Yearly Archives: 2024

x-ray glasses

I loved popular science magazines as a kid in the 80s. Omni, Popular Mechanics, the eponymous Popular Science. I also read the occasional comic book, though they never seemed to give the same bang for the buck; most comic books at the time felt like watching the middle 5 minutes of a soap opera episode.

Whenever I could get access to one, I read it cover-to-cover. Well, I probably skipped over the front bits with their opinions and letters, but I definitely spent time on everything in the back, including the ads. The science-magazine ads had a delightful mix of very-specific technical tools I wanted but didn’t understand or couldn’t afford – oscilloscopes, glassware, the occasional computer – but also bizarre ads for dubious contraptions like electric-shock pads to build muscle mass. (That one had a photo of arm wrestling with the huge caption “RUSSIA WINS?” because 80s cold-war movies.) The comic books dispensed with anything scientific or practical and focused on the dubious contraptions, with full-page spreads of “novelty” catalogs. Joy buzzers. Switch blades. Chattering teeth. Mini binoculars and spy cameras. And most intriguing of all: x-ray glasses.

The blurb under “x-ray glasses” always contained the keyword “illusion” to take the sting off, but it was surrounded by enticing phrases like “see bones through skin” and “see through clothes”. As an adult, I can look at that ad and easily spot the real message: this thing provides the illusion of seeing the bones in your hand, if you squint and aren’t familiar with what the bones of your hand should actually look like. If you look at someone from a bit of a distance, their clothes seem to take on a ghostly edge as though you could see through them to what’s behind the person. It’s a bit of a laugh for 5 minutes, and then you put it away.

Oh, but the implications to a kid! Especially a kid who just read through 5 minutes of a GI Joe or X-Men soap opera episode where either technology or “science” gives people powers. What if it really means you can see the bones in your hand, even if it’s using an “illusion” to show them to you? What if the “illusion” of seeing through clothes is of the person underneath, which is as good as the real thing? After all, the joy buzzer does something, and the switch blade is an actual knife, and even the chattering teeth do what they say in the big print.

What if it really works?

And if there was any barrier put up by skepticism or critical thinking, that one question was enough for my childhood optimism to swarm right over. And even if someone else tells me “it says it’s just an illusion”, then I have the perfect counter. I know it’s an illusion, but what if it really works? Bam, if I hold onto that cognitive dissonance, then it’s worth the purchase.

Which works in reverse, too. If I buy the glasses and try them on only to find that it’s an illusion that doesn’t show me bones or bodies or the insides of anything, really… “it didn’t work”. “It said it was just an illusion.” “Oh.” But does that stop the next person? Of course not. Because to them, what if it works? And that’s enough to keep people buying.

This isn’t about generative AI specifically, but that’s what brought it to mind. I get sincerely baffled when someone leaps from “it’s just a language generator, but the ad said it could do this” to “I saw a demo that looked kinda like this if you squint” to “I’m going to base a critical decision on this.” “But it doesn’t actually do that,” I say, but they have the perfect cognitive-dissonance counter. “I know it’s an illusion, but what if it works?” And I have no recourse but to wait for the glasses to arrive, to watch them put the glasses on, and then watch them take the glasses off 5 minutes later. I want to be kind. “OK, how would you like to handle that critical decision now?”

It seems like there’s an endless supply of x-ray glasses out there. Crypto. Ride sharing.  ”Full Self-Driving”. Or a political candidate. Or a stainless-steel truck. Or a VR headset. Or “we’re going to Mars.” I can point straight at the part of the ad that calls out the illusion. And do it over again. And again.

But what if it works this time?

johnson-smith-company-ad-1984

conditions

I’m anti-advertising. Not sure if I’ve mentioned that here before, but it drives a lot of my behavior. It also tends to infuriate companies. I opt out of being their product, opting instead to do things the slower, less-convenient, expensive way.

Luckily we live in a time when that’s a choice. I don’t just mean Youtube Premium or the ad-free tier of Disney+; most of the Web is built on delivering content without conditions on how I use that content.

Wait, hold on, I hear you say. That’s not the web I see at all. And you’re right, of course. Everything you see has ads: embedded in the paragraphs, floating alongside, popping up to play you a video, hijacking every link. The content being delivered has ads along for the ride.

But I was talking about what the Web is built on, at least for now. When you’re reading something like you are now, you’re looking at a copy I sent you. Your browser asked my server what it has, and my server sent you an HTML file, some images, a few other bits and bobs. Your browser then chose to combine those in a way that suits how you read. Is this page thin so it fits on your phone? Is it wide so it fits on your 4K monitor? Is it read to you by text-to-speech? That’s all possible because the Web is built on me sending you the components of what you want, and you rebuild them to suit.

So where are the ads? Not in the standards (or not yet). I could choose to send you an ad along with the components for this post. A particular image, some HTML to describe how to display it, how to pop it up, how to make sure it gets onto your phone screen or your 4K screen or (less commonly) into your screen reader. But here’s the thing: your browser still chooses whether to display it. Just like it can ignore the Windows-specific instructions, or ignore the night-mode display values, or the super-large-screen background images. It’s making choices all the time. So why choose to display the ads?

A physical example: when you get the (postal, physical, snail) mail, it has things you want to read (or have to read) alongside things that were sent to you as advertisements. Grandma’s card and a Jiffy Lube offer. The water bill and Disney On Ice at the Civic Center. When you sort out the mail (which I’m sure you do diligently), you probably toss the things you want to read in one pile, the things you need to read in another, and the other stuff goes… yep, in the recycling. You don’t open Grandma’s card feeling guilty that you “blocked” the flyer for 20% off an oil change you don’t need because you don’t own a car. You don’t pay the water bill by carefully placing it behind Elsa (on ice!) and then removing it after 15 pre-defined seconds. You toss the stuff you don’t want. You focus on the stuff you do. Why would anyone expect anything different?

So when I look at updates to the Web that threaten to take that away, that force Grandma’s card to be glued to the flyer, that shred your water bill if you don’t pay Elsa her due… I’m against those. I’ll avoid them, I’ll stop using them, I’ll support whatever’s not that.

less magic, more infrastructure

My day job is to build automation. Some of my best work is when a person can show their intent with a small effort and automatically marshal hideously complex processes to carry out that intent. I show them the hideous guts of the process once to prove that I’ve done work – a standard wizard tactic to avoid being taken for granted – but after that, it should work like magic.

Or should it? As an individual, I actually dislike magical interfaces. I groan when I read setup documentation, because it always has 3 steps that fail somewhere between step 2 and 3. “Take the device out of the box, place it next to the main device, and it will pair.” Right. And if it doesn’t? (For me, it rarely does.) Then suddenly I’m in 300 more steps that are spread out over a dozen sites, hidden among the worst documentation interfaces possible. I’m pushing the one button on the device in a staccato rhythm while reinstalling the operating system of the other while draping a mylar blanket over both to block stray radiation, and… I realize I’m on the wrong end of the magic.

What I prefer in a case like that is good old fashioned* infrastructure. Plug A into B, tell B that A exists, tell A that B is what you want. Once they’re paired, remove the plug and you’re in the same situation the magic would have left you after step 3. Except! If you run into a problem, you know how to drop into the infrastructure and perform the same set of steps to get you back where  you need to be.

(*It’s not actually old fashioned. We just get used to the infrastructure that works, and it feels like it’s always been there. Infrastructure that doesn’t work is technology, and we get used to it not working and route around it.)

To design infrastructure vs magic, the difference is asking, “what happens when this goes wrong? How can someone using this get to the part that isn’t working and direct it manually?” That’s where the difficult work of engineering comes in, because you need to ask not only how your system works when it all works, but how the whole system it relies on behaves when it doesn’t. What does the process do when there’s no internet? What does it do when the signal from the other device is too weak? What does it do when the list of devices it sees is too long? When the device doesn’t speak the right protocol?

A lot of that design deals with falling back. If the latest protocol doesn’t work, is there an older one that might? If the signal is weak, is there a way to connect that doesn’t use radio? And above all, how do we communicate this to the person looking at it, so they know which part needs help?

So it’s hard work, but really it’s doing the work needed to create full automation. It’s not just automated when it works; that would be magic. Putting me in a place to fix it when it doesn’t work automatically is good infrastructure.

resilience

This week’s airline disaster – and in particular the engineering and procedures that got everyone out of the plane alive – reminds me that I’m attracted to preparing for the worst. I’m the one on the plane who checks where the nearest exits are and what kind of flotation device is available. Not that I want the worst to happen, but I feel better knowing Plan B in case Plan A goes south.

Being prepared is also a challenge, a way to think deeply about the infrastructure I rely on even when it’s practically invisible. (Yes I am still thinking a lot about water thank you.) What would I do if the power went out? What would I notice? How would I change so I could keep doing the things I need? The answers let me design alternate systems that take effect when things go wrong, or (in the absolute best case) replacement systems that keep working despite the trouble.

So let’s talk about preppers, though. I grew up loving trips to the army surplus store. Survival gear and wilderness-focused preparation strategies are attractive because they involve stuff that feels tough and adventurous even if I can barely operate a can opener. Now, though, I reject the idea that my survival has to be set up in opposition to other people. It doesn’t just feel wrong, it completely contradicts how I’ve seen a good community operate in a time of crisis. People help each other to survive and recover.

The moment that convinced me was a multi-day power outage when I lived in San Diego. It’s the classic example of what preppers are prepping for: the city is without power, everything shuts down, no one has any of the things they need, and… well, what’s supposed to happen is chaos, looting, folks barricading themselves in their neighborhoods and trading with gold. What actually happened is folks took the day off work, emptied their fridges and freezers, went outside to be in the evening light, and had block parties. Want some ice cream? It’s just going to melt. Need to charge your phone? Here’s  a brick and a solar panel, go ahead. Need a spare flashlight? Let’s share.

It’s hard to describe the feeling in our neighborhood over those couple days. It was a time out of time. People really didn’t want it to end. Which is better than survival, isn’t it? It’s something different. It’s resilience. And it wasn’t even planned, it’s what we all fell into when there was a pause in television broadcasting.

More recently, the state of Washington has talked about resilience centers (or resilience hubs, I’ve also heard), which are places that people can go for essential things during a disaster or an outage. Each center builds up the infrastructure it needs to keep the lights on, to keep the wifi going, to keep the water running, to keep cool or keep warm. I love the idea, because it’s just as attractive a prepping opportunity but it assumes we’re going to find each other, to work together, to form community when something goes wrong. A resilience center doesn’t need an arsenal, it doesn’t need a way to bug out. It still has challenges, though, but they start to look like resilient infrastructure. How would we keep the wifi on? How much power can we produce? What does at-hand food storage look like in the long term?

So now when I prepare for the worst, I think about resilient infrastructure. How about you? What would you build? How could you share it? What helps when we all know how to do it?