s07e09: Snow Crashing

It's back!

0.0 Sitrep

Lunchtime, Monday September 30, 2019. I think I’m just going to have to stop looking at Twitter. All the news is happening all the time now.

I’ve been thinking about how to sustainably write this newsletter (don’t worry, it’s not going away! I only just got started!) and here’s an update to the rough plan:

  • Seasons! I’ve already been doing the whole stubbornly-call-an-issue-an-episode thing, so my rough plan right now is to totally um lean in to the idea and have each season be around 24 episodes, which is what TV shows used to be before the internet came along and made everything weird. (Or, alternatively, two or three seasons worth of a British TV show).

  • One to three episodes a week, of which one will be subscriber-only.

  • Which means each season might last around 8-12 weeks…

  • … and then I’d take a break for a little bit between seasons for a rest, if I need one. I guess I should take a rest even if I don’t need one, to be honest. How healthy!

  • I have some ideas about what to do during the breaks between seasons, one of which was suggested by Jay Springett, which is to have guest writer(s?) come in and talk about things that caught their attention and pay them! I think this sounds fun! Who might you want to hear from? IDEAS WELCOME.

Also: here is the subscription button!

It is still red. I haven’t even looked to see if the color can be changed since last time I wrote about the color. As ever, you’ve got xx options:

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Anyway. On with the things.

1.0 Things that caught, etc.

A couple things today, but one of them is pretty long.

1.1 Snow Crashing (11): Chapter 9

For those of you who’re catching up, a long time ago, when we used to be friends, I had started writing a chapter-by-chapter commentary about Neal Stephenson’s Snow Crashing. Here are the parts, in order:

  1. Episode Forty Four: Snow Crashing; danah boyd; Facebook and Oculus Rift

  2. Episode Forty Five - Station Ident; Snow Crashing 2; Computers, AMIRITE?; A Book on your Face

  3. Episode Forty Six - Snow Crashing 3; Video is a Content-Type; Blame Your Tools

  4. Episode Forty Nine: Living In An Immaterial World; Snow Crashing 4; Odds

  5. Episode Fifty: Cities; Snow Crashing 5; More Television

  6. Episode Sixty Four: Computer Says No, Snow Crashing (6)

  7. Episode Ninety Two: Continued Disruption; Snow Crashing (7); Edge of Tomorrow

  8. Episode One Hundred and Twenty Seven: Belong; Snow Crashing (9); Humans As A Service [yes, actually (8), I missed a number]

  9. Episode One Hundred and Forty Three: Email; Snow Crashing (10); 2014 (4) [yes, actually 9]

  10. Episode One Hundred and Eighty Seven: Snow Crashing (10); How The Web Works Now [fixed the numbering]

It has been a while! That list one was in December 2014, where I finished off Chapter 8, which ended with Juanita giving Hiro a hypercard. 2014! Hypercards!

I’m just going to take a moment to remember how different everything was back then.


Anyway, I thought it’d be fun to continue doing this because it’s content and honestly every day these days feels like it provides another reason to point out the problems with basing your product strategy around a science fiction book.

So, on with chapter 9!

Juanita’s just given Hiro the Babel (Infocalypse) hypercard which let’s just note some gamedev artist has spent a lot of time on, because it turns into a ‘realistic, cream-colored, finely textured piece of stationary’.

Now, we have to remember that all of this is happening in The Black Sun - Hiro (his meat body, the meat sack, the meat puppet, the thing in the real world) is still in his 20-by-30 U-Stor-It in Inglewood. Because when Juanita gives Hiro the hypercard, “the world [Hiro’s metaverse experience] freezes and grows dim for a second. The Black Sun loses its smooth animation and begins to move in fuzzy stop-action”.

This is because Hiro’s “computer has taken a major hit; all of its circuits are busy processing a huge blous of data — the contents of the hypercard — and don’t have time to redraw the image of The Black Sun”.

And this is super interesting because again, Hiro’s in a networked virtual environment, but... it’s not like there’s really a concept of servers? I mean, there’s a description of The Black Sun and there’s the protocol that describes the Street and the Metaverse and everything, but there’s this thing going on where what Stephenson is describing is Juanita sending Hiro a file and not giving Hiro a link to a network resource.

Snow Crash was published in 1992, 8 years after 1984’s Neuromancer and I’m reasonably sure that Neuromancer does have the concept of Case traveling from network resource to network resource. Maybe less so the links and addresses and so on.

I think this reflects something about the nature of 1987’s Hypercard. Networking was still not a thing that really happened outside of labs or Jerry Pournelle’s mansion, so for Stephenson, Hypercard stacks - a computer file that is an organized collection of information with *internal* links - are totally fine, but the idea that those links are distributed over multiple separate computing resources just isn’t really there yet.

And look, another thing: it’s clear that Hiro’s computer (as powerful as it is, as small as it is, as jacked-in to the network with its fiber-optic cable which, let’s be clear, is probably the most ridiculous thing about this entire book because in what world is it ever likely that Comcast or whomever would have run enough fiber for you to get access to it in a storage unit) is running some contemporary Android because seriously, how janky is that interface? Whatever app implementing the Global Multimedia Protocol Group’s Street protocol is a pretty shitty one for I guess having whatever thread block the main UI rendering thread?

I mean it’s a bit like having Juanita email Hiro a giant attachment and your mail client in the background is suddenly all HEY EVERYONE HOLD ON A SECOND, GOT A BIG ATTACHMENT COMING IN FROM JUANITA.

But you know, this also still makes sense because of the Hypercard reference, right? This is all about the Mac: Windows 3.1 doesn’t even exist yet and the contemporary Mac OS is System 7, which came out in 1991 and had “limited support for multitasking”.

Co-operative or pre-emptive multitasking would totally have futzed with smooth rendering of The Black Sun, so either Hiro’s running on Android or for some reason he’s into vintage computing and running his client on Mac OS 9.

Anyway! Hiro’s super impressed that Juanita has emailed him a really big attachment because he thinks it must have half of the Library in it, which is a bit like saying it would have half of Wikipedia in it, but also all the video content that the CIA has. 2015’s Wikipedia text dump with all edit history was 10TB uncompressed, and in 2014, Wikimedia’s dataset (images, etc.) was about 24TB. (I invite my friends at Wikimedia to write in and tell me exactly how big Wikipedia is these days).

So, say Juanita just emailed Hiro a 50TB uncompressed file, (data, without the Librarian executable!) around 5TB compressed. I get unzipping it, that makes sense. 5TB makes 40,000 gigabits, so let’s assume Hiro has a gigabit Comcast fiber connection - it’s still going to take ~666 minutes for him to get Juanita’s email, and even if he’s got 10GigE, that’s going to take over an hour.

So, uh, Hiro gets Juanita’s giant email, his computer unzips it and we get the throwaway reference to a Librarian (ooh, more later) before Juanita mentions Da5id and strokes Hiro’s ego for being smart. Oh, and she warns Hiro to stay away from Raven and Snow Crash, which is a bit like Ripley warning her crew not to do stupid stuff. You can guess what Hiro will do, right?

Exit Juanita.

Hiro “orbits back around to the Hacker Quadrant” which I can now no longer read as anything but “hangs out at the Orange Website” where Da5id’s messing around with hypercards on his table (“business stats on The Black Sun, film and video clips, hunks of software, scrawled telephone numbers”) and I have to admit it’s time to be a little bit jealous of operating system architectures in Hiro’s world. Stephenson’s describing combinations of packages of structured data (“scrawled telephone numbers”) as well as something that could be a spreadsheet but probably isn’t (“business stats on The Black Sun”) and honestly probably videos he’s downloaded from Youtube. Are the “hunks of software” the code, data, or executables? Who can tell!

Da5id mentions that “there’s a little blip in the operating system” whenever Hiro comes in which makes him think The Black Sun is going to crash, and... now I guess we’re talking about servers? Now we get some insight that there’s a server running an OS somewhere and that The Black Sun is an application running on that server. We have a network! (I am presuming here that there’s not one OS that runs the entirety of the Metaverse).

Hiro admits that it’s probably BigBoard, because it “has one routine that patches some of the traps in low memory, for a moment” and then yes, we’re totally in the System 7/DOS era of computing and also, I guess Hiro wrote BigBoard in C? Which makes sense because Da5id has entirely reasonable feedback for Hiro which is along the lines of, hey, that hack was fine but could you please update it and god now I’ve got some strange Facebook vibe going on about code history.

Hiro doesn’t really take this well when Da5id asks him to update his hacky little utility - “It’s fucking hard” for him to be a freelance hacker anymore, “you have to have a big corporation behind you” and at this point we get an insight into Stephenson’s vision of a capitalist future - apparently everyone is still an employee! Because in the late-stage capitalism we’re living in right now, it’s super trendy for corporations to shed FTEs for contractors. (Side note: does this mean employees in the Snow Crash universe have employer-sponsored health insurance? Everything’s privatized so sure, and there’s the implication Hiro would have to pay out of pocket if he visited a franchised clinic...)

Anyway, they end up having a conversation (I keep wanting to type @Hiro and @Da5id) about Juanita, for which let's just keep an eye on because of Bechdel Reasons. Turns out Hiro was fired by Da5id several years ago and we get another example of how Hiro isn't that great at reading people because he didn't realise he was being fired until three-quarters of the way through the conversation. To be honest this says as much about Da5id as it does about Hiro, and just goes to show that tech startups are, generally speaking, shit at HR. Who wants to hazard a guess as to whether Juanita had to step in as the mother hen of the Black Sun?

Well, the two hackers keep talking for a while--trying to figure out why Juanita stopped by-- and it turns out that she's worried about "a really large guy with long black hair" peddling something called Snow Crash. That guy's hanging around outside, and Da5id got a hypercard from him (another email attachment!), this one that says:

tear this card in half to
release your free sample

Hiro's all "omg Da5id did you seriously let your mail client receive an email from a black-and-white-person", and Da5id shrugs away this insult to his opsec; saying he's running antivirals and all that business because of all the hackers who pass through The Black Sun.

They talk about the hypercard and the concept of it likely being a spam ad ("probably an animercial"), but they do agree that it's a particularly rare occurrence to get a drug that wouldn't be able to hurt you.

Nothing much happens at first: a "stark naked Brandy" avatar turns up, but it's not even the default, a cheap knockoff from Taiwan, much like a contemporary knockoff Chinese toy on Amazon, most likely shot through with lead and other contaminants. I think the default these days would be an egg avatar, right? Not even a Brandy or a Clint, just an asexual egg. I mean, I say "egg" now and most of you know what I mean, right?

The avatar shows Da5id a scroll for him to look at, but all it looks like is "Just static. White noise. Snow." and I think we're supposed to remember what analogue TV snow looks like, and the seminal sky above the port.

They both think it's boring: "A fixed pattern of black-and-white pixels, fairly high resolution. Just a few hundred thousand ones and zeros for me to look at", so we're only really talking about a relatively tiny PNG these days - and Hiro reckons the same, just a thousand bytes of information. Da5id doesn't get it and thinks it was buggy - why would someone show him binary information? - and Hiro points out that "all information looks like noise until you break the code" which I don't know about you, but is very late-night undergrad dorm room talk.

Turns out, though, that the Brandy whispered something into Da5id's ear, some language he didn't recognize, "just a bunch of babble" and we get an italicized Babel in the text, and it's not like we're being pointed to a Chekov's tower waiting to fall over due to some sort of building code violation.

Anyway, their topic of conversation moves on. Sushi K is playing tonight, and the way they're talking about him, he's got some sort of amazing avatar, which I feel these days is either like having a brilliant personal website or more likely, having a great skin in Fortnite. I mean, remember: Fortnite is basically The Black Sun at this point. A whole bunch of people are in it together and they go see concerts. I still reckon it's much more likely that Fortnite becomes the Metaverse than Facebook or Oculus trying to intentionally create the Metaverse.

There's a bit of a weird thing about how Sushi K's hairdo (it's a Rising Sun) is subject to "height and width regulations" on the Street, but how Da5id "allows free expression inside The Black Sun, so the orange rays extend all the way to the property lines" and that, again, sounds like the modern equivalent of a sort of 4chan-esque libertarian whatever-goes, the rules outside don't apply in here approach. I'm also not entirely sure what to think about the Street's regulations? I mean, there are analogous specs for, e.g. valid HTML that a browser will render, but it's not like anyone is going to tell you that you shouldn't have, I dunno, ads that are "too big" on your website.

Although now I come to think of it, perhaps the Street is more like Google's AMP. A thing that a whole bunch of people end up using just because it's there, and AMP does enforce some set of content rules, not just technical specifications. I suppose the Street also makes sense in the context of 1993 -- AOL started in 1991 -- and the other online services at the time were much more top-down. Or, they were a lot more like tinymushes or moos - programatically expressed object-oriented multi-user spaces, which did--or could--have rules by virtue of instances being top-down. Not like the web at all.

There's a bit of conversation about how Americans won't buy music from a Japanese person, and Da5id suggests that Hiro tell Sushi K, and charge for what I imagine in a story like this would be called "intel", as if there were some world, ever, where a random freelancer would be able to place monetary value on knowledge like that and that a buyer would exist and who would be willing to pay for such knowledge. I mean... am I being weird or is that just something super difficult to imagine?

As Hiro and Da5id talk, there's what feels to me a very Stephenson sentence: "they inject themselves into a stream of traffic", smushing technical language, something jargon-y with everyday experiences.

Hiro also says something that Da5id doesn't understand and I have to admit at first glance, I don't understand it either. Hiro thinks that Sushi needs to be "exposed to some actual biomass" -- and I won't explain what biomass is even though Da5id doesn't know, because I know you know -- but Hiro explains the underlying expression by saying that "the Industry feeds off the human biomass of America". Turns out Hiro just means that Sushi K needs to meet actual people and not be surrounded by a yes-entourage. A yestourage. Hm, maybe not.

It's at this point that Da5id's voice starts to sound funny, white noise creeping into his audio.

There is a sword bit. I have to confess, I don't really get the sword thing. I mean, I don't get the "swords are cool" thing, nor do I get the "sword fights are cool" thing. Anyway, Hiro gets to have a moment with a couple of Nipponese businessmen and I swear to god I don't think I'm ever going to be OK with typing "Nipponese". The moment hints that there's going to be a sword fight, and roughly at the same time, a bunch of bouncers (gorillas in tuxedos) start heading toward Hiro, shoving people around. We learn that the only thing that can do that is a daemon.

Well. Now shit is starting to go down! Da5id has disappeared! His avatar's turned into a "jittering cloud of bad digital karma" which again, I am confused about! I get that it's very cinematic and we get to imagine like something is corrupted. There is, I suppose, a pretty vivid description of something changing color, rolling around a color wheel "as though being strafed with high-powered disco lights" and "not so much an organized body as it is a centrifugal cloud of lines and polygons whose center cannot hold". Which honestly makes it sound a bit like Glitch Madden, or a day-one release of an Assassin's Creed series game. (SORRY UBISOFT PEOPLE).

I mean, I'm trying to figure out how this would work in practice and how it would work right now, and... I don't know enough about game or 3D engines to figure out how it might happen. It feels like it could happen as a local corruption with your GPU memory, but not over the network? My understanding is that for something like this to happen, the mesh and texture data that makes up Da5id's avatar would need to be generated on Da5id's local machine or, I guess, on the Black Sun's server, and then pushed out to each client. Which is a lot, I think! Traditional 3D environment multiplayer games don't work that way! But VRML does (did?), so... (Aside: VRML won't be invited until 1995, in another 3 years. Double aside: I always pronounced VRML as the letters, and then I met people who pronounced as Vermal, like Garfield's Nermal).

All of this doesn't bother the daemons because they are daemons and they're just doing their job. They are just like YouTube ContentID daemons! Turns out, though, that the daemons weren't after Hiro, who thought they were coming after him because his shitty Bigboard code finally crossed some line. They're actually coming for Da5id - they grab him and kick him out into the Street which is a big deal because "Da5id Meier, supreme hacker overload [sic], founding father of the Metaverse protocol, creator and proprietor of the world-famous Black Sun, has just suffered a system crash. He's been thrown out of his own bar by his own daemons."

Now. There are two things in my head here. Well. Three, now that I come to think of it.

The first one: gosh, imagine if Da5id Meier were Tim Berners-Lee. In our universe, Tim Berners-Lee is not really a supreme hacker overload [sic], he was an academic working at a multi-national prestigious and stupendously expensive physics experiment. But he did use a very cool and expensive computer! He's founding father of the hypertext transfer protocol (1991! 1 year before Snow Crash!) But! Berners-Lee does not run a world-famous website! Neither is it a bar!

OK, the second one: gosh, imagine if Da5id Meier were jwz! jwz is a self-confessed hacker! He worked on Netscape Navigator! He does run a bar! It does not make a lot of money! He, I don't think, has not been thrown out of a website?

OK, the third one and I am really sorry that these all happen to be white dudes, sigh, but that would be John Carmack, co-founder of id Software (Doom, Quake, other games where you shoot things) and now CTO at Oculus VR at Facebook. I mean, that one's pretty boring.

And that's Chapter 9. What did we learn? People still send email attachments and Comcast has finally run fiber to enough places that you can even get it at a storage unit. Also, never open attachments from strangers. Also also, the Street/Metaverse is weird and not like the web at all, but we knew that.

1.2 Combadges

Honestly I am not sure at the moment how many people I am losing because of the constant Star Trek references, but in some respect, I do not care, so here we go anyway:

First, I keep forgetting about Vocera, which it feels like I first learned about when I was in university which for me was too long ago and for some of you I imagine will be not long ago enough and for others, well, you get the idea. Anyway, Vocera make essentially large, Enterprise-y (HA) combadges for what I guess you’d call Vertical Industries like Healthcare. Look: a Smartbadge which I bet they wanted to call a Combadge but are not allowed to because CBS. They also have this regular Vocera Badge which looks… honestly, it looks like a piece of medical technology from an enterprise IT provider, no offence Vocera people.

All of this is because a friend DM’d me about Orion, who also have a combadge-alike thing called Orion Sync which I guess is a bit more Star Trek-y and also is somewhat better described as a “smart walkie-talkie”. When Simon and I were chatting about this, the thing we both glommed on to were how in theory these devices help with something like ambient awareness: not specifically paying attention to things, but just noticing things happening in the background and then being able to act off intuition or gut feeling based on those subconscious-ish cues. One example I always use is the spidey-sense that someone in the early to mid 2000s might be looking for a job because they’ve inexplicably started blogging again whistles innocently.

Anyway. I am reminded that Apple Watches with Walkie Talkie are practically combadges and if I have tap-to-Siri on an Airpod, it is also practically a combadge and I should probably be less obsessed with these things.

2.0 Smaller Things


It was fun writing about Snow Crash. I think I’m going to do more of it.

For the next episode, I have a thing I’m working on about machine learning and young children, which should be fun.

It’s a brisk, sunny Monday in Portland, OR - how are you?