Saturday, May 30, 2009

8 minutes: an implausible concept

I heard of a science fiction story contest, called "8 minutes" ( The premise is this:

"The Earth is 8 light minutes away from the Sun. Something has happened to the Sun. Maybe it's gone nova, been transformed, been replaced or stolen or...? But in 8 minutes everything will change for life on Earth."

I like to write theme-based stories. A theme suggests an idea and gets my creative juices flowing. As the story progresses, it often deviates from the theme, until there's very little of the original idea left in it. I don't mind that because I don't treat themes rigorously. To me they serve merely like grains of sand around which a pearl crystallizes. (Not that I would compare my stories to pearls. :-)) Of course, deviating from the theme wouldn't do if I wanted to submit a story to a theme-based anthology, but I don't do that either.

I was especially intrigued by the 8-minutes contest, because it's based on an idea that's not very meaningful at the surface. Since the light travels 8 minutes from Sun to Earth, anything that happens in or to the Sun, will only be discovered 8 minutes later on Earth. You can't really write a thriller here, unless it was made of one sentence. "They didn't know what hit them." You can't reuse any of the old formulae. In the face of global panic, there will be no square-jawed hero who steps up in the 11th hour -- make that the 7th minute -:-) and saves the Earth. For one, there will be no global panic. Nobody, including the hero, will know what will happen to the world. So the plot would have to be about people going about their daily lives not knowing that the disaster will strike. Not exactly a typical plot for a genre story. Though on the other hand, there is this small, but notable meme in science fiction, people living ordinary lives while all hell is breaking loose. It's not one of my favorites, though.

The only other possibility is that somehow humans were notified of the disaster ahead of time. In that case 8 minutes are not meaningful. They probably had many more than 8 minutes to prepare -- or to stick their heads in the sand, as the case may be. Either scenario is not compliant with the theme.

That said, I've come up with an idea for a story that bypasses the obstacle inherent in the concept, and meets the parameters of the contest. Time will tell if I'll succeed. Like I said, my stories often veer away from the original theme and thus become ineligible for the submission. What's worse, I'm thinking this could only work as a comical story -- and I'm the person who on several occasions has proudly admitted not having a sense of humor. That spells success right here. :-) In any case, I'll probably miss the deadline for the contest (I write at a glacial pace) and the point will be moot.

UPDATE1: I've been told Larry Niven has done this theme very well in "Inconstant Moon". I'll have to check it out.

UPDATE2: Checked it out. Some things in the Wikipedia synopsis of this story made me ponder:

"However the narrator surmises that the Sun has gone nova, the day side of the Earth is already destroyed [...]." Wait, he thinks it's possible that the day side of the Earth is destroyed, but nobody has heard it on television or radio? Well, maybe in the year 1971 it was typical for the news to travel with a huge delay, I don't know. It just seems weird.

More importantly, if the Moon is glowing bright, then the sunlight from the "accident" has already reached the Moon -- and the Moon is only a light-second or so away from Earth, is it not? So there is no 8-minute buffer built in here. That said, the idea of Larry Niven's story is definitely similar to that of "8 minutes", only more workable.

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Wednesday, May 13, 2009

From Employee to Entrepreneur: a Door64 Tech Fair presentation

Jonas Lamis and Kevin Koym, the founders of Tech Ranch, an incubator for Austin tech startups, gave a presentation with a self-explanatory title "From Employee to Entrepreneur". The presentation was packed -- whether because it appealed to an archetypal American dream, or because everybody who's out of work these days is dreaming of starting their own business.

Besides the obvious observations, such as "You should ask yourself, is my idea any good? The answer is, maybe, but only if you are able to build a business around it", the presenters gave some nontrivial advice. They quoted an example of some startup that found an ingenious method to gauge public interest in their business idea. They built a fake website for their business, bought Google Adwords, and waited for people to click through the adwords to their web site. Some of those visitors filled out the registration forms in the web site. Then the business owners contacted those people, told them that the web site was an idea test, and discussed it with them. Maybe even got their help in raising funding for the business? That wouldn't be entirely surprising, because whoever went through the trouble of giving out their contact information to an unknown web business must be really interested in that business.

Among the questions asked by the audience was one of utmost importance to aspiring entrepreneurs: before you can raise funding for your startup, how do you survive without a corporate paycheck? Of course, there is no panacea, only some tips that could ease the pain of the loss of steady income. Apparently it helps if you were laid of from work, instead of quitting (or, goodness forbid, being fired for a cause). Being laid off often gets you a severance package and a few months of unemployment benefits, plus you can extend your health insurance with COBRA. And under Obama administration COBRA will be paid 65%.

Half a year before Jonas Lamis was laid off from his last job as an employee, he could see it was coming, since company wasn't doing well financially. So he started building his business on his own time while still employed. After the layoff, he suggested the company's management hire him as a consultant. He knew there will be gaps in the company's business with no one left to do his job, and offered his services part time, so as to make up for at least a part of his lost income.

Some of the more interesting advice concerned chicken vs pig model of entrepreneurship. When it comes to eating breakfast, a chicken is a contributor to breakfast, but a pig is committed to it, since it donates its own flesh.

Obviously it takes less commitment to be a chicken. As an entrepreneur, at some point you may become a pig (i.e. heavily invested in the business), but at first you can choose, and you should postpone your choice as far as possible into the future. You should keep your options as to which direction your business should take as open as possible. Here are the examples of options. Do I hire somebody to do a certain job (e.g. software development), or do I put a framework in place so that people will work for free (crowdsourcing)? The latter is a chicken solution; hiring people is a big commitment, and thus pig solution. It is extremely important for entrepreneurs to keep their options open, because -- and that's another nontrivial point I took away from this talk -- most ventures that succeed rarely succeed with the same idea they started out with. That's true in pretty much every business.

A sure way of knowing that an entrepreneur is destined for failure is if he's being a pig on a lot of things. If you choose your commitments, you have a much bigger chance of success.

Pictures from Door64 Tech Fair can be found in my photo gallery.

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Door64 Tech Fair

Door64 Tech Fair took place in Austin on 4/30/2009. It was not a job fair -- those are not too common in this economy. Rather than seeking workers, Austin high tech companies "networked" with them, while displaying their wares in the exhibitor hall. In addition there were two presentations: "From Employee to Entrepreneur" by Jonas Lamis and Kevin Koym of Tech Ranch, and Brian Massey's talk on job search.

I know from experience that WiFi usually doesn't work at large events, where everyone is trying to get on the internet at once. So I wasn't surprised that for all practical purposes, WiFi at the Door64 Tech Fair didn't work. A couple of times during the day I ducked out to the Goodwill Computer Store next door, where the signal was reasonably strong. Seeing me crouched on the floor with my laptop, soaking up precious radio waves like a desert traveller gulping down water at a shady well, the store clerks suggested I could plug my laptop into their ethernet cable. W00t! Now that's what I call Good Will!

The Tech Fair resembled a desert in some other ways too. For one thing, out of the bazillion companies displaying there, only two said they were hiring. In a more literal sense, it was too hot, as the A/C in the Goodwill Community Center wasn't working very well. The two presentations were standing room only, and the lack of proper air conditioning made them rather... intimate. Power outlets were also lacking at this place. Yet unexpectedly I found one. As I folded myself under the table in the corner, seeking out the last available square foot of the floor space at the Jonas Lamis and Kevin Koym presentation (yes, it was that crowded!), the deities of the Net guided my eyes towards a lone, well-hidden power outlet.

As one can guess from its title, Lamis and Koym talk "From Employee to Entrepreneur" addressed the ever-so-popular American dream of quitting your job and going into business for yourself. Yet to these two founders of Tech Ranch it has become reality. Some of their advice will appear in my next post.

I noticed there was a glut of companies that made code review, search, testing or verification tools. I talked with at least 5 or 6 of them. Wondered if there is really such a great demand for these kind of tools, even though similar functionalities are part of most IDEs (OK, at least Microsoft Visual Studio). No less than two of them had "Smart" in their name. Here is, for example, an image of a representative of Smart Bear Software talking to a guy at Smartesoft booth. With so many smart products to choose from, the field must be getting uncomfortably crowded...

Pictures from Door64 Tech Fair can be found in my photo gallery.

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