June 9, 2017

Trimming The Roster

Filed under: digital,documentation,interfaces,mozilla,work — mhoye @ 1:25 pm

This is a minor administrative note about Planet Mozilla.

In the next few weeks I’ll be doing some long-overdue maintenance and cleaning out dead feeds from Planet and the various sub-Planet blogrolls to help keep them focused and helpful.

I’m going to start by scanning existing feeds and culling any that error out every day for the next two weeks. After that I’ll go down the list of remaining feeds individually, and confirm their author’s ongoing involvement in Mozilla and ask for tagged feeds wherever possible. “Involved in Mozilla” can mean a lot of things – the mission, the many projects, the many communities – so I’ll be happy to take a yes or no and leave it at that.

The process should be pretty painless – with a bit of luck you won’t even notice – but I thought I’d give you a heads up regardless. As usual, leave a comment or email me if you’ve got questions.

June 8, 2017

I’m Walking, Yes Indeed

Filed under: arcade,awesome,digital,interfaces,toys — mhoye @ 10:00 pm

They’re called “walking simulators”, which I guess is a pejorative in some circles, but that certain type of game that’s only a little bit about the conventions of some gaming subgenre – puzzles, platforming, whatever – and mostly about exploration, narrative and atmosphere is one of my favorite things.

Over the last year or two, I suspect mostly thanks to the recent proliferation of free-to-use, high-quality game engines, excellent tutorials and the generally awesome state of consumer hardware, we’re currently in a golden age of this type of game.

One of the underappreciated things that blogging did for writing as a craft was free it from the constraints of the industries around it; you don’t need to fit your article to a wordcount or column-inch slot; you write as much or as little as you think your subject required, and click publish, and that’s OK. It was, and I think still is, generally underappreciated how liberating that has been.

Today the combination of Steam distribution, arbitrary pricing and free-to-use engines has done much the same thing for gaming. Some of the games I’ve listed here are less than half an hour long, others much longer; either way, they’re as long as they need to be, but no more. A stroll through a beautifully-illustrated story doesn’t need to be drawn out, diluted or compressed to fit a market niche precisely anymore, and I thought all of these were a good way to spend however much time they took up.

Plenty of well-deserved superlatives have already been deployed for The Stanley Parable, and it is absolutely worth your time. But two short games by its creators – the free Dr. Langeskov, The Tiger, and The Terribly Cursed Emerald: A Whirlwind Heist and the much longer The Beginner’s Guide are radically different, but both excellent. Dr. Langeskov is brief and polished enough to feel like a good joke; The Beginner’s Guide feels more like exploring the inside of a confession than a game, a unique and interesting experience; I enjoyed them both quite a bit.

Firewatch is, in narrative terms, kind of mechanical – despite its may accolades, you eventually get the sense that you’re turn the handle on the dialogue meat grinder and you know what’s coming out. But it’s still affecting, especially in its quieter moments, and the environment and ambience is unquestionably beautiful. it’s worth playing just to explore. I’d be happy to wander through Firewatch again just to see all the corners of the park I missed the first time around, and there’s a tourist mode in which you can find recordings that explore the production process that I enjoyed quite a bit more than I’d expected.

“Homesick” is very much the opposite of Firewatch, a solitary and mostly monochromatic struggle through environmental and psychological decay, set in a rotting institution in what we eventually learn is an abandoned industrial sacrifice zone. The story unfolds through unexpected puzzles and mechanisms, and ends up being as much a walkthrough of the experience of mental illness as of the environment. Homesick isn’t a difficult game to play, but it’s a difficult game to experience; I’m cautiously recommending it on those terms, and I don’t know of any game I can compare it to.

“Lifeless Planet” is a slow exploration of a marooned FTL expedition to an alien world discovering the abandoned ruins of a fifties-era Soviet settlement. It’s not graphically spectacular, but somehow there is something I found really great about the slow unfolding of it, the pacing and puzzles of this well, if obliquely, told story. I found myself enjoying it far more than I would have expected.

Another space-exploration type game, though (supposedly?) much more sophisticated, Event[0] was generally very well received – Procedurally generated dialog! An AI personality influenced by the player’s actions! – but I played through it and found it… strangely boring? I suspect my gameplay experience was sabotaged by my Canadianness here, because I went into it knowing that the AI would react to your tone and it turns out if you consistently remember your manners the machine does whatever you want. The prime antagonist of the game this ostensibly-secretive-and-maybe-malevolent AI, but if you say please and thank you it turns out to be about as menacing as a golden retriever. Maybe the only reason I found it boring is because I’m boring? Could be, I guess, but I bet there’s a lesson in there somewhere.

The most striking of the bunch, though, the one that’s really stuck with me and that I absolutely recommend, is Everybody’s Gone To The Rapture, essentially an exploration of a small, inexplicably abandoned English village near an observatory in the aftermath of something Iain Banks once referred to as an “Outside-Context Problem”. It is all of interesting, beautiful and relentlessly human, investing you in not just the huge what-just-happened question but the lives and relationships of the people confronting it and trying to live through it. If walking simulators appeal to you – if exploring a story the way you’d explore an open-world game appeals to you – then I don’t want to tell you anything more about it so that you can experience it for yourself.

I’ve played a few other games I’m looking forward to telling you about – some of the best 2D-platformer and Sierra-like games ever made are being made right now – but that’s for another day. In the meantime, if you’ve got some other games that fit in to this genre that you love, I’d love to hear about them.

A Security Question

To my shame, I don’t have a certificate for my blog yet, but as I was flipping through some referer logs I realized that I don’t understand something about HTTPS.

I was looking into the fact that I sometimes – about 1% of the time – I see non-S HTTP referers from Twitter’s URL shortener, which I assume means that somebody’s getting man-in-the-middled somehow, and there’s not much I can do about it. But then I realized the implications of my not having a cert.

My understanding of how this works, per RFC7231 is that:

A user agent MUST NOT send a Referer header field in an unsecured HTTP request if the referring page was received with a secure protocol.

Per the W3C as well:

Requests from TLS-protected clients to non- potentially trustworthy URLs, on the other hand, will contain no referrer information. A Referer HTTP header will not be sent.

So, if that’s true and I have no certificate on my site, then in theory I should never see any HTTPS entries in my referer logs? Right?

Except: I do. All the time, from every browser vendor, feed reader or type of device, and if my logs are full of this then I bet yours are too.

What am I not understanding here? It’s not possible, there is just no way for me to believe that it’s two thousand and seventeen and I’m the only person who’s ever noticed this. I have to be missing something.

What is it?

FAST UPDATE: My colleagues refer me to this piece of the puzzle I hadn’t been aware of, and Francois Marier’s longer post on the subject. Thanks, everyone! That explains it.

SECOND UPDATE: Well, it turns out it doesn’t completely explain it. Digging into the data and filtering out anything referred via Twitter, Google or Facebook, I’m left with two broad buckets. The first is is almost entirely made of feed readers; it turns out that most and maybe almost all feed aggregators do the wrong thing here. I’m going to have to look into that, because it’s possible I can solve this problem at the root.

The second is one really persistent person using Firefox 15. Who are you, guy? Why don’t you upgrade? Can I help? Email me if I can help.

June 4, 2017

What I’m Talking About When I’m Talking About Biking

Filed under: analog,interfaces,travel,vendetta — mhoye @ 4:08 pm

It’s a funny little quirk of Ontario traffic laws that the fine for killing a cyclist is often less expensive than the bike they were riding when they were killed.

I’m a cyclist. I own bikes for different jobs, I commute to work every day I can on a bike, and ride for fun when I have a chance. There’s no better way to get around this city; you have almost perfect freedom and nothing is faster. If I’m pushing hard my commute at the height of rush hour is 25 minutes. 22 is a personal best, pretty good for a 10 kilometer ride.

I only drive it two or three times a year but in a car I’ve never been able make it door to door in rush hour in less than 45. As a cyclist I’m faster and more agile than anything else on the road, but all that speed and freedom comes at one cost: total vulnerability. I am, I think I’ve mentioned, one of those proverbial “scofflaw cyclists”. I can guess what you think about that; I don’t particularly care.

Riding in Toronto means you’re quote-sharing-unquote the road; there are very few genuinely separated bike lanes, mostly disconnected from each other. All of them are about five feet wide, maybe enough for two cyclists to pass each other if one hugs the curb. About one and a third car doors, to use a metric that matters. If you’re lucky something more robust than a painted line separates you from passing cars, but usually not.

Navigating infrastructure built with your existence as less as than an afterthought is never boring; the casual transgressions drivers barely notice themselves committing every day can injure or kill an inattentive cyclist, so space and direction are never things you can just have, or trust. You fight for every inch of it, carve it out and press forward. What you’re given is the worst parts of the pavement if anything, where people will pull up to park, unload, and cut you off without so much as a glance. So you take as much of the lane as you can. It might be rough, the route might end up circuitous, but if you don’t assert your right to the lane you’re stuck. You might get in somebody’s way and they might get angry but you do it anyway because the alternative to being loud and visible is being a statistic.

And if you’ve ever been in an accident bad enough to warrant the police showing up, you know the drill already: it’s always an exercise in figuring out what the cyclist did wrong. Did they have lights on their bike? A bell? Did they signal? Maybe their clothes weren’t visible enough. It must have been something like that, but if not it was probably the cyclist being “too aggressive”. Just to give you a taste of how little the Toronto police think of cyclists, here’s an accident prevention campaign they ran on May 16th of this year by parking an old-timey novelty police car in the Adelaide bike lane. That’s right, a traffic safety awareness campaign forcing cyclists into traffic at rush hour.

For the most part, that’s just how it is. Cops don’t actually think cyclists are people, and the laws don’t actually treat cyclists like people. Cars, yes, definitely! Cyclists, not so much; this is why so many cyclists have bike- or helmet-cams now; without the recording, the police will always – always – find a reason it was the cyclists’ fault. If somebody threatens to kill you with a knife or a gun, police are on the way, sirens blazing. With a car, though? If they show up at all, it’s to tell the cyclist it was their fault.

So as a cyclist, you have to navigate this world full of people who are wearing three thousand pounds of indestructible, gasoline-powered armour and do not care enough if you live or die to glance in their mirrors – motorists who’ve lived in the armour of their privilege for so long they can’t distinguish it from a capital-R Right – but who will get incredibly upset if you do anything that so much as hurts their feelings.

And, Oh My God, they have so many feelings. They’re full to bursting with Driver Feelings. If you so much as startle somebody in a car, those feelings all come out at once. They’ll chase you down, cut you off, roll down their windows and start into the insults, the death threats, it’s amazing.

You’d think being functionally invulnerable would give you some sort of minimal sense of confidence, but my goodness no. That’s not the case at all; I’ve swerved around a car that decided to park in the Bloor bike lane, only to have the person in the SUV who had to brake behind me honk, pull up and start yelling. I’ve had a car on the Danforth start swerving into me like he’s playing chicken. Screaming, swearing, all of it, from people who’ve got three other lanes to choose from and an entire city of infrastructure purpose-built for their vehicles ahead of them. I’ve had a car run a stop sign just so they could catch up with me and yell at me not to run stop signs. I’ve been told, by somebody parked in the bike lane, that I should think of the reputation of cyclists and stay in my lane.

This is a routine experience in this city. You’re riding through a city where four- and eight- lane highways crisscrossing the downtown core are completely normal but safe bike lanes are somehow “controversial”. Nobody really cares about following the rules, to the point where people get upset if you’re following the wrong ones, and if you’re on a bike those rules aren’t, by design, going to protect you anyway. They’re just what drivers point back to when you’ve made them angry, and they’ll get angry if you break the rules, or if you follow the rules, or if you’re nearby, or if cyclists exist at all. It’s the veil of authority people hide behind, when they have power and want to vent their anger at people without.

You’ve heard this story before, I suspect. With different labels, in a different context maybe, but I bet the broad strokes of it are familiar. My routine bike commute is at the core of my politics, of my understanding of the nature of power.

For me, though, that ride is a choice. Ultimately I can put the bike down. And because I’m an upper-middle-class white man who works in tech, when I put the bike down I get to step into my own, different suit of nearly-invulnerable power armour.

It says a lot about you, I think, if you can look at any imbalance of power and vulnerability and your first reflexive reaction is to talk about how important rules are. I don’t know about you, but that’s not who I want to be. I live and work in a world full of people who can’t put their vulnerabilities aside so casually, who are full time, 24/7 navigating social and economic structures that are far more pervasive and hostile to them than cars are to me and my adorable little hour per day of commute. People who understand how those “rules” really work where the rubber (and sometimes the skin, and sometimes the skull) meets the road. So the least, the very least I can do is listen carefully to people who can’t put down their gender, their disability or the color of their skin, who suffer the whims of those oppressive, marginalizing systems, and to try to understand more than the problem or grievance they’re facing right now, but the architectures that give those problems their durability, their power. And to do the day-in, day-out work of understanding my own blind spots and taking responsibility for the spaces and systems around me.

It’s not super-convenient for me personally, to be honest. It takes me a bit longer to get places or find a place to park. But this is the job.

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