Vinith Misra has spent an unusual amount of time thinking about hand-jobs. One of the tech industry’s brightest sparks, he’s currently a researcher at IBM’s Watson Group, focused on information theory and data compression, and greasing the wheels of information flow. But he moonlights, too, for HBO, consulting on the tech that seeps out of every pore of Mike Judge’s Silicon Valley.
And when a scene-long gag last season revolved around its math-obsessed characters figuring out how long it’d take to pleasure an entire auditorium of men, Misra made sure their equations were correct. “Engineers are all about thinking of things in a logical and detailed framework, and you see that in the show,” he explains. In fact, he was so methodical about it that his math can be checked in the paper he published online. “Optimal Tip-to-Tip Efficiency: A Model for Male Audience Stimulation” awaits peer review.
It’s testament to the show’s cultural verisimilitude that it might send its group of 20-something coders down this sort of rabbit warren—“If you asked anyone in the valley, they’d say the show was spot on culturally,” notes Misra, “and it’s not unusual to go to Trader Joe’s and have your cashier tell you about a startup idea”—but it is unusual for any TV show to dedicate as much attention to technological detail as Silicon Valley has done.
“We were genuinely shocked by the level of accuracy they were after,” Misra says. “They were asking for things that ranged from algorithms to system architectures to performance metrics. Every little detail you see on the show—a whiteboard, a line a character says—there’s basically an ocean of supporting material behind that.”
For Judge, Misra explains, the technological detail is essential, not just ornamentation. That’s why Judge went to Stanford University, where Misra was finishing his Ph.D., to tap his professor, Tsachy Weissman. He sought experts at the highest level to create a believable breakthrough in lossless compression technology for the show’s characters to turn into a billion-dollar startup. The result is Pied Piper, and it’s not so pie-in-the-sky.
“We wanted just enough sci-fi to get people excited, but not to throw away the book entirely,” explains Misra, who cites Jurassic Park’s idea of pulling dinosaur DNA out of fossilized mosquitos as the kind of sci-fi paradigm that entices even experts in the field. “They actually wanted to use the show as a catalyst for the field, to inject some adrenaline into the research and development of compression technologies.”
Silicon Valley has done just that. In January, IBM partnered with Stanford on a first-of-its-kind compression forum. “It was a full-day workshop with leaders from academia and industry,” he says. “And unlike a traditional conference, the real purpose was to debate the future of our field and the direction we should be taking it. The kind of people we got together wouldn’t have been possible without the show. It’s really been a shot in the arm.”