s07e25: Little things; Snow Crashing Ch 14 part 1

Getting back into the swing on things

0.0 Situation report

Monday December 9, 2019, lunchtime.

I am in Portland today and then flying down to Sacramento tomorrow for a few days for some day job on-site work. Lately, I’ve been thinking about how meetings run (both well and, I guess, not-well) and what it takes to facilitate them in different environments.

Meetings again, feel like a practical part of how work gets done that people don’t really get taught. I’m pretty sure I wasn’t taught, and instead “how to run meetings” gets relegated to business self-help books. Rituals like standups and retros feel like software-oriented hacks to put some structure to meetings for specific purposes and outcomes, but that’s only a sliver of what people need to do in order to make decisions and find out information. There’s a piece I read (and copied) about Amazon’s memo structure for meeting, and when I used it for a recent report and update, the response was pretty phenomenal. I guess this is going to be something I’ll write about later this week.

I think this is a reasonable place to say that I’m starting to look for new freelance and consulting work to start around April next year, so if you’ve got something that you’d like to work with me on, do drop me a line and we can start, as they say, “a conversation”.

Lastly, when figuring out how to bring the newsletter back I had the thought of doing it in a set of seasons of ~24 episodes (like a tv show! Because of the episodes!) and being able to have a break in-between seasons for reasons like healthy sustainability and not burning out. So in theory, we’re getting toward the end of Season Seven with the idea of coming back in the new year with Season Eight.

1.0 Things that caught my attention

A few things that caught my attention in this episode, and then we’ll do a bit more of Snow Crash, going into the start of chapter 14.

1.1 Just a few of the things that caught, etc.

  • Cory Doctorow wrote about late-stage adversarial interoperability, which is another way of saying, I think, that capitalism and market forces allow third parties to force incumbents to be better, but only if intellectual property and computer security regulations allow them to, by using the example of Mint, a personal finance company, providing better services to customers but only via liberating personal data from banks through unsupported means. This is, broadly, also how additive improvements to government services like food stamps work.

  • Roam, “a note-taking tool for networked thought” repeatedly showed up in my feed, which means it might be time to check out Yet Another Note-Taking App, but this one sounds like it supports a) interlinked and related thoughts, so is hypertextual and comfortable with relating concepts; b) different levels of thought and writing, from short prompts through to longer things.

  • I am really interested in this project called Mesh Spreadsheet because it makes it look like it mashes up a cell-based concurrent programming metaphor that hundreds of millions of people are familiar with (i.e. Excel) with what gatekeepers would call real programming, i.e. javascript. This strikes me as a super accessible stepping stone to the directly-manipulable programming utopia that Bret Victor is aiming for.

  • Here’s a story about community-owned broadband that can be traced back to the rural electrification project (which my in-laws were directly involved in) in Appalachia. What I got from it was not the usual story of “internet connectivity affords new job opportunities to people because, well, internet” but instead a mixture of: a) the fact that the community-owned broadband entity is called the Peoples Rural Telephone Cooperative in fucking Appalachia, so if you wanted discomfirming evidence about attitudes toward collectively-owned common goods (ie, some practical parts of that evil socialism) then oh my gosh here is some. Side thought: perhaps what makes this palatable to a community portrayed as against government assistance programs in general is that this is a self-directed government program that lets the community do what it needs to (broadly) with the money. Collectivism is okay if the collective gets to decide, and not, say, liberal coastal elites. b) I didn’t see (although skim-reading) any mention about dying coal, but instead references to people getting gainful employment as remote customer service assistants for companies like Apple, at the heady rate of nearly-fourteen-dollars-an-hour at which point those people will become eligible for “health insurance, paid vacation time and other benefits” in which case, I mean, great? It’s still an economic hellscape, but only slightly less of the one it was?

  • I had a chat with my friend about the dumb idea that when cars get HDR, high-frame rate displays, Tesla, flush with imaginary cash, will do a content play in the way that every single other VC-style tech company with a bunch of cash has also suddenly decided that it wants to be a prestige TV platform. But for a bunch of reasons, this doesn’t quite make sense, which is okay, because it was a dumb idea I had at the side. It doesn’t make sense for a number of reasons. First, would that prestige content still be eligible for awards? People who make content, in general, like to be recognized for it. Second, I guess BMW did it for short-film content if you’re old enough (DID YOU HEAR? I’M FORTY NOW) when they gave a bunch of money to film directors for some sort of advertising play, but… what was that even for? It’s not like huge numbers of people are buying BMWs. Maybe it’s like branded BMW clothing? Third, how long are journeys in autonomous cars? There’s one story — I can’t remember which — which wanted to see what traffic and transport patterns would be like in an autonomous vehicle future and quite cleverly simulated it by spending a bunch of money on giving people chaffeur-driven cars for a week or so, when you don’t even have to be in the car. (E.g. send it out to pick up the kids). Turns out, some people in particular — e.g. retirees — went out on really long drives! So, if the drives are long, say, multiples of 30-50 minutes, then maybe that’s long enough for a prestige Tesla-only TV series that… only Tesla people can watch and only they can talk about with other Tesla people? This does not feel any more insufferable than current Tesla owners, to be honest. But then if you want longer content, then another analogy is custom content for inflight entertainment. We’ve already got a weaksauce version of this with all the custom content that people skip over on flights, but I really do imagine what an airline like Emirates might splurge on if you’re in one of their ridiculous suites. But again, that comes back to the problem of: if I’m Jonah Nolan and Lisa Joy and Emirates are offering me a truckload of money and Amazon are also offering me a truckload of money, only Amazon is going to get me a bigger audience.

  • The phrase “fairness/ethics tourism” came up in a tweet describing the thoughtleader habit of crashing into a conversation and coming up with big proclamations “columbusing”, ignoring the work of experts. Again, this feels like the SV, VC encouraged mindset of being able to succeed at problems by having no pre-conceptions and being able to act without constraints, the idea that experience is actually not useful. I’d want to be reasonable and say that this may be useful in certain contexts in particular, say, for certain business problems like selling shoes but perhaps not for big societal issues like healthcare.

  • I knew about the Atari Jaguar but not the Apple Jaguar, of which there’s a photograph of a concept hardware design, which would’ve been a Motorola 88100-based Mac.

  • I joked somewhere about webinars being Let’s Plays for Business Powerpoint and also about the Twitch channel for AWS, and there of course is a Twitch channel for AWS. It is interesting that webinar tech, existing in one part of “meeting user needs” never evolved outside of a business perspective (I mean, can you imagine Cisco WebEx and videogame streamers), and instead that it evolved from pop-culture streaming. Clayton Christensen is looking accusingly at WebEx and gesturing madly at Twitch saying YOU COULD HAVE HAD THIS.

  • Knives Out is fantastic, you should go see it.

1.2 Snow Crashing - Chapter 14

Last time, we just finished chapter 13 with the revelation that competent Juanita and Dr. Lagos had already collected all the Babel/Infocalypse information in the offline hypercard Hiro received, and we got our first look at what a hypercard interface looks like.

At the beginning of chapter 14, Hiro’s looking at the “fingernail sized icons”. I thought that was funny last time, because it’s a roundabout way of describing what we would now expect to be understood as a thumbnail, which Wikipedia reckons started to be used in computing terms in the 80s. In that case, Stephenson might be excused for not using the multimedia term.

The hypercard interface is pretty skeuomorphic, because there’s a “miniature TV in the upper left corner of the card”, which zooms in until it’s like a “twelve-inch low-def television set at arms’ length”. I say skeuomorphic because I feel like there’s an interface affordance here - the video that’s being displayed is 8mm footage from the 60s, so maybe this is a shortcut intended to help a user understand the age of the footage without looking at textually presented metadata, the equivalent of knowing a yellowed, curling photo in a photo album is probably “old”. It’s also interesting to note that Stephenson distinguishes the low-definition video image. On the one hand, because it’s on 8mm film it doesn’t necessarily have to be low-definition, it could’ve been re-scanned. On the other hand, it also implies that we’re in a world which has dramatically sharper, higher-resolution video and computer graphics (the latter, definitely, because of the Metaverse), than the video the reader might be used to.

In any event, a different implication is that the hypercard stack is very thorough. It’s a football game from when Rife was in high school in 1965. Hiro asks whether the Librarian can summarize the contents of the hypercard, which it can’t, but it can “list the contents briefly”. There were computational summarizers of text in the mid 90s, I seem to remember that Word 95 either licensed Grammatik for text summarization, or at least had similar technology. I’m pretty sure I used it on texts for school at least. Instead, the Librarian can do something a little bit like Google’s snippets, and can summarize in natural language metadata — structured data it either has, or can infer, about the contents of the stack (e.g. “the stack contains eleven high school football games”). Through this, we get a brief history of Rife’s high school and college academics, where he ends up majoring in communications.

We get another idea of how thorough the stack is, and by implication how sprawling the new Library of Congress is. The stack includes 50 hours of footage from Rife’s first job which includes outtakes. Imagine if every single broadcaster had sent all of their footage, including all the outtakes, to a central location for digitization and cataloging? In the world of Snow Crash, of course, you only get this information if you pay for it, so there’s at least a financial incentive. But even so, this means that at some point people figured out the benefits of centralization. There’s nothing in this world stopping individual entities like that broadcast network from making its archives available for money either. Even with our pseudo-centralized effective monopoly of Youtube as a searchable video provider, its metadata is crap and its monetization is a bit of a crapshoot. Imagine if NBC Sports had decided to stick everything on YouTube, with ads on, as a monetization strategy? The rights clearances in the first place don’t even bear thinking about.

Anyway, back to Rife: like many successful people in life, after his first job he gets a hand up from a wealthy relative (“a financier with roots in the oil business’), and we get a savvy comment that the Librarian can do textual analysis because most of the articles about this change in Rife’s career are “textually related”, so: press releases.

There’s a blip (a donut hole! (sorry, other oblique contemporary pop-culture reference) of five years, and then we dive into Rife getting seriously into Religion with a bunch of donations. We learn through reference that the Librarian is also always listening: Hiro is paying attention and thinks he spots the Librarian making a summary, but it isn’t; it’s quoting a summary that Dr. Lagos made to Juanita when the Librarian was around. So, you know. Be careful what you say around Librarian.

In this part, we get to one of the underlying themes of the book: linguistics, computational linguistics, neuro-linguistic programming and hacking the brain. Tucked away in a bunch of donations to ostensibly purely religious-sounding parts of Reverend Wayne’s sprawling Pentecostal religio-business empire are donations to a) an archaeology department (not so suspicious, especially in retrospect and given the behavior of Hobby Lobby’s antiquities activities), but then donations to b) the astronomy department and c) the computer science department of Rife Bible College — and those donations are the biggest (before this world’s hyperinflation).

In exposition land, we’ve learned that Rife effectively owns through bankrolling Reverend Wayne, and that more specifically Rife has a majority share in Pearly Gates Associates, which runs the Reverend Wayne’s Pearly Gates chain, of which I’m not going to comment about because we have megachurches these days and that feels like one of the least surprising things our world’s America.

Now we get in to full-on Stephenson narrator infodump, skipping outside the thread of Hiro’s experience. Rife buys his way into the Nipponese telecoms market, using an American PR campaign to exert governmental political pressure on Nippon, inducing it to open up the telecoms market to foreign investment. This is pretty realistic: it’s a bit like a company supporting the defunct Trans-Pacific Partnership trade round. These days I suppose it would be appearing on Rife’s on television network with yelling talking heads (what, like Fox News?) influencing the president to proclaim trade strategy by tweet and fiat.

Like many billionaires, Rife buys a yacht but (surprise) it’s surplus from the U.S. government and it’s an aircraft carrier - the U.S. Navy’s Enterprise - not a yacht. Buying a yacht might have felt a bit too no the nose even a few years ago, but I think we’re in full-on shameless billionaires-behaving-as-nation-states now. Not as if they might not have in decades past, but I think we’ve just effectively dropped all pretense. I mean, would you be surprised if Elon announced he was buying a surplus aircraft carrier for SpaceX? Or if Peter Thiel was doing so to breed young, female blood donors? Exactly. We pretty much expect this now.

In case you didn’t get the idea that Rife is a genuine evil lair-owning bad guy, we also learn that he’s had his mustache waxed in an evil mustache curl at the same time as learning that he’s busy encircling the world with fiber-optics, linking his cable TV network “throughout Korea and into China [and linking up to] his big fiber-optic trunk line that runs across Siberia and over the Urals”.

Cable TV! Remember that?!

There’s more overt evil genius allusion, where Rife out-and-out says that a monopolist’s work is never done “seems like you can never get that last one-tenth of one percent”, which I know, right? That last mile is always tricky. And with that, he’s totally doubling down on Trump-era Thiel.

We’re back into conversational exposition with Rife referring to the Ma Bell breakup, which, if it’s a common point with our universe, happened in 1982. Rife thinks it’s hilarious because the breakup was dealing with a voice comms monopoly, which means they were in the information business like Rife (“moving phone conversations around on little tiny copper wires, one at a time”. From Rife’s point of view, this was delightfully short-sighted because the government was dealing with an information horse that had already bolted from the server farm - Rife was busy setting up cable TV franchises while the government was dealing with POTS.

“But a Cable TV system isn’t the same as a phone system,” says the journalist interviewing him.

And here Stephenson steps in as the voice of Rife: yes, the cable TV system was local franchises, not hooked up with each other. But those local systems did end up being connected to each other by Rife, and then he had a global network - a private internet, which makes sense in the early 1990s: you had an esoteric academic network, you had privately run communities like The Well, and you had a crap-ton of privately-owned and just starting to be consolidated cable TV. But Stephenson’s big point that he wants to get across, as Rife, is this: a joined-up set of local cable TV networks is effectively a global network, just like the phone network. “Except this one carries information ten thousand times faster. It carries images, sound, data, you name it”.

I’m a little surprised that Stephenson doesn’t just go all-in on this exposition and change the order of Rife’s speech. Instead of “images, sound, data, you name it”, it would’ve been an opportunity for Stephenson to emphasize the idea that everything is data. In other words, Rife could’ve said something like: “Except this carries information ten thousand times faster. It’s all data: images, sound, you name it. A telephone network is just data, cable TV is just data.”

… and that’s enough for this part of Chapter 14. More next time!


Okay! That was quite long!

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Til next time -

Best,

Dan