Episode One Hundred and Forty Three: Email; Snow Crashing (10); 2014 (4)

by danhon

0.0 Station Ident

I’m in Branson, Missouri, on an extended family road-trip, visiting in-laws and newborn cousins. Family is milling around me, grilling chicken and corn, and a ten year old is showing me Lego Marvel Super Heroes. 

Branson is in Southern Missouri, about a four-hour drive from Ferguson, Missouri, which you might have heard of.  It’s okay, because although I’m not white, I’m not black, either. I spent last night glued to Twitter, watching the news come in – the family farm is also a four-hour drive to Ferguson, MO.

If you’re American, you might want to look away now – this is the bit where I qualify what I’m about to say by reminding you that I’ve only lived here for three years now. But: it’s interesting that it’s not that strange an occurrence to see police in riot gear these days. Whether it’s Occupy or protesting a G12 or G20 or G-whatever, or a particularly unpleasant (or pleasant) sports result, or general unrest due to economic conditions – seeing police outfitted in military equipment isn’t the outlier it used to be. But when it happens in America, and when it happens because of police “interaction” with a person of colour? The longer I live here, the more I understand the broken nature of this country’s relationship with African Americans.

1.0 Email

Alexis Madrigal has written a piece about email[1] over in The Atlantic, and one of the first things that punched me in the gut was a screenshot of Pine[2], the email client that was provided to students at Cambridge University in the late 1990s. You’d telnet in, essentially, and run this text-mode email client, because we hadn’t quite gotten our own computers yet – in the late 90s “computer labs” and 24 hour access was still a thing, and the university computing service really liked it if you used Mulberry[3], an IMAP email client (the astute amongst you will have noticed the botanical theme in naming email clients).

This section is probably as close as you’re going to get to a reckon about Slack[4], mainly because I haven’t had occasion to use Slack yet, and for whatever reason I like to have actually tried things before having reckons about them, especially when I happen to know some of the people working on the software. Anyway. I get ahead of myself.

Short of it: Madrigal is right. Email is so much more than the-thing-you-see-in-your-inbox. There are many things about it that might appear broken, but there are many things about it that are, Goldilocks-style, just about right. It’s a kind of lowest-common-denominator platform, and it has an install-base that puts other platforms to shame. In part, that’s because it’s an open standard (well, as open as open standards can be, without getting hijacked or Embraced and Extended – and everyone here is shiftily looking at Google and what they’re doing with Gmail here[5] – the whole “don’t use IMAP, it’s broken” which isn’t necessarily *untrue* to the “use this instead, it’s better” which again… But I digress) that’s been allowed to flower. Email and its related standards for transmission (SMTP), routing (MX records) and access (IMAP, POP) and its hardiness, as Madrigal puts it, as the cockroach of the internet, have allowed it to in modern parlance become a Platform that others can build upon. There’s been untold Value generated from email and its ubiquity.

Sure, some of it’s broken. But as Madrigal and others have said, people are discovering new use-cases for email, and it’s being unbundled, as term of art du jour. While we may have had a detour with site syndication and publishing (I think we can all agree that as a consumer technology, RSS is pretty much dead) newsletters remain a valid one-to-many broadcast method. Those who were at college in the 90s will remember logging in to text-based email systems and essentially keeping a session open, having long, threaded conversations that are pretty much like the way we treat instant messaging and chat nowadays, only email was all we had.

You want a weird format? Email is a weird format. It’s not 140 characters. It’s long. It can be multi-part, it can have attachments, it can have rich formatting or just be plain text. And it will turn up on whatever device you want it to turn up on. Christ, even fridges read email these days, probably.

Madrigal in effect asks: what will be left, once email has been unbundled? I might be biased, but part of what will be left is long letter writing. Sure, there are still the long Facebook status messages. And the long Tumblr posts, I suppose. But email feels like it will last. Maybe it won’t be the same, and maybe it won’t have as many monthly or daily active users (seriously, does anyone even count this stuff?) but I have the feeling it’ll be a legacy platform for a very, very long time.

[1] Email Is Still the Best Thing on the Internet – The Atlantic
[2] Pine Information Center
[3] Mulberry
[4] Slack, from Tiny Speck
[5] Gmail API

2.0 Snow Crashing (10)

We’re at chapter eight of Snow Crash, and this is the tenth in my series of notes going through Neal Stephenson’s 1992 novel to see how it’s held up over the years. The full list of Snow Crash-tagged posts is in my archive[1].

There’s a few funny throwaways here: we’re reminded that Juanita, Hiro’s ex, has rezzed in to the Black Sun from a payphone somewhere, so she’s on a low-fi, low-bandwidth black-and-white avatar (which, let’s be clear, makes NO SENSE because the modeling is done on the client side and they just need to transmit geometry information because the avatar itself is selected by the user and its attributes are stored server-side but *anyway*), it’s funny because a) Stephenson defaults to the kind of light-sexism which means that Juanita, a woman, is the one who figured out how to make computers emotional and useful for social conversation, and b) the anger/surprise template is based upon Hiro, so he sees himself in every single other avatar, which I don’t know if there’s a good analogue of that in the real world. I mean, I guess it’d be like if you voiced the Wilhelm scream[2] and heard it everywhere for the rest of your life.

And, you know, there’s other throwaway lines, like:

“Shortly after Juanita and Da5id got divorced, the Black Sun really took off. And once they got done counting their money, marketing the spinoffs, soaking up the adulation of others in the hacking community, they all came to the realization that what made this place a success was not the collision-avoidance algorithms or the bouncer daemons or any of that other stuff. It was Juanita’s faces.”

In which case you’re kind of looking at the Metaverse and thinking: what exactly is it? I mean, is it like OpenGL? Because that explains the comment about collision-avoidance algorithms, but doesn’t explain something like what “the Street” is and how the street can have (or not have) collision-avoidance algorithms. And is what Stephenson really saying is that there are different avatar display rules for different areas of the Metaverse? That when you go inside the Black Sun, peoples’ faces can look better, and they just look crap everywhere else? I mean, I guess so, because earlier, we heard that the Black Sun was a classy place because “avatars are not allowed to collide” which also means that they “can’t walk through each other” and “only so many people can be in here at once” which is a bit like a World of Warcraft instance, or realm, or zone, you think?

So this is the weird thing, right? People come to The Black Sun – the businessmen in the Nipponese quadrant, to be clear – because it is “just as good” as real-life, but we don’t get any indication that this practical high-def VR conferencing software hasn’t been licensed out anywhere else. It’s just *weird*. There’s this line that Stephenson uses to explain why the businessmen come – because there’s something ineffable in the way that Juanita’s code takes the be-gloved and be-goggled businessmen’s actions and facial movements and body-language and allows them to “[condense] fact from the vapor of nuance”.

And then we have a dream of VR, right – a description of a scene where Da5id notices Hiro and “indicates with a flick of his eyes that this is not a good time.” My wife and I have a name for stuff like this – we call it “eye acting”. You see it in long-running character dramas like Stargate SG-1 (don’t laugh) where you’ve got a cast who’re so at ease with each other that they can move their face just-so and you fill in the rest of the blanks. Colonel O’Neil can raise his eyebrows just a fraction toward Dr. Carter and that’s worth a whole page of dialogue. It seems like that’s exactly what Juanita’s software allows for, but here’s the other kicker: you need a well-designed avatar and a “good PC” for it.

Hiro eavesdrops on a conversation between a few Hollywood execs, which is funny because “since the whole thing conversation has come to him via his computer, he’s just taken an audio tape of the whole thing” and you know, we “mp3” things now instead of take “audio tape” of them now. “Later, he can process it to disguise the voices, then upload it to the Library, cross-referenced under the director’s name” – of course, now, it’d be streaming to the Library, er, I mean YouTube, and cross-referencing under the director’s name isn’t something we have to do manually these days because of audio fingerprinting or, “hey, isn’t that a photo of your friend? Tag them!” on Facebook.

I mean, I’m really interested to see if, post-public-Oculus and its backing from a multinational, billion-user social network, we actually end up with something like what Stephenson suggests with The Black Sun. I mean, we kind of had it with Habbo Hotel, we didn’t really have it with Second Life (because the deal with Second Life wasn’t so much social as it was Hey! Build stuff in 3D! and the deal with Habbo Hotel and Virtual Magic Kingdom and all the other stuff was “chat software rocks”). No, I mean the whole thing about movie stars using it to “visit with their friends” and “strut their stuff”. I mean, seriously. We’re about 12 months out from seeing if this is *actually going to happen*, and that’s pretty phenomenal. Put it this way: you think single-camera amateur YouTube shows are a big thing? Imagine live streaming from an Oculus Rift instance, and allowing people to drop by. This is like some weird virtual talk-show shit.

Anyway, L. Bob Rife is here and if you’ve read the book before that’s a Chekov’s gun waiting to go off, and again it’s weird that Hiro has to remember stuff like “hey, I should look these peoples’ names up in the library when I leave” as opposed to opening up another window and just checking that stuff out in the background, or having his virtual reality augmented. Bigboard is weird, because although just a piece of software, the hyperlink *still doesn’t exist* outside of explicit hypermedia: Bigboard tells him the names of people, but doesn’t pull in data from CIC alongside them. What bizarre, non-networked software.

Juanita is here and she warns Hiro not to mess with Snow Crash, we’re reminded that he’s clever and impulsive and has sword-fighting reflexes (did you hear? Hiro’s good at sword-fighting) and she also reminds us that she and Hiro are the only people who can have an honest conversation in the Metaverse because of their history. Which again, hello: licensing. Hiro’s also hilarious, because his latest theory is that Juanita is guarded around him because she likes him (which turns out to be true, because this is a story written by Neal Stephenson) but also in real life probably isn’t true because you should just read Mallory Ortberg’s[3] tweets about men some day. And then blah blah something about Hiro being a bit of a dork and asking about Juanita’s latest boyfriend, blah blah something about what right-thinking geeks think about Religion (and I know the latter, because Kindle tells me at least 390 people have highlighted the section about organised religion).

Ah, and now we’re getting to a good bit. Juanita gives Hiro a hypercard. And “[as] Hiro pulls it from her hand, the hypercard changes from a jittery two-dimensional figment into a realistic, cream-coloured, finely textured piece of stationary.”

Clearly, Steve Jobs designed it. And we’ve just finished chapter 8.

[1] Newsletter posts tagged: Snow Crash
[2] Wilhelm Scream – Wikipedia
[3] Mallory Ortberg, Twitter

3.0 2014 (4)

It is relatively easy for citizens to launch their own balloons to an altitude of 100,000 ft, track their position and return photography. In some states, citizens are prevented from documenting the activities of local police forces. Western corporations have unveiled competing attempts to deliver internet access to developing nations. Although the infrastructure exists for mass, private genetic testing, it has been held up in the United States due to regulatory approval. Shale fracking, a resource extraction technique perfected in 1997, is now in widespread commercial usage in the United States, China and Canada to access gas deposits. An electric car company is building an network of free-to-access solar-powered car charging stations covering 80% of the population of the United States and trans-continental travel. Most music that people listen to has been compressed by modeling how human anatomy processes sound. A sizeable number of people worldwide now regularly communicate using a set of 722 ideograms originally derived from a Japanese standard laid down in 1998. A variety of “less-lethal” weapons are used by militarized police forces in urban settings, including long-range acoustic-based weapons. The average US fixed-line internet speed is 10 megabits/second. Prominent leaders are quick to douse themselves in ice in order to raise money for charity.

It’s 2014.

Thursday night in Branson, Missouri. I’m signing off, and you’re going to send me replies.