blarg?

September 20, 2015

The Bourne Aesthetic

“The difference between something that can go wrong and something that can’t possibly go wrong is that when something that can’t possibly go wrong goes wrong it usually turns out to be impossible to get at or repair.”

–Douglas Adams

I’ve been trying to get this from draft to published for almost six months now. I might edit it later but for now, what the hell. It’s about James Bond, Jason Bourne, old laptops, economies of scale, design innovation, pragmatism at the margins and an endless supply of breadsticks.

You’re in, right?

Bond was a character that people in his era could identify with:

Think about how that works in the post war era. The office dwelling accountant/lawyer/ad man/salesman has an expense account. This covers some lunches at counters with clients, or maybe a few nice dinners. He flirts with the secretaries and receptionists and sometimes sleeps with them. He travels on business, perhaps from his suburb into Chicago, or from Chicago to Cleveland, or San Francisco to LA. His office issues him a dictaphone (he can’t type) or perhaps a rolling display case for his wares. He has a work car, maybe an Oldsmobile 88 if he’s lucky, or a Ford Falcon if he’s not. He’s working his way up to the top, but isn’t quite ready for a management slot. He wears a suit, tie and hat every day to the office. If he’s doing well he buys this downtown at a specialty men’s store. If he’s merely average, he picks this up at Macy’s, or Sears if he’s really just a regular joe. If he gets sick his employer has a nice PPO insurance plan for him.

Now look at Bond. He has an expense account, which covers extravagant dinners and breakfasts at the finest 4 star hotels and restaurants. He travels on business, to exotic places like Istanbul, Tokyo and Paris. He takes advantage of the sexual revolution (while continuing to serve his imperialist/nationalist masters) by sleeping with random women in foreign locations. He gets issued cool stuff by the office– instead of a big dictaphone that he keeps on his desk, Bond has a tiny dictaphone that he carries around with him in his pocket! He has a work car — but it’s an Aston Martin with machine guns! He’s a star, with a license to kill, but not management. Management would be boring anyways, they stay in London while Bond gets to go abroad and sleep with beautiful women. Bond always wears a suit, but they’re custom tailored of the finest materials. If he gets hurt, he has some Royal Navy doctors to fix him right up.

In today’s world, that organization man who looked up to James Bond as a kind of avatar of his hopes and dreams, no longer exists.

Who is our generations James Bond? Jason Bourne. He can’t trust his employer, who demanded ultimate loyalty and gave nothing in return. In fact, his employer is outsourcing his work to a bunch of foreign contractors who presumably work for less and ask fewer questions. He’s given up his defined benefit pension (Bourne had a military one) for an individual retirement account (safe deposit box with gold/leeching off the gf in a country with a depressed currency). In fact his employer is going to use him up until he’s useless. He can’t trust anyone, other than a few friends he’s made on the way while backpacking around. Medical care? Well that’s DIY with stolen stuff, or he gets his friends to hook him up. What kinds of cars does he have? Well no more company car for sure, he’s on his own on that, probably some kind of import job. What about work tools? Bourne is on is own there too. Sure, work initially issued him a weapon, but after that he’s got to scrounge up whatever discount stuff he can find, even when it’s an antique. He has to do more with less. And finally, Bourne survives as a result of his high priced, specialized education. He can do things few people can do – fight multiple opponents, hotwire a car, tell which guy in a restaurant can handle himself, hotwire cars, speak multiple languages and duck a surveillance tail. Oh, and like the modern, (sub)urban professional, Bourne had to mortgage his entire future to get that education. They took everything he had, and promised that if he gave himself up to the System, in return the System would take care of him.

It turned out to be a lie.

We’re all Jason Bourne now.

posted by wuwei at 1:27 AM on July 7, 2010

I think about design a lot these days, and I realize that’s about as fatuous an opener as you’re likely to read this week so I’m going to ask you to bear with me.

If you’re already rolling out your “resigned disappointment” face: believe me, I totally understand. I suspect we’ve both dealt with That Guy Who Calls Himself A Designer at some point, that particular strain of self-aggrandizing flake who’s parlayed a youth full of disdain for people who just don’t understand them into a career full of evidence they don’t understand anyone else. My current job’s many bright spots are definitely brighter for his absence, and I wish the same for you. But if it helps you get past this oddly-shaped lump of a lede, feel free to imagine me setting a pair of Raybans down next to an ornamental scarf of some kind, sipping a coffee with organic soy ingredients and a meaningless but vaguely European name, writing “Helvetica?” in a Moleskine notebook and staring pensively into the middle distance. Does my carefully manicured stubble convey the precise measure of my insouciance? Perhaps it does; perhaps I’m gazing at some everyday object nearby, pausing to sigh before employing a small gesture to convey that no, no, it’s really nothing. Insouciance is a french word, by the way. Like café. You should look it up. I know you’ve never been to Europe, I can tell.

You see? You can really let your imagination run wild here. Take the time you need to work through it. Once you’ve shaken that image off – one of my colleagues delightfully calls those guys “dribble designers” – let’s get rolling.

I think about design a lot these days, and I realize that’s about as fatuous an opener as you’re likely to read this week so I’m going to ask you to bear with me.

Very slightly more specifically I’ve been thinking about Apple’s latest Macbook, some recent retrospeculation from Lenovo, “timeless” design, spy movies and the fact that the Olive Garden at one point had a culinary institute. I promise this all makes sense in my head. If you get all the way through this and it makes sense to you too then something on the inside of your head resembles something on the inside of mine, and you’ll have to come to your own terms with that. Namasté, though. For real.

There’s an idea called “gray man” in the security business that I find interesting. They teach people to dress unobtrusively. Chinos instead of combat pants, and if you really need the extra pockets, a better design conceals them. They assume, actually, that the bad guys will shoot all the guys wearing combat pants first, just to be sure. I don’t have that as a concern, but there’s something appealingly “low-drag” about gray man theory: reduced friction with one’s environment.

– William Gibson, being interviewed at Rawr Denim

At first glance the idea that an Olive Garden Culinary Institute should exist at all squats on the line between bewildering and ridiculous. They use maybe six ingredients, and those ingredients need to be sourced at industrial scale and reliably assembled by a 22-year-old with most of a high-school education and all of a vicious hangover. How much of a culinary institute can that possibly take? In fact, at some remove the Olive Garden looks less like a restaurant chain than a supply chain that produces endless breadsticks; there doesn’t seem to be a ton of innovation here. Sure, supply chains are hard. But pouring prefab pomodoro over premade pasta, probably not.

Even so, for a few years the Tuscan Culinary Institute was a real thing, one of the many farming estates in Tuscany that have been resurrected to the service of regional gastrotourism booked by the company for a few weeks a year. Successful managers of the Garden’s ersatz-italian assembly lines could enjoy Tuscany on a corporate reward junket, and at a first glance amused disdain for the whole idea would seem to be on point.

There’s another way to look at the Tuscan Culinary Institute, though, that makes it seem valuable and maybe even inspired.

One trite but underappreciated part of the modern mid-tier supply-chain-and-franchise engine is how widely accessible serviceable and even good (if not great or world-beating) stuff has become. Coffee snobs will sneer at Starbucks, but the truck-stop tar you could get before their ascendance was dramatically worse. If you’ve already tried both restaurants in a town too remote to to be worth their while, a decent bowl of pasta, a bottle of inoffensive red and a steady supply of garlic bread starts to look like a pretty good deal.

This is one of the rare bright lights of the otherwise dismal grind of the capitalist exercise, this democratization of “good enough”. The real role of the Tuscan Culinary institute was to give chefs and managers a look at an authentic, three-star Tuscan dining experience and then ask them: with what we have to hand at the tail end of this supply chain, the pasta, the pomodoro, the breadsticks and wine, how can we give our customers 75% of that experience for 15% the cost?

It would be easy to characterize this as some sort of corporate-capitalist co-option of a hacker’s pragmatism – a lot of people have – but I don’t think that’s the right thing, or at least not the whole picture. This is a kind of design, and like any design exercise – like any tangible expression of what design is – we’re really talking about the expression and codification of values.

I don’t think it’s an accident that all the computers I bought between about 1998 about 2008 are either still in service or will still turn on if I flip the switch, but everything I’ve bought since lasts two or three years before falling over. There’s nothing magic about old tech, to be sure: in fact, the understanding that stuff breaks is baked right into their design. That’s why they’re still running: because they can be fixed. And thanks to the unfettered joys of standard interfaces some them are better today, with faster drives and better screens, than any computer I could have bought then.

The Macbook is the antithesis of this, of course. That’s what happened in 2008; the Macbook Pro started shipping with a non-removable battery.

If you haven’t played with one Apple’s flagship Macbooks, they are incredible pieces of engineering. They weigh approximately nothing. Every part of them seems like some fundamental advance in engineering and materials science. The seams are perfect; everything that can be removed, everything you can carve off a laptop and still have a laptop left, is gone.

As a result, it’s completely atomic, almost totally unrepairable. If any part of it breaks you’re hosed.

“Most people make the mistake of thinking design is what it looks like. People think it’s this veneer – that the designers are handed this box and told, ‘Make it look good!’ That’s not what we think design is. It’s not just what it looks like and feels like. Design is how it works.” – Steve Jobs

This is true, kind of; it depends on what you believe your scope of responsibility is as a designer. The question of “how a device works” is a step removed from the question of “how does a person engage with this device”; our aforementioned designer-caricature aside, most of us get that. But far more important than that is the question of how the device helps that person engage the world. And that’s where this awful contradiction comes in, because whatever that device might be, the person will never be some static object, and the world is seven billion people swimming in a boiling froth of water, oil, guns, steel, race, sex, language, wisdom, secrets, hate, love, pain and TCP/IP.

Our time is finite, and entropy is relentless: knowing that, how long should somebody be responsible for their designs? Are you responsible for what becomes of what you’ve built, over the long term? Because if you have a better way to play the long game here than “be a huge pile of rocks” you should chisel it into something. Every other thing of any complexity, anything with two moving parts to rub together that’s still usable or exists at all today has these two qualities:

  1. It can be fixed, and
  2. When it breaks, somebody cares enough about it to fix it.

And that’s where minimalism that denies the complexity of the world, that lies to itself about entropy, starts feeling like willful blindness; design that’s a thin coat of paint over that device’s relationship with the world.

More to the point, this is why the soi-disant-designer snob we were (justly and correctly) ragging on at the beginning of this seemingly-interminable-but-it-finally-feels-like-we’re-getting-somewhere blog post comes across as such a douchebag. It’s not “minimalist” if you buy a new one every two years; it’s conspicuous consumption with chamfered edges. Strip away that veneer, that coat of paint, and there are the real values designer-guy and his venti decaf soy wankaccino hold dear.

Every day I feel a tiny bit more like I can’t really rely on something I can’t repair. Not just for environmentalism’s sake, not only for the peace of mind that standard screwdrivers and available source offers, but because tools designed by people who understand something might fall over are so much more likely to have built a way to stand them back up. This is why I got unreasonably excited by Lenovo’s retro-Thinkpad surveys, despite their recent experiments in throwing user security overboard wearing factory-installed cement boots. The prospect of a laptop with modern components that you can actually maintain, much less upgrade, has become a weird niche crank-hobbyist novelty somehow.

But if your long game is longer than your workweek or your support contract, this is what a total-cost-accounting of “reduced friction with your environment” looks like. It looks like not relying on the OEM, like DIY and scrounged parts and above all knowing that you’re not paralyzed if the rules change. It’s reduced friction with an uncertain future.

I have an enormous admiration for the work Apple does, I really do. But I spend a lot of time thinking about design now, not in terms of shapes and materials but in terms of the values and principles it embodies, and it’s painfully obvious when those values are either deeply compromised or (more typically) just not visible at all. I’ve often said that I wish that I could buy hardware fractionally as good from anyone else for any amount of money, but that’s not really true. As my own priorities make participating in Apple’s vision more and more uncomfortable, what I really want is for some other manufacturer to to show that kind of commitment to their own values and building hardware that expresses them. Even if I could get to (say) 75% of those values, if one of them was maintainability – if it could be fixed a bit at a time – I bet over the long term, it would come out to (say) 15% of the cost.

Late footnote: This post at War Is Boring is on point, talking about the effects of design at the operational and logistical levels.

July 24, 2015

“It Happens When They Don’t Change Anything.”

Filed under: digital,doom,fail,hate,losers,vendetta — mhoye @ 9:43 pm

“Glitch in the Matrix? No, just that amazing San Francisco workplace diversity in action.” – @jjbbllkk

“You take the blue pill — the story ends… You take the plaid pill — you stay in Silicon Valley.” – @anatolep

“… And I’ll show you just how high your rent can go.” – @mhoye

December 13, 2014

Candy For Children

Filed under: a/b,digital,documentation,doom,future,interfaces,toys,vendetta — mhoye @ 9:44 pm

My impressions of Android 5 are excitingly career-limiting, as you might have guessed from the title, but what the hell. A few weeks of using it has not substantially dulled my initial impressions, so I might as well share them with you. Would you believe there are positive bits here? You’ll have work for them, obviously, panning for compliments in the effluent stream of my usual opinions of technology, but they’re in there. Here’s a gimme: it’s not ugly! So there’s that? On the other hand I haven’t been able to watch an entire video on their new “material design” approach without laughing out loud. So there is also definitely that.

It’s not so much that their designers all seem to speak with the same stunted cadence that ancient-aliens history channel guy has, though that’s part of it. The big reason is the realization – which is almost certainly not true, but they sure give you the impression it could be – that they edited out every fourth sentence, because it ended with “… and we were so high that day”.

Pre-4.4 Android was… bad. Some time ago I referred to KitKat as “technical debt that’s figured out how to call 911”, but despite my own first-impressions debacle I thought that 4.4 was moving in the right direction. Android was still visually a relic, though, and Conway’s Law was in full effect:

“[…] organizations which design systems […] are constrained to produce designs which are copies of the communication structures of these organizations” – M. Conway

In Google’s case this seems to mean that people can work on what they want to work on and nobody’s really in charge of making sure the entire package works right; it showed then and it still shows. For a long time it’s seemed like Android’s primary design constraints were “what can I convince disinterested engineers with self-diagnosed Aspergers’ and terrible taste to ship”, so it’s one-pixel borders and dark gray backgrounds and I’m busy buddy these barges full of RFID chips and QR/AR bridging aren’t going to talk to Glass^2 by themselves.

In that context even the slightest suggestions that a human might occasionally want to see colours now and then or maybe – and I know how crazy this sounds, but stay with me here – “experience joy” are more than welcome. So despite the delivery, Material Design looked like a pleasant if not revolutionary step forward.

And in a few important ways – I told you we’d get here! – it is. Application switching is smoother and prettier, the launcher is somewhat easier to get around and the reworked notification system is quite pleasant, despite Hangouts’ best efforts. It’s nice to see the rotation-lock toggle and tethering buttons right up front rather than buried four menus down in the settings where they used to be. There’s even a flashlight button in there with them, a nice built-in now rather than the third-party permission-creeper that spied on everything you touched that it used to be, so we’ve got that going for us dot gif.

App switching has improved as well, moving from the postage-stamp screenshots to a much more pleasantly scroll-y interface. Recency ordering there is nice, and makes much more sense in this cards-type display; infinite scroll there would be a welcome addition, but given the antecedent I’ll take it.

Most of Google’s apps, though, haven’t been substantively changed. Gmail, sure – and, um, wow – but most of the rest seem to have been recompiled with the new widget set without really putting a ton of thought into how they work or what they do. A lot of odd animations happen for no obvious reason, and places where an attempt to act like a “material” betrays itself in some oddly irritating way. Moving the lock screen on one axis now disallows you moving it on the other axis; touching some (but not all?) list items makes this odd radial “splash” thing happen, which looks like a printf they forgot to ifdef out before shipping.

There’s a lot of stuff like that, not often at the edges – Maps’ mad dash towards incomprehensibility seems to be picking up speed – and in that sense it’s business as usual. There isn’t really a coherent narrative or model or anything underpinning Material Design, just a bunch of random, disconnected stuff you’ve got to relearn by discovery and practice by rote. It’s novel and more colourful – which is nice, for real! – but so much of it doesn’t make intuitive sense that it’s hard to stay excited about Android’s prospects. Pulling down on this widget causes that other widget to move sideways, or some other circle to appear and then spin. Some icons just hover there disconnected from anything, perplexing iconography near-invisible against the wrong background. Scroll far enough and ominous shadows appear and seem to follow you briefly around, a subtle visual cue that you’re at the end of the list and Oh by the way death awaits us all. In fact, modulo some tentacles and chanting I have the nagging sense I’m looking at a Lovecraftian pop-up book, aiming for colourful intuitive fun, running aground on the black shoals of the arbitrary and incomprehensible.

Still better than it was, though, seriously. It’s a big improvement.

October 3, 2014

Rogue Cryptocurrency Bootstrapping Robots

Cuban Shoreline

I tried to explain to my daughter why I’d had a strange day.

“Why was it strange?”

“Well… There’s a thing called a cryptocurrency. ‘Currency’ is another word for money; a cryptocurrency is a special kind of money that’s made out of math instead of paper or metal.”

That got me a look. Money that’s made out of made out of math, right.

“… and one of the things we found today was somebody trying to make a new cryptocurrency. Now, do you know why money is worth anything? It’s a coin or a paper with some ink on it – what makes it ‘money’?”

“… I don’t know.”

“The only answer we have is that it’s money if enough people think it is. If enough people think it’s real, it becomes real. But making people believe in a new kind of money isn’t easy, so what this guy did was kind of clever. He decided to give people little pieces of his cryptocurrency for making contributions to different software projects. So if you added a patch to one of the projects he follows, he’d give you a few of these math coins he’d made up.”

“Um.”

“Right. Kind of weird. And then whoever he is, he wrote a program to do that automatically. It’s like a little robot – every time you change one of these programs, you get a couple of math coins. But the problem is that we update a lot of those programs with our robots, too. Our scripts run, our robots, and then his robots try to give our robots some of his pretend money.”

“…”

“So that’s why my day was weird. Because we found somebody else’s programs trying to give our programs made-up money, in the hope that this made-up money would someday become real.”

“Oh.”

“What did you to today?”

“I painted different animals and gave them names.”

“What kind of names?”

“French names like zaval.”

“Cheval. Was it a good day?”

“Yeah, I like painting.”

“Good, good.”

(Charlie Stross warned us about this. It’s William Gibson’s future, but we still need to clean up after it.)

September 25, 2014

Insecurity Theatre

Filed under: doom,future,hate,interfaces,lunacy,vendetta — mhoye @ 6:47 pm

Your new password must contain a mix of:

  • uppercase letters
  • lowercase letters
  • numbers
  • symbols
  • symbols that are also numbers
  • illuminati symbols
  • hobo signs
  • occult symbols (not illuminati)
  • old girlfriend’s phone numbers
  • hieroglyphs
  • fragrances
  • H.P. Lovecraft references
  • exotic spices
  • descriptions of that favorite sweater you lost in a breakup that one time
  • secret regrets
  • controversial onomatopoeia
  • limericks about a thermostat
  • vaguely sexual innuendos
  • anagrams of a word you can’t spell
  • favorite emoji
  • least favorite emoji
  • turnips
  • shrugs
  • ennui
  • cursory pats on the back
  • long stares into the middle distance
  • moments of quiet yearning for lost love (unrelated to sweater or secret regret)
  • cups of OK coffee
  • sense of resigned inevitability (minimum three)
  • irish setters
  • tweed hats

No repeat characters.

September 2, 2014

Architecture For Loners

Filed under: arcade,beauty,doom,future,interfaces,life,lunacy,toys — mhoye @ 9:36 am

This has been sitting around in the drafts folder for a while. I’m not sure why I wanted to finish it off tonight, but I want to get all these half-finished posts done. This seemed like a good way to knock off some of the rust.

Rust Never Sleeps

Occasionally when I’m in one of my darker moods I’ll fire up a game that’s meant to be multiplayer and walk through it alone, crawling around the fringes and corners to see how the game reacts to unexpected stimuli, looking for soft spots and exposed nerves.

I’ve always been a lurker in open worlds games, real life being no exception; I don’t remember when I started looking for the seams, the little gaps where the walls don’t quite line up or the high ledge that offers a long view, but it’s not a thing I can turn off. And when I’m in that sullen loner’s mood, sitting in the dark soloing multiplayer spaces is a pleasant way to spend an hour or two on just that sort of wallhack tourism.

Halo’s Spartan Ops, is kind of fun though not particularly replayable distraction. It’s a neat idea, and I sort of wish they’d done more with the idea of serving up Halo in smaller episodic doses. The environments, though… if you have the right eyes you can’t help but notice that built-for-a-shooter feeling that pervades the designed landscapes of that franchise.

Its not just the trademark gun-litter; whether it’s a forcefield deployed pointlessly in a cave, an otherwise-empty room with one door and twenty or so alien warriors milling around inside waiting to no discernable purpose or an massive structure of dubious architectural merit built by an advanced alien species whose accomplishments include intergalactic teleporters but not doors, you never have a moment to shake off the sense that the world is built entirely around sight lines.

Specifically, as they emerge from you.

This is a pretty niche failure mode, I’ll admit. It’s possible I’m the only person who will ever notice or care about it. But it’s been a long time since I’ve seen a space designed for a shooter that didn’t undercut any grandeur and greater aspirations the game might have. It maybe unavoidable; as lush as some of these environments seem at first, how do you evoke that sense of being part of something much bigger than yourself when everything is designed around you?

So much video game architecture fails that test of basic significance, worlds of outsized and beautiful physics-defying structures that don’t speak to any motive beyond themselves. Halo 4 is hardly the worst example, but the scale it aspires to makes this kind of anarrative laziness hard to overlook. This incredibly ambitious backstory, these huge structures and it’s all facade; there’s no “why”, because you’re there with the controller in your lap and you’re the “why” and there is no larger story than that.

“This place once belonged to an ancient and noble civilization, whose might and wisdom spanned the galaxy”, these structures say, “and as a monument to our glories we have built this: a monochromatic rhombus.”

Also I’m not sure how that Spartan Miller guy got his job, but he’s kind of excitable for an ostensibly hardened space marine.

But if you’re the sort of person who appreciates a jetpack – and if you’re not I don’t really see how we can keep being friends – then a lot of these arbitrary obstructions and forced perspectives are suddenly, inexplicably tractable. That extra degree of freedom is enough; in some places – Science Mountain is a good choice here – suddenly you can fly over a gate you were meant to fight past. And the game, of course, doesn’t appreciate being spoken to like that: Halo is on rails, and always will be thus! And you’re frightening the AI and this is just the way things are and I don’t care for your tone, young man. You can’t just leave the rails, that’s why it’s called “going off the rails”, and… hey, get back here!

And in this transgression, of course, Halo reveals itself for what it is.

You clear that gate, mop up a few stragglers and hop back to flip the switch to proceed. Enemies appear, less and listless. Defeat them, and now you’re alone. The next part of the sequence simply doesn’t happen. No-one else appears, no more doors open. Your team never contacts you and you, stoic and silent, never reach out to them.

There’s no meaning, there’s no more, there’s no distraction; there’s just reflection and just you, silently exploring a small corner of a deserted island intended only for you, forever. And there’s nothing to do but look for another seam, another glitch, to allow you maybe possibly move on.

It’s a weird, lonely feeling; kind of what you’d expect from soloing a multiplayer game alone in the dark.

June 23, 2014

Vocoder Duet

Filed under: a/b,arcade,digital,doom,toys — mhoye @ 1:01 pm

You can think of them as the Fry and Laurie of malevolent synthetic intelligences that are going to murder you.

In a fortuitous coincidence, this video – a collection of communications from SHODAN, antagonist of the classic System Shock 2,

and this video, of GlaDOS‘ spoken dialogue from the first Portal,

… are both about 14 and a half minutes long.

You should listen to them both at the same time.

May 21, 2014

What Better Place Than Here, What Better Time Than Now

Filed under: awesome,doom,lunacy,music,vendetta — mhoye @ 3:07 pm

I was in an Ikea last weekend, when their background music system started playing Rage Against The Machine.

I was actually paralyzed for a moment. I found myself looking around, thinking “Am… Am I just old? Is this old-person music now? Or is it finally time? Here? Why here, now?” I felt, briefly, like I was revisiting a scene from They Live, entirely in my own head. Am I the only person who can hear this? Doesn’t anyone else know what comes next?

I took a minute to look around; I expected to see at least one other person trying to decide whether or not it was time to start flipping stuff over and setting it on fire, but nope. Not a one.

UPDATE: A cölleägüe pöints öut thät there ären’t enough ümläuts in this pöst, which I will äddress directly.

November 8, 2013

A Glass Half Broken

Filed under: digital,documentation,doom,fail,hate,interfaces,losers,toys,vendetta — mhoye @ 3:46 pm

horse-castle

A friend of mine has called me a glass-half-broken kind of guy.

My increasingly venerable Nokia N9 has been getting squirrelly for a few months, and since it finally decided its battery was getting on in years it was time for a new phone.

I’m going to miss it a lot. The hardware was just a hair too slow, the browser was just a hair too old and even though email was crisp and as well done as I’ve ever seen it on a small screen, Twitter – despite being the one piece of software that periodically got updates, strangely – was always off in the weeds. Despite all that, despite the storied history of managerial incompetence and market failure in that software stack, they got so many things right. A beautiful, solid UI, an elegant gesture system that you could work reliably one-handed and a device whose curved shape informed your interaction with the software in a meaningful way. Like WebOS before it, it had a consistent and elegantly-executed interaction model full of beautiful ideas and surprisingly human touches that have pretty much all died on the vine.

Some friends have been proposing a hedge-fund model where they follow my twitter feed, scrape it for any piece of technology I express interest in and then short that company’s stock immediately and mercilessly. The reasoning being, of course, that I tend to back underdogs and generally underdogs are called that because of their unfortunate tendency to not win.

So now I own a Nexus 5; do with that information what you will. The experience has not been uniformly positive.

Android, the joke goes, is technical debt that’s figured out how to call 911, and with KitKat it seems like somebody has finally sent help. For a while now Android has been struggling to overcome its early… well, “design process” seems like too strong a term, but some sort of UI-buglist spin-the-bottle thing that seemed to amount to “how can I ignore anyone with any sort of design expertise, aesthetic sensibility or even just matching socks and get this bug off my desk.” KitKat is clearly the point we all saw coming, where Android has pivoted away from being a half-assed OS to start being a whole-assed Google-services portal, and it really shows.

Look: I know I’m a jagged, rusty edge case. I know. But this is what happened next.

As you open the box, you find a protective plastic sheet over the device that says “NEXUS 5” in a faint grey on black. If you don’t peel it off before pushing the power button, the Google logo appears, slightly offset and obscured behind it. It’s not a big thing; it’s trivial but ugly. If either word had been a few millimetres higher or lower it would have been a nice touch. As shipped it’s an empty-net miss, a small but ominous hint that maybe nobody was really in charge of the details.

I signed in with my Google Apps account and the phone started restoring my old apps from other Android installs. This is one of the things Google has done right for a long time; once you see it you immediately think it should have worked that way everywhere the whole time. But I didn’t realize that it restored the earlier version of the software you had on file, not the current one; most of my restored pre-KitKat apps crashed on startup, and it took me a while to understand why.

Once I’d figured that out and refreshed a few of them manually, set up my work email and decided to see if Google Goggles was neat as it was last time I looked. Goggles immediately crashed the camera service, and I couldn’t figure out how make the camera work again in any app without power-cycling the phone.

So I restart the phone, poked around at Hangouts a bit; seems nice enough and works mostly OK, could use some judicious copy-editing in the setup phase to sound a little less panopticon-stalkerish. (But we’re all affluent white men here it’s no big deal, right? Who doesn’t mind being super-easy to find all the time?)

I went to make dinner then, and presumably that’s when the phone started heating up.

Eventually I noticed that I’d lost about a quarter of my battery life over the course of an almost-idle hour, with the battery monitor showing that the mail I’d received exactly none of was the culprit. From what I can tell the Exchange-connection service is just completely, aggressively broken; it looks like if you set up the stock mail client for Exchange and pick “push” it immediately goes insane, checking for mail hundreds of times per second and trying to melt itself, and that’s exciting. But even if you dial it back to only check manually, after a while it just… stops working. A reboot doesn’t fix it, I’ve had to delete and recreate the account to make it work again. Even figuring out how to do that isn’t as easy as it should be; I’ve done it twice so far, one day in. So I guess it’s IMAP and I’ll figure calendars out some other way. We use Zimbra at the office, not Exchange proper, and their doc on connecting to Android hasn’t been updated in two years so that’s a thing. I’m totally fine in this corner, really. Cozy. I can warm my hands on my new phone.

I’ve been using my Bespoke I/O Google Apps accounts before Google doubled down on this grasping, awful “G+ Or GTFO” policy, and disabling G+ in Apps years ago has turned my first-touch experience with this phone into a weird technical tug-of-war-in-a-minefield exercise. On the one hand, it’s consistently protected me from Google’s ongoing “by glancing at this checkbox in passing you’re totally saying you want a Google+ account” mendacity, but it also means that lots of things on the phone fail in strange and wonderful ways. The different reactions of the various Play $X apps is remarkable. “Play Games” tells me I need to sign up for a G+ account and won’t let me proceed without one, Play Movies and Music seem to work for on-device content, and Play Magazines just loses its mind and starts into a decent imitation of a strobe light.

I went looking for alternative software, but The Play Store reminds me a lot more of Nokia’s Ovi Store than the App Store juggernaut in a lot of unfortunate ways. There are a handful of high-profile apps there work fast and well if you can find them. I miss Tweetbot and a handful of other iOS apps a lot, and keep going back to my iPod Touch for it. In what I’m sure is a common sentiment Tweetbot for Android is looking pretty unlikely at this point, probably because – like the Ovi Store – there’s a hundred low-rent knockoffs of the iOS app you actually want availabl, but developing for Android is a nightmare on stilts and you make no money so anything worth buying isn’t for sale there.

It’s really a very nice piece of hardware. Fast, crisp, big beautiful screen. Firefox with Adblock Plus is way, way better than anything else in that space – go team – and for that on its own I could have overlooked a lot. But this is how my first day with this phone went, and a glass that’s half-broken isn’t one I’m super happy I decided to keep drinking from.

June 8, 2013

Crypto Is Not A Panacea

Filed under: academic,digital,doom,future,interfaces,science,vendetta,work — mhoye @ 9:36 am

Bricks

I was going to write this to an internal mailing list, following this week’s PRISM excitement, but I’ve decided to put it here instead. It was written (and cribbed from other stuff I’ve written elsewhere) in response to an argument that encrypting everything would somehow solve a scary-sounding though imprecisely-specified problem, a claim you may not be surprised to find out I think is foolish.

I’ve written about this elsewhere, so forgive me, but: I think that it’s a profound mistake to assume that crypto is a panacea here.

Backstory time: in 1993, the NSA released SHA, the Secure Hashing Algorithm; you’ve heard of it, I’m sure. Very soon afterwards – months, I think? – they came back and said no, stop, don’t use that. Use SHA-1 instead, here you go.

No explanation, nothing. But nobody else could even begin to make a case either way, so SHA-1 it is.

It’s 2005 before somebody manages to generate one, just one, collision in what’s now called SHA-0, and they do that by taking a theoretical attack that gets you close to a collision, generalizing it and running it for around 80,000 CPU hours or so on a machine with 256 Itanium-2 processors running this one job flat out for two weeks.

That hardware straight up didn’t exist in 1993. That was the year the original Doom came out, for what it’s worth, so it’s very likely that the “significant weakness” they found was found by a person or team of people scribbling on a whiteboard. And, note, they found the weaknesses in that algorithm in the weeks after publication when those holes – or indeed “any holes at all” – would take the public-facing crypto community more than a decade to discover were a theoretical possibility.

Now, wash that tender morsel down with this quote from an article in Wired quoting James Bamford, longtime writer about all things NSA:

“According to another top official also involved with the program, the NSA made an enormous breakthrough several years ago in its ability to cryptanalyze, or break, unfathomably complex encryption systems employed by not only governments around the world but also many average computer users in the US. The upshot, according to this official: “Everybody’s a target; everybody with communication is a target.”

“Many average computer users in the US”? Welp. That’s SSL, then.

So odds are good that what we here in the public and private sectors consider to be strong crypto isn’t much more of an impediment for the NSA than ROT-13. In the public sector AES-128 is considered sufficient for information up to level “secret” only; AES-256 is for “top secret”, and both are part of the NSA’s Suite B series of cryptographic algorithms, outlined here.

Suite A is unlikely to ever see the light of day, not even so much as their names. The important thing that this suggests is that the NSA may internally have a class break for their recommended Series B crypto algorithms, or at least an attack that makes decryption computationally feasible for a small set of people that includes themselves, and indeed for anything weaker, or with known design flaws.

The problem that needs to be addressed here is a policy problem, not a technical one. And that’s actually great news, because if you’re getting into a pure-math-and-computational-power arms race with the NSA, you’re gonna have a bad time.

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