s07e11: Snow Crashing

0.0 Sitrep

Monday, October 7 2019 and I am very tired. I’m in Sacramento this week, took the 7am flight down and spent the day in meetings and staring at my screen Thinking Very Hard About Things. I’m in a Holiday Inn right now about to pass out after having finished this week’s Snow Crash recap.

Hopefully the President won’t have done anything significantly more stupid than he’s done so far by the time I wake up in the morning, but you know, there’s always a first time for everything.

1.0 Some Things

Only one Thing today because it looks like I accidentally wrote around 3,800 words on a single chapter of Snow Crash and, well, that’s a lot for you to read, if you’re going to read it.

1.1 Snow Crashing (12) - Chapter 10

It’s Chapter 10 and we’ve switched over to following Y.T.

We last saw Y.T. in Chapter 6, when she’d been picked up by the MetaCops, was on her way to the Hoosegow (“Premium incarceration and restraint services”) and then shipped off to The Clink because the Hoosegow is all out of room for females.

We open Chapter 10 with a little bit about Kouriers and how they all learn to shiv open a pair of handcuffs, and it occurs to me that the skating, ‘pooning couriers of the Snow Crash universe are pretty much at this point the zero-hours contractor UberEats and
“whichever food delivery service hasn’t gone bust” yet evolution of our universe only a few years down the road. They’re using skateboards (smart skateboards, admittedly), we’re still using scooters and electric scooters or, I guess in Hiro’s case, as a Deliverator, a car. Deliverators! Huh! Those... weren’t really a thing when I started writing this!

Anyway, there’s a throwaway line about “the longtime status of skateboarders as an oppressed ethnic group” which, yeah, I see how that was true and relevant at the time, but I can’t help but see that against the backdrop of 2019s incels and red-pill culture of people who *aren’t* really oppressed — comparatively speaking, or at least not in the manner in which they think — but who insist on seeing themselves as such.

Stephenson takes a while to describe Y.T.’s uniform in what feels to me (again, me: an under-read non-literary arts major who hasn’t done an MFA!) like the sort of science-fictional showing-not-telling that the genre gets shit for. I guess the alternative is for Y.T. to sit there and for us to peek in on her interior experience as she comments upon her uniform, so you know, ymmv. But - Y.T.’s uniform! There’s a lot going on here:

First - the uniform “has a hundred pockets” and I do not know if Stephenson was tapping into the justifiable rage against the lack of pockets in women’s clothing, but whatever: Y.T.’s uniform has oodles of them, and they are all purely for utilitarian purposes, e.g. putting things in, carrying them, and having them to hand when you might need them. Y.T. does not have a very large go-bag with her, as it were.

Stephenson enumerates the pockets Y.T. has upon her person:

  • “big flat pockets for deliveries”;

  • “eensie narrow pockets for gear”;

  • “pockets sewn into sleeves, thighs, shins”

I mean, that’s a lot of pockets and not a decorative one among them. I guess there’s probably decorative pockets too, but we’re really not into that mood at the moment, not with Y.T. in The Clink. It has to be said that the tone here isn’t that Y.T.’s freaking out or anything: it feels like she’s been in The Clink before, and also she’s got all the gear she needs to bust out. At the very least, we’re reassured that she knows how to get out of handcuffs, which, we’re reminded, are “not intended as long-term restraint devices.”

Back to Y.T.’s equipment, of which, like the pockets, she has A Lot. Most of the equipment is “small, tricky, lightweight” and, well, here’s the list:

  • pens

  • markers

  • penlights

  • penknives

  • lock picks

  • bar-code scanners (yes, I know, keep going)

  • flares

  • screwdrivers

  • Liquid Knucles (we’ll come back to this too)

  • bundy stunners (I have to admit I do not know)

  • lightsticks; and

  • a calculator (doubling as a taxi meter and a stopwatch, yes we’ll come back to this too)

OK, first! The bar-code scanners! This totally makes sense! Bar-code scanners are really high-tech and you totally need one if you are scanning documents to find out where they need to go, or tracking packages! How cute that there’s like a specific bar-code scanner, though, and how cute that there’s more than one! (Of course there’s more than one, even in Our Algorithm’s Year of 2019 we are not surprised about the continued existence of proprietary standards requiring non-open, proprietary hardware) .

Second! The Liquid Knuckes! I... think this might be branded Mace? There’s no mention of mace anywhere else in the novel, and the way Y.T. uses it later, it’s not a Taser (Wikipedia says that dates back to 1974) either. Mace was invented in 1965, so the liquid knuckles feels more like an iteration on the, er, popular self-defense product.

But really, let’s get on to the calculator, because it is “stuck upside-down to her right thigh, doubling as a taxi-meter and a stopwatch” and stop me if you are already thinking about that meme about all the things in the Tandy catalogue or whatever, and the fact that all those things are now done by your 2010 era smartphone. Yes, because on Y.T.’s other thigh is her “personal phone”.

“Personal phone”! It rings as the manager locks the door upstairs, so Y.T. “offhooks it with her free hand” and uses it to talk to her mother and reassure and lie in the way that all teenagers have done, ever, in the combined history of sexual reproduction and sentience and language. Y.T.’s mom is concerned that Y.T. used a nice avatar and where she was hanging out on the Street (a totally non-specific “this Arcade”) and I am not sure if there’s a contemporary equivalent of wear a nice avatar when you are on the internet, or doing internet things, these days. My kids are not old enough to be playing Fortnite or whatever or buying virtual hats, although my eldest is old enough to think that the Mii we made for his brother doesn’t look like him enough. Do parents care about what their kids dress up as in Fortnite? Is that even a thing?

Anyway, Mom dismissed, Y.T. “punches the flash button” which I did not know about and had to look up, and it’s not a real button but maybe a sequence of buttons you hit in the 1990s to get a “fresh dial tone in the space of about half a second”. And it’s this bit of specificity that I feel is another sign of the science fiction-y bits right, the escapism? Look at this future world where you can get a dial-tone so quickly! This is why people think SF is all shiny rockets and buttons.

But... it does matter, right? I am not saying this to be egotistical, but kn the type of observation that you can get a dial tone in the space of about half a second says a lot about the world and for some people, they’d infer a lot about the state of that world and how the people might behave in it. Or you could totally gloss it over as some sort of technological fetishism, “ugh, look at these people obsessing about how quickly you can call someone” but... this is describing a world where it’s really easy to get in touch with anyone with minimal friction (HA TAKE THAT NEXTDOOR).

Y.T. uses this phenomenally quick acquisition of dialtone to call Roadkill, her boyfriend, and I *think* she’s using headphones? I don’t think the whole thing is on speakerphone the whole time? The text does say that she “offhooks” her personal phone (cute!) with her free hand to answer mom, but that could easily just mean answer and not physically take a phone off the hook. If she *is* taking the phone off the hook, then... big pockets and strong velcro!

Y.T. calls Roadkill using an elementary Siri or OK Google because “the telephone remembers” and to me, this feels like an interesting choice. I know I’m obsessing a bit, but the detail about the dial-tone in half a second compares to a throwaway about how the telephone *remembers* but does not *recognize* who Y.T. wants to call, and so that’s not so much the Siri or OK Google, because younger readers may need to know, or older readers may remember, that voice recognition in the olden days was a lot more like specific matching against a waveform. (Apart from the fact that later on, Hiro will have a conversation with the Librarian). Anyway, I guess maybe the phone “remembers” what Roadkill’s, uh, phone number is?

Roadkill answers and we hear the roar of air “peeling over the microphone of [his] personal phone” and two things: one - it’s the phone’s microphone and not his headphones/mic so I guess Stephenson wasn’t envisaging headsets, or even boom headsets, or even Airpod style earbuds with built-in noise cancelling, and second, we’re still using the term “personal phone” like it’s a really big deal! I thought about this for a few minutes, and the reasons I can think of for the persistent reminder that Y.T. and Roadkill have *personal* phones is that they’re:

  • on their person, see?

  • a person’s phone and not a residence’s phone, in the days where a phone was attached to a physical location, did not move and you rarely had more than one phone per physical address

  • even if there were multiple phones at a residence (he says, remembering being jealous of tv shows with American teen characters who not only had their own phone in their bedroom but also their own phone line in their bedroom so as to not to have to wait for other people to GET OFF THE PHONE ALREADY or more accurately, the inverse, for the adults in the house to not have to yell HOW LONG HAVE YOU BEEN ON THE PHONE CAN YOU GET OFF NOW THIS COSTS MONEY (the latter part about it costing money was the non flat-rate nature of phone calls, local or otherwise, in the UK in the 80s and 90s))

Anyway. Personal phones! They’ll never catch on. They’re probably a bad idea.

Roadkill is a dork: he does not know that his job is to come assist (not rescue!) Y.T. Irritatingly, even if he did accept that it was his job to do so, he cannot because he’s on his way to Bernie with a super-ultra and that does not mean he is on his way to a Bernie Sanders rally, even in whatever year it is in this universe, it means he is on his way to San Bernadino with a super-ultra-high-priority delivery. I have not done the research but it feels funny that we have skater/kourier lingo explained to us, but not some of the other SFnal stuff.

So, struck out with her boyfriend, Y.T. tries calling Hiro on *his* personal phone and we start getting the sense that they might be personal phones because everyone has one? Does Y.T.’s mom have one? Does the manager of The Clink have one, or do the aforementioned MetaCops who busted Y.T. have them, too? (I feel like they do not, that personal phones are still not necessarily a luxury, but also that we haven't seen any evidence that they're something everyone has or needs in the way we have mobile phones in 2019).

Hiro says he's in a parking lot of a Safeway, and it sounds like he is: "in the background, [Y.T.] can hear the shopping carts performing their clashy, anal copulations"... which... I don't know what to hink about?

Y.T. asks Hiro to help her bust out of The Clink, and lets him know that she's been in there for ten minutes. Turns out Hiro knows a bit about getting out a Clink. He says:

"Okay, the three-ring binder for Clink franchises states that the manager is supposed to check on the detainee half an hour after admission."

which kind of impresses Y.T., I think, because she accusingly asks how he knows this stuff and the answer, obviously, is that it's because Hiro must have more than a passing practical familiarity with Clink operating procedures.

Now, I feel that in an Extremely Online world, this knowledge about The Clink wouldn't *only* come from having a repeated on/off-again relationship with Clink franchises, but also because... it would have been posted somewhere already? I mean, like, maybe it would be online somewhere and keep being taken down via DMCA notices, but it would at least be on the (spooky noise) dark web? Or if not the actual three-ring binder PDF of the franchise manual, then at least the folk knowledge that Hiro is supplying to Y.T. For example, on Reddit, I'd imagine:

  • IAMA Clink Franchise Owner, AMA [ask me anything]

  • Ask Reddit: What's the worst thing that's ever happened to you in a Clink?

Or even a Quora: "How does The Clink make money?", or a Yahoo! Answers question (do they even exist, still?) "I need help busting my gf out of the clink", an Ask Metafilter "My sister got thrown into The Clink after trying to leave her abusive husband and I can't afford a lawyer. What... options do I have?" (with an appropriate DTMFA)

Later, when the manager comes to check on Y.T., we get another mention of her Knight Visions, which are pretty much night-vision (ha) goggles she's wearing and have been mentioned a couple times to protect her from bright light and also to see in the dark (in Chapter, we learned that they help her see all the way into the near infrared). In this case, they adaptively darken and help her from being blinded by the sudden light when the manager flicks them back on.

This is kind of interesting because so far, Y.T.'s been a) wearing them the whole time without worrying about battery life and b) we're in a world with wireless ("radio") network connectivity (more on that later, in Chapter 13), and c) the Knight Visions aren't A.R. goggles (but I guess the Gargoyle has them too). I'm getting ahead of myself here.

We get a throwback to when Y.T. was asked to take off her coveralls and we found out she wasn't wearing anything underneath, because this information about Y.T.'s body has really pissed off the manager and he had to decide whether or not to assault or rape her. We get the second mention of Y.T.'s dentata (I guess, like a Chekov's dentata) and that it can be "unpredictable" which, tbh, provided it's on the side of lethally unpredictable or unpredictable in terms of exactly how disabling, but definitely disabling, might just be fine?

Anyway, this is all beside the point because look: I am not a woman and have also never been a teenage girl or courier. I'm also pretty sure I have never worn a utilitarian, functional set of overalls with lots of pockets and zips. I have to admit though that my personal preference would be to wear underwear with this outfit and while it's not explicit that Y.T.'s *not* wearing any underwear at all, I think the implication is there, right? And look, I think there's no reason for this other than to make her a sex object? On the one hand, it's not like she isn't sexually active *and* has her own agency (she's got the dentata, and it's likely that her mother doesn't know about it). It's implied that she's slept with her current boyfriend, too. So, I dunno. I just think you'd get hot with all of that harpooning and skating and general youthful tomfoolery and it's L.A. and we don't really hear much about the moisture-wicking breathability of the coveralls, although we do know that it's "bulging all over with sintered armorgel padding". I just think you'd get... swampy?

Anyway, the manager gets pissed off and decides not to assault Y.T. and she observes the sheer idiocy of him being frustrated and angry at her, "as if he has a right to be" and pointedly, "this is the gender that invented the polio vaccine?"

Now that the manager's done his franchise-mandated check (of which also: does The Clink know? He's kind of slacking off anyway, so at this point he's at the very least being marginally diligent as his job), it's time for Y.T. to follow Hiro's instructions. She sets her alarm for five minutes and honestly, I do not know what to do with the description that she's "the only North American who actually know how to set the alarm on her digital wrist-watch".

I... don't remember this being hard, but I guess I do remember digital watches gradually becoming overloaded with functionality? And maybe they just got too complicated, or maybe it's like the joke about setting the time on a VCR? Also, people still have watches! Or maybe they don't!

We get a short list as Y.T. gets ready: she uses her shiv to get out of the cufflinks, uses a lightstick so she can see (no flashlight on her personal phone, or maybe it's easier and more disposable to carry a bunch of them), and a throwaway that she keeps the cufflinks on because she likes the look of them, the "kind of thing her mom used to do, back when she was a punk", presumably so we can get a later comparison about how far her mom has fallen.

She's supposed to be getting ready to make her move, so she checks out the emergency exit and fire alarm, the latter of which is has instructions in English and other languages, some of which look like Taxilinga. We've had a few references to Taxilinga so far and they feel like a reflection of America as the immigrant melting pot and driving people around being a fairly entry level job. So: no autonomous vehicles driving anyone around (which makes sense for the kind of story that Stephenson's trying to tell, I think) - it would even make sense that it would be cheaper in some way to have a bunch of freelance, unlicensed taxi drivers. Also: nothing like an Uber or a Lyft, here.

Y.T. makes her move when her wristwatch goes off. Punches the emergency exit, the alarm goes off and gets out into the open, where the parking lot has turned into a jeek festival. ("Jeek" is what we're calling people from Tadzhikistan). There's a whole bunch of taxi drivers there in the back, all starting at Hiro, who's also staring back at them and we're all set up for a standoff because the manager comes running around, also yelling in Taxilinga. He's also "got missile lock on Y.T.'s ass", and part of me is wondering how long it's been since Top Gun (1986, so 6 years prior) and the Gulf War (which "ended" in 1991, so 1 year before publication). "Missile lock" just sounds so outdated these days, almost as if it's not technical enough. There's more missile lock too, because the jeeks also have it on Hiro, and everyone looks like they're just about to draw their guns.

At this point, Hiro decides he wants to show off his sword, which is not the first time we'll see the phrase "How sweet!", and everyone gets a bit confused because this guy just brought a sword to a gunfight. (Raiders of the Lost Ark came out in 1981, eleven years before this book came out).

Everything happens a bit quickly, next. Y.T. gives the manager of The Clink "a brief squirt of Liquid Knuckles" which acts like mace-but-with-a-punch, and she dives into a taxicab, guns it around in a direction nobody's expecting, pauses for Hiro to dive through a window and starts driving. They need to find somewhere to go because now they've got a tail of about half a dozen taxis coming after them, so we get a rundown of some of the other quasi-nation state franchises: there's Nova Sicilia, which we've heard of already, and then there's New South Africa, which might work because they hate jeeks, but then Hiro's black ("or at least part black"), so New South Africa's out. And they can't go to Metazania.

Hiro suggests Mr. Lee's Greater Hong Kong (which... well, let's just not make any comparisons to contemporary events) because he's got citizenship. They come into Mr. Lee's hot, doing seventy-five, and because they're coming in so fast, the security system "didn't have time to rez her visa" and it's late, and I'm trying to remember what rez might mean in this context. Anyway: there's a bunch of spikes and they didn't have time to retract so the tires on their stolen taxi are trashed.

Because this is the 1990s and barcodes are a thing, Hiro gets "pinioned in the crossfire of a dozen red laser beams scanning him from every direction at once", and it is not 2019 when we've got semi-reliable facial recognition. Lasers and barcodes are totally in, though. I guess this fits in with the idea of Capitalism And Shopping Gone Mad! though because now everyone gets to be treated like a supermarket good that needs to be scanned. And the CueCat won't even be released for nine more years!

The franchise has successfully ID'd Hiro and Y.T. - they get greeted by name. At the same time, their pursuers have parked along the curb, guns drawn - in total, three revolvers and a pump shotgun, with Y.T. (or our narrator, I guess) observing that "any more of these guys and they'll be able to form a government" and look, living in America in 2019 that is just not a funny joke anymore.

There's something new here, because when the jeeks step onto the sovereign-ish territory of the franchulate, a bunch of lights come on because "the security system wants better illumination on these people" and... I'm not sure what that means because we already know Y.T. can afford Knight Visions, so what does this franchulate need? Turns out that Hong Kong franchulates are famous for their antennas - "they all look like NASA research facilities" because of their antennas. Some of them are satellite uplinks, but "some of them, tiny little antennas, are pointed at the ground, at the lawngrid".

This is because they're millimeter wave radar transceivers, which used to be a big deal until 9/11 happened and now every single airport has millimeter wave radar for taking a peek under your clothes, never mind some high schools. We're told that these systems "can see the fillings in your teeth, the grommets in your Converse high-tops, the rivets in your Levi's." The security system can't just see the guns, it can tell whether they're loaded and with what sort of ammunition, which is important, because guns are illegal in Mr. Lee's Greater Hong Kong.

And that's the end of Chapter 10. We don't get to find out about Rat Thing next chapter, instead we switch back to Hiro and a sword fight.

2.0 Shorter Things

OK, here’s just a few short things:


I have a bunch of writing still to do on “scaling” bureaucracy, another one on tech ethics and… I can’t remember, but there’s definitely at least two others that have been on my list to get down. So, there’s that to come.

It’s still unreasonably warm here in Sacramento.

Ah, wait, here’s one thing I do want to scribble down. It is, I’m sorry to say, Yet Another Star Trek thing.

I think in the last year or so I’ve introduced Eldest (who’ll be seven next year) to the world of Star Trek, mainly the original series and Next Generation. He got super excited about it for a while because I’d tell him made-up bedtime stories and, somehow, he ended up getting super competitive with Wesley (no doubt identifying with the kid who gets to pilot a starship).

Anyway. Every now and then eldest likes to “play” Star Trek at our nearby park, which means climbing inside climbing structures, pretending they’re shuttles, fixing them and then running over to the bigger climbing structure and so on. And this past weekend, when he wanted to play again, and when he persuaded his younger brother (just turned three!) that he wanted to play too, I realized that pretty much the only women they both knew about in the universe were Troi and Crusher and, well, that felt Wrong.

So that’s how I ended up with my three year old climbing to the top of one of the climbing frames yelling I’M CAPTAIN JANEWAY at the top of his voice followed by I’M AN EXPLORER and I’M DOING SCIENCE while his elder brother was running around screaming I’M TWO HAWK I’M IN CHARGE OF SECURITY and me running after him saying no no no it’s TUVOK not TWO HAWK and anyway I haven’t told you about Chakotay yet.

But, look. I felt a little bit annoyed that I’d forgotten about Janeway and to teach them that women are captains of starships too, and never mind that they’re also bad-ass sciencing captains but then they had so much fun that I decided not to feel sorry for myself and instead join in. So, there’s that! Voyager may not have been one of my favorite series (I’m still bitter they didn’t go all in on Year of Hell), but I’m glad it existed for those moments with my boys.

Anyway. Bedtime for me. How are you?

Best,

Dan