Silicon Valley: The Satire of “Solutionism”

Late to the party yet again, I finally watched the first two episodes of the new Mike Judge–helmed comedy series, Silicon Valley. If you haven’t yet traded for someone’s HBO Go credentials, you can watch the first episode, legally, of course, on YouTube.

The series traffics in some of the most well-worn stereotypes of software engineers and Internet entrepreneurs that are familiar to even the most casual observers of the tech-business world. The series centers on three budding software engineers living in an incubator started by a veteran of the Valley. Played by T.J. Miller, Erlich cashed in on his start-up years ago. Housing these engineers is his way of giving back, but not without taking a ten-percent stake in any product they develop while in residence.

The first two episodes of the series portray some of the more ludicrous aspects of Silicon Valley. As I watched it, I kept thinking of Evgeny Morozov’s latest book, To Save Everything Click Here: The Folly of Technological Solutionism. Morozov argues that the titans of tech are guilty of two hubristic sins. Solutionism is the relentless need to solve problems, including those than might not even need solving, and to strive for perfection. The second, Internet Centrism, is the fervent belief that the Internet and digital technologies are the tools to solve every problem. As I am yet to finish the book, it appears that these two function as rhetorical justifications for creating new digital industries that enrich those developing these solutions. In short, it’s about getting paid.

We see the vapid speeches given at a TED Talk where audiences listen in awe of rhetorically flashy speeches on changing the world without much substance. We see an anti-intellectual venture capitalist who, like Peter Thiel, advocates that young people take $100,000 of his money to drop out of college to pursue their entrepreneurial ideas. We learn that an algorithm, properly deployed, can do something as mundane as search through a compressed data stream or something as important as curing cancer, the ultimate human miracle. We also see how spiritual advisors coddle super-rich CEOs are hell-bent on disrupting everything and are out to change the world, provided they make a ton of money doing so. Real money, too, not Bitcoin.

Read the book and watch the series for two contemporary and poignant critiques of an industry that is inflated in just about every sense of the word.

  1. Evegeny Morozov, To Save Everything Click Here: The Folly of Technological Solutionism, New York: Public Affairs, 2013, 129.  ↩

Longest Winter Ever

Slush on the Queensboro Bridge

I’ve been complaining about the cold since Thanksgiving Day, when I took a Turkey Day bike ride to Piermont to turbocharge my metabolism. It didn’t work. That was a long time ago, which means that this has been the longest winter ever.

Since I started bike riding again in March, we’ve had some respite from the cold with some days warming up to 50°, 60°, and even 70°. This past weekend was no exception as it was almost hot outside. However, any hint of warm weather gave way to a cold snap that dropped rain, ice, and then snow on us Tuesday night. By Wednesday morning, there was a thin but visible layer of snow on parked cars. Watching drivers scraping snow and ice off their windshields seemed unimaginable on Sunday, when the temperature hovered around 70°, and I got my first sunburn of the year.

If mid-April seems a bit late for a snowfall in New York City, it is. Tuesday night’s snow was the latest day for measurable spring snowfall in Central Park.

By Wednesday morning, after the snowfall had stopped, the morning air was cold but not bitter enough to stop me from riding to work. That was too bad because riding over the Queensboro Bridge to Manhattan was nearly impossible: the bike-and-pedestrian path was covered in slush.

I ended up walking across the bridge because my tires are as thin and slick as they come, and I didn’t dare to slip and slide en route to 9:00 AM class, especially when I had my MacBook Pro in my backpack. That computer has been through enough, as have we all over this winter.

Where Your Tax Money Goes

Yes, folks, it’s Tax Day in America. Some taxpayers might have received refunds and are spending them on vacation homes, boats, or funding some silly Internet start-up. Some, like me, have put off until today to pay the government treasuries in Washington and Albany. Either way, unless you filed for an extension, the tax year known as 2013 is over. Congratulations, you made it!

Now that the tax year is finished, let’s reflect on what we’re going to do with all that money.

To get in the Tax Day spirit, the White House set up a web widget to show you how your money is spent. Enter some of your tax data and the tool will show you where your Social security, Medicare, and income taxes go. 

Take a minute to fill it out. I’ll wait right here until you’re done.

I bet you most of your income tax money goes to war. How did I know? Lucky guess…

I bet you most of your income tax money goes to war. How did I know? Lucky guess…

In my case, defense and health care each get about $1,700 of my taxes. However, only $112 of it went to elementary, secondary and vocation education, and a little more than $75 went to science, space, and technology programs. For whatever reason, a negative amount of my federal tax money, $-1.35, went to financial aid for college students. This must be my share of any tax credits or deductions that I’ve been milking for almost of my entire adult life, which is why I get it back.

This breakdown seemed especially poignant after finding a U-Matic tape of an independent news-documentary television series from the 1990s, titled The ’90s. In trying to identify the tape, I searched the web for the series and came across an especially timely segment about persons who refuse to pay taxes that fund war. The segment has been digitized and available on YouTube.

One person in the segment says that half of tax revenue goes to war. Do you think they would feel differently if I told them it was only a quarter? Probably not.

Apple Figures Out How To Price the Final Season of Mad Men

Do you remember how everyone who bought Season 5 of Breaking Bad on iTunes in 2012 was angry to learn they also had to buy the second-half of Season 5 in 2013? A litany of complaints and a class-action lawsuit forced Apple and AMC to give away the last eight episodes of the series to those customers. At the time, I had predicted that this might pose a similar issue for the final season of Mad Men, which is also scheduled to air over two years in 2014 and in 2015.

On Monday morning, I bought the season pass for the final season of Mad Men on iTunes, and I noticed the price was $35, based on fourteen episodes, not seven for this year and seven for next. Apple figured it out and even included an explanatory note: “Mad Men, The Final Season is expected to include 14 episodes (actual number of episodes may vary).”

The price is a little steep because of the upfront cost of buying fourteen episodes. It’s not as nice as getting the early adopter credit of buying the first eight episodes and getting the back eight free. However, come next year, I’ll be relieved to find seven episodes appearing each week in my queue, ready to stream.

And streaming at home is still way better than watching it at a bar.

Last-Minute Tax Preparation

With the Paschal moon hanging above us, thus signaling the beginning of Passover, the US tax filing deadline also hangs above us.

Like I’ve done for the last few years, I procrastinated until the last minute to file because I regularly have to send checks to both the federal and state governments. One of the many inequities of the American tax system is that someone who cobbles together a living from multiple sources usually has to pay when he or she files. When I start collecting a stack of W2s and the occasional 1099 in February, I start dreading preparing my tax return because I know I’m writing some big checks in April.

The Bostonian’s Paying the Excise-Man, or Tarring & Feathering, 1774

The Bostonian’s Paying the Excise-Man, or Tarring & Feathering, 1774. Image via New York Historical Society, Image # 27307.

In years past, I usually either do my taxes on paper by hand or send them to an accountant. This year, I was short on time and money so I resorted to tax software.

Based on the recommendation from The Wirecutter’s Kevin Purdy, I went with the horribly named FreeTaxUSA. When I told one friend what I used to prepare my taxes, she joking asked, “Do they also offer check cashing and pay-day loans?”

Purdy’s article recommended three software packages: TurboTax for most everyone, TaxACT for people with more time and more complex situations, and FreeTaxUSA for experienced tax filers. Since I started working multiple jobs, I have learned as much as I can to optimize my tax situation, and I really didn’t need to answer questions about specific “life events.” I simply needed to report a bunch of numbers and calculate the allowable deductions. This was also very cheap: $13 for filing both a federal and state return, regardless of income.

Try it if this sounds like your approach to preparing your income tax returns.

Openings and Closings in Long Island City


In the last two weeks, Long Island City has hosted at least two events attesting to the changes in the neighborhood.

The first was the April 5th opening at the Jeffrey Leder Gallery for Whitewashed, a show featuring the artists of the 5Pointz Aerosol Arts Center. In the middle of the night late last year, the owner of the property famously painted over the graffiti with white paint. The graffiti that adorned the building for years made 5Pointz a regular stop for visitors to Long Island City, but the owner feared that preservationists might make it impossible to tear down the building and block a pending residential development on the property.


The opening for Whitewashed was much more festive event than most other openings at Leder’s gallery. Visitors so packed the two-story brownstone building that about twenty people had to leave before I could squeeze into the gallery space. A good number of the artists were also selling some prints of their work, and the gallery staff were busy processing sale after sale of those works, affordably priced between $20 and $50. Adding to the dynamic energy of the evening were about a half-dozen of the featured artists making drawings on-the-spot. By the time I left, the room had an noticeable smell of paint, all coming from those ubiquitous paint pens.


On Friday night, the Center for Holographic Arts threw a farewell party in the bottom two floors of the Clock Tower Building at Queens Plaza. The space had been remarkably transformed from their previous show last month, which had to close early to make way for this farewell party and exhibition. Both the ground floor and the basement were packed with holographic and stereoscopic works, ranging from small postcard-sized still photographs to fifty-foot–long wall projections. The amount of work needed to stage this show was even more remarkable when you consider that this exhibition was for one night only. The “Holocenter,” as most of us have come to call it, has to vacate this space by the end of this month because, according to the Center’s staff, the space was sold to developers.


The two shows represent the changes in Long Island City that everyone with a stake in the neighborhood has anticipated for years. The abandoned industrial buildings had once allowed upstart artists to establish studios and gallery spaces. When I first moved to New York in 2001, I had heard of Long Island City emerging as an arts center. Although part of that was due to the Museum of Modern Art moving its primary gallery space to Queens in 2002[1], it was the artists who occupied the buildings that gave the neighborhood its excitement.

Name that High Rise?

Today, the situation is different. The financial crisis of 2008 is a fading memory for real estate developers and well-heeled buyers. There are apartment buildings everywhere, and those apartments are fetching stratospherically crazy prices. At one time, I was able to name the high-rise apartment buildings on Center Boulevard: City Lights, the East Coast, and the Avalon. But now, I can’t do that anymore. There’s too many of them. After three decades of false starts as the “next big place,” the value of the land for residential development is forcing a fundamental change to the neighborhood. Over the course of a generation, Long Island City has evolved from industrial district to post-industrial desert to residential neighborhood.

At least it was nice to say good-bye.

  1. If I recall correctly, MoMA QNS was to remain as a secondary gallery space after the midtown Manhattan location reopened. Today, it houses a research center.  ↩

Wood Cover Field Notes Books in Time for Baseball Season

The fine folks at Field Notes, who produce some very simple and elegant notebooks, have released a limited, seasonal run of notebooks with actual wood covers.

Although the wood cover is supposed to evoke wood as the source of all modern papers, they also evoke the material and grain of a baseball bat.

New Yorkers can get these books locally at Bergino Baseball Clubhouse, at 67 East 11th St, in Manhattan. For everyone else, the Internet is your friend.

(Via @berginobaseball.)

Poor Little Rich Broadband

At first I thought it was an April Fool’s joke, but The Guardian reported yesterday, on April 6, that the wealthy are stranded in digital dark age as expensive properties lack fast internet in London’s most exclusive housing developments:

Only the most wealthy can afford a pied-à-terre at the One Hyde Park development opposite Harrods, in Knightsbridge, but it seems even the average £22m price tag is not enough to buy a superfast internet connection. The flats went on sale just three years ago, but their broadband speed is well below the national average.

While it might be tempting to shed a crocodile tear for these poor little rich people, it turns out their broadband speeds aren’t all that slow, at least compared to the United States.

One Hyde Park has a top speed of around 10 megabits per second – well below the 18Mbps national average.

By comparison, the average broadband speed in the United States is 10 megabits per second, the same as the relatively “slow” speeds of One Hyde Park and well below the average data rate of the United Kingdom.

But, of course, in the early twenty-first century, being rich has its perks. The developer is looking to accelerate those broadband speeds.

The building’s developer, Candy & Candy, says it is now negotiating with BT to install a 100Mbps service.

In the United States, one hundred megabits per second for residential broadband is almost science-fiction fast.

Tonx Acquired by Blue Bottle Coffee

Earlier today, the coffee-by-mail outfit that supplies half of my coffee beans announced that it is merging with Oakland, California–based Blue Bottle Coffee. Tony Konecny, Tonx’s co-founder and namesake, posted the announcement on the company’s blog.

As Tonx has grown we’ve added friends to the team, assembling top talents in green coffee sourcing, coffee roasting, software development, design, marketing, and customer service. One thing we lacked though was a dedicated production facility that would allow us to continue growing and improving. Getting there meant either raising a serious wad of venture capital (no picnic!) or finding a partner in the industry that shared our values and ambitions.

With Blue Bottle, we have found a more established company that still has an innovative startup culture, continues to evolve, and is dedicated to improving people’s experience of coffee on an ambitious scale. And they have resources we could only dream of.

Blue Bottle coffee has had a presence here in New York City for a few years, primarily through a coffee shop and roasting facility in Williamsburg.[1] Although I appreciate the dedication to their craft, they lack the quirkiness and personal touch of Tonx. They strike me as just another Bay Area–business that takes itself too seriously.

Waiting in Line @ Blue Bottle Coffee

With Tonx, I got both great coffee and a measured sense of excitement when our beans arrived. Whenever we received our biweekly box of Tonx, a ritual ensues at our place:

  1. We play a guessing game: “Africa or Latin America?”
  2. We read the card that describes the coffee.
  3. We read the charming note that the staff writes about our silly coffee obsession.
  4. Finally, we brew two batches: one of the newly arrived shipment and one of whatever beans we have left. With these two batches we can appreciate the new beans.

Even if the new subscription program remains just as good and quirky as Tonx, it won’t be the same with the Blue Bottle label. I liked that mail order was the only way to get Tonx coffee. it felt like something special.

The tasting notes to Tonx biweekly coffee, from Cotecaga in Rwanda, roasted on March 23, 2014.

The tasting notes to Tonx biweekly coffee, from Cotecaga in Rwanda, roasted on March 23, 2014.

With Tonx going under the Blue Bottle name, I may as well get coffee from any other “third-wave” coffee roaster, such as Ritual, Heart, Stumptown, or Counter Culture that all do mail-order. Or, better yet, I’ll just get it from one of the local roasters, such as Coffeed, Sweetleaf, or Cafe Grumpy.

Forgive me if I sound like a guy whose favorite band just signed to a major record label because nobody likes that guy. As a fan of their company, I’m happy for the folks at Tonx to see their success. They have come a long way in three years, and now apparently, their success has led to this acquisition. As a consumer, mergers and acquisitions are almost universally bad for us, with a diminished product, higher prices, or both. I hope that this one will be different, but I don’t see how it can be.

Also, it looks like Blue Bottle bought out Handsome Coffee, another Los Angeles–based roaster. I blame this on the Dodgers losing two out of three to the Giants this past weekend.

  1. They also had a short-lived shop in the Rockaways and continue to operate one in Chelsea.  ↩

Phonograph Micrographs

Do you know how a record stores sound?

Since I’ve been teaching undergraduate survey courses in communication, such as media industries or media technologies, I’ve had to learn how certain recording technologies work. One of those is the earliest sound recording devices of the nineteenth century.

Sound is vibrational energy that displaces air. To record sound you need to capture those vibrations.

The earliest sound recordings, such as those developed by Édouard-Léon Scott de Martinville in the 1860s and later by Thomas Edison and Emile Berliner in the 1880s, are like fossils of those vibrations. A needle that fluctuates carves those vibrations into a surface: Scott used lamp black, Edison used tin, and Berliner used zinc and beeswax. Those sounds and their vibrations are preserved inside of these tiny grooves.

The other day, I saw this image on the Facebook page for Copyright, a house music group from the United Kingdom. If you’re wondering if I am all of a sudden listening to house music, don’t fret. I’m not. It was shared via Goner Records, a rock ‘n’ roll label and music store in Memphis.

The shared image is two magnified photos of a record-player needle riding the grooves of a vinyl record. But with most things people shared online, it’s hard to tell whether the image is real. It looks plausible, but I’ve been burned before on sharing other things that “look plausible.”

After a few minutes of searching the web, I found a more reputable source for magnified images of a vinyl record. In 2005, students in an optics class at the University of Rochester magnified several small objects to demonstrate the capabilities of a scanning electron microscope.

One of the objects they magnified was a vinyl record.

The grooves of a vinyl record magnified 500x. Image courtesy of University of Rochester: URnano.

The grooves of a vinyl record magnified 500x. Image courtesy of University of Rochester: URnano.
The grooves of a vinyl record magnified 1000x. Image courtesy of University of Rochester: URnano.

The grooves of a vinyl record magnified 1000x. Image courtesy of University of Rochester: URnano.

These look a bit different than the viral image I saw on Facebook, and they’re not marked up with explanatory text and watermarks. However, they show how sound in its physical form as ridges along an otherwise smooth groove.

If you’re wondering about more modern sound recording devices, such as compact disk, they did that, too.

The pits of a CD magnified at 20,000x. Image courtesy of University of Rochester: URnano.

The pits of a CD magnified at 20,000x. Image courtesy of University of Rochester: URnano.

This image is actually magnfied 20x more than the vinyl record. I’m guessing they did so to reveal a perceptible variation in the disk surface. Because a CD is a digital storage medium, you’re not looking at sound. You’re looking at representations of digital information, which in turn, must be converted back into vibrations that we hear as sound.

I’m glad these students magnified both a vinyl record and a CD, among many other things. If the prognisticators are correct in predicting that we’ll one day buy more vinyl records than CDs, we may wonder what the CD looked like, how it worked, and why we resorted to such a complex way of storing sound when a simpler solution[1] existed for over a hundred years.

  1. and superior with respects to fidelity  ↩