s07e13: No, not a mid-life crisis; Snow Crashing

Enter the subtitle...

0.0 Sitrep

It’s lunchtime in Portland, Oregon on Monday, 14 October, 2019.

Look, I'm going to be honest here and admit that I probably don't need a fully-restored and upgraded Apple Mac LC III upon which to do my writing because it's not about the tools, yadda yadda ya. But my theory is that if I've got a place to write which is relatively distraction free (my self-control is, after all, only human after a fashion), then just maybe it might be a marginally better environment to write in than, say, the laptop or the iPad. (Gosh, the privilege here is just condensing off the walls...)

This week I am working in Portland and there’s a bunch of administrative stuff I have to take care of, like getting the “T” keycap on my MacBook Pro fixed, because it’s not like my livelihood is dependent upon me being able to type things.

Next week is going to be pretty interesting because I’ve been invited to take part in a meeting at as part of the Public Theologies of Technology and Presence program at UC Berkely / the Institute of Buddhist Studies. This was simultaneously surprising and flattering as well as instantly activating my Imposter Syndrome Response, and has provided great Content for discussion with my therapist. (I do not encourage you to think about or treat appointments with your therapist as as private, unpublished podcast interview; I do not do this, I guess if you do this and it’s helpful to you, then you do you).

And then after that, I’m going to be in Sacramento on-site for work, and then after that I’m back to Portland for a few heartbeats before heading out to Washington, D.C. for an on-site Code for America Summit content committee meeting where our committee is going to start going through evaluating session proposals. Oh right, you can totally propose a session for the summit.

As ever, if you like this newsletter and you feel like you want to, you are welcome to subscribe and push some coins my way via a totally-not micropayment service that we thought we needed in the 1980s/1990s and is just Stripe and Credit Card fees now:

1.0 Some things

This episode I do another Snow Crash recap and also a bunch of Little Things which turn, inevitably, into Slightly Longer Things. Honestly if any of you are thinking about value-per-word, you’re probably getting a good deal?

1.1 Not a mid-life crisis

From my point of view, it’s not a motorbike or a sports car, it’s not going off on a bender (I… don’t do that anyway?) and anyway, it wasn’t even that expensive. Right now I have a 1993-era Macintosh LC III sitting on my desk at my co-working space, and I feel a bit better because much earlier this year I had the idea to go buy an old 68k Mac and write on it because it’s pretty distraction-free, and then Ian Bogost went and did it and now I’m learning that maybe I should just be more impulsive.

Anyway! I have this Mac on my desk and it totally works and it even (get this) can get on the internet (although it is not very good at it). I did not need to get it on the internet, all I really needed was to be able to ftp stuff I write off it onto my laptop. It turns out, because the Mac has ethernet, all I have to do is turn on internet sharing on my laptop and plug in the Old Mac to the New Mac over ethernet and it just works and that is kind of insane and adorable.

The plan, as I mentioned, is to write both the novel (~20,000 words earlier this year, yay) and the outline/proposal for the non-fiction book, which is based upon this 2018 Medium essay, No one’s coming - it’s up to us. I keep worrying that both of these things are going to miss their moment, but then if I step back, I start realizing that they’re actually pretty timeless and a few years won’t matter much for either of them.

In the meantime, I am totally fine with the New Old Mac being an interesting toy and a bit distracting, but I will accept that it will not be distracting and interesting forever. and not feel guilty about it at all.

1.2 Snow Crashing - Part 13, Chapter 11

Previously, on Snow Crashing, in numerical order!

  1. Part 1: Chapters 1 and 2 - Episode Forty Four: Snow Crashing; danah boyd; Facebook and Oculus Rift

  2. Part 2: Chapter 3 - Episode Forty Five - Station Ident; Snow Crashing 2; Computers, AMIRITE?; A Book on your Face

  3. Part 3: Chapter 4 - Episode Forty Six - Snow Crashing 3; Video is a Content-Type; Blame Your Tools

  4. Part 4: Chapter 5 - Episode Forty Nine: Living In An Immaterial World; Snow Crashing 4; Odds

  5. Part 5: Chapter 5, cont. - Episode Fifty: Cities; Snow Crashing 5; More Television

  6. Part 6: Chapter 6, cont. - Episode Sixty Four: Computer Says No, Snow Crashing

  7. Part 7: Chapter 6 - Episode Ninety Two: Continued Disruption; Snow Crashing (7); Edge of Tomorrow

  8. Part 8: Chapter 7 - Episode One Hundred and Twenty Seven: Belong; Snow Crashing (9); Humans As A Service

  9. Part 9: Chapter 8 - Episode One Hundred and Forty Three: Email; Snow Crashing (10); 2014 (4)

  10. Part 10: Chapter 8, cont. - Episode One Hundred and Eighty Seven: Snow Crashing (10); How The Web Works Now

  11. Part 11: Chapter 9, cont. - s07e09: Snow Crashing (Part 11, Chapter 9)

  12. Part 12: Chapter 10 - s07e11: Snow Crashing

Here we go with chapter 11:

Last we met, Y.T. had busted herself out of The Clink with an assist from Hiro. Well, Hiro didn’t actually do that much - he helped Y.T. with a window (metaphorically and then literally) to escape, but then just kind of turned up with a sword and beat a hasty escape with their borrowed taxicab.

In Chapter 11, we’re back in The Metaverse and we’re also, I think, something like an hour or so ago in the chronology. Da5id’s computer has crashed and he’s been ejected from The Black Sun, and a bunch of younger hackers are gawking at him which, we’re told, isn’t polite. I feel like this is a pretty optimistic stance to be taking - you’re kind of seeing a takedown of a Blue Check Verified Person and *not* seeing a rubbernecking mob feels a bit like a surprise.

In any event, on Hiro’s way to the Rock Star Quadrant to go see Sushi K’s hairdo (an example of tremendous coding - and not, I don’t think, design, in the way it’s described here), he’s blocked by the “neo-traditional Nipponese man”, the guy with the swords.

This is the sword fight bit and the Exposition About Hiro. As I mentioned previously, I’m personally not that into sword fights, and I’m still noticing that it’s weird to me to use the words Nippon and Nipponese — even though they’re the Japanese words for Japan and Japanese. It’s interesting that Mumbai over Bombay is totally fine for me, and the only reason why I can think I feel awkard about using Nippon/Nipponese is the racist usage of the word Nips.

Hiro and the businessman - who never gets a name - have a conversation where the businessman zeroes in on Hiro’s swords which, as we learn, are ancient weapons and presumably a family heirloom. It is distressing to the businessman to learn that these aren’t just virtual items, but that Hiro possesses the same swords in real life, or, as Stephenson puts it, “Reality”. With a capital R!

Now, I get the distinction between The Metaverse and reality, but to see it written as Reality as if... it’s a separate thing? I mean, I know Reality is separate from The Metaverse. But I think in 2019 society in general is gradually developing or coming into the acceptance that “online” or “the internet” is an *aspect* of our existence, and not something entirely separate and divorced from the physical world. And, you know, it’s not like people are learning this lesson the easy way. It’s because it turns out that people who are idiots and abusive online also turn out to be abusive in reality.

Hiro, we learn, came into the possession of the swords via his father, who as a non-white American non-combatant was a truck driver, who took them(?) from an officer who owned the swords. Just outside Nagasaki.

Now, I just want to pause there and not get into Nagasaki and the American usage of the nuclear bomb and its ethics. What I do want to get into is Stephenson’s potential obsession with nuclear weapons given his most recent novel, Fall; or Dodge in Hell. First, I do not think I am going to recap Fall; mainly because it is absurdly long even for Stephenson standards, and second because it was the Stephenson book where I realized that Stephenson was definitely Not For Me Anymore. Anyway: nuclear weapons.

Learning that Hiro’s acquisition of the swords involved the events of Nagasaki, and that Hiro still considers the acquisition honorable, the businessman is understandably quite upset, and this is when the sword fight starts.

There is a description of the sword fight which I won’t go into detail because it is a sword fight description, and it is hard for me to visualize or be interested in, nevermind be excited about. The bit that is interesting is the aside about the Nipponese concept of *zanshin* which Stephenson first explains as difficult to convey, “like translating “fuckface” into Nipponese” but that “it might translate into “emotional intensity” in football lingo.” I am also not familiar enough with American football (which to be clear: is not football) to quite understand what that means, but I’m just going to assume that it’s something like being Quite Angry, With Focussed Rage And Energy In The Context Of A Sporting Event, or “Really Gets Into It”.

What we do get, though, is a really good indication of how Stephenson thinks about and treats language and concepts: “the word *zanshin* is larded down with a lot of other folderol that you have to be Nipponese to understand”, and Stephenson explains that it’s a bit like a “high school football coach exhorting his men to play at 110 percent”, which I guess *is* totally like Really Getting Into It, or, you know, motivational lyrics on top of a montage sequence.

Hiro eventually (and easily) wins the sword fight because he does the equivalent of bringing a gun to a sword fight. He does this by not treating the sword fight as a scored, measured game like fencing or kendo, he treats it like a bar room brawl. “As in fencing, you’re not allowed to kick your opponent in the kneecaps or break a chair over his head.” Hiro does the equivalent of this by not playing fair: “he just wants this over with”. So he cuts the other guy’s legs off, and then cuts off his forearms while, in my reading, putting on an exaggerated parody of how someone might racistly portray a southern African American.

Oh wait, there was an interesting bit here. After Hiro cut off the other guy’s legs, Stephenson has a really interesting bit where he says:

“It takes a lot of practice to make your avatar move through the Metaverse like a real person. When your avatar has just lost its legs, all that skill goes out the window.”

This is really interesting! I don’t think we’ve ever really had yet a good explanation of how avatars are controlled in The Metaverse, but this makes controlling your avatar sound more like playing a game like QWOP! In a way, I can see how this might make sense - status is afforded by the quality of the avatar you have, and we learned this from Juanita too, in the earlier conversation about how getting past the uncanny valley was an important development of the Metaverse and The Black Sun. So that’s why the Brandys and the Clints get a bad rep, they’re just off-the-shelf models and now I’d assume that they’ve got shitty inverse kinematics or shitty rigging compared to your high-end avatars. But this description I think really highlights how much first-person games have come along since 1992: the idea that you’d have to precisely control a body, as opposed to easily glide an avatar around, Doom or Quake style via keyboard and mouse, is one that I can’t imagine would have really existed in the early 1990s. Even now, there’s a big problem with navigating VR spaces and why you don’t get first person shooters or games like Portal where you *run around* because... we haven’t figured out how to make that work in VR. Instead you just kind of point, click and teleport. And, like in Fortnite or whatever, or in my mid 2000s playing of World of Warcraft you /emote.

But then there’s the mic drop, after cutting the other guy’s body in half: he leans down, and says, losing the dialect: “Didn’t anyone tell you... that I was a hacker?” And this being Stephenson and this being pulp-y and originally intended to be a comic book, Hiro hacks the other guy’s head off and calls the *Safe* macro.

*Safe* is a bit of script — because I refuse to believe that Hiro is using low-level code here, not in the way that he does for something like bigboard — that I’m treating as a bit of in-game Luascript that drops a large safe on top of the other guy’s head, which breaks through the “floor” of The Black Sun, “leaving a square hole in the floor, exposing the tunnel system underneath.”

Now! My most memorable exposure to the verb *spawn* in the context of a videogames was probably in the early 2000s when playing World of Warcraft and doing a bunch of grinding and needing to know where the... kobolds? were in order to do some sort of side quest and level up. And yes, if I’d studied computer science earlier or if I’d played with Unix systems (hi, Lexie from Jurassic Park!) earlier, then I’d probably also know about spawning daemons and so on. So I find it interesting that the safe is described as *materializing*, as if to a layman’s audience and view of what’s happening, as if it’s reality and it’s magic, and not to a marginally more sophisticated audience that is *used* to things materializing in virtual space, is not surprised by it happening, and knows that it can happen on demand, i.e.: spawning.

Anyway. When his avatar got killed, the businessman got cut off from contact with The Black Sun itself, “disconnected as it were from the Metaverse” and this just feels like a mod /kick-ing you from an IRC channel. You get fully disconnected from the VR experience, and instead you just see a “two-dimension display”, in this case, of the top swordsmen of all time. Businessman guy is 863 out of 890, and at the top of leaderboard is Hiroaki Protagonist.

There’s a throwaway here about where the Nipponese businessman might be when he got disconnected. Maybe “a nice hotel in London or an office in Tokyo or even in the first-class lounge of the LATH, the Los Angeles/Tokyo Hypersonic” and the first two are totally fine and make sense in our world, and the only way that a LA/Tokyo Hypersonic would exist in *this* world would be if environmental legislation - including noise - were radically different. And, you know, fuel costs. In the world of Snow Crash, environmental protections aren’t really a thing, noise isn’t really a thing either (at least, not for everyone — I’d be interested in how some of the burbclaves of franchulates deal with issues like vertical sovereignty or rights-to-light) and there’s enough of a demand — even with VR! — for what must be a stupendously expensive piece of hypersonic air transit infrastructure. This is not a world that is dealing with a climate crisis, even if it’s facing one. The Snow Crash world is one wholeheartedly hurtling toward it.

... and that’s the end of Chapter 11.

2.0 Some things

A world with seamless financial transactions, he said, with air quotes

Last week, Apple sent out an email to Apple Card holders about a Disaster Relief Program to help people affected by a natural disaster - the email was received by someone who lives in Houston and recently experienced some flooding from tropical storm Imelda.

I feel like this is a relatively recent phenomena, one that I noticed during the U.S. Federal Government shutdown earlier this year, when some major credit cards and banks extended short-term loan facilities or other financial instruments, presumably in the knowledge that it’d be at the least good PR to spend a proportionally tiny amount of money to retain goodwill of customers. So it’s not that Apple Card *has* a Disaster Relief Program, and it wasn’t even that Apple Card moved relatively quickly. What was interesting to me was that the application process for the Disaster Relief Program was to “contact an Apple Specialist after receiving an email” and not, say, an integrated experience built directly into the Apple Card app. So one the one hand, several points for flexibility of the credit card management on the backend (which, I imagine, has more than a little to do with Goldman Sachs), a few points to Apple because I have to imagine Apple Financial Services or whichever group runs Apple Card also had the foresight and flexibility to quickly put in place such a program and communicate it, and then minus several billion points (ok, unfair) for Apple, of all companies, to not have a way to seamlessly push notification and offer enrollment into this program in the app. But: I didn’t get the email, I don’t have an Apple Card, so I don’t know if this is the kind of thing you could do over chat, instead of having to talk to someone. I could imagine lots of things that this implies for Apple’s software development process, but at this point given the rollout of iOS 13 and macOS Catalina, Apple’s software development teams probably have enough to be getting on with.

A group of whisteblowers is also

A very small note that I liked this tweet reply to me from @debcha, which was much better than mine, where she recalled that “a group of whistleblowers is called a “democracy”.

“Kid opens garage door”

Dave Hoffer was at a kids birthday party where the mom had made an escape room for a bunch of 7-8-year-olds, complete with a Skype live video monitoring station for adults (there’s some video in the thread), as well as a hilarious bingo card. This is interesting because, well, escape rooms. For 7-8 year olds. Come on.

The “crashed in a plane” problem

… is not like the “hit by a bus” problem but via @mipsytipsy, apparently Boeing put “all the heads of software engineering” on a test flight of their first fly-by-wire plane, the 777, along with the accurate observation that perhaps the better thing to do would be to only put half the heads of software engneering on the test flight. I would also guess that you would select the half by lottery. (The other bit in the story is that of course there was a problem with the software and of course it was fixed in production). This quote is from the book Project to Product: How to Survive and Thrive in the Age of Digital Disruption with the Flow Framework [Google Books].

You say Flight Simulator I say na-naaaa-nanananananana

It has been hard for me not to notice the PR push that Microsoft has been doing around their new Bing-powered Microsoft Flight Simulator reboot (here’s some from Polygon), and when that mashed up in my head against this realtime 3D transit map of Tokyo (heh, the processing requirements are much lower for an American city because nothing’s moving and there’s fewer than ten elements, amirite), I end up just thinking: why is there no real-world, planet-scale Katamari simulator. I mean, I’m not that much into Pokemon Go, but I totally would be if I could roll shit up.

All software is a trash fire

Via Daniel Bilar, this thread on how “20% of genomics papers” have been affected by Excel converting gene names like SEPT2 to dates (SEP-2), a quoted tweet about how a huge bug “in computational chemistry software” exists “because different operating systems sort files differently and the published scripts don’t handle it well” and those dumb Xerox scanner/photocopiers that randomly alter numbers in scanned documents.

I repeat my argument that an answer for the Fermi paradox is that no civilization ever makes it anywhere in any galaxy because all software is terrible.

Unavailable for Legal Reasons

The HTTP code 451, proposed in RFC 7725 is an “HTTP Status Code to Report Legal Obstacles” and I really feel like that’s a bit of dancing around the underlying issue, which is that it should be renamed Unavailable for Ideological, Cultural Reasons in time for its exponential growth in usage over the next 12 months.

Not the American Dodgeball Association of America

A couple weeks ago, a tweet from Fred Scharmen stuck in my head about an architecture professor telling his class that “you all will be one of the first generations to come of age after ADA ruined architecture” of which a) I MEAN REALLY, and b) OF COURSE THEY DID and c) I HAVE A SUSPICION ABOUT THE ETHNICITY AND GENDER OF THIS PERSON. Anyway, the ADA here is the Americans with Disabilities Act (which has its own Federal government website!), and can you imagine if someone went around saying something like the above about information architecture. Like, “Ugh, you web designers will be one of the first generations to come of age after ADA and section 508 ruined web design” or, “Ugh, the ADA is ruining our ability to create disruptive, innovative apps and remake the economy”. I mean, who would do such a thing? Certainly not a multinational pizza chain, and certainly not in a way that might do weird things in my head at the same time as recapping Snow Crash. Oh no, not at all.

This is, of course, all against the background not just of delivering pizza, but also Hunters Point Library in Queens, which has managed to have a very special safe space that was made specially inaccessible. I have my own architecture-meets-library story which is that when I started my law degree at Cambridge in 1998, the faculty and law library had moved into the brand new David Foster-designed David Williams Building which opened in 1996. Now, the building looked very cool and just like, er, an airport terminal what with all the glass and everything, but it was hilarious because the building was open plan and very noisy: “primarily due to a lack of consideration of acoustics in Foster’s design” and because the lectures were held at the bottom of the building and noise got funneled and amplified upwards to, er, the quiet stacks. The buzz in my freshman year was the installation of new glass screens that would help with the noise. Yay!

Anyway, here is some brilliantly understated and lawyerly shade thrown by the Emeritus Downing Professor of the Laws of England at the University of Cambridge Professor Sir John Hamilton Baker (in case you wanted to know, the “Sir” comes after “Professor” if you happen to have both) in a sort of oral history about his academic career:

103. Did you meet the architect Sir Norman Foster?

Yes, he came up once or twice. Most of our dealings were with his second-in- command, but he came up to meet the Faculty and speak to the Faculty. He was a rather arrogant person - didn't listen to us at all. I was particularly worried about the noise problem, because they’d designed this open-plan building in which there was nothing between people pouring out of lectures in the basement and the library. I said, “This is going to be noisy, - bound to be,” and he more or less went puce and said, “What on earth do you know about it? I am the architect.” Of course, I was right, and the great architect was wrong. We had to put a glass screen in - which is what I had asked for and - though he’d said, “You won't need it.” So my dealings with Sir Norman Foster, as he then was, were not happy. [PDF]


ok i don’t want to brag but…

There was an owl outside our house all yesterday and it’s still here and I’m pretty sure our kid just got into magic school.

Office of Emerging Technology

The San Francisco Examiner reports that the city “will create an Office of Emerging Technology, where tech companies can pitch their services so The City will no longer be taken by surprise and have to scramble to address impacts of the businesses.”

Hacker News has thoughts about this and I do too, but I’ve already written a lot this episode.

Last thing about bureaucracy for this episode, at least

I got a note from Brian Pascal about the episode about scaling bureaucracy, and if I may attempt to paraphrase Brian, he mentioned that “the point of bureaucracy, in a platonic sense, is to make sure there’s always someone who knows how to do The Next Thing to translate between high-level policy idea and in-the-dust reality”.

And… I kind of agree with that? I mean yes there is a structural problem of how you organize a system to administer and put into place a thing, and so I wonder, with that closed copy of Seeing Like A State staring accusingly at me, what is absolutely required about a bureaucracy and what that means in terms of humans and inflexibility. Brian had a good point that I think has been backed up my many people (Yoz Grahame is someone I remember easily as having done this in particular) that everything to do with humans is an edge case when you get down to it. And I definitely agree with this! But I suppose we also have to accept that there need to be good-enoughs and that when we talk about “scaling”, what sort of good-enoughs do we want to accept before they become absurdly and inequitably asymmetrical? I refer, of course, to things like the more-or-less complete lack of access to justice to large groups of people who happen, for some reason not to be middle-class white people or even white people in general.

More on this, honestly, forever.

It is later now and I need to stop typing because it is still lunchtime and I need to a) eat something and b) stop and c) do the other things on my list.

It’s Monday and the world hasn’t exploded yet, but it still does feel like the second has is inching toward something not-great.

I love you all, you’re all amazing, and I always love getting notes!