blarg?

Stacky Toys Go Up To There

A few seconds ago I popped the card out of my camera and into my laptop, and sent my parents the some pictures of Maya in front of her first Christmas Tree. They answered almost immediately, so we fired up Skype so that they could see their granddaughter having a great time in her Jolly Jumper before putting her down for a nap.

The most amazing thing is how absolutely standard this is. Pictures going from “light hits the lens” to “being seen halfway the country?” Trivial. Done in seconds. “Fast, easy, free videoconferencing?” Nothing to it, it’s all point and click.

There’s an awful lot more to it, I know. Boy, don’t I know. But to the humans at the endpoints, when everything’s humming along right? Nothing but smiling family.

The future we’re living in is pretty great, I say.

Valves

We came home the other day to the delightful, cheery smell of a house full of propane.

It turns out that even though boring old building codes say your gas meter should be at least an inch away from adjacent surfaces, our former homeowners apparently needed that inch real bad, so ours was right up against the brick.

Now, bricks, you might know because you’re smarter than those very bricks, are water-porous. And if you give it enough time, that water does very exciting things to common household items like, to pick one entirely at random, gas meters.

When the Enbridge guy came (quickly and well-equippedly, I should add, which made me very happy) to find the leak a piece of the back of the meter just scraped off in his hands, corroded right through. This was easily dealt with as these things go, fortunately, because we’re in the middle of a basement reno. The washer and dryer were out of the way, so he had easy access to it to the main.

As part of that basement reno, we’ve replaced said old washer and dryer. And just moments ago, the fellow I gave the dryer to tells me that he believes the dryer will be much more efficient, now that he’s pulled the rust-stained, half-scorched hand towel out of the vent pipe. The burn marks on it seem to indicate that there has at least once actually been a fire there, isolated to the vent pipe in which he found it.

That vent pipe ran up right next to my gas main on its way out the side of the house.

Dear former homeowners, I hate you so much. Every now and then I stop what I’m doing and just take a moment to hate you just a little bit more. If I thought really hard about you, bile would bleed from my eyes.

Red Over Slate

I was walking home a few weeks ago, crossing at an intersection when some young tough in his SUV drove partway through that same, right at me. He stopped before he hit me, which all things considered I was pretty pleased about, but I still gave him a look as he went by – the People’s Eyebrow, if you would – and he stopped his car.

Then he rolled down the passenger window and and asked me, with traditional opening salvo 1A of the belligerent fratboy, if I had a problem. I said that walking around around when people don’t watch where they’re driving was my problem right then, so he (likewise in the traditional manner of the belligerent fratboy when faced with people who don’t just fold over) launched into a couple of aggressively flubbery excuses for his increasingly boorish behaviour.

And then, from the passenger seat, up pops one of the tiniest dogs I have ever seen. It had bells on its ankles; it was wearing a sweater. So I stopped talking to the guy and started talking to the dog. Hello, tiny dog! Whereupon our guy got a little red in the face and sped off.

There are many lessons here, but there is one in particular that I’d like to mention. Gentlemen, there are times in life when you’ve got to put on that hard front, to be sure! But if your wingman is a chihuahua, it is very difficult to convincingly sell the product.

New!

Earlier this week I was all enthusiastic about how Halo: ODST was unambiguously superior to all the previous Halo games, but it turns out that I had only played the part before they’d gotten around to turning it back into, y’know, Halo.

For those (both?) of you unfamiliar with it, the Halo series are open-environment, plot-on-rails shooters in which you play an armored space marine from the future, playing a hero’s role in a compellingly-storyboarded interstellar war; while not particularly revolutionary in narrative terms, they’re well-executed and, if that sort of thing is your bag, good fun. So don’t get me wrong, I like armored space marines from the future just fine. Some of my best friends are armored space marines from the future. But once you’ve played some Halo, you’ve got a pretty good idea if you want to play more Halo, you know? There’s aliens, you shoot them, there’s more, you shoot them, you drive some, you fly some, but basically there’s aliens and scenery, and you shoot them up.

But there’s a lot of it, and at a certain point it’s a bit like being made to eat a ten-gallon jug of Rocky Road; in that first few bites, you get the peanuts, the chocolate, marshmallows, it’s all delicious sweet variety. But by the end of it, yeah, just one more mouthful and you’ll be that guy that ate ten gallons of Rocky Road. So, you might say to yourself, at least there’s that.

Achievement Unlocked: Ten Gallons Of Rocky Road.

The first three-quarters or so of ODST is not like that at all. Instead of being an unstoppable special-government-program super-soldier running from brightly-coloured place to differently-brightly-coloured other place shooting up uniformly dumb aliens you’re regular old Private Rookie, and your fireteam’s deployment to a city called New Mombasa has gone horribly wrong.

And now you’re walking around this nearly-abandoned city at night, skulking around corners and bumping into random Covenant now and then; this is most of the game, and it’s unambiguously great. It could be that I only think that because it plays into my preferred way of playing this sort of game – I am all about the sneaking and the sniping, which is basically why everyone I know who plays Halo hates playing it with me – but this is real Silent Hill 2 territory, an unclear mission in a sinister city, saturated with the quiet fear of being totally alone. The soundtrack is excellent spooky jazz, the ambiance is wonderfully ominous and spring-loaded-cats are kept to an endearing minimum as you scavenge for information and ammo in the darkened ruins of a not-quite-abandoned-enough futurist metropolis.

And then the last quarter of the game happens, and all that gets tossed out the window. You actually find some of your colleagues, and whatever the dialogue says, the actual AI plays as 100% classic Halo, a heavily-armed fratboy rodeo.

It’s jarring in a number of ways, not the least of which is that the monkey you’re ostensibly backing up will say something like “ok, keep it fast and quiet” and then run off into a crowd of twenty bad guys waiving his hands and shooting his gun in the air. At one point, I realized that not only is this precisely the opposite of what I’d very carefully done to make it to this point, but that none of it mattered because AI-controlled characters apparently can’t be killed. You can just let them work the whole room, until it’s empty except for whatever key-monster or task you have to deal with is left, which they won’t touch. You can finish the last quarter of the game by just letting the AI handle it. Which is pretty much 100% unfun.

And soon after that you’re back to the driving and shooting, and you’re outside and there’s daylight and aliens and here’s another gallon of Rocky Road, except now the delicious peanuts are that two of your indestructible moron AIs are in a relationship. Um, woo? I certainly wish them all the best, I’m sure they’ll raise a big happy family of indestructible idiot kids, but this isn’t about them. I wanted it to get back to being about me and my fun, but then the game ended.

So, there you go. You’re really looking at two games here, one of which is a quite good and arguably great survival-horrorish shooter, even if it’s a few hours too short. The other one is a game you’ve probably played before, and probably don’t need to play much of again.

Curbside

I’ve been threatening Beltzner with this for a few weeks but I haven’t had a good time to talk it out with him privately. What brought this on was a presentation of his that was all about Firefox the product and what the community has to do, but as far as I could tell, not at all about how to grow the community and get more people onboard. But it occurred to me that doing this privately would just make me part of the problem, so here goes. To whom it may concern, I have never stopped loving you.

I don’t work for Mozilla – this is strictly outsider-looking-in stuff – but I know a few people who work at there and I like and respect them all quite a bit. But I’ve been concerned about a couple of things that I’ve seen recently, less facts than trends I’d like to be wrong about.

And it’s getting close to Festivus anyway, so let’s air some grievances. Mostly, this is out of pure self-interest: you guys aren’t blogging like you used to.

I’ve heard some of you mention that it’s all gone to Twitter, but the thing is: Mozilla is flat out not radiating information the way you used to. Strictly speaking there’s more of it available, sure, from more places, but it’s all official-channel stuff; individual Mozillian blogging seems like it’s gone way down. Maybe I’m just not looking in the right places, but I used to like reading that stuff a lot – technical details on the internals of what you’re working on, processes, decisions you’re making or (better!) trying to make. Not just content that’s limited to (and effectively hidden by) Bugzilla but actually out-in-the-wild somewhere blog post, next to music reviews and clever jokes and pictures of cats.

I think this started happening at about the same time as a bunch of Real Browsers appeared in the world; suddenly advocating browser choice wasn’t effectively synonymous with advocating a Mozilla product. Another thing is that I’ve heard recently is that Mozilla has moved their hiring efforts strongly away from bringing people up through the community and has started hiring grads and executives directly. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that these things have been happening at around same time as mozilla.com and mozilla.org were split off to do fundamentally different jobs.

It’s not that I don’t think either one of those jobs isn’t important – I really do – but I think it’s symptomatic of the larger issue that, to my eyes, has pulled a sharp scalpel down between Mozilla the ideology and Mozilla the product. Blogging, discussing issues in really open, really public fora was at some point a thing Mozilla people just did, loud and often. It wasn’t a task or expected or whatever, it just happened. People talked about what they were doing, and people brought up through the community talked about the new problems and responsibilities they were taking on; I don’t know if anyone ever spelled it out, that was just the process. These new hires, though, why would they? It doesn’t look like it’s an integral part of the culture anymore. I think a lot of important tendons got cut with that move.

Things have kind of changed since the old days, I know! Now, instead of having zero competitors who were interested in building an innovative web browser to open standards and one who didn’t now there’s a bunch of them out there, and they’ve got big shiny buildings and deep pockets. And I can see how it would change your approach, when all of a sudden you’ve got competitors who can drop a billion dollars on your market whenever they feel like it. That’s scary stuff, but I don’t think it means you should collectively start playing it close to the chest. Mozilla’s never going to be big enough or rich enough to compete with huge, incredibly rich organizations; small organizations can’t ever compete on those terms.

And that’s why the successful ones don’t. You don’t need money or staff, or even much in the way of resources compared to the other guys in the field; you need zealots. You need cult members, True Believers, and you can’t just harvest those fresh out of fourth year. Not with boring old money, at least.

What I miss most about those early blog posts wasn’t so much the technical information, but the basic joy of solving these problems and rolling these things out into nightlies, betas and shipping products that underpinned them all. The jouissance of solving hard problems that underpinned novel new tech and making people’s lives better thereby, it radiated from these feeds directly into the eyes of whoever stumbled over them. That enthusiasm was awesome, it was infectious. And I bet that’s where most of the contributors you’ve leveled-up to employees have come from, isn’t it? People who started out maybe not even filing a bug or writing a patch, but people who found out that filing a bug could be rewarding, that writing a patch to solve some problem could be fun.

That’s fundamentally why I’m worried about this encroaching radio silence, about the separation of Mozilla.org and Mozilla.com. How do you get people to care about the idea of an open Web, without caring about the technology that underpins it? Do you want people to care about the technology, without caring about the goal of an open, accessible Web? How much traction can one really get without the other?

Here’s what I know: you can’t buy cult followers, you don’t just stumble over them. You need them to find you. And then you need to grow them, to make them into the people whose contributions, whose basic joy of participation can reel in the next generation. In fact, I think the only way to bring in that next generation is by bringing the technical staff and ideologues back under the same roof, on the same org chart. And then get back to the business of telling us this great stuff you’re working on, how great it is to be a part of all this.

Am I just looking in the wrong places, here?

I love you guys; I think you’re doing critically important work, and I know you love doing it. But I know because I get to see you every couple of weeks, and I get to see the joking around, the laughing and, now and then, the huge, exhausted smiles on the faces of people who’ve been busting their asses for weeks for something more important than money, who’ve just shipped a product they’re proud of. I know it because I’ve seen it in your faces when you’re watching your download numbers surge.

I know because when I walk up to you, there it is. And I think that everyone else should get to see it too, and it’s the best recruiting tool you’ll ever have, that nobody can buy.