s3e22: Things That Have Caught My Attention 

by danhon

0.0 Station Ident

Friday, June 17 2016, 10.3km up in the sky with a ground speed of 798 km/h, listening to Cigarettes After Sex’s cover of Keep on Loving You. I’m somewhere in the air between Atlanta, Georgia, on the way home to Portland.

So, how’ve you been? I’ve been away for a bit, and I suppose I finally have the headspace to sit down and write for a bit and see what comes out. There are a whole bunch of thoughts and notes in Notes.app, the sort of minimally-viable cognitive-exoself/outboard brain, so I suppose this episode really is going to be nothing more than Things That Have Caught My Attention, However Briefly, Over The Last Few Weeks.

I have done, as people say, a metric shit-tonne of travel over the last few weeks – getting to meet some of the team at Australia’s Digital Transformation Office in Canberra (thank you, Leisa Reichelt!) speaking at Web Directions Transform (thank you, John Allsopp!) and doing what was pretty much a live-newsletter-out-loud at the Australian Centre for the Moving Image (thank you, Seb Chan!), then straight to Sacramento, California to check in on the progress of their child welfare digital service team (more on that later), over to Washington, DC for a White House Foster Care Hackathon, a brief interlude for a family vacation and then down to where I’ve just spent the last two days – in Jackson, Mississippi, meeting the team that’s putting together their new Child Protection Services agency.

Part of that travel meant I had a stupendous amount of time to read books, and I have read *lots* of books. After having gone through something of a desert of reading. In reverse order, I’ve knocked off:

– Sleeping Giants (young girl falls down a hole, discovers giant metal hand)
– Saturn Run (Big Dumb Object appears on the edge of the solar system, US and China both institute crash space programs to race to find out what it is)
– Dark Orbit (Forgotten-about probe sends a ping saying a habitable planet has been found, team sent to investigate, our protagonist is a female exoethnologist)
– Aurora (thoughts about generation ships and colonisation are bad thoughts and you should feel bad)
– Seveneves (“The moon blew up with no warning and for no apparent reason.”)
– Children of Time (“Mad” scientist who follows the church of Brin (really) wants to uplift a species so we’ve got someone to talk to, but spiders happen)

I’ll take two of these first: Aurora and Seveneves, because both of these were kind of tentpole SF releases by Established Male Writers in the last year or so I guess, and they tackled big themes. Seveneves struck me more, I think because William Gibson’s The Peripheral is still knocking around in my head and right now I have a neural network that’s pattern-matching for Jackpot-shaped-things everywhere. The Jackpot – and I’m not really spoiling anything here – is a set of things that happen that aren’t really defined in The Peripheral’s plot, suffice to say that they’re a stab at describing a breakdown in a system of massive, almost unknowable complexity, the *result* of which is rather nice for the people who survive (see: winning the jackpot), but for the fact that we infer that the population of humanity has been massively reduced. But, you know, there’s not that much that can be done about it. It is, in a sense, a sort of business-as-usual post-apocalyptic world: things are broken, but there are sufficiently dense pockets of future to survive and it’s a bit brighter than Bladerunner.


This pattern matches in my head against The Event, the opening sentence of Neal Stephenson’s Seveneves, which has the moon exploding and people figuring out that the moon exploding is pretty much an extinction level event if we don’t dodge, duck, dive, or dip our way out of the resulting shower of formerly-known-as-moon matter, because there’ll be so much of it it’ll be called a Hard Rain that will turn the sky white.

I mean, the only real pattern match between The Jackpot and The Event is that they’re both potentially (you’ve got to read them, right?) extinction-level events but also kind of unpredictable and kind of rely on some sort of chaotic instability. But I guess what *is* in my head is the thought that there’s probably a think tank out there (I’m looking at you, RAND) that has its own Jackpot Index, a sort of updated Doomsday Clock because all the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists had to worry about (lucky them, I guess?) was a singular nuclear event, and not, say, things like a volcano going off and disrupting the global supply chain or an earthquake going off and making the cost of RAM suddenly skyrocket or a country suddenly deciding that it’s going to keep on making steel thank you very much or a super big coronal mass ejection or, if you know me, just A Thing That Runs On Software That Inexplicably Stops Working Because Software  ¯\_(ツ)_/¯.

Anyway. Here are some things that you might want to pattern match against a grab-bag of things that produce a Jackpot level interconnected system of changes that we’re unable to untangle:

– Zika – and it doesn’t matter whether it’s a real threat or a perceived threat, to be honest – manages to impact the global birthrate, leading to a self-imposed Children of Men scenario (we refuse to have children, and the children we do have are Zika-effected and we’re skip n generations looking for a vaccine/cure)
– We succeed in using CRISPR to wipe-out mosquitos because we actually do want to do, but completely predictably, an unknown unknown hits us because we haven’t yet accurately modeled our ecosystem but it’s totally cool because investments in adtech are going up
– The people who know about CRISPR are, I understand, somewhat sanguine about the risks of someone using CRISPR to wipe out anything that we as a species rely on, because the whole problem is that it’s really easy to use CRISPR to do something because all you need [citation needed] is the things that life needs to exist and unfortunately the things life needs to exist, despite what we’re doing to the contrary like pumping co2 into the atmosphere, continue to be broadly available to life in general
– Something to do with ocean acidification
– Something to do with anthropogenic climate change (imagine a part of California that’s just on fire for 2/3 of the year? Or better yet, just look at Canada and Australia?)
– Stuxnet or a successor continues to get loose and as a species we continue to lack the ability to get our hubris under control

Anyway. There is a note in Notes.app called Jackpot Index that I use to jot down all the things I see in the news that are the things I’d use to figure out how close we are to Jackpot Time.

So, you know. That’s nice lighthearted material.

In a conversation with my wife, to whom I credit all of my ideas, especially the good ones, was the observation that at some point you might want to agree an A.I. safe-word or phrase that you can use in a text message or other intelligent (I seriously just spent thirty seconds putting that word in quotes, removing the quotes, trying it again and then just giving it up) assistant mediated communication. In other words, if you see the phrase CASE NIGHTMARE GREEN in any communication from me, then you know that *I* wrote it, and that it wasn’t badly transcribed by a server farm or that an LSTM RNN was used to select the majority of the conversation on my behalf.

Speaking of which! The LSTMS that Google and Apple use now to help us write “simple” replies to people are *totally* the types of things we thought we’d have happen when we’d get a simple simulation of us to respond to people on our behalf, and it’s totally a normalish thing and instead of it being something that Only A Select Few People would have, it’s something that’s in the pocket of more than 50% of the population of the United States and the United Kingdom. How tremendously terrifying and literally awesome is that?

And finally, work. I have two professional work hats on at the moment. Or, rather, I have one work hat which is that my accountant persuaded me to form an LLC and I have one now and it is called Very Little Gravitas LLC which *someone* I have emailed got the reference to and thought was quite amusing given the area in which I’m working at the moment. That LLC employs me and sends me out as a consultant, and I have two consulting contracts right now:

One is at the Administration for Children and Families (the ACF) at the U.S. Department for Health and Human Services where I’m a consultant to the commissioner’s office. The short version of this story is that I am helping to fix child welfare in America. The medium version of the story is that after my work in California last year, I’m helping states move their legacy child welfare technology systems (mostly quite-small-for-2016 databases running on mainframes talking to Visual Basic 6-era fat clients on Windows computers) to something that we would call “modern”, ie: all of the GDS and USDS principles that you’ve heard me banging on about and employing user/human-centered design, understanding and meeting user needs, and using the appropriate mix of agile and modular development. Oh, and Killing Mainframes.

(Actually, the mainframes aren’t that bad. It’s the VB6 fat-client code that needs to die in a fire. The mainframes and databases like DB2 are pretty rock solid.)

California’s child welfare service, for example, deals with about 475,000 reports of severe injury, death and life-threatening neglect a year. That’s 1,301 reports a day, or about 54 reports an hour. Or, you know: a report every minute. This would be distressing even if I hadn’t become a father and had my brain chemically altered to physically feel pain when seeing children in distress. California has around 100,000 children in foster care for their own protection or living with their families in close supervision. But the technological systems that are used by people like caseworkers and resource managers are *literally* mid 90s technology that hasn’t been upgraded. Like, at all. (Also: California’s child welfare technology system costs around $80m a year to run. I leave it as an exercise to the reader as to what that $80m a year might better be spent on).

Anyway, that’s what I’ve been doing. I’ve been going in and meeting program managers, department heads, agency heads, directors, caseworkers, legislators, secretaries, under-secretaries, chief information officers, to persuade them that *if they think another monolithic, waterfall procurement is going to result in better outcomes for the children in their care, then they’re sorely mistaken*.

Fortunately, most of these people want to do a good job and are doing the best they can in an environment that is, if not hostile, then certainly not hospitable to delivering services that meet user needs in anything like a timely fashion.

Double fortunately, I’ve been lucky enough to persuade them all that there’s another way and though it’s hard work, it’s not impossible.

So: until the end of the federal fiscal year, when September finishes, I’m going to be working with child welfare agencies in states around the country, helping them move from what are essentially 1990s enterprise software mainframe superfund sites, to a model where they can control and direct the technology that’s essential for them to provide the services entrusted to them.

But that’s not all! I’m also working with the State of California for the next year! They are Very Excited about what’s been happening with the modular (non-monolithic), agile (non-waterfall) child welfare digital services project and I’ll be working with them to figure out how to move Cailfornia’s state government technology – not just health and human services – toward a model that’s familiar to those who know about the U.S. Digital Service and 18F, the UK’s Government Digital Service and Australia’s Digital Transformation Office.

All of this is a long-winded explanation as to why I’m very sorry that if you had the misfortune to look me up on Microsoft LinkedIn for Xbox One, you’d see me listed as a Digital Transformation Consultant. Sorry.

Anyway, that’s it from me for today. It’s 11:01pm on the East Coast and I’m going to go watch Sneakers again.

Send notes, I’ve missed you all,



PS. Also, no footnotes this time! Couldn’t be bothered! Not enough bandwidth up in the sky!