RL275 - I want an adult!

This week, Merlin and John talk about:

The Problem: ”John’s laziness is his culpability”, referring to the fact that big web companies get you to use their thing because the alternative is much worse. For example you use login through Facebook with one click instead of filling out a form for 15 minutes.

The show title refers to John trying to call SnapChat and wanting to talk to an adult.

John started to get emails from Ben Shapiro and the problem is that John knows 8 people who’s names are some combination of Ben and Shapiro. He would open those emails and it would get all sticky on him.

John recently read that The Berlin Wall has been down longer than it was up!

The Amazon Spheres (RL275)

A local public radio station asked John if he would come on a panel to talk about whether or not the new Amazon spheres are going to be a Seattle icon like the Space Needle. In the past, Seattle was called the Jet City, which was a very cool organic name because they built jets. Now they are called Emerald City, a nickname that came from the resort of ”Let’s take suggestions from the audience”. It is the place in Wizard of Oz.

A few years ago John visited a friend at a big architecture firm Downtown. One of the things they had on their drawing board were those giant, very organic looking spheres. John was intrigued, because on the design table they were pretty cool looking and his friend said that Amazon wanted them to build those in the center of Downtown. John assumed that will never happen, but it would have been cool to build a public space like that. The spheres are three super-big interconnected bubbles with trees inside. They are like Bucky Balls by Buckminster Fuller, but unlike Bucky Balls which are built with regular, triangular components, the spheres are made with very organic shapes like what you would see inside a soap bubble.

John hates to keep referencing the movie Avatar, but it feels like something from that film. He had never expected that they would actually go through with the ambitious idea to build these orbs in the center of town, a bold move from a company that is culturally pretty conservative within themselves. Amazon has not typically been ”We love everybody”, but they are a typical tech company, hiding behind security keys and everything. It is harder to get into Amazon.com or Microsoft in Downtown Seattle than it is to get into the White House. What are you so scared of? Do you have gold bars in there?

Construction took a long time and screwed up traffic in Downtown forever. They built two big office towers on either side which are also architecturally interesting. As they got closer to finishing these bubbles, it turned out that they were never going to let anyone go in them, which is the kind of thing you would want to mention. Now there is this space station Earth that, together with the office buildings on either side, takes up a whole city block and houses 10.000 new employees. On the ground floor they have a Fat Belly Sandwich shop, a Thai restaurant and a cool burger place that puts lavender on your burgers. If you have a key card, you can surely just go in and charge for food.

There have been many different eras of Downtown architecture fashion. San Francisco is a real example of a place with buildings that have open, unfriendly, sun-baked plazas with some cement in there that you can sit on. Brutalism is hard to shake and doesn’t want to go away. It was an idea that was supposed to engage people, but they didn’t think through how actual people want to be. Those spheres on the other hand really draw you and the first thought you have is that you want to go in. There are trees and it looks like playing Tubular Bells or Music for Airports, it is like the future!

Other public buildings that have a similar effect in Seattle are the Downtown library, which John describes as a space port on a minor planet. As is typical for contemporary architecture, not long after it opened the escalators stopped working and pretty soon there was somebody there with some scaffolding and a sign saying ”No access!” trying to fix it, but they were not working that hard. The other example is the EMP which was a folly of a rich person. On the drawing board it looked like they were getting a Frank Gehry right in the middle of town, but because Paul Allen owned it, he got involved and wanted it to be red, white, blue, green and yellow instead of all silver. Frank and Paul had a disagreement over that. Paul also wanted some meeting rooms in there, some square boxes with chairs and some things on the outside where you can put giant posters in to advertise upcoming shows, which also wasn’t what Frank was building. Frank does not acknowledge the EMP on his website and he washed his hands of it, like "Take my name off the credits!" Paul Allen still got this thing built, but he was thinking in terms of the big keycard buildings in the suburbs that he came up in.

That’s also what they did with those Amazon bubbles. They have these incredible organic structures inside, but there are also white walls squared off with no windows and doors, probably with AV-equipment and Powerpoint-stuff. There is surely a folding table outside where you will get your lanyard. In other words, they have built a convention center that no-one is allowed in. Building something like that and then not letting people in is an example of tone-deafness that goes with the idea that you are going to locate your campus right in the center of Downtown to appeal to employees, because they are going to be right in the heart of the action.

In the Amazon brochures to attract employees they will point out how cool Seattle is where people ride mountain-bikes and get their coffee. There is surely a picture of a girl with pink hair and somebody throwing the fish at the market. Come to Seattle! Don’t move out to Mountain View, California! What the company isn’t doing is repaying the city for all that cool culture that they are using to attract employees by adding anything back. A small number of civic leaders like John might probably come in on a tour, but the regular person from St. Louis who spends a week in Seattle and who wants to look at the Amazon orbs is going to be stopped at the doors. Then you pull your camera out and someone with an earpiece is like ”No pictures!” That’s about it.

In Merlin’s experience, places that have a visitor’s center are not open to everybody. The visitor’s center is called The Understory and you can get full 90 minute Amazon HQ tours. There will be 300 endangered species in it and according to GeekWire, ”Amazon employees will be able to walk on a suspension bridge over a forest and settle into an nest, perched into a mature tree for a brainstorming session” John suspects that the brainstorming sessions will instead happen in drywalled meeting rooms.

John has toured the Medium offices a couple of times and they had a bunch of sleeping cubbies, little pods built into the wall with curtains on them, like Japanese hotel rooms. John’s first question was how often people actually use them to take naps in there and the answer was that no-one has ever used them to take a nap, because you would be looked at like someone who is trying to take a nap during work day. There are facilities for six people to be sleeping simultaneously. John asks if people would go in there and fuck at night, but they don’t, because those things are creepy. They are probably cleaned every day and have a dedicated cleaning person, but no-one had ever been there. If John would work at Medium, he would work from there! The reply was that John wouldn’t work for Medium for long. You could go down to Amazon orbs and sit around and have brainstorming sessions, but to really sit around in a hammock and watch the endangered butterflies fly around, you have to be a vice president or higher.

On the radio show John talked about that Amazon was thinking of the spheres as a tourist destination when they built them. They want people to come and wear T-shirts, like "Seattle, the orb city"! They had that in mind, but they didn’t make the leap that it is going to be an attractive nuisance to everyone. You need to have a way to pay $15 to go in and sit around. The Space Needle is not free, either! Whatever the promised retail is, it is going to be 50 sqft in an understory selling you T-shirts with the orbs on. There is not going to be a Fendi store in there!

Merlin was looking at images of the Salesforce tower, the blight of his own city, the tallest building in San Francisco, the thing that is visible from Japan Town. John was seeing it from his hotel when he was there recently. It is like Darth Vader made a water rocket! Merlin does not like this style of architecture personally. It looks good in London, but he doesn’t like it so much in San Francisco.

The Libertarianism that is in the heart of how Amazon interacts with Seattle suggests that they don’t owe the city anything. They built their company from the ground up and they brought good, clean jobs to town. Their only obligation to bring in and pay a lot of money to young people who increase the tax base. Whether or not they created a traffic fuckup or whether or not the sewers in Downtown were built to accommodate 50.000 new people who are all flushing their toilet at the same time, none of those larger questions about how we interact with each other will be addressed more than with the minimum to be in compliance. They don’t think of themselves as integrated! They are their thing! They built it, the money belongs to them, they bought that land and they can do what they want with it!

If Bezos wanted an erected glass penis 80 stories tall, he wouldn’t be the first rich guy to build a glass penis in Downtown Seattle. There literally is a building that looks like a green penis in Downtown Seattle (probably the Seattle Municipal Tower), which is a bad color for a penis. It is a combination of ego and hubris that allows a company to say ”We are doing this in the center of your city and we have the right to do whatever we want because of money. We are not obligated to you in any way, shape or form! We have to make it accessible because that is the code, you have to be able to walk through it, but we have no further obligation to interact with you at all. If you don’t have a lanyard, you are barely welcome to the Fat Belly Sandwich shop!”, which is ostensibly open to the public, but their cash registers won’t accept money.

At the same time, those companies want to be loved. That is the cognitive disconnect! They don’t understand why people are mad at them. They feel hurt and put upon when people complain. They feel misunderstood. "Look at all the stuff we have done for you!! It is an aggrieved dad thing. You got 50.000 people in town now, but nobody can move. You didn’t think of that, because as soon as those people leave the door of your building, they are not your problem anymore. They sell "Working in Seattle" as a big part of their compensation package and it is the old argument people used to make in Rock ’n’ Roll: "You are so lucky you get to play in Rock’n’Roll", but it is people's job and they also like to get money! In Amazon's defense, Silicon Valley and San Francisco are super-costly, even if you make a lot of dough. It is difficult to find an apartment in New York City that is bigger than a closet. You could have a similar kind of job at a growing company in Seattle and your quality of life is going to be higher than living in a hovel in Mountain View. The argument they are making is not wrong, but John’s argument is that they are taking and sucking a thing from the city that nobody owns.

You can’t pay anybody for the cool artists that are loafing around. You are certainly not going to pay them for their art! You are bringing your people in who don’t have a culture. They are 24 years old and have computer science degrees and they are living in an apartment with nothing on the wall. They like good restaurants and they are learning to go to shows, which is wonderful. Seattle will enculturate the people that work here, because they will if they allow themselves. You can see Amazon's after work groups who do things. That is the process of how the culture of a city works. What they don’t acknowledge is that this has a cost on the people who are already living in the city and who are making the thing that they are selling, which is an intact culture: There is a music scene and there is room for artists who don’t have a lot of money to live.

What some of these companies do is weird or at the least tone-deaf, but then they are also shocked and surprised that people don’t like what they are doing. Once they are clocked about what they are doing, like stuff with your data or building a bubble, then they are like ”What do you mean? We are just making tech! Teching makes! They didn’t realize they should have asked permission to make the city better. Look at them, making our town into a destination for the most desirable men in America, how dare you get mad that they put some ferns in a pot Downtown! They put a Jimmy John’s in there! The rising tide lifts all techs!” It is like the meme saying ”Was I not supposed to do that?”, like that app that uploads your entire contact list into the cloud. ”Is it weird that we did that?” Not only should you have asked about it, but you shouldn’t have done it! You shouldn’t have done it and you needed to ask, but doing it and not asking is mega gross!

As they were recording, John got a letter from the radio station, saying they don’t need John on the show because they have some architects coming on instead. John had ranted for a while at Amina, the woman he was speaking to, and he said that Amazon does have a few limited ways to let the public see their spheres. They have a visitor exhibit section and they do cooperate tours, but you have to schedule them and they are only on Wednesdays. Bringing architects on the show instead of John is like letting the generals run the war! Amazon is covering their ass and everybody who is listening to this show who is working at Amazon as a partisan is going to say that you can go on Wednesdays!

John giving a show in San Francisco (RL275)

John did a show in San Francisco while he was there last week, covering the music of a couple of Wes Andersson films: Rushmore and Real Tennenbaums. There were probably 30 or 40 musicians and most of them were old San Francisco people like the Flamin’ Groovies. John ended up doing Judy is a Punk by The Ramones and he did I am Waiting by The Rolling Stones, which is not one of their greatest tunes. The band behind him was really great and his friend Kelley Stoltz was there. He is an Indie Rocker and a great musician and he hilariously covered Echo and the Bunnymen’s seminal record in its entirety (probably Ocean Rain). The Bunnymen heard it and came to him and said: We need a rhythm guitar player, you already know all the songs, and now Kelley is in Echo and the Bunnymen. Those guys are very old and crusty! Merlin tries to sing one of their songs and John thinks it sounds like The Killers.

Liza Minelli (?? They surely mean Ian McCulloch) looked good! John had opened for them a couple of times and tried to interact with them, but Ian is completely unintelligible. He probably knows that he is, but he also talks into the microphone throughout the show and the crowd is like ”Yeeeeeah!” John was standing by the backstage stairs as Ian gets up the stage, people are cheering, somebody is throwing a towel around his shoulders and there is an EMT, a medic standing there. He comes down the stairs, the medic hands him an oxygen mask and he takes four big lungs full of pure oxygen, lights a cigarette and walks off. When the EMT packs up his stuff, John asked if this was a real thing, but the medic said that it probably doesn’t do anything, but Ian had wanted it and paid the extra for it. You probably get a little head-rush from it, but it is more the feeling of getting pure oxygen when you get off stage, which John thought was cute and funny. Echo and the Bunnymen were formed 40 years ago, 8 years after the Beatles broke up. That feels very good to Merlin!

The Omnibus (RL275)

Merlin was not super into John’s new show The Omnibus after he had listened to two or three episodes. He started to wonder if it was a miscalculation for John, but as he listened to more of them, he came to really enjoy it. Some episodes are way better than others in a way that will eventually balance out. Their chemistry is actually really good and Ken is genuinely fucking funny. The bouncing cheques joke is the stupidest smart joke Merlin had ever heard and Ken just had it ready. Merlin gives it a thumbs up. The first couple of episodes were pretty stiff as they were trying to find out a way to do it. Ken is funny and fast and you start to like a guy when he makes the joke that you would have made. John wants to empower Ken to interrupt him more, but he is very polite. John wants him to say his joke, but Ken is a little microphone shy and doesn’t want to jump in. They are sitting across from each other at a table and John can see him, so if he wants to jump in, it will be visible in his eyes. The show is not very edited, but they just don’t talk over each other because they are looking at each other. John is proud of it and it is getting better all the time.

Facebook Messenger, Facebook has the wrong business model (RL275)

The other day, John got a DM on Facebook. He doesn’t mind them, he will take your DM! John did what he often does and looked at their profile because he wanted to see who he was talking to. This DM came from a person that was just plausible enough, but John couldn’t get to their profile. The link for that just wasn’t there! He dedicated 5 frustrating minutes trying to figure out why he couldn’t see who this person was. A day or two later John, read a thing that Facebook has decided to open up Messenger, their shitty DM platform, to people who don’t even have a Facebook account, because they want their DM program to be the new SMS. China won’t allow Facebook, but Facebook doesn't want to miss out on a billion customers and figured out a workaround: Now people in China can just use Messenger. With that, they have introduced the possibility that some spammer comes out of nowhere and John can’t even verify their identity.

Merlin is so fucking sick of being punked out by PR people and robots that it has made him suspicious and cynical about phone calls. Somebody calling him on the phone is a pretty good sign that it will not be anybody Melin knows or wants to talk to. The vast majority of phone calls he gets are garbage. Having a permissive model of communication used to be a pretty good idea and the democratizing force of telephone or email was that anybody could reach out to anybody, but we are at a point where most of the inbound communication is harassment or junk. Maybe it is a model we need to flip around?

John was thinking about the internal logic at Facebook, one of the largest media- and tech-companies in the world worth billions of dollars. Everybody there is richer than Croesus. Instead of increasing the user experience for the billion people who are already using their platform and instead of making it a better environment or a better product, their business culture and mentality is to get another billion people to use this? They feel it is not their problem if getting another billion people to use this makes it worse for the billion customers they already have. What they should be doing is patching the holes in their system, because people have nowhere else to go if they want to show pictures to their grandma.

Focusing your business solely on getting a billion more users is very different from what the attitude of business was up until recent times, back when it was ”The customer is always right”, back when you wanted to have a customer for life and keep them happy so that the person will tell their friends and will come back. Nowadays the attitude is that you anyway will have no other choice but to use their product because they bought all their competitors and even if you are not going to like it, you can not log into any of the other things on the web without using them. Either you one-click into this new thing through Facebook or you spend 15 minutes filling out a form. Alright, my laziness is my culpability!

Merlin has not seen anybody being happy using Facebook. Most people use it begrudgingly or out of a sense of obligation because they have to post photos to their family, or because of their work. Who looks forward to using LinkedIn? Maybe some of the improvements they make to attract another billion people are also good for the people who are already there, but that is an interesting balancing act. The kinds of things that make the system more permissive are generally the kinds of things that make other people more exposed. Making it easier for randos to get to me without any way for me to control that is not good for me or for anybody. Merlin is a 51 year old white guy!

There was an article in the New York Times looking at a company who sells followers. They acquire the accounts of real people, like a zombie eating an ant’s brain, and they turn those accounts into follower-accounts that they can deploy, but it leaves a fingerprint. When somebody buys X number of followers, there are thousands of fingerprints left behind. Twitter has a very good, permissive and powerful API that allows us to do that kind of analysis. But how hard would it be for Twitter to do the same and look for patterns that are just blindingly obvious?

For a long time there was the boobs and butts problem where every time you posted something, a picture of a boob or a butt would favor it, but that has kind of gone down by now. There was a huge similarity to all those accounts and you wouldn't even need deep learning to see if there were boobs in this picture. Just the fact that they always had a pinned tweet about this kind of subject matter and there were always these kind of things in the bio. If Merlin had 2 months of Perl, he would be able to write something to identify thousands of these accounts. This is their party, guys! This is their house and their couch that they let everybody come in and shit on. Why don’t they use some of that firepower? A cynical person would tell you why: It is the same reason that clickbait headlines get a lot of comments: Every comment gets at least three page views. Every time we are outraged and reload, we are engaging at a level that is exactly the kind of metric they are selling right now. Never expect somebody to understand a thing that is jeopardizing their job! That is the frustrating part! Afterwards they are playing it off legit and show you the updates they have made and sorry for all the nazis!

When John says that in the past the customer was always right, he knows that there will be a lot of eye-rolling about his 1940s idea of capitalism, but the current model isn’t better and it isn’t an evolution. People who have only studied business have a very narrow idea of what business is. In the past you went to university to study things and then you started a business, but if you go to business school and study business, you are studying a culty discipline where things go in and out of fashion. John didn’t start to play music because a good way to sell T-shirts was to make some band music. People are going to business school without any novel idea. They are not going there because they built a better mouse trap and they want to sell it, but they are going there to get into business, they learn business and they are frantically trying to find a thing to do a business about. Some of them think they will go out and talk to inventors and some of them want to attract attention long enough so they can cash out. Then there are these models like Twitter.

If you run a Northface store and a guy with a really long beard full of sticks and twigs comes in and rants for 40 minutes about your product, you don’t forget it and you probably send a memo to somebody. If enough people do it, you redesign your product and that is how a business interacts with its customers. Facebook has too many customers. They get a million angry emails a day and the way to deal with that is to manage your responses in order to give the impression that you are right and that you are listening. The ride sharing service Merlin uses has never gotten the location of his office correct, but consistently gets it wrong in the same way. Merlin wants to file a bug to say that there is something in their system that gets the location of his office wrong by a right turn and over half a block every time. If he would do that, he would sound like he is bitching, but he is not. He is trying to say that this mistake might be indicative of something bigger and maybe exploring that thing could tell them something about their system. Merlin is literally saying ”Let me help you to make your product better”, but there is no way to do it.

Turning Twitter into a non-profit (RL275)

Twitter in its older version was such a benefit to the world! It fulfilled the promise that anybody could just talk to anybody and so many of John’s friends came from Twitter. It changed Merlin’s job. He had done podcasts before, but if it weren’t for Twitter, he had not met Scott and Adam, he would not have done You Look Nice Today and he would not have seen podcasting as a thing that he could do as his job. John as well! He met Aimee Mann after a show when she came up to him and told him that he covered her song and he did it wrong. John replied he knew that, but he hadn't practiced that much.

Her reply was: ”Pretty good kid, keep it up!” and John was like ”Yeah, LOL, you are Aimee Mann!”, but the next day she followed John on Twitter. He followed her back and ”What’s up?” and she was like ”LOL!” and he was like ”LOL!” Four months later, having never seen her since, she asked him if he would fly back to NYC and do a show in Central Park with her, covering Simon & Garfunkel while Paul Simon and Art Garfunkel were going to be there? And John said: Yes! That only happened because in those 4 months they talked on Twitter with a bunch of other people who are also fun and funny all day. By the time she made that phone call they knew each other. When would that have ever happened before?

Why won't we put together a multinational entity to buy Twitter at its current evaluation and make it a non-profit? Why don't we declare it a UNESCO site? We will govern it and we won’t let Nazis and boobs and butts on there and we will restore it to what it was before: A true human accomplishment. John was like "Haha!" It seemed briefly plausible, because the people working at Twitter don’t care anymore. Most of them just want money and want to get out. Give them their money! They can keep their accounts! But leave Twitter to us! Give it back to us!

Why does every single thing need to be monetized to within an inch of its life? Who came up with the idea that Facebook doesn’t have enough money and they need a billion more customers? Because they need what? Control everything? What is the end game? We individual users are nothing! 100.000 people come and go every second. The guy that had the idea of URLs gave it to the world for free. He is not going to copyright .com, but it was a thing that needed to happen! There is the idea that Twitter or Facebook represent some intellectual property, but we all know it was the result of a one-night brainstorm and a few weeks of coding. It isn’t the same than building the infrastructure to bring water to New York City. It was some guys in a dorm who wanted to make a website where you could judge people’s faces. It was sick at its core from the very dawn. Twitter got made as a thing like SMS to friends where you could say that you were going to the Taco place and you wouldn’t have to text everybody individually. That is not a fucking idea that is worth $1 billion!

John has seen this at several startups that he has tangential knowledge of: They had 15 employees, but they felt like they needed 50 in order to build the business, so they hired 50, but then they got 50 employees and they needed to earn money to pay the 50 employees, so they needed 100 employees to make enough money to pay the 50 employees. It is the mentality of voracious growth that no-one wants to run a 15-person company anymore that is really good and sleek and makes an income for everybody and is stable and is not growing by leaps and bounds and you are not going to sell it for $15 million when you are 28 years old. It is a job that you gave yourself that is pleasing so you can go home at night and feel satisfied by your work. John’s mom was talking about her brother the other day. He retired from Sohio at 50. That’s what used to happen: You started at 20 and at 50 you worked there for 30 years and you retired with a full retirement. Then he got a sailboat and did some stuff. Think about the people who join the army at 20, they also retire at 50!

Mike Squires was in the Marine corps (RL275)

Mike Squires did a pretty good stint in the Marine corps. He grew up in a very rural Washington town and the writing was on the wall how life was going to go. He decided that he was not going to go that way but he joined the Marines instead. He was not going to take over from the weakest uncle as the younger enforcer of the family business. He got out of the cycle of rural shittiness. As he got out of the Marines, he did not go back to his little shitty town with his duffel-bag and hugged his High School sweetheart, but he bought a bass guitar and was like ”Fuck it!” What he did in the Marines was that he sat at a typewriter. He got a big biceps and tattoos saying USMC. John is mocking Mike just because it gives him tremendous satisfaction, but the support staff is just as important as those front line troops. Mike could absolutely kick John’s ass, even right now as fat as he is. He could hit him in seven different ways and one way would be with his typewriter.

Civil oversight over the military (RL275)

When John is not thinking about burying shipping containers in the dessert to put Donald Rumsfeld in, another one of his big ideas is national service that encompasses things other than the army like the Israeli model: Everybody serves between the age of 18-20, but you can choose to work for the National Park Service, the Department of the Interior or the National Endowment for the Arts. You do 2 years of public service in one of a million different ways, but it is considered equivalent to military service. There are people risking their lives on battle fields, but if the person who is driving the truck that is bringing the bottled water to the people who are doing that work on the battlefield is as integral to that machine as the fighter, then the people who are making the roads back home work better and the people who are making America stronger by having a more devoted national commitment to the arts are also engaged in the same battle.

Merlin’s daughter’s principal works about 12 hours a day, but cannot afford to live in San Francisco, which is a terrible misallocation of resources. It also speaks to a core decline in our values that John cannot yell enough about. People may feel like this is some crusty attitude and that once we turn the next corner, we are wearing heads-up-displays and walking around with Madam Butterfly strapped in our underpants.

It was Nixon who took us into China and as much as that is a Mussolini ”May the trains run on time” argument, John also feels like it may one day be a liberal democrat or a liberal politician who introduces the idea of a compulsory national service, a peace-time draft which will consider work at the Department of Transportation as equivalent to being in the army, because it ultimately is! John spent a lot of time in 2017 talking to officers in the military and for the most part, they say the same thing: They consider themselves apolitical, but of course they support the military, meaning that they support politicians who support the military and those politicians tend to be more republican than democrat. That’s how they fall, but in reality they just support the military and that is their church.

There is this weapons platform that is 100 times over budget and that has been proven over and over again to not work. It was designed at a time when the mission was different than it is now, meaning that there is no mission for it anymore. It is a total boondoggle that keeps crashing. When you ask the officers about it, they say that the billions of dollars we pour into that go to the people who work in the military and to the companies that support the military, so even though it is a shit-storm, in the end it benefits the country because it benefits the military. That is the point at which you understand that they are non-partisan, but also that they should not be in charge of that decision.

John is engaged in this debate with several of them. They DM John and they tell him that what he said is wrong, and John says ”No, you are wrong” and they start a lively discussion. That is why we have civilian oversight over the military! If you put people into office who get there by reflexively saying that they will support the military without ever questioning them, you get into a situation like this. In Rome the rule was that as soon as a soldier stepped into Rome, he was no longer in the army. In the city of Rome, you are a civilian. You could not enter Rome as a member of the army, meaning that the armies were always outside of Rome. It was a way of avoiding the situation where a general could come back from a triumphant battle, march into the city and get himself elected the Caesar in the frenzy of outpouring of joy about the returning conquering army.

As soon as the army would return and walk into town, they were civilians. It kept them in check. It is not that Roman generals wouldn’t sometimes ascend and march in anyway, but that was their mentality and their way of church-and-stating. We lost a crucial element of civilian oversight because our civilian branch of government has abdicated its oversight responsibility. Too many congressmen are in thrall of the military and too much money is floating around that they don’t want to miss out on. They all went to business school and they are looking for business and there is no morality to it anymore.

Ethics in Computer Science (RL275)

About a year ago, John had started following a bunch of InfoSec people because he wanted out of the thing where people were just yelling at each other. It was a real mistake, because it is like 4Chan with a CS degree. At one point somebody from the academic CS community was announced that they were starting an online think group discussing ethics in CS, trying to get academics, people working in the field and people who are theoretical about it together to build a framework for talking about ethics in CS. This was an open invitation on the part of one organizer where you were supposed to present your CV and explain who you are. On the basis of that, they would include you in the conversation.

John wrote him and said that although he is not in CS, he really wants to be engaged in the area of ethics in CS. He humbly submitted that they could have some civilian lay people in their conversation because they might get into a little bit of a think bubble with one another. Some of the presumptions they are all operating from may be the well-spring of these ethical questions they are struggling with. Maybe it is up above some of their first presumption or maybe it is a thing that they had never looked at this way because they all think a certain way. John could be there to be a smart person asking a question that doesn’t come up very often.

You can’t talk about ethics in CS without recognizing that you are talking about ethics and not CS, because if you are thinking you are talking about CS, then you are going to come to the same conclusions as before. Ethics is a different discipline and computer scientists are not experts on it. There is nothing that suggests that being good at computers means that you are also good at the ethics of what computers can do and are doing. The person wrote back to John and agreed, but how would John be able to be part of it? They are not meeting in a convention center giving speeches, but they are creating an online community of people in the field and they are using all their nomenclature in their short conversations. How is John supposed to engage in the conversation with them? He cannot.

If they are just bouncing ideas off of each other, there isn’t a place for John to hop in, because nobody wants to explain to a lay person what everybody else in the room gets in 140 characters. John wanted to just plant that seed in the persons head that at a certain point, other people who are not in computer science and who are not biologists need to be part of the bioethics conversation. People in CS need to acknowledge that and they can’t just present their paper, make a bunch of people butthurt about it and you claim that you did everything and you don’t understand why people are mad at you.

This is where we are in drone warfare. The people who were giving the ethics talk were also the ones who are procuring and flying those drones. There wasn’t anybody in the chain who came up with a way that this is going to integrate in our civilian laws and civilian morals. The people doing that work were in the military or in the congress authorizing the military to do what they want and there are people in the military who John argues with about this, but there was never a Monroe Doctrine about it. In a way it violates the Monroe Doctrine. John doesn’t know how to do that other than in places like online communities. He and Merlin sit and talk and they traipse over into CS ethics and they bumble around and John knocks a vase off a shelf and Merlin says some things that John doesn’t understand. They bumble and waltz over into the next room and yell about business for a while and Merlin talks into his shoe. Where else are those conversations happening?

John trying to call SnapChat (RL275)

John tried to call SnapChat about 8 months ago. He had a simple question and just needed to talk to a certain person, but there didn't appear to be a way to reach them. John just needed to ask an operator to put him through to that person. He called their phone number and it said ”If you want to talk to us, just tweet us @snapchat” click. John’s thing was time sensitive, it was real and it was solvable by a person somewhere, but he spent a couple of weeks just trying everything. He tried to backwards look up their phone number and called the California business bureau, but every phone number he got funneled him back to that couch at the fraternity house. He tweeted and said: ”Hi, I want to talk to somebody, can you contact me?” and they said ”Follow us and we will DM!” They did and they gave him a number that would say ”Tweet us at…” There was no way through and it was intentional. It is somewhat Kafkaesque. What is crazy about Science Fiction is that although it gets so many things right, it often gets so many things really wrong.

Star Wars or Blade Runner were the first Science Fiction films that made things look dirty and that made things look real. Kafka was right, but what he missed that there would be a giant yellow smiley face on everything which also is not clean. All those Science Fiction movies with giant smiley faces on everything, it is at least clean, but this is both dirty and smiley facey.

Every interaction John had with SnapChat was just like ”Hi! OMG! Thank you!” Look, John is not 14, he doesn’t have a question about his boyfriend taking a boobie picture of him, and if he would, he didn’t want to tweet them. He has a grown-up question and wants to speak to one grown-up. Eventually, and John doesn’t even remember how he did it, he said on Twitter that he wants an adult, and out of the blue he got a phone call from a live person from SnapChat. It was a kid who was very short in his sentences and John asked his question and the person called John back two minutes later and said ”Sure, here is the number, it should be arriving in the mail”. It took John a month to get to this two-minute conversation where the person solved John’s problem. Why is that? Could you please make this a bit easier for people? They didn’t know why. They were just on the solution team.

Unless otherwise stated, the content of this page is licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 License