March 2015

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Going Clear

  • 5:25 PM

One of the great unsolved mysteries of my life is: “Who was the utter tosspot who gave my name to the Church of Scientology?”

I was sixteen-turning-seventeen at the end of my last year of high school in Western Australia, and I got a phone call at home. According to their records, I had purchased a copy of Dianetics, and did I want to take some of my time to maybe get together and talk to them about it?

Even in 1992 this seemed like a particularly silly idea. I didn't really know much about the organisation, but I had walked past the Scientology centre in Perth any number of times. There were rumours of cultish brainwashing. Also, my brother owned a few of the Battlefield Earth books and he told me they were kind of shit.

So I told them a polite “thanks but no thanks”, then went to school and interrogated all of the members of my nerdy, Dungeons-and-Dragons-playing social circle to find out who had let curiosity get the better of them enough to buy a book in my name. I had my suspicions, but none of them fessed up.

From then on, contact from Scientology became a regular, but not overwhelmingly regular thing. Every few months I would get a letter here, a phone call there. On one memorable occasion they invited me to their Summer barbecue. I would politely ask them to stop contacting me. They would assure me I was missing out on something really great, then let me go until next time.

In my first year of University I found a copy of Dianetics in the UWA library. Somebody had neatly printed “This is bullshit” on the first page of the first chapter. I didn't make it much further into the book than that myself.

Not long after, I discovered the Internet.

Reports these days will attribute the Internet’s awareness of, and activism against Scientology to Anonymous, but that’s just good marketing on anon’s part. Operation Clambake published the now-infamous Xenu documents all the way back in 1996, a direct consequence of the attention drawn to the organisation in 1995 by the death of Lisa McPherson, and the Church’s clumsy attempt to remove the alt.religion.scientology Usenet newsgroup.

As a Law student at the time, the leaked OT-III documents were one of my favourite legal Catch-22s. In order to make a copyright claim to suppress the documents’ publication, the Church of Scientology had to attest legally they were legitimate, and thus verify the Xenu thing was real.

So after a few years of occasional but annoying contact, I wrote a two page letter explaining in detail what I had discovered while investigating their religion, and why there wasn’t even the slightest chance I would show up to their barbecue even if they did have really tasty sausages. This being the early 90s I printed the letter out, put it in an envelope, put a stamp on it and walked down to the shops to put it in a mailbox.

And that was the last contact I had with Scientology.

Even in the late 90s owning your own domain was something of a novelty. I used it everywhere, even when I posted to Usenet. Which was probably a bad idea since I can also now count eighteen years during which my primary email address has been passed from spammer to spammer like an increasingly quaint heirloom.

At the time I had also discovered that Telstra offered wholesale dialup Internet. For the low entry fee of pretending to be a real company, you got a 24/7 dialup connection with as large a statically-routed IP block as you could justify by emailing them to tell them what you were planning on using the addresses for (a /29, was more than enough for me). The bargain rate was the same they charged ISPs for backbone traffic: 19c per megabyte downstream.

Yes, in modern terms that's a lot. For an Australian student in the 90s who was mostly using the connection for IRC and Usenet, and whose primary browser was lynx, it was actually pretty cheap. And it meant on months I was broke I could get away with barely paying anything. Also, because it was a dedicated connection there was zero modem contention and you never got kicked off.

Around the same time I was also volunteering on the K:Line desk of an IRC network, and even as late in the history of the Internet as 1997 there was still the assumption that when you sent an email to the abuse@ address of a domain, a human being would read it and at least tell you why you weren't important enough to care about.

Anyway, during that time I annoyed someone on Usenet enough that they decided to email my Internet Provider to complain about my terrible behaviour. By the above-explained strange twist of fate, that Internet Provider was me.

Sadly I don't have a copy of my response, but from memory it was something like this.

Subject: Your complaint.

This is in regards to your contact about the behaviour of one of our subscribers on Usenet newsgroup alt.irc.

I would like to reassure you that we consider it important to be good Internet citizens, and take complaints about our subscribers seriously. I would like to thank you for reporting this incident to us.

Having reviewed the material of your complaint, we agree that this behaviour should not be tolerated.

We have identified the user responsible, and had him taken out and shot.


The Pastiche Abuse Team.

The complainer, sadly, didn't reply.

There's been an awful lot of discussion the last few months around how much the Apple Watch Edition would cost, who would possibly buy an expensive piece of jewelry that would likely be obsolete in a year, and what clever trade-in or upgrade schemes Apple might put in place to make it worthwhile.

Today we know for sure that the answer to the first question is “US$10,000-$17,000, or possibly higher for models not yet on the Apple Store.”

I'd like to suggest the answer to the third question doesn't matter, because the answer to the second question is “people who don’t care about the third question.”

I think it was Gruber who pointed out that one of the interesting things about Apple products for us upper middle-class consumers is that the iPhone we buy is exactly the same one Beyoncé has. No matter how successful she is, she can't get a better iPhone than us.

Empowering for us, kind of annoying for Beyoncé.

At the time I'm writing this, Apple is the most profitable company in the history of everything. Selling luxury watches to that small population of people who can pay for luxury watches isn't going to make that needle move noticeably. Rolex's annual revenue is around $4.5bn. That's less than 10% of what Apple is expecting to pull in this quarter.

Apple isn't modeling their business on Rolex selling watches that will last a lifetime. They are looking at Armani selling couture that will be deliberately outmoded by next season’s fashions. And they are looking at it for exactly the same reason Armani does.

(Armani's annual revenue is a lot less less than Rolex, which is where the analogy falls down a little, but I think the general point is still valid. :) )

Armani Exchange prices its dresses in the low hundreds of dollars. Emporio Armani or Armani Collezioni dresses start to reach the thousands. But if you want something like the Armani gown Cate Blanchett wore to the Oscars, you might be talking six figures.

The number of people who are going to buy a $100,000 dress is vanishingly small (and I'm assuming Blanchett was, like most Oscar attendees, lent hers as a promotion). If you built a business making $100,000 dresses, you are likely be a cottage industry dependent on the fickle fancies of the very rich. But if you're in the business of selling $100 and $1000 dresses, having a $100,000 dress draped over a famous actress lends an enormous amount of prestige to your brand, and makes people start to think that maybe your $1000 dresses are kind of a bargain?

Apple already knows that with the right tech, it can make hundreds of billions of dollars selling $500-$1000 gadgets with a 24 month life-span. The difference is the iPhone models were differentiated by technical specs, not by appearance. If Apple had just released one watch that was priced around $400, and another that was closer to $1000, with identical specs and different materials, customers would have really wondered whether twice as much money was worth it just for a slightly prettier watch.

Through the simple existence of the Apple Watch Edition, the regular Apple Watch stops being the few-hundred-dollars more expensive model of the entry-level Apple Watch Sport. It becomes the one-tenth-the-price model of the Edition. When the Jay-Z version of a product is $10,000, and you know that you're getting exactly the same functionality as Jay-Z just in steel or aluminium instead of gold, the psychological effect is you're now deciding in terms of the—much less immediately grokkable—difference between 1/10th of the price and 1/20th.

If the Apple Watch is a product people want, and we don't yet know it will be, Apple are going to sell a lot of Editions. The world contains a lot of people who want to express their wealth by buying a better version of the thing everyone else is buying, and the Edition speaks to those consumers. But when it comes to their bottom line, Apple is going to make a whole lot more money from consumers who, just because the Edition exists, unconsciously see the stainless steel Apple Watch as the middle choice.


  • 7:25 PM
  1. Use Google (or just search Github directly) to find the Vagrant recipe for the thing you want to install.
  2. Clone the recipe from the only available tag: master.
  3. Run vagrant up
  4. Upgrade Vagrant, because it's been a few months since you did that last and nothing works any more.
  5. Upgrade VirtualBox, because that's a few months old too, and you know there's no chance the newest version of Vagrant will work with something so hideously ancient.
  6. Run vagrant up
  7. Return to Google to find plausible substitutes for the dependencies that have vanished off the Internet since this recipe was written.
  8. Cross fingers.
  9. Run vagrant up
  10. Return to Google to find the extra plugins you need to run this recipe.
  11. Follow the series of redirects to find where said plugins are hosted these days.
  12. Install plugins.
  13. Run vagrant up
  14. Run VAGRANT_LOG=debug vagrant up
  15. Hunt your way up through the pile of Ruby stack traces until you find the "undefined method" error.
  16. Sob quietly into your cup of tea.