Archive for July, 2013

Zombie Microsoft Must Die


These days so much of the world is seen through the lens of the horror movie. Even thinking about software seems to have that character. RSS is declared dead, but lives on. Software eats the world. Microsoft is declared dead by the cloud vendors, but continues to live on in zombie form. When the fundamental computing environment changes to such a degree that a particular software solution would no longer be generated from the new set of assumptions, it’s the beginning of the end. While zombie software still operates, its roots are in the previous computing environment. Uprooted, it continues to live, but lacks purchase for continued organic growth in the new soils of computing. In a zombie apocalypse, the undead triumph over the living.

I will knock down the Gates of the Netherworld,
I will smash the door posts, and leave the doors flat down,
and will let the dead go up to eat the living!
And the dead will outnumber the living!

Ishtar in the Epic of Gilgamesh

While the Stacks have settled into small group of feudal kingdoms, the raison d’etre of each of them is to be the One. A single platform would be so much more efficient, surely it’s the most rational way to proceed. At this level, platform software has the character of an extra-terrestrial virus that when mixed with earth’s biosphere rampantly multiplies killing all other life forms and replacing them with a version of itself. But in a nice way, with more efficiency and productivity. Imagine being undead as a positive thing. In the movies this fantasy plays out in a number of ways. The Andromeda Strain, The Thing, Invasion of the Body Snatchers, and my favorite, Five Million Years to Earth, all address our fear of being consumed and turned into alien beings. The malevolence we feel is not so much evil as the amoral neutrality of an algorithm executing until completion. In Kurt Vonnegut’s “Cat’s Cradle” it’s called “Ice Nine”, a substance that turns all water it touches into more ice nine.

From the Wikipedia entry on Ice Nine:

Ice-nine is a fictional material appearing in Kurt Vonnegut’s novel Cat’s Cradle. Ice-nine is supposedly a polymorph of water more stable than common ice (Ice Ih); instead of melting at 0 °C (32 °F), it melts at 45.8 °C (114.4 °F). When ice-nine comes into contact with liquid water below 45.8 °C (thus effectively becoming supercooled), it acts as a seed crystal and causes the solidification of the entire body of water, which quickly crystallizes as more ice-nine. As people are mostly water, ice-nine kills nearly instantly when ingested or brought into contact with soft tissues exposed to the bloodstream, such as the eyes.

In the story, it is developed by the Manhattan Project for use as a weapon, but abandoned when it becomes clear that any quantity of it would have the power to destroy all life on earth. A global catastrophe involving freezing the world’s oceans with ice-nine is used as a plot device in Vonnegut’s novel.

Many feared that Microsoft was on the verge of achieving 100% domination of computing before the consent decree from the justice department breaking up the monopoly. For many in the technology community that was the climax of the horror film, the invading virus was finally defeated by the United States Government. A space was opened up for other platforms to grow and prosper. But the seeds of a sequel were planted. As a practical matter, Microsoft was prevented from securing world domination, but the attitude that desired world domination remained dominant. In the new post-consent decree world the nascent platforms saw this as their chance at world domination. They took aim at Microsoft.


Time passes and a key element in the computing environment changes. The mechanism and speed of software upgrades is fundamentally altered through network-connected computing. More recently cloud services offer that same speed for the most software infrastructure. Just as mobile devices disrupted desktop computing, the speed of network-based software updates have made the shrink wrapped software business obsolete. In a sense software itself becomes mobile, it has a speed and trajectory. The large installed base of enterprise software has remained locked into the slow upgrade cycle of the last era of computing. We now see the personal technology of the worker far outstripping the technology of the corporation.

The real innovation in software was creating the environment where updating, refactoring and completely revising software programs isn’t a painful event. In fact, it isn’t an event at all — just an everyday activity. The capacity to implement real-time upgrades and lower the cost of change is much more important than whatever software is currently in use. Because next week or next month, the software will be improved with a seamless incremental upgrade. It’s one reason that software version numbers don’t really make sense any more. The major version numbers used to signal to users and administrators the cost and level of pain involved in adopting the new version.


As speed became important, Microsoft got faster too. So much so that the most current set of Microsoft products are qualitatively different than the previous generation. Microsoft has pulled so far ahead of Microsoft that a large gap has been created. Microsoft can now look back and see Microsoft in the distance. This is the moment in the horror movie where the monster is split in two. And while all the other technology platforms are fighting Zombie Microsoft, there’s a new piece of Microsoft that’s also fighting against the Zombie. Something similar happened at Apple when a separate team flying a pirate flag was broken off to work on the Macintosh. Microsoft has joined the field of companies competing against Microsoft. They find themselves in a strange situation — in order for Microsoft to live, Microsoft must die at the hands of Microsoft.

The Mind’s Eye: Black Boxes and Time Machines


There was a moment in time when the internal cinema of the mind opened its doors for business and began selling tickets. It might have been in 1798 when “Lyrical Ballads, with a Few Other Poems” by William Wordsworth and Samuel Taylor Coleridge was published. This cinema of the mind was invoked through the use of unrhymed iambic pentameter, or blank verse. Squiggles of black ink sequenced in a particular rhythm were put down across rows on a sheet of paper. They were designed to induce hallucinations, to operate like a time machine that brought you back to a moment of powerful feeling — pried open your eyes and allowed you to witness that scene as it actually comes to exist in your mind.


From the Preface to the “Lyrical Ballads” by William Wordsworth:

I have said that poetry is the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings: it takes its origin from emotion recollected in tranquillity: the emotion is contemplated till, by a species of reaction, the tranquillity gradually disappears, and an emotion, kindred to that which was before the subject of contemplation, is gradually produced, and does itself actually exist in the mind.

“Spots of time” was the phrase Wordsworth used to describe these powerful feelings that welled up spontaneously, overflowing any effort of reason to contain or define them. Contemplated from a tranquil distance, these are the springs the feed the continuing power of poetry. Defying entropy, these moments don’t strike and fade to nothingness. As Freud would later note, they become constitutive of our identity — in both our joy and our madness. They are the personal identity that persists through time and one source of poetry.

From William Wordsworth’s “The Prelude” (1805 edition):

There are in our existence spots of time,
That with distinct pre-eminence retain
A renovating virtue, whence–depressed
By false opinion and contentious thought,
Or aught of heavier or more deadly weight,
In trivial occupations, and the round
Of ordinary intercourse–our minds
Are nourished and invisibly repaired;
A virtue, by which pleasure is enhanced,
That penetrates, enables us to mount,
When high, more high, and lifts us up when fallen.


One of the pleasures of the murder mystery genre is this quality of inducing an internal vision of a past moment of intense passion. The detective surveys the scene of the murder and attempts to reconstruct the events. Witnesses are interviewed, asked to tell what happened. As the witness recounts her memory of the event her eyes shift their focus inward. The internal cinema fills her mind’s eye; she sees those moments around the crime as though they are occurring right now. She puts the vision on a loop and attempts to put it into words. In her face we can see the emotions evoked by remembrance and a reflection of the power of emotions from the event itself. The witness’s words evoke a vision in the mind’s eye — for both us and the detective. As each witness tells some piece of the story, we replay the vision, adding details, attempting to piece together a coherent narrative to replace the mystery.


In film versions of murder mysteries, the eyes of the detective are the key to understanding the kind of thing that will have to be imagined to solve the crime. The world-weary detective in a film noir has seen it all. The character of his eyes gives us a sense of what he could imagine. As he loads the witness’s stories into the projector of his mind’s eye, he must let them induce whatever visions may come. Often we can see how this process of envisioning has taken its toll on the face and eyes of the detective. In others, say the Miss Marple mysteries, we see an incongruous contrast between the seemingly normal countenance of the detective and the eyes that can imagine horrific events of violence. The internal capacity of a dark and powerful imagination doesn’t always correspond with the external physique of an action hero.


There’s a moment when everything clicks. Often it’s a moment that seems to be a break in the story. The detective, exhausted from gazing at the movie he’s constructed, turns off the projector and re-enters the world. An off-hand remark, a simple gesture, a common object seen in a new light offers the analogy that the provides the key. The puzzle pieces of the internal vision sliding around the detective’s head suddenly form a pattern with the ring of truth. This marks the beginning of the end of the story. Often at this point all the suspects and witnesses are gathered together in a room for a recitation of the detective’s vision. “Now you’re probably all wondering why I brought you here today.” Validation takes the form of the murderer making a break for the door.


In the future in which we currently reside, this method of scraping a valid account out of the internal memories of unreliable witnesses begins to seem horribly inefficient. Imagine, if you will, how it might go. The detective arrives on the scene of the murder. The victim is positively identified and the paperwork is filed.


The panel reviews the particulars of the crime and determines whether or not the victim’s black box should be released to the detective and which time machine privileges should be granted. The black box is the victim’s personal network cloud, along with all it’s corporate, medical and government cloud counterparts. This includes a stream of all commercial and financial transactions, social media transactions, voice and text mobile communications, location and personal quantification data. A unique identifier is generated to tie all the person’s data streams together into a single life stream. When loaded into the black box player, the detective can replay the victim’s life from any arbitrary point in time prior to the murder up until the time of death and after. Some data streams don’t require a living subject. The victim’s social graph and location data is used to aggregate all still and video photography relevant to the time in question. A list of additional persons of interest is generated through a strong tie / weak tie analysis of the people the victim came into contact with.


The persons-of-interest list is submitted to the panel for approval. Once approved, this gives the detective the ability to more fully explore what happened along multiple vectors. When the additional black boxes are loaded into the time machine, the detective can travel through multiple vectors and get a real 360 view of the event. The additional data really increases the resolution of the time travel experience. For murder investigations the data also includes all digital communications with built-in auto-erase functions and any sort of strong encryption.


With the data set constructed, the detective initiates the search algorithm. Based on analysis of motive, opportunity and other risk factors the top three suspects with the highest probability are identified. The paperwork is filed to allow the detective to show the prime suspects the highest probability version playback of what occurred. Each suspect is hooked up to biometric measuring machines and shown the playback. Through an automated analysis of the biofeedback the most probable murderer is identified and charged with the crime. The detective then converts the data set to an evidence set for the district attorney. The evidence set includes provenances and audit trails for all the data included.


Physicists disagree about whether time travel is possible. Given the speed of light and the size of the universe, it’s certainly possible to view ancient events as though they are happening in the current moment. Just go out on a clear night and look at the stars. But seeing old light isn’t the same as traveling to the time in which the image in that light was created. Whether or not time travel is possible in the physical universe, it’s now possible through the large repositories of time stamped stream data that we’re collecting — these so-called haystacks.


On the other hand, these are just words on a page. They’re designed to cause you to imagine a particular future, to view a movie on your internal cinema screen. They may just be a thought experiment — mere ephemera of the moment. You know, the stuff that dreams are made of.

Inventing a Place to Perform: Guitar Pulls, Juke Joints and Midnight Rambles


The first time I heard the phrase it was used to describe something that happened at Johnny Cash’s house in Hendersonville, Tennessee. As the story goes, it was February of 1969, the hour turned late and the party at Cash’s house turned into a guitar pull. Bob Dylan sings “Lay Lady Lay”, Joni Mitchell sings “Both Sides Now”, Graham Nash sings “Marrakesh Express” and Kris Kristofferson sings “Me and Bobby McGee.” There are no recordings of that evening, or none that have surfaced publicly. We only have the stories and memories of the people who pulled out a guitar and put across a song. Oh to be a fly on the wall.

The “guitar pull” is a tradition that comes from country music. Musicians sit around and take turns playing songs. The origin of the phrase has been lost, its first speakers are time out of mind. Some say that it refers to passing a single guitar around, everyone taking their turn. Not everyone owned a guitar, but everyone had a song to sing. People “took a turn” in the sense of pulling the guitar from someone’s hands so they could get their song out.

Musicians playing on a stage for an audience is the dominant configuration for live performance. Occasionally it’s done in the round, but usually music is presented from within a proscenium — musicians on one side and the audience seated in rows on the other. The guitar pull has a different shape. The musicians and the audience aren’t separate, they aren’t even that different. I imagine the shape as roughly circular — a presentation to each other. This is different from musicians sitting around in a recording studio performing for a microphone. No one’s trying to create the definitive version of a song that will go on to sell millions of copies. In a sense, the purpose of the guitar pull is to keep it going. One song brings another out of the group.

A related way of organizing a performance is Levon Helm’s Midnight Ramble. The ramble was a rent party in a barn that held about 200 people. Its purpose was to help save Levon’s house from his creditors and rehabilitate his voice after surgery for throat cancer. The audience brought casseroles for a pot luck dinner and music played late into the night. There’s a scene in Scorsese’s movie “The Last Waltz” where Helm tells a story about the origin of the midnight ramble.

“After the finale, they’d have the midnight ramble. The songs would get a little bit juicier. The jokes would get a little funnier and the prettiest dancer would really get down and shake it a few times. A lot of the rock and roll duck walks and moves came from that.”

The shows in the barn in Woodstock weren’t really patterned on the midnight ramble so much as the house parties thrown by blues musicians. On Levon Helm’s website, Kay Cordtz writes about Muddy Waters and his pop-up juke joints.

When Muddy Waters was developing his blues style in the 1930s, he would sometimes play for fans and fellow musicians at his house on the Stovall Plantation, transformed into a juke joint of sorts. They’d move the beds outside so people could dance, sell moonshine and run craps tables out back. Muddy would try out new sounds, make a little money, and everybody would have a ball. People told of finding the place in the dark of the country night by the light of hanging coal oil lamps, and hearing the guitars and people hollering through the trees before you got there.

For musicians like Muddy Waters there was a lot of power in having a venue where he could play the music he wanted for a receptive audience. It’s a kind of control that musicians rarely enjoy. That’s what makes Levon Helm’s Midnight Ramble a powerful disruption of the music business. And it’s a place that musicians who’ve scaled the heights of pop-music success always seem to be trying to get back to.

“We had to almost invent a place to perform.”

– Levon Helm

“It felt like the house was calling for musicians to come be a part of it.”

– Amy Helm

There’s a small trend emerging among musicians of trying to invent new places to perform. These new places have their roots in the guitar pulls, pop-up juke joints and midnight rambles. On the west coast, Bob Weir built TRI Studios to provide an intimate space to create and broadcast music. But the most surprising and delightful new space has to be Daryl’s House.

In an interview with Peter Lewis, Daryl Hall describes why he started “Live from Daryl’s House”, his monthly web-based music series.

“Well, for me it was sort of an obvious thing. I’ve been touring my whole adult life really and, you know, you can’t be everywhere. Nor do I want to be every-where at this point. I only like to spend so much time per year on the road. So I thought ‘Why don’t I just do something where anyone who wants to see me any-where in the world can?’
And, instead of doing the artist/audience performance-type thing, I wanted to deconstruct it and make the audience more of a fly-on-the wall kind of observer. You know, I actually like the added intimacy of having no audience in the room with us – just the musicians, myself and the crew hanging out, sitting around talking, rehearsing a song, and then just playing it.”

Daryl Hall has created that fly-on-the-wall view into a guitar pull — that view I wish had into Johnny Cash’s living room in February of 1969. Sure, in Hall’s version the arrangements have been worked out and there’s a little rehearsal. But it’s just enough so that talented musicians can pull it off at a pretty high level. It’s not a rote presentation, you can see the song being discovered as it’s being performed. And like a guitar pull, the music is performed for the musicians. As Hall says, there’s an “added intimacy.” The players don’t look at cameras or out at an audience, instead they look at each other. Daryl Hall has been around long enough to know there’s a different sound created in this kind of environment. It’s a sound that musicians love and one that’s really worth hearing.

Here’s Booker T. Jones on the experience of playing at Daryl’s House.

“One of the nicest things about performing on Live from Daryl’s House is that Daryl has surrounded himself with musicians who can ‘hear’ That is, each one has talent to the extent of being capable of performing as a soloist on his own, not needing to be told the proper notes to sing or play.”

Some believe that the future of popular music is Pandora, Spotify, iRadio and Rdio. These services appear to be cutting edge technology. But the reality of these streaming services is they’ve got a defective business model. They can’t afford to pay the musicians who provide 100% of their content. That means ultimately they’ll be serving up music in its last window of freshness. Once a musician has made as much as she can through every other avenue, then the songs can be sent to the streaming services. It’s the equivalent of waiting until a movie comes out on Netflix. Essentially these services are oldies stations.

The technology used to create “Live from Daryl’s House” seems much more cutting edge to me. Even if that consists of a single omni-directional microphone in the middle of the living room and a cable running down the hallway to a recording set up. Like Muddy Waters, many musicians are starting to invent new places to perform. If you want to know where music and technology is going, check out Daryl’s House.

Engelbart’s Frozen Vision


The passing of Doug Engelbart brings to mind John Markoff’s book “What the Dormouse Said.” The subtitle of the book is “How the Sixties Counterculture Shaped the Personal Computer Industry.” Engelbart was at the center of envisioning what networked personal computers could be. To some extent, we’ve just been coloring in the pictures that Engelbart drew toward the end of 1968.

The date of Engelbart’s death also marks the beginning of the end of the connection between LSD and the technology of personal computing. Engelbart was one of the early experimenters. And while you couldn’t say that his experimentation lead to his visions for technology, you can certainly say that nothing like that would happen today. Interest in our interior space may be at an all-time low. It simply lacks a decent return on investment.

The big demo set the boundaries of the vision, and the commercial technologists have spent the intervening years building it out. If the future wasn’t evenly distributed, it was the job of the personal computing industry to make sure that there was a networked personal computing device for every man woman and child in the country — and every other country too. That “future” is pretty evenly distributed now.

In the early days of the commercialized Network, we used to shake our heads at this company or that government agency and say: “they just don’t get the Internet.” At this point, I’d say that everyone “gets” the Internet and connected computing. Of course, no one gets the Internet in toto, but everyone gets enough of it. And despite the recent laments over the loss of the early spirit of the Network, like the man says: “the street finds its own uses for things.”


There hasn’t been much new vision since the days of ARC, PARC and PLATO. Philip K. Dick saw the dark side which shows up in our movies. Jaron Lanier’s ideas about virtual reality are migrating into the games we play in our living rooms. David Gelernter’s LifeStreams are turning in the various Tweet Streams, Facebook newsfeeds and photostreams. The techno-primativism of Burning Man somehow never really makes it out of the desert. What happens at Burning Man, stays at Burning Man. The engineers at Google admit to trying to make working versions of the computing technology simulated in the original Star Trek television show. And through the inflation of the series of tech bubbles, “technology” was transformed into what venture capitalists were willing to fund. By that definition, even Engelbart wasn’t able to secure funding to continue his work. The vision was frozen in time. What we have now are the Stacks — which is the total commercial exploitation of Engelbart’s original interrupted vision in the form of feudal central clouds.


Vision has an interesting relationship with technology. It’s vaporware if you don’t build it. Its success is marginal if it doesn’t work its way into the fabric of our lives. But vision is less about the technology we’re building, and more about how we might do things. For instance, when we think about Ted Nelson’s vision for the Network, we see the road not taken. Engelbart’s road was taken, and taken from him. The regret that Engelbart had was that his vision was never allowed to evolve and grow. He never saw the “mother of all demos” as the end of the road. The commercial demands around evenly distributing that particular future put an end to all alternate paths, even the ones Engelbart continued to imagine.


Once the vision becomes frozen, we are transformed from participants to consumers. Even the kind of “participation” that makes up the content of social media is largely a form of consumption. And “consumerism” as Timothy Morton likes to point out, is an invention of the romantic era. Recently, I was reading a collection of essays edited by Harold Bloom on Romanticism and Consciousness. I was struck by his description of a piece by Owen Barfield.

…A brief but profound chapter which I have excerpted from Owen Barfield’s “Saving the Appearances, a Study in Idolatry”. Barfield is a historian of human consciousness, who, in this remarkable book, traces and deplores our loss of “participation,” the awareness “of an extra-sensory link between the percipient and the representations.” The progressive loss of the sense of participation, over the centuries, results in an idolatry of memory images. In Barfield’s view, Romanticism arose as an iconoclastic movement, seeking to smash the idols and return men to an original participation in phenomena.

It seems that we’ve colored in all the pictures that Doug Engelbart left us. We’ve colored them in HD and 3D and in real-time streaming. It may be time to smash the idols and try to come up with a new set of pictures.