blarg?

November 26, 2020

Punching Holes

An early encoding proposal

As always, I am inexplicably carrying a deep seated personal grudge against anyone incurious enough to start with “because in C” when you ask them why computers do anything, but bear with me here. I know that a surprising amount of modern computing is definitely Dennis Ritchie’s fault, I get it, but even he existed in a context and these are machines made out of people’s decisions, not capricious logic-engine fae that spring to life when you rub a box of magnets with a copy of SICP. Quit repeating the myths you’ve been spoon-fed and do the research. A few hours in a library can save you a few decades in the dark.

Anyway, on a completely unrelated note: Today in wildly-unforeseeable-consequences news, I have learned where null-terminated strings come from. Not only are they older than Unix, they’re older than transistors and might be older than IBM. It turns out at least one of the roads to hell is paved with yesterday’s infrastructure.

“Coded Character Sets, History & Development” by Charles E. Mackenzie is an amazing technical artifact, approximately 75% mechanical tedium and 25% the most amazing deep-cut nerd history lesson I’ve seen in a while. I’ve gone on about how important Herman Hollerith and his card-readers were in the history of computing, but this document takes that to a much lower level, walking meticulously through the decision making processes by which each character’s bit sequence was determined, what constraints and decisions arose and how they were resolved, and where it isn’t boring as hell it is absolutely fascinating.

As an aside, it continues to be really unfortunate how much historical information about the decisions that have led up to modern computing is either hidden, lost or (I suspect most commonly) just ignored. There is a lot to learn from the Whys of so many of these decisions, lessons about process that transcend the implementation details lost in favour of easily-retellable falsehoods, and there’s an entire lost generation of programmers out there who found ESR’s version of the Jargon File before they found their own critical faculties and never quite recovered from that who’ll never learn those lessons.

(I mention it because I’m going to be talking about EBCDIC, and if your gut reaction to seeing that acronym is a snide dismissal for reasons you can’t really elaborate, I’m talking about you. Take it personally. Like a lot of Raymond’s work and indeed the man himself, his self-interested bastardization of the jargon file is superficially clever, largely wrong and aging very badly. Fortunately the Steele-1983 version is still out there and true to its moment in history, you’re still here to read it and a better future is still possible. I believe in all but one of you.)

On a less sarcastic note, there is a lot in here.

I didn’t realize quite how old ASCII is, for one. I mean, I knew the dates involved but I didn’t grasp the context, how completely disconnected the concerns of modern computing were from the creation of the ASCII standard. The idea of software, or decision-making implemented in software as relevant consumer is almost completely a non-issue, mentioned in passing and quickly brushed off. Far and away the most important concerns – as with EBCDIC, BCDIC and PTTC before it and dating back to the turn of the century – were about the efficiency of collating punch cards and fast line printing on existing tooling.

Printing, collating and backwards compatibility. In terms of importance, nothing else even came close. The idea of “code” as an information control-flow mechanism barely enters into it; that compilers exist at all is given a brief nod at the start of chapter 25 of 27, but otherwise it’s holes-in-cardboard all the way down. You can draw a straight line back in time from Unicode through a century of evolving punchcard standards all the way to the Hollerith Census Tabulator of 1890; Hollerith has cast an impossibly long shadow over this industry, and backwards compatibility with the form, machinery and practices of punch cards are entirely the name of this game and have been forever.

Early glyphs

It’s also amazing how many glyphs in various degrees of common use across various languages and systems were used, reconsidered and discarded for some wild variety of reasons as encodings evolved; the “cent” symbol giving way to a square bracket, various useful symbols like logical-not getting cut without any obvious replacements. Weird glyphs I’ve never seen on any keyboard in my life getting adopted then abandoned because they would have caused a specific model of long-established tape storage system to crash. The strangely durable importance of the lozenge character, and the time a late revision of BCDIC just … forgot “+”. Oops?

I had no idea that for a while there we were flirting with lowercase numbers. We were seriously debating whether or not computers needed a lowercase zero. That was a real thing.

Another thing I didn’t realize is how much of a dead end ASCII is, not just as a character set but as a set of practices that character set enables: *char++, I’m looking at you and all your footgun friends. I was never much of a student, but am I misremembering all that time I spent sorting and manipulating strings with tools that have wound up somewhere on the “merely obsolete” to “actively dangerous” spectrum, unsafe and unportable byproducts of a now-senescent encoding that nobody uses by choice anymore?

It’s really as though at some point, before about 1975, people just… hadn’t fully come to terms with the fact that the world is big. There’s a long chapter here about the granular implementation details of an industry struggling to come to terms with the fact that Europe and Asia actually exist and use computers and even if they didn’t sorting human text is a subtle problem and encodings aren’t the place it’s going to get solved, only for that discussion to get set shunted aside as the ghosts of compatibilities past shamble around the text rattling their chains.

There’s also a few pages in there about “Decimal ASCII” – basically “what if ASCII, but cursed” – a proposal with a such powerful Let Us Never Speak Of This Again energy that almost no modern references to it exist, high on the list of mercifully-dodged bullets scattered throughout this document.

But maybe the most interesting thing in here was about how much effort went into sorting out the difference between blank, space, null, zero and minus zero, which turns out to be a really difficult problem for all sorts of reasons. And the most incredible part of that is this:

An excerpt reading: How would one provide the traditional capability of leaving certain card columns unpunched (blank card columns) during keypunching to be filled with punched data on subsequent card punching operations? Such card columns would in fact have to be created by punching the Zero character that is equated to blank card column. In normal keypunching operations, such card columns are created by spacing, skipping or ejecting. Under this proposal, then, the relatively fast card motion of skipping or ejecting would be repalced by the relatively slow motion of manual keying by an operator. As in the previous argument, key punching productivity would be substantially reduced.

Null-terminated strings were “produced by the .ASCIZ directive of the PDP-11 assembly languages and the ASCIZ directive of the MACRO-10 macro assembly language for the PDP-10”, per Wikipedia, before manifesting themselves in C. But that’s not where they come from.

In fact null terminated strings existed long before C, because using a column of unpunched entries in a Hollerith card – a null column, in a convention that apparently dates to the earliest uses of punchcard collating and sorting machines – to indicate that you could terminate the card’s scan, was a fast, lightweight way to facilitate punch-card re-use and efficient data entry and re-entry, when that data was entered by punching it into cards.

That is to say, we somehow built the foundations of what would become a longstanding security exploit vector decades before anyone could build the operating systems it could exploit. Likely before Long before the invention of the transistor, even.

It’s sort of amazing that anything ever works at all.

October 25, 2020

Navigational Instruments

Filed under: digital,documentation,interfaces,mozilla,toys,work — mhoye @ 11:03 am

A decade ago I got to sit in on a talk by one of the designers of Microsoft Office who’d worked on the transition to the new Ribbon user interface. There was a lot to learn there, but the most interesting thing was when he explained the core rationale for the redesign: of the top ten new feature requests for Office, every year, six to eight of them were already features built into the product, and had been for at least one previous version. They’d already built all this stuff people kept saying they wanted, and nobody could find it to use it.

It comes up periodically at my job that we have the same problem; there are so many useful features in Firefox that approximately nobody knows about, even people who’ve been using the browser every day and soaking in the codebase for years. People who work here still find themselves saying “wait, you can do that?” when a colleague shows them some novel feature or way to get around the browser that hasn’t seen a lot of daylight.

In the hopes of putting this particular peeve to bed, I did a casual survey the other day of people’s favorite examples of underknown or underappreciated features in the product, and I’ve collected a bunch of them here. These aren’t Add-ons, as great as they are; this is what you get from Firefox out of the proverbial box. I’m going to say “Alt” and “Ctrl” a lot here, because I live in PC land, but if you’re on a Mac those are “Option” and “Command” respectively.

Starting at the top, one of the biggest differences between Firefox and basically everything else out there is right there at the top of the window, the address bar that we call the Quantumbar.

Most of the chromium-client-state browsers seem to be working hard to nerf out the address bar, and URLs in general. It’s my own paranoia, maybe, but I suspect the ultimate goal here is to make it easier to hide how much of that sweet, sweet behavioral data this will help companies siphon up unsupervised. Hoarding the right to look over your shoulder forever seems to be the name of the game in that space, and I’ve got a set of feelings about that you might be able to infer from this paragraph. It’s true that there’s a lot of implementation detail being exposed there, and it’s true that most people might not care so why show it, but being able to see into the guts of a process so you can understand and trust it is just about the whole point of the open-source exercise. Shoving that already-tiny porthole all the way back into the bowels of the raw codebase – particularly when the people doing the shoving have entire identities, careers and employers none of which would exist at all if they hadn’t leveraged the privileges of open software for themselves – is galling to watch, very obviously a selfish, bad-faith exercise. It reduces clicking a mouse around the Web to little more than clicking a TV remote, what Douglas Adams use to call the “point and grunt interface”.

Fortunately the spirit of the command line, in all its esoteric and hidden power, lives on in a few places in Firefox. Most notably in a rich set of Quantumbar shortcuts you can use to get around your browser state and history:

  • Start typing your search with ^ to show only matches in your browsing history.
  • * to show only matches in your bookmarks.
  • + to show only matches in bookmarks you’ve tagged.
  • % to show only matches in your currently open tabs.
  • # to show only matches where every search term is part of the title or part of a tag.
  • $ to show only matches where every search term is part of the web address (URL). The text “https://” or “http://” in the URL is ignored but not “file:///”.
  • Add ? to show only search suggestions.
  • Hitting Ctrl-enter in the URL bar works like autocomplete;”mozilla” go straight to www.mozilla.com, for example. Shift-enter will open a URL in a new tab.

Speaking of the Quantumbar, you can customize it by right-clicking any of the options in the three-dot “Page Options” pulldown menu, and adding them to the address bar. The screenshot tool is pretty great, but one of my personal favorites in that pile is Reader Mode. Did you know there’s text-to-speech built into Reader Mode? It surprised me, too. Click those headphones, see how it goes.

It’s sort of Quantumbar-adjacent, but once you’ve been using it for a few hours the Search Keyword feature is one of those things you just don’t go back to not having. If you right-click or a search field on just about any site, “Add a Keyword for this Search” is one of the options. give it a simple term or letter, then “<term or letter> <search term>” in the Quantumbar and you’re immediately doing that search. A lot of us have that set up for Bugzilla, Github, or Stack Overflow, but just about any search box on just about any site works. If you’re finding yourself searching particular forums, or anywhere search engines can’t reach, this is a fantastic feature.

There are a lot of other small navigation tricks that come in surprisingly handy:

  • Holding down Alt while selecting text allows you to select text within a link without triggering the link
  • Shift-right-click will show Firefox’s context menu even on sites that override it. This is great for Picture-In-Picture most video sites, and getting your expected context menu back from GDocs. (PiP is another feature I’m fond of.)
  • Clicking and dragging down on the forward and back buttons will show a list of previous or next pages this tab has visited.
  • You can use Ctrl-click and middle-mouseclick on most toolbar buttons to open whatever they point at in a new tab; Ctrl-reload  duplicates your current tab. You can use this trick to pop stuff out of the middle of your back and forward history stack into new tabs.
  • You can do this trick with the “view image”  option in the right-click menu, too – Ctrl-clicking that menu item will open that image in its own new tab.
  • New Tab then Undo – Ctrl-T then Ctrl-Z – will populate the address bar with the URL of the previously focused tab, and it’s useful to duplicate the current tab from the keyboard.
  • You can right click an iframe and use the This Frame option to open the iframe in a tab of its own, then access the URL and other things.
  • Ctrl+Shift+N will reopen the most recently closed window, Ctrl+Shift+T the most recently closed tab. The tabs are a history stack, so you can keep re-opening them.
  • Knowing you can use Ctrl-M to mute a tab is invaluable.

If you’re a tab-hoarder like me, there’s a lot here to make your life better; Ctrl-# for some N 1 to 8 will switch you to the Nth tab, and Ctrl-9 takes you to the rightmost tab (in left-to-right language layouts, it’s mirrored in RTL). You might want to look over the whole list of keyboard shortcuts, if that’s your thing. There are a lot of them. But probably the most underappreciated is that you can select multiple tabs by using Shift-click, so you can work on the as a group. Ctrl-click will also let you select non-adjacent tabs, as you might expect, and once you’ve selected a few you can:

  • Move them as a group, left, right, new window, into Container tabs, you name it.
  • Pin them (Pinned tabs are another fantastic feature, and the combination of pinned tabs and ctrl-# is very nice.)
  • Mute a bunch of tabs at once.
  • If you’ve got Sync set up – and if you’ve got more than one device, seriously, make your life better and set up sync! – you can right-click and send them all to a different device. If you’ve got Firefox on your phone, “send these ten tabs to my phone” is one click. That action is privacy-respecting, too – nobody can see what you’re sending over, not even Mozilla.

I suspect it’s also not widely appreciated that you can customize Firefox in some depth, another option not widely available in other browsers. Click that three-bar menu in the upper right, click customize; there’s a lot there.

  • You get light, dark and Alpenglow themes stock, and you can find a bunch more on AMO to suit your taste.
  • There’s a few buttons in there for features you didn’t know Firefox had, and you can put them wherever
  • Density is a nice tweak, and removing the title bar is great for squeezing more real estate out of smaller laptop screens.
  • Overflow menu is a great place to put lightly used extensions or buttons
  • There’s a few Easter eggs in there, too, I’m told?

You can also play some games with named profiles that a lot of people doing web development find useful as well. By modifyingyour desktop shortcuts to add “-P [profile name]” –no-remote” after the firefox.exe bit, you can have “personal Firefox” and “work Firefox” running independently and fully separately from each other. That’s getting a bit esoteric, but if you do a lot of webdev or testing you might find it helpful.

So, there you go, I hope it’s helpful.

I’ll keep that casual survey running for a while, but if your personal favorite pet feature isn’t in there, feel free to email me. I know there are more.

October 8, 2020

Control Keys Redux

Filed under: arcade,digital,documentation,interfaces,life,linux,science,toys — mhoye @ 5:29 pm

A long overdue followup.

One of my favourite anecdotes in Kernighan’s “Unix, A History And A Memoir” is the observation that the reason early Unix commands are so often truncated – rm, mv, ls, and so on – was that the keyboards of the day were so terrible that they hurt to type on for any length of time.

I wish more people thought about keyboards. This is the primary interface to these devices we spend so much of our time on, and it baffles me that people just stick with whatever ten dollar keyboard came in the box. It makes as much sense to me a runner buying one-size-fits-all shoes.

There are a lot of people who do think about keyboards, of course, but even so what I’m aiming for isn’t part of that conversation, and often feels like lonely work. Most of the mechanical keyboard fetishists that I can find are in it for the aesthetics, assembling these switches and those keycaps, and while the results can be beautiful they aren’t structurally all that different, still not quite something truly built to be truly personal. Kailh bronze switches are made of joy, sure, but if my wrists are still contorting to use the keyboard, that fantastic popcorn keyspring texture isn’t going to be durably great for me.

I’ve had this plan in mind for a while now, and have finally gotten around to setting up a keyboard the way I’ve long intended to thanks to a friend who introduced me to Cardellini ball clamps and mounting plates. Those were the missing pieces I needed to set up the keyboard I’m typing this on now, a Kinesis Ergo Edge split mechanical keyboard.

Some minor gripes about this specific device include:

    • Manufacturers of split keyboards absolutely refuse, for reasons I cannot figure out, to allow the halves of the keyboard to overlap. I want the 6TGB line and 7YHN columns on both halves! I’d much rather have that than macros or illumination gimmicks.
    • The stands you can order for it, like the wrist rests in the box, are a waste of time. I’m using neither so it’s not a big deal, but seeing a nice product ship with cheap plastic greebling is always a shame.
    • The customization software that comes with it is… somewhat opaque. I’ll find a use for those macro keys, but for now meh. Remapping that ridiculous panic button thing in the upper left to “lock my screen” was straightforward enough, which was nice.
    • Keys on these split keyboards are never ortholinear – meaning, never in a regular old, non-offset grid, like you’d expect on a tool being used by people without diagonal fingers. Standard keyboard layouts make zero sense and haven’t in fifty years; we don’t need to genuflect to a layout forced on us by mechanical typewriter levers and haven’t since before Unix was invented! Get it together, manufacturers! But here we are.

But the nice things about it – the action on these delightfully clicky Cherry MX Blue switches,  the fact that most of the keys are in the right places, the split cable being elegantly tucked away – they outweigh all of the gripes, and so far I’m reasonably happy with the setup, but that’s not really because of what came in the box.

It’s because the setup is this:


Ergonomics

Like I say, I’ve had this in mind for a while – an A shape hanging off the front of the desk, each half of the keyboard with a ball head sticking out the plates on the bottom and a third ball head sticking out of the standing desk at about belt level, bolted into the underside of my standing desk. All of it is held together with a surprisingly rigid three-way ball clamp – the film industry doesn’t like having lights or cameras just topple to the floor for no reason, funny story – and the result is a standing desk where I can type with my hands in a very relaxed, natural position all day, without craning my wrists or resting them awkwardly on anything. The key surface is all facing away from me, which takes some getting used to, but hooking my thumbs on the side of the spacebars gives me a good enough home key experience that my typing error rate is getting back down to the usual “merely poor” levels I’m long accustomed to.

It’s a good feeling so far, even if I’m making microadjustments all the time and sort of reteaching myself how to type. I’m starting to suspect that any computer-related ergonomics setup that preassumes a desk and chair is starting from a unrecoverable condition of sin; humans are shaped like neither of those things, and tools should be made to fit humans.

Update: A few people have asked me for a parts list. It is:

 

August 31, 2020

Consequences Of Code

Filed under: a/b,digital,documentation,doom,fail,hate,interfaces,losers,vendetta — mhoye @ 9:24 pm

[Content warning: There’s descriptions of psychological and animal abuse in here, because I’m talking about Facebook. This gets ugly fast.]

The idea behind DevOps – a consolidation of the developers who created software and the operational teams who deployed and maintained it, a meaningful distinction once upon a time – was simple. You, developer, will spend couple of days a month carrying the pager that wakes somebody up when your software fails. It’s telling that “you should own the consequences of your professional actions” was considered some sort of revolutionary insight in this industry, but let’s put that aside for the moment; that model of service development and deployment where engineers own and experience the failure modes of code they wrote, this sudden, shocking alignment of incentives – what do you mean, I’m going to be sitting in the economy seats during the maiden flight of this airplane I designed? – has driven dramatic improvements in too many organizations to count.

There are some exceptions, though.

Many Facebook employees reportedly weren’t satisfied with Zuckerberg’s explanation for the lack of action on the Kenosha Guard page, BuzzFeed reported. “We need to get better at avoiding mistakes and being more proactive,” one employee commented on the livestream of the Facebook meeting. ”Feels like we’re caught in a cycle of responding to damage after it’s already been done rather than constructing mechanisms to nip these issues before they result in real harm.” Employees have also blamed Zuckerberg personally for the company’s repeated failure to adequately address hate on its platform, with one telling BuzzFeed that Zuckerberg “seems truly incapable of taking personal responsibility for decisions and actions at Facebook.””

Many Facebook employees “weren’t satisfied”, golly. Sure, they all showed up for work the next day but think of all that dissatisfaction. Then compare it to what their content moderators – the people they pay to deal with the consequences of the software they’ve written – go through for fifteen bucks an hour every fucking day.

For the six months after he was hired, Speagle would moderate 100 to 200 posts a day. He watched people throw puppies into a raging river, and put lit fireworks in dogs’ mouths. He watched people mutilate the genitals of a live mouse, and chop off a cat’s face with a hatchet. He watched videos of people playing with human fetuses, and says he learned that they are allowed on Facebook “as long as the skin is translucent.” He found that he could no longer sleep for more than two or three hours a night. He would frequently wake up in a cold sweat, crying.

Who could have predicted that “operational mistakes” might happen in an environment like that?

In a companywide meeting on Thursday, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg said that a militia page advocating for followers to bring weapons to an upcoming protest in Kenosha, Wisconsin, remained on the platform because of “an operational mistake.”

… which is just the most obvious and egregious lie. 3 overlooked reports might, conceivably, be an operational mistake. Four hundred is a policy decision.

The reason Facebook’s engineers, managers and leadership don’t and will never take operational responsibility for their code – the reason they won’t ever put the people who write their software and the people subject to the worst consequences of it in the same State, much less the same building – is simple: if Facebook’s engineers and managers had to spend one week every quarter doing the moderation work they fob off on underpaid contractors, Facebook wouldn’t exist in a year. And everyone working there knows that.

If you work at Facebook, quit. You might have good intentions – the best intentions, just really great intentions, fantastic intentions – but you know who you are and what you’re complicit in. Your intentions are just the bedtime stories you’re telling your conscience so you can sleep at night. You have a choice. Do better.

May 5, 2020

The Shape Of The Machine

Filed under: digital,documentation,doom,interfaces,vendetta — mhoye @ 11:18 am

P4030207

The AMP people are rebranding their “AMP Stories” as “web stories“, raising that bland flag to the strained smiles of their publisher client-states, so it’s about time for me to click “post” on this. I was ranting about AMP a few weeks ago, partly because it’s a minor fraud being carried out at the expense of open standards and the common good, but mostly because of what an incredible social engineering exercise it’s been inside the big G.

The most remarkable thing about this machine – specifically, this corner of the massive Google monitor-and-monetize engine – how well they’ve broken up every part of the process internally at Google. The team working on AMP is making web pages lighter-weight and faster to load, and that sure seems like a net good in the world. Elsewhere, the search team has built out a preference for surfacing faster-loading and lighter-weight web pages to mobile users, which I’m sure was a decision with some sort of empirical basis and on its face seems like a good idea too. That a site would show up better in search results because it’s snappier or more responsive seems reasonable. And finally Google sells ads and shares ad revenue and that keeps a lot of sites alive these days, and I guess that’s good as well.

But when you put all the parts of that machine together under one P&L-statement roof suddenly you’re looking at a thinly veiled extortion scheme; as a publisher you either use AMP or your ad revenue goes away. Google could have approached the “be better on mobile” problem, search optimization and revenue sharing any number of ways, obviously, but the one they’ve chosen and built out is the one that guarantees that either you let them middleman all of your traffic or they cut off your oxygen.

That’s a real nice revenue stream you’ve got there; it’d be a shame if anything happened to it.

It’s got a certain sinister elegance to it, that mercenary Vintage Microsoft flavor, but Vintage Microsoft never pretended they were anything other than mercenary and this is all about the pretending. It’s not on the same level as Facebook, obviously, where they’ve managed to compartment their org structure so carefully that complicity in war crimes and other atrocities leaves facebookers feeling like they’re the ones being portrayed unfairly, but it’s still an accomplishment. That’s the most fascinating part of this exercise, to my mind: that Google has managed to structure this surveillance-and-value-extraction machine entirely out of people who are convinced that they, personally, are doing good for the world. The stuff they’re working on isn’t that bad – we’ve got such beautiful intentions! – and it’s interesting work and the perks here are really good… You can kind of watch their eyes de-focus for a second when you bring it up; it takes them a minute to remember who pays for their laundry and snacks.

March 6, 2020

Brace For Impact

I don’t spend a lot of time in here patting myself on the back, but today you can indulge me.

In the last few weeks it was a ghost town, and that felt like a victory. From a few days after we’d switched it on to Monday, I could count the number of human users on any of our major channels on one hand. By the end, apart from one last hurrah the hour before shutdown, there was nobody there but bots talking to other bots. Everyone – the company, the community, everyone – had already voted with their feet.

About three weeks ago, after spending most of a month shaking out some bugs and getting comfortable in our new space we turned on federation, connecting Mozilla to the rest of the Matrix ecosystem. Last Monday we decommissioned IRC.Mozilla.org for good, closing the book on a 22-year-long chapter of Mozilla’s history as we started a new one in our new home on Matrix.

I was given this job early last year but the post that earned it, I’m guessing, was from late 2018:

I’ve mentioned before that I think it’s a mistake to think of federation as a feature of distributed systems, rather than as consequence of computational scarcity. But more importantly, I believe that federated infrastructure – that is, a focus on distributed and resilient services – is a poor substitute for an accountable infrastructure that prioritizes a distributed and healthy community. […] That’s the other part of federated systems we don’t talk about much – how much the burden of safety shifts to the individual.

Some inside baseball here, but if you’re wondering: that’s why I pushed back on the idea of federation from the beginning, for all invective that earned me. That’s why I refused to include it as a requirement and held the line on that for the entire process. The fact that on classically-federated systems distributed access and non-accountable administration means that the burden of personal safety falls entirely on the individual. That’s not a unique artifact of federated systems, of course – Slack doesn’t think you should be permitted to protect yourself either, and they’re happy to wave vaguely in the direction of some hypothetical HR department and pretend that keeps their hands clean, as just one example of many – but it’s structurally true of old-school federated systems of all stripes. And bluntly, I refuse to let us end up in a place where asking somebody to participate in the Mozilla project is no different from asking them to walk home at night alone.

And yet here we are, opting into the Fediverse. It’s not because I’ve changed my mind.

One of the strongest selling points of Matrix is the combination of powerful moderation and safety tooling that hosting organizations can operate with robust tools for personal self-defense available in parallel. Critically, these aren’t half-assed tools that have been grafted on as an afterthought; they’re first-class features, robust enough that we can not only deploy them with confidence, but can reasonably be held accountable by our colleagues and community for their use. In short, we can now have safe, accountable infrastructure that complements, rather than comes at the cost, of individual user agency.

That’s not the best thing, though, and I’m here to tell you about my favorite Matrix feature that nobody knows about: Federated auto-updating blocklist sharing.

If you decide you trust somebody else’s decisions, at some other organization – their judgment calls about who is and is not welcome there – those decisions can be immediately and automatically reflected in your own. When a site you trust drops the hammer on some bad actor that ban can be adopted almost immediately by your site and your community as well. You don’t have to have ever seen that person or have whatever got them banned hit you in the eyes. You don’t even need to know they exist. All you need to do is decide you trust that other site judgment and magically someone persona non grata on their site is precisely that grata on yours.

Another way to say that is: among people or communities who trust each other in these decisions, an act of self-defense becomes, seamlessly and invisibly, an act of collective defense. No more everyone needing to fight their own fights alone forever, no more getting isolated and picked off one at a time, weakest first; shields-up means shields-up for everyone. Effective, practical defensive solidarity; it’s the most important new idea I’ve seen in social software in years. Every federated system out should build out their own version, and it’s very clear to me, at least, that is going to be the table stakes of a federated future very soon.

So I feel pretty good about where we’ve ended up, and where we’re going.

In the long term, I see that as the future of Mozilla’s responsibility to the Web; not here merely to protect the Web, not merely to defend your freedom to participate in the Web, but to mount a positive defense of people’s opportunities to participate. And on the other side of that coin, to build accountable tools, systems and communities that promise not only freedom from arbitrary harassment, but even freedom from the possibility of that harassment.

I’ve got a graph here that’s pointing up and to the right, and it’s got nothing to do with scraping fractions of pennies out of rageclicks and misery; just people making a choice to go somewhere better, safer and happier. Maybe, just maybe, we can salvage this whole internet thing. Maybe all is not yet lost, and the future is not yet written.

February 20, 2020

Synchronous Messaging: We’re Live.

Filed under: digital,documentation,future,irc,mozilla,vendetta,work — mhoye @ 5:15 pm

Untitled

After a nine month leadup, chat.mozilla.org, our Matrix-based replacement for IRC, has been up running for about a month now.

While we’ve made a number of internal and community-facing announcements about progress, access and so forth, we’ve deliberately run this as a quiet, cautious, low-key rollout, letting our communities find their way to chat.m.o and Matrix organically while we sort out the bugs and rough edges of this new experience.

Last week we turned on federation, the last major step towards opening Mozilla to the wider Matrix ecosystem, and it’s gone really well. Which means that as of last week, Mozilla’s transition from IRC to Matrix is within arm’s reach of done.

The Matrix team have been fantastic partners throughout this process, open to feedback and responsive to concerns throughout. It’s been a great working relationship, and as investments of effort go one that’s already paying off exactly the way want our efforts to pay off, with functional, polish and accessibility improvements that benefit the entire Matrix ecosystem coming from the feedback from the Mozilla community.

We still have work to do, but this far into the transition it sure feels like winning. The number of participants in our primary development channels has already exceeded their counterparts on IRC at their most active, and there’s no sign that’s slowing down. Many of our engineering and ops teams are idling or archiving their Slack channels and have moved entirely to Matrix, and that trend isn’t slowing down either.

As previously announced, we’re on schedule to turn off IRC.m.o at the end of the month, and don’t see a reason to reconsider that decision. So far, it looks like we’re pretty happy on the new system. It’s working well for us.

So: Welcome. If you’re new to Mozilla or would like to get involved, come see us in the #Introduction channel on our shiny new Matrix system. I hope to see you there.

December 26, 2019

Intrasective Subversions

I often wonder where we’d be if Google had spent their don’t-be-evil honeymoon actually interviewing people for some sort moral or ethical framework instead of teaching a generation of new hires that the important questions are all about how many piano tuners play ping pong on the moon.

You might have seen the NYTimes article on hypertargeted product placement, one of those new magical ideas that look totally reasonable in an industry where CPU cycles are cheap and principles are expensive.

I just wanted to make sure we all understood that one extremely intentional byproduct of that will breathe new life into the old documnent-canary trick of tailoring sensitive text with unique punctuation or phrasing in particularly quotable passages to identify leakers, and has been purpose-built as a way to precision-target torrent seeders or anyone else who shares media. “We only showed this combination of in-product signal to this specific person, therefore they’re the guilty party” is where this is going, and that’s not an accident.

The remedy, of course, is going to be cooperation. Robust visual diffs, scene hashes and smart muting (be sure to refer to They Live for placeholder inspiration) will be more than enough to fuzz out discoverability for even a moderately-sized community. As it frequently is, the secret ingredient is smart people working together.

In any case, I’m sure that all right thinking people can agree that ads are the right place to put graffiti. So I’m looking forward to all the shows that are turned into hijacked art-project torrents the moment they’re released, and seeing

THEY LIVE
THEY LAUGH
THEY LOVE

in the background of the pirated romcoms of 2021.

December 19, 2019

Over The Line

IMG_1500044662340

[ This first appeared over on the Mozilla community discourse forums. ]

You can scroll down to the punchline if you like, but I want to start by thanking the Mozilla community, contributors, industry partners and colleagues alike, for the work everyone has put into this. Hundreds of invested people have weighed in on our hard requirements, nice-to-haves and long term goals, and tested our candidates with an eye not just to our immediate technical and community needs but to Mozilla’s mission, our tools as an expression of our values and a vision of a better future. Having so many people show up and give a damn has a rewarding, inspiring experience, and I’m grateful for the trust and patience everyone involved has shown us in helping us get this over the line.

We knew from the beginning that this was going to be a hard process; that it had to be not just transparent but open, not just legitimate but seen to be legitimate, that we had to meet our hard operational requirements while staying true to our values in the process. Today, after almost a year of research, consulting, gathering requirements, testing candidate stacks and distilling everything we’ve learned in the process down to the essentials, I think we’ve accomplished that.

I am delighted and honored to say that we have one candidate that unambiguously meets our institutional and operational needs: we have decided to replace IRC with Riot/Matrix, hosted by Modular.IM.

While all of the candidates proved to be excellent team collaboration and communication tools, Riot/Matrix has distinguished itself as an excellent open community collaboration tool, with robust support for accessibility and community safety that offers more agency and autonomy to the participants, teams and communities that make up Mozilla.

That Matrix gives individual community members effective tools for both reporting violations of Mozilla’s Community Participation Guidelines (“CPG”) and securing their own safety weighed heavily in our decision-making. While all of the candidates offered robust, mature APIs that would meet the needs of our developer, infrastructure and developer productivity teams, Riot/Matrix was the only candidate that included CPG reporting and enforcement tooling as a standard part of their offering, offering individual users the opportunity to raise their own shields on their own terms as well as supporting the general health and safety of the community.

Riot/Matrix was also the preferred choice of our accessibility team. Mozilla is committed to building a company, a community and a web without second class citizens, and from the beginning the accessibility team’s endorsement was a hard requirement for this process.

Speaking personally, it is an enormous relief that we weren’t forced to make “pick-two” sort of choice between community safety, developer support and accessibility, and it is a testament to the hard work the Matrix team has done that we can have all three.

Now that we’ve made our decision and formalized our relationship with the Modular.IM team, we’ll be standing up the new service in January. Soon after that we’ll start migrating tooling and forums over to the new system, and as previously mentioned no later than March of next year, we’ll shut down IRC.mozilla.org.

Thank you all for your help getting us here; I’m looking forward to seeing you on the new system.

– mhoye

December 17, 2019

Long Term Support

Filed under: a/b,digital,future,interfaces,linux,toys,want,work — mhoye @ 11:34 am

I bought a cordless drill from DeWalt a few years before they standardized on their current 20 volt form factor. Today the drill part of the drill is still in good shape, but its batteries won’t hold a charge – don’t store your batteries in the shed over the winter, folks, that’s rookie mistake – and I can’t replace them; they just don’t make them anymore. Nobody does.

I was thoroughly prepared to be annoyed about this, but it turns out DeWalt makes an adapter that slots right into my old drill and lets me use their new standard batteries. I’ll likely get another decade out of it as a result, and if the drill gives up the ghost in the meantime I’ll be able to use those batteries in its replacement.

Does any computer manufacturer out there anywhere care about longevity like that, today? The Cadillac answer to that used to be “Thinkpad”, but those days are long gone and as far as I can tell there’s nothing else in this space. I don’t care about thin or light at all. I’m happy to carry a few extra pounds; these are my tools, and if that’s the price of durable, maintainable and resilient tools means a bit of extra weight in the bag I’ll pay it and smile. I just want to be able to fix it; I want something I can strip all the way down to standard parts with a standard screwdriver and replace piecemeal when it needs piecemeal replacing. Does anyone make anything like this anymore, a tradesman’s machine? The MNTRE people are giving it a shot. Is anyone else, anywhere?

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