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Super Sad True Love Story: A Review

By - October 19, 2012

In my continuing quest to reflect on books which I have found important to my own work, I give you a work of fiction, first published in mid-2011:  Super Sad True Love Story: A Novel, by Gary Shteyngart, an acclaimed writer born in Russia, now living in the US. This is my first read of Shteyngart, known also for his previous works Absurdistan and Russian Debutante’s Handbook, both of which established him as an important new literary voice (Ten Best Books – NYT, Book of the Year – Time, etc. etc….). Of course, I was barely aware of Shteyngart until a friend insisted I read “Super Sad” and I will forever be grateful for the recommendation.

Based in a future that feels to be about thirty years from now (the same timeframe as my pending book),  Shteyngart’s story stars one Lenny Abramov, a schlumpy 39-year-old son of Jewish Russian immigrants who lives in New York City. Abramov works at a powerful corporation that sells promises of immortality to “High Net Worth” individuals. But he’s not your typical corporate climber: The book begins in Italy, where Abramov has taken a literary vacation of sorts – he’s left an America he no longer loves to be closer to a world that he does – a dying world of art, literature, and slower living. But Abramov’s duty to his parents and his need for money drive him back to America, where most of the action occurs.

It turns out the future hasn’t been very kind to America. Just about every possible concern one might have about our nation’s decline has played out – the economy is in a death spiral, the Chinese pretty much control our institutions, large corporations control what the Chinese don’t, books and intelligent discourse have disappeared, shallowness and rough sex are glorified, and the Constitution has pretty much been suspended. Oh, and while the book doesn’t exactly put it this way, Facebook and Apple have won – everyone is addicted to their devices, and to the social reflections they project.

It doesn’t take long for a reader to realize Super Sad True Love Story: A Novel is also a work of science fiction, but somehow, that construct doesn’t get in the way. In fact, it’s rather fascinating to watch an accomplished literary novelist tackle “the future,” and do a pretty damn good job at it. I’m no science fiction expert, but Shteyngart projects our present day obsessions with devices, data, social networking, and the like into a dystopia that feels uncomfortably possible. Everyone is judged by their credit scores, their youthful appearance, and their ability to gather attention from denizens of an always on, always connected datasphere (those that are particularly good at getting attention are dubbed “very Media!”). Shteyngart is clearly working fields well sown by Dick, Gibson, Stephenson, Doctorow, and many others, but it works for me anyway.

The story is indeed a love story – an improbable and poignant one at that – between Lenny, a middle-aged man beset by insecurities, and a young Korean woman caught between familial duty and the pointless, consumer-driven world of shopping and social networking. The narrative is driven by America’s collapse into a security state, and I won’t give away any more of the plot than that. I’ll leave it here: By the end of this often hilarious novel, you will feel super sad, and you may also come to question the path we are on as it relates to data. I know that’s a pretty odd thing to say about a love story, but data, in fact, plays a central role in the novel’s meaning.  Here are a few of the passages I highlighted:

“Shards of data all around us, useless rankings, useless streams, useless communiqués from a world that was no longer to a world that would never be.”

“I’m learning to worship my new äppärät’s screen, the colorful pulsating mosaic of it, the fact that it knows every last stinking detail about the world, whereas my books only know the minds of their authors.”

“Streams of data were now fighting for time and space around us.”

“And all these emotions, all these yearnings, all these data, if that helps to clinch the enormity of what I’m talking about, would be gone.”

“I wanted to be in a place with less data, less youth, and where old people like myself were not despised simply for being old, where an older man, for example, could be considered beautiful.”

That last passage is from near the end of the book, when the fate of our protagonist has resolved – I won’t tell you how, in case you haven’t read the book. And if that is the case….I certainly recommend that you do.

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Other works I’ve reviewed:

The Victorian Internet: The Remarkable Story of the Telegraph and the Nineteenth Century’s On-line Pioneers by Tom Standage (review)

Year Zero: A Novel by Rob Reid (review)

Lightning Man: The Accursed Life of Samuel F. B. Morse by Kenneth Silverman (review)

Code: And Other Laws of Cyberspace, Version 2.0 by Larry Lessig (review)

You Are Not a Gadget: A Manifesto (Vintage) by Jaron Lanier (review)

WikiLeaks and the Age of Transparency by Micah Sifry (review)

Republic, Lost: How Money Corrupts Congress–and a Plan to Stop It by Larry Lessig (review)

Where Good Ideas Come From: A Natural History of Innovation by Steven Johnson (review)

The Singularity Is Near: When Humans Transcend Biology by Ray Kurzweil (review)

The Corporation (film – review).

What Technology Wants by Kevin Kelly (review)

Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other by Sherry Turkle (review)

The Information: A History, a Theory, a Flood by James Gleick (review)

In The Plex: How Google Thinks, Works, and Shapes Our Lives by Steven Levy (review)

The Future of the Internet–And How to Stop It by Jonathan Zittrain (review)

The Next 100 Years: A Forecast for the 21st Century by George Friedman (review)

Physics of the Future: How Science Will Shape Human Destiny and Our Daily Lives by the Year 2100 by Michio Kaku (review)

 

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At Google Zeitgeist: Theoretical Physics and Astronauts, Unite!

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Earlier in the week I traveled to the annual Google Zeitgest conference, where I’ve been honored to be a moderator for the past few years. This year I was given the challenge of tacking a 90-minute block on “The World We Dream,” which featured an extraordinary set of speakers. The session included a short interview with two impressive folks: Ron Garan, a NASA astronaut who has spent 180 days in space, and Lisa Randall, a celebrated theoretical physicist and author. I’ve never spent as much time prepping for a 20-minute interview as I did for this – in part because the Higgs Boson is not that easy for the laymen to grok, nor is the concept of floating around in space. If you are so inclined, enjoy:

 

Help Me Stop HubAdverts Dot Com!

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I’ve been working with my site design partner Blend to try to track down a spammer who has taken my entire site and repurposed it as their own, replete with tons of ads and a clear intent to draft off Searchblog’s quality content (if I do say so myself) and, most likely, its pagerank as well.

The site is “hubadverts.com” and no, I’m not going to link to it. Each of my posts is ripped off as a URL including that domain – if you click on the domain, you get a scammy feeling ecommerce site. But at “hubadverts.com/on-data/” for example, you will see a recent post of mine, scraped in its entirety.

The funny thing about this site it that it scrapes my full text RSS feed, then rebuilds my site. Then it has spammy sites trackback to the rebuilt site, and leave comments there. Oddly, those trackbacks and comments are emailed to me as if I was the WordPress administrator of the site. Of course, the last thing I am going to do is try to log into the back end of the site, because that would give the spammers access to the backend login information of my own site. It’s phishing and blackhat SEO all rolled into one!

The “news hub” where my ripped-off posts reside includes an ad urging folks to “Unblock the Pirate Bay,” which concerns me, because just writing this post probably is inviting a DDOS attack. But I don’t think ripping off my site and damaging my reputation is defensible, and I’m speaking up about it.

I emailed Toni Schneider, the CEO of WordPress, for advice, and he suggested I change my RSS feeds so the scrape includes attribution. I did so, and sure enough, now the spam site attributes Searchblog and links back to it. (I am very fortunate to have Toni as a colleague!). However, while this proved the site was scraping my RSS feed, it doesn’t solve the problem. Toni suggested some other remedies, which we are looking into, but he also suggested I do what I’m doing now: Public shaming. After all, the site is violating my non-commercial Creative Commons license, and quite possibly damaging my own pagerank – Google doesn’t like it when spammy sites are seen as linking to you, and it hates duplicate content.

So I want it stopped. But a lookup of the site’s owners show the listing is private – I don’t have anyone to go after. And the site itself is an endless mousetrap of scammy ecommerce sites, among other things.

Hence, I’m asking you, the Searchblog readers, who are always smarter than I, to help me figure out a way to make this right. Any ideas?

OpenCoSF Storified

By - October 13, 2012

Yesterday I participated in OpenCoSF. After weeks of preparation, we really had no idea how it was going to turn out, but to judge from the Twitter buzz, it seems folks had a really good time, and the vibe of open collaboration, rapid iteration, and “run with it” mentality really took over. Thanks to everyone involved. Below is my “Storified” version of the day:


On Data

By - October 11, 2012

A glimpse of some of the thinking I’ve been doing about the impact of “data” on our culture. I am close (so damn close) to sealing myself off and into only thinking about this, for my book (OpenCoSF is my last big project till I do). But thanks to the Vibrant Data project for taking an interview I did at TED earlier this year, and making it into something that almost makes me look like I have my shit together. I attest, I do not. I hope soon, I will.

Check Out The OpenCoSF Lineup

By - October 04, 2012

I’m getting really excited about OpenCoSF, which we’ve managed to spin up in record time. It’s truly an example of collective good intent in action. More than 80 wonderful companies are now participating, each opening their doors to the public and presenting their own stories, in situ. On Friday, Oct. 12, more than 1000 folks will be combing San Francisco’s SOMA, Mission, Mid-Market, Embarcadero, and Dogpatch neighborhoods, checking out the special sauce that makes innvative businesses tick. Check out the lineup so far (I only wish we could every single company that applied – next year!). You can register for free here. We’ll be launching the “lineup picker” very soon!

 

Data Wildcatters on the Wild Swiss Range

By - October 02, 2012

You want to put your sensor *where*?!!!!!

(image shutterstock) I’ve been watching the news for tidbits which illuminate a thesis I’ve been working up for my book. Today the New York Times provided a doozy: Swiss Cows Send Texts to Announce They’re in Heat. As James Gleick, author of The Information, noted in a Twitter response to me: That’s one heckuva headline.

So what’s my thesis? It starts with one of the key takeaways from Gleick’s book, which is that we are, as individuals and a society, becoming information. That might seem a rather puzzling statement, because one could argue that we’ve always been information, it’s only recently that we’re realizing that fact. So perhaps a better way of putting it is that we’re exploring the previously unmapped world of information. In the 1400s, the physical world was out there, much as it is today (perhaps it had a few more glaciers…). But we hadn’t discovered it, at least, not in any unified fashion. Now that we’ve discovered, named, and declared the outlines of most of the physical world, we are rapidly moving into a new era, one where we are coloring in the most interesting bits of information in our world with what we now call “data.”

As we survey, chart, and claim this new territory, a truth is emerging: when we discover some set of information might be valuable, we turn that information into data. Information is a slippery concept – one that gives Gleick “the willies.” But data? That’s information we can manipulate.

So here’s my thesis:  We create new data wherever we can find value. Put another way: If it’s valuable to know, new data will flow. Not to everyone, of course – as with oil, control of data is power. But the world is hell-bent on finding new data resources that unleash value. We’ve got wildcatters, we’ve got Exxon/Mobiles (think Facebook, Google, Amazon, the NSA, etc.), we’ve got pipes. And we’ve got incredible stories of the things folks will do to unlock the value of data.

Which takes us back to the cows of Switzerland. As the Times’ piece explains, a Swiss research team has created a system, comprised of implanted sensors and radio beacons, that measures a cow’s movement and internal body temperature. It converts these measurements into data, runs the data through an algorithm, and when the resulting computation indicates the cows are in heat, it sends a text message to the rancher. The net result: The rancher has a better chance of getting that cow pregnant (er, that didn’t quite come out right – but you know what I mean).

Net net: a  pregnant cow is a more valuable cow. And to get a cow pregnant more reliably, one needs the data. Previously, that data was buried in a bovine’s unexplored nether regions (literally – the sensor is placed in the cow’s genitals). But given the value that data carries, these Swiss data wildcatters have tapped a new gusher. This data exploration is now happening over and over, in nearly every imaginable corner of our world. We’ve just tapped the tip of this data iceberg, of course; we’re just stepping onto the shores of the New World. We’d be wise to remember that as we move forward.

OpenCoSF – A New Kind of Event

By - October 01, 2012

I’m very excited to announce that registration is now open for OpenCoSF, a new kind of event that I’m helping to bring into the world.

Registration is free and open to anyone who’s interested in innovation in the Bay area. You can sign up here. Already about 1,000 people have expressed interest in coming, and I think we’ve got room for another 500 or so, if my math is correct.

So what is OpenCo? Well, it’s one the “seeds” that’s been germinating since I wrote the It’s Hard to Lay Fallow post back in the early summer. A few months before that, I took a mountain bike ride with one of my pals in the business, Magna Global managing partner Brian Monahan. Brian is on the board of sfBIG, a large Bay area marketing and Internet organization. At a recent meeting, the board was tossing around ideas for how to shine a brighter light on the unique culture of  innovation here in San Francisco and beyond. The idea of an event came up, and knowing my experience with the Web 2 Summit (now on hiatus)  and Federated’s Signal series, Brian asked my advice.

As we climbed up a particularly steep part of the Marin Headlands, Brian posited a new approach to conferences: an “open studio” of sorts, where conference attendees ventured out into the world to see entrepreneurs and leaders in their native environment. I found the idea compelling, if logistically terrifying. It’s one thing to ask a thousand or more folks to gather in one place. It’s quite another to ask them to spread out across an entire city.

The ever-expanding lineup of companies participating in OpenCoSF.

But there was something about Brian’s excitement, and the core of his idea, that really stuck with me. If you’ve read my  The Power of Being There post, I think you know where I’m going with this. For more than 15 years, I’ve been running conferences where hundreds of folks gather in a dark, windowless ballroom to hear from leaders of innovative companies. There’s a lot to be said for this model, but the idea of people actually visiting those companies, in their native environment, just felt right.

I began to develop the idea, producing an overview model and description. I figured we’d execute the first “Open Innovation Studios” (our early name) in the Spring, which gave us enough time to secure the partnerships necessary to get a new event launched. I figured it’d run for three days, with a headquarters in the center of the city, and a plenary conference to kick it off on day one.

Then I ran into the Mayor  of San Francisco at  a cocktail party at Ron Conway’s house. Ever the connector, Ron told the Mayor about our idea, and the Mayor told me he was planning to announce October as Innovation Month in San Francisco. Could we perhaps do our event then?

And off we went. In less than three months, an extraordinary coalition of the willing has come together to produce the first ever OpenCoSF. Our first iteration is a pilot of sorts – we’re limiting the participating companies to 75 or 80, and we’re running the open studios for just one day, Friday, October 12. We’ll be kicking things off with a short plenary and cocktail party the evening of the 11th (Twitter CEO Dick Costolo, Github CEO Tom Preston-Werner, and Conway will be speaking, along with the Mayor).

Even though it’s a pilot, the response so far has been overwhelming. Companies hosting OpenCo sessions include leaders like Twitter, Salesforce, Zynga, Yammer, Adobe, Jawbone, and Google, as well as well known startups such as airbnb, Hipmunk, HotelTonight, Nextdoor, Cloudera, and scores more. And it’s not just tech or Internet – we’ve got chocolate startup TCHO, grilled cheese innovator The Melt, hospitality leader Kimpton, and UCSF, which is a leader in biomedicine. Silicon Valley Bank and The Interpublic Group – in particular its Universal McCann, IPG Mediabrands, and 215McCann agenies – have lent their time and treasure to the effort. AnthemWW has lent a big hand, as has sf:citi and of course sfBIG. Federated Media Publishing is providing a venue for day one, as well as a number of key staff resources. And more companies and sponsors are in the works in the coming days.

OpenCoSF is a prime example of the collaborative spirit that makes San Francisco great. It’s indicative of a desire to share our stories, celebrate our culture, and strengthen our community. If you sign up, you’ll notice that the site acts a lot like a music festival – you’ll see a “lineup” and in a few days we’ll be launching a “company picker” – where you’ll be able to schedule your company visits by timeslot and “stage” – our name for neighborhoods like the Mission, SOMA, or the Financial District. The lineup app is thanks to our partnership with DoStuff Media – the folks powering sites for  music festivals like Outside Lands and Lollapalooza. And OpenCoSF is certainly a festival, a celebration of the innovative ecosystem that makes a city like San Francisco special. I hope you’ll join us!

 

The Facebook Ad Network Is Here

By - September 19, 2012

It’s been a pretty good year for my annual predictions, I must say. A few months ago I did my “how’ve I done so far this year” post, and found myself batting about .500. Yesterday Facebook pushed up my average with the announcement that it’s begun testing a mobile ad network. And this isn’t just an on-domain network (where you can buy ads across Facebook’s domain), but rather, it’s a true cross-domain network – just like AdMob on mobile, or Adsense on the web.

From Ad Age:

The company is working with an undisclosed number of ad exchanges to deliver the ads on iOS and Android devices for its advertisers, who can still target using Facebook’s array of options such as age, location, education and interests.

Expect Facebook to either build or buy one of these exchanges – just as Google did with the web (AdX via DoubleClick). Most observers are claiming that this step augurs a day when Facebook will launch a full-blown ad network across all platforms – video, web, and mobile. I have to agree – I wrote as much in those predictions in January. What I didn’t see was Facebook starting its ad network by launching an exchange (called FBX) and then moving into mobile before it did web.

But upon reflection, it all makes sense. FBX allows Facebook to gather data about web-based buyers’ purchasing habits. FBX is essentially a massive retargeting engine that connects web cookies to Facebook’s internal databases. That will come in quite handy when it launches an Adsense competitor. And launching its first true off-domain ad network in mobile first signals to Wall Street that the company has its priorities straight – its been dinged repeatedly for being too focused on the web. The key to this new mobile network is that Facebook is selling its data, not its inventory. If the company gets good at that, watch out.

These moves elevate Facebook into new arenas of competition with Apple, Google, Microsoft, and Amazon, all of whom employ  simliar product suites. And yes, I did include Amazon in that sentence – the company is far more engaged in the advertising business than you might have thought. More on that in another post.

 

 

 

Post Apple Rant, What Have We Learned? A Visit With A “Genius” Ain’t Enough

By - September 17, 2012

I think I’ve said it before, if you want to attract attention, write about Apple. A rant which had been boiling inside me for some months finally erupted into words last Thursday, and since that post, more than 60,000 people have come to this site, leaving more that 300 comments and sharing the story’s link nearly 3000 times across four or so social networks.

That may be normal for a site like the Huffington Post, but I think it’s a record for Searchblog. Methinks I touched a nerve.

What I found most interesting was the tone of the response – I had anticipated the standard Apple defenders to come out with blades sharpened, calling me a dumb old skool punter or worse. There was some of that, but the vast majority of folks who commented, either on Twitter, Facebook or here on the site, were instead supportive of my point of view, adding their own frustrating stories, as well as helpful suggestions.

Chief among them was pointing out the iOS feature that brings you back to the top of any list by touching the clock (who knew? Not me). That solved one of the larger irritations I have with the iPhone, but not the largest – which is this yellow “other” goo that has taken over my phone’s storage. For that, I had to head to my nearby Apple store – I made the appointment online.

Saturday I drove over to the store, which was, as always, buzzing with a kind of high-household-income testosterone (regardless of gender). I met my “Apple Genius” and explained my problems. I showed him my post, and explained that while I had many issues with Apple, all I wanted was the yellow goo to go away.

My Genius was a very nice fellow, clearly aware of the storage issue. This was not the first, or even the 100th, time he’d dealt with it. He explained that it was probably corrupted software in the phone’s OS, and that a clean restore would most likely fix the problem. I told him I’d tried that already, twice, but admitted that perhaps I had done something wrong.

Funny aside: As I was showing him my post, I explained that many commentators had scolded me for not knowing about how “touching the clock” took you back to the top of contacts and initiated a search. He was dumbstruck – he had the same problem as me, and didn’t know about the feature either. So at least I don’t feel as stupid as before.

Anyway, the Genius (I’m protecting his name and location) did an initial software scan and told me that yes, my phone had a software problem. What kind of problem, I asked? He said the scan didn’t say, just that he needed to “update the firmware.” That meant, essentially, wiping my phone back to factory settings, then restoring it from a backup. Fortunately I had brought my computer as well, so he did a backup, then proceeded to install the new firmware.

While we were waiting, I asked Mr. Genius if the “problem” was corruption in the software, or if it was a known bug that Apple had fixed in more recent firmware updates. I suspected it was a known bug, given how prevalent my yellow goo problem was (it’s all over the Apple boards). He said he wasn’t sure, but admitted it was likely a firmware bug that had been fixed later. It often had something to do with the upgrade to iOS 5 and forcing people to use the cloud, he admitted.

The phone was now ready for its backup, but when he attached it to my computer, the restore process was going to take well over an hour (I had a lot of photos, and he said that takes a lot of time to transfer.) I couldn’t sit at the store for an hour, so I told him I’d do it at home, if that was OK. He said of course, and I was on my way. At this point, the phone was clean as a whistle, but it also wasn’t “my” phone – it was back to its “pristine” state.

You can probably guess where this is going, or I’d not be wasting your time. I got home, chose the backup the Genius had made to my phone, and let it run while I did some chores around the house. When I got back I checked the iTunes storage to see if the goo was gone. Indeed it was, but so were my photos. And my apps. For whatever reason, my music was there. Nothing else.

That was odd. I called the Apple store and asked to speak to my Genius, but they aren’t really set up for that kind of follow up. After sitting on hold for ten minutes, another person came on, admitted my Genius had left for the day, apologized for my predicament, but had no solution for me other than to suggest I use an earlier version of the phone’s backup. Turns out there was one, from about a week ago. So I decided to backup from that version.

I’m about three hours of time into this by now, for those keeping count at home.

So, to review where I was: I had a iPhone with totally new, up to date firmware but without most of my original data, because the backup made at the Apple store was somehow incomplete. And I was now going to replace that backup with one made a week earlier.

Which I did. And this time the backup took a lot longer, which to me was a good sign: My photos must be transfering this time!

After about 45 minutes, the process was complete, and it was time to check the Goo-O-Meter.

Uh oh:

I had a tiny bit less goo, and I had my photos, but not my apps. I realized I could get those later by sync’ing apps in iTunes, so I punted on figuring that out (and there wasn’t room on the phone anyway). Regardless, I was on hour four, and this was NOT progress.

PhoneDisk To The Rescue

It was about this point that I decided that if I was going to solve this problem, I was going to have to do it myself. Earlier in the year I had purchased a utility called PhoneDisk, now known as iExplorer. It’s  a great piece of software that lets you mount your iPhone as if it were just another hard drive. It “roots” your phone – showing all the files that are in there, even if the opaque Apple iOS doesn’t (or won’t).

I figured it couldn’t hurt to use PhoneDisk to see if there were folders and files that looked….off.

And yep, I sure found something. Turns out I had more than 17 gigabytes of “recordings” – memos from Apple’s Voice Memo application that comes standard with every phone. Now, I’ve used that app about 30 times, and my phone showed about half that many recordings when I looked using the app itself (I’d deleted the others). But using PhoneDisk, I found more than 1200 recordings! And guess what – more than 1000 of them were duplicates, many duplicates of memos I’d deleted over the years!

I decide to delete all the duplicates using PhoneDisk. First I backed up the entire 17 gigs on a 4-terabyte drive I happen to have (handy, I’ll admit). Then I sync’d music with “Include Voice Memos” unchecked (it had been checked). I was hoping that might get rid of the dupes. No luck.

My next step was to delete some test files from the iPhone using PhoneDisk, just to see if it reduced my yellow goo factor. I identified one 42.6-megabyte file that was duplicated 97 times – I trashed 96 of them.

By the way, I’m into hour five of working on this problem, thanks Apple! But I’m sure this is what the company means when it markets itself as revolutionary and elegant and all that.

After the 96 files were moved to the trash and the trash emptied, the yellow goo did not immediately disperse, but I know enough about the Mac to know you need to restart everything to see if anything “took.” I disconnected the iPhone and reconnected it. Of course, it starts to sync (as it always does), and that sync was taking a Very Long Time.

It seemed to be hung on the “backing up” part of the sync. So I tried to kill the sync. I was too eager to see if I had cleared some of the goo. Well, when I hit the little “x” that allows you to stop a sync, I got the infamous Apple Spinning Ball of Death.

Time for my favorite app: Force quit.

I fired up iTunes again….and stopped it from synching the phone immediately.

And yes! Minor success – 5 gigabytes of yellow goo – the amount I deleted using PhoneDisk, is now gone!!! But I am not triumphant – because I sense that as soon as I sync and back up – a process which cannot be avoided, those duplicate files may return. I must be cautious. I have many miles to tread.

The next hour or so is spent deleting files from the iPhone and insuring commensurate reduction in my phone’s goo. Finally, I restart everything, connect the phone, let it sync (that took half and hour) and….SUCCESS!

Yes, six hours later, my phone is (mostly) yellow goo free, and I’ve identified the culprit, some kind of duplications bug in the Voice Memo app.

Will it come back? Who knows. Is my experience typical? I bet not. But let’s just be clear about one thing: This. Ain’t. Easy. 

And Apple’s Geniuses? Not so much.