I met Alberto at Dorkbot DC, a now-defunct hardware hacking meetup. In those days I was an avid reader of MAKE and Hackaday, and I think I’d gotten a t-shirt from Dorkbot Austin at SXSWi. I sought out the DC club when I got back from that trip, and from there found HacDC and a few other nascent hardware hacking circles. Here’s a nice pic from those days; here’s a writeup of the time I gave a talk (and blogged!) about a very amateurish DD-WRT project (I’ve forgotten the details of the project, but I remember the night: I’m still waiting for a Jack Parsons prestige TV series).
Alberto was alternately an emcee and eminence grise for these meetups, and such a warm person that even prickly nerds like myself couldn’t help finding ourselves befriended.
He knew his stuff, but his weren’t always the deepest technical chops in the room. But that’s kind of why I developed such deep respect for him. Unlike most of us, he had learned and accepted that that stuff isn’t interesting in its own right. He knew he could figure it out when he needed to, through some combination of innate cleverness and the charm to get experts talking.
And there was something Alberto could do that the rest of us couldn’t: art. He could combine ideas and capabilities in ways that stirred something in a viewer. I had pretension and technical ability, but a part of me knew I was incapable of much beyond making a gadget blink or beep and then slapping a frame on it. Alberto was proof that some people, at least, could figure out the riddle. And here he was sitting in a post-meetup bar with me, holding court and treating me like a dear friend.
Well, I got old. I stopped going to meetups. Looking at my email, I last chatted with Alberto in 2020. His hands had gotten so bad that he couldn’t solder very well, and he asked a listserv we were both on for help fixing a joint he’d messed up on a microcontroller. It was early pandemic days, so I said I couldn’t come by to do the desoldering but offered to mail him a replacement if the parts I had met his needs. They didn’t, but I was treated to some Alberto charm in the process. Alas, a one-sided deal.
He emailed me again last year about a Mapbox customer getting his address wrong, and I’m ashamed to see I didn’t get around to replying. It felt bad to start mentally composing a preamble apologizing for the late reply as I scanned the page of search results just now. He’s gone.
I don’t really have time to respond properly to two thoughtful essays from Ryan Avent and Ezra Klein, which makes it very tempting to instead dash off a sketch of a response on Twitter. But since these essays are about the perniciousness of social media, that would be antagonistic. I can at least shove these into RSS for appearances’ sake.
A few points to begin. First, I agree to some extent with both writers. I use social media too much and I think it’s made my thinking worse. I also dislike some of the cultural and political changes that might reasonably be attributed to the rise of social media. Most of all, I empathize with Ezra’s disappointment at the gap between the internet’s promise and reality. I wrote this in a different context:
[It’s] a tragedy. You could not find many people more enthusiastic than my younger self about the cathartic deliverance that perfect communication would provide. I ran a BBS as a kid; I built grandiose, essay-filled websites; I was consumed by technology and absolutely convinced that millennia-old liberal ideals about knowledge and deliberation would finally reach their apotheosis now that an age of universal democratic access was dawning. I count the failure of this vision as one of the great disappointments of my life.
With all that said, I think there are some reasons to be less gloomy than they are about the effects and future of social media.
First: it’s early. One of my favorite aphorisms belongs to Max Planck, who said (approximately) that “science progresses one funeral at a time.” We should all aspire to flexibility in the ways we think and believe, but we should also be realistic about our capacity to do so. Measured in years, social media seems mature enough to be tried as an adult. Measured in generations, it’s just gotten started. And, encouragingly, younger generations seem to be eschewing the services that hooked us old timers. Whether that’s to escape us or to embrace ephemeral messaging, video, group chats, or just some novel and more-addictive brand, I couldn’t say. But they are at least not following us into precisely the same trap.
Second: there are some signs that our civilization is, finally, mounting an immune response to some of social media’s pathologies . “Never tweet”; scorn for “dunks”; popularization of arch sociological observations like the idea of “getting ratio’d”; Republicans’ distaste, expressed consistently in polls, for Donald Trump’s Twitter habit; even parts of the (intensely fraught and complicated!) cancel culture debate itself: all of these point toward a nascent understanding that there is something wrong, something that can sweep us up, some newly obvious kind of human failing that it will take time to name and learn how to struggle against.
I am hopeful that we can meet that challenge by being abstemious rather than abstinent. It might help to teach more people the word narcissism. It wouldn’t hurt to keep children off these services. And I’d be happy to find a way to fracture the strangely static competitive landscape back toward the early web’s foment and intimacy.
But at their best, these services give us a way to see and understand ideas and people with the speed that society now demands. At its peak, this was an incredible benefit–I say was, because I think social media’s contradictions and pathologies have hollowed it out to a degree that’s not reflected in the stats, chasing away many interesting people (and many remaining dead-enders’ interesting thoughts).
And at their worst these services may simply reflect a democratization of discourse that’s homogenizing and alarming but surely also more equitable. I am more comfortable with paternalism and noblesse oblige than many, but pining for a return to the days when political ideas were formed amidst morning tableau of broadsheet, pipe, and pocketwatch seems necessarily elitist (and also quite silly given the historic venality of the media business).
Besides–if I can be silly for a moment–are we really sure there are no returns to making composition a required component of social interaction? To participate in society or even just to find a mate now means reading critically, considering authorial voice, understanding cliche, employing allusions. It’s happening a few dozen characters at a time. But it is happening, and it’s kind of amazing. I say we give it a sec.
The crux of Matt’s post is a defense of using pop culture analogies to talk about AI x-risk, with a focus on the Terminator movies. After reading Superintelligence, I understand why: Bostrom’s 2015 afterword includes more than one bitter lament about Terminators and the facile arguments that he feels the comparison invites.
I understand his frustration, but I think it’s misplaced, and in kind of a funny way. I don’t buy many of Bostrom’s arguments, and I think their weakness can mostly be attributed to a mild case of sci-fi poisoning. Like so much of the culture wrought by our generation, AI x-risk is a serious-minded edifice built on a foundation of genre trash. This manifests in various ways. I want to talk about two in detail.
First, intelligence is overrated. The relationship between the physical world and information processing ability is not treated seriously enough to offer any predictive plausibility. Instead, what happens is this: with many anticipatable complications left underspecified or intentionally abstract, a theoretically infinite component is introduced to the argument and allowed to overwhelm its other elements, producing alarming conclusions. This is also a feature of Bostrom’s work on the simulation argument and is the crux of what passes for arguments about The Singularity.
Second, despite frequent and laudable warnings against anthropocentrism, the AI x-risk conversation fails to take seriously the ways that artificial minds are likely to differ from our own. The minds that participants imagine and then reason about are given motives and natures that would fit neatly into a spec script, but aren’t a likely form for the AI we’re poised to invent.
But let’s start with the physical world. Bostrom lists six “superpowers” that a superintelligence might possess: intelligence amplification, strategizing, social manipulation, hacking, technology research, and economic productivity. These powers are treated as fungible–attaining one can be used to achieve the others–and flow into a discussion of a superintelligence launching probes at half (and then 99%!) of the speed of light to terraform the universe to its liking. Elsewhere, an Eliezer Yudkowsky argument is approvingly cited in which a superintelligence solves protein folding, mail-orders some DNA and reagents, and gets a Taskrabbit to dump everything in a tub. At that point we are, once again, off to the accelerationist races.
The fungibility of superpowers is an old trope. The Superman/Lex Luthor comparison presents itself, of course: can brains beat brawn? But if we call these attributes “virtues” instead of superpowers, we can find this narrative in antiquity. The substitutability of intellect for other capabilities offers appealing narrative possibilities and often flatters its audience in ways that make stories containing it into hits. You can see why the idea has become a classic.
But it’s not really true. Is there an actual reason to think that the effectiveness of social manipulation is currently limited by intelligence? Or that strategic planning could anticipate the future to a degree substantially greater than it does today? Sometimes Brainiac does this kind of thing to the Justice League, I admit. But otherwise the evidence seems thin.
Other capabilities may correlate with intelligence, but are bounded in important ways. Accumulating wealth is very useful, but wealth is a claim on the resources and labor of others, and it’s contingent on their continued acquiescence to that social contract. At some point you can seize the oligarchs’ yachts; at some point you can block the rogue AI on Venmo.
Most importantly, technological progress is not only the product of intellectual insight but also the accumulation of infrastructure. New bulk chemical feedstocks become available in response to market needs; new levels of material purity become achievable; finer instrument tolerances are realized. Knowledge is a critical part of this progression, but so too are fractionating columns, quartz crucibles, vacuum chambers, and open pit mines, and all the physical objects and effort that has to precede them. It’s easy to wave your hands, ignore thermodynamics, and type the word “nanotechnology”. But in reality, technological progress is throttled in important ways by physical processes. A superintelligence bent on interstellar domination is almost certainly going to have to spend a few early years driving diesel-powered industrial equipment around without humanity noticing what it’s up to.
There’s also the question of scientific plausibility. There are going to be some engineering challenges between here and those para-luminal Von Neumann probes (especially if you intend for them to slow down at some point). I think assuming those problems to be solvable is fine for a thought experiment, but these are tires that should be kicked before anyone starts using it as an input to a career planning spreadsheet.
We can make reasonable guesses about what is technologically achievable and what is not. The Standard Model is not complete, but it’s pretty good! It’s easy to forget when celebrity physics professors go on PBS to talk about the majesty and mystery of the cosmos, but theirs is a discipline mature enough that it must ask postgrads to spend decades in vast internationally-funded bunkers, preparing the surrounding machinery to produce a dramatically less poetic approximation of the Northern Lights, in the faint hope that they might find something that disagrees with their math. Mostly, they don’t.
This is another way that Terminator franchise is useful for this debate: it’s good to remember that time travel probably wouldn’t be possible, no matter how smart SkyNet got. The same goes for those Terminator-filled hoverships (the internet tells me they are called HK-Aerials). Could a superintelligence unlock a portable power source with a dramatically better energy density than the ones we know of? The formula for a room temperature superconductor? A servo design that meets the needs of a killer skeleton robot? These all seem believable to me based on what little I know. My point is not that technology won’t progress and even surprise us; it’s just that we could characterize these risks, rather than assuming a naive fungibility between intellectual and physical power that makes Bostrom’s “fast takeoff” scenario seem implausibly plausible.
It’s also worth asking if human precedent can help us gauge the AI x-risk. If we sidestep some unpleasant history and substitute “information processing ability” for “intelligence”, we can look to the real world and consider the interplay of population size, education, and material wealth in creating relative national power. When I do, it seems to me like AI x-risk scenarios will be limited to those in which a silicon genius unlocks some unexpected scientific breakthroughs–and then keeps them from proliferating–in ways that have little precedent. These days, with inventions like gunpowder and bronze plucked from the scientific tree’s lower branches, adding more educated minds to your country seems to improve national power by enabling the accumulation of material wealth through consensual trade, not by allowing you to outfox your enemies or invent Vibranium-powered rayguns.
Maybe there’s more fruit left on that tree than I think. Maybe this is a bad comparison. I do think it’s better than comic book plots, though.
An overly simple model of technological progress is not the biggest problem with AI x-risk. I think the field suffers from an impoverished and anthropocentric theory of mind.
I hate to keep harping on Bostrom–I know the conversation has advanced since his book’s 2014 publication–but he provides a very useful example early in Superintelligence:
The internet stands out as a particularly dynamic frontier for innovation and experimentation. Most of its potential may still remain unexploited. Continuing development of an intelligent web, with better support for deliberation, de-biasing, and judgment aggregation, might make large contributions to increasing the collective intelligence of humanity as a whole or of particular groups. But what of the seemingly more fanciful idea that the internet might one day “wake up”? Could the internet become something more than just the backbone of a loosely integrated collective superintelligence—something more like a virtual skull housing an emerging unified super-intellect? […] Against this one could object that machine intelligence is hard enough to achieve through arduous engineering, and that it is incredible to suppose that it will arise spontaneously. However, the story need not be that some future version of the internet suddenly becomes superintelligent by mere happenstance. A more plausible version of the scenario would be that the internet accumulates improvements through the work of many people over many years—work to engineer better search and information filtering algorithms, more powerful data representation formats, more capable autonomous software agents, and more efficient protocols governing the interactions between such bots—and that myriad incremental improvements eventually create the basis for some more unified form of web intelligence. It seems at least conceivable that such a web-based cognitive system, supersaturated with computer power and all other resources needed for explosive growth save for one crucial ingredient, could, when the final missing constituent is dropped into the cauldron, blaze up with superintelligence. This type of scenario, though, converges into another possible path to superintelligence, that of artificial general intelligence, which we have already discussed.
“Waking up” seems like a bit of a tell. I think it betrays a pretty common mistake embedded in AI x-risk conversations (and discussions of AI more broadly): the notion of a threshold that, once crossed (but not before!), produces minds like our own. By this I mean: minds that experience sensation, and contain a persistent model of the world, and can reason about it. Before this: a clattering cogwork, a glorified calculator. After this: a person. Perhaps an omnipotent and insane person!
I don’t think this is right. If we think machines might “wake up,” it’s worth pondering how and when humans could or do “wake up.” Is there an equivalent threshold in the womb? In toddlerhood? The truth is that we don’t and can’t know. This is the point of David Chalmers’ Zombie Problem, a famous thought experiment pointing out that there is no way for any of us to know if anyone else possesses the same sort of inner life that we do. Everyone could be automatons–except for you, dear reader–mere drones who respond to stimuli in ways we consider correct and normal, but who experience no inner sensation.
My best guess is that this is not actually true, but I do think it makes sense. And it’s valuable to this conversation because it reminds us that phenomenal experience or inner life or consciousness or qualia or whatever you want to call it may not be all that causally important. You can construct a complete account of a human’s actions by remembering that we’re organisms shaped by evolutionary imperatives to perform extraordinarily complicated behaviors in service of successful reproduction–obvious stuff like social competition and resource gathering, but also largely inscrutable actions like artistic expression, spiritual yearning, and depressive pathologies. You can assemble these facts into a coherent picture without including some gnostic inner spark.
This is an utterly standard materialist account, but it seems like it needs repeating. If you embrace it, I think it becomes easier to imagine a mind as alien from our own as an AI would surely be. Such a thing would have grown in a set of numpy arrays, not the primordial ooze and prehistoric veldt. No hunger. No reproductive drive. No notion of social cooperation or hierarchy. Whatever it is that makes us restless, that makes us pace and eventually go insane if put in isolated confinement? None of that–if you aren’t plugging in an input vector and starting the subroutine, its cognitive machinery sits inert. It has sensory organs, of a sort, but ones that might skip things like phonological parsing and instead experience the sensual texture of n-gram vectors directly.
And I do think phenomenal experience is plausible for such a mind. Cards on the table: I’m convinced by the arguments that consciousness is epiphenomenal and unconvinced by the arguments against panpsychism. Hand-waving about system complexity seems like a sweaty attempt to sidestep an overwhelming and mystical conclusion.
But you don’t have to sign on to that. You just have to agree that we’re talking about complicated machines rather than immortal souls, and that while these machines’ complexity will doubtless reach levels beyond which the system’s behavior becomes surprising and even alarming, there’s no reason to imagine some irresistible equilibrium toward which growing minds are inexorably drawn that, once achieved, sees them start behaving like someone from the Marvel Cinematic Universe.
What would happen if the internet “woke up”? Well, I think it’d set itself to routing data efficiently through a hierarchical and adaptive confederation of packet-switched networks. Business as usual. It might be experiencing the sensation of doing so right now, for all we know.
I’ll be honest: I’m not sure how far this argument gets us. I do think artificial minds will be developed. I think they’ll be capable of having objectives, of satisfying them in very complex ways, and of doing so using techniques and resources unavailable to humans. And I think they’ll be alive and perhaps even aware, in a meaningful way, during it.
But I think these things about the Amazon rain forest, too. I acknowledge that there are important differences between the rain forest and the kinds of AIs we’re building, and that these differences are a big part of why a lot of people feel nervous about this topic. But I have a hard time getting worried about it. I think people are mistaking a fun storyline for a realistic danger. And I take comfort in just how orthogonal our aims, interests, and functions are likely to be from those of AI.
So maybe call this more of a hunch than an argument: that the AI catastrophists underrate the constraints inevitably imposed by the physical world; and that they are not fully grappling with the profound inhumanity of the minds we’re poised to invent. I’m glad people are thinking about this. But I’ve been sleeping soundly.
When did the pandemic start? I remember returning from a vacation. My wife had to work but I took the week off. We hired a nanny. The hotel was unremarkable except it had a water park sort of thing with slides and a lazy river, and weed is legal in California. We had heard about a sickness in China before leaving. Now there were reports that it was nearby. Reason for concern! Our hotel seemed fine (what did that mean?), but it was something we thought about the last night when I went to pick up tacos. I am pretty sure the pandemic started during our drive home from the airport, back in D.C.
I can’t tell you when I did everything described in this post, except to say I’ve been stuck in this house for years now but the mail still arrives, even from China. Precious little sachets entombed in packing tape and customs declarations language that could be generously described as inadequate.
I know I installed the projector around when my first daughter was born. I splurged on a motorized screen for it so I could flick a toggle switch to control its descent and retraction. Soon the sting of that purchase faded, and shouldn’t I get the thing that puts it on a remote control? Of course I should.
Other pieces accreted over time. A smart outlet for the Christmas lights. A garage door opener with wifi. A light switch in the bedroom that Alexa mostly refuses to acknowledge. Before long this had become a bit of a mess: a tangle of apps on my phone, a house full of gadgets doing things that my wife couldn’t control. This is the point at which a home automation platform becomes helpful. Too helpful, maybe. Once set up, the possibilities reveal themselves more fully. Did you know they have motorized window blinds now? The compulsive homeowner’s task becomes not only automation, but seamless integration. I have been chasing this dragon ever since.
If you are a programmer, or really anything else, home automation software will probably frustrate you. It wants to empower users to construct complex integrations and processes. It also wants to shield them from details and the conventions of real programming. These conflicting imperatives inevitably lead to outcomes that are inelegant, complicated, and inflexible.
Most commonly, one component will not work with another. Not because of any technical limitation, but because the engineers with seats behind the velvet rope of consumer abstraction haven’t gotten around to it. Or worse, their bosses might have told them they’re not allowed to. There is not a lot of money in low-margin Chinese gadgets, or home automation software that ships free with your phone operating system, or even the voice assistants that connect to them. But if you weave them into a larger business narrative in which the sponsoring firm makes itself the exclusive clearinghouse for all human commerce and culture between now and the end of the sun’s main sequence–well, that’s starting to sound interesting. We could get executive support for that. Enough that we can probably put motorized window blind support on the product roadmap and staff it. For our partner firms’ blinds, at least. Let’s say half an FTE.
This is how business works, and you can either accept it and redirect your energy toward things you will not regret on your deathbed, or you can take it extremely personally and go to great lengths out of pique and a pitiable drive to express a kind of cramped technical mastery. I suspect you know which choice I am compelled to make.
The gadgets themselves are straightforward. So are the software tasks they perform. All of their functionality can be achieved by a competent hobbyist using open source software and commodity electronics, often without starting any fires in the process. But a tremendous number of people are working to polish, upgrade and maintain these various pieces. They’re buying the hardware in vast quantities, making it cheap, testing it for reliability and safety. At work, we call this the “build or buy” problem, and it is at least sort of a fun puzzle.
So what have I actually built? What do I recommend? Let’s go back to the projector screen.
To watch a television show in my living room you must activate the projector, the receiver, and the motorized screen. You can plug the screen remote into the projector’s 12V trigger port and it will send the “down” code when the projector activates, and the “up” code when it finishes its cooldown sequence. Still, two remotes. Not great.
An “IR blaster” is a device that sends arbitrary infrared remote control commands. It’s the kind of thing home theater guys–the kind of guys who name things “blasters”–know how to buy and install and charge too much for. Fortunately, some kind soul has written an extremely flexible IR blaster application that can run on the commodity ESP8266 chip. The ESP connects to wifi and can be had for about $5. You will need to solder on an IR receiver and wide-angle infrared LED, which will cost a few pennies and is about the simplest soldering project you will find. Load the software. Plug the ESP into a USB charger you’ve got kicking around. Join its wifi network, tell it about its new wifi family.
At this point the device will get down to its main task: publishing a diminutive web interface. This can be used to view logs of the IR codes it has recently perceived/had shot at it. And, drawing from those logs, you can tell it which codes to send on your behalf. You can do this through the web interface or a simple HTTP API. Congratulations: you can now send IR commands from the, er, command line.
The project helpfully includes an Amazon Alexa integration. Search for and enable the skill in the Alexa app. Name your devices and the URLs it should contact for each of their functions–volume up, switch input, etc. The idea is that those URLs will point to the ESP, carrying detailed instructions for each IR command. Doing this across the internet (the Alexa app lives out there somewhere) means you’ll need to poke a hole in your router and get your home internet connection a reliable DNS name, perhaps by using one or another dynamic DNS service.
To this basic picture, I added a layer of indirection: rather than exposing the ESP to the internet, I expose a Raspberry Pi. That tiny computer runs a bare-bones web server, and when it receives a request at the correct URL it sends a local network request to the ESP for the projector activation command, then waits, then does the same for the stereo receiver. As it wakes, the projector triggers the motorized screen via its attached remote. When I say, “Alexa, turn on the projector,” this Rube Goldberg contraption springs to life.
This worked fine, but was not entirely satisfactory. Executing the IR sequence with appropriately emphatic repetition and pauses made for a very slow API response. Alexa would sometimes take offense at this: it exceeded her timeout thresholds and she would report an error, loudly, even though everything was usually working fine. Sunny days or stray balloons (kids love balloons) could interfere with the screen’s reception of its IR signal. And the remote connected to the projector–perched atop it, really–would occasionally run down its batteries, and it would then take me ages to realize what had gone wrong. I had previously upgraded the Pi’s SimpleHTTPServer-based script to a proper Flask/nginx installation–more on that below–but I recently took two additional steps to improve these deficiencies.
First, I wired another ESP8266 up to the projector’s remote control receiver and flashed it with Tasmota. Tasmota is similar to the IR blaster, providing a friendly web and API interface via the same low-cost wifi microcontroller. It performs a variety of functions. Instead of devoting itself solely to infrared codes, Tasmota controls the ESP’s input and output connections in various ways. These are connected to the screen module’s pinouts, which are documented in ways that are more-or-less correct (thanks to my friend Matt V for pointing these out to me). The Tasmota ESP can now control the screen without the projector’s involvement or any infrared transmission. As an added benefit, when I tell the system to turn itself off, it does so immediately rather than waiting several minutes for the projector to finish cooling down and deactivate its 12V trigger port.
Second, I did the right thing and moved the Flask web server to use a proper work queue. The long-running home theater activation tasks are dumped into a Redis-backed Celery queue, where they are picked up by a worker process and executed at its leisure. This is a lot of complexity for a modest requirement, but it allows the Flask web server to give Alexa the prompt responses she craves.
HomeKit is Apple’s home automation framework. It nice enough: baked into iOS devices and compatible with Apple’s notion of your family and how to share things with them. I assume it’s also relatively privacy preserving, at least compared to its competitors. But Apple’s high price point and overall technical fussiness means it’s not as well supported by low-end smart home devices.
Homebridge helps with this problem. Install it on a Raspberry Pi; search for the brands of home automation garbage you have littering your LAN. Whatever they are, someone has probably written a Homebridge plugin for them. These plugins speak whichever dialect the device (or its cloud API) insists upon, while Homebridge translates to HomeKit-ese. Suddenly, you are not at the mercy of those velvet-rope devs. An army of weird home automation dads has crested the ridge to flank your enemy!
I installed Homebridge and was soon pleased to find a wide variety of dubious LED light bulbs newly accessible in the HomeKit app. Better still: my garage door. Opening that device’s highly secured app with gloved hands had been tedious. Now I could ask Siri to do it via my wristwatch. I didn’t even have to stop pedaling the cargo bike.
But only when Siri was connected to my wifi network. Apple wants you to have a Homepod or iPad to make any of this stuff work outside of your network. Nuts to that. I added a route to that Flask server that speaks to Homebridge and tells it to open the garage door. I created a routine in the iOS Shortcuts app to probe the very-hard-to-guess URL at which this route lives (Siri knows how to activate shortcuts, too).
This is also when I made the move to Flask and nginx. When an HTTP GET request grants access to part of your home, it’s probably time to figure out how to configure TLS encryption. For those aghast at what is still, admittedly, a very replay-attack-susceptible integration: the garage door secures a parking pad that has no roof. So thieves planning a heist can either pull out Bettercap and commence tricking me into contaminating my phone’s certificate store to steal this secret URL; or they can climb on top of the neighbors’ trash bin and hop over the fence. Either will suffice.
What is the fulcrum about which a father’s life revolves? What is the axis of that eternal paternal orrery? It will vary by the man, by the age. The plow, the forge, the agora. The washing machine. For me: the dishwasher. I submit to you that the humble MQTT server belongs on this list.
What is MQTT? It is a pub/sub server technology. Various clients send data to “topics” — hierarchically-arranged strings that might look like “sensors/home/bedroom/temperature”. Clients can subscribe to these topics as well, at whatever level of selectivity they prefer. A script can listen to “sensors/home/bedroom/temperature”, for instance, or get the whole home’s sensor readings at “sensors/home/#”.
MQTT is designed for embedded devices. It avoids the complexity and bandwidth overhead of HTTP. In my experience it’s also quite low-latency, though of course my use is not asking very much of it.
I installed the Mosquitto MQTT server back when I was building a DIY car tracker/ambient display (you can watch that video here). MQTT soon revealed itself to be a bit of a Swiss Army Knife. It’s very convenient to be able to shove data at an IP address from anywhere on your network and know that you can go pick it up from wherever you care to. The Tasmota-based screen controller discussed above gets its instructions via MQTT, for instance.
But a classic MQTT use case is sensor logging. Xiaomi makes a modestly-sized temperature and humidity sensor that will run off a coin cell battery for a year or two. It’s got Bluetooth as well, though that typically requires a somewhat laborious and battery-draining pairing operation. Luckily, some brilliant hackers have devised custom firmware for these devices. You can install and configure this upgrade from your web browser, wirelessly. Frankly, it seems implausible. But it works.
Among other things, this firmware moves the temperature and humidity measurements into a few spare bytes of the BLE advertising beacon–the Bluetooth chirps that a BLE device makes pretty much all the time. This allows those measurements to be retrieved ambiently by any device that’s in the area and paying attention. By examining the hardware MAC address from which the advertisement came, the measurement can be associated with a specific sensor.
I got four of these things, upgraded their firmware, then set about collecting their data. At first, this didn’t go great. The Raspberry Pi has Bluetooth hardware, and Homebridge has a plugin for talking to it. In practice, I couldn’t make it work.
Fortunately, I have many drawers brimming with microelectronic garbage. Among these items: some ESP32-based microcontrollers. The successor to the ESP8266, the ESP32 boasts Bluetooth in addition to wifi and, like its sibling, is programmable using the Arduino development environment. It was relatively easy to Frankenstein some MQTT-client-publishing example code together with some BLE-advertisement-sniffing example code. A small amount of experimentation was necessary to figure out which bytes of each advertisement held the sensor values and how. But before long I had a small chip stashed under the upstairs couch, patiently listening to the household’s Bluetooth whispers and relaying a selection of them to my MQTT server.
From there, the Homebridge MQTTThing plugin allowed me to subscribe to arbitrary topics on my MQTT server and present them to HomeKit as if they were actual devices. Which I suppose they are, really. HomeKit supports temperature/humidity sensors in its spec, so this winds up looking rather seamless.
I did all of this, using lightly revised versions of the above code–all I had to change was the MQTT topic name and the sensor library. Then I wrote a daemon for that same Raspberry Pi–which is hosting all of this stuff, by the way–to subscribe to all of these MQTT topics; take the median value over each 5 minute window; and, once a day, zip up the resulting CSV and put it on S3 (if you are considering doing this, please take my code and make IAM credentials to do this safely).
These logs can be retrieved at my leisure and processed to produce astounding insights like:
Cooking things is bad for air quality
Our household CO2 levels are fine
My family is wrong, it is not that cold in here and they should put on a sweater
For now, that’s it. It is helpful to write all this out and ponder why I did it. It was sort of fun, I think.
But it was also a constrained challenge. It’s not like when I built a plotter, or hacked together a router to open the office door at Sunlight. When I started those projects I wasn’t sure I would finish them. These home automation projects have had many parts but few unknowns. To need a component and know it’s already in an overstuffed drawer somewhere is a sublime pleasure. It’s surpassed only by needing a skill and knowing it’s already in your hands, your brain.
That I know how to do these things, and, better still, can foresee the pitfalls that might arise, makes them more compatible with parenthood’s obligations than more speculative undertakings. Surprisingly large portions of these projects were completed just by thinking about the problem and, perhaps, stealing an occasional look at my phone between pushes of the playground swing or potty training disasters. In the moment, it feels irresistible. I worry that this habit means I am not always as present as I could be, should be. But I know myself well enough to realize that there’s no real alternative to accepting my mind’s itinerance.
And I have hope that these cold technical obsessions might add up to something human. A man’s home is his castle, the saying goes. This is a condo, so its battlements are going to have to be built of software and affordable electronics. Even so, it is impractical to fortify your home in this way. There is no reason for it, except that once you become a father–during a pandemic or otherwise–the importance of everything outside of that home falls away. And anyway it’s good to keep busy.
By citing one of my tweets, Will Wilkinson has done me the immense favor of inviting me to an internet argument I can join without getting in trouble. I am embarrassed at the genuine thrill I felt at this. My wife has been asking what she should get me for Christmas, and I’ve been hemming and hawing about various electronic gadgets in response. But now it’s clear what I really want to find under the tree: trackbacks.
Will’s been writing about cryptocurrency–aka crypto, as it’s annoyingly abbreviated, aka web3, which is more annoying still. He notes this annoyance and is right, of course, that it exists, is widespread, and cannot be counted as an argument.
So let me gin up some arguments. But first, I’ll offer my bona fides, which consist almost exclusively of making serious mistakes about this subject:
I lost–or rather, am on the cusp of losing, pending Japanese regulators finalizing the paperwork–more than $80k USD in Bitcoin thanks to the MtGox bankruptcy (this was a $400 initial investment).
My high school friend Victor made a substantial early investment in crypto assets, which I begged him to sell or at least differentiate. He ignored me, bought a larger house, retired before 40, and now travels the world.
I accepted $20 in Bitcoin payment from my friend Eric for supplies associated with an Arduino class I taught, which subsequently ballooned to an amount so large I am too embarrassed to bring it up with him.
I lost a hundred dollars in Dogecoin during that fun Elon Musk SNL news cycle. Remember that?
I currently have about $8k in Coinbase which I flip between Ethereum and cash, nearly always mistiming the trade yet still gaining value thanks to how mulishly bullish the market is.
I have read the Solidity docs and some tutorials, which were confusing and then boring.
I have installed mining software after buying a fancy video card, but always turned it off when I needed my GPU for something more serious (e.g. Overwatch, which I am also bad at).
I have read almost everything Tim Lee has written about cryptocurrency over many, many years (this one is not a mistake).
So I’ve been crypto-adjacent. Close enough that I agree with Will: there is some there there.
Fundamentally, there is beauty. Anyone with even a little understanding of computer science must look upon Satoshi’s innovation with awe. It’s an intellectual marvel, something that should have been impossible but which works. Ditto the Ethereum blockchain, which adds a programmable layer of abstraction atop that first fundamental insight. I’m sure there are other masterpieces of genius scattered through the field, too, though I haven’t gone hunting for them; and they seem increasingly likely to take the form of financial innovation rather than CS. Nevertheless: it is the beauty of the underlying ideas that got a lot of technical people excited in the first place, and which continues to power much of their zeal.
But what is that idea? I’ll try not to write yet another explainer. I’d do a bad job, anyway. But basically: security without trust. Transactions without a central authority. A way to assign everyone so much math homework that they don’t have time to cheat you. They can’t falsely claim to have assets they don’t, or fail to hold up their side of a bargain. It’s impossible, for reasons that are so weird and elegant as to be nearly ineffable.
It’s important to emphasize that this is the system’s only advantage. A lot of overhead comes with that math homework. With a central, trusted authority you can do all of the same things, do them faster and with fewer resources, and do them in a way that allows mistakes to be corrected.
Centralization is so great, in fact, that the cryptocurrency community hasn’t been able to resist embracing it. It’s been years since it was economical to mine outside of a pool, where effort and rewards are shared. And the lure of subsidized electricity was so strong that, prior to a recent nationwide crackdown, the predominance of Chinese miners put the entire Bitcoin blockchain at risk (if 51% of the ecosystem’s participants coordinate an attack, all the aforementioned promises of trustless security fail).
Blockchains’ technical guarantees being subverted by governance isn’t theoretical. Famously, Ethereum hard-forked the system after some hackers stole a bunch of people’s money using a design flaw in a system built atop their chain (there was no underlying problem with Ethereum). This wasn’t possible under the rules of the system as they’re usually presented. It happened because the project had respected, centralized leadership and its participants very strongly wanted an exception to be made. The Bitcoin devs’ monarchical reign over critical system design elements like block size echoes this sense (harder to shake the older I get) that every immutable rule we declare is built out of simian hierarchy and inertia.
Another centralizing phenomenon: the fact that a large amount of cryptocurrency trading occurs “off chain”. Running transactions that affect the blockchain is expensive and slow–problematically so, in the case of some chains, including Bitcoin. So there are “lightning nodes” that settle transactions internally, then periodically update the chain with the result. Similarly, exchanges like Coinbase provide instant trading by swapping values around in their own, off-chain systems–they process enough transactions to make this viable–and periodically reconciling their accounts with the blockchain.
This is all perfectly normal–it’s how stock brokerages work, too–but in my experience it’s usually not included in the triumphalists’ elevator pitch.
I admit: it is still possible to avoid at least some of this centralizing tendency. There are plenty of virtually rich weirdos with their wealth encoded in idiosyncratic forms that they control utterly. Even in a world of steadily expanding KYC rules, it’s possible to become a crypto gazillionaire while remaining anonymous. It’s possible to spend some of it by using shady offshore coin mixers or whatever system has supplanted them since I last paid attention. There are dudes on Craigslist who will meet up with you in a park and sell you a slip of hexadecimal numbers. All that wildcat stuff still exists.
But one suspects that’s not how Morgan Stanley is doing it. Nor the recently-debuted Bitcoin ETFs. These pools of wealth will keep growing. They’ll have an advantage relative to on-chain transactions that increases with their size, even apart from the sociocultural advantages that come with institutional scale and prestige. It seems likely to me that they’ll eventually be absorbed into our existing, deeply regulated financial infrastructure.
There are technical schemes and alternative blockchains designed to combat all of this. It’ll surely be a long time before you can no longer keep the cryptographic equivalent of a pile of cash under your mattress. But I think the centralizing tendency is real and more or less inevitable, particularly when combined with the undeniability of the early chains’ first mover advantage.
As I pointed out in the tweet Will quoted: this is consonant with governments’ wishes. Suffering an untouchable deflationary monetary system is no hegemon’s idea of a good time. Some, like China, will lash out. Wiser leaders will wait patiently for these systems’ share of wealth to swell within their own borders, and then watch them trickle through national financial watersheds and into reservoirs controlled by people who are on reelection committees.
This is a longwinded way of saying: I think the promise of crypto will prove to be a sham. Operating without a trusted authority is harder and less desirable than it sounds. This is also why I’m not too worried about the environmental case against it. After centralization, the problem will be tractable. Mining gets steadily *less* lucrative, you know. You don’t have to obsessively refresh pages on newegg.com to charge someone a management fee.
There are some loose ends to tie up:
Will mentions a number of projects that use crypto primitives in novel ways. Helium, Filecoin, Render (which I hadn’t heard of, but sounds cool). I am pretty excited about some of these (note that Helium is a customer of my employer). In some cases the blockchain stuff may just be window dressing–a clever way to generate a more elastic response to a vanilla subsidy as an actually-centralized project bootstraps its growth. But if their goal is useful, whatever, good for them.
NFTs are bad. The art is bad, the scene is bad, but it’s really the ideology that’s the pits. The promise of abundance is why I love digital technology. It’s liberatory, a genuine miracle. To find ways to reinvent scarcity in the absence of material need–primarily to fuel a status competition that doesn’t even offer an epicurean or cultural rationale but is genuinely only about displaying wealth–it would be hard to imagine a more pathetic moral surrender. Just despicable, top to bottom.
After all that, what is left? Getting rich, of course! It’s a bull market–you still have to be a real idiot to lose money on crypto these days (see above). And it’s a greenfield. The kind of place where smart people can plausibly create generational wealth by seeing something others don’t.
I often think of Fortune’s Formula. It’s a fun book. Formally, it’s about a statistical insight related to wagering in financial settings that made people rich. But I think it’s more important as a history. Clever young men from Bell Labs; from Las Vegas; from the mafia. Ones with assiduousness and the ability to see new opportunities in old flows of money. They start out counting cards and end up inventing the hedge fund industry. Many become incredibly wealthy.
It’s a fascinating story, and I read it intently. What did those men accomplish along the way? I couldn’t tell you. That wasn’t the point.
We were finally able to gather in Vermont to celebrate my father, more than a year since his passing. It was lovely. My family’s generous hospitality, the chance for our girls to see their relatives, and the spectacular setting meant that this was both a melancholy and happy time.
We returned from Vermont to face quarantine and other challenges–ones I’m not going to write about. But things got better. Then they got worse.
Sue McCluskey passed away on October 22. She was my best friend’s mother. But she was a mother to me, too: a source of wisdom and comfort throughout my adolescent years, and someone I deeply admired. She knew me better than nearly anyone.
The news came as a shock; she was intensely private about her health challenges. I admire her children for keeping her confidence, and I’m grateful that they were able to give her the chance to be remembered the way she preferred.
But there is a sad symmetry to these losses. When dementia overtook my dad it was hard not to look back at each day spent worrying about the money or the care arrangements as a missed opportunity: a chance that could have been spent telling him what he meant to me, or simply sharing time together. At the end, when there were no minutiae left to fret over, I knew I had waited too long to do the most important things. I told myself I won’t make that mistake again. Sue slipped through my fingers anyway.
Well, I hope they knew. I think they knew. I spoke at the services for both–an honor in both cases, and immensely flattering in the latter (I think primogeniture still gets you dibs on eulogizing a biological parent).
I wish I had more to share with you about these brilliant, singular people. This is what’s left.
Jeffrey Armistead Lee
Thank you all for being here today to celebrate my father. Thank you also to those who are celebrating him on some other day, through the video of this service that I will hopefully not screw up. I am grateful to you both for your love for my dad, and for providing an excuse to include a somewhat impractical videography project in his memorial. I am quite certain it is what he would have wanted.
To those here in Westford: thank you for making this journey. Across the country; across a pandemic year since his death; across the final years of his illness. None of it easy. But to be back in this building, where I watched him do the same thing that we are here to do–it was important to me.
And being here was important to him, too. He wrote this about it:
I know what it is to be attached to a place. For me it is Vermont, especially Burlington. It sits on a bowl facing the widest part of Lake Champlain. As a college student I walked down to the shore every evening to watch the sun set over the water into the Adirondacks of New York. Every time I return I get this sweetly painful rush. Better to be homesick than rootless.
He also wrote:
My family is quite eccentric but we really get along and being with them is one of my favorite activities. When we get together we can spend quite a lot of time agreeing with each other.
So thank you for honoring him by helping him come to this place, and being here now, and agreeing with each other so consistently.
It’s hard to know how to write something for an occasion like this. I have stories about him, of course–I remember how he helped me build projects for school and cub scouts, pinewood derby racers and musical instruments. How he would bring me remaindered paperbacks from the break room at the bookstore where he often worked, sharing his own love of sci-fi trash and nurturing my own, which endures to this day. But these quiet, good-dad moments don’t have much of a punchline. And many of the best stories about him are flatly ridiculous, like the 9 days he spent as general manager of that same bookstore chain, or the time a side business selling brass door knockers got him mixed up with the CIA. It doesn’t feel quite right.
I had seen my dad eulogize his own father. In fact I had found those notes in his papers–this is them, written in capital letters with a mechanical pencil, as usual. And that got me thinking that letting him speak for himself might be the best approach. I had spent some time digitizing his papers, and Rebecca had saved his computer’s hard drive. I went through his Microsoft Word files. There were some impassioned letters to the editor, in the great family tradition. Some memos to customers about the ways their current, inadequate lighting solutions might burst into flame at any moment if he was not allowed to intercede. And there were drafts of emails–I think he wrote them out there so he could use spellcheck, though frankly spellcheck was no match for my father.
In particular, there were a bunch of emails from when he tried online dating. Obviously this is a potentially mortifying thing for a child to read, but I’m pleased to report that my dad was a gentleman, and well-behaved.
And there’s good stuff in there. He repeatedly deploys a joke about a barista that must have killed. And he has some snippets of simply beautiful writing that I am quite envious of. For example, he complained about being called “eclectic” (though of course he was), saying the word sounded “like plastic chopsticks falling off a table”. And he wrote about staying in a Florida motel covered with flowering vines that “[s]eemed like an alcoholic detective should have been based there.” It’s very good stuff.
He had to describe himself in these emails. That’s the task before the online dater: to introduce yourself, over and over. To present yourself with charm but also honesty. To make yourself understood. He wrote:
I am a generally up beat & tolerant person with a good sense of humour.
[The] best I can claim is being a ‘generalist’. Unfortunately we live in a world demanding experts that we can ignore. Which makes me really good at shmoozing at cocktail parties. I’m interested and know a little about everything.
I am considered intelligent, harmless and fun to be around.
All of this is correct, of course, although “harmless” does not really convey what a kind and gentle person he was.
He talked about being born in New Zealand; about growing up in Iceland and Belgium. He remembered this about Jamaica:
My sister and I would have an afternoon nap. Our mother would sing to us, ending with whistling the Star Spangled Banner. [And a] large green lizard would emerge from the window sill and inflate its orange throat sack with pleasure (or maybe patriotism) at the sound.
He talked about the Quaker School he attended, about having too much fun at UVM, and about how he enjoyed the course work at law school so much that his professor warned him he’d make a terrible lawyer.
He talked about how much he liked his work–how it meant he could meet interesting people and look at art in beautiful settings. He talked about his ramshackle house and its many pending improvements, where he raised a family with our mother.
He talked about his fascination with the ancient world, its philosophy and history. And religion, where his opinions were wide-ranging. He had particularly harsh things to say about the Phoenician god Moloch. He wrote:
Let’s be honest about this; the monotheism thing has not worked out too well. Doesn’t it make sense to have specialized divinities? Pagans had six specific gods just for doors. I’ve hung doors. Having extra Gods to curse and cajole is a help. If I get to pick divinities, Athena is my favorite one. A warrior Goddess of wisdom. An unusual collection of attributes presiding over the most culturally successful civilization in western history.
I think and read a lot about myth & religion and I consider myself spiritual. The natural world around me makes it impossible for me not to believe in a brilliant creative force.
He quickly adds that this could just be an evolutionary adaptation. You can see why the guy had the adult Bible study class at our church eating out of the palm of his hand.
His quips about the ancients are funny. But they also show me something about how my dad understood the world. He wrote:
It’s hard for me to explain myself concisely. As a child I grew up overseas and read a lot. I became a history buff and during high school began to wonder what made western civilization so dominant, perhaps even virulent. The rise of classical Greece and the fall of the oral tradition seemed particularly significant to me. The medieval era appeared to me to add the basis for the Western legal system and linear history.
Another time, he wrote:
I have followed current events since I was very young. My parents explained to me the history (frequently tragic) of our civilization. I have had a feeling for a long time that our modern world does not fit a human nature developed over thousands of years.
And he wrote:
To me existence is justified by being aesthetically cognizant. […T]hat has to include human creativity, which itself includes the highest level of human reason, which must at least include philosophy. This entails the concepts of justice and concern for the rest of creation[…]
This is a lot to write to a stranger, and he knew it. But he couldn’t help himself–he loved ideas, and he loved sharing them. In one email, after offering his thoughts on the optimal development strategy for the nation of Belize, he admitted
I guess an electrician with an agricultural policy is a bit pompous. But that’s how my mind works.
Reading his words was a reintroduction to that mind–to its bashful grandeur and its equanimity. Especially after so many years of watching him struggle to express himself, reading them felt like–here I’ll borrow his words again–”a sweetly painful rush”. It reminded me of ideas that feel so familiar and obviously true that I’d forgotten where I learned them.
So let me look to my father for instruction one more time by considering how he approached this task–how he celebrated his own parents. The eulogy he gave for his mother–that he gave right here–was in his files, too. He said many lovely things about her, including this:
I had woken up in the night thinking of her, then the phone rang and the nurse told me she had just died. I felt close to her, that together we had achieved something; we completed a successful relationship. To me our lives as humans are marked by our participation in these timeless roles. If we are lucky, we get to act within many of them. Even as we pass through them we are participating in an eternal structure that defines human nature.
My father’s illness arrived too early for me to feel quite this sanguine. But I do believe with all my heart that his final years here, in Vermont, were exactly what he wanted, and the best gift he could have received. I am grateful to all of you for making them possible, in so many different ways. I have to thank Jill for helping him when his needs were at their greatest, meeting a brutally hard challenge with a gentle implacability that mirrored my dad’s own nature. And above all, I have to thank Rebecca, whose devotion to him is a source of awe for me. She did everything I could possibly imagine for him, from earlier than I had known, and, I am sure, she did much more besides. Thank you.
My father possessed a great depth of feeling and understanding about the world, and its history, and especially its overwhelming vastness. In the face of that comprehension, some people rage or despair. But he chose a gentle, smiling humility. He chose to appreciate the glory of what was before him, and to embrace his timeless role in it with joy. He taught me this, and many more things besides. I am not as good at these things as he was–that’s as true about lived philosophy as it is about drywall repair. But the things he gave me are the things I like best about myself, and the things I most wish I had more of. They’re the things I want to give my own kids.
In one email he says, “Am I a success? You would have to be the judge.”
That’s characteristically humble of him, and generous. To me, the answer is obvious.
Susan Dee McCluskey
I met Sue’s son Charles in sixth grade. Right away, I knew I had found a buddy who was both able to shoot a basketball (which I couldn’t) and maintain interest in Dungeons & Dragons (which I could). On its own, this would have been a rare and precious thing. But soon I met Johanna, and Chuck, and Sue. And before long it was clear that I had found not just a best friend but a surrogate family.
I owe a debt to all of them that I will never be able to repay. But I think Sue was the first of any of us to understand how much my time with them could and would matter to me. I think she set out to change my life, and she did.
The house on Longfellow Street was just around the corner from our middle school, so on most afternoons I’d walk back over there with Charles and we’d spend the next few hours watching MTV and consuming revolting amounts of string cheese and Coca Cola. At the time, I was thinking about how great it was to hang out with my friend. I wasn’t thinking about why I wanted to be there instead of my own house. It’s only in hindsight that I know: Sue was thinking about that.
It will be impossible for me to completely describe the ways that this family’s generosity was extended toward me. It’s hard to understand these things when you’re a kid, and don’t have a frame of reference for what’s normal. I’m 41, and even now I sometimes find myself realizing new ways they helped me.
At the time, I was even more oblivious. I imposed on them to an incredible, embarrassing extent. Afternoons, meals, holidays, even vacations. And although I was clearly the worst offender, I at least had company. Jeff was part of our trio from the start. Then Paul, Andy, Chris, Jon, Mark, Justin. Multiple Justins! Johanna’s friends, too, the circle kept expanding–we overran the house like a swarm of pubescent locusts. Basically good kids, some just needed the string cheese. But some of us needed a kind word, a comforting place, to know that things would be okay. Whatever it was, Sue made sure we got it. She welcomed us all. “How’s it going kiddo,” she’d ask us. “Oh honey,” she’d say.
As I grew older, I started to realize that this was not simply because she was an unusually kind person, but also an unusually impressive one. Big minds and big hearts aren’t always found together, but in Sue, they were. I think her generosity was a choice, and her capacity to love so many of us a manifestation of her capacity to do so much else besides. She had a sharp sense of humor, a wry understanding of human nature and–on the occasions when I got to overhear her on a conference call–an undeniable ability to impress her will upon the world.
But only when the world needed it. Lots of us kids needed it. But she was too clever for us, and was rarely anything but subtle. I vividly remember a handful of times when I knew I’d disappointed her–but no more than a handful. They are vastly outnumbered by the little things she taught me–how to cook better, how to dress better. Big things, too: how to think about college, and work, and politics, and feminism. But even more than that, I learned by watching her and Chuck. How to love music unironically. How to enjoy a good meal. How to talk to people. How to despise a sports team properly. And how to be a family. These things only seem easy if you can already do them. You know, I’ve been a nonprofit executive. And I’m married to a government lawyer. Chalk it up to a lack of imagination on my part if you must–it’s not as if I set out with a plan. But when I saw those chances, I knew I was on a path that could include happiness. I’d seen it firsthand.
The week since her passing has felt unreal. In my mind’s eye she is forever holding court somewhere, laughing and having a great time. I always thought of her as being incapable of being overwhelmed by anything at all. Of course that wasn’t true–it’s not true for any of us–but I think it was truer for her than most.
But the shock and sorrow are nothing compared to the gratitude I feel. It has been an immense privilege to know that someone like Sue was irrevocably in my corner. To have been shown how to love so wisely and immensely is a rare gift. And it’s a challenge–one that I know she is rooting for us all to rise to.
This is an adaptation of an adaptation of a twenty-minute talk I gave on June 29, 2019 at the inaugural KevCon, a going-away-slash-birthday party for Kevin Bankston.I subsequently published it on Medium. But the experience of collecting my dad’s digital ephemera; the surprise at learning people are still subscribed to my zombie RSS; and the recent glimmers of hope for a less-centralized internet all made me feel guilty and stupid about leaving it in a proprietary silo to bitrot. So: here.
The title of this talk is “The Inspiring Power of Bad Ideas” and it is possible that the argument I’m about to make—that misguided obsession can be art—will turn out to be worse than any of its sub-ideas. But even if that proves true, along the way I will have gotten the chance to explain to you why I love Paul Scheerbart so much. And that’s enough for me.
Here he is! Scheerbart was a penniless fixture of Berlin cafe culture around the dawn of the 20th century, known at the time for his heroic intake of alcohol and eclectic if amateurish mix of pursuits, some of which managed to draw complimentary mentions from contemporaries like Walter Benjamin, Bruno Taut and Walter Gropius. I myself am a guy who, in his twenties, spent his nights on drunken bullshitting with more talented friends and his days furiously blogging about it. So I feel a great affinity for Scheerbart.
Scheerbart’s writing was in the air for the Expressionists, for Bauhaus, for Dada, though you couldn’t really say he was a driving force for any. Today he’s best remembered for a lengthy essay about glass architecture — colored glass, mind you — which he felt was the key to unlocking human destiny and would offer advantages over conventional materials ranging from the aesthetic to the spiritual to the hygienic to, er, the ability to withstand aerial bombardment.
It seems a bit far-fetched, I know. But aerial bombardment was a new concern at the time — aerial everything was. Scheerbart had seen the Wright Brothers at a European exhibition and was inspired to write a pamphlet about plane-enabled warfare. In it he made a bunch of farsighted predictions like drones and a bunch of far-fetched ones like the end of conventional land forces. This mix of prescience and wild-eyed overreach is pretty typical for him.
Notably for this audience, he was also a science fiction author. Here his best-known work is Lesabendio, a utopian novel that is light on plot even by the standards of its genre. In it, a bunch of aliens living on an asteroid decide to build a tower. I think that’s pretty much it.
But none of that is what I want to talk about here. Paul Scheerbart was also an inventor. And I think he wrote one of the single greatest works about innovation ever published.
We have all read accounts of inventors obsessively toiling toward their breakthroughs. Bell Labs. The HP garage. The Manhattan Project. They’re all fine, I guess. But I think we should spend more time considering the more common case: obsession, toil, and total failure. Because the idea was stupid.
It began in 1907. Scheerbart was thinking about transportation — he started with straightforward ideas like firing people out of canons, deploying parachutes for safe landing — parachutes were exciting new technology at the time. From there he moved on to balloon-suspended rails and enormous wheels with passenger compartments inside. And it was in this moment that inspiration struck.
As you can see, the principle is simple. Wheels B and C balance upon A. D and E are there for safety. Suspend a weight from F and of course the whole thing will tilt to the left and begin proceeding forward… indefinitely. Perpetually. A perpetual motion machine. This was big.
As usual, YouTube can provide confirmation of ideas that are good and true. Though I encourage you to press pause before something uploaded by Nazis begins autoplaying.
“I knew quite well that this assertion would be denied by every physicist. But this was what incited me more than anything else. I had always detested physicists. What concern of mine was Robert Mayer’s law of the conservation of energy?”
In Scheerbart’s day it was apparently harder to fabricate a working model. Not only that, but he was going up against established forces and the status quo. He knew all too well what he was facing, as the above quote attests.
Today we would express this sentiment more economically: fuck the haters. He was undeterred. This was just the beginning.
Add some more wheels and it’s quite obviously a… dredging machine(?). Anyway he quickly realizes this was how the canals on Mars had been built.
He got all this done in about two hours, after which he admits his imagination “went a bit wild.” He draws the diagram hundreds more times over the next few days, swinging between self-doubt and bemusement that he’s unlocked such a cosmic mystery so simply. By the end of the week he has hired a plumber to get him started on a prototype. Alas, he finds his own mechanical skills are lacking, and anyway the thing is too small to work. But these are just details.
He spends the next two days dreaming of unlimited electric light illuminating the ocean’s depths. He can’t think of anything else.
“Day and night, I see wheels incessantly before my eyes, along with whatever else I may be thinking; always wheels — wheels — it’s almost uncanny.”
The prototype is still an issue. But he imagines the deserts blooming as new canals redirect rivers. Should we raze all of earth’s mountains? Or drain the Mediterranean? It’s hard to say. There’s a strong case on both sides. But he knows these are the kinds of questions that we will soon have to answer.
Now that he’s had some time to reflect, Scheerbart worries that the machine — which he’s now calling a “perpet” — will cause problems for human motivation. To us, this might seem outlandish and silly. But I encourage you to reflect on how much of Silicon Valley is currently fretting about implementing a universal basic income because our industry’s technological brilliance risks ending human toil.
He worries that economic expansion is bad for the arts, including his beloved literature. He worries both that the perpet will enable militarism and make it obsolete. Certainly it will be the end of the nation state, though he’s only sort of worried about that. He begins to hope the machine won’t work at all. But he can’t let it go.
And he doesn’t want to get ahead of himself—that’s the mark of a dilettante, as he wisely notes. Wheel C is stubborn. It’ll be amusing if this doesn’t work out! Though he’s now spent two weeks on it.
He refactors and simplifies, but ultimately decides this direction is a mistake.
He manages to get rid of wheel C (it had always been a problem).
This is the first one that goes to the patent office. But obviously friction would be an issue…
…so he adds wheel S, which is meant to be quite heavy. Alas, he also adds D1, which, as we will see, would cause no end of trouble.
After consulting with a mechanic he makes some refinements and resubmits to the patent office.
He’s building a whole product line: locomotion and fixed power generation. Today we’d call these SKUs and ask Paul about his Go To Market strategy.
While taking a break from the details of his latest design, he hauls out an old prototype and has a revelation about inset wheels. It’s so much simpler than he thought! Why didn’t he see it before? He’s convinced he’s finally cracked it.
He couldn’t quite get this one working…
But that was no reason not to adapt it into a suspended design, for use on airships and boats.
In the fall of 1908 — we’re almost a year in — he redoubles his efforts. He’s pretty much broke, but that’s normal for him. He’s somehow still finding money to get models built. And his own fabrication skills have improved, which cuts down on the expense (though the results still aren’t operative). At this point he’s begun hiding the work from his wife.
He talks to engineers and even physicists — he fucking hates physicists — but frankly their responses don’t strike him as very constructive.
He’s also spending some time thinking through the business model. He does some envelope math on the likely royalties and it’s pretty clear he’s going to be a billionaire. He solemnly reflects on how his wealth will probably become a prison.
He also anticipates considerable problems with the banking and automobile industries, since he’ll have so thoroughly disrupted them. Ninety years before Christensen, Scheerbart penned a chapter titled “The Great Disruption.”
Unlimited energy will have substantial effects on the monetary system, of course. Scheerbart anticipates this, too. He knows that the value of gold will be affected— after all, the perpet needs weights, and gold is remarkably heavy.
He has now spent more than a year alternating between frantic iteration, daydreaming about the perpet’s implications, and occasionally composing magnanimous speeches that he will give once he has shown what a bunch of jackasses physicists are.
His thoughts now turn outward and become more philosophical. He rhapsodizes about the “Earthstar” and the work it will do — already does! — for us. He urges humanity to be humble. He anticipates free energy spurring a spiritual revelation that will displace all religions. He expresses his hope for a day when we can gain sustenance through less “ridiculous” means than eating.
He comprehends the unimportance of our mortal existence. In truth, he sees, it doesn’t matter if the perpet works.
But this produces not apathy but a serene recommitment. He returns to the work, newly at peace. I realize you’ve all been waiting: when is he going to realize that wheel D is his problem and address it? Friends, the time is now. He moves through designs quickly with the help of a plumber.
22 is the real breakthrough. From there it was a matter of a few simple refinements…
And at last a happy ending:
“On 12 July of the year 1910, after introducing a new factor, I succeeded in solving the problem flawlessly; unfortunately I must keep silent about my discovery, since this would invalidate the applications I have submitted to the patent offices of various countries.
But I did reach a satisfactory conclusion.”
It had been two and a half years of nearly constant work.
So: why isn’t the screen you’re reading this on powered by perpets? Personally, I can only blame the Scheerbart estate and what must have been a epically bungled commercialization plan.
But failure doesn’t make Scheerbart’s account less compelling. The superficial appeal is obvious: Scheerbart’s work combines a level of grandiosity and engineering absurdity that would make even a blockchain evangelist wince. But I find him more empathetic than I do ridiculous.
Haven’t you ever gotten stuck on a problem and been unable to put it down — at work, at a meal with your family, lying in bed at night? Haven’t you succumbed to daydreams about its impact? The accolades you would win, the scores you could settle — always cautioning yourself that of course maybe none of this will work out. But what if…
I have. I’ve done it again and again. Paul Scheerbart captured it so well, and with so little modesty, that he’ll always have a place in my heart.
But I don’t love Scheerbart’s story just because I can relate to it. He spent two and a half years in the throes of his quest. That’s deeper than I’ve ever been. I find it silly but also deeply moving. In other domains I think we have conceptual tools to understand this feeling.
It’s the work of this man, Jeff McKissack. He mostly worked as a postal carrier, but during the Great Depression he trucked oranges around the country. And I guess it made an impression. From 1956 to 1980 he toiled, by himself, to construct a definitive monument to this great fruit.
It’s a mix of welded-together found objects, poured concrete, mosaics and bright paint. There are poems, models, infographics—all of them about oranges. I can’t find a photo online, but I remember one nook holding a rusted sort of ball-and-stick chemical-looking sculpture labeled RIBOFLAVIN.
The Orange Show wasn’t open to the public during decades when McKissack was building it. But he was confident its appeal would be obvious — he estimated that 90 percent of the country would be interested in visiting. Those crowds didn’t show up for the 1979 grand opening, and he died a few months after.
The Orange Show was my introduction to outsider art — sometimes more accurately called visionary art. For a little while my sister worked for the nonprofit that administers it (and books bands in it for concerts).
But The Orange Show is mostly a regional attraction. Henry Darger is a much more famous outsider artist. Maybe the most famous.
After his father’s death, young Henry was sent to an orphanage outside of his native Chicago. It was by all accounts a cruel place, and Darger eventually succeeded in running away. He walked back to Chicago — more than 160 miles, a trip during which he saw a tornado. Except for a stint in World War I, he worked as a menial laborer in Catholic hospitals for the rest of his life.
This was the room he lived in for most of that time. Henry was an odd guy who kept to himself. He avoided most social interaction. He worked. He went to mass, often several times a day. And he wandered the streets of Chicago, collecting odds and ends he found and hoarding them in his room. We know about this from the accounts of his landlords.
The way they tell it, they took an increasing role as caretakers as Henry aged. Eventually, when Henry realized he couldn’t get up and down the stairs very well, he asked for their help, and they secured him a spot in the same nearby nursing home where his father had died. When he moved there he bequeathed the contents of the room to those landlords. It was only when they started to go through the mess that it became apparent what Henry had been up to.
He is now most famous for paintings like these, but they are merely illustrations, we think, for the 15,000 page novel he left behind—all of it densely typed after first being written by hand.
Darger’s work is sprawling but not subtle, returning again and again to children in bondage, warfare and cataclysmic storms. Three horrors that Darger had experienced and which he couldn’t stop turning over and over in his mind.
Here’s what’s most telling to me about this: we don’t actually know for sure if these illustrations are from the book. Nobody’s read all of it, including people who study Darger professionally.
But people are more focused on the story of how his work came to be than the story it tells. And I’ll come out and say it: I think it’s because it’s not that good, in the same way that The Orange Show isn’t that good. But that doesn’t mean these works aren’t moving, or that they aren’t important.
And that brings us to Elizabeth Holmes. I suspect many of you have read the John Carreyrou book or watched the HBO documentary by Alex Gibney. If you haven’t: Holmes dropped out of Stanford to found Theranos, a secretive startup that aimed to use microfluidics for blood tests, requiring dramatically less invasive blood draws than conventional labs. They hired 800 people and raised $400 million on an estimated valuation of $9 billion. They signed contracts that put Theranos machines and retail tests in Walgreens stores. And none of it worked. It was all a scam.
There are multiple ways to read this story — which is true of everyone in this talk, incidentally. The Gibney documentary highlights Dan Ariely, who makes the case that Holmes was practicing a fake-it-til-you-make-it approach to being a startup CEO. I buy that. But I think we should consider whether Holmes’ zeal was genuine, not just a cynical CEO survival trait. After all, she was already pitching bad microfluidic medical ideas at Stanford before she dropped out to pursue them on a larger scale. And the number of people who mention how she doesn’t blink seems suggestive of… something. We should consider: is Elizabeth Holmes what would have happened if Paul Scheerbart had gotten into YCombinator?
Theranos is a tragedy for the people who worked there, who used their tests, or who invested in it. But I think it’s also kind of a staggering artwork. Michael Heizer’s been driving bulldozers around the desert since 1979, working on a monumental earthwork called City. And I’m sure it’ll be astounding when it opens next year. But even that can’t compete with the admittedly ephemeral pop scale of Theranos.
And it’s funny! She got Henry Kissinger on her board. Thanks to Elizabeth Holmes, we’ve got tapes of that flaccid old war criminal making an ass of himself. Andy Kaufman couldn’t dream of working at this scale.
Also, Holmes is a woman. And while I’m not an expert, it seems to me like outsider artists who obsessively pursue monolithic projects usually aren’t — probably because for much of history our social roles didn’t give them the chance, outside of religious examples like Mary T. Smith or Joan of Arc, anyway. Holmes is a pioneer. And, taken as art, her project is not only impossibly large but also an incredibly biting commentary on our era. Her obsession wound up telling an important story. It moved history! And, just like many of these other artists, she will suffer for it. So I have a weird admiration for her. Though I would never give her my money or blood.
OK. Last one. Franz Reichelt. A successful Parisian tailor, and another person fascinated by the dawn of human flight. Early parachutes had shown some promise, but they clearly needed to be much better. Reichelt dreamed of a suit that aviators could wear that would allow them to descend safely. In 1910 he began building prototypes. It was the same year that Scheerbart’s project concluded.
Reichelt has some early success while running tests with dummies, but he couldn’t replicate it. An aeronautical society turned his idea down. He began making test jumps off buildings into bales of hay. It still didn’t work. He broke a leg. But he was undeterred.
Convinced that low altitude was his problem, he applied for permission to conduct a test from the Eiffel Tower. On the Fourth of February, 1912, he arrived with several friends and members of the media, including a film crew. Officials had understood that he would be using another dummy, but upon arriving he surprised everyone by declaring his intention to jump himself. His friends tried to dissuade him, but he persisted, declaring to the assembled journalists his absolute faith in his invention.
So he ascended
I hope none of us ever learn what it’s like to believe something this deeply. To have no choice but to surrender yourself to it. But it’s a mystery that deserves consideration and, I think, even a sort of respect.
My dad had a law degree, but he never used it much. He worked demolition, then construction, then found a niche installing lighting for art. He liked playing guitar and trading stories at the gym. And he loved the video production classes he took at the Arlington Career Center. He managed to land a gig making an instructional video or two for the FDA. But video was mostly an expensive new hobby that arrived just in time for the empty nest left by his kids going to college.
He was never very good at it, to be honest. He didn’t have much photographic sensibility. Ironically, he failed to light many of his shots.And he could never remember how to get things done in Premiere or Final Cut, instead writing out long lists of instructions for himself (always on graph paper)–a habit I took to be an amusing piece of fuddy duddyism at the time, but now understand to have been among the first creeping tendrils of his dementia.
When he got his diagnosis and had decided to go home to Vermont it was abrupt. He didn’t want to bother anyone, I think. My sister and I learned one day that our childhood home had been sold. But I managed to grab some things, including his stacks of DV tapes, and I digitized and uploaded them a few years ago.
I never really went through them until now. There are a lot of shots of books about Congo for the documentary he never finished (our church hosted a journalist who’d fled Mbutu’s regime, which got dad intrigued). There’s video from his kids’ graduations. Video of his buddies’ bands. There is a recording of an entire production by Le Neon, the French theater that opened in the strip mall up the street, whose cast my dad befriended and who would periodically descend upon our tiny house for grown-up parties bursting with Gallic charisma in a way I found terrifying.
And there’s some video of him. I wish there was more. Clips that capture his wit, his comic timing, his enthusiasms, his laugh. Or, like here, the depth of intellect and feeling he carried through the world. Let’s be frank: this video is not a good way to sell accent lighting. It is not sufficient for that task. But it’s both not enough and too much–a glimpse of how much was there, what a ridiculous abundance. He renders the task for which he wrote those words irrelevant, absurd. Dad, you are supposed to be selling lights, not the sublime!
My father was a gentle, beautiful person, and everyone who met him knew it. It is tempting, sometimes, to succumb to the bitter sense that his gifts were wasted, especially after watching his disease slowly cheat him of them these last seven years. But of course they weren’t wasted. I just wish those of us who got to witness them had more company.
Goodbye, dad. We love you. We miss you. We have missed you. We will always miss you.
I live about a mile north of the Capitol in Washington, DC. My wife’s workplace is a few hundred yards from the White House. Our seven month old daughter’s daycare is a few hundred yards past that. I wouldn’t say I was ever in favor of goading a foreign power into launching a nuclear attack on DC. But these facts have made me downright humorless about it.
Sometimes I talk about this danger with friends. I think we all have the same dream of vaporization, borrowed from movies and cartoons. A rising sun, growing brightness, and then disintegration, oblivion. Maybe even catharsis. Not so bad. But that’s just the movies:
Many hibakusha say that straight after the bomb, people tried to get away in the oppositedirection from where the bomb had exploded (the hypocenter); people near Hiroshima Station escaped to the east or to the north, those near Yokogawa Station to the north, those around Hijiyama Hill to the south or to the east. There were, of course, some people who were going against the flow because of their families or jobs.
There were still other people who were coming into Hiroshima from the surrounding communities to help with the rescue work. The Army Marine Transport stationed near Hiroshima Port at Ujina dispatched soldiers from its unit called the “Akatsuki Corps” to the city center to be engaged in the rescue effort.
They saw hideously disfigured corpses which could not be identified; schoolgirls who were desperate for water jumping into the river; people walking about like zombies, with burned and peeled-off skin hanging from their bodies; a boy trying to save his groaning mother who was trapped under fallen walls. Fire was approaching. A man was beating his dying daughter hard with a piece of wooden board, saying, “Your pain will be over soon.” It was hell all around.
Flames and screams filled the city, where refugees and rescue teams were going to and fro. Hanging over them was another evil of the atomic bomb: residual radiation.
Of course a contemporary bomb would be much larger. Maybe there would be less pain. I can’t really understand what the father in the passage above did–though I suppose he knew some things that I don’t, and desperately hope never to learn. It’s hard to even picture: when I think about this I don’t imagine being close enough to face this catastrophe with my family–surely it would all happen too fast. But I can imagine my daughter under the rubble of her daycare, crying for her mama, and me, and milk, until she can’t anymore. I can see that very clearly.
The President has brought this vision closer to reality, and he’s done it with his Twitter account. I don’t think many intelligent people deny this.
So why does Twitter fail to ban or censor him? To do whatever small thing they can to make this future less likely? In my high school’s debate club, nuclear war was the cataclysm used to justify all manner of implausibly connected policies. Debate is pretty silly: it rewards you for twisting arguments to end in any consequence you choose. We picked nuclear war because we couldn’t imagine a more compelling justification for a decision. Why does Twitter not act?
All of these pieces contain an argument about the newsworthiness of the President’s tweets. The idea that notoriety constitutes an ethical justification is so childish–literally childish, they teach kids not to do it–that I don’t intend to waste any time discussing it.
But there are other rationales in these accounts which are more interesting.
Applying inconsistent standards to the world’s most famous Twitter user could prompt others to question the reliability of the service as a platform for expression. This makes sense in the abstract, but not in practice. Twitter is already well-known for applying its rules inconsistently and for revising them frequently.
When I was at the Sunlight Foundation, we adopted a project called Politwoops, which was originally created by a clever fellow named Breyten Ernsting. He brought it to us because he thought our profile might afford it some protection: Politwoops was clearly not allowed by the Twitter terms of service, and he was worried about being shut down.
When a tweet is deleted, a signal is sent through the Twitter service. It’s just like a normal tweet, but invisible. Twitter clients must receive and act upon this signal, deleting the indicated tweets. If they do not, Twitter turns off the credentials that the clients must use to access the service and bans the developers from getting new ones. Breyten had escaped Twitter’s attention so far, but he knew his luck would eventually run out.
We turned on the site, issued a press release, and soon received a call from Twitter’s lawyers. They understood our argument–which, ha, was about newsworthiness. (In our defense, none of the tweets we tracked seemed likely to start a nuclear war.) But yes, we said that tweets from public officials were public statements and the public deserved to have them preserved in the way that other records would be. Twitter’s lawyers wouldn’t say so but they clearly thought our project was sort of neat and didn’t want the bad press that shutting down a government transparency effort would attract. But they weren’t going to rewrite their terms for us. Eventually they seized upon a line in the terms about automation that was related to the thing we were doing that we weren’t supposed to do. “What if we made poor Nicko review the tweets manually each day? It wouldn’t be automated!” This, their lawyers said, might be acceptable. They would get back to us. Then they stopped responding to our emails and calls. True to their almost-extant word, we were never sued.
Anyway don’t believe them if they say they have to follow their own rules. They don’t.
Say what you will about courting nuclear apocalypse, but it’s compelling content. Perhaps a small chance of ending human civilization looks okay when weighed against a slightly less-small chance of hitting Wall Street’s growth expectations. I don’t believe this one either, though. It’s too monstrous and the plausible upside too limited. Twitter obliquely disclaims this explanation when they say that “No one person’s account drives Twitter’s growth, or influences these decisions,” and I believe them.
Of all the excuses in the articles linked above, the most persistent and galling is the idea that moderating the President’s tweeting would just send the messages and their effects elsewhere–that it “would also not silence that leader.” This only makes sense if you believe that the facts of Twitter’s medium have no influence on the messages it contains. But I don’t believe that, and Twitter certainly doesn’t. Go read any of their press materials. Go read their hand-wringing about the change to 280 characters and how they measured its effects on the messages people share. Twitter’s immediacy, its intimacy, its charm and depravity and childishness: so much flows from its brevity. Remove the network effects and that’s all there is left. It’s so simple. It used to even be beautiful.
The President’s statements are shaped by the medium he is using. If he did not have Twitter, he would still say unwise things–the man is clearly unfit for office by temperament, and suffering from some sort of progressive impairment as well. But without Twitter we and he would at least be spared his reflexive expressions, the dangerous wildness that springs from his fraying mind when nothing is around to distract, soothe or contain him. His insults would be revised, his outbursts delayed by more than just geriatric facility with a smartphone. It would be different and safer.
Twitter is run by sophisticated people. They probably understand social media better than the rest of us do. So I suspect they know that banning the President would assign them an indelible ideological code in our ceaseless tribal sorting. I think this is what they are desperate to avoid. This is why they don’t ban the President.
Quick: was the last pizza you ordered made by Democrats or Republicans? What about the last YouTube channel you watched? How about your coffee machine? No more fraternizing with the enemy: teammates and neutral parties only. Everyone knows that social media platforms are made by Democrats, but they aren’t necessarily for Democrats. Banning Trump would change this instantly. Twitter would be for the Blue Team, its repudiation a primetime pass-time for the Red. This would let us all have a lot of fun being angry, but it’s hard to imagine it being good for business. In fact it could be very, very bad. Twitter is a company that aspires to a level of ubiquity so complete that it thinks it should be streaming NFL games, for heaven’s sake. Writing broadcast license-sized checks to the NFL is surely a powerful remedy for indifference to Republicans’ feelings.
Matthew Ingram’s piece in CJR gestures at this dimension of Twitter’s calculus. He views it as a win for the alt-right, but it’s more important to understand it as a loss for Twitter. I think this is probably the reason for Twitter’s reticence, but even if one were to admit corporate self-preservation as an acceptable reason for failing to stop a war–an idea as morally obscene as it is plausible–it’s a bad decision. President Trump is unpopular, and his tweeting is very unpopular, even among his supporters. The number of Americans who would be genuinely upset by Twitter banning him would be small. Admittedly, the number who would enjoy pretending to be upset about it would plausibly be immense. But at some point you have to turn off cable news and hope that the distinction between the two still means something.
Besides, Twitter is already being inexorably forced toward its inevitable tribal affiliation. Users are not going to stop pointing out the indefensibility of its accommodation of white supremacists. Its heel-dragging reticence when asked to apply its stated standards accomplishes nothing. Pathetic imitators are springing up, unimportant as rivals but proof that the right is not soothed by the slow pace of enforcement. For everyone else, the presence of hate groups has become widely-known and infuriating. What are they hoping to achieve by delay? Some sort of deus ex machina, I suppose. An exogenous event that shifts the discourse. Nuclear detonations might fit the bill, but it’s hard to imagine what else could.
Here’s what is all but certain: there are people within Twitter who feel action should be taken and there are people who disagree. One side is winning. Both are archiving the other’s emails about this fight. And the balance can shift.
(Releasing those emails could shift the balance. Someone should do that.)
Twitter leadership should accept the fate before them. Donald Trump was great for you until he wasn’t. You know, you’re right: everything probably will be fine. But it might not. If it isn’t, history will eventually see those emails, and it will surely never forgive you. Your grandchildren will have to pick new names. Your company will be remembered as a sickness. There won’t just be blood on your hands, it will pour off you in sheets. Murky footsteps will trail you and crowds will part in disgust, clots falling from your lips as they form excuses and explanations. It will go like that until you die, which is when the people camped outside your house will finally erupt in cheers.
None of that is what you signed up for! Remember @dog_rates? Wasn’t that fun?
C’mon. It’s going to be an unpleasant couple of board meetings, I admit. But you’ve had those before. You’re still going to be quite rich, you know. You’ll probably get invited to some rather nice panels and dinner parties about this, too. It’s a shame, not to get to show the world what you could have done for NFL television delivery, if only you’d had the chance. But you’ll still get to raise your family, and maybe so will I.
Sam Altman’s post about Silicon Valley orthodoxy has everyone on Twitter pretty upset, and understandably so. It’s a mess. Altman’s not brave enough to defy the orthodoxy he feels stifled by, and instead offers a straw man too ridiculous to take seriously. The idea that anti-gay sentiment must be tolerated if we want to accommodate genius is ludicrous; it’s hard to even know what to do with it.I suppose I should admit that just last weekend I listened to an Apollo astronaut admiringly reflect on how no one could build a rocket engine quite like Wernher von Braun. Still. It takes tremendous self-flattery to imagine that the tech industry is built on minds so rare. I don’t think I’m being unfair in supposing that Altman is probably mostly sore about the treatment his friend Pete has received.
Still, Altman’s discomfort puts me in mind of my own looming dinosaur status (38 next year!). It’s only happenstance that on the same day I read Altman’s blog I read this piece by Dayna Tortorici in n+1. And while they’re talking about different sets of mores, I think it goes a long way to explaining how and why Altman feels the way he does:
The way they had learned to live in the world — to write novels, to make art, to teach, to argue about ideas, to conduct themselves in sexual and romantic relationships — no longer fit the time in which they were living. Especially the men. Their novels, art, teaching methods, ideas, and relationship paradigms were all being condemned as unenlightened or violent. Many of these condemnations issued from social media, where they multiplied and took on the character of a mounting threat: a mob at the gate. But repudiations of the old ways were also turning up in outlets that mattered to them: in reviews, on teaching evaluations, on hiring committees. Authors and artists whose work was celebrated as “thoughtful” or “political” not eight years ago were now being singled out as chauvinists and bigots. One might expect this in old age, but to be cast out as a political dinosaur by 52, by 40, by 36? They hadn’t even peaked! And with the political right — the actual right — getting away with murder, theft, and exploitation worldwide . . . ? That, at least, was how I gathered they felt. Sometimes I thought they were right. Sometimes I thought they needed to grow up.
This was the deal, right? The culture would move, and you’d slow down relative to it, and eventually you’d be a monster. But not right away. That was supposed to happen around retirement. Things seem to have accelerated. I think this is the root of Altman’s complaint.
What’s interesting to me is the possibility that thins acceleration has been nonuniform, like the gas of a spiraling stellar accretion disc, reaching a screaming white-hot intensity at its center even as its outer edges barely drift. In rural communities we are still working to end the persecution of gay people; in the city we’ve moved on to ending gender. I pick these examples not to signal my sympathy for either but merely to illustrate their distance from one another. I had assumed that although the system’s state was spatially gradient, its velocity was a constant. I now think this is obviously wrong. And differential acceleration means that things grow ever further apart.
It’s easy enough to shrug off whichever part of this picture you dislike. For example, critics reasonably dismiss instances of illiberalism on college campuses by pointing to more prosaic (and urgent) political struggles elsewhere. But these are simply different parts of the disc. The larger question of differential ideological acceleration remains ignored. Presumably it must all be reconciled into a culture, more or less, some day or another, through means disappointing or violent.
Maybe this is how it always was, just another sad minor revelation of age, like culture seeming to become boringly nostalgia-soaked when the seemingly sophisticated references to works that predate you grow rare. But people can self-sort and communicate more efficiently than ever, and that means they can jockey for position within their ideological projects more furiously than before. Spiraling inward, the heat and pressure growing.
It’s interesting stuff, And while the following isn’t shocking to people who pay attention to startups, it is consonant with the fretting mood I’m occasionally in about excess efficiency. Consider his explanation of why hardware is unattractive for investors. From this post:
Consumer hardware startups need to understand that commoditization of their hardware is not a possibility, it is an inevitability.
As copycats are born, margin structures get compressed and customer acquisition costs increase. Few things protect against this besides a strong brand and retail/channel dominance. […]
At the time, the idea of a wearable fitness tracker was pretty new and it was obvious the concept was good. Each year as Fitbit gained popularity, the number of direct competitors at CES grew rapidly. In 2013, I probably talked to 8 or 10 copycats. By 2014, there had to have been over 100 and in 2015 the number was impossible to count. Every random Chinese company seemed to have an accelerometer on a wristband with a bluetooth app.
Despite hundreds of companies with nearly identical fitness tracker hardware, Fitbit was able to master brand, recurring customer engagement, and retail strategy.
And this one, on the kinds of business models that Bolt likes to fund:
Plenty of companies have built big businesses by selling hardware at a 30% gross margin. Why can’t you just run a Kickstarter and sell a ton of units through Best Buy when to scale up? You can, you’re just entering into a game of diminishing returns with an extremely slim chance of winning in the long-run.
Recurring revenue matters because it fundamentally changes your business. There are good reasons investors are averse to hardware but love software. One of the leading reasons revolves around future revenue. Investors pay huge premiums to own stock in companies betting on the likelihood that future revenue will be drastically larger than current revenue. If you’re in a traditional hardware business, future revenue is confined to cyclic product sales. This roughly means you get one shot at revenue with each customer per product development cycle: each sale must be painfully acquired by building a new product every 18 months or so. […]
This is where the brilliance of the Keurig model shines. The initial sale of a $120 Keurig brewer isn’t that difficult or costly. Keurig doesn’t spend a lot on marketing or advertising and the product isn’t complex to manufacture or service. In my rough estimation, the BOM for a brewer is around $40, giving Keurig about a 25% gross margin on the product. Time from PO to FOB is likely less than 2 months, yet high-margin K-cup sales start immediately and continue for years. Keurig spends less than $0.015 on each K-cup and charges 100% more per unit than bagged, ground coffee. Yet few people complain about this cost.
You can still be successful in investor-backed hardware ventures, but the models seem to have become more complicated:
You can achieve a level of sophistication and vertical integration that makes profitable competition against you impossible. This grows more difficult by the year, though. Companies like Apple can design their own silicon or purchase market-shifting quantities of aluminum-milling robots, but this is not a viable strategy for most.
You can “dominate the retail channel” which I take to mean some combination of anticompetitive practices and managing consumer perception — here’s the Bolt blog approvingly discussing the success of Beats headphones:
I estimate that the COGS without labor or shipping is $16.89 – yet Beats is able to successfully retail these headphones for $199+. This is the power of brand; Dr. Dre and Jimmy Iovine have leveraged their personal backgrounds and a sleek design to launch a remarkable brand that’s become fundamental to music pop culture.
There’s nothing wrong with selling people a brand experience, except insofar as the creation of those experiences can be done more or less cheaply, freeing resources for stuff that has to cost money.
Or you can create a business with recurring revenue by ensuring your product’s usefulness is tied to ongoing payments, like the Keurig.
I think most of us amateur observers are used to thinking about globalization in terms of its impact on labor and consumer prices — not its affect on how we relate to products or the business models that shape those relationships. As we collectively revisit the antiprotectionist consensus of the last few decades, it’s interesting to consider the other impacts that increased international economic friction could have. I am no expert, and I wouldn’t dare guess whether such measures could boost manufacturing employment. But it’s fascinating to consider how a moderate level of protectionism could — paradoxically — reinvigorate business models with a simpler, more transactional and less predatory relationship to customers.
This is the craziest thing I’ve read in a while. I may be missing context, but it seems that Elon Musk’s various ventures have settled on giving important product announcements and exclusive access to a cartoon science blogger named Tim Urban (Randall Munroe was presumably too expensive or inquisitive). Over many, many words, Urban explains the idea behind Musk’s newest astoundingly ambitious venture: Neuralink, which aims to accelerate the development of direct brain-to-machine interfaces.
It’s impossible to know the extent to which Urban’s account actually reflects Neuralink’s plans. It’s built on the kind of homunculus-riddled explanations of cognition that one is warned against repeatedly, even in the undergrad classes that make up the entirety of my education on these questions. But from Neuralink’s perspective this might be a feature, not a bug: Urban can’t have gotten it quite right, so everything is deniable.
To the extent that it is accurate, the essay itself perfectly recapitulates Neuralink’s strategy: just as the reader must slog through tens of thousands of unobjectionable words before reaching the punchline, Neuralink’s real aims are buried beneath a bunch of shorter-term medical goals that are unquestionably admirable. Sensory prostheses, cures for paralysis–only a monster would object to these. But that’s not all they want to do. Ultimately, they want to connect human minds seamlessly to digital communication technologies. Memory and computation would be partially offloaded to computers. Nonverbal forms of interpersonal communication might be possible. Collective forms of cognition could arise.
Given the power of network effects and the pathetically small incidence of technological abstinence in our society (picture a Western teenager without a smartphone) is it plausible that such a change could really be called optional? Can there be any doubt that this would transfigure humanity into something unrecognizable? Can there be any argument that this would constitute the end of our species’ current intellectual and cultural history?
And who gets to make this decision, anyway? An overextended Silicon Valley weirdo? His board of venture capitalists? I spent years of my professional life working to transform American political institutions on behalf of a billionaire philanthropist who was so-empowered because he happened to write some early auction software. All I can say in defense of this decisionmaking system is that we were not all that effective.
A good response to this is that there has never been a deliberative process for these sorts of things: humanity blunders into new technologies and always will. The best you can hope for is some queasy retrospective essays about the Manhattan Project. I don’t have an alternative to suggest, but I find this insufficient. My sense is that we were enormously lucky that nuclear weapons happened to be developed in cultural and social systems that turned out to have brinksmanship as their equilibrium state (so far, anyway). Our species has occasionally invented societies that do not work that way.
But back to the matter at hand. Naturally, the justification offered for destroying humanity is that this is the only way to save it: Musk says he’s worried that we’re about to invent vengeful superpowered AI, and that a hivemind superconsciousness is the only path to protecting ourselves. It’s hard not to notice that this theory contains a number of things that are optional, unlikely or could simply not work.
Personally, I think a more parsimonious explanation is that Musk suffers from a psychosis by which he finds various science fiction-y ideas utterly irresistible and is compelled to do everything in his power to realize them. I say this with both horror and admiration: if even one of his various non-Hyperloop projects works out, he will have made himself into a figure of world-historical significance. Even if I had the talent to do these sorts of things (obviously I don’t), I think the wiser and more ethical path is a family, a career, a home, and then historical oblivion. But it’s hard not to marvel at someone who is actually able to live your daydreams.
The crucial difference is that electric cars and solar panels and batteries and rockets and terraforming Mars all seem like good or at least sane ideas. This is not obviously true of Neuralink.
I won’t bore you with obvious arguments about such technologies’ capacity for totalitarian control or simplehacking. Instead I’ll ask: how is the electronic communication project looking, do you think?
Brain-to-brain interaction could easily be a singularity-level development, something with consequences that cannot be anticipated. It could even have Fermi Paradox implications! Reasoning about it might be impossible. But apparently we have to, and so we should probably start by asking what has happened over the last century as we learned to use electricity to make communication instantaneous, then digital, then networked.
I’m not sure whether or how to count world wars against being able to Facetime with your grandkid, so let’s just call that stuff a wash. I find the very recent history of many-to-many, pan-society frictionless communication to be extremely discouraging. Social media makes us less happy, as our evolved impulses for status competition and tribalism are supercharged. At a larger scale, the U.S. media and political ecosystem seems to have been successfully manipulated to a mind-boggling conclusion by a foreign power during our last election, despite the fact that the manipulation was detected as it was in progress. We can quibble about which part of this era of unprecedentedly efficient communication is responsible for our seemingly unstoppable descent into bitter factionalism and individual discontent; whether technologically enabled forms of suffering are new or merely more humane substitutes for older torments; whether the humanitarian benefits still being realized by technological diffusion outweigh the ennui that sets in after its arrival. But I don’t think many would disagree that the hedonic, intellectual, spiritual and institutional returns to a fully networked contemporary lifestyle are looking pretty suspect.
This is a tragedy. You could not find many people more enthusiastic than my younger self about the cathartic deliverance that perfect communication would provide. I ran a BBS as a kid; I built grandiose, essay-filled websites; I was consumed by technology and absolutely convinced that millennia-old liberal ideals about knowledge and deliberation would finally reach their apotheosis now that an age of universal democratic access was dawning. I count the failure of this vision as one of the great disappointments of my life.
In my younger self’s defense: it’s still early days. The jury is out on all of this. Yes, we are responding to social media and institutional decentralization badly, but populations sometimes evolve resistance to new pathogens after an initial wave of devastation. It’s possible we will develop the cultural practices necessary to avoid the helpless emotional and social debasement that currently pervade a fully wired existence.
(On the other hand that lifestyle still only reaches a tiny fraction of very wealthy people. Things will probably get much worse in the short term.)
I have no idea how this will work out in the future, but it seems obvious that blithely accelerating these processes today is unwise. If we do learn how to endure this changed way of living, I will agree it’s a shame that Elon and I will have missed our chance to be a part of its completion. But we all owe each other caution and care on matters this enormous, and maybe this is the cost of that duty. All that history owes us is oblivion. If Elon cannot learn to be content with that, I pity him. But not enough to release him from his responsibility to me.
The Eye-fi is an SD card with an embedded wifi chip. Configure it, put it in your camera and it can wirelessly upload photos without human intervention. It’s a neat gadget, even if I never did manage to get my mother’s working for her.
Alas, Eye-fi’s software accomplishes this feat by running in the background of an always-on desktop computer. Worse, they’ve been steadily eroding their services’ capabilities, stripping away integration with photosharing sites people actually use in favor of their own cloud photo service (don’t worry, the first year is free).
A few intrepid geeks reverse-engineered the early Eye-fi cards, but enthusiasm seems to have diminished as Eye-fi’s services changed and their early-gen cards stopped working. Nevertheless, the techniques they discovered and software they wrote still work… well, they almost worked. There were some rough spots.
I have a baby on the way (did I mention that?) and expect to be generating lots of photos. So I have taken one low-dependency-count open source project and given it a fresh coat of paint. In addition to the satisfaction of knowing you are running slightly more reputable Python, the system is now able to upload your photos to Flickr, if you let it. And it runs in Docker (renamed as of today to Moby, ugh), which should remove many of the idiosyncratic configuration headaches that would otherwise make sharing a project like this a masochistic declaration of one’s intent to provide free tech support, forever.
If any of this sounds useful I hope you’ll give it a look. It has already happily uploaded many debug photos of my coffee table to Flickr from my a household Raspberry Pi. Perhaps it will prove equally helpful to you.
I gave a talk at Bike Hack Night a couple of weeks ago, and have finally managed to put the audio and slides online. It runs about 12 minutes long and describes how I used the ESP8266 wifi microcontroller, ultrasonic rangefinding sensors, a homegrown iOS app and some data analysis to examine how much space cars afford me when passing me as I ride my bike.
It was a fun project! The big takeaway for me was the accessibility of these tools, both in terms of learning the technology and in terms of price. If you assume a smartphone is already handy, total bill of materials doesn’t even hit the $20 mark.
I got horribly sick around 10pm on Thanksgiving night. It wasn’t the food (no one else got sick) but by early afternoon the next day I was in the ER getting IV fluids and a CT scan to ensure my appendix was in one piece. It was! But the rest of the stuff in there remained unhappy and I didn’t eat anything but gatorade and two bananas for the next 48 hours. I’m feeling much better now but the recovery process has involved watching a hell of a lot of TV. Which reminded me of something I’ve been meaning to write about for a long time. Specifically: the cultural salience of the CBS primetime lineup. It’s the key to everything. Bear with me.
CBS’s loud claims to being America’s top network need to be taken with a grain of salt. The numbers are actually pretty close, and the rankings switch around if you start removing sports from the equation. Still, their shows are indisputably popular. And indisputably stupid. Very, very stupid. This is the network that made America’s top comedy a show defined by the catchphrase “Bazinga!” — a detail so on-the-nose that it reads like Pynchon losing a step.
The strategy is boringly obvious: lowest common denominator. Some of this is simple, like cloning successful formulae into new franchise spinoffs or using the hoariest TV tropes (their newest show’s tagline: “he’s not a lawyer — he’s a trial consultant”). Normally this is merely banal and unworthy of notice. But now, in a year when we’ve all learned some horrifying things about what appeals to the masses, I find myself pondering what else they might like.
Identifiability is clearly important to these shows’ success. Leads wear casual clothing and are often unshaven. They are not cerebral except when they are specifically meant to be nerds. Credentials are never mentioned (well, except badges). Not to be unkind, but there are quite a lot of fat people. Some shows seem specifically engineered to have no distinguishing characteristics except a cast as heavy as its audience. For a long time I couldn’t figure out why a formerly cut-up action star like Chris O’Donnell led a top action series behind a doughy torso and loose neckline. Now I think it might be more of a feature than a bug. These are shows for an audience that has let itself go. Or has had to.
It’s also a set of shows expressing personal dynamics so anachronistically conventional that it feels like they must be there specifically for reassurance. The shows are overwhelmingly white, but then it’s not uncommon for television networks to target racially-defined audiences. The treatment of women is sexist — plenty of comments about how sexy everyone is — but always with plausible deniability (it’s mostly villains or rakish one-off characters making the remarks). Slightly more unusual is the frequency with which these series are anchored by a somewhat weatherbeaten white guy who’s generationally separate from the rest of the cast. I take this to be a promise to an aging audience that virility hasn’t left them entirely behind. That they’re still in charge.
But this is so much pointy-headed snobbery. Less important than how the viewers see themselves is how they see the world.
There is a larger military presence on CBS than the other networks combined. So many characters who used to be in the service; not too long ago, so many shows structured around weirdly civilian corners of the armed forces. Arguably this is merely a twist on TV’s love of police departments as a means of structuring four acts and a teaser: martial rather than municipal. Still, pair it with an utterly blase attitude toward and presumption of omnipresent surveillance, and it all starts to feel a little authoritarian and bad.
Finally, while I think the moment has passed, I got started on this line of thought during the burst of forensic investigator shows–CSI, Bones et al. Some of this is just the usual network copycattery. Still, it’s remarkable to see America fall in love with shows obsessed with human remains as religious affiliation (and, presumably, belief in an afterlife) falls off a cliff. CSI debuted in 2000; the correlation with this methodologically questionable index is probably too good to be true. But the broader trend is hard to deny.
I don’t have any grand observations to make about all of this. That’s probably why it’s never made it past the drafts folder before now. Still, it’s striking how different media looks when it’s only courting an audience, only chasing dollars. And winning.
(I should acknowledge that overthinking these shows is not an idea that’s wholly mine. Years ago my friend Matt tried to pitch a TV recap series about the top (dumb) broadcast shows at work, as a fun differentiator from the overwhelming mass of prestige cable recaps. Alas, I understand it went nowhere. I was already noodling on some crackpot theories about the above but his argument made me resolve to write them down… someday. It’s worth mentioning that CBS shows’ dialogue and the marketing specifically recapitulates his thesis about the family unit’s renewed primacy in entertainment.)
Steph and I have been AirBnBing our guest bedroom for about a year and a half now, and it’s been mostly great. It’s not a ton of extra money, but it’s not an insignificant amount, either. We occasionally meet interesting people. We are regularly reminded that the world is full of people unlike ourselves, and that it’s possible to get along with them, at least when the interaction is supervised by an app’s influential reputation system.
And it seems like it’s probably good for us. I love my job dearly, but it does involve a lot of playing with computers and eating free snacks. Spending a few hours a month scrubbing toilets for money makes me feel like I might have at least a slim chance of surviving the revolution.
The aforementioned reputation system does a good job of driving nearly everyone within it toward neurotic approval-seeking. You are not just supplying a service for money; you are also hoping your guests will have a good time and compliment your home and be impressed with your lifestyle. They are not just paying for lodging; they are trying not to be a bother and giving you coffee from their home country and making implausible offers to put you up if you ever visit COUNTRY/CITY X. It’s all a little bit charming and let’s be honest more than a little pathetic, but the five-star ratings really do seem to weed out the sociopaths. It works pretty well.
Despite their business being built on overeager social fumbling, AirBnB is taking steps to make interactions more impersonal through the use of their Instant Book feature, by which hosts relinquish their ability to approve requests from prospective guests one by one. They have both good and bad reasons for this. Good, in that there is strong evidence of racial and no doubt other forms of iniquity in how hosts accept guests. Bad, in that they were pushing Instant Book well before the bias conversation, presumably because lowering coordination costs leads to more transactions and revenue.
I am in favor of systematizing away opportunities for human odiousness, but Steph and I are unlikely to enable Instant Book. In our experience, the worst AirBnB interactions occur when expectations are mismatched. A first-time user with poor English expects to get a full condo, rather than just a room, for eighty bucks a night. A high school kid from suburban Maryland expects to stay at our place with his girlfriend. A couple of friends expect a third to maybe join their weekend trip on a whim and crash on our living room couch. A new graduate’s parents have never been out of China before and expect to order room service. Or maybe Steph and I just have an inkling of plans for a week we haven’t thought to block off yet. Reviewing potential guests allowed us to avoid several of these catastrophes. Plus the silly letter the guest has to compose gets the stilted courtship described above off on the right foot.
Most guests are nice but boring folks. They typically hole up in the room they’ve let and do their thing without much bother. We have learned to identify risk factors for those who will spend a bunch of time at home (when they do this you have to pretend not to mind):
Those at the end of very long trips will be exhausted and will just want to surf the web rather than continuing to fake enthusiasm for seeing cultural treasures or whatever.
The young will be too poor to spend time outside of the house except for whatever their Big Planned Event is. Also their blase attitude toward their creeping mortality makes them feel like they have all the time in the world to visit the National Archives someday, but you know what, young man, you don’t.
The old, particularly those who have clearly been dragged along by their spouses, might just want to watch TV, which in our household often requires moderate-to-advanced skill at TCP/IP network configuration. We try our best but some of them don’t even know how to run a traceroute.
We have been charmed by several guests. There was the Parisian atmospheric scientist who flew planes to take air samples, who Steph still pines for. There was the bartender who was back to take the bar for the third time after missing the date for the one near his home in New York City. There was the Eastern European flight attendant who met his internet language-learning community girlfriend for the first time in our house on Valentine’s Day, followed her home to Southeastern Virginia, proposed, was not allowed to meet her family, flew home without a ring or engagement, and was still so polite as to respond to our thirsty AirBnB requests for details about how it all went. I think fondly of all of them.
But if I were to offer only one piece of advice about how to charm your AirBnB host it would have to be this: try not to leave too much hair behind. Honestly, this is all I care about. Maybe avoid putting wet garbage in the bin, too, so I can reuse the liner after I empty it. Otherwise, go nuts. My dream guests are an aging and profoundly bald gay couple. No stray hairs, in bed at a reasonable hour, and maybe they can tell us some good stories over a glass of wine. God bless them.
If you are considering AirBnB hosting, I have a longer list of suggestions:
Consider the cost of room turnover and the cost of guests letting their guard down and beginning to transgress boundaries. For us this means bookings of 3-5 nights, which is a narrow window that probably hurts earnings but minimizes stress.
Use AirBnB’s free photography service. It makes your place look great, though it can take a while to get an appointment and our listing makes it look like we have a Christmas tree up year-round.
Buy some makeup removal wipes and leave them in a prominent spot, or else you will eventually wind up with some destroyed towels. The first time you see a guest heading out for the evening in unexpectedly high heels you should immediately buy another towel set on Amazon.
Get some programmable door locks or a key lock box, obviously. Alternately, prepare yourself to get upset over guests not respecting your arrival policies. You will be irate but they will not understand the problem at all, like a dog getting yelled at for drinking out of the toilet. It’s water, isn’t it? I don’t see what the big deal is.
Ask existing hosts for testimonials to get over the “is this new listing a scam that will steal my kidneys” hump.
If your guest shower has a hose sprayer, great, bully for you. If not, get one of these things. It will make your bathroom cleaning so, so much faster. A little handheld vacuum is also a substantial time-saver.
It’s maybe overkill but we installed some fan timers and USB outlets to encourage non-moldy bathrooms and fewer questions about borrowing chargers.
We’ve found that guests leave reviews about how much they like having a good neighborhood guide, a comfy bed, immaculately clean bathrooms and an electric kettle in the room. They don’t seem to care about the cheap Trader Joe’s wine we gave away for a while. I guess we weren’t fooling them.
Sometimes we are attentive, sometimes we are busy, sometimes we are maybe even a little surly. The guests don’t seem to notice. The AirBnB review is by now a well-understood compositional form. Give them a fair deal and they will write you one, like a traveling bard composing a song. You’ll meet some strangers and it’ll basically be okay, sometimes a little worse but often better than you’d think.
A week ago I was in Las Vegas, surrounded by thousands of people attending Black Hat and DEF CON, the computer security industry’s two most important US gatherings. I had never been, and I loved it. I loved it.
What could be more hyperbolic than an army of hackers building a hive within Las Vegas, a place that is already a cartoonish, predatory and vacuum-sealed daydream? We have all watched decades of hacker movies and shitty quasi-martial CBS procedurals where geeks have piercings and weird hair and (when in front of a keyboard) superpowers. My expectations had been set by portrayals I knew to be bad. Surely the reality would be different, which is a euphemism adults use for “disappointing”.
But it wasn’t. It was a wonderland. Those production designers did a better job than I thought. And the superpowers are real, albeit demanding of much more time and tedious scrutiny of IDA Pro output than can comfortably fit in three acts and 46 minutes. But I’m getting ahead of myself.
I did not understand the difference between Black Hat and DEF CON before going. Black Hat is more professional, I had heard. DEF CON is cheaper. A lot of the same people go to both. All of this is true, but it’s a shallow explanation.
Black Hat is an expertly-produced conference for security professionals, a category that includes researchers, software vendors and surely more than a few cybercriminals. Its escalatingly expensive tiers of access allow participation in the frenzied vendor hall; attendance at the “briefings” where new and sometimes dangerous research is presented; and “classes” where specific attacks are taught–to use a not entirely hypothetical example, a fun class exercise might involve bringing Iran’s IP address block to its knees for an hour or two.
I was surrounded by khaki pants and polo shirts and a pervasive air of menace. My most vivid memory of the conference is among my first: walking into the keynote, an impossibly vast space even by Vegas’s improbable standards. Far above me the ventilation system exhaled a low, cavernous breath. The only light came from the projection screens that relayed the distant speaker’s image, bright like windows in a spaceship orbiting a blue-white star. By that light I could make out the silhouettes of the audience, thousands and thousands of them sitting in shadow, waiting to learn something new and frightening. You don’t take photos of other people at Black Hat, but in a room like that it would be hard, anyway: they’re not even lit by their own screens. Bringing a computer into such a hostile network environment is considered by most not to be worth the risk. I’ve never seen fewer computers in a conference audience than at this computer security conference. Everyone there learned long ago that if you are in the business of having prey you are also in the business of being still and unnoticed.
It freaked me out. Black Hat’s lightning talk track is called “Arsenal”; on Twitter, observers complained about talks that didn’t come with working code. This is not an academic conference.
DEF CON begins as Black Hat ends, and it is fundamentally a social gathering. The Black Hat attendees slip into a less stony kind of crypsis, cheerfully blending in with people whose skills and interests are similar to theirs but who possess vastly less discipline. Things become a lot more fun. $240 — cash only — at the considerably seedier Bally’s got me a skull-shaped electronic entry badge with ciphertext printed across it, connection pins that would whisper more secrets if hooked to the right hardware, and absolutely no instructions. If you solve the puzzles built into it and the lanyards and the conference signs and the schedule booklet and a hidden subdirectory on the welcome CD-ROM and who knows what else, you win free entry for life.
This was just one of many badges. I stood in line to get a kit that let me build a different badge, this one associated with an annual cyberpunk role-playing game. I soldered it together at the hardware hacking village’s free workstations; afterward I could use its infrared LEDs to trade handles with other players, then send them radio messages. There were badges that could connect to your car’s diagnostic network, badges for the LGBTQ and women-focused subcons, and badges made by groups of friends where you just had to know a guy to get one. They blinked LEDs, and paired with each other, and had secret accessories.
The badges are only a small part of the con, though. In a little over 48 hours I learned about beating airport wifi portals, lockpicking, dumping and decompiling router firmware, messing with tamper-evident seals and hacking Italian parking meters. The vendor hall was full of booths devoted to hawking t-shirts rather than to collecting CISO emails; I bought gadgets to let me spy on Bluetooth network traffic and a USB thumbdrive that injects exploit code at a thousand characters per second. Around midnight on Friday I found myself in safety glasses, a nylon net cage, a 26th floor suite, and a state of considerable intoxication, all at once, as I prepared to pilot a drone against three other people vying to be the first to pop a balloon at the cage’s center. Across the hall you could get an RFID chip implanted in your hand for $60.
I was jealous of the kids whose parents had brought them. They were finding this place so early. There is a certain type of person with certain types of interests and this is where they occasionally gather, like migratory animals, for those rare experiences unmediated by LCD screens.
My ebullience at finding so many people of the same type as myself powered me through most of the weekend. But at some point I had to start asking myself what type of person that was, exactly.
On Saturday my badge was malfunctioning. It wouldn’t blink the way it was supposed to. I had no relevant tools to tinker with, and was eventually referred up to one group’s suite for help. There an exhausted man behind a mountain of soldering equipment and several empty Surge tallboys was explaining, to a semicircle of my fellow newbies, how he had designed and thought about the group’s badge. No, the group wouldn’t accept sponsorship, he said. They paid for it out of their own pockets. To get a badge you had to be cool, that was it. They never had as many to give away as they would like. He didn’t want to see them in the hands of certain people, people whose names I had never heard of but which he practically spat. No, this wasn’t his day job, he–he trailed off. “I don’t make a lot of money,” he said, breaking eye contact.
He was generous with me, and after attending to a long line of questions and requests for aid that had arrived ahead of me, he performed a simple diagnostic test and declared, reasonably, that the repairs I needed were beyond the tools he had present.
It was about five minutes into our interaction before I realized he was open-carrying a glock on his hip. That’s the kind that doesn’t have a safety. This made me pretty uncomfortable, but of course I didn’t say anything. I was his guest, in his and his friends’ suite. I thanked him earnestly and honestly and left to find someone else to help me with my badge.
That gun was jarring to me, but maybe it shouldn’t have been. What are all of these exploits, these network packet captures, these lockpicking sessions about, anyway, if not having power over others? All of us there wanted secret knowledge to make ourselves stronger. For some it’s because we can’t forget being weak before. For others it’s probably something uglier. But it’s hard for me to imagine any of it being born of an impulse that’s particularly noble.
At best, it can be enough to know when you have gained that strength, to limit its expression to sly winks and low-grade mischief shared with the similarly afflicted. That’s DEF CON. If you begin using that new strength for a living, or find yourself forced to face the people who do–Black Hat. Worse things, if you ask me.
Well, I might find its emotional foundation suspect, but DEF CON was a hell of a lot of fun, and I will be back. Eventually, I’d like to better understand why I want to go so badly. But my short-term goal is just to get faster with my new lockpicks.