Book Report 2015 Q2

A mixture of a growing Ebook library, tracking my goals in Goodreads, and Calibre’s ability to generate a catalog have made me decide to start tracking things quarterly in the book dimension as well. Here’s my second report.

Total Ebooks: 417 (increase of 54 books)

Total Unread: 313 (increase of 45 so I’m reading them faster than I can add them…good)

Goodreads 2015 Challenge: 38 of 30 books complete. Last time I went way over. We’ll see what this year brings.

Goodreads Ratings:

5 stars: 8 books

4 stars: 20 books

3 stars: 7 books

2 stars: 3 books

Calibre Generated Stats:

404 authors (up from 314) Authors

414 books (up from 360) Books

44 Series (up from 37) Series

506 tags (up from 462 Tags) (Calibre calls them Genres)

Changing to SDDM on SuperMario (Fedora 22)

Whenever I boot up post upgrade to Fedora 22, it takes much longer to load KDM than it used to. So I thought maybe it has something to do with Wayland and the fact that KDM is EOL’d. So I thought I’d convert to SDDM. I had no idea how to change DMs in the modern day, so I decided to look it up and ask on Eventually, I found it on a stack overflow page:

systemctl stop kdm

systemctl disable kdm

systemctl enable sddm

systemctl start sddm

At first it wouldn’t load the greeter – and I think that was related to what I wrote about here and the default Fedora theme. Then I got it to load once and no users were there to select. Turns out that since I’ve been using Fedora for a long time, my UID was too low. It was only checking as low as 1000. So I changed the value in /etc/sddm.conf to have 500 as the minimum UID. After that….

It worked. The greeter had my name and I could type my password. It’d be nice if it could have my user image since I have that associated with KDE. It just shows a generic shadow-dude. I’ll have to look up how to change it. All the test images I’ve seen have cats for the user images. So it must be possible to change. I noticed somewhat less flickering when going from “Plymouth” to SDDM and from SDDM to Plasma desktop, but neither the greeter nor the Plasma desktop loaded any faster than usual. I have a decent processor (8 core KDE) and a good amount of RAM (8 GB) so I can only assume at this point that it’s my aging graphics card. I’m talking 5-10 minutes to get to a desktop I can do anything with. I’ve asked before and never gotten an answer – but if there’s a way to profile my login and see if some old program or helper I installed aeons ago is causing the issues, I’d love to use it.

June 2015 Video Game Report

The Witcher (3 hours): Finally had some time to get back to The Witcher. It definitely isn’t the type of game where you want to have long gaps between playthroughs. But there isn’t much I can do about it.

Sonic the Hedgehog 3 (30 minutes): Scarlett just asked me if we could play Sonic. So we tried to get past the third world for a while, but I kept slipping up.

Sonic the Hedgehog 3: Sonic and Tails fall into a world I can't get them out of
Sonic the Hedgehog 3: Sonic and Tails fall into a world I can’t get them out of

Aladdin (30 minutes): Then she asked me to play Aladdin. I got further into the game than I EVER did in my youth.

Aladdin for the Sega Genesis
Aladdin for the Sega Genesis

Home Server Project Update 2: Goodbye Arch Linux

As I documented before, I’ve had problems with Pogoplug and Arch Linux running my servers. Recently I’ve been having problems logging in via SSH on my updated Fedora computers. From what I can tell from a little research, it seems the old way of connecting had a flaw so updated SSH doesn’t want talk to unupdated SSH. So I tried to update Arch Linux and once again ended up with a borked computer. And it’s not something I did wrong – everyone had complaints of the change from /usr/bin (and some other bins) bricking systems. If Pogoplug had a display, I’d have been able to fix it. I tried reinstalling, but something has changed that makes the Pogoplug no longer work. Sick of having stuff go wrong every time I update, I decided this was the time to implement the Home Server Project.

Between my previous research and thoughts since then, I decided to go with a CentOS VM. In all my time using Fedora, I’ve only once ended up with a system screwed up after installing a new Kernel and once from an SELinux change. With a VM I could always snapshot before updating Kernels and SELinux so it seemed like a good idea. Additionally, I was able to create a copy of the VM hard drive and XML schema once I had the system working the way I wanted. (Total time to get it set up: about 1.5 hours) I copied it to SuperMario so it would also be backed up to Crashplan. The VM also gives me another benefit – if TanukiMario (the computer it’s running on) dies or has a hard drive failure, I can run the VM on SuperMario until I get TanukiMario fixed. Time without services drops from a few days or weeks to an hour or less. (Depending on changes I need to make to the XML to make it work on a different computer with a potentially differently named ethernet card)

Since TanukiMario (the former guest computer) was purposely not that beefy (just for guests to get on the net), I went with one VM to provide DNS, MySQL, and file server duties. Sure, it means that if something happens to the VM I lose all that, but they’re all interrelated anyway (used in service of making Kodi media server work) so I’m not losing much on that.

Review: Machine of Death: A Collection of Stories About People Who Know How They Will Die

Machine of Death: A Collection of Stories About People Who Know How They Will Die (Machine of Death #1)Machine of Death: A Collection of Stories About People Who Know How They Will Die by Ryan North

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This book is, in a way, not what you think it’s going to be when you read the premise. Essentially it’s a dozen or so Oedipus Rex stories – in the oracle sense, not the incest sense. There is a machine called The Machine of Death and it tells you how you will die. Not when (except in one story). Just how. So if you get CANCER you might die of cancer in two months or at age 99. Sometimes, like Oedipus, what you do to avoid it causes it to happen. Other times that’s not the point of the story, but it can’t be avoided. If your death is EATING A PEANUT you cannot commit suicide by any way other than eating one. The predictions are also vague and/or ironic. OLD AGE might mean you die old or it might mean a senior citizen kills you. So I thought this would be a bunch of stories of people trying to outwit the machine. Instead, what I got were about a dozen stories in which the authors explore how our world would change with the existence of the Machine of Death.

Today as I was reading, I knew I was near the end and I was reflecting on what I had spent the last 10 days reading. I came to the conclusion that, with the exception of the 3 stories which were meant to be origin stories for The Machine, they were not mutually exclusive stories. Humans are a unique and varied bunch. We are just as likely to be driven mad as we are to play party games in a world with The Machine.

Well, as I do with anthologies here are some thoughts (usually only slight variations on my status updates) per story:

Flaming Marshmallow: perfectly captures the idiocy of high school concerns. The story is about a girl who hopes she gets a gruesome death so she can sit with the cool kids.

Fudge: Good although denied again seeing how it works out

Lions: The story of a guy who becomes obsessed with his death, but not in the way you think. I wrote, “the machine sure does inspire some kooky behavior”. This person just thinks about how neat his death will be, despite its gruesome nature.

Despair: What would it be like working in a hospital in a world in which The Machine existed? The answer: truly terrifying.

Suicide: Someone tries to prove the machine wrong…

Almond: This is told through the logs of a tech who mans one of these machines. The tech is a great character. The ending was amazing for both reveals.

Starvation: Crazy to see a military situation in a world with the Machine of Death.

Cancer: My least favorite. But it’s certainly one possible reaction to the MOD.

Firing Squad: Although I thought the story flailed at the end, it had a pretty fun premise. Someone ends up in a third world country and helps them get a Machine of Death.

Vegetables: Both the smartest advice: “You were going to die this way anyway, so why let it rule your life” and the scariest premise: a sociopath who believes it’s his duty to being about the predictions.”

Piano: great story of knowing how you won’t dee being awesome. In other words, if you will die from being shot, then every other dangerous behavior is safe.

HIV from Machine of Death: BEST story so far.

Exploded: Story of the creators and how things go so right and so wrong”

Waving but not drowning: a different view from FLAMING MARSHMELLOW about how a teen in school would view it. Also neat in what was similar.

Bad Fish: Yakuza story; One of the more compelling stories. Very pulp feel to it. I enjoyed nearly everything about it.

Ad nauseum: chuckle-worthy

Murder then suicide: a different origen story for the box

Cancer: very sad and very powerful

Aneurysm: Great use of magic tricks to get what he wants.

Death from Exhaustion from Sex with minor: hilarious twist

Asleep with smile on face: a cute, short romance

Death from Daniel: Sad in that his son is named Daniel, but it could be any one named Daniel.

Friendly fire: knowing death and the changes to the world leads to some college kids becoming terrorists against the machine

Nothing: Even getting nothing on there is a curse of sorts. I do like the way it resolves, though.

Cocaine and painkillers: another origin story for the machine. I love the idea of it being a 1-800 number product.

Loss of Blood: A Scary Dystopian future in which people are pre-killed to ensure least civilian deaths.

Prison Knife Fight: Funny look at rich kids whose parents cannot fight the scandal of their kid’s report.

While Trying to Save Someone from a Fire: Very touching.

Miscarriage: Very hard for me to read.

Shot by sniper: another look at what the machine does to soldiers.

Heat Death of the Universe: Realistic teens. The plot seems like it’s the prequel to Loss of Blood.

Drowning: What is happening in this world? Too many changes from the real world vice just a real world in which the machine changed things.”

?: A guy goes crazy because The Machine is a violation of scientific principles. Of course it’s written by Randall Monroe of XKCD fame

Cassandra: A mathematician figures out how to outwit the machine…maybe. But she’ll never know if she was right. Even in this world in which the machine ends up being a novelty, it still seems a realistic possible world.

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Review: Just the Tips

Just the TipsJust the Tips by Matt Fraction
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This book is like the 90s movie Booty Call. It’s funny in a really dumb, immature way. What’s sad is that the tips in all those women’s magazines should be treated with about as much seriousness as these tips, but some people actually take them seriously. It also includes some hilarious joke sex positions and reader-submitted stories.

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Concerts 2015: Weird Al Yankovic

The video controls for the concert
The video controls for the concert

I’ve been a fan of Weird Al for about 17 years. I used to have the Disney special Weird Al Going Home, but unfortunately, I lent it to someone and never got it back. Yet, in all the time, I’d never seen a Weird Al concert live. Finally, Weird Al came to Baltimore as part of his Mandatory Fun Tour and I was able to experience an Al Tour. It was a pretty neat experience. It’s only something like the fourth arena concert I’ve been to (even thought it wasn’t technically in an arena). The last arena concert I went to was Rihanna. Interestingly, Weird Al had WAY more costume changes than she did. He had just about one outfit per song with few exceptions. While he was changing, clips played from nearly every video Weird Al has ever been involved in.

The best part of the concert was that he played at least one song from each of his albums. I got to hear all my favorites live, which was quite a treat. Who would have thought he’d still be singing Fat all these decades later?

Weird Al Mandatory Fun Concert - Singing "Fat"
Weird Al Mandatory Fun Concert – Singing “Fat”

Going back to the fact that this is only about the fourth arena concert I’ve been to, I’ve mostly been going to concerts in clubs. That’s partly because I tend to like more obscure bands like The Protomen and I Fight Dragons. And partly because even bigger bands like Anberlin (who played Madison Square Garden for two consecutive nights on their farewell tour) aren’t going to draw enough fans to fill an arena. Having done both fairly recently (Anamanaguchi vs Weird Al), I have to say that I prefer the club atmosphere. There’s something about the band being just a few feet away and the crowd pressing against you, belting out songs, that makes concerts worth attending. Meanwhile I leave most arena concerts thinking it’d be a better experience on my big screen TV at home. While I don’t regret seeing Weird Al live, it certainly didn’t feel as special as some of the smaller venues.

To keep things fresh, both for Al and ourselves, for some of his oldest songs, he did a Lounge Lizard medley. It was pretty fun to hear the songs this way – he should do an album release this way.

Weird Al Mandatory Fun Concert - Lounge Lizard Versions
Weird Al Mandatory Fun Concert – Lounge Lizard Versions

Here is a really short example from two songs:

Some more costume changes:

Appropriately enough, given 2015 is the year of Star Wars, he ended the night with a couple Star Wars songs.

Although he did start it off with a bizarre reference to an earlier joke:

Overall, it was a great experience and I think if he’s still performing when Scarlett’s a little older, I’ll take her.

Neat KDE Connect Behavior

I have KDE connect installed on my computer and phone. KDE connect allows phone alerts to appear on my computer – letting me see if I’m getting a text or something. It just went off, letting me know I had a phone call. What’s neat is that I was listening to music and it paused the music until the phone call was over. While there might be some circumstances where that wouldn’t be the best default (say a party where I was playing the music), it’s certainly neat in the context of a personal computer.

Testing Video on the Canon Rebel T6s

Until recently I’d never used a DSLR that was capable of video. Oh, I’d had plenty of point-and-shoot cameras that were capable of shooting video, but not DSLRs. Thanks to my mom, I now have the Canon EOS Rebel T6s Digital SLR and I wanted to try out the video. On the first day, with the auto-focus I was annoyed because it’s incredibly loud on the onboard microphone. More or less impossible to shoot film that way until you’re going to have an external mic. So I played around with it with manual focus. Here is the result:

It’s a rather boring video, content-wise, unless you happen to be related to Scarlett. But I learned a bit about shooting manual. If you’re shooting in a loud environment – eg Scarlett’s talking constantly or there is music in the background, then the onboard mic is good enough for home videos. If it’s relatively quiet, then the onboard mic picks up every little fidget against the body, even twist of the lens. Also, with normal photography lenses (not sure if there are other kinds for filming), zooming is not smooth enough. Never noticed that when just shooting still images. Essentially you have to be like a real film maker – no zooming – move closer or further. The quality of the unedited film is OK, but I was shooting at 400 ISO. I’ll have to try at 100 to see if it looks more BluRay-like.

GOG vs Valve: Why competition is good

I still love the innovation coming out of Valve (like their VR and controller work), but today I listened to the Beastcast Episode 2 and saw that Steam is implementing game refunds. This is something GOG has offered for quite some time now. It appears that GOG is starting to eat Valve’s lunch as it’s getting more Triple A games DRM-Free! I have no issues with Valve and I don’t consider them evil or anything hyperbolic, but here’s how healthy competition helps. Now Valve has to match GOG for refunds just as GOG has had to create GOG Galaxy to match the Steam client. I hope they continue to challenge each other in the market and create a good environment for us that is pro-consumer since digital has been anti-consumer for so long. (DRM, games/books/movies/etc being pulled without notice)

Review: Old Man’s War Boxed Set 1

Old Man's War Boxed Set 1Old Man’s War Boxed Set 1 by John Scalzi

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I have rapidly become a Scalzi fanboy. I’m proof of the sentiment behind Scalzi’s new $3 million deal – when someone reads one Scalzi book, they read them all. I don’t believe it discounts what I’m going to say, but it’s worth noting up front. Starting with The God Engines and going through Red Shirts, I’ve built up a huge enjoyment for Scalzi’s style. What style is that? I’ve had a hard time articulating it to friends and family. Here’s my best shot – Old Man’s War is not a comedy, but it’s funny. It’s an like action movie, but it’s not dumb. The humor mostly comes from witty or sarcastic responses by the main characters. Even though it’s framed as a military action book, it’s mostly a series of character studies. I also enjoy that both within a book and within the series, Scalzi only doles out information as needed. This has two good effects. First, there are no info dumps – or if there’s more than one paragraph of explanation, it’s the only way Scalzi has of conveying it Second, as we learn more of the universe – either through our POV characters learning more or by going from regular army to special forces, it forces us to re-evaluate what we learned before in a new light. Most apt in that comparison is the scientist telling our main character early in the first book about how the space elevator is designed in such a way as to be a symbol of how much more advanced the Colonial Union is than Earth without revealing just how advanced. With all that’s learned (mostly in the second two books), the scale of that deception is truly realized.

Before I get to the different themes I found interesting, I will say that one of Scalzi’s best talents as a writer seems to be the ability to create plot twists that are completely unexpected, but also completely foreshadowed. So, unlike an M Night Shamalayan movie, the twist doesn’t seem like a story-telling cheat.

Here are some of the themes and some of the things I enjoyed throughout the trilogy:
Scalzi’s writing on the brochure for the CDF body is GREAT corporate satire. Liberal use of trademarks and overly cheery information on what is essentially a killing machine.

When we finally find out how the old Earth-based humans get the bodies necessary to partcipate in a war despite being 75 years old, Scalzi raise some interesting themes. The idea of being able to change into a new, younger body has some implications including perhaps somewhat being an irresistable carrot for re-enlistment. At least for those who managed not to die. Additionally, the CDF owned the bodies, which is why they had to be returned when military service was over. Because consciousness can be tranferred between bodies, it creates an interesting situation because it’s not exactly slavery – as the owning of bodies would be in our world. But it’s not exactly freedom. Although Scalzi never explores it, it’s also interesting that the CDF bodies do not have a consciousness without a human to put in there.

Scalzi’s framing of the Colonial Union as jingoistic for the entire human race as well as their secretive nature with information seems entirely realistic for the way humans have always acted. Were a skip-like technology to exist, I would expect it to be just as censored as it was in this universe.

The Consu were a very interesting addition to the universe. They are so powerful and advanced as to not have to tolerate any other race’s BS, but they simply operate on the concept of making nudges here and there to essentially make sure all races can ascend to heaven. It’s almost as if somehow Buddhists on Earth – say, the Dalai Lama and his crew – ended up with technology eons more advanced than anything we have now and would intrude on us here and there with little pokes towards Nirvana while mostly not interfering.

As a quick note, I found my favorite scene in the entire trilogy to have been the drill instructor scene which was both a deconstruction and reconstruction of the drill instructor stereotype. It communicated quite a bit of information through humor and provided a reason for a mean drill instructor.

Like the first movie of The Matrix trilogy, the CDF forces have to unlearn their human body limitations. This is not just realistic, but it also gives the reason for what makes the Special Forces so special. Since they are born into their bodies, they always use them to the full potential.

Throughout the trilogy there are only two things that seemed to be without a pay off. First there was theory that skips operate by shuttling the people into a different, but mostly the same universe in the multiverse. There never seemed to be a payoff for that, but I don’t see how there could have been without taking the entire story off track. I guess one payoff is that humanity doesn’t understand how skips work, which ends up being a major plot point. It also reminded me of Mass Effect and the Relay system. Both relays and skips enable space exploration. Both seem like ways for the authors to get around the real science that says none of these types of stories can ever be realistic because of the distances involved. Both turn out to have hidden issues. The second thing that never paid off was the werewolf and opposable thumb thing on Roanoke. I thought it would turn out that all the species on there were were-animals. But I also though the sentience would pay off.

The Ghost Brigades were quite an interesting idea. When I first heard the term, I though they had a way to take the “ghosts” from people who’d died and that’s what made them special forces – being noncorporeal. But instead we ended up with even more themes. The bodies are extra modified and often prototypes for CDF. This was the unethical aspect part one. Then there was the child soldier aspect. While the BrainPals accelertated their learning, they were still child soldiers – including not questioning what they were told or why they were told things. That’s why it was so important when Jared Dirac was given the ability to make a choice. In fact, choices were so important – such as the choices Perry makes in the third book. Also, the Colonial Union’s use of Roanoke as a pawn – again attempting to restrict their choices through information revealed.

The idea of the Obin being uplifted and, therefore, lacking a conscious was a nice evolution on the idea of the monolith introduced in Space Odessy 2001. Scalzi doesn’t explore it much here, mostly just uses it for plot purposes. But it certainly raises interesting ethical questions as well as thinking of different ways that monolith use could go awry. Perhaps he’ll explore it more in Zoe’s tale since she has her Obin bodyguards.

Without spoiling, what the Humans do to the Eneshans….I thought to myself, that’s exactly what humanity would do. And it’s sad.

In a great example of how Scalzi foreshadows and/or doesn’t retcon, but makes his twists seem inevitable, when he introduced the plot point of BrainPals allowing for mind-reading, I smacked my head with a huge “DUH! I can’t believe I didn’t realize that!” After all, if it can read your thoughts as a brain-computer interface, it can record and forward those thoughts. Also, as someone in the computer security field, the idea of BrainPals having a back door and the subsequent fix made me wonder if any computer software can ever be proven to be secure through some kind of testing suite. Based on what I know, I’d say no, not with current technology.

Finally, I thought The Conclave was a neat de/reconstruction of the idea of The Federation from Star Trek. I must confess that while I’ve always enjoyed Star Trek, I have large gaps in my knowledge of the universe. But it was interesting to see the Colonial Union refuse to join, even as the US did not join the League of Nations. Also, while it’s meant to be an overall force for good, it’s certainly not afraid to obliterate an entire planet to make a point. The UN has caused death through inaction, but never through action – not on this scale.

If you like science fiction and military fiction, I can’t see a reason not to enjoy this trilogy.
-The Conclave and comparisons to The Federation

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Review: The Happiest Days of Our Lives

The Happiest Days of Our LivesThe Happiest Days of Our Lives by Wil Wheaton

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I haven’t read a lot of autobiographical books, but this is one of the more entertaining ones I’ve ever read. I think part of that has to do with Wil Wheaton’s writing style – I particularly enjoyed his teen-to-adult filters. I think it also is partially due to the fact that many of these stories originally came from his blog. While I’m sure his editor helped him clean it up a bit and make it slightly more bookish, it still retains a lot of that conversational style.

Similar to Borg Like Me & Other Tales of Art, Eros, and Embedded Systems, part of what really helps the book work and fit together cohesively are the introductions added to the book. They provide not only the context we’re missing, but also sometimes give us an epilogue that’s only possible years after the fact, but which provides greater meaning to the events that took place in the piece.

I have to admit that when I was first becoming acclimated to net culture and learned about alt.westlycrusher.die.die.die that I expressed some hatred of the character. I assumed that a) I hadn’t noticed it when I watched Star Trek: TNG because I was just a kid and b) this is part of Internet culture. But as I found him on his Suicide Girls Blog and in other places, I realized a) he’s a person (Something I try to remind myself every time I think of acting like a jerk to someone online – particularly a celeb or comic writer) and b) people were being mean because it was what others were doing. The more I got to know him through various media, the more I realized what a kind-hearted person he was. This book cemented that feeling. Not only is a good autobiography through articles, but it’s a great reminder that those who put themselves out there for our entertainment are people with hopes and dreams and feelings. Some of them may have already been jerks and some may become jerks through access to fame and power. But many are decent folks no better or worse than you and I who don’t deserve our ire.

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Rolling Your Own

Another event has once again cemented my thoughts that the informed technical person needs to run their own services rather than depend upon the benevolence of companies. It started with Google closing Google Reader. Then Facebook and Twitter got extra censorious. During all that, people started abusing DMCA requests on Youtube. Recently Google decided to close Google code. Now there the Ars Technica story that SourceForge is installing malware on software that is considered abandoned on their site.

Little by little, I’ve been trying to make myself less dependent on others. Sure, until we finally get to IPv6 and ISPs allowing users to run their own servers at reasonable cost I’ll still be dependent upon my hosting provider and upon the ICAAN not being pressured by some government to screw over my domain, but there’s nothing I can do about that for now. So I’ve been taking advantage of HTML5 and WordPress’ new built-in video abilities to upload videos here rather than Vimeo or Youtube where they can be removed at a whim. I might still ALSO upload them there for discoverability purposes, but they’re here – safe. Although I’m still posting some images to flickr and Google Plus, I’ve also (over the last year) reduced my dependence on those services. Both are likely in precarious states: flickr is owned by Yahoo and Google Plus seems about to tank. I’d rather not have my carefully constructed blog posts fall apart because the links no longer go back to those sites.

In the wake of this SourceForge thing, lots in the FLOSS community have begun to question what might happen with GitHub. At the moment it appears to be a very different situation because Github actually has a business model – charge for private git projects. So they don’t necessarily need to start adding malware to code in order to make money. But it’s still in someone else’s hands. I looked into GitLab today, but since I’m currently on shared hosting rather than a VPS, it doesn’t seem I can run it at the moment. On the plus side, all my git repositories on Github are just mirrors of what I have on my computer so they can never fully take them away from me. I’m also not running particularly popular projects at the moment so it really doesn’t matter too much. Still, if we ever move to where I’m able to once again self-host without going against my ISP’s terms of service, it may be something I end up doing to ensure that I am as self-reliant as possible.

Outside of what I decide to do for myself, we do seem to be at an interesting crossroads where it is in the interests of many of the companies to get us on their clouds so they can mine our data and sell it. But the social (and/or legal) contract isn’t there to keep them from acting incorrectly – adding malware, removing your data, etc. Will the prices continue to fall such that it becomes negligible for us techno-nerds to roll our own solutions? The biggest reason I don’t run OwnCloud is that it doesn’t provide a solution at a cheap enough price that’s better than dropbox, Google Calendar, etc. But if that day comes, do we just leave the non-technical people behind in their gilded jails? Do we try and help them out? Will they even care?