Being a creature of habit, I’m very grumpy that this week we’ve all had to say farewell to Schlock Mercenary. After 20 years of steady daily posts telling stories of Tagon’s Toughs, Howard Tayler is taking a little well-earned time off:
Parentheticals aside, here we are, 19 years after 9-11, and I’ve been doing this job pretty well—or at least very consistently—for that entire time.
But it is now entirely time for me to stop.
I need a break, and it’s the kind of break which, until I take it, I don’t know how long I’ll need it to be.
I look forward to him coming back to share whatever stories he feels like telling one day, but even if he decided to rest on his laurels and leave us with 20 years of stories about Tagon’s Toughs he’s earned that right. Nobody’s been short-changed here.
So long and thanks for all the fun you’ve shared along the way, Howard. Really good work.
M.G. Siegler ponders Netflix’s ability to get us watching, even when the content isn’t all that special (sparked by his watch of The Old Guard, but prompted by the wider pattern of so-so content on the platform:
The real risk here is that the audience starts to associate Netflix with mediocre films. It may not matter now — and certainly not right now, in the time of COVID. But down the line, if the audience can’t trust that what Netflix is putting in front of them is good, they’ll lose faith.
But then, Netflix might well decide that they’d much rather end up replacing the multiplex cinema business and showing stuff that doesn’t get the critical plaudits, rather than replacing the arthouse cinemas where critical praise doesn’t necessarily translate into dollars and cents. This might be a problem for Netflix, but only if one of the other major streaming platforms finds itself with an HBO-like reputation for excellent content.1
It’s less about Netflix customers losing faith, more about their having somewhere else to put their faith in.
- Apple TV+ would like that to be them, but even if you’re an Apple optimist they’ve clearly got a long, long way to go yet. Disney would like to step into the HBO role but they own such a large chunk of the US studios that they might have to hive off a chunk of their more refined content and put it out under a different brand to make that stick. Amazon’s algorithms probably don’t care either way what Prime Video subscribers are watching so long as the Amazon Prime subscription income keeps rolling in. ↩
My experience of team working from home bears precisely no relationship to this. And yet, I still can’t help but find it entertaining and endearing.
So, well played, Apple’s marketing team. Well played indeed.
Now that he’s left Amazon, Tim Bray can express heretical thoughts about the company’s priorities out loud, in public:
On a Spring 2019 walk in Beijing I saw two street sweepers at a sunny corner. They were beat-up looking and grizzled but probably younger than me. They’d paused work to smoke and talk. One told a story; the other’s eyes widened and then he laughed so hard he had to bend over, leaning on his broom. I suspect their jobs and pay were lousy and their lives constrained in ways I can’t imagine. But they had time to smoke a cigarette and crack a joke. You know what that’s called? Waste, inefficiency, a suboptimal outcome. Some of the brightest minds in our economy are earnestly engaged in stamping it out. They’re winning, but everyone’s losing.
Bray’s post goes on to reference troubling reports of shortcomings in Amazon’s corporate attitude to the health and safety of warehouse staff.
I wonder if Amazon would respond by pointing out that this is all just a stopgap until they can replace almost all of those weak, imprecise humans with much more efficient and meticulous robots.1 Instead they seem to rely on a mix of buying local political influence and being economical with the truth to avoid damage to their image with customers, just like old-fashioned capitalists do.
It might well be that a decade or two from now Jeff Bezos will be too preoccupied with beating Elon Musk in the campaign for First Speaker of the Martian Assembly to care about what’s happening back on Terra, where Amazon will still be relying on the vast, cheap supply of humans desperate to earn a living doing the bits of a warehouse job that it’s still too expensive and complicated and impractical to computerise, while still holding over everyone’s head the threat that a computer could replace them any day now. Or he could be yet another billionaire back on Earth contemplating how much he’s going to have to pay for the private army he’ll need to defend his castle from the socialists who can’t see that he just wanted to improve the lot of book buyers everywhere and are determined to be ungrateful that he happened to make some money along the way.
- Never mind that deploying robots at the scale they’d need to do that would both cost a great deal and potentially burn up a lot of political capital. ↩
It’s almost as if the manufacturers of smart speakers want everyone to get used to accidental activations:
Voice assistants in smart speakers analyze every sound in their environment for their wake word, e.g., «Alexa» or «Hey Siri», before uploading the audio stream to the cloud. This supports users’ privacy by only capturing the necessary audio and not recording anything else. The sensitivity of the wake word detection tries to strike a balance between data protection and technical optimization, but can be tricked using similar words or sounds that result in an accidental trigger.
For readers of a certain age, these paper PCs are tremendously nostalgic, reminders of great computing times past.
- It feels to me that the keyboards on most of these come off as far too bulky. The Atari 520ST looks very good – the slant in the floppy disks and the function keys really works for it – while the ZX Spectrum’s keyboard/system unit looks way too bulky compared to the TV set alongside it. It’s hard to remember now, but back in those days we didn’t have 95% of systems using a generic plug-in keyboard so the keyboard was a huge part of the machine’s image and look and feel. ↩
- For their next trick, let’s see ’em give us a Sinclair ZX81, plus add-on RAM pack – 16 whole Kilobytes of RAM! – plus a carton of milk, acting as external cooling. Oh Uncle Clive, between the ZX80, the ZX81 and the ZX Spectrum it’s amazing to think what a folk hero you were to a whole generation of youngsters who were never going to be able to afford a BBC Model B, let alone an Apple II or a TRS80. Do not get me started on the Sinclair QL: so near to being really impressive in theory, such a disappointment in practice. ↩
Definitely something to view in full screen mode, on as large a screen as you can lay hands on: Antarctica in Black & White – Chapter 2: Mountains, by Jan Erik Waider.
As promised I’ve finished watching Halt and Catch Fire now, and am happy to report that, as promised, it got better and better as our four main characters moved on from their first season efforts to make an IBM PC clone only better.
As Tom Armitage put it after he rewatched the show earlier this year:
It’s a funny show. It starts out… quite badly, wanting to tell one particular story, and the moment it starts swerving away from that, it becomes more interesting. That point isn’t the beginning of season 2, incidentally: it’s easy to hate on the messy first season, but rewatching it, it confirmed that it course-corrects fast and hard. Once Donna is brought up in the mix around S1E4 it starts showing hints of what it’ll be, and the last few episodes of season 1 – pretty much once Donna says “I’m coming with you,” and the gang drives to COMDEX, are it taking flight. The rewatch definitely confirmed you cannot pull the “Parks And Rec Manouevre” (“just start with S2”) with this show.
For my money, by far the biggest change in the show came a few episodes into season one, when Kerry Bishé’s Donna levelled up from being the supportive spouse of one of our lead characters1 to the tech-savvy heroine who came through and rebuilt Cameron’s backup after Joe had sabotaged it.2 A few episodes later Donna was much more involved in Gordon’s work, and by the time the team went to COMDEX we had a show firing on all cylinders. It was lovely to see how (as I’d hoped) by the end of the show Donna and Cameron were back in partnership.
Writing this up, I now realise that in a lot of ways Donna’s emergence as a main character is a sign of how much this show was at root good, old-fashioned competence porn. These four main characters, and also the people around them like Boz who stepped in to fight fires for them, were basically very capable in their fields and usually able to deliver on what they promised. The fun would come when they had to communicate with one another about the different directions their wider goals were leading them towards.
Especially from the second season, when the writers had learned to tone down the focus on Lee Pace’s Joe MacMillan and his mysterious backstory, this left us focussing on the partnership between our two female leads: the problems they faced when dealing with vulture capitalists who saw two young female founders and refused to take them seriously; the fact that they were so dependent upon suppliers for bandwidth and computing power and lacked the financial muscle to get what they needed when they needed it; their different perspectives on how to get there and how to run a company where nominally they wanted to be open and democratic and yet Cameron wanted to stick to her vision of the company and hold on tight to every damned thing being done the way she thought it should be.
Over the four seasons they bounced off one another and went off in different directions, only to be brought together towards the end: partly by the way the IT business had changed, partly by changes in how the characters reacted to those changes and settled into their new roles, and partly by the death of one of our central foursome whose departure provided the impetus for a really solid wrap-up of the show’s story. At the end, I loved the way the show gave us Donna and Cameron recognising how well they worked together and moving forward from there.3
Given that in the USA this was the show that inherited the timeslot of Mad Men I suppose it always had big shoes to fill. The subject matter (especially in season 1, following a story about Joe hijacking an old-fashioned company to move it into a new field) didn’t offer audiences the sort of hit that Mad Men had of easy nostalgia, and for whatever reason it probably never had a chance even if the critics did eventually come to recognise Halt and Catch Fire as part of the age of Quality TV. For my money, it was a journey well worth taking. If the writers want to bring us a series about the adventures of Cameron and Donna in their next venture, or even of the Return of Joe MacMillan from academia then I’d definitely be up for that.
- Early on we learned that she was working for Texas Instruments as middle management and had been working with Gordon on his earlier, failed attempt to design and build a machine of his own. This was the point where we came to understand just how focussed and level-headed and just plain hyper-competent she really was when it came to technology. Prior to this we saw very little of Donna in her workplace, and her role was mostly writing reports to keep her boss up to speed on how their part of TI was keeping up. After this, Donna was increasingly sucked in to the world of Cardiff, then the work at Mutant, then finally making her way in venture capitalism and we got to see how capable she was. ↩
- First season Joe’s urge to trick his colleagues into falling in with his plans earned him a huge amount of distrust for the next three seasons, and at times it looked as if Evil Joe had burnt those bridges. Again, by the end of season 4 everyone had moved past that. ↩
- I’d spent the last few episodes dreading that they were going to end the show with Cameron deciding to have children, so full marks for their avoidance of that pat ending to the story. ↩