Silicon Valley Recap: The Passion of the Pipey

Kumail Nanjiani as Dinesh, T. J. Miller as Bachman, Thomas Middleditch as Richard, Zach Woods as Jared, Martin Starr as Gilfoyle. Photo: HBO
Silicon Valley

Silicon Valley

Daily Active Users Season 3 Episode 9
Editor's Rating 4 stars

Big Daddy said it best in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof: “There ain’t nothin’ more powerful than the odor of mendacity!” If this is true, then Jared is funkier than James Brown. Silicon Valley’s resident empath has a terrible secret he’s trying to hide from his co-workers — and sniffing him out at every turn is our resident bullshit-detector, Bertram Gilfoyle. Like Dr. House before him, Gilfoyle subscribes to the theory that “everybody lies.” As a LaVeyan Satanist, he’s nonjudgmental about that. He just enjoys watching people squirm when they’re called out for fibbing.

Cornering the jittery Jared at Laurie Bream’s artsy Pied Piper party, Gilfoyle sets his trap. “You’re hiding something,” he says. Jared feigns ignorance. “Would you like me to get you a beverage?” Gilfoyle asks. When Jared says yes, Gilfoyle gives the world’s GIF makers an irresistible meme that will become inescapable this election season. “LIE!” he says succinctly. Martin Starr’s harsh, deadpan delivery of the word becomes a running gag throughout the episode. Every time poor Jared tries to politely tap dance away, Gilfoyle gives him that one-word right hook. “LIE!”

So why exactly does Jared reek of mendacity musk? A Pied Piper metric, of course. Laurie’s party is to celebrate 500,000 downloads of Pied Piper from the Hooli Store, but there’s a problem: Richard needs a high amount of Daily Active Users (DAUs) to receive the next round of funding. DAUs represent people who return to use the product over and over. People are downloading Pied Piper, but nobody is actively using it.

Richard explains all of this to Monica at Laurie’s party. The party itself is an on-point recreation of these weird San Francisco modern-art gallery happenings. When Richard attempts to sit down on a chair, Monica hastily informs him, “Don’t sit on that! It’s art!” Immediately, I had flashbacks to the one event I attended like this where an ordinary toilet bowl had been installed the middle of the gallery floor. There was nothing that screamed that it was someone’s creative inspiration, unless that someone was the personification of an aisle at Home Depot. Eventually, a boy about two or three years old wandered by and gave the artist a heart attack by peeing in that toilet. I can still see her running past me, screaming, “NO! THAT’S ARRRRRT!”

The point of the story is that everyone has their own ideas about aesthetics. Monica expresses guilt about “not getting Pied Piper,” but as the DAUs show, she was the canary in the coal mine. Richard’s argument that “everyone I gave it to loved it” gives way to the realization that everyone on Richard’s beta key list was an engineer. Monica was the only “regular user” he solicited. “Shit!” Richard says, which is exactly what regular users think Pied Piper’s interface looks like.

To get to the root of the problem, Monica sets up a focus group. This offers a return engagement to the name-repeating moderator from last season. He has more people to name this time (one of which is the name of this episode’s writer, Clay Tarver), but the outcome is the same. As the prior users did with Nucleus, the new batch thinks Pied Piper is overcomplicated and confusing. When Richard complains from behind the two-way glass, Monica’s friend tells him, “This is our fifth group, and they’re the least hostile ones we’ve had so far.”

Corrupting the user data, Richard barges in on the group. His attempts to explain Pied Piper are painful. There’s a reason why the phrase “it’s a feature, not a bug” was coined. Richard spends hours and valuable whiteboard space explaining the platform. He even describes its neural net features. The users finally get it, including a woman named Berniece who may be Pied Piper’s only fan by the end of this episode. But one user named Clark still has issues with Pied Piper’s ability to learn and adapt its compressions as it runs.

“The problem is … Terminator,” Clark says. He’s referring to Skynet, the evil organization responsible for the machines that destroy humankind in James Cameron’s sci-fi classic. Richard assures him that Pied Piper isn’t built to do that, and here’s where we could have used one of Gilfoyle’s “LIE!” GIFs. I guarantee you Gilfoyle has written “Terminator” into this platform. The neural-net stuff is his code. If Arnold Schwarzenegger shows up in Palo Alto tomorrow wearing nothing but a Robin Hood hat, we’re doomed.

Richard may have won over the focus group, but the team’s attempts to explain Pied Piper to mass audiences are a total failure. At CES and SXSW, people walk out of the demos. Not even the allure of winning a new car intrigues consumers. “We’re tanking because we’re too good?” Dinesh asks incredulously. Yes, they are, and Silicon Valley once again wins me over by not shying away from the technical pitfalls inherent in writing software.

Programmers quite often disagree with consumers about what constitutes great software. We are so entrenched in code that, at times, we don’t think about usability from the perspective of a non-technical user staring at an interface. That’s why Apple is so popular; the “think different” campaign addressed this very notion back in 1984. Before the Mac, everything was green lettering and command-line typing. The Mac brought not only a visual element, but a user interaction with that element.

Engineers like Richard couldn’t care less how you run his product so long as it works like gangbusters, and as we see, that’s an oversight that Pied Piper may not survive. Although I could sit in Linux and run things all day from a blinking prompt, that’s not how the clean world works. Who cares if Pied Piper compresses your files better than anything in the known universe if it takes six confusing steps to perform it?

Like Bill Gates before him, Richard is the worst person to combat this issue. But before we get to “Pipey, the Pied Piper Piper,” let’s see what Gavin’s up to. When a Pied Piper customer-support rep named Douglas jumps ship and runs to Hooli, Gavin’s security guy ventures to the Hooli roof to inform him. Gavin interviews Douglas, and thanks to Pied Piper’s lack of a nondisclosure agreement, he quickly spills the beans on Richard’s DAU problem. Using the best piece of double-talk in the history of the show, he convinces the Hooli board to pivot End Frame’s compression engine into something very familiar: a backup box! Enter Jack Barker, who must have given Gavin one hell of a Psychological Foot Massage while they were commiserating in Jackson Hole.

With the Maleant Data Systems Solutions deal, Hooli becomes far more profitable than the board anticipated. This leads not only to Gavin’s reinstatement as CEO, but also to his magnum opus of animal-based meetings. Leading the board outside, Gavin presents them with an elephant. “Consider the elephant,” he begins. “It never forgets, and neither do I.” Tune in next week for the further adventures of Action Jack Barker and Gavin “The Animal” Belson.

Meanwhile, in an attempt to make Pied Piper more user-friendly, Richard hires the same company that did the dreadful “Tables” Pied Piper ad — which opened the episode — to come up with some ideas. The only thing he can afford is a Clippy-like assistant named “Pipey.” You may remember Clippy, Microsoft’s terrifying attempt to make Office seem less engineered. He was an annoying animated paper clip that invaded your space and tried to goad you into taking his help. Clippy was ubiquitous — hell, he even invaded Vulture — and he was difficult to turn off. But Clippy is no match for the disturbing Pipey.

“What in the name of fuck is that?” Erlich asks. Pipey is a flutelike musical instrument that sounds like South Park’s Mr. Hankey. Pipey has the envious ability to blow himself. Seeing Pipey, I thought, “If Richard wanted a musical instrument assistant, the obvious choice would have been ‘The Pied Piper of R&B’ himself, R. Kelly.” The “Trapped in the Closet” singer is the perfect choice to navigate the 300 steps it takes to do anything in Pied Piper. Nobody sings useless details like R. Kelly. Imagine Kells singing:

Now usually I don’t do this, but uh,

go ahead on and break ’em off a lil’ bit of the help remix.

Now, you click right over there,

type in your file name over here,

then click twice on that button there,

while I feel on your derriere …

An animated R. Kelly certainly would have been a better waste of money than what Jared does with the remaining Pied Piper funds. The one time Gilfoyle misses a lie, it’s when Jared gives Richard false hope by secretly buying DAUs from Bangladesh. Jared is officially walking the left-hand path, which can only end badly in next week’s season finale.

Silicon Valley Recap: The Passion of the Pipey