Chapter 1: Specialisation Is For Insects

A human being should be able to change a diaper, plan an invasion, butcher a hog, conn a ship, design a building, write a sonnet, balance accounts, build a wall, set a bone, comfort the dying, take orders, give orders, co-operate, act alone, solve equations, analyse a new problem, pitch manure, program a computer, cook a tasty meal, fight efficiently, die gallantly. Specialisation is for insects.

– Robert A. Heinlein

Only two paragraphs into it, Jade knew that he was in safe hands, so he tried to settle in to read. The young man two seats to his left was working himself around to committing heresy, however, and it was terribly distracting.

”It’s just,” the young man had tried, clearly quite aware of the bristling chairman’s increasingly aggressive objections, and yet determined to make his point regardless, ”that the spirit of the quote seems to be quite clear. There’s nothing particularly special about ships or sonnets over, say, tractors and haiku. If Hein-lein were here, he’d be the first to –

”The Chairman, a grizzled greybeard in both the metaphorical and literal sense, couldn’t hold it in past that point. ”So you happen to be quite sure what Robert Heinlein would say, do you?” he barked. ”Over the hundreds of thousands of words that he considered, and wrote? It may be a sample list, but it spans much of human life quite deliberately, I can assure you.” The seats in the fluorescent classroom had been arranged in a pair of circles, and heavyset leader swung his shaggy head from left to right, scanning the faces around the large ring before returning to the source of his pain. ”Simon,” he said, piercing the adolescent with an authoritative glare. Jade was suddenly reminded of a time he saw one of his professors hammer down a suggestion that the offices in the mathematics building be reassigned. The professor in question was a slender asian man, but the aura of active immovability seemed shared through some ill-defined brotherhood. ”We have a considerable auxiliary skill list on the main boards, for which we are always glad to accept input. But the core list has been unchanged from the original text in Time Enough For Love ever since this club was founded over forty years ago. We see no reason to change it now.”

Simon was flustered, but unabashed. ”…but surely a core list of skills is something that should be updated over the years? As inspiring as that quote has been…”

Jade’s head lifted up. Here it comes, he thought. And may the Departed Greats have mercy on his soul.

”…there’s nothing special about that particular moment in time. And though Heinlein was well ahead of his time in many ways, we shouldn’t take his pronouncements as gospel. Even a genius of one age couldn’t write this list for a later age, and Heinlein wasn’t really what you’d call – ”

Then: anti-sound, as the comforting flutter of human-generated background noise suddenly paused. Jade glanced over to Sevent. Sevent’s head hadn’t moved from his pTerm, and his eyes flicked wildly across the dancing text, but he had grown a tiny smirk. In the remaining half second, Jade attempted his rescue.

”The thing is, Simon,” he announced in a kind and firm voice, ”we’ve gone through the process of attempting to revise the core list before. At least twice since I joined the club, and presumably many times before that.”He gave the room just enough time to grunt some kind of approval, but not enough to interject. ”And every time it’s been a disaster. Because everyone comes up with their own list, and precisely because it’s an arbitrary subset in the first place, there are no real guidelines for throwing out anybody’s suggestions. So we circle around it for a while and agree to update the auxiliary list, while returning to the core list from the quote. Most people don’t worry about going through the lists in any kind of order, so it’s not like it really matters that much.”

Simon was evidently unconvinced, but his plans to nail his theses to the church door were temporarily disrupted by a thought and a single raised eyebrow.

”Twice?” he asked, incredulous.

”Three and five years ago,” agreed Jade, leaning back now that they were going to get to the demonstration without having to go through a shouting match. This was the last university club to maintain his interest, but with the unusually large number of alumni who shared the same opinion and stayed on year after year, it did tend to have some rather rabid political cycles.

Simon snorted. ”I thought you were younger than me. Did you start here when you were thirteen?” His voice was brash. ”Tag along with your older brother or something?”

Jade shrugged, and glanced around the room. It was, now that he thought about it, extremely heavy on male representation. Bias from the content? Or positive feedback in a social identity sense? Visions of bistability hysteresis curves danced through his head idly, as he tried to imagine the group dynamic with a full gender reversal.

The Chair waved a hand dismissively. ”I remember when Jade joined. Thin young man, but he can’t have been quite so young as that.”

Jade shrugged again, and didn’t bother to correct him. ”Couldn’t wait to get started. Speaking of which – ”

Simon’s appraisal became a little sharper. ”Some kind of genius, then, are you?”

It was a tone that Jade knew well. Part compliment, part challenge. An assumption of hubris. He’d heard it throughout his life, and learned the art of the easy deflection. Thankfully, it came up less these days than during his first forays into college or university life, but there was still the occasional awkward pause to be found. It was a blessing that he looked older than he was, and also that people made less direct comparisons now that he was a graduate student.

Jade’s easy smile stayed. ”Let’s just say that I’m sure I’m not the smartest person in the room,” he replied after a small pause, spreading one hand. He turned a little to the Chair, silently willing him to get on with the agenda.

Simon laughed the loud chortle of the young. ”Well, if the books are anything to go by, I suppose this club ought to be full of red-headed polyamorous geniuses!”

Jade offhandedly indicated the redhead-poor room with one hand, while reaching into Sevent’s half-empty bag of recently-made fudge.

”Hope springs eternal.” The cherry vanilla cube popped into his mouth.

With a brackish clearing of his throat, the chair rumbled into action. ”Moving on,” he drawled, ”we’d appreciate your input on the extension skills planning night, Simon, but it’s past time we started on our second session.”

He tapped on his sleeve, and the wall lit up with a simple title slide: ’Protocol Programming’.

While nimbus management is something taught at high school, the majority of people get through their lives using little more than the standard group of interface items, each using one of a handful of standard software templates. Last month we explored both the underlying ideas behind the negotiations with our nimbus, and spent multiple sessions learning how to develop more customised code for fine-tuning the handshaking process. Today, we turn our attention to the side of that process that is usually the domain of professionals: the design of house protocols themselves.”

The chair gestured an invitation to Sevent, who had lifted his gaze during the introduction. ”We have invited our regular, ah, ’consultant’, Sevent Firth, to lead us.”

Sevent palmed two more huge cubes of fudge as he stood up. Without any visible triggering movement or voice command, a complicated rendered schematic of a network replaced the title slide on the wall. ”We interact with protocols every time we change locations, every time our nimbus changes state, and even every time we send or receive data. More than simply a hierarchy of filters and permissions management for data, they can be used to inject or edit active code. These abilities are why nimbus programming is so full of nested sandboxes – with great power and flexibility come serious security concerns.”

Sevent’s voice carried easily across the room, and the words were surprisingly well enunciated given their extraordinary speed. The newer members of the club might have interpreted it as an expected effect of the enormous sugar high that he must be experiencing after consuming approximately a kilo of fudge over the last hour, but older hands knew it was just the same when he wasn’t eating simple carbs. The words came out like a barely controlled torrent.

”Even without video input, a typical protocol setup can pinpoint most network active devices to the metre scale.” At Sevent’s nod, the wall’s screen blossomed into a map of the room. The devices were represented as shadowy icons, each displaying a label and table of summary information, floating in three dimensions.

Each person was clearly visible as a cloud of such items. ”Here you can see the standard visual representation of the diagnostic interface,” Sevent said, as he reached for his pTerm. ”Which can be used for ad-hoc work.” He tapped furiously on his screen for a few moments, and the advertising streams on every shirt in the room suddenly went blank.

”This session is going to introduce you to a brief schematic of the substructure used for these interactions, and then we’ll start with an exercise to try to re-establish your ad-streams.”

***

It was almost two hours later before Jade and Sevent re-emerged into the late, late afternoon sunshine. Supplies had run out half an hour before, and Sevent was starting to act a little fey. Jade stretched in the autumn light, and yawned in the gentle air.

Sevent unlocked their bikes. ”You could always dye your hair red, you know.”

Jade grunted. ”So could you.”

Sevent shook his head. ”I’m not a polyamorous genius,” he declared as he wheeled his bike backwards. ”So it wouldn’t have the same effect.”

Jade considered this with a tilted head as he retrieved his own. ”Let me find a bottle of oil, guarantee you’ll sit still and do as you’re told for two hours tonight, and I’ll try to bring you around,” he suggested.

Sevent’s eyes lost their playful gleam as seemed to consider this. ”It’s not the worst offer I’ll get tonight, but I just don’t think I’m built that way,” he said as he looked up at the snow-gold skin of the gum tree. ”Would take too much balance. Someone’s always got to come first.”

Sevent’s helmet blocked Jade’s momentary dumfounded stare. Every now and again, my friend, thought Jade, you can be such a moron.

Jade sighed as he pulled his own helmet on.

”If we’re going to get you a better offer tonight, we’d better get to the party before everyone gets too drunk.”

Jade slid over his bike in one smooth motion.

”To the Resurrection!” he announced.

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