Monday April 12, 2021 and it’s a sunny afternoon in Portland, OR and I’m sitting outside on the front porch listening to Fearless (Taylor’s Version) because I’m here and you’re there and you can’t stop me.
Today, there was another school shooting in the U.S. This one was in Knoxville, Tennessee. The last one was 42 days ago. The last one with more than one death was 68 days ago. A police officer who shot a 20 year old black man at a traffic stop intended to use a Taser.
You have to believe that we can make tomorrow and the next day and the day after that just a little bit better.
Two different things in this episode: a very, very short things that caught my attention, and then I’m continuing my commentary on Neal Stephenson’s Snow Crash, a series I started in checks notes 2014.
Via Ingrid Burrington [tweet], I found out that Microsoft is still experimenting with servers cooled direct in fluid in a datacenter in Quincy, Washington [Datacenter Knowledge]. Servers get hot, so you can cool them by blowing air over them and hoping the air will, uh, move the hot away, or you can also put them in cold liquid and get the liquid to, uh, move the hot away. Direct liquid cooling is when you just throw the whole thing in cold liquid, rather than just using liquid as part of the cooling mechanism. This is the sort of thing that gets shown in films like Sunshine where the computer running the ship is Very Computery, which means it’s submerged in something that is Very Cold, so cold that it will freeze someone’s hand and hurt if they try to fix the computer by plugging something in.
Caught my attention because: I see “direct liquid cooling” and “Microsoft” and I instantly remember the time they threw a datacenter pod in the ocean, which was its Project Natick [also Datacenter Knowledge]. Of course, me being me, the first time I learned about Microsoft throwing a bunch of servers under water was when I wondered out loud “Hey Siri, how many datacenters would need to be put in the ocean to raise average sea surface temperature by 23 degrees celsius?”, to which the answer after community input was “three-and-a-quarter-trillion” data centers, assuming that the thermal output of a data center is about 105kW. Who says Twitter isn’t educational? (Hardly anyone. Hardly anyone says that).
Hyundai, who make cars as well as other things that are made of atoms, have a car brand called Genesis Motor [Wikipedia, which are kinds of car that is very expensive and that some people who throw around phrases like “virtue signalling” would call a Signalling Mechanism. Those people don’t understand that everything we do is signalling, duh, so we should ignore them.
Anyway, when you launch a car, you have to have marketing because otherwise nobody would know you had made a new kind of car, especially a new car in China. In our late-capitalism-pandemic year of 2021, that means you have to use 3,281 drones [press release] to do so because otherwise nobody would know your capacity for “a progressive new form of brand storytelling”, and nobody would know that your cars, that are like other cars made out of atoms, have a “distinctive design philosophy”. Most importantly, if you didn’t use that many drones (which is a big deal, because it is a new World Record”), the kind of people who buy cars wouldn’t know that your car brand has a “spirit of always pushing the boundaries through technologically advanced experience.”
Now, when I see someone talk about launching a car using 3,281 drones and they don’t mean “launching the car into the atmosphere” or “propelling it to suborbital velocity ushering in a new age of international travel”, my thoughts go to “huh, I wonder how you control and program that many drones all at once. I mean, that’s kind of interesting, right?
Caught my attention because: seriously though, controlling and choreographing 3,281 drones is interesting? I wonder how you’d do that. Is it brand new software? Does it work with existing motion control software? What sort of tools do you use to design the flight paths? How autonomous are the drones and does this all take into account station keeping? Why 3,281 drones exactly? The odd number is kind of offensive?
Furthermore, if it is a pretty impressive software job (and project management, to be honest) to pull off a choreographed performance of 3,281 drones that unambiguously demonstrate a spirit of always pushing the boundaries through technologically advanced experience, then gosh imagine what the car’s software has got to be like! Wait, you’re saying it’s not by the same people? Huh. Weird.
Previously on Snow Crashing, we were partway through chapter 14, with L. Bob Rife finishing up an excerpt from an interview with a journalist about not just building a cable TV system, but a “global network. Just as big as the phone system. Except this one carries information ten thousand times faster. I carries images, sound, data, you name it.” That, shockingly, was in 2019, which was several lifetimes ago.
Let’s continue. There’s a lot to get through.
To catch us up, Hiro is working through a Hypercard stack with the Librarian, researching L. Bob Rife, an evangelist media mogul implicated in the Snow Crash drug.
It’s funny, because the commentary here from Stephenson is that the interview Hiro just watched (stored in the offline Hypercard stack!, is a “half-hour television commercial”, a “naked PR plant”. Which just goes a little toward the weird metaverse nature we’ve been exposed to in the novel. Rife owns cable TV networks, the underlying infrastructure, but he has to buy a half-hour television commercial as the equivalent of Sponsored Content, which is as much a commentary about the nature of Public Relations, and less predictive of what the open internet (ha) lets us do right now. What Rife can’t do, is spin up his own place in the metaverse and have everyone visit it and tell his side of the story. I mean, he could, I guess? But the broadcast network is still the most efficient way he uses to get in front of an audience. This is despite the Black Sun, the bar on the strip, being one of the coolest places in the metaverse.
Anyway, the next part is hilarious because Rife has taken out this SponCon because, well, I’m going to break it down into numbered paragraphs, lawyer-style:
which, you know, hold on a minute!
Let’s address each part.
I mean, Stephenson describes how
When one of [Rife’s] programmers and her husband engaged in oral sex in their own bedroom one night, the next morning she was called into Rife’s office, where he called her a slut and a sodomite and told to clean out her desk.
First, let’s note the reinforcement that it’s totally normal for women to be programmers in Snow Crash (Juanita is, and she’s better than Hiro, remember, and it looks like Y.T.’s mother is a programmer, too).
Second: consider the late-pandemic-capitalism world we live in right now where more and more people are starting second gigs as sex workers from the safety of their own homes through websites like OnlyFans, and that, I don’t know, a Mom Who Makes $150K a Month from OnlyFans Says Catholic School Expelled Her 3 Sons Because of her Page (People.com).
We don’t see much more of this, but people don’t appear to share themselves in the future Stephenson imagines. Rife is an extrapolation/mash-up of televangelism with technology and that regular human desire for control, and while there are hints that people are into self-expression like wanting to make sure they look good on the Street, like I mentioned above, there’s no… self-publishing. I wrote about this earlier, but there are a few aspects about the Metaverse that bear repeating:
Remember, Snow Crash was published in 1992. The publishing revolution didn’t really start until blogging in the late 90s. From that, we got citizen journalism, crowdsourcing and so on. Sure, we’ve got stringers in Snow Crash, but they’re weird Gargoyle-type people, people who make it their job to ferret out information and take it to the Library of Congress which is like the sort of managed-Wikipedia of Snow Crash’s future. There is no bottom-up organization here. There is no mess of content organically growing everywhere, sprouting like mushrooms wherever there’s minimally viable connectivity.
So in 1992, it was difficult to imagine how you might find out about someone’s bedroom activity other than using physical bugs to put them under 24 hour illicit a/v surveillance, nation-state style.
In 2021, the way you’re more likely to find out people’s bedroom activity is because people are telling you about their bedroom activity, it’s in many cases not illicit at all and in fact explicit in so many senses of the word. There are those who’re sharing their bedroom activity for free, there are those who’re charging for it, and there’s everything in between.
What Rife does get kind of right are the consequences, which are human reactions and entirely unsurprising that a conservative employer would be unhappy about this, and that in a more extremely libertarian America, you could easily be fired for whatever cause. There’s a throwaway reference to “bad publicity” annoying Rife, but again, there’s no real sign of whether that bad publicity is because details considered sordid are being aired and it’s embarrassing, or because society is pretty laissez-faire about this thing now and it’s Rife’s reaction that’s outsized. My suspicion is that it’s the latter, given the prevalence of Reverend Wayne’s Pearly Gates franchise.
But! Another point to do with self-publishing. Rife buys some ad time, which fine, that’s in the same wheelhouse as calling up a friendly journalist and, say, getting a piece placed in Wired about how awesome you are (in the text (and sorry, Wired), a “smarmy, toadying, pseudojournalist who “interviews” him”), or buying a SponCon program for TV, but these days what happens is you get a VC powerhouse like A16Z saying that it’s going to “go direct” and start publishing its own content, for which a) isn’t that a blog; and b) again, Rife doesn’t think to do this, or the world Rife lives in isn’t set up to enable this.
Rife points out that all television in the world goes through his networks, so he’s again a bit of a cross between Rupert Murdoch and someone who owns physical infrastructure, and he points out that “most of the information transmitted to and from the CIC (the merger of the CIA/Library of Congress) passes through my networks. The Metaverse—the entire Street—exists by virtue of a network that I own and control).
Rife goes on to complain about the inaccessibility of proprietary intellectual property which at some point necessarily passes into the brain structures of the people who work for him, and symptomatic of someone with quite significant trust and control issues, he has Problems With This, saying that workers in a car factory wouldn’t be allowed to “drive the cars home or borrow tools”. We’ll come back to that, because I want to cover the infrastructure and platform stuff first.
Rife is pointing out that he owns the pipes, so sure, he’s like an Evil AT&T. 1992 is 10 years after the Ma Bell Breakup, one of the last significant anti-competition actions of the U.S. government . It’s weird that in such a libertarian world as Rife’s, he owns the pipes and doesn’t, say, NSA-style, tap everything. He admits to wanting to, and that he places bugs everywhere, but there’s also something strange in not having something like deep packet inspection and just snooping on people’s mail. Is it because Rife is still enough of a gentleman that he doesn’t read other people’s mail?
In the hyper-capitalized, simultaneously franchised and monopolized world of Snow Crash, there’s no FCC doctrine of platform neutrality or common carrier anymore (arguably, there’s no FCC, so a bit of a moot point), so perhaps it’s because Rife realizes it might not be good for business if people knew he was snooping. But, it’s not like people have a choice, as he points out.
Rife doesn’t feel the need to own the software. The pipes are enough. He has such a monopoly over them that it doesn’t matter that the Metaverse protocol is run by an ACM working group (seriously, I still can’t get over this), because there’s no choice as to the pipes you run your application, and there’s nobody saying there should be. Not anyone with any power, at any rate. So perhaps it’s not a surprise that the network is asymmetrical, favoring content distribution over self-publishing. It’s not like cable networks prioritize traffic that way anyway right now, right?2
Back to Rife and his obsession with controlling information and intellectual property, almost as if he’s some sort of exaggerated figure intended to teach the reader that it’s the information, stupid, and a character resisting the 1960s Stewart Brand call that information wants to be free. It helps, of course, that Rife is ultimately unsuccessful. (This should not be a spoiler).
Rife is so obsessed, even, that it extends to bodily metaphors, talking about closing information sphincters, and wanting to refine “information management techniques so we can control that information no matter where it is” and, you know, this is an entirely understandable human nature. I’d be willing to be that a bunch of readers have devices on their very person right now or that they might even be using to read this, that are subject to mobile device management, which is a much more euphemistic way to talk about “information management”: we’re managing the device, you see, not the information.
After this, we’re back to normal. Rife is doing a bunch of SETI stuff, which is setup for discovering the Alien Information Virus From The Stars, and we get a bit of a description of radio interferometer astronomy, which is only possible because of a) privatization resulting in the possible acquisition of assets like radio telescopes and, more importantly, b) Rife’s globe-spanning “fabled fiber-optic net”.
Rife divulges this in an interview with, get this: “a celebrity professor from MIT” and well let me tell you does observation age well with the benefit of 29 years.
OK, that’s it for today. Nearly 3,000 words.
How are you doing? I always love hearing from people, even if it’s just a one word “hi” — you don’t even need to add the extra “hi!”. Saying hi to people is nice. So, hi!