his opponent. He had calculated correctly… his fatter tires actually gave him an advantage on this terrain.

Mill road straightened out for a stretch, and the gravel became more compact. Tim began to pull away again as his longer legs and greater strength made up for his thin tires. Max gave it all he could but gradually fell farther behind.

They reached the gravel pit, and the road began to curve again. It was crisscrossed with ruts, forcing Tim to slow down and allowing Max to gained ground. Three bikes lengths. Then two. Max was a tantalizing few feet behind when they finally reached Putnam Avenue. The two bikes hopped back onto pavement and began racing down the long straightaway toward the pier.

And that’s when that sleek racing bike showed its worth. Tim clicked through his final few gears and poured on the speed. He pulled away like Max was standing still. Max threw his last bit of strength into peddling. His lungs heaved. The muscles of his legs burned with exertion. But Tim continued to pull away.

It was now or never.

Max reached down with one hand, searching for the small switch under his seat. He clicked it, closing the circuit and sending an electrical current down the thin wire running to the cardboard box over his back tire. He frantically put his hand back on the handle bars as the solid fuel rocket engine ignited and the bike nearly leaped out from under him.

He had spent weeks constructing it. The fuel was a variation on the stuff he used in his model rockets, but this engine was much larger, encased in a big metal pipe rather than a small cardboard tube. He had welded it securely to the frame of his bike and then careful concealed it with the cardboard box. The rocket motor roared, and he was suddenly gaining ground on Tim.

Tim, oblivious to what was happening behind him, tucked himself low over his handlebars and continued peddling. Max held his handlebars in a death grip as his speed quickly increased, any thought of trying to peddle his own bike forgotten as he simply fought to maintain his balance. He caught a quick glimpse of Tim’s shocked expression as he rocketed past.

Max flew down Putnam, still accelerating. The rocket should have burned out by now, he was sure of it, but he kept gaining speed. The pier was quickly approaching, and the shouts of his schoolmates could be heard even over the roar of the rocket motor. He lifted his hand to wave them away, warn them that he couldn’t stop, but had to quickly grab the handlebars again as the bike wobbled. People dove out of his way as he reached the end of Putnam Avenue, shot across Lakefront Drive, and onto the pier. He rattled across the boards of the pier, down its entire length, then off the end. He finally let go of the bike as it hit the water, his body briefly skipping across the lake’s surface like a large stone thrown by a mischievous god. He thrashed for a moment in the water before standing up, realizing it was only waist deep.

Max half swam, half walked toward the shore. Partway there, his foot snagged his bike. He dragged it with him the rest of they way. When he emerged from the water he was immediately surrounded by a crowd of yelling youngsters. He walked past them to the beginning of the pier where Tim had finally arrived.

Tim looked angry. Max waited for him to speak, to accuse him of cheating, but Tim remained silent. He was looking at the cheering crowds around Max.

This is it, Max thought, this is what winning feels like. He soaked it in, his gaze drifting from face to face. People who wouldn’t have given him the time of day only twenty minutes earlier. He finally turned and addressed Tim.

“I’ll take my bike now.”

My Analysis of the GOP Senate Health Care Bill

Well, I promised a deeper dive into the Republican Senate health care bill (the Better Care Reconciliation Act of 2017, or just BCRA), and here it is. I was frustrated by other analysis I found on the web because they generally don’t say WHEN various changes kick in, and that is of course pretty important to some of us. Consequently, I took special care to look at the dates that different parts of the law would go into effect, and I’ve organized my discussion appropriately. I’m mostly focusing on the big changes that will directly impact most people, so details like the repeal of the tanning salon tax didn’t get much attention. I’ve also glossed over details of Medicaid cuts because there is a LOT of detail there… the largest part of the bill is dedicated to it… and this is meant to be more of a summary. Suffice it to say that the bill takes an ax to Medicaid, which will mean a lot of people losing health coverage. That said, here is all the other stuff the BCRA would do and the timeline of when it does it: (more…)

Zen and the Art of Remembering Passwords

Today I had to log into a server I haven’t logged into for some time, and I couldn’t remember the password. After four failed attempts, I knew the next one would lock out my IP address. It’s a server I used to log into often, so it’s a password I’ve typed many times. I decided to to try something. Hands on the keyboard, I let my mind go blank. I didn’t think about the password, I just filled my mind with the intent to log in. I brought myself back to that time when I used that server frequently, when logging into it was a routine thing. I let my fingers move.

And it worked! I was in. But here is the really funny thing…

I still don’t know what the password is.