I am a much worse reader than I used to be. Kids and prestige TV (but mostly kids) mean I can barely keep up with my monthly sci-fi book club. That’s okay: I long ago reconciled myself to being a not-particularly-fast reader. And maybe some day I’ll have more time.
But this limited intake (and social mechanism committing me to finishing these books) means that the cost of getting stuck with a bad book feels high. And our club has been getting stuck with a lot of bad books. In particular, the recently published books we select are often surprisingly poor. It seems like this trend has been getting worse.
There are a few ways this could be in my head. Book club is a social experience, and it’s more fun to criticize a book than to blandly celebrate it. And the books we select from past years also benefit from additional filtering: the nature of culture means that recent books get discussed more than old books, so if an older book rises to our attention it must have been pretty good.
Still, as a reader it’s hard to escape the sense that something is badly awry in how fiction gets published and makes it into the reviewer ecosystem. I frequently finish a book, thinking it was not particularly good, then dutifully file my review on Goodreads only to find it surrounded by a bunch of effusive 5-star ratings from people who should know better. De gustibus and all that. But something feels amiss.
I think there there are several things going on here. What follows is just hunches based on reading a bunch of mediocre novels and paying close attention to their Acknowledgements sections. I don’t have any connection to the industry. So maybe I have all this wrong. But it’s the kind of stuff that people in the industry would have good reasons to avoid saying. So I’m going to bet on my naivete as a competitive advantage.
Don’t Yuck Someone Else’s Yum
The most effusive reviewers are also the most prolific. They’ve got little badges next to their names declaring them to be the top Goodreads reviewer in Wales, or whatever. They link out to their book-related podcasts and Youtube channels. They are bookfluencers, or aspiring authors themselves (more on this below). They are building an audience, and you know what audiences don’t like? Being told that something they love is bad. This is a fundamental truth about people that I badly wish I could convey to my irascible adolescent self. It’s why every pop culture podcast you’ve ever listened to has only good things to say about that TV show you’re watching. It’s why nobody runs negative reviews anymore, except as an occasional try for virality. It’s why movie critics swallow their grumbling and publish hundreds of words about whatever redeeming qualities they can identify in Ant Man. This is an inescapable consequence of our unbundled Darwinian media ecosystem, and it’s mostly fine, but it means that published criticism is very different, vastly more forgiving, and considerably less useful than my outdated mindset expects.
Pick Authors for Criteria that Matter (So: Not Quality)
It’s famously hard to identify hits in entertainment. Nobody with any taste thinks the most commercially successful books have the most artistic merit. And the new media environment weakens sophisticated gatekeepers’ power to anoint winners. Plus there are way, way, way more plausibly-competent aspiring authors out there than the industry needs to keep shelves stocked. So why should anyone bother trying to find the best books? It’s not like the audience can be counted on to tell the difference. So why not use a criterion that makes more sense? It works for radio programmers, after all.
There are several approaches that suggest themselves. Publishers can pick someone who already has an audience to bring along, like the YouTuber whose middling sci-fi debut we read. Or someone who’ll be helpful to them in other ways, like the author who happened to quietly also be Time Magazine’s book critic. Or the author who, along with their partner, ran a wildly influential sci-fi blog. In all of these cases we picked the book based on the press attention it got, then learned the alternate industry rationale later. And in all of these cases–okay, nearly all–the book was unimpressive but basically fine. Maybe these authors’ success in other domains simply speaks to their overall intelligence and commitment to their chosen genre milieu! I think that’s plausible.
But these filtering mechanisms are different than the (also deeply imperfect!) ones that the genre formerly used, and while they have their merits, they don’t seem to suit me as well as the old ones. An author’s social capabilities seem to be more important to whether their work gets attention than ever before. I think this is why my genre fiction author friend’s anecdotes about trading book blurbs are so depressing. I think it’s why YA authors all behave like psychopaths toward each other. The people who rise to the top of this environment have to produce work that meets a minimum threshold for quality. But beyond that, other considerations seem to be the ones that matter most.
There’s No Money In Books So Book Authors Should Try To Write Something Else
Publishing is a mug’s game: a small number of hard-to-predict breakout hits earn money, and everything else loses it. But even the hits produce paltry returns compared to other forms of entertainment. So if you’re lucky and talented enough to write one of those hits, your first order of business seems to be getting your work optioned for film or TV. One particularly audacious author we read ended his rote sci-fi action thriller, which hewed to every screenwriting formula you could imagine, by thanking the agent that represents him for those other transactions. Perhaps most depressing to me was N.K. Jemisin’s newest series. Unlike the others mentioned in this post, I think being a three-time Hugo winner and possessed of enormous actual talent is enough for me to risk being gently mean by naming her. But The City We Became is an obviously calculated mix of cliched action setpieces and derivative provincial fanservice. It is cinematic in the worst way. But most people haven’t noticed, and it’s on its way to the screen. Oh well. Broken Earth was great and I’m glad to see its creator get paid.
Is it hopeless?
Basically: yes. But not completely. Our club winds up reading a bunch of books that come out of writers’ workshops and MFA programs; or books by self-consciously literary authors who stray over to genre. These aren’t sure bets either (I understand our writerly training systems’ focus on short stories, but think it could stand some interrogation). But they do represent filtering systems that are at least more connected to the work. I don’t doubt that the people running those systems care about craft.
Amazing stuff still gets published, still gets attention, still makes its way into our monthly meeting. But goodness is it nestled amidst a lot of forgettable trash.
I didn’t dig far into the surrounding context when I wrote about buying fake tags, but I saw plenty of surprised reactions on social media to this obvious criminality on Facebook Marketplace. The situation is well understood, but pretty far from resolved.
I recommend these articles from CNBC and NBC News:
The second story highlights law enforcement’s sense that of the various online marketplaces, Facebook is particularly unhelpful when they make a request.
There’s also relevant legislation: the INFORM Act would require sellers who are doing meaningful volumes of business to pass through additional identity verification processes. It passed the House, but I’m unsure whether anyone considers it a priority in the new Congress. Retail industry groups are pushing for it, though, with the online marketplaces standing on the other side of the issue.
As a bicyclist I am always ready to believe the worst about drivers. Drivers are why I’m woken up by gunning engines in the middle of the night. Drivers are why I have titanium screwed into my collarbone. Drivers! That I bring my children to school by bicycle every weekday morning has only raised the stakes and, along with it, my ire.
Despite this, I have been immersed in enough safe streets rhetoric to be convinced that making our streets less deadly is about how we build, not who we blame. Incompetence and inattention are inevitable human foibles. We know drivers will make mistakes and it is more productive to ameliorate those mistakes’ effects than to obsess over how we will punish them.
I buy this, with one exception. I get angry at drivers who do not try. The ones who don’t accept that they have a responsibility to others and that they consequently must make an effort. The ones who selfishly exempt themselves from the rules. The ones who choose lawlessness. I get very angry at them.
And recent years have provided a new signal that such a driver is near: the fake temporary tag. All of a sudden, it seemed, paper tags were everywhere. Often they were on credible-seeming vehicles–ones that looked new, or at least newly washed. But sometimes the expiration date had passed. And as the months wore on, they started showing up on increasingly-implausible beaters.
The relative scale of automated enforcement is immense. Enforcement of traffic laws by humans is, by comparison, so constrained as to be irrelevant. ATE dramatically increases the frequency with which drivers are punished.
ATE transformed citations from an occasional episode of motorist misfortune–not so different from a flat tire–to a persistent nuisance. But ATE systems work by connecting a license plate back to a driver. Sever that connection and the citation will never find its target. Some drivers have realized this and taken steps to end the frustration that ATE causes them.
I think this is easy to understand. Spend any time near D.C. roads, and it’s easy to see, too. But why isn’t anyone doing anything about it?
Although the Task Force convened to determine options available to move forward, with the assistance of the Mayor’s Office of Racial Equity, it was ultimately determined not to move forward with many of the initial ideas due to the possible negative impact on people of color. Therefore, law enforcement continues to enforce fake temporary tags using their existing processes.
That’s because those neighborhoods have the most dangerous streets. Walkable neighborhoods are desirable, so they’re expensive, so they’re for the rich. Poor neighborhoods are where you put freeways. The people living in Wards 7 and 8 are stuck with an auto-focused streetscape, and so of course they reconcile themselves to it. It is understandable that they find it deeply annoying when aging hipster bike enthusiasts characterize this as a kind of false consciousness during controversies like the one over the 9th Street bike lane. But it is nevertheless true that in D.C. the residents of our poorest wards, who are disproportionately people of color, are often both cars’ staunchest boosters and most deeply suffering victims.
Looking at tag-related citations as a percent of each MPD district’s total citations provides a suggestive window onto the issue’s priority in different parts of the city:
I can think of at least two distasteful explanations for the pattern in this graph. Either the use of fake tags spread across the city after an initial concentration in the Seventh District, flattening its local priority; or reduced enforcement during the pandemic normalized the use of fake tags to such an extent that the previous level of vigor applied to the problem by MPD in the Seventh became untenable. It’s one thing to hassle young men in fast cars over something; when everyone’s doing it, enforcement gets more complicated. There are other possibilities, of course (maybe a district commander who hates fake tags as much as me retired because of COVID?). But I think normalization is a plausible reading.
(An aside: hanging around D.C. bike circles left me unsurprised to see illegal activity on Facebook Marketplace–it’s the go-to venue for bike thieves these days–but having finally looked closer, the level of obvious criminality is genuinely jaw-dropping. Here’s someone with a garage full of ten-gallon buckets of Tide, Downy, and Gain, offering home delivery! It’s amazing that none of them popped open when they fell off the back of that truck. I didn’t go looking for this listing, it just came up as a bad search result match as I looked for fake tag sellers. Who knows what else you’d find if you really dug.)
Fake tag sellers are very easy to find. Here are the first ten I came across:
Prices ranged from $25-65, and most offered tags for 60 days, though there are some 30- and 90-day options as well. The reuse of titles and illustrations (I’m particularly fond of the stock photo of a DMV building) suggests that some individual tag entrepreneurs might be behind multiple listings. But why would they list multiple prices? That will have to remain an SEO mystery for another day. The inclusion of wheels as an offering also merits attention, given the current popularity of wheel theft. But let’s try to stay focused.
I decided to take one of these services for a spin. All of them are tied to transparently fake Facebook accounts, which makes it hard to choose. I decided to randomly select one of the listings not associated with the profile of an implausibly buxom woman (I was risking enough trouble already) and see if I couldn’t do business. “Jorge” was very helpful but alas, not as ready to incriminate himself as I would’ve liked. Otherwise, five stars. Shoutout to vingenerator.org too, by the way.
It was interesting to see Enterprise Rent-a-Car implicated! That makes me wonder if these aren’t actual credentials obtained fraudulently (perhaps via a retail employee with a side hustle), rather than just some guy with Photoshop. But someone in an AG’s office should be figuring this out, not me.
fake tags matter
If you have read this far, you’re probably starting to worry that I’m crazy. I spent $55 just to make myself mad! I admit that it’s at least a little nuts.
But I think this stuff matters. A driver who believes they are entitled to exempt themselves from responsibility portends bad things. They might drive more recklessly. They might not carry insurance. They might ruin someone’s life.
I think D.C., Virginia, and Maryland should look at this problem again. I think they should sue Facebook over its failure to police Marketplace. I think they should figure out who owns that CashApp account. And I think they should give drivers with fake tags some good reasons not to use them.
I realize that punishing people, especially vulnerable people, is distasteful. But what I see from city leadership and my fellow citizens suggests they’re in denial about the tragedy that comes from cavalier misuse of our roads. It is inexcusable to ask the families who experience those tragedies to pay that price just so that we can avoid facing our own discomfort.
For the better part of a decade we’ve been warned to fear the displaced truck drivers that will soon be set adrift by autonomous semis. Suddenly that looks wrong. You can find self-driving projects in the “losses” section of various companies’ financial statements and in a handful of sunbelt cities. But that’s about it. Meanwhile, ChatGPT’s serviceable prose is everywhere! What does this mean for the white collar worker? A representative riff came from Kevin Drum this week:
[M]y guess is that GPT v5.0 or v6.0 (we’re currently at v3.5) will be able to take over the business of writing briefs and so forth with only minimal supervision. After that, it only takes one firm to figure out that all the partners can get even richer if they turn over most of the work of associates to a computer. Soon everyone will follow. Then the price of legal advice will plummet, too, at all but the very highest levels.
I agree that language models are going to have important effects on knowledge workers. But Drum reasons about this by comparing human- and machine-authored documents’ quality. I don’t think that tells the whole story. A document’s function and value depends not only on its content but its context, and inhuman authors aren’t going to be able to satisfy our contextual needs.
Consider these questions:
Why does the pace of production for things like books, TV shows, and pop music continue to increase when the catalog of excellent older works is already too large to ever be consumed?
Why do business executives spend their enormously expensive time writing planning documents that will only be read by a small set of c-suite executives when cheaper and better prose could be purchased from a professional writer?
Why do you need a lawyer to draft a will, a trust, or other common legal documents?
It wasn’t until I watched some close friends start a successful news site that I really started to think about these questions. It was the 2010s, and not only was I interested in my friends’ success, but the cultural moment suddenly cast journalism in a stark new light. The internet made global distribution the default. Digital metrics made it easy to see what parts of the news bundle were generating value. The bundle was quickly pulled apart, and an era of pitiless optimization began.
The adaptations that succeeded in this tumult were shocking. Headlines became confrontational. Content began to focus on moral questions that either flattered or impugned their audience, often based on the reader’s membership in groups they couldn’t easily change. Old theories about why people sought out news–“to be informed”; “for entertainment”–started to look pretty suspect. These stories did not have much value for guiding behavior in daily life–at best, they helped solidify some existing social norms. And a lot of them seemed to make people feel mad, guilty, or smug. If this was entertainment, it was a pretty strange kind.
A different model fit the facts better: news consumption (and subsequent sharing) was about identity. Readers were building, transmitting, and asserting their identity by deciding what to read and how they felt about it. It was a kind of self-expression via consumption. In doing so they sorted themselves within a moral landscape defined by authors and other readers. Group membership was important, but metagroup membership–how you judged the correctness of the sub-hierarchy–was maybe more so. From there the logic of factionalism in a zero-sum system took over and every dimension of opinion and preference got collapsed into the overdetermined mush of the dominant coalitions. Before you knew it truck ownership had a moral valence.
Aligning ourselves within social systems is something humans like and badly need to do. It’s easy to understand why: this is how we succeed as a species and as individuals. Ultimately, it’s how we find a mate and reproduce. We are designed to do it, and we invent tools to let us do it ever-more intensely.
This is why we never stop needing new pop stars, authors, and TV shows. Not because the old ones were inferior or because the payphone on the set of Cheers looks distractingly anachronistic. It’s because pop music is about sex, and is consequently best administered by pop stars who we find desirable. It’s because novelty is an important ingredient as we reify relationships through gift-giving; or as we clamber through social hierarchies of wealth or fame or cleverness by responding to new inputs rather than simply nodding in agreement with previous generations that yes, Moby Dick and Thriller are really good.
Similarly, my hypothetical executive’s so-so .docx is produced the way it is not because of what it contains but because of what it represents: countless hours of meetings, Slacks and phone calls to align the participants in the business unit around a shared understanding of goals, roles, and statuses.
The lawyer’s exclusive perch is even easier to explain. Lawyers serve as an interface to our formal system for resolving conflict, and have used their proximity to that machinery to cement their position in the hierarchy–to ensure that when there is a question about who gets to facilitate access to the law, the answer is almost always “lawyers”. Most professions don’t have this luxury. Nice work if you can get it.
Not everything in our economy is about these concerns. But a lot of the information products we exchange are fundamentally in service of our impossibly baroque system for managing simian hierarchy. Removing the human underpinnings of that hierarchy will rob many of those products of their salience. They will become uninteresting. No one wants to fuck a computer-generated pop star. Okay, almost no one.
I think we’ll probably dream up some over-complicated rationales for why we feel this way. It’d be just like us, wouldn’t it? Luddite solidarity. Spiritual mysticism. Endless appeals to safety and quality–we’re already having a great time playing gotcha! with bad ChatGPT output. But at root, the whole thing is about people, and figuring out which of them get to satisfy their animal needs, and how much.
None of this is to deny that these technologies will be powerful tools that we humans use to swing between branches of our hierarchy in new and surprising ways. But until the AIs start reading each other’s stuff, you’re still going to need a monkey attached to the enterprise somewhere. Otherwise what’s the point?
Forbes has SBF’s planned testimony before the House Financial Services Committee. Now in Bahamian custody, he won’t be giving it; and in the hours leading up to his appearance, it seemed like he was trying to wriggle out of the obligation, anyway. Still, it’s interesting to examine this document and try to understand what it’s trying to accomplish, if anything.
Congressional testimony usually exists in separate spoken and written forms. Witnesses’ oral presentation must fit into tight time limits; written testimony goes into the Congressional Record (and, more relevant in the short term, bitrot-prone committee webpages) and its length is limited only by its audience’s tolerance for tedium. Sometimes a witness will deliver the same testimony in both forms, especially if they didn’t have much time to prep. But it’s also common for the spoken version to be a cut down version that includes the key points they are expected to make–they were invited to be a witness for a reason, after all–and whatever punchy one-liners their institution’s comms and development teams thinks will work best for earned media and Giving Tuesday emails.
The above applies to normal hearings, which usually have several witnesses who have been invited by staffers to function like evidence cards in the policy debate tournaments they spent their college years attending. SBF’s situation would have been different: he would be there to get yelled at by the committee, not to agree with them. He might have been allowed to ramble at greater length as a result. Or he might not. What unites this kind of oppositional hearing with run-of-the-mill witness panel hearings is their transactional nature. Ever since TV cameras were allowed in hearing rooms, and probably before, it’s been important to understand hearings in terms of what everyone is getting out of them: the grandstanding legislators, the NGO executives, the corporate representatives, even the media packaging it all up.
All of this might make the exercise sound cynical, but it’s not. It’s ceremonial. A wedding is an important part of a marriage, but it’s not the process that makes it possible. Mostly, it’s a chance to publicly express things that the people involved have quietly worked out beforehand. So, too, with a hearing.
As a final piece of preamble, it’s important to remember that SBF did not actually deliver this testimony. The document symbolizes and evokes Congressional testimony and its trappings, but it may or may not resemble the message SBF would have delivered had he sat in front of Congress. That’s particularly relevant because this testimony is bad. If it authentically reflects SBF’s planned message, then–controlling for it likely being unfinished–it must substantially complicate our sense of his sophistication. If it doesn’t, and is instead a calculated (albeit minor) media play to take advantage of a news hook that now only exists as a counterfactual… well, it’s still a bit of a head-scratcher.
Start with the “I fucked up” opener. Congress does not like this sort of thing! Perhaps he’s just giving up on any hope of engendering sympathy among his nominal audience. That’s reasonable enough. But then who is he trying to reach? He’s delivered variations on this message in a variety of post-collapse conversations, speaking clearly even over the audible grinding of defense attorney teeth in the audience. It’s not going to break news. Is this just to generate a clip for the normies? A charmingly impish loop of beeped-out verbiage for Fox News to replay to the retirees he defrauded?
Maybe. But the rest of the document belies this kind of deliberateness. Who is going to listen to this guy’s endless axe-grinding about unfair treatment at the hands of the bankruptcy officials who are now obliged to clean up his mess? It’s hard to imagine what outcome he’s envisioning, or how airing his grievances in this venue and such exhausting detail could possibly confer an advantage. Does he misunderstand his current reputation? Or what it would take for us to admit John Ray as a replacement villain in this saga?
More promising are his complaints about CZ, head of Binance, the exchange whose actions precipitated the FTX collapse. Painting these events as dirty tricks by a foreign competitor against a US (okay, Anglophone?) national champion has always been the best card in a fundamentally awful hand. It’s also has the benefit of being the first explanation that SBF offered. Binance has even been having a well-aligned bad news cycle over the last 24 hours! I suppose being in custody is a pretty good excuse for failing to respond nimbly to that news hook. Still, the CZ stuff here is inexcusably thin. Whether that’s because SBF is still dreaming of a renewed Binance bailout or because he’s just given up on appeals to xenophobia, I couldn’t say.
Either way, this document demonstrates no strategy or discipline. It’s not only tactically inept, but fails to organize itself around an achievable goal.
Some of that can be explained if the document was never meant to be used. But with each statement the guy makes, it becomes harder to square SBF’s facility at crisis communications with his apparently sophisticated–and certainly successful–pre-crisis comms work. These are different skillsets, but it’s still striking. Whether the difference is best attributed to panic, pharmaceuticals, or just bad fundamentals remains a mystery to me.
The last big Halloween party I threw happened just before the pandemic. It was a lot of work, they always were. Weeks of dragging decorations across town; building some overly ambitious new one every year; making manic entreaties to generous friends to help put them up, and to strangers to come enjoy them, and to even more selfless friends to come take them down in the next day’s harsh morning light. Staying late at the venue in the days before to get the prep done, staying until the end of the party to ensure everything went okay. The last couple of times: to do it all with children. It was a lot, and while I wouldn’t say the rise of a globe-spanning deadly contagion was a relief, exactly, it did save me a lot of time, effort, and money in late October.
I do miss it, though, and I always feel enormously flattered when people ask me if I’ll be doing it again and tell me how much fun they had. The best is when people say it was like a Halloween party from a movie. Perfect.
Well! It is Halloween still, just barely, which means there is still time for me to hit my self-imposed deadline. I am not throwing a party this year, but I have a different spooky offering for you. It does not involve wild, drunken dancing. But it does represent a lot of work.
I wrote a gothic novella.
I have a deep affection for this form, particularly when it’s narrated by a hyperlexic wiener who will spend an infinite number of words to convince you that he has a bad feeling about all this. I find that both relatable and extremely funny.
Another thing I love: Scooby Doo. I introduced my kids to the series during the pandemic. The franchise is dedicated to the macabre, but also absolutely refuses to let anyone have a bad time (unless you count having your crooked real estate scheme foiled). And, like gothic horror, it is not only undiminished by formula but thrives on it, building a structure so unshakeable that it would grow to encompass the most inane celebrity cameos imaginable, which I also find extremely funny.
And that’s what led me to write this, which I hope you will enjoy.
THE HOUSE OF ENDLESS MOURNING featuring the Harlem Globetrotters [pdf] [epub]
I tried to cover all the greatest hits:
horrible rustic who speaks in incomprehensible and inconsistently written dialect full of regrettable puns
It was meant to be a short story, but I didn’t know what I was doing. Writing fiction is impossibly hard! I learned a lot by forcing myself to do this, and I hope I’ll use those lessons again, perhaps even on something where the central joke and my own least defensible writerly habits don’t line up quite so well.
Published in 1956, the sci-fi epic Aniara is Swedish poet Harry Martinson’s best-known work. In 1974, he was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature. In 1978, reeling from disgrace, he killed himself with a pair of scissors.
There are several things in the preceding sentences that strike me as noteworthy! So it was surprising to me that I first learned about Aniara a couple of years ago, during the modest press coverage of its 2018 film adaptation. Why wasn’t this book more famous?
I would come to learn the answer: Aniara is a fractal tragedy. But at the beginning, I’d only heard the “sci-fi epic poem” part. That was enough for me to foist it on the book club I attend.
This led to a second surprise: Aniara is hard to find. There have been two English translations, but both are out of print. Amazon reviews for the book are full of complaints from people aghast at the $200 price that old paperback copies fetch. Didn’t this guy win a Nobel Prize?
Aniara can be found with some scrounging through the internet. I eventually pointed my book club at a low-contrast scanned PDF from some adjunct’s long-forgotten syllabus. But the situation is not great. Or rather, it hadn’t been, until recently: I was delighted to see a high quality epub version of the Klass/Sjöberg translation on the Internet Archive. It not only contains the complete text of that edition, but has been constructed with attention to faithfully recreating its print layout. English speakers with e-readers probably aren’t going to do better than this.
So why is Aniara worth your time?
The poem tracks an eponymous spaceship which, while en route to Mars, is knocked hopelessly off course. As the ship’s few thousand inhabitants plunge further and further toward a star they will never reach, they varyingly grapple with and ignore the inevitability of their doom; struggle to distract themselves with frolics, cults, art, sex, and violence; and receive the news that the Earth itself has been destroyed.
The translators pulled off a feat: Martinson uses rhyme–unfashionable for his era–and invented vocabulary that can be both funny and evocative. I can’t read Swedish, and so am inadequately equipped to appreciate Klass and Sjöberg’s achievement. But what came out of their collaboration is striking and, I think, quite moving.
Aniara anticipates many other nuclear age ecological parables, but Martinson is mostly interested in art, modernity, grief, and alienation. He is a mysterian and a romantic. Why can’t the occupants of Aniara find meaning amongst themselves? Why is the memory of the lost Earth such an unhealable wound? This is for the reader to decide. But it’s worth noting that Martinson and his sisters were abandoned by his mother a few years after his abusive father’s death. He was just six years old. He was nearly fifty when he began writing Aniara, a poem about struggling onward after an unfathomable loss.
In the moment he wrote it, Martinson offered at least a partial balm–one that gives the work an unexpected modern resonance. Our narrator is the mimarobe, a technician responsible for maintaining the Mima, a living instrument aboard Aniara. Mima, through operations not fully understood, absorbs signals from the distant reaches of the universe and synthesizes them into glimpses of unattainable sights that are mysterious and spiritually nourishing. It is the Mima’s eventual malfunction and destruction that makes the circumstances of Aniara‘s inhabitants truly unbearable.
Critics seem to agree that Mima is Martinson’s stand-in for art. That makes sense to me. But it’s not the only idea that presents itself. I have spent the past months reading about AI-generated art; about language models that have chewed through the internet and now emit essays whose origins cannot be fully traced; about humans who were probably just cheating on their taxes rather than following religious beliefs about the imminence of an AI godhead but who knows. It all makes new thoughts creep in when I read verses like this:
There are in the mima certain features it had come up with and which function there in circuitry of such a kind as human thought has never traveled through. For example, take the third webe’s action in the focus-works and the ninth protator’s kinematic read-out in the flicker phase before the screener-cell takes over everything, allots, combines. The inventor was himself completely dumbstruck the day he found that one half of the mima he'd invented lay beyond analysis. That the mima had invented half herself. Well, then, as everybody knows, he changed his title, had the modesty to realize that once she took full form she was the superior and he himself a secondary power, a mimator. The mimator died, the mima stays alive. The mimator died, the mima found her style, progressed in comprehension of herself, her possibilities, her limitations: a telegrator without pride, industrious, upright, a patient seeker, lucid and plain-dealing, a filter of truth, with no stains of her own. Who then can show surprise if I, the rigger and tender of the mima on Aniara, am moved to see how men and women, blissful in their faith, fall on their knees to her. And I pray too when they are at their prayer that it be true, all this that is occurring, and that the grace this mima is conferring is glimpses of the light of perfect grace that seeks us in the barren house of space.
I think, too, of Canto 39, in which the pilot Isagel arrives at a new mathematical breakthrough, but one made irrelevant by the forces that have overwhelmed her and everyone else:
But here where we were fated to the course
dictated by the law of conic section,
here her breakthrough never could become
in any manner fruitful, just a theorem
which Isagel superbly formulated
but which was doomed to join us going out
ever farther to the Lyre and then to vanish.
And as we sat there speaking with each other
about the possibilities that now stood open
if only we weren't sitting here in space
like captives to the void in which we fell,
we both grew sorrowful but kept as well
the joy in pure ideas, the kind of pleasure
which together we could share in quiet
for the time still left to our existence.
But Isagel at times burst into tears
to think of the inscrutably great space
with room for all to fall eternally—
as she herself now, with the unlocked mystery
she'd neatly solved, but which was falling with her.
And last, I think of Martinson. His reputation was sterling–some said he was the finest Swedish poet of his generation. But his Nobel win, which he shared with fellow Swede Eyvind Johnson, was a scandal. Martinson and Johnson were both members the Swedish Academy that awards the prize, and their triumph was regarded as an obvious example of self-dealing. One critic wrote, “Derision and laughter roll around the globe in response to the academy’s. . . corruption and will sweep away the reputation of the prize.”
It is not difficult to imagine the sensitive and elderly Martinson, abruptly exiled from artistic communion–the one thing he believed to be true and significant even in the face of immedicable yearning. What bulwarks do we have to protect meaning against infinity? And what will happen if we fail to preserve them?
At the start of the pandemic, a friend asked me if I could help with a problem. His organization studied educational institutions: what kind of people they serve and whether they do a good job of serving them. He wanted to look at the accessibility of these places: how many people, and what types of people, could reach them by foot, car, or transit?
This was an interesting problem and, given my work in the mapping industry, one I knew how to solve. I got my boss to say it was okay to lend a hand, and then embarked on what turned out to be an expansive side project–one that I hope will prove useful to other analysts doing work in Texas.
We examined colleges in Houston. Who could get to them, and how easily? I got the geographic coordinates for the colleges along with metadata about whether they were public, private, for-profit–a bunch of different dimensions. I took those coordinates and used them to make isochrones. These are funny-looking polygons that circumscribe the area that’s reachable from a starting point in a given number of minutes, using a given transportation mode. For cars and walking, good API options exist. For transit, I had to set up my own, but this was pretty simple thanks to OpenTripPlanner and the availability of GTFS data. I intersected these isochrone polygons with Census data and began to look at the result. This is where the real work started.
Census data is imprecise (and getting more so). Obvious problems appeared when I looked at how isochrones intersected with Census polygons. Say an isochrone’s tip touches the edge of a Census tract. Do I count the whole tract’s population? Do I divide it somehow? What if the part it touches is water in a lake? I hadn’t calculated isochrones for canoeing.
What I wanted was to know where people lived inside the Census tracts. Of course that information isn’t available, for excellent privacy reasons. But what about just differentiating the part of the tract that’s residences from the part that isn’t, then dividing the tract’s population among that area? Surely that would go a long way to resolving my lake/isochrone problem.
This turns out to be possible–in Texas, at least. The state legislature’s 1979 “Peveto Bill” tax reform implemented a system of appraisal districts. These entities vary widely in their specifics, online presence, and tech savviness, but so far I have found that their existence guarantees three things:
There will be a geodata file of land parcels for the county, somewhere, and each parcel will have a unique ID.
There will be a tax roll dataset for the county, somewhere, that connects to parcel IDs, somehow. It will probably be a horrible fixed-column-width file that arrives without any documentation, unless you count filenames, and you might need to email or call some bureaucrats to get it.
The tax roll will classify each parcel using one of several versions of a statewide land use taxonomy and will do so with varying levels of rigor. But for a given county it will be mostly possible to figure out which parcels are residential.
After much emailing, calling, squinting at data, and scripting, I was able to generate a set of residential parcels for the greater–much greater–Houston area. In the end we had data collected and joined up for Austin, Brazoria, Brazos, Chambers, Colorado, Fort Bend, Galveston, Grimes, Harris, Liberty, Matagorda, Montgomery, San Jacinto, Walker, Waller, Washington, and Wharton counties. I am releasing all of that data and code here. You can read a more complete account of the project in the README and METHODOLOGY documents.
I hope it will be useful to someone. I haven’t done much work to make the repo into a properly-organized open source release. That’s because the software is nothing special. What’s worthwhile here is the effort that went into collecting and connecting the data. If you are trying to answer geospatial questions in Houston specifically or Texas generally, and wish that you could answer them with more precision, this may be very interesting to you.
What about the original project? Well, we had a whole draft going. I hesitate to speculate about what happened. Personnel moved on, and frankly our methodology was a lot more exciting than our results (Cars are useful! White people live in exurbs and rich white people live downtown! Houston’s transit system is not talked about by urbanists all that much!).
It was a nice chance to write some bash, bash some open data, then turn it all back into writing. If I or it can be of any use to you, I hope you’ll get in touch.
Our third kid is scheduled to arrive in mid-November, and this seems like a good reason to disown my less-dear offspring: let’s get some perpetually unfinished projects into the wild! Hopefully doing so will set me up for a properly bleary-eyed, blank-brained paternity leave. It’s set to be my last, so I feel like I’d better abandon myself to it fully.
I’ll start with the least spooky. Please stand by.
And yes, this post exists as a commitment mechanism that will force me to finish the last one.
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.