blarg?

January 20, 2019

Super Mario Telemachy

Filed under: a/b,arcade,awesome,beauty,digital,documentation,future,interfaces — mhoye @ 10:29 pm
This way to art.

One thing I love about the Hyrule of Breath of the Wild is how totally unbothered it is by our hero’s presence in it. Cliffs you can’t climb, monsters you have no real shot at beating, characters wandering about who aren’t there as side-quest farmers or undifferentiated foils for your inevitable progress. Even the weather will inconvenience, injure or outright murder you if you walk out into it dressed wrong, and in large ways and small this mattered. I’d seen lighting strikes in the game before – and getting one-shotted by the rain after I missed the memo about not wearing metal out in a storm was startling enough, lemme tell you – but the first time I saw one hit water, saw a handful of stunned fish floating to the surface, that put my jaw on the floor. The rain that made this hill too slippery to climb gave that world the sense of a being a world, one that for all your power and fate and destiny just didn’t revolve around you.

Super Mario Odyssey is the precise, exact opposite of that, and at first I really didn’t get it. I couldn’t get into it.

It’s surprisingly hard to enjoy an entire world carefully and forgivingly tuned to precisely fit your exact capacities at all times, to the point that if you’ve done much platforming in your life there’s no real challenge to navigating Odyssey, much less risk. A “death” that costs you about six of the abundant, constantly replenished gold coins that litter the landscape hardly even counts as a setback – you’re likely to restart next to eight or ten of them! – so my first impressions were that it amounted to a hoarder’s brightly coloured to-do list. I decided to grind through it to see the New Donk City I’d been studiously avoiding spoilers for, hearing only that it was the best and weirdest part of the game, but it was definitely a grind.

But after watching my kids play it, and helping them through the parts they’ve been hung up on, I realized something: Odyssey is a bad single-player game because it’s not a single-player game, at least not a single adult player. It’s a children’s book, a children’s experience; it’s Mario Disneyland. And once I discovered the game I was actually supposed to be playing, the whole experience changed.

With fresh eyes and unskilled hands involved, this sprawling, tedious fan-service buffet becomes an entirely different thing, a chance to show my kids around a game world I grew up with. Even the 2D sidescroller diversions, eye-rollingly retro on their own, become a conversation. Most amazingly, to me at least, the two-player option – one player driving Mario, the other driving his ghost hat companion Cappy – stops looking like a silly gimmick and starts looking like a surprisingly good execution of a difficult idea I’ve wanted for a long time. Odyssey is the only game I’ve ever seen that has cooperative, same-couch multiplayer that’s accessible to people of wildly different skill levels. Another way to say that is, it’s a game I can play with my kids; not versus, not taking turns, but “with” for real, and it’s kind of great.

So, playing Odyssey alone by myself? Sure: unchallenging, rote and if we’re honest enough to admit it, a little sad. But with my kids’ playing it, playing along together? Definitely. Not only good but good fun, maybe even a meaningful experience. Sign me up.

December 13, 2018

Looking Skyward

Filed under: awesome,beauty,documentation,flickr,future,life,science — mhoye @ 12:43 pm

PC050781

PC050776

Space

November 19, 2018

Faint Signal

Filed under: awesome,beauty,digital,documentation,future,interfaces,life,work — mhoye @ 11:34 am

P2270158 (2)

It’s been a little over a decade since I first saw Clay Shirky lay out his argument about what he called the “cognitive surplus”, but it’s been on my mind recently as I start to see more and more people curtail or sever their investments in always-on social media, and turn their attentions to… something.

Something Else.

I was recently reminded of some reading I did in college, way back in the last century, by a British historian arguing that the critical technology, for the early phase of the industrial revolution, was gin.

The transformation from rural to urban life was so sudden, and so wrenching, that the only thing society could do to manage was to drink itself into a stupor for a generation. The stories from that era are amazing– there were gin pushcarts working their way through the streets of London.

And it wasn’t until society woke up from that collective bender that we actually started to get the institutional structures that we associate with the industrial revolution today. Things like public libraries and museums, increasingly broad education for children, elected leaders–a lot of things we like–didn’t happen until having all of those people together stopped seeming like a crisis and started seeming like an asset.

It wasn’t until people started thinking of this as a vast civic surplus, one they could design for rather than just dissipate, that we started to get what we think of now as an industrial society.

– Clay Shirky, “Gin, Television and the Cognitive Surplus“, 2008.

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I couldn’t figure out what it was at first – people I’d thought were far enough ahead of the curve to bend its arc popping up less often or getting harder to find; I’m not going to say who, of course, because who it is for me won’t be who it is for you. But you feel it too, don’t you? That quiet, empty space that’s left as people start dropping away from hyperconnected. The sense of getting gently reacquainted with loneliness and boredom as you step away from the full-court vanity press and stop synchronizing your panic attacks with the rest of the network. The moment of clarity, maybe, as you wake up from that engagement bender and remember the better parts of your relationship with absence and distance.

How, on a good day, the loneliness set your foot on the path, how the boredom could push you to push yourself.

I was reading the excellent book MARS BY 1980 in bed last night and this term just popped into my head as I was circling sleep. I had to do that thing where you repeat it in your head twenty times so that I’d remember it in the morning. I have no idea what refuture or refuturing really means, except that “refuturing” connects it in my mind with “rewilding.” The sense of creating new immediate futures and repopulating the futures space with something entirely divorced from the previous consensus futures.

Refuture. Refuturing. I don’t know. I wanted to write it down before it went away.

Which I guess is what we do with ideas about the future anyway.

Warren Ellis, August 21, 2018.

Maybe it’s just me. I can’t quite see the shape of it yet, but I can hear it in the distance, like a radio tuned to a distant station; signal in the static, a song I can’t quite hear but I can tell you can dance to. We still have a shot, despite everything; whatever’s next is coming.

I think it’s going to be interesting.

September 13, 2017

Durable Design

Filed under: awesome,digital,documentation,future,interfaces,toys — mhoye @ 10:47 am

Flip

It seems like small thing, but it’s an engineering detail I’ve always had a lot of respect for.

That picture is of a Flip video camera with the lid off, a product from about nine years ago. It was a decent little video camera at a time that phones weren’t up to it, storing a bit over an hour of 720p video with decent sound. The company that made them, Pure Digital Technologies, was bought by Cisco in 2009 for about $590M and shut down less than two years later. Their last product – that ultimately never shipped – could stream video live to the Web, something we wouldn’t really see from a pocket-sized device until Periscope and (now-dead) Meerkat took a run at it five years later.

The thing I wanted to call attention to, though, is the shape of that case. The Flip shipped with a custom rectangular battery that had the usual extra charging smarts in it and you could charge off USB, like all civilized hardware that size. But it also gave you the option of putting in three absolutely standard, available-everywhere AAA batteries instead, after that exotic square thing finally died.

You only get to run the camera about two-thirds as long, sure. But long after they’ve stopped making those custom batteries or supporting the device itself, the fact of the matter is: you can still run it at all. It may not be the best thing around, but it’s also not in a landfill. It still does everything it said it would; my kids can make movies with it and they’re good fun. It didn’t suddenly become junk just because the people who made it aren’t around anymore.

I’ve often wondered what those product meetings looked like at Pure Digital. Who pushed for that one extra feature that might give their product a few extra years of life, when so many market forces were and are pushing against it. What did they see, that convinced them to hold the line on a feature that few people would ever use, or even notice? You see it less and less every day, in software and hardware alike – the idea that longevity matters, that maybe repair is better than replace.

If you’re still out there, whoever made this what it was: I noticed. I think it matters, and I’m grateful. I hope that’s worth something.

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.

May 5, 2017

Nerd-Cred Level-Up

Filed under: awesome,flickr,life,lunacy,weird — mhoye @ 9:13 am

P5052724

In 2007 I was an extra in an indie zombie movie called “Sunday Morning” that featured Ron Tarrant. Tarrant starred with Mark Slacke in a 2010 short called “The Painting In The House”, who in turn played a role in Cuba Gooding Jr.’s “Sacrifice”. Gooding, of course, played a role in A Few Good Men, as did Kevin Bacon.

Recently, I’ve co-authored a paper with Greg Wilson – “Do Software Developers Understand Open Source Licenses?” – principal authors are Daniel Almeida and Gail Murphy at UBC – that will be presented at ICPC 2017 later this year. Greg Wilson has previously co-authored a paper with Robert Sedgewick, who has co-authored a paper with Andrew Chi-Chih Yao, who has in turn co-authored a paper with Ronald L. Graham.

You can find all of Graham’s many collaborations with Paul Erdős, one of the most prolific mathematicians of the 20th century, on his homepage.

Which is all to say that I now have an Erdős-Bacon number of 9.

I’m unreasonably stoked about that for some reason.

November 20, 2016

Memories And Palaces

Filed under: arcade,awesome,beauty,digital,interfaces,life,toys — mhoye @ 4:08 pm

Exploring

This is an old memory, dredged out of the cellar by this Metafilter thread about a Sierra game: The Colonel’s Bequest.

Bequest was a charmingly understated member of the “[Subject] Quest” games lineage, largely forgotten I suspect for the sin of being a character-driven mystery with a female protagonist rather than a puzzles-and-princesses nature excursion. Teenage Me remembers enjoying it. Present-day Me does not remember Teenage Me as a paragon of good taste and sound judgement, true, but let’s put that aside for the moment.

When the Colonel’s Bequest came out, a friend and I in high school were very much into the Sierra games, but we got our selves thoroughly stuck on this one. To my memory this would have been during that magical late-in-the-school-year part of spring time when teachers have given up on the curriculum and would rather just show you old movies. My English teacher – a magnificent old crank, in that particular way that English teachers close to retirement can blossom into magnificent old cranks – decided he was going to show us old Vincent Price horror movies, because why not.

One of those he played for us was The House Of Usher, closely based on the similarly-named Poe story. It’s a classic-in-the-classic-sense horror film; an iconic product of it’s time, though that time hasn’t aged spectacularly well. Apparently the US National Film Registry regards it as “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant”, though, and if you get a chance to watch it, dated as it seems, you’ll probably agree.

Until then my only exposure to Price had been “The Hilarous House Of Dr. Frightenstein” on PBS, reruns of Price well into his self-parody phase. Despite the fact that even then I could tell there was a joke going on I wasn’t getting, I could talk about that show at great and unreasonably enthusiastic length – its very possible The Professor had a formative influence on my eight-year-old self – but that is not what I am here to talk about.

What I’m here to talk about it how clearly I can remember that moment when the lights came on and both of us knew that we knew how to win the game. Because the architecture of the mansion and surrounding grounds in Bequest, blowing our tiny teenage minds, was very strongly influenced – straight-up cribbed, in some places – from the architecture of the eponymous House and its grounds in that movie. next time we played the game together we quickly found the hidden doors and switches exactly where they were in the movie, opening the way to the same secret passages; we moved quickly through to the conclusion of the game, and that was it.

I haven’t thought about that moment or that game in 25 years; it surprises me that this newfound ability we have to revisit the specific stimulus of our youth can feel like being ambushed by a choice between nostalgia and introspection. I can remember a few pivotal moments in my life like that, where can remember learning something, making a choice, and knowing that I was different person on the far side of it. There must have been a lot of them. Maybe this is one of them? I’ve had an interest in secret passages and video game architecture for a really long time; I wonder if that’s where it started.

Seems plausible.

October 8, 2016

Pageant Knight

Filed under: a/b,awesome,comics,documentation,lunacy,microfiction,weird — mhoye @ 11:45 pm

Sunset At The Beach

On September 17th, DC “celebrated” what they called “Batman Day”. I do not deploy scare quotes lightly, so let me get this out of the way: Batman is boring. Batman qua Batman as a hero, as a story and as the center of a narrative framework, all of those choices are pretty terrible. The typical Batman story arc goes something like:

  • Batman is the best at everything. But Gotham, his city, is full of terrible.
  • Batman broods over his city. The city is full of terrible but Batman is a paragon of brooding justice.
  • An enemy of justice is scheming at something. Batman detects the scheme, because he is the World’s Greatest Among Many Other Things Detective and intervenes.
  • Batman is a paragon of brooding justice.
  • Batman’s attempt to intervene fails! Batman may not be the best at everything!
  • Batman broods and/or has a bunch of feelings and/or upgrades one of his widgets.
  • Batman intervenes again, and Batman emerges triumphant! The right kind of punching and/or widgeting makes him the best at everything again.
  • Order is restored to Gotham.
  • Batman is a paragon of brooding justice.

If you’re interested in telling interesting stories Batman is far and away the least interesting thing in Gotham. So I took that opportunity to talk about the Batman story I’d write given the chance. The root inspiration for all this was a bout of protracted synesthesia brought on by discovering this take on Batman from Aaron Diaz, creator of Dresden Codak, at about the same time as I first heard Shriekback’s “Amaryllis In The Sprawl”.

The central thesis is this: if you really want a Gritty, Realistic Batman For The Modern Age, then Gotham isn’t an amped-up New York. It’s an amped-up New Orleans, or some sort of New-Orleans/Baltimore mashup. A city that’s full of life, history, culture, corruption and, thanks to relentlessly-cut tax rates, failing social and physical infrastructure. A New-Orleans/Baltimore metropolis in a coastal version of Brownback’s Kansas, a Gotham where garbage isn’t being collected and basic fire & police services are by and large not happening because tax rates and tax enforcement has been cut to the bone and the city can’t afford to pay its employees.

Bruce Wayne, wealthy philanthropist and Gotham native, is here to help. But this is Bruce Wayne via late-stage Howard Hughes; incredibly rich, isolated, bipolar and delusional, a razor-sharp business mind offset by a crank’s self-inflicted beliefs about nutrition and psychology. In any other circumstances he’d be the harmless high-society crackpot city officials kept at arm’s length if they couldn’t get him committed. But these aren’t any other circumstances: Wayne is far more than just generous, but he wants to burn this candle at both ends by helping the city through the Wayne Foundation by day and in his own very special, very extralegal way, fighting crime dressed in a cowl by night.

And he’s so rich that despite his insistence on dressing up his 55-year-old self in a bat costume and beating people up at night, the city needs that money so badly that to keep his daytime philanthropy flowing, six nights a week a carefully selected group of city employees stage another episode of “Batman, crime fighter”, a gripping Potemkin-noir pageant with a happy ending and a costumed Wayne in the lead role.

Robin – a former Arkham psych-ward nurse, a gifted young woman and close-combat prodigy in Wayne’s eyes – is a part of the show, conscripted by Mayor Cobblepot to keep an eye on Wayne and keep him out of real trouble. Trained up by retired SAS Sgt. Alfred Pennyworth behind Wayne’s back, in long-shuttered facilities beneath Wayne Manor that Wayne knows nothing about, she is ostensibly Batman’s sidekick in his fight against crime. But her real job is to protect Wayne on those rare occasions that he runs into real criminals and tries to intervene. She’s got a long, silenced rifle under that cloak with a strange, wide-mouthed second barrel and a collection of exotic munitions that she uses like a surgical instrument, not only to protect Wayne but more importantly to keep him convinced his fists & gadgets work at all.

She and Harleen Quinzel, another ex-Arkham staffer trained by Alfred, spend most of their days planning strategy. They have the same job; Quinn is the sidekick, shepherd and bodyguard of the former chief medical officer of Arkham. Quinn’s charge is also in his twilight years, succumbing to a manic psychosis accelerated by desperate self-administration of experimental and off-label therapies that aren’t slowing the degeneration of his condition, but sure are making him unpredictable. But he was brilliant once, also a philanthropist – the medical patents he owns are worth millions, bequeathed to Gotham and the patients of Arkham, provided the city care for him in his decline. Sometimes he’s still lucid; the brilliant, compassionate doctor everyone remembers. And other times – mostly at night – he’s somebody else entirely, somebody with a grievance and a dark sense of humor.

So Gotham – this weird, mercenary, vicious, beautiful, destitute Gotham – becomes the backdrop for this nightly pageant of two damaged, failing old men’s game of cat and mouse and the real story we’re following is Robin, Quinn, Alfred and the weird desperation of a city so strapped it has to let them play it out, night after dark, miserable night.

September 2, 2016

Brought To You By The Letter U

Filed under: awesome,lunacy,microfiction,weird — mhoye @ 12:04 pm
Being a global organization, Mozilla employees periodically send out all-hands emails notifying people of upcoming regional holidays. With Labour Day coming up in Canada, this was my contribution to the cause:

The short version: Monday is Labour Day, a national holiday in Canada – expect Canadian offices to be closed and our Canadian colleagues to be either slow to respond or completely unresponsive, depending on how much fun they’ve had.

The longer version:

On Monday, Canadians will be celebrating Labour Day by not labouring; as many of you know, this is one of Canada’s National Contradictions, one of only two to appear on a calendar*.

Canada’s labour day has its origin in the Toronto Typographical Union’s strike for a 58-hour work-week in 1872, brought on by the demands of the British government for large quantities of the letter U. At the time, Us were aggressively recirculated to the British colonies to defend Imperial syntactic borders and maintain grammatical separation between British and American English. In fact, British grammarian propaganda from this period is the origin of the phrase “Us and Them”.

At the time, Canadian Us were widely recognized as the highest quality Us available, but the hard labour of the vowel miners and the artisans whose skill and patience made the Canadian Us the envy of western serifs is largely lost to history; few people today realize that “usability” once described something that would suffice in the absence of an authentic Canadian U.

Imperial demands placed on Union members at the time were severe. Indeed, in the weeks leading up to the 1872 strike the TTU twice had to surrender their private Us to make the imperial quota, and were known as the Toronto Typographical Onion in the weeks leading up to the strike. While success of the Onion’s strike dramatically improved working conditions for Canadian labourers, this was the beginning of a dramatic global U shortage; from 1873 until the late early 1900s, global demand for Us outstripped supply, and most Us had been refurbished and reused many times over; “see U around” was a common turn of phrase describing this difficult time.

Early attempts at meeting the high demand for U were only somewhat successful. In the 1940s the British “v for victory” campaign was only partially successful in addressing British syntactic shortages that were exacerbated by extensive shipping losses due to sunken U-boats. The Swedish invention of the umlaut – “u” meaning “u” and “mlaut” meaning “kinda” – intended to paper over the problem, was likewise unsuccessful. It wasn’t until the electronic typography of the late seventies that U demand could easily be fulfilled and words like Ubiquity could be typed casually, without the sense of “overuse” that had plagued authors for most of a century.

Despite a turnaround that lexical economists refer to as “The Great U-Turn”, the damage was done. Regardless of their long status as allies the syntactic gap between American and British Englishes was a bridge too far; anticipated American demand for Us never materialized, and American English remains unusual to this day.

Today, Labour Day is effectively a day Canada spends to manage, and indeed revel in the fact, that there are a lot of Us; travellers at this time of year will remark on the number of U-Hauls on the road, carting Us around the country in celebration. This is all to say that we’ll be celebrating our labour heritage this upcoming Monday. Canadians everywhere may be seen duing any number of thungs to commumurate this uccasiun: swumming, canuing, guardening, vusuting neighbours, and spunding tume at the couttage

Thunk you, und see you all un Tuesday.

– mhuye

* – The other being the Spring National Resignation, where Canadians repeatedly declare Hockey their national sport while secretly enjoying watching the Leafs choke away another promising start.

August 29, 2016

Free As In Health Care

This is to some extent a thought experiment.

The video below shows what’s called a “frontal offset crash test” – your garden variety driver-side head-on collision – between a 2009 Chevrolet Malibu and a 1959 Chevrolet Bel Air. I’m about to use this video to make a protracted argument about software licenses, standards organizations, and the definition of freedom. It may not interest you all that much but if it’s ever crossed your mind that older cars are safer because they’re heavier or “solid” or had “real” bumpers or something you should watch this video. In particular, pay attention to what they consider a “fortunate outcome” for everyone involved. Lucky, for the driver in the Malibu, is avoiding a broken ankle. A Bel Air driver would be lucky if all the parts of him make it into the same casket.

 [ https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=joMK1WZjP7g ]

Like most thought experiments this started with a question: what is freedom?

The author of the eighteenth-century tract “Cato’s Letters” expressed the point succinctly: “Liberty is to live upon one’s own Term; Slavery is to live at the mere Mercy of another.” The refrain was taken up with particular emphasis later in the eighteenth century, when it was echoed by the leaders and champions of the American Revolution.’ The antonym of liberty has ceased to be subjugation or domination – has ceased to be defenseless susceptibility to interference by another – and has come to be actual interference, instead. There is no loss of liberty without actual interference, according to most contemporary thought: no loss of liberty in just being susceptible to interference. And there is no actual interference – no interference, even, by a non-subjugating rule of law – without some loss of liberty; “All restraint, qua restraint, is evil,” as John Stuart Mill expressed the emerging orthodoxy.

– Philip Pettit, Freedom As Anti-Power, 1996

Most of our debates define freedom in terms of “freedom to” now, and the arguments are about the limitations placed on those freedoms. If you’re really lucky, like Malibu-driver lucky, the discussions you’re involved in are nuanced enough to involve “freedom from”, but even that’s pretty rare.

I’d like you to consider the possibility that that’s not enough.

What if we agreed to expand what freedom could mean, and what it could be. Not just “freedom to” but a positive defense of opportunities to; not just “freedom from”, but freedom from the possibility of.

Indulge me for a bit but keep that in mind while you exercise one of those freedoms, get in a car and go for a drive. Freedom of movement, right? Get in and go.

Before you can do that a few things have to happen first. For example: your car needs to have been manufactured.

Put aside everything that needs to have happened for the plant making your car to operate safely and correctly. That’s a lot, I know, but consider only the end product.

Here is a chart of the set of legislated standards that vehicle must meet in order to be considered roadworthy in Canada – the full text of CRC c.1038, the Motor Vehicle Safety Regulations section of the Consolidated Regulations of Canada runs a full megabyte, and contains passages such as:

H-point means the mechanically hinged hip point of a manikin that simulates the actual pivot centre of the human torso and thigh, described in SAE Standard J826, Devices for Use in Defining and Measuring Vehicle Seating Accommodation (July 1995); (point H)

H-V axis means the characteristic axis of the light pattern of a lamp, passing through the centre of the light source, used as the direction of reference (H = 0°, V = 0°) for photometric measurements and for the design of the installation of a lamp on a vehicle; (axe H-V)

… and

Windshield Wiping and Washing System

104 (1) In this section,

areas A, B and C means the areas referred to in Column I of Tables I, II, III and IV to this section when established as shown in Figures 1 and 2 of SAE Recommended Practice J903a Passenger Car Windshield Wiper Systems, (May 1966), using the angles specified in Columns III to VI of the above Tables; (zones A, B et C)

daylight opening means the maximum unobstructed opening through the glazing surface as defined in paragraph 2.3.12 of Section E, Ground Vehicle Practice, SAE Aerospace-Automotive Drawing Standards, (September 1963); (ouverture de jour)

glazing surface reference line means the intersection of the glazing surface and a horizontal plane 635 mm above the seating reference point, as shown in Figure 1 of SAE Recommended Practice J903a (May 1966); (ligne de référence de la surface vitrée)

… and that mind-numbing tedium you’re experiencing right now is just barely a taste; a different set of regulations exists for crash safety testing, another for emissions testing, the list goes very far on. This 23 page PDF of Canada’s Motor Vehicle Tire Safety Regulations – that’s just the tires, not the brakes or axles or rims, just the rubber that meets the road – should give you a sense of it.

That’s the car. Next you need roads.

The Ontario Provincial Standards for Roads & Public Works consists of eight volumes. The first of them, General And Construction Specifications, is 1358 pages long. Collectively they detail how roads you’ll be driving on must be built, illuminated, made safe and maintained.

You can read them over if you like, but you can see where I’m going with this. Cars and roads built to these standards don’t so much enable freedom of motion and freedom from harm as they delimit in excruciating detail the space – on what road, at what speeds, under what circumstances – where people must be free from the possibility of specific kinds of harm, where their motion must be free from the possibility of specific kinds of restriction or risk.

But suppose we move away from the opposition to bare interference in terms of which contemporary thinkers tend to understand freedom. Suppose we take up the older opposition to servitude, subjugation, or domination as the key to construing liberty. Suppose we understand liberty not as noninterference but as antipower. What happens then?

– Philip Pettit, ibid.

Let me give away the punchline here: if your definition of freedom includes not just freedom from harassment and subjugation but from the possibility of harassment and subjugation, then software licenses and cryptography have as much to do with real digital rights and freedoms as your driver’s license has to do with your freedom of mobility. Which is to say, almost nothing.

We should be well past talking about the minutia of licenses and the comparative strengths of cryptographic algorithms at this point. The fact that we’re not is a clear sign that privacy, safety and security on the internet are not “real rights” in any meaningful sense. Not only because the state does not meaningfully defend them but because it does not mandate in protracted detail how they should be secured, fund institutions to secure that mandate and give the force of law to the consequences of failure.

The conversation we should be having at this point is not about is not what a license permits, it’s about the set of standards and practices that constitutes a minimum bar to clear in not being professionally negligent.

The challenge here is that dollar sign. Right now the tech sector is roughly where the automotive sector was in the late fifties. You almost certainly know or know of somebody on Twitter having a very 1959 Bel-Air Frontal-Offset Collision experience right now, and the time for us to stop blaming the driver for that is long past. But if there’s a single grain of good news here’s it’s how far off your diminishing returns are. We don’t need detailed standards about the glazing surface reference line of automotive glass, we need standard seatbelts and gas tanks that reliably don’t explode.

But that dollars sign, and those standards, are why I think free software is facing an existential crisis right now.

[ https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=obSOaKTMLIc ]

I think it’s fair to say that the only way that standards have teeth is if there’s liability associated with them. We know from the automotive industry that the invisible hand of the free market is no substitute for liability in driving improvement; when the costs of failure are externalized, diffuse or hidden, those costs can easily be ignored.

According to the FSF, the “Four Freedoms” that define what constitutes Free Software are:

  • The freedom to run the program as you wish, for any purpose (freedom 0).
  • The freedom to study how the program works, and change it so it does your computing as you wish (freedom 1). Access to the source code is a precondition for this.
  • The freedom to redistribute copies so you can help your neighbor (freedom 2).
  • The freedom to distribute copies of your modified versions to others (freedom 3). By doing this you can give the whole community a chance to benefit from your changes. Access to the source code is a precondition for this.

The cannier among you will already have noted – and scarred Linux veterans can definitely attest to the fact – that there’s no mention at all of freedom-from in there. The FSF’s unstated position has always been that anyone who wants to be free from indignities like an opaque contraption of a user experience, buggy drivers and nonexistent vendor support in their software, not to mention the casual sexism and racism of the free software movement itself, well. Those people can go pound sand all the way to the Apple store. (Which is what everyone did, but let’s put that aside for the moment.)

Let’s go back to that car analogy for a moment:

Toyota Motor Corp has recalled 3.37 million cars worldwide over possible defects involving air bags and emissions control units.

The automaker on Wednesday said it was recalling 2.87 million cars over a possible fault in emissions control units. That followed an announcement late on Tuesday that 1.43 million cars needed repairs over a separate issue involving air bag inflators.

About 930,000 cars are affected by both potential defects, Toyota said. Because of that overlap, it said the total number of vehicles recalled was 3.37 million.

No injuries have been linked to either issue.

Potential defects.

I think the critical insight here is that Stallman’s vision of software freedom dates to a time when software was contained. You could walk away from that PDP-11 and the choices you made there didn’t follow you home in your pocket or give a world full of bored assholes an attack surface for your entire life. Software wasn’t everywhere, not just pushing text around a screen but everywhere and in everything from mediating our social lives and credit ratings to pumping our drinking water, insulin and anti-lock brakes.

Another way to say that is: software existed in a well-understood context. And it was that context that made it, for the most part, free from the possibility of causing real human damage, and consequently liability for that damage was a non-question. But that context matters: Toyota doesn’t issue that recall because the brakes failed on the chopped-up fifteen year old Corolla you’ve welded to a bathtub and used as rally car, it’s for the safety of day to day drivers doing day to day driving.

I should quit dancing around the point here and just lay it out:  If your definition of freedom includes freedom from the possibility of interference, it follows that “free as in beer” and “free as in freedom” can only coexist in the absence of liability.

This is only going to get more important as the Internet ends up in more and more Things, and your right – and totally reasonable expectation – to live a life free from arbitrary harassment enabled by the software around you becomes a life-or-death issue.

If we believe in an expansive definition of human freedom and agency in a world full of software making decisions then I think we have three problems, two practical and one fundamental.

The practical ones are straightforward. The first is that the underpinnings of the free-as-in-beer economic model that lets Google, Twitter and Facebook exist are fighting a two-ocean war against failing ad services and liability avoidance. The notion that a click-through non-contract can absolve any organization of their responsibility is not long for this world, and the nasty habit advertising and social networks have of periodically turning into semi-autonomous, weaponized misery-delivery platforms makes it harder to justify letting their outputs talk to your inputs every day.

The second one is the industry prisoner’s dilemma around, if not liability, then at a bare minimum responsibility. There’s a battery of high-caliber first-mover-disadvantages pointed at the first open source developer willing to say “if these tools are used under the following conditions, by users with the following user stories, then we can and should be held responsible for their failures”.

Neither of these problems are insoluble – alternative financial models exist, coalitions can be built, and so forth. It’ll be an upheaval, but not a catastrophic or even sudden one. But anyone whose business model relies on ads should be thinking about transitions five to ten years out, and your cannier nation-states are likely to start sneaking phrases like “auditable and replaceable firmware” in their trade agreements in the next three to five.

The fundamental problem is harder: we need a definition of freedom that encompasses the notion of software freedom and human agency, in which the software itself is just an implementation detail.

We don’t have a definition of freedom that’s both expansive in its understanding of what freedom and agency are, and that speaks to a world where the line between data security and bodily autonomy is very blurry, where people can delegate their agency to and gain agency from a construct that’s both an idea and a machine. A freedom for which a positive defense of the scope of the possible isn’t some weird semitangible idea, but a moral imperative and a hill worth dying on.

I don’t know what that looks like yet; I can see the rough outlines of the place it should be but isn’t. I can see the seeds of it in the quantified-self stuff, copyleft pushback and the idea that crypto is a munition. It’s crystal clear that a programmer clinging to the idea that algorithms are apolitical or that software is divorced from human bias or personal responsibility is a physicist holding to the aetheric model or phlogiston when other people are fuelling their rockets. The line between software freedom and personal freedom is meaningless now, and the way we’ve defined “software freedom” just about guarantees its irrelevancy. It’s just freedom now, and at the very least if our definition of what freedom is – and our debate about what freedom could be –  isn’t as vast and wide-ranging and weird and wonderful and diverse and inclusive and scary as it could possibly be, then the freedom we end up with won’t be either.

And I feel like a world full of the possible would be a hell of a thing to lose.

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