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Once upon a time, when I was young and stupid and almost entirely dependent on radio stations and movie theaters for my cultural edification I was bold enough to say that my favorite actress was Jane Seymour. Around that time, most teenagers in my demographic were struck by the awesome beauty of Heather Locklear, Heather Thomas and Brooke Shields. There were still some who swore allegiance to Farah Fawcett, but they all seemed like Barbies to me. Jane Seymour had class and she was smart, and she disappeared from Hollywood.
I later rationalized her failure to become a superstar. If I was a woman who was both smart and stunningly beautiful, I wouldn’t waste my life doing movies for the likes of the idiot boys like me. I would marry a bazillionaire, like Jacqueline Lee Bouvier did. No parading around Hollywood for me.
As soon as I learned about Versailles and Louis the XIV, the spell about the rightenousness of kings fell away. ChatGPT tells me:
Overall, Louis XIV was a fascinating and complex figure who was known for his lavish lifestyle and his autocratic rule. His reign was marked by intrigue, luxury, and political maneuvering.
I was still a bit of whippersnapper when Dangerous Liasons became a smash hit film. So my imagination was piqued by the monkeyshines of Glenn Close, John Malkovich, Michelle Pfeiffer, and Keanu Reeves. Well of course this is what rich, beautiful people do in their spare time. Same as it ever was and let all the rest of the bastards eat cake. It should go without saying that I never aspired to such idle luxuries. I wanted to be the computer guy for Jacques Cousteau. I aimed to join the pantheon of science - well I actually wanted to play pinball and program computers. I still felt the noble tug of better life through science. I aimed to build the company of the future. Nobody quite said it better than Donald Fagen.
A just machine to make big decisions. Programmed by fellows with compassion and vision. We'll be clean when their work is done. We'll be eternally free yes and eternally young. What a beautiful world this will be. What a glorious time to be free.
That’s directly out of the WEIRD playbook, and I’m still not cynical enough to doubt the dream in its entirety. I can remember when the role model was Dr. An Wang. I can remember interning and working at Xerox El Segundo when some jagoff who worked 2 levels above my boss told me: “You can do computers or you can do business, but you can’t do both.” Now you have an idea why Xerox fumbled its future, and why the Fortune 500 did as well. Remember that if it weren’t for the NASDAQ, Bill Gates and Steve Jobs would have been starved out of Wall Street. The NYSE was also full of Xerox-like jagoffs. In the 80s, even Intel was subordinate. It’s a story that isn’t often told.
I remember the old school billionaires like T. Boone Pickens and the hack and slash executives like Sandy Sigoloff. Men older than my father ran the American business world back when Mattel Electronics was in the computer game business and lost their parent company $382 million. Back when the Fox Hills Mall still had a Sega Center and Zaxxon was the most innovative looking computer game around, back when sweaty undergrads in the basement of the student union were pounding the trackballs of Atari football it must have been nearly impossible for anyone to envision what we take for granted today. That was then. This is now.
There are hundreds of obvious ideas waiting for a good team to make it happen. Substack is one of them. Before Substack was blogging. I met the originator, Dave Winer in Greensboro, NC at a blogger’s conference. He seemed bored and tired of what people were saying about his invention that he called Radio. It’s hard to believe that MTV’s Adam Curry was seen to be a great pioneer in the space. There are also age-old problems to be solved. As an engineer, this is my domain. Fixing what’s broke. Coming up with solutions that can be replicated. Sometimes it’s a matter of just applying some disciplined thinking and getting past the blather.
I think it was obvious that Africans should be free in America. John Brown was the sort of Christian who thought his way through the morality of equality way 100 years before the jagoffs in Congress managed to put together a civil rights bill. He was running a segment of the Underground Railroad. I sometimes think that Canada must certainly have gotten some of the sharpest runaway slaves. They were the first to go all the way.
So when I think of what it is that Elon Musk has done to generate the ire and scrutiny that he gets, my knee jerks. My default position is to defend the engineers who put in the massive efforts, beyond all conventional wisdom, to address and solve the obvious. He has built the world’s most powerful rocket engine, and he figured out a system to make it reusable. It’s not only rocket science, it’s recyclable rocket science. But people treat him like he’s Edward Teller.
Everything about the various debacles surrounding Twitter is a perfect Twitter thread, short attention span theater for cranky yuppies with too much time on their hands. As if they have ever managed a company employing thousands. As if they have the first clue as the architecture behind the scenes. Somewhere in Southwall, my digital fortress of solitude, I have downloaded the Twitter Files. At first, I thought that these were a purloined half terabyte of e-discovery dumps, but it’s less than that. It’s a Twitter thread from Michael Schellenberger. He’s one of the good guys, and his recent podcast with Bari Weiss on the Sam Harris show is worth hearing out. Still I remain annoyed that this is an argument about business culture and not about how to develop a better machine for public debate.
That pisses me off because it means I’m going to have to initiate that conversation, again. It seems like every day is the right time in American history to launch an alternative voting system and disintermediate the MSM and two party clusterfuck that we call democratic, while we have the technology and never truly use it for all it could be worth. E-commerce we got. E-democracy we don’t even wish for.
I understand. We need violent videogames. We need football. We need porn. We need gossip and scandal TV. We need mukbang. We need to cater to our basic needs in this medium. But we also really need culture. Deep culture, serious culture. Edifying culture. We need the kind of gaming that develops virtue, and virtuous people seem to be trapped on the outskirts of the DevBro world domination. I’m not sure that the answers are anywhere outside of Punk. I think perhaps that principled moral outrage that isn’t some kind of performance ‘art’ is masked and hidden in punk gear. I’m at something of an impasse. Maybe some of the hate directed at Musk is of my sort. Maybe he could be doing something for democracy and he’s just playing boss. Nah. I doubt it. You don’t just accidentally invent the greatest rocket in history. He knows how to run a serious engineering organization.
I once thought that Jeff Bezos would think of ways to revolutionize journalism at the WaPo. It turns out that the currently anonymous to me folks at Substack have the clue. So perhaps it’s my turn to start talking about engineering the next democracy. Long slog ahead.
I have rejoined the punks at 2600.la. It has been about 5 years since I was a regular.
I need a way to get race deprioritized in my head. It’s messing with my ability to think about other things. That means I need to settle a small contradiction.
I need to publish in this format, some of the old work on cyber democracy. That won’t be easy.
I need to write some formal proposal stuff. Damn.
A little background. I left the big enterprise software world to be a cloud guy and joined a sweat equity lifestyle company. We kicked ass, but then we got clobbered by COVID after surviving a lawsuit and two slow years. We successfully exited, but for a lot less that we might have. If only. If only. So I’m going to have to work at least 7 more years than I expected and that was the time I was expecting to do my own last big thing. I’m still dealing with this big kink in my life. It’s what I get for thinking big.
So in conclusion, I failed to realize that one needs to be a millionaire by age 35 and suffer the personality defects associated with that level of single-minded moolah-making. Only that will give one the breathing space later on in life, if one is inclined to be wise. The alternative balancing act is impressive, but…