January 28, 2012

A Bit Part

Filed under: awesome,doom,interfaces — mhoye @ 9:19 pm

I was part of the zombie apocalypse before zombie apocalypses were cool.

The short film that earned me my only IMDB credit as “Man Outside” (which to this day, I think, is the most perfect title I’ve ever had) is now up on Vimeo. It’s called Sunday Morning, written and directed by Mark Zanin; go take a look. Can somebody playing a zombie be a bad actor? Might be possible!

January 26, 2012

Ferris’ Wheel (Updated)

Filed under: a/b,awesome,doom,fail,hate,losers,weird — mhoye @ 4:53 pm

16:11 < colleague> if they do a sequel I so dearly hope ben stein and charlie sheen aren't invited
16:11 < mhoye> "... Drugs?"
16:11 < mhoye> I think they have to be.
16:14 < second_colleague> why no ben stein?
16:14 < other_colleague> cause he's gone INSANE
16:16  * mhoye thinks they should swap roles.
16:16 < colleague> yeah, ben stein took a leap off the pier of reason a few years ago
16:16 < colleague> what with that anti-evolution movie, etc.
16:17 < other_colleague> "who stole ben stein's brain?"
16:19 < mhoye> A beat down, leather-clad, exhausted looking Ben Stein, sitting in a police station, turns his bruised hangover towards Jennifer Grey, and mutters "... Drugs?"
16:19 < colleague> perfect
16:25 < mhoye> Earlier in the movie a pale, drawn Charlie Sheen, his skin drumhead-taut from years off staving off a sudden transformative collapse into becoming Keith Richards, stands in front of a class of middle-aged losers in an adult high-school trying desperately to act bored and boring and failing miserably. His eyes dart around the room like a cornered animals'; he practically vibrates in place, grinding his clenched teeth together as he slowly mutters the words "Beuller? Beuller? Beuller?" over and over, desperate to hear somebody, anybody say 'cut'.
16:28 < mhoye> Meanwhile in a trailer somewhere a resigned Jeffrey Jones sits with a half-empty bottle of rye, wearing a pre-tattered suit, a scorched bowtie and the black eye makeup grafted onto his cheeks three hours ago, waiting for the knock on the door that means he's going to get pulled through the thresher again.
16:29 < mhoye> Honestly, the making-of movie here could be far, far better than the movie itself.

Seriously. A documentary about the making of a middle-aged sequel to a much-loved teen movie has the potential to be some of the darkest comedy, the most grimly existential filmmaking the world has ever seen. “Ferris’ Wheel”, I’d call it, in the spirit of Jacob’s Ladder.

UPDATE: It’s just a super-bowl ad. That’s about as saddening as possible.

“By the way, if anyone here is in marketing or advertising, kill yourself.”

– Bill Hicks.

Added the “losers”, “hate” and “fail” tags.

A Short Course On The Tragedy In Act One

Filed under: digital,documentation,doom,fail,future,hate,interfaces,linux,vendetta,want — mhoye @ 12:35 pm

Back in 2003 Raymond Chen, noted Microsoftie and venerable author of the excellent Old New Thing blog, wrote a bit about the propensity programmers had for, and problems caused by, reverse-engineering Microsoft’s APIs and hooking into them in unapproved ways:

“For example, BOZOSLIVEHERE was originally the window procedure for the edit control, with the rather nondescript name of EditWndProc. Then some people who wanted to use the edit control window procedure decide that GetWindowLong(GWL_WNDPROC) was too much typing, so they linked to EditWndProc directly. Then when Windows 2.0 (I think) removed the need to export window procedures, we removed them all, only to find that programs stopped working. So we had to put them back, but they got goofy names as a way of scolding the programs that were doing these invalid things.”

He’s a pretty good writer, and this stuff makes for a good story, but this “too much typing” line is… uncharacteristically disingenuous of him; the other side of that story was told, to put it mildly, a little different.

The Microsoft of the day was the Microsoft that came to be known as the evil empire, and for good reason; the combination of a dominant market position, rapid growth across a growing number of markets and no compunction at all about using what their consulting and support arms had learned about your company to leverage their growth into your market segment was legitimate grounds for a healthy dose of fear.

If you wanted to sell software you used their compilers and their APIs to talk to their OS and you consulted their support when you had problems. So if they suddenly developed an interest in your market niche they had a pretty good idea what the shape of your business looked like already. And their ability to leverage that information was very real, so much so that Microsoft’s announcement that they had plans to eventually make a similar product was sometimes enough to run competitors out of business.

This era is where the term “FUD” comes from, also not for no reason.

Because Microsoft could, and would, run the full-court press on your market segment if they decided it was worth their while. Veterans of the technical wars of the day can vividly remember their surprise, walking through decompiled assembler to discover the reason their program’s performance was in the toilet was because going through the official, approved-for-general-consumption Win32 call meant nothing more or less than calling a delay loop before passing unchanged arguments into a private API. Not for any technical reason, but as a defensive posture; just to guarantee that you couldn’t build a product as well as Microsoft could on the off chance that they woke up one morning and decided they wanted your niche.

So it really wasn’t about how long it took to type “GetWindowLong(GWL_WNDPROC)”; it was often the fact that, if you had to call that or something like it thirty-two thousand times and didn’t run that hack, your customer’s 386SX would spend twenty unresponsive minutes off in the weeds instead of fifteen seconds. Chen’s stories about having to reverse-engineer and accommodate poor programmer behavior are epic, and technically brilliant stories to be sure, but you should remember to read them in this light – these weren’t stupid programmers crawling up an unprotected stack for no reason. The Microsoft of the era just wasn’t a trustworthy collaborator. And for all the incredible, very-nearly-miraculous, brilliant work they’ve done maintaining backwards compatibility for applications doing horrible things, they brought an awful lot of that burden on themselves.

It took a protracted antitrust investigation, the long tenacity of free software and rise of the Web (with Mozilla keeping that torch lit through some long, dark years), Apple and later the primacy of mobile to really push Microsoft to the margins of relevancy where they are today. They’re still huge, they’re not all that evil anymore and they legitimately make some great products, but nobody really cares. They’re not making much of a mark on the things people do care about these days, mostly the social and mobile spaces. People aren’t afraid of them anymore because what matters changed, and developers and customers largely moved on.

That was a long time coming, too. But it’s starting to look like somebody’s getting ready to pick up that ball and run with it. A challenger appears!

This is just one example, but it’s really been part of a trend recently, and a good one to point to: take a look at this web-based Angry Birds demo, if you can. You might not be able to – it doesn’t work in Firefox – but the thing is, everything in there runs just fine in Firefox. Google has just decided that it won’t; not for any technical reason – they check some webkit-only CSS shim, it works fine in Safari – but just to keep it from working in competing browsers. Classier still, through the magic of view-source you can see that indignity bundled up in a <div id=”roadblock”> tag, a name I’d like to think gave somebody a moment’s pause, but I doubt it.

Larry Page said, back in the day, that Google wouldn’t put their own results ahead of other people’s because that would be bad for users, but that statement is apparently no longer operative. Likewise this 2009 statement from Jonathan Rosenberg, Senior VP, Product Management about open technology and open information:

Open technology includes open source, meaning we release and actively support code that helps grow the Internet, and open standards, meaning we adhere to accepted standards and, if none exist, work to create standards that improve the entire Internet (and not just benefit Google). Open information means that when we have information about users we use it to provide something that is valuable to them, we are transparent about what information we have about them, and we give them ultimate control over their information.

I’m ready to believe there’s still a lot of people at Google who really believe in this, and I’m sure that inside Google HQ they still have that kool-aid on tap. But those people are clearly not the ones at the helm anymore, and that’s going to have some broad repercussions – people who are using Gmail pseudonymously, for example, are well-advised to start planning a defensive migration, because that day’s coming.

But God knows to where you’d migrate to. The lunatic thing is that if you want the relative privacy of pseudonymous communication the way, back in the bad old days, you might have wanted basic computing functionality – that is, without kowtowing to an arbitrary, vaguely menacing megacorporation with arbitrary, vaguely menacing policies about your data – we might be getting back to the point where you need to rack your own box and learn how to roll it all yourself.

Dear Googlers: We’ve done this. It sucked. It was awful, a decade of near-total technical stagnation. It was WinCE 5.0 and Office 2003 and OSes with eight-year lifecycles and fucking Flash being the only way to deploy a new UI and everything interesting and promising and new pushed to the margins and excluded so that one company’s crown jewels stayed safe. And we might do it again, and it could be a tragedy or a farce or probably a bit of both. Trying to be more Apple than Apple and more Facebook than Facebook just means you’re trying to be less Google every single day.

It’s amazing, it is flat out astonishing, how much of the future depends on Google being the company that you, once upon a time, believed it could be. And you can still get there. To borrow a phrase, I’m not saying it’s too late for you, but the longer you wait, the closer you get to being Too Late.

But you need to do good. Saying you’re not evil isn’t good enough.

January 20, 2012

On Hiring

Filed under: academia,doom,fail,interfaces,linux,losers,vendetta — mhoye @ 1:25 pm

I’ve decided that if I find out a job applicant has internet-bragged that they could implement some major (Kickstarter, Ebay, Etsy, Facebook, anything…) website’s functionality in a week with Ruby – and it’s always Ruby, lately – I’m going to give them an interview right away, just so I can ask them why they haven’t.

I’d never give them a job. I just want to watch them squirm when I ask the question.

January 19, 2012

Political Theory, Asymmetric Warfare & Batman Movies

Filed under: academia,documentation,interfaces,life,linux,work — mhoye @ 4:55 pm

I made this presentation to Seneca’s Free Software and Open Source Symposium last year; it is dreadfully embarassing, revealing mainly that I’m a terrible speaker who tells weak jokes, goes off into the weeds too often, rambles and says “um” far and away too much. This is just the voice track over my slides, which I’ll put up later this evening.

I’m sure the general outline of the presentation I’d like to have given is in there somewhere, but here you go.

January 18, 2012

Out From Under

Filed under: digital,fail,hate,interfaces,losers,toys,vendetta — mhoye @ 1:30 pm

Last week, I was a few months into a one-year agreement with Rogers for my home cable internet connection when they sent me some mail telling me they were going to raise the prices after March. The letter said, in part:

“At Rogers, our number on priority is to bring you the best in information, entertainment and communications. That is why we continue to invest in next generation technology, providing you with leading products, services and networks. We do this to ensure that you get the most value for your money.”

That’s right, they’re ensuring I get the most value for my money by charging me more money.

I begged off, as you might imagine, though my first call to Rogers resulted in threats to charge me an “Early Termination Fee” and then send me to collections. But after doing some research, it turns out that the magic words there are “material change”; this is a material change to our contract, and hence the contract is null and void. Magic words, according to the Consumer Protection Act. Not quite as magic as they are in Quebec or the United States, but magic enough for me to convince the Rogers rep I spoke to that the contract would be ended “as if it never existed”, rather than have me suffer their ridiculous surcharge.

While I’m not a lawyer, it doesn’t appear to be a settled matter if arbitrarily raised prices actually constitute a “material change”. But the facts on the ground, including the letter notifying me of the change, strongly implies that somebody at Rogers thinks you could make that case and they have no interest whatsoever in finding out for sure. So they just waived the ETF and let me go, and presumably we’re both happier for it.

The letter also said:

“However, over the past year there has been an increase in the cost of providing you with our services, due in part to the many enhancements that we have launched.”

… and this is the sort of disingenuous nonsense that we have to put up with in Canada from companies that claim that we have plenty of actual real competition in the telecommunications field honest cross our hearts. Despite having no problems telling people, surprise, you’re going to pay us an extra $60 per year whether you want to or not, for nothing. And Bell did about the same thing, raising their prices by about the same amount, at about the same time! What a coincidence! No collusion here, it’s all totally believable that this is just one big coincidence.

It’s nice that these ostensible competitors can put their differences aside long enough to coordinate raising their customers’ prices and buy billion-dollar sports franchises together, I guess. Unless you happen to be a Canadian consumer, in which case it’s the same ongoing disaster it’s been for years.

I’m moving everything over to Wind Mobile and TekSavvy, and if you’re a Canadian who cares about the intersection between market competition and technology, you should too.

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