blarg?

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

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[ 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?

December 13, 2019

Decentralia

Filed under: a/b,digital,documentation,fail,interfaces,vendetta — mhoye @ 3:16 pm

It’s been a few years since I’ve seen an interview with Jack Dorsey that didn’t read like he’d just smoked an entire copy of Atlas Shrugged, so when he announced that he was willing to fund “up to five” people to wash his hands a lot of people were a little suspicious, including me:

Twitter doesn’t exactly have a history of doing the reading before coming to class, so it wasn’t a surprise that there wasn’t so much as a nod to existing work in the space. I also wasn’t surprised to see so much criticism emerge from a fundamental mistrust of both Twitter’s intent and execution; ambulance-chaser to the world’s worst ideas is definitely in-character for that company. That said, it’s definitely a testament to the fundamental optimism of the open source world that so many people offered to help at all.

It’s Twitter, so there’s plenty of healthy pessimism around – as one example, Diaspora developer Sean Tilley said that “the pessimistic interpretation is that Twitter wants this, but also wants to control the standard” – but even seeing that and a lot like it the “real why” question still nagged at me. Ok, you don’t want to control the client anymore. Great. You don’t necessarily want to control the infrastructure, also great, so… what’s left? We know who you are, we know what you are: what do you want to control here and to what end?

To me this smells like a cryptocurrency play. A clever one, admittedly, but still.

The general shape of that corner of the law is very strange to me; it’s illegal to create your own currency, for example, entirely legal to issue non-voting shares of stock in your company, we’re apparently undecided about cryptocoinage, and it’s not clear to me what makes any of those things different. That aside, my concern is this: if some financial services company manages to finagle enough control over, say, the wheat futures market and the bread futures market then the people who own and operate the bread-making plant in the middle wind up having very little agency over their fates beyond the decision of whether or not to operate the machinery at all.

With that model in mind, if this is a cryptocurrency play and Twitter manages to turn themselves in to the First National Bank of the Fediverse – by which I mean, if they can open up the application or storage layer while maintaining control over a separate value-exchange layer – then they can effectively meet the letter of the law as far as “open” is concerned (Readable code! Data migration!) while completely subverting open source’s ideological goals of user agency, safety and real, informed choice. If my suspicions are correct, the end play for this Twitter thing is not more agency or meaningful freedom for the participants, but simply dumping of the costs of operating the machinery of openness on an unsuspecting and ideologically-blinded audience. Or in the classic phrasing: socializing the costs and privatizing the profits. The only new twist here is the audience.

For my own part, beyond updating my sarcastic comments about the blockchain to sarcastic comments about “up to five open source architects, engineers, and designers” I’m going to ignore it. We’ve got a better future to build here, and if Twitter wants to be a part of that they can clean their own house first before wiring themselves up to everyone else’s.

November 29, 2019

Historical Reasons

Filed under: digital,documentation,interfaces,mozilla,work — mhoye @ 12:09 pm

Untitled

I’ve known for a while how to override bash builtins, but it was something I’d long filed under “ok but why” in my mental repository of software esoterica. Until I saw this comment I hadn’t considered how useful it could be.

I’ve long held the position that our tools are so often ahumanist junk because we’re so deeply beholden to a history we don’t understand, and in my limited experience with the various DevOps toolchains, they definitely feel like Stockholm Spectrum products of that particular zeitgeist.  It’s a longstanding gripe I’ve got with that entire class of tools, Docker, Vagrant and the like; how narrow their notions of a “working development environment” are. Source, dependencies, deploy scripts and some operational context, great, but… not much else?

And on one hand: that’s definitely not nothing. But on the other … that’s all, really? It works, for sure, but it still seems like a failure of imagination that solving the Works On My Machine problem involves turning it inside out so that “deploy from my machine” means “my machine is now thoroughly constrained”. Seems like a long road around to where we started out but it was a discipline then, not a toolchain. And while I fully support turning human processes into shell scripts wherever possible (and checklists whenever not), having no slot in the process for compartmentalized idiosyncracy seems like an empty-net miss on the social ergonomics front; improvements in tooling, practice or personal learning all stay personal, their costs and benefits locked on local machines, leaving the burden of sharing the most human-proximate part of the developer experience on the already-burdened human, a forest you can never see past the trees.

This gist is a baby step in a different direction, one of those little tweaks I wish I’d put together 20 years ago; per-project shell history for everything under ~/src/ as a posix-shell default. It’s still limited to personal utility, but at least it gives me a way to check back into projects I haven’t touched in a while and remind myself what I was doing. A way, he said cleverly, of not losing track of my history.

The next obvious step for an idea like this from a tool and ergonomics perspective is to make containerized shell history an (opt-in, obvs) part of a project’s telemetry; I am willing to bet that with a decent corpus, even basic tools like grep and sort -n could draw you a straight line from “what people are trying to do in my project” to “where is my documentation incorrect, inadequate or nonexistent”, not to mention “what are my blind spots” and “how do I decide what to built or automate next”.

But setting that aside, or at least kicking that can down the road to this mythical day where I have a lot of spare time to think about it, this is unreasonably useful for me as it is and maybe you’ll find it useful as well.

November 24, 2019

Verso Polity

Filed under: arcade,digital,documentation,doom,interfaces — mhoye @ 12:53 am

I had to go looking for it to re-watch, because I was briefly exposed to it and couldn’t coherently ingest what I thought I’d seen. I do not ask you to believe, but I won’t give you a link. I cannot inflict this on you in good faith. All I can do is document what I saw.

It begins like this: Our carefully engineered everyman enters an aggressively debranded chain computer store. He has a vaguely north-England accent, an generic outfit stripped of any brand iconography or notable individuality, shoulder-length hair and something a more charitable man than I might refer to as a beard. He is meticulously anodyne, a golem animated from the gaming industry’s most embarrassing default settings and left with the appearance of a man whose inner monologue is the sound of a pizza pocket rotating in a microwave.

And none of that matters because he has no agency over his fate from this moment forward. He won’t even get to finish a sentence. In that sense he is the perfect customer, a walking madlib for the machine to fill in.

“Hi, I’m looking for” he says. Reginald – presumptive avatar of the corporation that paid for this ad – interrupts him immediately with the name of the product, a move so pitch-perfect it hurts. Did he want a printer? A cable? A hamburger? An escape from this narrow semiotic hell? We will never know and it could not matter less. Our everyman’s desires are irrelevant; Reginald is now in charge and physical reality immediately begins to flex and degrade around them as he repeats the product’s name like an invocation.

We are eight seconds into a two minute video and there is already a lot to unpack here.

Screens flashing unfamiliar scenes – presumably games, though nobody is there to play them – start to rotate around our protagonists, and the ceiling bends and shatters as they ascend together through this increasingly distorted reality. They have risen above their debranded chain-store origins. Surrounded by a chaff of whirling screens, their interaction is taking place in the reddened corona of a dying star.

Our everyman does not speak, conveying an incredulous disbelief which in fairness seems reasonable under the circumstances. The product being marketed is described as “electric air” as Reginald flies past our everyman to alight before a large and thoroughly uninspired logo.

We cut directly to what appears to be a young couple’s house, minimally if tastefully ornamented; the couple is on a couch playing video games together. Reginald, who I feel obligated to remind you is the company’s avatar in this video, is now a glowing red giant gazing in the window at this unsuspecting couple. The window is some eight feet tall; Reginald’s face takes up all of it. After mentioning a single presumably positive fact about the product Reginald reaches in through the window and – to the shocked screams of the young couple – destroys their home entertainment system.

We cut to see Reginald now holding the home in his hands; he immediately flings it over his shoulder with a smile as he extols more of the product’s virtues. We can hear the screams of the young couple and the crunch as the house hits the ground.

Reginald mentioned that the web service we’re selling here is odourless before sending a dog to find the product, assuring our everyman that the dog will fail. The dog walks through a wall and vanishes.

We are now at the 36 second mark of this adventure and if you haven’t buckled your semiotic seatbelts yet now’s the time.

A white plastic controller emerges, blob-like, from a white plastic table next to a coffee cup, a generic TV remote control and a cactus. As it congeals into the shape of a recognizably typical console controller, a finger pushes a central button and the screen transforms into a neon sign saying “4K 60FPS”. We cut immediately to a repeating, kaleidoscopic display of Reginald’s face, and the small print at the bottom of that image informs you that you won’t get 4K or 60FPS if you do not spend a lot of money while living in the right city. The phrases “four kay” and “sixty eff pee ess” are repeated. 43 seconds have elapsed.

Another young man, approximately sixteen years old and draped in his father’s suit like a double-breasted poncho appears and yells a product endorsement at our everyman, who cannot hear him over the deafening sound of a backing track that’s almost certainly called “dance_club-synth_beat-#4-fr33s0undz-cr3wz-chek-id3tags-4-bitcoin-addres.Mp3” It’s implied I can’t hear it either, because for some reason there are subtitles for this interaction? Shortly the young man transforms into a kayak on the floor of another living room, into which Reginald and our everyman embark for the next part of their journey.

There’s a window in this room as well, and whatever is outside is glowing a violent red; our heroes ignore this and exit into a fantasy land through a screen.

Reginald is, I think we can agree, doling out the symbolism with a shovel at this point. Here we are at the 52 second mark and it’s hard to believe that he was allowed to make this ad at all, because this is already way, way more than “a bit much”. Regardless, let’s press on.

Our heroes riding their ill-fitting-dad-suited kayak-kid hover through some standard game tropes and across a few different screen shapes in some of the least persuasive video editing in recent memory. These screens, we discover, are being held up in yet another living room by a faceless Nashville backup musician, a refugee from an PM-Dawn-themed rave, a disenchanted cybergoth girl and an electric scooter enthusiast respectively.

We cut now to our heroes drifting briefly in free fall in a typical movie-set space station. Reginald is now somehow wearing a space suit but our everyman is still in his street clothes; he doesn’t get that sort of special treatment, here in the vacuum of space. Kayak kid is gone but that’s probably for the best.

We’re assured that this new product “bends time and space” in some way that’s convenient, and then our everyman is dragged into a kaleidoscopic wormhole to the sound of dismayed screams.

One minute and sixteen seconds in, this kaleidoscopic wormhole extrudes itself into a golf cart that Reginald is driving past racks of servers with a badged and lab-coated employee next to him and our everyman in the back seat, alone with his worried expression. The employee says a few technical terms, and is cut off as we brake suddenly to find the aforementioned dog appearing in the middle of this otherwise infinite hall of glowing server racks. It has succeeded, and for a fraction of a second is acknowledged as a good dog.

Dog and everyman look equally traumatized by whatever is going on here and I cannot say I disagree because damn.

As usual though that doesn’t matter and we leave the dog immediately to hurtle further down the infinite racks of servers hallway while Reginald sings the virtues of having infinite racks of servers. Like dadsuit-kayak-boy, the dog is left to an indeterminate fate.

After flashing past a few fractions of a second of gameplay from a handful of games somebody who played games might recognize, we are at the one minute and forty-one second mark, and I thought things were off the rails before.

Reginald has now ascended back into this purple cloud space thing that reality had collapsed into back in the beginning of this odyssey, accompanied by our everyman, the scientist and for some reason the golf cart, all of which vanish momentarily. More screens swirl around lightning cascades from his outstretched hands, as he yells what is apparently this product’s slogan: “unthink the things you think are things”.

I promise you I am not making that up. That’s the punchline to this exercise.

There’s some more horrific awkwardness after that, but it doesn’t matter. It’s been a while since I’ve seen a commercial that was so obviously a joke made at the expense of the people paying for it, and this one really hits it out of the park. Either this happened on purpose or it happened by accident, and I’m not sure which is worse. On the bright side, given the size of the company we can be confident that people are making fun if it in deadpan conversations around the company literally thousands of times a day.

“Have you tried unthinking some things?” “Things I thought were things, you mean?” “Those are some things I think you could unthink.” “I’ll think about it.”

Don’t bother watching it.

October 23, 2019

80×25

Every now and then, my brain clamps on to obscure trivia like this. It takes so much time. “Because the paper beds of banknote presses in 1860 were 14.5 inches by 16.5 inches, a movie industry cartel set a standard for theater projectors based on silent film, and two kilobytes is two kilobytes” is as far back as I have been able to push this, but let’s get started.

In August of 1861, by order of the U.S. Congress and in order to fund the Union’s ongoing war efforts against the treasonous secessionists of the South, the American Banknote Company started printing what were then called “Demand Notes”, but soon widely known as “greenbacks”.

It’s difficult to research anything about the early days of American currency on Wikipedia these days; that space has been thoroughly colonized by the goldbug/sovcit cranks. You wouldn’t notice it from a casual examination, which is of course the plan; that festering rathole is tucked away down in the references, where articles will fold a seemingly innocuous line somewhere into the middle, tagged with an exceptionally dodgy reference. You’ll learn that “the shift from demand notes to treasury notes meant they could no longer be redeemed for gold coins[1]” – which is strictly true! – but if you chase down that footnote you wind up somewhere with a name like “Lincoln’s Treason – Fiat Currency, Maritime Law And The U.S. Treasury’s Conspiracy To Enslave America”, which I promise I am only barely exaggerating about.

It’s not entirely clear if this is a deliberate exercise in coordinated crank-wank or just years of accumulated flotsam from the usual debate-club dead-enders hanging off the starboard side of the Overton window. There’s plenty of idiots out there that aren’t quite useful enough to work the k-cups at the Heritage Institute, and I guess they’re doing something with their time, but the whole thing has a certain sinister elegance to it that the Randroid crowd can’t usually muster. I’ve got my doubts either way, and I honestly don’t care to dive deep enough into that sewer to settle them. Either way, it’s always good to be reminded that the goldbug/randroid/sovcit crank spectrum shares a common ideological klancestor.

Mercifully that is not what I’m here for. I am here because these first Demand Notes, and the Treasury Notes that came afterwards, were – on average, these were imprecise times – 7-3/8” wide by 3-1/4” tall.

I haven’t been able to precisely answer the “why” of that – I believe, but do not know, that that this is because of the size of the specific dimensions of the presses they were printed on. Despite my best efforts I haven’t been able to find the exact model and specifications of that device. I’ve asked the U.S. Congressional Research Service for some help with this, but between them and the Bureau of Engraving and Printing, we haven’t been able to pin it down. From my last correspondence with them:

Unfortunately, we don’t have any materials in the collection identifying the specific presses and their dimension for early currency production. The best we can say is that the presses used to print currency in the 1860s varied in size and model. These presses went by a number of names, including hand presses, flat-bed presses, and spider presses. They also were capable of printing sheets of paper in various sizes. However, the standard size for printing securities and banknotes appears to have been 14.5 inches by 16.5 inches. We hope this bit of information helps.

… which is unfortunate, but it does give us some clarity. A 16.5″ by 14.5″ printing sheet lets you print eight 7-3/8” by 3-1/4″ sheets to size, with a fraction of an inch on either side for trimming.

The answer to that question starts to matter about twenty years later on the heels of the 1880 American Census. Mandated to be performed once a decade, the United States population had grown some 30% since the previous census, and even with enormous effort the final tabulations weren’t finished until 1888, an unacceptable delay.

One of the 1880 Census’ early employees was a man named Herman Hollerith, a recent graduate of the Columbia School of Mines who’d been invited to join the Census efforts early on by one of his professors. The Census was one of the most important social and professional networking exercises of the day, and Hollerith correctly jumped at the opportunity:

The absence of a permanent institution meant the network of individuals with professional census expertise scattered widely after each census. The invitation offered a young graduate the possibility to get acquainted with various members of the network, which was soon to be dispersed across the country.

As an aside, that invitation letter is one of the most important early documents in the history of computing for lots of reasons, including this one:

The machine in that picture was the third generation of the “Hollerith Tabulator”, notable for the replaceable plugboard that made it reprogrammable. I need to find some time to dig further into this, but that might be the first multipurpose, if not “general purpose” as we’ve come to understand it, electronic computation device. This is another piece of formative tech that emerged from this era, one that led to directly to the removable panels (and ultimately the general componentization) of later computing hardware.

Well before the model 3, though, was the original 1890 Hollerith Census Tabulator that relied on punchcards much like this one.

Hollerith took the inspiration for those punchcards from the “punch photographs” used by some railways at the time to make sure that tickets belonged to the passengers holding them. You can see a description of one patent for them here dating to 1888, but Hollerith relates the story from a few years earlier:

One thing that helped me along in this matter was that some time before I was traveling in the west and I had a ticket with what I think was called a punch photograph. When the ticket was first presented to a conductor he punched out a description of the individual, as light hair, dark eyes, large nose etc. So you see I only made a punch photograph of each person.

Tangentially: this is the birth of computational biometrics. And as you can see from this extract from The Railway News (Vol. XLVIII, No. 1234 , published Aug. 27, 1887) people have been concerned about harassment because of unfair assessment by the authorities from day one:

punch-photograph

After experimenting with a variety of card sizes Hollerith decided that to save on production costs he’d use the same boxes the U.S. Treasury was using for the currency of the day: the Demand Note. Punch cards stayed about that shape, punched with devices that looked a lot like this for about 20 years until Thomas Watson Sr. (IBM’s first CEO, from whom the Watson computer gets its name) asked Clair D. Lake and J. Royden Peirce to develop a new, higher data-density card format.

Tragically, this is the part where I need to admit an unfounded assertion. I’ve got data, the pictures line up and numbers work, but I don’t have a citation. I wish I did.

Take a look at “Type Design For Typewriters: Olivetti, written by Maria Ramos Silvia. (You can see a historical talk from her on the history of typefaces here that’s also pretty great.)

Specifically, take a look on page 46 at Mikron Piccolo, Mikron Condensed. The fonts don’t precisely line up – see the different “4”, for example, when comparing it to the typesetting of IBM’s cards – but the size and spacing do. In short: a line of 80 characters, each separated by a space, is the largest round number of digits that the tightest typesetting of the day would allow to be fit on a single 7-3/8” wide card: a 20-point condensed font.

I can’t find a direct citation for this; that’s the only disconnect here. But the spacing all fits, the numbers all work, and I’d bet real money on this: that when Watson gave Lake the task of coming up with a higher information-density punch card, Lake looked around at what they already had on the shelf – a typewriter with the highest-available character density of the day, on cards they could manage with existing and widely-available tooling – and put it all together in 1928. The fact that a square hole – a radical departure from the standard circular punch – was a patentable innovation at the time was just icing on the cake.

The result of that work is something you’ll certainly recognize, the standard IBM punchcard, though of course there’s lot more to it than that. Witness the full glory of the Card Stock Acceptance Procedure, the protocol for measuring folding endurance, air resistance, smoothness and evaluating the ash content, moisture content and pH of the paper, among many other things.

At one point sales of punchcards and related tooling constituted a completely bonkers 30% of IBM’s annual profit margin, so you can understand that IBM had a lot invested in getting that consistently, precisely correct.

At around this time John Logie Baird invented the first “mechanical television”; like punchcards, the first television cameras were hand-cranked devices that relied on something called a Nipkow disk, a mechanical tool for separating images into sequential scan lines, a technique that survives in electronic form to this day. By linearizing the image signal Baird could transmit the image’s brightness levels via a simple radio signal and in 1926 he did just that, replaying that mechanically encoded signal through a CRT and becoming the inventor of broadcast television. He would go on to pioneer colour television – originally called Telechrome, a fantastic name I’m sad we didn’t keep – but that’s a different story.

Baird’s original “Televisor” showed its images on a 7:3 aspect ration vertically oriented cathode ray tube, intended to fit the head and shoulders of a standing person, but that wouldn’t last.

For years previously, silent films had been shot on standard 35MM stock, but the addition of a physical audio track to 35MM film stock didn’t leave enough space left over for the visual area. So – after years of every movie studio having its own preferred aspect ratio, which required its own cameras, projectors, film stock and tools (and and and) – in 1929 the movie industry agreed to settle on the Society of Motion Picture And Television Engineers’ proposed standard of 0.8 inches by 0.6 inches, what became known as the Academy Ratio, or as we better know it today, 4:3.

Between 1932 and 1952, when widescreen for cinemas came into vogue as a differentiator from standard television, just about all the movies made in the world were shot in that aspect ratio, and just about every cathode ray tube made came in that shape, or one that could display it reliably. In 1953 studios started switching to a wider “Cinemascope”, to aggressively differentiate themselves from television, but by then television already had a large, thoroughly entrenched install base, and 4:3 remained the standard for in-home displays – and CRT manufacturers – until widescreen digital television came to market in the 1990s.

As computers moved from teleprinters – like, physical, ink-on-paper line printers – to screens, one byproduct of that standardization was that if you wanted to build a terminal, you either used that aspect ratio or you started making your own custom CRTs, a huge barrier to market entry. You can do that if you’re IBM, and you’re deeply reluctant to if you’re anyone else. So when DEC introduced their VT52 terminal, a successor to the VT50 and earlier VT05 that’s what they shipped, and with only 1Kb of display ram (one kilobyte!) it displayed only twelve rows of widely-spaced text. Math is unforgiving, and 80×12=960; even one more row breaks the bank. The VT52 and its successor the VT100, though, doubled that capacity giving users the opulent luxury of two entire kilobytes of display memory, laid out with a font that fit nicely on that 4:3 screen. The VT100 hit the market in August of 1978, and DEC sold more than six million of them over the product’s lifespan.

You even got an extra whole line to spare! Thanks to the magic of basic arithmetic 80×25 just sneaks under that opulent 2k limit with 48 bytes to spare.

This is another point where direct connections get blurry, because 1976 to 1984 was an incredibly fertile time in the history of computing history. After a brief period where competing terminal standards effectively locked software to the hardware that it shipped on, the VT100 – being the first terminal to market fully supporting the recently codified ANSI standard control and escape sequences – quickly became the de-facto standard, and soon afterwards the de-jure, codified in ANSI-X3.64/ECMA-48. CP/M, soon to be replaced with PC-DOS and then MS-DOS came from this era, with ANSI.SYS being the way DOS programs talked to the display from DOS 2.0 through to beginning of Windows. Then in 1983 the Apple IIe was introduced, the first Apple computer to natively support an 80×24 text display, doubling the 40×24 default of their earlier hardware. The original XTerm, first released in 1984, was also created explicitly for VT100 compatibility.

Fascinatingly, the early versions of the ECMA-48 standard specify that this standard isn’t solely meant for displays, specifying that “examples of devices conforming to this concept are: an alpha-numeric display device, a printer or a microfilm output device.”

A microfilm output device! This exercise dates to a time when microfilm output was a design constraint! I did not anticipate that cold-war spy-novel flavor while I was dredging this out, but it’s there and it’s magnificent.

It also dates to a time that the market was shifting quickly from mainframes and minicomputers to microcomputers – or, as we call them today, “computers” – as reasonably affordable desktop machines that humans might possibly afford and that companies might own a large number of, meaning this is also where the spectre of backcompat starts haunting the industry – This moment in a talk from the Microsoft developers working on the Windows Subsystem for Linux gives you a sense of the scale of that burden even today. In fact, it wasn’t until the fifth edition of ECMA-48 was published in 1991, more than a decade after the VT100 hit the market, that the formal specification for terminal behavior even admitted the possibility (Appendix F) that a terminal could be resized at all, meaning that the existing defaults were effectively graven in stone during what was otherwise one of the most fertile and formative periods in the history of computing.

As a personal aside, my two great frustrations with doing any kind of historical CS research remain the incalculable damage that academic paywalls have done to the historical record, and the relentless insistence this industry has on justifying rather than interrogating the status quo. This is how you end up on Stack Overflow spouting unresearched nonsense about how “4 pixel wide fonts are untidy-looking”. I’ve said this before, and I’ll say it again: whatever we think about ourselves as programmers and these towering logic-engines we’ve erected, we’re a lot more superstitious than we realize, and by telling and retelling these unsourced, inaccurate just-so stories without ever doing the work of finding the real truth, we’re betraying ourselves, our history and our future. But it’s pretty goddamned difficult to convince people that they should actually look things up instead of making up nonsense when actually looking things up, even for a seemingly simple question like this one, can cost somebody on the outside edge of an academic paywall hundreds or thousands of dollars.

So, as is now the usual in these things:

  • There are technical reasons,
  • There are social reasons,
  • It’s complicated, and
  • Open access publication or GTFO.

But if you ever wondered why just about every terminal in the world is eighty characters wide and twenty-five characters tall, there you go.

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