Neil Kandalgaonkar

hacker, maker of things

Thoughts about Outernet

Outernet is a bold concept to broadcast a stream of data to the whole world via satellite. Here’s the founder’s vision video, complete with inspiring soundtrack.

This all sounds really cool until you realize they are talking about a 100MB/day stream. One single stream for the whole world, that amounts to a handful of ebooks. And the Lantern can’t even read them; you need something else like a laptop or mobile device anyway.

I did a little tweetstorm about them - here they are with some expanded comments.

Less represented and loving it

XOXO at The Redd - interior panorama by Sam Beebe, Ecotrust

For the first time, XOXOfest has shaped its attendance to be more diverse. Thanks to a simple question on the registration form, it’s reportedly gone from over 80% white male dudes to 60%.

XOXO isn’t over yet, and the ultimate arbiter of whether this experiment is successful is of course the under-represented groups themselves. But, speaking as someone who now looks around the room and now sees fewer people like himself: it’s been awesome.

There are probably tremendous benefits to the people in those under-represented demographics. First of all, they get to go. And to talk about their issues with a critical mass of attendees, and make them a central focus, at least from time to time.

But I’ll let them tell those stories. Instead I want to talk about what benefits there were for me.

A map that is just good enough

Kellan Eliot-McCrae asked me to make a home for this on the web, so I did.

A few years ago, someone asked Quora “Why are software development task estimations regularly off by a factor of 2-3?” Michael Wolfe wrote a very entertaining answer comparing software development to a hike along the coast of California, which he has since copied to his own website. What seems like a pleasant ramble turns into a death march. Unexpected difficulties arise, commitments are broken and broken again, and friendships are destroyed.

The answer was deservedly upvoted by over ten thousand people, but I felt there was something missing, so I replied:

105101 by El Bibliomata

This is really good, but if I can offer a suggestion – the analogy could be even more apt with a slight shift. Currently it only shows how people go wrong when they develop software in a naive way – by starting at the beginning, and coding each step to final quality, in order. The story, as written now, makes it look like writing software is just an impossible slog and nobody can do it.

The truth is, software is research. It’s a matter of discovering the solution, not plodding through it. This is implicit in your story, because they keep encountering unexpected problems. But let’s make it explicit.

Imagine, instead, that our intrepid pair is charged with mapping the coastline of California from SF to LA. Mapping is more like software development because it involves discovery, and getting things right at multiple “points”.

The naive mappers start off from SF and it all fails exactly as you outline. A more clever pair of mappers instead decide to hire a boat, and map just a few points on the coastline precisely, just to get a rough estimate, and to survey the coastline for the tricky places. Then they know where to apply their efforts – an intern can be hired to pace out some of the easy bits, and a team of well-equipped hikers can be brought in to handle the hard parts.

They can even stop when they have a map that is just good enough.

Type Brigade

Untitled photo by bauhouse

Kenneth Ormandy recently relaunched the local typographer meetup, now called Type Brigade. I spoke about my Cherokee typography project, turning it into an updated slideshow. I’m afraid that many of the slides have no context, as I spoke off the cuff, but you can get the gist.

The response was very enthusiastic. I’m very glad I did this, as I’m way out of practice at public speaking, but I’m told I did really well. I tried to imagine the audience as a large group of new friends, which seemed to work.

You can also see other images from the event in this Flickr set by Stephen Bau.

Spine operation cancelled

My spine operation has been cancelled, probably forever.

Given that I haven’t had any trouble in the last few months, my surgeon decided the risk of operating was greater than the risk of doing nothing.

There are many people like me who have a spinal stenosis, who never have symptoms, and who never need surgery. I may have had related back pain but the stenosis surgery is really if you are losing coordination, and I never had that.

We only had a really clear look at it last year, in a couple of scans. The doctor ordered another MRI and they can’t detect any difference between last year and this year. So, whatever is happening has either halted (maybe years ago) or is moving very slowly right now.

The surgeon seems to think that I can go about my business until I notice something wrong, which could be decades in the future, or never. As long as I don’t let inflammation get out of hand, or overwork myself at the gym, it seems to be okay.

They say that that about 3% of patients are like me - the situation seems to require surgery, but they spontaneously get better (or don’t degrade as expected). Also, this is kind of a surprising plus for Medicare, but the fact that I waited a whole year for this non-urgent surgery allowed them to make this decision. Had this happened in the USA, I’d have had unnecessary surgery very quickly, and I’m sure I’d be paying the medical system some ludicrous amount of cash, even if I had good insurance.

So my career was a bit in limbo for a year and a half, but otherwise no harm done, and no money spent by me. And I got seen by one of the best surgeons in Canada for this sort of injury.

I originally posted in this space that it felt anticlimactic, but I’m feeling better about it. Last year I wanted to do something – anything – about the problem, but maybe it isn’t really a problem.

I’m more aware of my own mortality, and how my whole existence is identical with my flesh, but curiously, that flesh is a lot like an information network, with similar foibles.


UPDATE: The operation was cancelled.

TLDR: I’m having a spine operation in May. Wish me luck.

When I left California in 2012, I thought I would be doing a little traveling over that year, and preparing for a quick return in 2013. Instead, I had a number of health issues that delayed that.

The biggest problem is that I have what they call a spinal stenosis. Stenosis is a fancy doctor word for “narrowing”.

This is from one of my MRIs. You’re looking at a couple of slices of my body, perpendicular to the spine. In the segment on the left, the spine is mostly normal. But a few millimeters away, the backbone is squeezing the spinal cord. Instead of a nice round conveyance for nerves, it looks like a Fig Newton that’s been stepped on.


I love explaining things. One day, after all this computer madness is over, I’m going to have to make that part of what I do.

In the meantime I content myself with explaining things to myself. Seriously, when I’m learning things, I am continually crafting little rhetorical tricks to explain and re-explain something.

Luckily I have a girlfriend who thinks this is kind of sexy. She’s an actress and administers a local theatre, so for her, algorithms are exotic spices from the Orient.

When she came over last night to take care of me (I’ve been sick) she thought the whiteboard looked really cool, and demanded to know what it was. So….


I’ve been thinking about the idea of the Minimum Viable Product a lot over the past six months. Particularly the notion of validation.

It’s rapidly become the new dogma for people doing technology startups. And yet, I’ve been privileged to know the founders of a lot of successful startups, or people who’ve created similarly impressive things. None of them did anything like the MVP, and it doesn’t seem to be the philosophy that guides their actions.

Dr. Sketchy’s

Dr Sketchy Vancouver Lola Frost 11 by Neil

I tried Dr. Sketchy’s for the first time. I expected it to be hipstery and ironic, but I found it to be intense. Lots of pro or semi-pro artists in attendance, and despite being in a bar where drinks were served it was quiet. I wore my crappy colored pencils down to nubs by the end. The performer, Lola Frost, has such presence - I’ve never seen anyone like her. She also did a strip-tease at half-time - sexy, artful, generous, and powerful.

I want to do this again. I’m generally a digital guy, and in some more flippant moods I might dismiss sketching as an obsolete skill.

But there is a value to it – one I didn’t expect – of staring, intently, with permission, for hours, at one person. It was like a kind of meditation.

SF neighborhoods