2011-02-20

The loss of a very special place?

I've been on quite a few trips to the Nürburgring and to me, the Ring is a very special place.  Not only is it perhaps the most exciting race track I have ever visited (or driven on), but it is a historical site.  All the greats have done battle on the Ring.

You don't so much go on a trip there as go on a pilgrimage of sorts.

In addition to the track, there's the people.  The guys at Pinocchio, who always greet us when we visit and seem genuinely happy to see us again.  There's Christa's where we always eat schnitzel on the evening when we arrive. Die Pistenklause where we stop by to lie and brag about our driving accomplishments and drink beer.  Sonnenhof, where we usually have our briefings or dinner the night before we venture out on the track.  There's Ron Simons' company RSR Nürburg, where we rent cars. And of course, there's Haus Marvin and Pension Diana where we usually stay.  You know people by name, you stay at small places run by families, and you enjoy a personal level of service, and you come back year after year to the same places because it is good to see these people again.

But of course, we would never be there if it wasn't for the Ring.

It would appear that some people have recognized the pull of the Ring and that naive politicians have bought into the idea that the best way to benefit the tax payer is to commercialize the Ring in wichever way possible.  To hand it over to private interests to package it and sell it.

Well, I am to a large degree the demographic they want to attract, and I can only say that I do not like what I am seeing.  What I have read over the past week about what is going on at the Nürburgring has made me wonder if I will ever go back again.

I am not interested in a sanitized, packaged, watered down experience.  I am interested in two things when I am at the Ring:
  • Driving as many laps as I feel like driving around the Nordschleife
  • Enjoying myself in various cosy establishments run by people from the area.
I am not interested in staying at some large hotel.  I am not interested in visiting shops.  I am not interested in watching static exhibitions of dead objects when just outside the door there is one of the greatest racing tracks of all time.  I am not interested in paying lots of money to be ferried around the track one or two laps.  I am interested in what is genuine.  I'm interested in experiencing the track.  And there is only one way to experience it:  you have to drive on it.

If they want to turn the whole thing into a theme park:  I'm sorry, but I'll just as well stay at home and not visit the Ring.  Because watching what was a really nice place, with lots of nice people running small businesses being torn to pieces by greedy businesspeople who have absolutely no understanding of the cultural significance of the Ring, the people who live and work in the area and what it represents to people like me is just too painful.  I'd rather not witness that.

As an aside, just look at F1.  I've visited F1 races.  Perhaps my most exciting live F1 experience was at the Hungaroring.   Not the greatest of race tracks and the facilities are...of a somewhat limited standard.  But you know what?  It was real!  The wooden bleachers without any sort of roof may not have been the most comfortable, but the closeness to the track and the spirit of the people around us elevated the sense of genuine enthusiasm and fun.  After the race I was wet, muddy and immensely pleased.  We stayed a few days extra to walk around Budapest and spent our evenings in various restaurants.  I often think about it and when I get the time:  I'll return and hope to have much of the same experience.

In comparison, I have been to one of the more modern tracks.  Large, modern multi-billion dollar facilities designed to cater to ... I don't know who, but definitely not people like me.  It sure as hell wasn't racing enthusiasts they were catering to.  The whole experience was numb, dull, impersonal, and utterly uninteresting.  It felt fake.  I wasn't so much taking part in an event as just paying to be in the presence of lots of people who didn't even seem to be paying any attention to the race.  I will never go back.  I have zero cherished memories from that trip.  None.

If the german politicians want to extract the maximum possible value from the Ring, they must recognize that they can only do so by not screwing with the formula:  the accessibility of the Ring is the key.  Anything that limits access to the Ring makes it less interesting to prospective tourists.   And if people do not come, nobody wins.  Customers don't win, the people of the surrounding villages don't win, the german taxpayer definitively doesn't win and the whole region is worse off.

Because we'll take our money and go elsewhere.

As I mentioned before, I don't know if I will return to the Ring if what I used to come for is no longer there.  I was going to visit the Ring this spring, but I will have to talk to some people to find out if we really want to.  

We've been talking about possibly taking a trip to Spa Francorchamps instead.  After 7 years of faithfully visiting the Ring and leaving behind a ton of money at various local establishments, we are considering our options.  Spa has a great race track, but I don't know the area well.  Perhaps, if we find a nice place to stay and a company to rent track-prepared cars from, we will go there instead.

But if we go there it will not be to prance about the place like a bunch of tourists.  It will be to study the track, drive, and to drive as much as we can possibly afford.

I hope that the Nordschleife is not lost.  I hope that the politicians will take charge of the situation and not allow misguided commercial interests ruin the livelihood of so many locals and ruin a cherished travel destination for even more people all around the world.

Do not forget why people come to the Nordschleife.

2011-02-19

Mythbusters and the lunar X-Prize

While reading about the Google sponsored Lunar X-Prize I got an idea: It would be great fun if the Mythbusters dedicated a whole season (or three) to having a go at sending a rover to the moon?

As many education professionals have pointed out, Mythbusters is probably the most important TV show right now.  Although much of the show is a lot of fun and games and things being blown to bits, at the core, the show is firmly anchored in the application of scientific method and problem solving.   While there have been several TV series that attempt to teach its viewers something about science, this show goes a bit further in that it focuses on actually performing experiments rather than talk about them.

There is also a sort of renaissance these days of people making and building stuff.  Lots of people build exciting things in their basement -- from autonomous vehicles to 3D printers to clever electronics gadgets.

The efforts towards private space exploration over the past couple of decades are sort of exciting, but not very engaging.  While the results that have been achieved are vaguely interesting to those of us not directly involved in the industry, these efforts do not really engage us as much as they could.  If Branson and Rutan manage to perform a sub-orbital flights for rich people, well, that is of course nice for them, but it isn't exactly engaging and inspiring. The really exciting stuff of making it happen takes place behind cosed doors.

I think that if Discovery Channel and M5 Industries were to head up an effort to send a rover to the moon, that would make for absolutely fantastic TV.   Of course, I don't expect the producers of Mythbusters to have the sort of cash needed to make it happen, so they would probably need to secure funding for the project from companies and well-off individuals.

Given their high profile, the Mythbusters team might also be able to enlist the help of volunteers with special skills from various engineering disciplines and conduct a large part of the effort as a sort of open source project.

Of course, I don't expect Discovery Channel to pick up the challenge.  But it would make for really great TV.

2011-02-14

Open source vs the scientific revolution.

What fueled the scientific revolution, which began in the latter half of the 1500s and went all hockey-stick in the mid- to late 1600s, was not a sudden emergence of talent or genius, but that participants begun to share information and do experiments together.  Genius in isolation and with no incentive to share information did society little good.

And "genius in isolation" used to be the way science was largely done prior to the scientific revolution.  With the notable exception of closed societies and scattered publication of works from time to time.

In much the same way I view the open source movement as a variation over this theme.  The tangible artifacts that result from open source, ie. the software, is no so important as is the practice of sharing knowledge and presenting one's peers with concrete works that can be studied, understood, criticized, and improved in a collective manner.  The open source movement is bigger than the software artifacts produced since it is a tradition of sharing knowledge that benefits everyone -- whether directly involved or not.

Much of the same criticism that was leveraged against openly sharing scientific results and discoveries during the scientific revolution, are today being leveraged against open source.  That is:  the same sort of detractors,  for which history has little more than disdain and ridicule in the scientific arena, have their present day counterparts.  People who view the open source movement with skepticism and fear.  Skepticism because if someone is willing to give away something it must be because it has no value.  And fear because some practitioners believe that it will make them redundant.

Science has flourished exactly because we can build on the results of others.  It has also flourished because we now have better ways of separating falsehoods from fact.  Stupidity and dishonesty is still a big part of scientific discourse, but unlike the middle ages, a falsehood is now considerably more short-lived because communication and verification is now part of the way we do science.

In much the same way, software development, and our approach to architecture, is now in far better shape than just 15 years ago.
When I went to school I still had to study the works of opinionated, though not very intelligent people who wrote about the practice of designing, planning and creating software.   Numerous non-practitioners and pompous academics wrote books about software engineering and these were taught as canon at schools and universities.
As the software world opened up and collaboration increased we gradually got a new culture -- driven by people who create software rather than make a living out of the manufacture and sale of engineering dogma.

Sure, there are still dogmatic cranks and people willing to reward these cranks, but methodologies and the more philosophical aspects of our approach to software has become more in tune with reality.

You could say that software engineering has graduated as a trade (though perhaps not science)  much in the same way that chemistry was able to separate itself from the nonsense that is alchemy and astronomy from the poppycock that is astrology.

In this perspective, viewing open source as a threat to the software industry seems somewhat myopic and ignorant.  Because it is myopic and ignorant.  Open source is crucially important to all of us because it furthers the art and trade of creating software far more than any isolationist approach would ever be capable of.

And of course, just as in science, there is plenty of room for making a buck.  Though perhaps not in mere parlor tricks and trivialities.  But then again, who cares about those who are content to dwell on the trivial and the mundane.