It is that time of the year again! Time to review the digital events of 2020 and recognize achievements. Your humble correspondent has no idea how to do this at a grand scale without making a mockery of it. If the post can skewer Hollywood at the same time, then all the better.
This post will confer a dozen awards on many hapless recipients. Three criteria determine an award: The key event must occur in 2020; The key event must have something to do with digital technology; The key event must deserve at least one sassy and snarky comment. The award itself is the very definition of fake news. It generates no money, no distinction, and only a fleeting mention on the Google search engine. The counting of ballots for these awards approaches the accuracy of the Covid count in the State of Florida. In other words, there is no appeal process, nor is there an audit trail.
A brief word about the outlook that informs these awards. While most of the year was a train wreck, the digital world carried on undeterred, providing a fragile technological foundation and backstop for the surviving pieces of modern life. This year, more so than any in recent memory, modern information technology enabled humans to show off their ridiculousness. That is worth a good chuckle. Words cannot cure a pandemic, but a little snark, aided by just a bit of light-hearted sass and sarcasm, can make it momentarily disappear from view.
In other words, if you take offense, just laugh it off.
Out of affection for Sally Fields, these awards have been given a nickname, Sally. Why Sally Fields? It harkens back to a more innocent time, as well as her transformation from Gidget to Mrs. Lincoln. It also recognizes her one great quote, “You like me. You really like me.” And, more to the point, why not? She has absolutely nothing to do with digital technology, which makes her a good reminder not to take any of this too seriously.
Like every other awards show, we begin with a technical award that attracts cheering interest from the cognoscenti. If you happen to be a digital nerd with an unhealthy interest in Star Wars, then consider yourself in the know. This first Sally goes to The Mandolorian, the show on Disneyplus in which the title character travels around at sub-light speed mumbling laconic phrases and testing honor codes in a world on the edge of lawlessness. For those of you who missed this serial, imagine Clint Eastwood in a silver space suit in a Spaghetti Western set in a galaxy far far away. Then add a few laser blasters and aliens. You get the idea.
More to the point, this show is set inside a video game. Not literally, but technically. The producers adapted the rendering of video games to the studio stage. They got rid of green screens. The background moves in sync with the cameras. The chase scenes look like outdoor chase scenes. The rendering does a great job simulating ice caves, wadi deserts, and swamps, and adjusts as the actors move. The rendering produces shadows and reflections on the actors that look authentic, which is a good thing since the title character wears a reflective suit.
Look, just to be clear, all Star Wars fans know the fanciest gaming technology in the world would not have saved a bad script or uninspiring directing — say, as bad as the movie, Solo. The first two seasons of the Mandolorian succeed because it contained a character that the audience named Baby Yoda. This character is force-sensitive and cute, and possess the undiscriminating appetite of a toddler. More to the point, Baby Yoda is not digital. There is no award for old-fashioned puppetry, and there is no rule against it either, especially if it improves the plot. Kudos to the writers and producers for knowing when to use the old-fashioned stuff.
Star Wars fans everywhere thank them for reviving this franchise without bringing back Jar Jar Binks. May many more forces be with them. I can hardly wait for the next Disneyland ride.
Best special effects in a horror movie.
Speaking of technical prowess, this next Sally has generated a lot of buzz among fans of Apocrita. It goes to the Vikram Iyer, a PhD student at Washington State University. He developed electronic trackers for insects. And just in time too, because a particularly aggressive Asian wasp species, colloquially known as “Killer Wasps!” invaded the Pacific northwestern last December after hitchhiking across continents. Entomologists desperately spent the summer trying to prevent these awful insects from establishing nests in North America. Though this sounds like something out of a B-horror movie starring Kevin Bacon, this is real life. There is no guarantee of a happy ending.
In order find the nest of killer wasps in the northwest, entomologists caught three wasps. This is where it gets interesting. Iyer put radio transmitters on each of them, and tracked them as they flew around. Check out the picture of the little guy carrying the transmitter. That is one tiny tracker. It looks like a prop from the Antman movie.
Long story short, the wasps buzzed around for a while, and as it turned out, one of the three wasps with the tracker did make it back home. Once it did, the entomologists followed and destroyed the nest. What a stinging defeat for the wasps! What a clever use of a tracking device. Hurray for the marriage of entomological and digital science.
Hmmm, I guess that is a happy ending. Maybe this would make a decent b-movie. What do you think Tarantino would do with this? Nobody has yet asked Iyer which actor he would like to see portray him in the film. Bruce Willis, perhaps?
Award for Mr Smith going to Washington
Here is the first of the Sallies devoted to the November election. All this democracy in action yielded plenty of material for a Sally, but it requires some context. As you may have seen for yourself, the internet showed America in a Full Monty display of unvetted expertise. Witnesses showed up at hearings, and displayed no hesitance to plaster their testimony all over YouTube, Reddit, and Facebook, anywhere America’s citizenry could admire the cover page.
What did we learn about the American character? Some of us were a bit disappointed because we actually read beyond the cover page. For example, a man who claimed to possess a PhD in math filed testimony in Georgia about the statistical properties of the voting patterns and he included so much gobbledegook he would have failed a basic college course in statistics. As another example, another man purporting to understand the innards of voting machines filed testimony about error printouts from Dominion voting machines. His testimony indicated that he did not understand the first thing about computer programming. Sensible sllf-censoring was in short supply. Where was Judge Judy to call the Bullshit, so we could move on?
That said, nothing quite prepared the American public for the circus that unfolded in Michigan. Officials eventually certified the election , but only after considerable sound and fury about an election result that was not particularly close. It made many of us wonder, “Whatever happened to Midwestern temperament?” We are looking at you Melissa Carone, the winner of this year’s Sally.
A contract IT worker who seems to believe she spotted something suspicious, Ms. Carone used up more than her fifteen minutes of fame by sputtering verbiage with the pizzazz of a late-night waitress who skipped charm school. But it was not the words, it was the attitude. When confronted with sensible questions, she never answered with a single coherent fact or logical argument. The entire scene raises deeper philosophical questions. Such as, “Is this stuff going to stay on YouTube forever, where our grandchildren will later view it?” In the opinion of your humble correspondent, the answer is assuredly YES. Ms. Carone will feature prominently in every future college level American history classes that dissects and analyzes the decline of the United States.
Best documentary film.
Let’s get back to events grounded in facts. Documentary films are typically based on facts, and rather boring, but during this year of pandemic they rose to new levels of entertainment, or at least shock. There are many strong entries this year.
Honorable mentions go to:
(1) A video of the exact moment of the collapse of the telescope in Puerto Rico. It looked like something out of a James Bond movie. I cannot do this justice. Go watch it yourself. Holy cow, watch those great big cable lines snap.
(2) A video of a Space-X rocket blowing up upon a failed landing. Again, to appreciate it, you just have to watch. This looked better than anything a movie director could have simulated next to fake landing on the moon.
(3) A video of empty streets throughout New York City at the start of the pandemic. It is just lovely and spooky at the same time. Set to music, the video resembles the ending Woody Allen would have given to Invasion of the Body-Snatchers if it had been filmed in New York.
In spite of such competition, the winner of the Sally is a whale of a tale. A train in Denmark jumped its elevated track, but avoided plunging many feet because a giant sculpture of a whale tail saved it. Seriously, go look at the pictures from many angles.There is nothing fishy about this tale. The internet was invented for sharing pictures like this.
Lifetime achievement Award.
It is time to interrupt the flow of the ceremony. That’s right, time for the lifetime achievement award! This is the moment where somebody stands for their last applause.
This year the Sally goes to Quibi for spending so much money and accomplishing so little and doing so quickly. Launched in April and shuttered in November, this “quick bite” of video spent $1.75 billion dollars of investor money on “production quality” short video that, as it turned out, only two million subscribers wanted. It was alive long enough to qualify as a great clue for a crossword puzzle, but accomplished little else other than losing $8.5 million dollars each day it was alive. According to the founders, much of the material was suited for commuters on public transit, and it would have done much better if only for the pandemic.
That explanation frames a big unanswerable question: would Quibi have caught on without a pandemic? This question prompts your humble correspondent to make the following suggestion to investors: When the pandemic ends, DO NOT TRY TO ANSWER THIS QUESTION. Please.
The (honorary) “V for Vendetta” award.
This next Sally recognizes someone who rebels and laughs in the face of oppression. It highlights the action or event that best illustrates that online technology is slouching towards becoming a dystopian surveillance technology. This Sally goes to Brianna Hill. Stay with it. This is the most unforgettable story of the year.
Some background is required. Due to the pandemic the Illinois Bar Association could not administer the bar in its usual way – on two consecutive days in a large room, which would be full of human proctors. Instead, it devised an exam that could be taken anywhere on the appointed two consecutive day span, but under one condition: the test-taker kept the laptop camera on throughout the entire exam. If the test-taker got up at any time and moved outside the frame of the camera, then the test taker was disqualified.
Let us pause to note that this is one of those ideas that might have seemed clever at first, but then it got implemented by lawyers. It should have occurred to somebody that one surveillance technology would not suit all situations, but no technologists seems to have been in the room with these sharp legal minds.
That prior observation is not harsh enough. It takes a special kind of heavy-handed leadership to not make allowances for exceptions.
As it happened, the hero of our story, Brianna Hill, found herself pregnant after finishing law school, and because the Illinois Bar Association does not give the test often, she wished to take the bar at the only time offered in the summer. She started the exam, turned on the monitoring technology, and then discovered that nature had decided not to coordinate its plans with hers. Her water broke in the middle of the exam. That is when the fun began. Quoting the news article written about it, “She knew that if she moved outside the vision of the artificial intelligence proctor, she could be disqualified….” So what did Ms. Hill do? She stayed right where she was. Yep, she just continued writing the exam. That is not a misprint. She sat there and finished the bar exam as HER BODY WENT INTO LABOR BECAUSE SHE HAD NO OPTION TO GET UP.
That, by itself, would have earned Ms. Hill a Sally. But this story is not over. This story just gets better.
After finishing the exam on day one, Ms. Hill gave birth later in the day. Then our dear new mother faced her next decision. Should she finish the bar exam? Do you have any doubts about the answer? She did, in fact, get up the next day and, you guessed it, took the second part of the exam. She nursed during the allowed break. Again, that is not a misprint. Let me rephrase what happened just to get the point across: THE DAY AFTER SHE GAVE BIRTH SHE TOOK THE SECOND HALF OF THE BAR EXAM BECAUSE THE RULES MADE NO ALLOWANCE FOR ANY EXCEPTIONAL CIRCUMSTNCES, NOT EVEN FOR CHILDBIRTH.
To be sure, Ms. Hill deserves the highest praise for determination, perseverance, and patience in the face of adversity, not to mention displaying an almost unhuman ability to block out distractions. Those skills will serve her well in parenthood. So she deserves this Sally.
That said, the antiquated idiots who put her in this situation deserve special opprobrium . What is it with the men at the Illinois Bar Association and their antediluvian outlook? The powers-that-be cannot make an exception for pregnancy during a pandemic? Dudes, next time write some humane rules.
Fast and furious award.
Every year a young firm wins the Sally for fast and furious acceleration. This year we have a special winner in Zoom Video Communications, founded by Eric Yuan. Zoom managed to go from 10 to 300 million users in 60 days. That must be close to a record for rapid adoption.
As it turned out, Zoom had the perfect app for a pandemic. It was so simple that many aunts and uncles and in-laws with limited technical proficiency could enjoy video conferencing while their younger children talked them through logging in for the first time. Or maybe the second time. Surely the third time. Alright, let me look at your screen with the phone. Here is a video that makes a good laugh out of that type of conversation.
To be sure, once Zoom achieved such scale, it displayed issues with reliability and security, and Yuan’s firm had to scramble to address the problems that showed up in schools where “zoom-bombing” emerged. But Zoom was open about the issues, and gave straightforward responses. In retrospect, it seems to have weathered the storm. For a small firm, they deserve credit for pivoting quickly and adapting to feedback.
Their experience is a welcome reminder that a small firm can enter with a well-designed product and grow rapidly. That said, your humble correspondent hesitates to generalize too much from their example. After all, Zoom Video Communications needed a once-in-a-lifetime pandemic to get their opportunity. Let’s celebrate it anyway. A previously unknown firm caught many of the biggest tech firms flat footed. It will give hope to entrepreneurs everywhere and put them in a good mood before a big-tech firm mercilessly squishes them.
So where is the sass in all this? Have you ever heard of Zoom Technologies? Probably not, because this firm distributes wireless technologies in China, and, by all accounts, not very profitably. More to the point, its stock symbol is ZOOM, while the stock symbol for Zoom Video Communications is ZM. Some investors did not do their homework, and this spring Zoom Technologies experienced a fast and furious rise in their stock because, um, some investors mistakenly bought the stock. Sometimes it is better to be lucky than be good, but usually that is no basis for building a sustainable stock valuation. Alas, while the real Zoom continued to thrive, the imitation Zoom saw their fast and furious stock rise, reach its peak, and inexorably go into a fast and furious decline. VROOM, just like that.
The Terminator Award.
Let’s change courts, and award the Terminator Award, a Sally that recognizes a novel application of automation. This year it goes to the US Tennis Association for using automated line judges in all courts except the center court during the US Open Tennis tournament. Quite a milestone in automation, the Association claims that an audit found that the machine made only 14 errors out of 225k calls. That is a 0.006% error rate.
As an aside, this claim about accuracy does make one wonder how they performed such an audit. Did someone examine a video of every shot? But I digress….
While noteworthy, all this automation would not have deserved a Sally if not for the actions of Novak Djokovic, the number one seeded men’s player. He happened to be playing on center court during one of his matches in the middle of the tournament. His match had human judges, and in retrospect, Djokovic probably wishes there had been none. Not known for his mild temperament, at one point in the match, Mr. Djokovic lost his cool, and he hit a ball wildly in frustration after a point. Djokovic did not aim it specifically anywhere in particular, but that is irrelevant to what happened next. The ball went right at the judge and hit the judge. (Pretty hard. Ouch!) The rule book draws no distinction between intended and accidental, and offers clear guidelines. Such an event must be met with the sternest of punishment, which is disqualification.
Yep, the number one player was thrown out of the tournament.
No article recorded the precise words uttered to Djokovic as he left the arena, but it would have been poetic if the line judge said, “Asta la vista baby!” One can only hope Djokovic replied, “I’ll be back.”
The Greta Garbo Award
Speaking of automated surveillance, each year technological advance encroaches further on our privacy. So a Greta Garbo award goes to the person who has done the most to protect our digital privacy. This year the Sally goes to Harry and Meghan and their young son Archie.
This award requires some backstory. Long story short, a while back this British-American couple decided that they hated playing the part of royals, which is his family’s business. They decided to quit and move far away from his home, which is the UK. After briefly considering Canada, they decamped to the US, and eventually settled closer to her home in southern California. As any regular reader of People Magazine knows, Los Angeles contains some of the worst paparazzi in the US, so locating there is a bit like taking residence in the Lion’s Den. That does not justify what happened next, but it does make it less surprising.
Now for why they get the award. Specifically, a firm sent a drone over to the house where Meghan and Harry were staying and took pictures of their 14-month old boy, Archie. I believe I speak for many when I do not congratulate the drone-owners for their ingenuity. Instead, I congratulate the royal couple for suing the crap out of such bastards.
Except there was one problem. Meghan and Harry did not know who owned the drone, so initially they did not know who to sue. Meghan and Harry deserve this Sally because of the way their lawyers cleverly handled the suit. First they sued the publishers. During those hearings the lawyers had the right to ask how the publishers obtained the pictures, and from whom. Harry and Meghan’s lawyers then learned that the drone owner was x17, one of the notorious firms in Hollywood who employs tons of photographers to invade the privacy of celebrities. And so Harry and Meghan sued x17. And won. They even got an apology out of x17. That is what we call a clever use of the law.
To be sure, many of us are at no risk to have drones fly over our backyards taking photos of our private moments with our loved ones. This suit makes it even less likely. Nonetheless, that seems like a good legacy for Harry and Meghan. Next time you see them in a receiving line be sure to thank them for moving to the US and taking on the paparazzi’s gall.
Best script adapted from prior material
This next Sally awards a script that adapts existing material for online consumption on social media. The basic tale is as old as time, and has proven to be more popular than Cinderella, more durable than the Elsa the Snow Queen, and more permeable than the Manchurian Candidate. That’s right. It is time to give an award for election fraud fantasies! Such stories have left a trail of allegations all over television, the internet, and especially social media. That said, a special Sally goes to Sidney Powell for her elaboration of these tales, though, just to be clear, this distinction is not meant to be a compliment.
Let’s start with the the following: Election fraud fantasies could be found on left-wing web sites after the 2016 election, and with no apparent irony, almost the very same fantasy reappeared on right-wing web sites after the November 2020 election. However, there are few key differences between left and right paranoid fantasies in the modern era. After the Michigan recount in 2016 most paranoid lefties dropped the subject and moved on to skewering Betsy DeVos. In contrast, right wingers seem to have longer attention spans. After three recounts in Georgia, and 49 out of 50 losing lawsuits in which nobody uncovered absolutely any evidence of widespread fraud, they are still yapping about it. Who here thinks paranoid right-wingers will drop the subject?
This award goes to Sidney Powell for taking these stories to new imaginative and implausible heights. She promulgated a tale that goes like this: A malevolent band of hackers broke into voting machines and switched the votes for the presidency. These hackers were so stealth that this intrusion went undetected by thousands of local, state, and federal officials – not to mention reporters, poll watchers, auditors from both parties, and white-hat hackers. Symptomatic of their professionalism, the break-in left no detectable trace in any auditable paper trail. Nada. Nothing. Nyet. In a dastardly trick designed to fool the good guys, the hackers did not mess with any other office for governor, secretary of state or the senate or house of representatives. Cleverly, the intruders learned to target Dominion machines in only a few swing states, but did not target some states where the very same machines are used with greater frequency.
To this basic outline Powell added a special sauce. Her conspiracy brought attention to Smartmatic, a company headed by a brilliant software entrepreneur who fled Venezuela, but, according to Powell, not before making a secret deal with Hugo Chavez. Powell seems completely unbothered by the face that Chavez died a few years ago, and that Smartmatic provided no machines for any US election in 2020, except one local election in Los Angeles. That is one impressive fantasy.
These paranoid fantasies have also uncovered a previously unrecognized variance in the American experience. It turns out that not everyone hears these stories in the same way. To most of us outside the bubble this just sounds bonkers. To lawyers at Dominion and Smartmatic it sounds like fodder for a defamation lawsuit. To the White House, however, this looks like reason to promote Powell to an advisory position.
As with other election details, this story has a good chance to survive, so our grandchildren can view it on YouTube. It too will make rich material for a future history class on America’s decline.
Our children will view it with much additional sarcasm. While everybody was distracted with these fantasies about fraud, the actual hackers from Russia broke into many US government agencies, including the Treasury. They used a very clever supply chain attack, and kept it hidden for many months. In retrospect, it probably was a bad idea to fire the Director of the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency, Christopher Krebs, who, it should be noted, was fired for helping to make this year’s election “…the most secure in US history,” a statement that directly contradicted the paranoid fantasy favored by those who lost the election. Mr. Kreb’s firing will figure prominently in any history class, as will the unique combination of administrative skills of the boss who fired him. One might describe those skills as the ability to generate dozens of provocative tweets a day while simultaneously showing no innate interest in carrying through with the most elemental features of competent governance. In the future this will be challenging to explain to the grandchildren. It would be comic if it were not so tragic.
Time to lighten up. Let’s give a Sally for the best internet memes. Because this is what the internet does best.
It is tight contest, and many honorable mentions. One honorary mention goes to the memes that mocked the Giuliani press conference outside the Four Seasons Garden Center, which is next to a sex store, and across the street from a crematorium.
Another mention goes to all the memes inspired by Mark Zuckerberg’s ill-fated remark that Facebook had no reason to fact-check posts.
The last honorable mention goes for memes produced off of the Queen’s green clothing, which the internet turned into a green screen. Indeed, we might rename it the “queen screen.” Anyway, observe:
The winners for this year’s Sally goes to those who recreated famous art. Some people seem to have had a lot of time on the hands while in quarantine. At least they aspired to do something deliciously fun and spirited. Observe:
The Rosebud Award
At last, we have reached number 12. We are almost done with a dozen.
This Sally recognizes any action that resembles the action of a modern Charles Foster Kane. In other words, this award is an excuse to recognize the arrival of antitrust in high tech markets. Better late than never.
First of all, we begin with an honorable mention for the DOJ, who brought a suit against Alphabet. As the federal antitrust suit makes plain, each year Google pays Apple eight billion dollars to be the default search engine on the iPhone. Your humble correspondent dimly recalls his antitrust courses from yesteryear, and dimly recalls that no distribution channel should be closed by contract. Your humble correspondent also wishes to quote Adam Smith from more than two hundred years ago. He said, “People of the same trade seldom meet together, even for merriment and diversion, but the conversation ends in a conspiracy against the public, or in some contrivance to raise prices.” In other words, this eight billion dollar transaction raises some basic questions. In what world is this not a conspiracy against the public? Whatever happened to “Don’t be evil?” We await the trial anxiously.
And that is just the honorable mention. The DOJ cannot hold a candle to the winner. Because the winner is so full of sass.
The winner has to go to Epic Games, publisher of the popular game Fortnight, who filed a private antitrust against Apple over Apple’s restrictive rules for applications on the iPhone. Look, on the surface it seems simple. Apple pioneered the market and deserved some discretion over how it would work. But a dozen years is more than enough time, and Apple has not eased up. Today it has too many restrictions in place. In 2008 it was revolutionary to lower distribution costs and introduce the app store. Today? The 30% tax on games is obscene coming from a firm that makes tens of billions of dollars a year in revenue. In 2008 exclusive deals were fine, because this was an immature and fluid market. Today? These look like a ridiculous abuse of a leading position to protect the ability to tax apps. In 2008 some of these self-serving limits on the distribution of apps could be punished with competition from Android. Today? Android has its own set of rules. Neither party wants to rock the boat too much, and these rules interfere with the rise of competition from multiple channels.
It was inevitable that somebody would rebel. As it turned out, Epic complained first. Apple heard them and insisted on the rules, Epic then began working outside the rules. Apple warned them. and Epic persisted. Then Apple banned them from the app store. When Microsoft behaved like this in 1996 they got skewered for it. What excuses such behavior out of Apple now? Once again, we await the trial anxiously. Here is hoping their lawsuit gains looser rules and wider distribution for everyone.
You say, “Why does Fortnight deserve this award?” You say, “Just another sordid dispute between two firms.” They win due to their video parody of Apple! Fortnight released a video for their campaign, “Free Fortnight.” It parodies the old Apple video about 1984. Take a look at it. For their sheer audacity they deserve recognition. Take a look at the video, which CNET has conveniently compared with the classic:
If you made it this far, then you must desperately need distractions. Let me leave you with one fact and an honorary Sally.
The fact is this: Until just a few weeks ago nobody had developed a vaccine — i.e., from first conception to widespread distribution — in less than four years. That record was set half a century ago during the development of the vaccine for mumps, which came at the end of the era that found vaccines for measles and chicken pox and polio. Yet, by the end of this year two teams have already beaten that record as they developed a Covid vaccine in less than a year. That was not a one off. Sometime in this coming year dozens of teams will break that record.
Emergency FDA processes have something to do with the speed, but digitization of biology deserves the lions share of the credit, and that scientific achievement is worthwhile to recognize. For example, biologist in China sequenced the DNA of the virus in no time, and using the latest in digital biology, scientists at Moderna simulated a digital design for the vaccine in a week. Prototypes came quickly after that. Damnit, that is impressive. None of that was possible a mere two and half decades ago.
Alas, digital science could only do so much. It could not estimate placebo effects and side effects without giving vaccines to humans. Thanks to evolution, human biology manifests in too many variants to anticipate all the side effects of a new vaccine. Doctors have to put the vaccine in humans and see who gets sick in unexpected ways and figure out why. The history of vaccines contains many horror stories for those who tried to skip this step. So there was no escaping the long slog of human trials, and, as it turned out, the trial inside humans took no less than six months, which was actually rather short. The doctors and the scientists and the volunteers and the FDA all deserve our thanks for this service.
Here is the rub. While developing a Covid vaccine in record time deserves recognition, no single person can or should take credit. Yes, Moderna will make lots of money, and they earned it. But the Sally should not solely go to them. It was earned by the tens of thousands who sequenced the human genome, the tens of thousands — funded by the NIH and others — who developed software to simulate chemical processes in the body, and the most recent generation who figured out the mechanics behind RNA. That effort took decades, and it put modern biology and medicine on a digital foundation that paid off last year. This is a triumph of human digital ingenuity on a grand scale, and also a profound demonstration of its limits.
Please try to laugh in spite of the train wreck. Drink a toast to life.