s3e09: ROUND HOUSE 

by danhon

0.0 Station Ident

Wednesday, 6 April 2016 at a floating desk at XOXO Outpost. It’s 70f / 21c outside with low clouds, the blinds are down to stop the sun from searing everyone’s eyes. Mashups (yes, still, even in 2016) are playing through iTunes and lunch today is a Whole Foods fresh packed baguette because I’m *that* privileged and *that much* of a stereotype. Work this morning was a conference call with the Presidential Innovation Fellowship[0] (and no, I don’t hold any grudges at not making it through the interview process for being a PIF a couple years ago) team working with the Administration for Children, Youth and Families[1] on some useful, new, needs-based Child Welfare technology.

Oh, and the partner I’m working with on a new project, HOTBLACK DESIATO hit print on the mound of documentation (actual paper! In a binder! The more astute of you will be able to guess *instantly* the area that particular work is going to be in) that’s our bid for a super interesting piece of work.

[0] Presidential Innovation Fellows
[1] Home | Administration for Children and Families

1.0 ROUND HOUSE

ROUND HOUSE is the exercise term for DEFCON 3[0], which defines the middle Defence Readiness Condition of the United States armed forces. At DEFCON 3, there’s an “increase in force readiness above that required for normal readiness”, which means that the Air Force is ready to mobilize within 15 minutes. Greg Borenstein[1] and I were, for some reason, talking about DEFCON statuses and looking at the Wikipedia page because, I dunno, internet  ¯\_(ツ)_/¯, when Greg mentioned that there “should” be a bot that generates DEFCON statuses. I mean really. The exercise terms, if the Wikipedia page is to be believed are things like ROUND HOUSE, FAST PACE, COCKED PISTOL, DOUBLE TAKE and FADE OUT, which proves two things beyond a reasonable doubt: a) Jean-Claude Van Damme provides consultancy services to the Pentagon and that b) anything is funnier when you put it in a military codeword context and turn it into ALL CAPS.

So: yesterday Greg and I spun up a Google Docs spreadsheet, Greg worked some magic turning the CSV into some json and used tracery[2] and cheapbotsdonequick[3], some quick chatting over Slack produced the mutual agreement that we should use the handle @DEFCON_STATUS[4] with appropriate WarGames imagery and we’re now tweeting out automagically generated DEFCON statuses on the hour, every hour. Some of them are better than others, so I need to go back into the spreadsheet and do some editing (side note: it’s now nigh-incomprehensible[5] as to how you use Google’s APIs to do a simple thing like retrieve your spreadsheet in JSON) but we’re generating stuff like:

– DEFCON 4 [FADE TO BLACK]  Snapchat activity at elevated levels: Andreesen Horowitz deploying ICE breakers by NET 30 days.[6]

and

– DEFCON 2 [SOCIAL ANXIETY] Hostile supreme court ruling: Ta-Nehisi Coates reading the EULA certainly no later than 6 hours.[7]

where we put together a DEFCON {int} {exercise_term} {situation}: {force_to_be_activated} {activation} {timeframe_qualifier} {timeframe}.

Anyway. That was fun for yesterday, and the main reason why I didn’t write a newsletter. because I was busy having fun writing a silly bot.

Things in my brain right now:

– I quipped about the whole Revolv being shut down thing on Twitter by saying: CONSUMERS! BUY NON-INTERNET CONNECTED DOOR HANDLES AND LIGHT SWITCHES. THEIR SERVICE LEVEL AGREEMENT IS BACKED UP BY “PHYSICS”[8], which got a reasonable number of retweets and favs indicating that it had struck a nerve. This got me thinking (evidently) in a different way about the ephemerality and materiality of software. “We”‘ve talked a lot about the internet and internet-connected-software/hardware as being a material with a warp and a weft and a certain set of characteristics that are important to understand as designers, developers and, ugh, makers, but it feels like one thing that hasn’t really been talked about as much is the attribute of *weakness*. We talk about brittle services, sure, but do we talk about how much pressure, or how little, they can take? About their failure modes? Sure, as one of my readers wrote, Everything Dies, and in some sense you can thumb your nose at the eventual heat death of the universe, but there are timelines and expectations here. So, to that:

– ask most people how long they expect a lightbulb to last;
– how about a doorknob?
– or a door?
– okay, how about a phone?
– how about a fridge?
– an internet connected fridge?
– how about an internet connected doorknob?

I can expect that the half-life of a doorknob or a lock on the front of my house that’s not connected to the internet may well be something like thirty years! That’s pretty long! That’s like a fire-and-forget deployment, right? Stick that sucker on a door and that thing will STILL BE WORKING thirty years from now, with minimal intervention and maintenance. I half-jokingly asked what the half-life of an internet-connected physical object is right now, and for some of the consumer internet stuff (not the stuff that I suppose GE gets to call whatever they call IoT connected Power Stations these days), it’s, what, {sticks-finger-in-the-air} 24 months on the outside? If you’re lucky?

That’s pretty damn brittle! I mean, I get that the general public *might* understand that stuff on the internet comes and goes, but this is a doorknob! All the other doorknobs in the store will work five years from now! Will this one? But it’s right next to the other ones! It’s even in the doorknob aisle! Do we have to have backward-compatible doorknobs now?

So: as software eats the world, the world’s upgrade cycle becomes more frenetic. Do these formerly dumb devices become devices that live fast, burn bright, die young?

Here’s another way of looking at things: an aircraft is a pretty complicated machine. It does a bunch of stuff. Lots of that stuff is fly-by-wire now. But, every time it comes in to land, it gets a checkover[citation needed], a bunch of people go through checklists[citation needed] and then make sure that it’s safe to fly for the next time. Do you want to do that for your house? We already can’t even trust people to check the fucking batteries in their smoke alarms and now you want them to apply critical firmware updates? Are we, as a species, ready for this? Is this the reason why there’s no other life in the universe that’s contacted us? They’re just stuck in this terrible devops hell where instead of the shoe event horizon[9], we have a software-ate-the-world event horizon and everyone ends up maintaining systems that maintain other systems?

(In my head right now is a sort of What Will It Take For Software To Become Reliable In The Way That Physical Objects Become Reliable, and it’s a sort of Megan’s Law where some kid will have to die in a horrible housefire or be abducted and horrible things happen RIGHT UNDER THE VIEW OF A WATCHFUL NEST CAM but the parents never got a chance to watch it because someone didn’t deploy a firmware update or there was a cloud outage or something or whatever and then WILL SOMEBODY THINK OF THE CHILDREN and then suddenly building software that touches the physical world becomes highly regulated and Silicon Valley goes home because that’s TOO MUCH WORK. Obviously all through this, the founder of Dropcam is tutting and saying, well, if Sergey had let me run the company then NONE OF THIS WOULD HAVE HAPPENED).

More of this, in fragmentary form. As software eats the world, the world acts more like software. Buggy and unsupported, with 90 days of technical support and then you’re on your own. Or without a warranty that it actually works. You know, I don’t *need* technical support on the phone when I install a new doorknob. Or, if I do, there’s a whole bunch of tradespeople who’ll do it for me. Should I really be quitting my non-existent job and starting up a nascent service of home-based sysadmins and devops who offer SLAs to homeowners for their connected devices? Is that really a thing where someone’s going to come in, look at your inexpertly installed WORKS WITH NEST devices, breathes in sharply, makes a remark about having some “right cowboys in here” with their cyberdecks and everything, and then proceeds to rip out your shittily positioned Wifi access points and replaces them with ones that *actually work*, sorts out your NAT and makes sure everything is up to date?

All the stuff in your house works right now because of material sciences and physics and, I guess, science, because we know that when you apply a force here, this lever goes over there. We’ve had a pretty good run with Newton’s laws. I propose some new ones: your shit will work until there’s a software update, and software updates will always happen. I dunno. I’ll need to think about what those Software-Eating-The-World laws would be.

Anyway, other things taking up the working memory/general workspace of my brain right now:

– a Google Docs plugin/Chrome Extension that highlights the word “actually” wherever it’s used, especially if anyone types it in a Google Doc
– a Google Docs plugin/Chrome Extension that restricts you to the ten hundred most used words[10]
– if the BBC is so good at making telly then why hasn’t made a binge-watching series yet and released the whole thing in one go on iPlayer?[citation needed] Oh right. Because they don’t have the guts for it. And one of the people who would’ve had the guts for it has realised that it’s better to go to the land of the opportunity and the free (at least, until Trump gets in) because he’s got a better chance of getting shit done at the New York Public Library[11] than at Auntie. As Trump would say: SO SAD.

Oh right, and finally: the whole consumer IoT thing isn’t all shit because Tom Coates and Matt Biddulph are finally ready to talk about their new thing that I’ve had the pleasure of using: Thington[12], which is aimed at fixing a bunch of the irritations around current-gen IoT hardware.

[0] DEFCON – Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
[1] Greg Borenstein (@atduskgreg) | Twitter
[2] GitHub – v21/tracery: Tracery: a story-grammar generation library for javascript
[3] Cheap Bots, Done Quick!
[4] DEFCON_STATUS (@defcon_status) | Twitter
[5] Overview  |  Sheets API  |  Google Developers
[6] DEFCON_STATUS on Twitter: “DEFCON 4 [FADE TO BLACK] Snapchat activity at elevated levels: Andreesen Horowitz deploying ICE breakers by NET 30 days.”
[7] DEFCON_STATUS on Twitter: “DEFCON 2 [SOCIAL ANXIETY] Hostile supreme court ruling: Ta-Nehisi Coates reading the EULA certainly no later than 6 hours.”
[8] Dan Hon is typing on Twitter: “CONSUMERS! BUY NON-INTERNET CONNECTED DOOR HANDLES AND LIGHT SWITCHES. THEIR SERVICE LEVEL AGREEMENT IS BACKED UP BY “PHYSICS”.”
[9] Shoe Event Horizon – Hitchhikers – Wikia
[10] The Up-Goer Five Text Editor
[11] BBC digital expert Tony Ageh poached by New York Public Library | Media | The Guardian
[12] Welcome to Thington

As you can see, I’ve given up coming up with separate sections and instead have gone all in on the whole stream of consciousness thing. We’ll see how that goes.

As ever, I hope:

– you’ve had a good day
– you’ll have a good evening
– will send me notes.

With love and kindness,

Dan