Neal Stephenson first introduced the concept “Metaverse” in his 1992 book Snow Crash, but the word has recently bubbled up as Facebook started using it to describe its ambitions. In a barely-veiled shot-across-the-bow, Niantic (creator of Pokemon Go) CEO John Hanke published a blog post questioning the uncritical embrace of the metaverse. I take Hanke’s piece with a grain of salt since it primarily serves to promote Lightship, Niantic’s own developer platform—but I agree with the irony of a company using metaverse optimistically to describe its goals.
Snow Crash’s satirical, speculative science fiction extrapolated powerful tech corporations beyond a mundane collapse of public institutions and into absurdity. The mundanity of its dystopia made it impactful: we arrive at absurdity through a series of individually reasonable, incremental technology-driven social changes rather than a grand conspiracy or single-minded supervillain.
This all came to mind as I wrote the Distribution & Logistics section of this week’s issue, which ended up comprising a series of stories that simultaneously read as “yea, I see why they did this” and “this feels disproportionately impactful for how much thought actually went into it.”
To avoid any confusion: I work in tech, I believe in the inevitability of tech and its potential for massively positive impact, and I don’t advocate for a return to monke—I just hope we reflect on what we lose along with what we gain as we build our metaverse.
The most clicked link from last week's issue (~22% of opens) was a quick video showing a clever way to get inside corner measurements using a tape measure. This week, the Members' reading group is starting The Big Score, Michael S Malone's history of pre-internet Silicon Valley.
Planning & Strategy.
- The intuitive simplicity of geothermal power always felt disconnected from its minimal adoption, and our (in)ability to drill really deep for cheap seems to be the bottleneck. Iceland exists as an exception, since its location on top of a major fault line (and attendant temperatures) allows it to easily use geothermal for 25% of its energy needs. A quirk of this: most of Iceland’s tap water defaults hot and has to be cooled, and has a faint scent of eggs (or, less flatteringly: farts).
Making & Manufacturing.
- What do you get when you pay $19 for an Apple USB charger? Quite a lot, actually. Compared to a downright dangerous $2.79 USB charger, Apple’s managed to pack a fair amount of clever electrical engineering into its ubiquitous white bricks.
- Chris Sawyer wrote most of the original RollerCoaster Tycoon in assembly language. More recently, Eric Barone single-handedly wrote the best-selling Stardew Valley over four years. Big Software occupies so much of our lives that it can be easy to forget that software can be crafted as well.
Maintenance, Repair & Operations.
- In case you’ve ever wondered: no, you cannot recycle a bowling ball—and the 1,200 balls that show up at NYC’s recycling plants annually are a big headache. I had also naively assumed bowling balls were homogenous balls of material, but of course—like all human endeavors—bowling balls have some pretty incredible optimizations, from asymmetrical cores to microscopic surface texturing.
Distribution & Logistics.
- As app- and gig-based logistics take up more of the market in Indonesia, companies are broadening monitoring and control over their contractors through apps. This has led to a grey market of tuyul—apps for delivery drivers designed to confound corporate apps.
- After 20 years, the US military left Bagram—its largest military base in Afghanistan [ed.: obviously a lot has happened in Afghanistan over the past 48 hours]. Also being left behind: a thriving Pokemon Go metaverse built by soldiers over half a decade. This line in particular struck me as equal parts absurd and heartbreaking: “Screenshots of Bagram after the troops left show low-level Pokemon, normally easily defeated, stuck guarding locations, perhaps indefinitely... a lowly Aron has defended a memorial to a fallen service member for about two weeks.” In related (but much darker) situations, soldiers using fitness app Strava revealed the locations of secret military bases three years ago, while just this year soldiers using Quizlet and Chegg to study revealed nuclear secrets.
Inspection, Testing & Analysis.
- High-performance or “apparent wind” sailing demonstrates that wind-powered vehicles can move faster than the wind at an angle, but a physics professor and a science communicator had a $10K bet on whether or not a wind-powered vehicle could move faster than the wind when exactly parallel to it—and the bet just paid out.
- Alan Turing’s best-known accomplishments are laying the foundations of computer science and cracking the Nazi Enigma—but he also described the mathematical foundation for how molluscs create their shells.
- A UC Berkeley astronomer took down a KGB spy ring after trying to figure out the origin of $0.75 of unpaid computer time, which sounds like bad luck until you realize that academic astronomy consists mostly of trying to make sense of prodigious amounts of machine data.
- A malaphor merges metaphors, for example “we’ll burn that bridge when we get there.”
- E-Prime refers to a controversial version of English that excludes the verb “to be,” with the intent of reducing absolute statements and increasing open-mindedness; did you notice this entire issue uses E-Prime? It ended up taking much longer as a result, and I now appreciate the criticisms leveled at E-Prime’s kludgy-ness with identity, predication, and abstraction. My takeaway here: E-Prime can helpfully guide writing and thought, but feels tedious to use dogmatically.
Taking a break from my usual pictures of tools with something that really fascinated me: Fasciation or Cresting occurs when the growing tip of a plant elongates with growth, resulting in odd looking plants like this pineapple.
p.s. - I look for new technology companies for my day job. Working on something? I’d love to hear about it.
p.p.s. - We care about inclusivity. Here’s what we’re doing about it.