Sunday, June 25, 2017

Birdhouses & Submarines

As some may recall, I wrote a book. (Still waiting for that call from Oprah…) The book is about how technology has become democratized and how all technology eventually ends up in the hands of the masses—and when the masses get hold of it, some great (and also a few not-so-great) things tend to happen: we build and invent and innovate in ways the creators of the technology may never have considered.

Well, one of the things the book talks about is information, and how (due largely to the invention of the computer and the Internet) information has also been democratized: that is, many, many more of us have easy access to more information than ever. (We also democratized misinformation, but that's a subject for another post.) Simply put, information is now at the fingertips of many more people than ever before; for those people, laziness is the only reason for not knowing the answer to any number of factual questions. (A couple of caveats here: First, I realize that this technology—and therefore this information—is not available to everyone; there are still plenty of people without decent [or any] Internet access, and people who can't afford computers. I mean, there are people without access to decent food and safe water; a MacBook and fast Internet access is WAY down on their lists. Second, not everything can be answered via the Internet, and the very definition of "facts" can become a bit fuzzy—especially when it comes to interpreting those facts. So, I'm no Pollyanna, just so you know, and I'm not saying that this is, to quote both Voltaire and Kris Kristofferson, "the best of all possible worlds.")

My granddaughter got to meet Kris
Kristofferson at last summer’s family
reunion. Too late to meet Voltaire, I
suppose; maybe I’ll give her a copy of
Candide.
But back to information access. It will help in this exercise for the reader to understand that I'm a dork. A complete klutz. A home repair disaster on a massive scale. Generally speaking, I can't build things. I can't fix things. I have built birdhouses in which no self-respecting bird would ever live. I once installed a garbage disposal in such a fashion that whenever the disposal turned on, so did the blender on the nearby counter. I have made multiple trips to Home Depot or Lowes so that I could buy materials to "fix" a wall or a sink, only to discover that my feeble attempts at repair, far from saving me money, had actually added to the final cost, because I then had to hire a pro to undo my repair attempts so that the wall or sink or whatever could be repaired the right way. (This is not merely expensive, it's embarrassing.)

Sadly, though I have many friends and several brothers-in-law who are irritatingly good at this sort of thing, I'm a bit of a hopeless case.

BUT… I now have access to information. Lots and lots of information. I have Google, I have YouTube, I have digital access to a vast network of experts of various stripes, and all of them are positively eager to tell and even show me how to do stuff. If you enter "how to" into Google's search field, you get well over 3 billion results. If you enter "how to build," you get about 244 million. "How to fix" will net you about 99 million hits or so. If you wander over to YouTube (which, not surprisingly, is owned by Google) and enter "how to adjust a carburetor," you'll see that there are some 89,000 videos on the topic. (Which is amazing, considering that cars don’t even use carburetors anymore. Must be a lot of people repairing lawnmowers, older cars, and motorcycles.)

Now, you do need to learn to separate the wheat from the chaff, of course. Not all of these results are useful, accurate, helpful, or even truthful; but a great majority of them will help you get that wall built, that truck tuned, or that dishwasher fixed. (My wife once found a random part lying in our antique dishwasher. It seemed like an important part, the kind of part that a machine built to wash dishes would need. I was about to call a repair person, but by the time I got around to it, Lesley had used the Internet to track down the name and purpose of the part and read up on how to reinstall it. Result, one working dishwasher and no bill. It was a homeowner's triumph, and a serious savings, although I do occasionally have to listen to the story of how Lesley fixed the dishwasher while I dithered.) And the range of topics is incredible; there are almost 500,000 videos on building and setting up a saltwater aquarium! Are there that many people raising sharks and octopuses and such?

See this beautiful birdhouse? This is NOT the birdhouse I
built. You can tell because it’s straight and well-made and
stable, and because any bird would be proud to call this
birdhouse home. Image by Frank Vincentz,used under
the terms of the GNU Free Documentation License.
Anyway, we now live in Oregon with Lesley's mom, and I've made it my goal to be helpful around the house. Up to a point, this is easy. I can sweep off the deck. (We live in a forest only about 120 yards from the ocean; 8 billion pine needles fall on the house and surrounding area every time there's a puff of wind.) I can clean and organize. I can haul and move and drag stuff around.

But the other day, something awful happened. The kitchen faucet began to leak. It was terrifying. At first, I'd hoped it was a temporary thing. Maybe it would heal or something. Maybe it was simply possessed by evil spirits, and they would move on after a few days and go haunt someone else. (I made a list of people whom I thought could use a good haunting, and left it near the sink. Didn't seem to do any good.)

It kept leaking. In fact, over the next day or so, it began leaking worse; obviously something had to be done. I offered to build a birdhouse for it, but that didn't seem to help. Eventually, I knew I was going to have to try to fix it.

So, I turned to technology. First, I used Amazon's shopping app and trained my smartphone's camera on the wayward faucet. The app recognized the faucet, one of those fancy Moens with no discernible seams or protuberances, and no obvious way of taking it apart, short of smashing it with a sledgehammer or wood-splitting maul. (Which I was willing to do, but it occurred to me that Lesley's mom might not like that idea.)

But now that I knew the make and model, I went to YouTube and discovered two things: First, these things leak like crazy. Almost every one of these fancy (and expensive!) faucets eventually leaks. And second, it's easy to fix the leak! Dozens of YouTubers (I can't type that without thinking of potatoes) have made videos about how to disassemble Moen faucets. (There's a trick to it. At the very bottom of the handle is a set screw, but the opening is hidden by a small plastic cover of the same color as the faucet. If you pry that off, you can use a 3/32nd Allen wrench—yes, it has to be a 3/32nd wrench, exactly—to remove the set screw and thus the handle. Then just tighten the plastic bolt that has come lose, and which is causing the leak. Keep in mind that it's plastic; don't over-tighten it.)

 One of the dastardly faucets that caused me so much grief.
Image courtesy of Moen.
So, the Internet saved me, and all because when Vint Cerf and Sir Tim Berners-Lee and all the other Internet pioneers created what we used to call the "information superhighway," they made it possible for people to share information about their problems and, more importantly, also about solutions to those problems.


So, now I'm thinking of building a submarine. I'm sure there's a YouTube video about how to do that. (Spoiler: I was right.) 

Saturday, June 03, 2017

Begun, The Agrarian Software Wars Have

First, thanks to all of you who waited patiently during my hiatus from this blog, as Lesley and I sold a house, packed up, and drove (very slowly, it seemed) to our new home in Depoe Bay, OR. A few people had asked if I had intended to get back to The Geekly Weekly, and—in spite of some freelance commitments—I have been anxious to return to blogging. (Because, frankly, it's fun. Also, my publisher says that this is a good way to sell books.)

And now, let's talk about farmers.

Growing up in Los Angeles, I didn't know much about farms or farmers. I figured that eggs just . . . well, showed up, somehow naturally and neatly deposited in those tidy, clean cardboard cartons. Milk was magically placed in bottles, at first, and then later on in cartons and plastic jugs. Meat was from an animal, I knew, but I liked to think of it as it came to me: clean, sanitary, packed in cellophane and Styrofoam. (And I preferred to think that nothing had died just so that I could enjoy that juicy ribeye; or that if something did have to die, it was a quick, painless death to which the animal had stoically been looking forward.) I thought of farming as something simple, elemental, and pastoral, in a Rockwellian sort of way. Farmers were close to the earth, literally and figuratively; it was, I thought, a simple, peaceful way to make a living.
A modern John Deere tractor. Image by Wikimedia user HCQ,
licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike
3.0 Unported license.

When I moved to Nebraska, I discovered that I was wrong about some (perhaps most) of this. I got to meet many farmers, and I worked with many men and women who had grown up on farms. They were quick to disabuse me of my naïve notions.

Farming, it turns out, is hard. It's a lot of work, and it's work that never really ends: If a farmer is not planting something, he's selling it, or tending to it, or harvesting it, or preparing the fields for the next planting. If he's not on a tractor or other piece of equipment, he's fixing or maintaining that equipment. There's almost nothing on a farm or ranch that doesn't involve some arcane set of skills and a whole lot of work. (I once accepted an invitation to go "baling hay" with a friend. It sounded like fun. It's not. It's hot, scratchy, seemingly endless work in the fields for which my puny, citified muscles were not at all prepared, and there's no rest, because the flatbed truck or trailer on which you're supposed to toss the bales—which easily weigh 870 pounds apiece—keeps moving down the field, whether you're ready or not. The woman on the trailer upon which I was attempting to toss bales of hay got a good deal of enjoyment, I'm sure, out of watching me struggle and pant. She could throw those bales around as if they were nothing; I couldn't move for days afterward.)

Farming is also expensive these days. It requires sophisticated equipment to plow, fertilize, plant, and harvest crops. (It also requires some specialized knowledge to operate such tools.) A Missouri farmer I interviewed for Leveling the Playing Field showed me a large outbuilding in which sat several large pieces of equipment: tractors, a combine, cultivators, a backhoe, etc. The farmer to whom I was speaking reckoned that he had "a few million dollars" invested in this equipment. (Of course, this is on top of the cost of land, feed, seed, fertilizer, manpower, and so on.)

The cab of a modern combine can look much like the
cockpit of a jet. Image courtesy of Challenger/Caterpillar,
Inc.
So, now we know two important things about farmers: They work hard, and even the small-scale "mom and pop" farms (of which there are frighteningly few left) cost a fair amount of money to operate.

There's something else about farmers, too: They can do, fix, build, repair, or maintain just about anything. They are the ultimate in self-reliance. They have to be. If a tractor conks out, someone has to fix it, and it has to be done now, not in a few days or weeks. If a farm truck breaks down, someone needs to get it running again, and fast. If a fence is down, someone has to rebuild it. If something falls off of a piece of complicated equipment, the farmer needs to understand how the piece is supposed to work and then find a way to reattach it in such a fashion that it once again can function, at least temporarily. Trust me, if there's ever a zombie apocalypse, you want to be very good friends with a farmer. (In fact, it wouldn't hurt if you were to find a deserving farmer right now and send him a bottle of good bourbon. You know, just to pave the way before the apocalypse actually starts. Or send me the bottle, and I will see that it gets to a deserving farmer. Sooner or later.)

The bottom line is that you don't want to piss off a farmer. But that's exactly what John Deere seems intent on doing.

The issue has to do with software. (See? Technology—you knew I'd get to this.) Many of the newer machines, even the supposedly "simple" ones, like tractors, use software. Software feeds GPS signals from the cab of a tractor to its steering and determines when to turn and where to begin the next row. When fertilizing, software consults a database, downloads data, and determines how much fertilizer to use on a given piece of land, based on how much was used last season and the resultant yield: If this piece of land didn't perform as well as expected, perhaps it gets an extra blast of fertilizer; another field may get less fertilizer than it got last year, if it didn't really seem to need as much. (Fertilizer is expensive, folks. Farmers try to use it wisely.) If the machine has mechanisms through which grain or other substances flow, that output is metered by software so that the flow remains constant, efficient, and measurable.

What this means is that when a farmer buys, say, a tractor, he's also buying a lot of software.

People have been plowing for a very long time. No software here.
Image in the public domain, compilation copyright held by Zenodot
Verlagsgesellschaft mbH and licensed under the GNU Free
Documentation License.
Except that he's not. Not buying the software, that is. Technically, he's licensing the software, just as you and I do when we "buy" a copy of Microsoft Excel or Adobe Photoshop. We don't really own that software; we've simply licensed the right to use it under certain conditions. (A couple of those conditions being that we're not allowed to tinker with the software, say, or make copies to sell to our buddies.)

And just as we cannot look at, reverse-engineer, or otherwise fiddle with the software we've licensed, John Deere is telling its customers (read: farmers) that they cannot repair or modify—or have their local fix-it guy repair or modify—their equipment. If your John Deere tractor breaks down, you may not be allowed to fix it, even if you know how to fix it. And you may not be able to let your cousin Warren fix it, either, even though Warren has been repairing tractors all over the county for 30 or 40 years. You might have to send the machine 100 miles away or wait for an authorized technician to get out to your farm in order to get the machine repaired.

Unsurprisingly, this does not sit well with many of the farmers—the work-hardened, self-reliant men and women who A) are used to repairing equipment right there in the field, if need be and B) don't like to be told what to do in the first place.

Who could have predicted that software and farming would collide in such a manner?

It doesn't look good for John Deere, by the way. First, in a recent court case, the Supreme Court determined that if someone buys a Lexmark laser printer, Lexmark has no right to stop the buyer from refilling toner cartridges or from buying cartridges refilled by someone else. In other words, if the buyer bought the printer, he bought the whole thing, and could do with it whatever he liked. (In the Court's words: "Today, the Supreme Court reaffirmed that a patent does not confer unfettered control of consumer goods to the patent owner.") It's not difficult to imagine the Court reaching a similar decision about the software that makes your tractor or combine work.

Second, and perhaps more importantly, farmers are a sturdy, realistic lot, and they don't take well to being bullied. If competing heavy machinery companies are smart, they'll simply start offering equipment that does allow the farmer or rancher more freedom to tinker, repair, or modify equipment they've bought. Many of these farmers lease new machines every year; it will not bother them one bit to be seen in a combine that happens to be Case red, Caterpillar yellow, or Kubota orange, rather than one in the more traditional John Deere green.


Don’t piss off farmers, especially when they’re your best customers.