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'Silicon Valley,' season three, episode four: All about that box

In which a theory dies, but a box is born.

The cast of HBO’s “Silicon Valley” stands and looks at a computer screen. HBO

Gaah. Last week’s theory was a red herring. Richard really did trip accidentally; the plans were not purposely given to the Ottomans Jack Barker. All was, in fact, exactly as it seemed, and the only result of my wild suppositions is that I avoided feeling terrible for Richard all week.


And in classic bad news / good news / bad news, Jack Barker ripped the Pied Piper team a new one and put them back on Box Duty (bad!). Then they invented an amazing new bit of code that made the box not only useful, but valuable (good!). Then Jack made a deal giving away exclusive rights to the algorithm for five years (so, so bad). Then Barker got canned anyway, because he had no idea who he was messing with when he talked down Laurie Bream (so, so, so good!).

Which means actor Stephen Tobolowsky, who plays Barker, has exited the show. Bad!

Tobolowsky is such a great oh-that-guy actor. He’s been in everything, and he is as delighted by it as we all would be. He even snuck an early headshot onto the shelf behind his desk. I don’t think I’ll ever forget how he tamed the strident Erlich by seductively intoning "Aviato" until he yielded. Let’s all buy his book.

HBO / Steven Toblowsky

That Box Tho

The exciting part, though, is the Box. I’ve been sitting on this for a couple weeks, and the fact that I knew about it means I should have known better than to theorize about the haversack. The Box ... is a thing.

The cloud is made of mysterious data centers filled with racks of similar boxes holding data, software and anything else that goes on a hard drive. What (the fictional) Pied Piper has managed to invent is a single box able to replace maybe twelve of those shelves by using the algorithm to compress data.

So because "Silicon Valley" is produced and written by unrepentant nerdball geeksters, this box is a real thing that they researched, pondered and obsessed over, and the company making it has had a very atypical tech-company experience as the object of that obsession.

Of course, we at Recode have also had that experience, as our conference team worked with the producers to make sure Kara and Walt’s star turns were accurate.

"One of the writers had heard about us," said Marianne Budnik, CMO of SimpliVity, maker of the OmniCube — an IRL version of the Pied Piper box. "So as they were riffing in the writers' room, they pulled up the website and started putting stuff from the website on the walls, figuring out how it worked."

On the left, the Hollywood version; on the right, the original.

Later on, when the episode was in production, "they contacted us and asked, ‘Would you help us design how it’ll look?’ Their attention to design was phenomenal. I can see why that team won the Emmy last year for outstanding production design. They came to our offices and said, ‘What is everything on this desk? How can we recreate it?’"

She compared the effect to the way New Yorkers felt an extra frisson of recognition during the Seinfeld era. "Those of us in tech? We have a different level of appreciation."

Le Bong Juste

As might enthusiasts of other activities featured on the show. The first time Budnik spoke to the prop master, "he was in a smoke shop selecting bongs and pipes for Erlich while I was trying to explain our technology. I thought, ‘This’ll either be so brilliant, or I’ll get so fired. I’m counting on it being brilliant.'"

The SimpliVity boxes are not exactly the same as Pied Piper's, inside or out. There isn’t a single algorithm fixing the whole thing. They achieve efficiency in a few different ways, the explanation of which invokes words like "hyperconverged" and "massive compression" and "deduplication" and "efficiency rate." One box, she estimates, can replace 10-12 of those racks: The server, the backup layer, the river bed … yeah, I don’t know either. It really is like talking to Gilfoyle.

So now we’re on to wondering who will be CEO. Remember, two episodes ago, they couldn’t fire Barker because two CEOs being fired would make Pied Piper look like a company in crisis. Now, that’s exactly what it is — though in a better position due to its only competition having been snapped back up by the very dragon that barfed it out (how delicious that Gavin didn’t even realize it; the brutal attitude toward CEOs is really something we can all agree on).

See you next week. I know better than to make any grand predictions. Do you? If you’ve got thinky thoughts, lob them at me on Twitter.

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