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Problem Solving

There’s something unique about working in engineering: problem solving.

You are usually presented with a problem – be it a software bug, a performance issue, an engine that doesn’t start, or a mold stain on a wall – and work your way to find a solution.

I tend to be pretty decent in my (by now rare) software debugging sessions. I point in some direction and the cause of the problem is in fact there. Well, most of the time. This is due to experience, of course, but as irrational as it might seem, a little gut feeling is also at play.

What I noticed lately is that these problem solving abilities, often listed as soulless requirements in job listings, extend from one field to another. Being a good software developer (and hence able to squash nasty heisenbugs) means you’d also be a good mechanic, provided some training. You begin to develop a sixth sense for bugs which is surprisingly valid outside the software field. I reckon it’s due to logic (and maybe lateral) thinking, and to the fact that the human brain is a spectacular pattern recognition machine.

You start seeing problems and puzzles differently, and in your head some kind of non-trivial attack plan forms. This is wonderful, and it helps in real life as well, to fix all those small problems and issues you face everyday.

Branch Off Cover

Branch Off - Cover Draft

This is a not-so-unfinished-draft of the cover for Branch Off. It also means I’ve settled on that title, which I reckon is no longer provisional.

As usual, I designed it myself, and I’m reasonably proud about it. I think it has that nice hint of Seventies’ feeling into it, with plain colors and stylized graphics, which are in tune with the title itself. For those font nerds out there (I’m slowly becoming one), the front text is in Bebas Neue, while the back description is in a very elegant Futura Book.

I also did a version red, but I prefer this one, as it is a little colder and more apt to the story told inside.


The Future of Private Transportation

Recent history has often seen laws and regulations holding back technological and scientific development. I’m not going into controversial topics like stem cell production, instead I’ll give a look at something more mundane: individual transportation.

Take Uber and all the controversy it has been able to generate: the technology was ready, but regulations, and the society at large, weren’t.

I’m not taking a side in this story, as I’ve never tried Uber or any of its competitors, but from what I see its usage experience is better than that of regular taxis. I’ve received personal threats on Twitter for writing something to this extent, a while ago. Taxists are entrenched as they have a position and a business to protect, which is understandable, but the society must come to terms with this. It will happen, on day. Innovation always finds a way to sneak through the cracks of our walls and change our life, one little improvement at a time.

Car sharing is not different: to make it work, two types of problems had to be resolved: regulatory and technological. In this case the regulations were somewhat simpler to handle, as it’s just a very short car rental. Technology had to be developed to support a usable service that gives users a sense of trust and reliability. Smartphones and their ubiquity played a fundamental role in this. While it was possible, technically, ten years ago, car sharing became viable only in 2013, that is when the required technology was a commodity.

In a not so distant future – maybe ten to fifteen years, with a bit of luck – I see car sharing widely adopted with cross-city availability. This means that we’ll be able to get out in the morning, take the first car in the street, and travel to another city or to a vacation place. The majority of cars will be shared, and not private.

If you think about it, all the cars you see sitting around in parking lots or on the streets are useless: they’re wasting space and occupying material and financial resources. Now imagine if you could take any car in the street and pay only for the time you actually use it, wherever you go. That would be fantastic.

Google Vehicle Prototype

Now let’s add the last bit to the picture: self-driving cars. Safe, fast, and ecologic. To those countering the safety argument with bland comments about how humans will always be better than machines at driving, consider this: in a few years of limited experimentation, Google’s self-driving cars have logged 40 years of collective driving experience, which is arguably more than most people out there have under their belts. Moreover, you get consistent driving behavior across all vehicles, instead of thousands of independent minds going on about their business as if they own the road.

Yes, I believe that will be the future: shared, electric, self-driving cars that you take or book at need, always in good condition, and that you don’t have to purchase.

Beyond The Sky

The sky is the most fascinating thing we’ll likely ever see in our lifetime. It make us crane our neck upward, with eyes wide and lips parted in awe.

Milky Way

Picture credit: ESO/S. Brunier.

Yes, Earth is a wonderful place, so full of diversity and yet mostly undiscovered, so why bother even looking elsewhere? Because the sky is… well, all the rest. It contains billions of earths. Try to imagine what that means. Close your eyes and picture a vast expanse of worlds and, on a little fraction of them, life.

You can’t, can you?

That’s normal. We’re just not made for this. We humans are just a little sequence of fortuitous accidents apart from apes, but we’re not special. Think of us as a happy coincidence. We are a tiny subset of what’s out there, and we can’t grasp it all (yet).

So, the sky, most precisely at night. A dark sea of stars, and yet they’re nothing compared to what is beyond the visible. It must be this that makes my eyes shed tears – literally – when I look at the sky and think about it.

Knowing that we don’t know is enough to create the thrill for upcoming discoveries, and the dread for the realization that I will never know – not in my lifetime anyway. That’s the reason why I like to read and write about things that might happen someday in the distant future. I am confident that we’ll evolve into a galaxy-roaming species, beings that won’t call Earth home and that, maybe, will live in space for generations until they will reach another world they’ll settle on.

It has already happened many times on Earth, and the distances involved were ridiculous compared to the vastness of space, but space is made shorter by technology. It’s only a matter of time.

We’ll be up there, eventually.

Branch Off: Beta Readers Wanted

The time has finally come to call beta readers for my second sci-fi novel, whose (provisional?) title is Branch Off. Here is a brief synopsis.

For two years, physicist Sarah Davinson has designed an experiment that could help discover dark matter’s secrets. When she and her team at the largest particle accelerator analyze the data collected, they discover that the outcome is very different from what they were expecting. The anomaly that the accelerator has created throws Geneva into chaos and Sarah will have to make her way through it, catching the chance to find her lost family and keeping tabs on the powers that want to set their hands on the discovery. But the anomaly has gotten quite some people interested—humans and aliens alike—and everybody want their slice of the cake.

The thing is 58,000 words (about 200 6×9″ pages) and I’m now beginning a second editing round which I plan to complete no later than the end of November. Then, the book will be ready for beta reading.

Like last time, what I ask for is:

  • gut response (wow, this book is awesome vs. wow, this book made me want to pry my eyes off their sockets)
  • honest, unbiased, and detailed feedback about:
    • story and plot (is the story engaging? is the plot solid?)
    • characters (are they believable and different from one another? did you empathize with the protagonist?)
    • setting and environment
  • feedback about the prose
  • turnaround time of four weeks, with the final deadline set on January 4th, 2015
  • confidentiality (obviously).

In exchange, I can beta-read a novel of a similar length for you, providing the same feedback I’m asking for mine. I can work on that in December or after March, roughly. Any fiction genre in English or Italian is fine, except romance/erotica.

I already booked copyediting & proofreading for February, so deadlines are set and closing in fast (which is good, otherwise I’d never finish anything). So, if you are willing to lend me a hand, get in touch with me at dario dot solera at outlook dot com.