March 21, 2011

The Practical Implications Of The Democratization Of Agency At The Intersection Of The Transhumanist, Architectural Primitivist And Existentialist Fields

Filed under: academic,analog,awesome,doom,interfaces,vendetta,weird — mhoye @ 2:56 pm

Ideas get lodged in my head, and if they’re interesting enough – not necessarily “good”, mind you, but “interesting” – then I basically can’t do anything useful until I’ve gnawed away at them for hours. If it’s OCD that applies only to the inside of your head, is there even a word for that? Obsessive Compulsive Extrospection? Intramania? Let’s watch what happens as my friend Dave pursues his secret hobby of sneaking up on me and sticking broomhandles through the spokes of my brainwheels.

14:23 <@humph> mhoye:
14:31 < mhoye> what what
14:32 < mhoye> is he projecting directly onto the sensor?
14:32 < mhoye> That is so great.
14:37 <@humph> yeah
14:37 <@humph> seemed like you might like that
14:37 <@humph> that's what I do with software, done with cameras and lenses
14:38 < mhoye> Shadows on the cave.
14:38 < mhoye> I've never heard the shadows-on-cave-walls parable end with "We need a smarter cave".
14:39 < mhoye> But maybe that's an avenue of inquiry that's overdue.
14:43 < mhoye> About every third conversation I have with you makes me want to go sit in a dark corner for an hour or four just to turn the ideas over in my head, and then go write somebody else's doctoral thesis.
14:43 < mhoye> But I CANT because I have OTHER THINGS TO DO, dammit.
14:49 < mhoye> i don't even like you.


15:17 <mhoye> GAH

I don’t think I’m being unreasonable about this at all.

March 9, 2011

Four Star Daydream

Filed under: academic,business,doom,interfaces,vendetta — mhoye @ 11:07 am

The Light At The End

I was wondering the other day why investment banking, which is in theory a competitive service industry, appears to be so insanely profitable. A notion occurred to me, but not being an expert in the field it’s hard for me to evaluate its veracity. It’s got a certain sinister elegance to it, though, and if you’ll bear with me for a minute I just want to put this idea in your head.

The 2001 Nobel Prize in Economics went to Akerlof, Spence, and Stiglitz for their “analyses of markets with asymmetric information“, that is to say, the economic effects of the other guy knowing something you don’t. Akerlof’s classic paper on the subject is The Market For Lemons, of which Wikipedia provides a good summary, per usual. The more cynical among you are rightly saying, well yes, the economic effect of making a deal with somebody who knows way more than you do is that you lose your shirt, but that’s microeconomics; we’re talking macro here. There are no easy buckets on this court.

In any case, one thing I haven’t found in my cursory n00b investigation is something on the economic effect of what I will politely call an asymmetric understanding of the basic principles of modern markets and the naive company’s place in them. Which is to say, let’s imagine… I start like that because from what I can tell, “let’s imagine” is the traditional way of starting any argument about economics. Which probably tells you something about economics, now that I think about it. Seriously, try googling the name of your favorite economist plus “let’s imagine”, and count the Google hits. It’s eerie.

Anyway, you all know what derivatives, specifically futures are, right? The idea is that you can set up a long-term contract to sell a thing at some fixed price, fixing the price and letting the buyer at the other end absorb the risk, reaping the potential benefits or losses of a fluctuating marketplace. This lets our entirely imaginary A-One Flour Co. say “for the next five years we’re selling you this much flour for this price every year”, and whatever happens to the market price of flour, either more profit or unexpected loss, get absorbed by whoever’s on the other side of that futures contract.

That, in short, is why futures are traded – there’s both risk and potential profit involved, ownership can change, etcetera. But our imagined A-One Flour, a company with one major input of “wheat” and a single output of “flour” may choose to engage in the same sort of transaction on the wheat-purchasing end, to give themselves some stability on the supply side as well, a sensible move now that there’s a lot less flexibility available to them in terms of revenue. So they agree to buy a fixed amount of wheat for a fixed price over the course of the next few years, from some commodities trader whose hope in this case is that the cost of wheat will drop, thus insuring him some profit on the deal.

Now let’s say I’ve been watching all this, or more realistically I’ve had my computers watching all this. I see what the A-One people are up to, and because they’re traded commodities and I can, I buy both of those futures contracts.

Now: what just happened to A-One flour? They no longer control, in very real sense, the amount of money coming in, the amount of money going out, or who they buy from or sell to. They get wheat from me, they sell flour to me, and they’ve effectively been reduced from controlling their destiny to little more than operating their machinery. They went looking for stability, effectively trading stability for control. I own the complete set, in the Boardwalk & Park Place sense, of contracts for their material, and thus financial, inputs and outputs and this effectively means that I’m the one who’s really in charge of the company. All that without a single share of A-One Flour changing hands.

Better still, if I can pull the same trick with B-One Bread Co., and pair up those futures contracts profitably? That’s a pipe that spews money. And maybe even better than that, this is de-facto inside information about how profitable (or not!) A-One is going to be in the next year or three. So I have this great arms-length way to engage in what would normally be insider trading, knowing what’s going to happen to A-One long before shareholders or the public does. And it’s an oversimplified example, sure, but I’d be surprised if it wasn’t already a well-understood process in some of the taller office buildings of the world.

I haven’t thought of a better way to make money recently, but I’ll let you know if I do.

February 10, 2011

Quote Usage Based Unquote

I brought some mathy snark last time for which I make no apologies, but this is the longer post promised on the subject of the Usage Based Billing controversy that has rightly been getting a lot of airplay recently.

Set Stimulator To 138

Let me open this up by marveling at the magnificent job the terminology has done in framing this debate. “Usage Based Billing”, does that not sound entirely reasonable? Should we not pay for what we use? Of course we should, and you know who doesn’t? Freeloaders, that’s who; leeches and layabouts, the lot of them. Even my esteemed colleague David Eaves has fallen into that trap, which frankly surprised me. It was a compelling hook that he bit, I suspect, because that interpretation advances some causes he champions; transparency and net neutrality among others. Laudable goals all! But I think we’re talking about something very different here.

There’s two things, in fact.

The first one I haven’t seen mentioned much, aside from Konrad Von Finkelstein’s somewhat agonizing claim that IPTV is “not an internet service” are all of those places where huge amounts of bandwidth get consumed, for which Bell charges very nearly nothing at all. Bell’s “Fibe” service, for example, offers customers:

  • Record up to 4 shows at once and get 100 hours of HD recording capacity included
  • Over 100 HD channels
  • Flexible programming – choose more of the channels you really want.
  • Stop paying for the same channel twice – for every standard definition channel you get, receive the HD version at no extra charge
  • Advanced Search – stop scrolling, start watching – our keyword search feature makes it faster and easier to find more of what you want to watch

Bell says you get 25GB/month in “data”, and pay $2/GB when you go over that. But the 4 simultaneous HD recordings, the 100 hours of HD recording, the pay-per-view stuff being sent well below the ostensible per-gigabyte cost, all of that stuff is coming over the same wire and all of it is approximately free. That $2/gig charge that would add up to between $30 and $50 per hour if it ever showed up on the bill isn’t really about congestion, abusive downloaders or any of the various disingenuous reasons on offer; it’s about punishing users to the tune of an extra $30/show for using AppleTV or Netflix instead.

It is nothing more or less than a surcharge that Bell has the luxury of imposing on you for the privilege of going to Bell’s competitors, in short.

In the same vein, why should TekSavvy be required to charge their users in accordance with Bell’s pricing policies? Don’t they buy bandwidth in bulk, and then resell it? This is of no benefit to TekSavvy or their customers, but again, it’s fantastic for Bell, forcing TekSavvy and any other reseller to pass punitive bandwidth surcharges on to their customers.


I’m not going to argue that bandwidth isn’t a relatively scarce resource – there’s a finite amount of it in the world, sure – but the fact that Bell is offering the Fibe service at all is a clear indicator that it’s not all that scarce, certainly not the grade of scarce that demands a 10,000% markup.

That’s why this “Usage Based Billing” discussion really isn’t about usage-based billing at all. This is about an incumbent monopolist engaged in price fixing, distorting secondary markets in which they have a substantial stake, dramatically impeding the ability of Canadian consumers to make choices in a free marketplace, and thwarting competition thereby.

There’s more to say about this, of course; while I think the CRTC has erred, and that the cultural protectionism they mandate is also broadly bad for Canadians, I also think that a body with the legislated power to rein in what is obviously corporate malfeasance in the communications space is an extraordinarily valuable thing, and not to be discarded lightly. I also think that error has handed the Conservative government the rare chance to carve up a cultural institution and business regulator under the guise of populism, and they’re going to ride that opportunity as hard as they can. That would be a terrible mistake, I think, but that’s a post for another day.

Bits are bits, and the worst-case scenario for a telco is to be reduced to being a purveyor of bits. There’s no money in it – no long distance calls, no ridiculous $20/month landline rental, nothing. It means going from the 40%-50% year over year profits telcos usually make to the 8%-10% year over year numbers that most other companies do. Just pushing bits is really bad for telecommunications companies; they’ll do just about anything they can to prevent that from coming about, and billions of dollars in spare profits gives you a lot of options on that front.

Back in the 90’s there used to be lots of ISPs; competition on performance was fierce and prices were relatively low. But VOIP was threatening to be the next big thing, so Bell used the profits from their monopoly on telephony to buy almost all the small-shop ISPs; now there’s very little competition and relative to most of the world our network connections are underperforming and really, really expensive.

Bell’s worst-case scenario is being nothing more than a purveyor of bits. That would be really bad for them.

But anything else is really bad for the rest of us. Those huge profit margins don’t come from nowhere; they come out of Canadian pockets in ways that put a terrible barrier in front of Canadian content creators and Canadian entrepreneurship, and pretending that between the absence of serious competition and legislated price-fixing affecting those few independent ISPs left that the invisible hand of the free market will somehow just sort this mess out to the betterment of the average Canadian is a dogmatic mercantilist’s daydream.

January 9, 2011

Normalizing Crazy

Filed under: a/b,documentation,doom,fail,hate,interfaces — mhoye @ 5:12 pm

While I’ve been working on this, it has already been done better here and here. But if you like, feel free to keep reading.

Pretending that rhetoric doesn’t involve a measure of culpability is a wonderfully convenient fiction, isn’t it? “I was just giving orders.”

When emotions are running hot and the situation is complicated, is any medium more perfectly suited to making things worse than Twitter? I think not. The point I tried, and largely failed, to make on Twitter yesterday wasn’t that Sarah Palin told Jared Loughner to shoot Congresswoman Giffords. She didn’t do that, clearly, didn’t buy him a gun or tell him who to point it at.

But, of course. I’ve talked about this before.

The distinction between “issuing an order that somebody be killed” and “fostering the rhetoric of violent reprisal, thinly-veiled threats and demonized opponents” may well be one you can rely on to keep you out of jail, but you shouldn’t pretend that it leaves you with clean hands and a clear conscience. You can’t talk about “death panels”, “FEMA concentration camps” and “Second Amendment remedies” and then pretend when it’s far too late that you didn’t at all mean what you very obviously meant the whole time.

Glenn Beck has fantasized on air about choking Michael Moore to death. G. Gordon Liddy has said, on his radio show, that when ATF agents knock on your door, you should shoot them in the head. Ann Coulter’s address to CPAC included the line that her “only regret with Timothy McVeigh is he did not go to the New York Times building.” Sarah Palin’s PAC has painted crosshairs over the district of Congresswoman Giffords, among others. These aren’t people talking about video games or Fight Club, or any obvious fictions; these are real examples from real people who continue to be supported by their institutions and echoed by their colleagues. They have been legitimized and normalized by the institutions that support, fund and enable them, and the message is unambiguously that what they’ve said is perfectly acceptable.

That’s the space this happened in, where somebody with a tenuous grip on their sanity was told over and over again that these specific people were the enemy, that this is a war and that violence is acceptable. That’s the context. Is that the same as culpability? Of course not.

But the context matters. And the people who’ve done their best to shape and feed that context into the monster it is now understand that. The Glenn Becks and Michael Savages and Ann Coulters and Tea Partiers of the world have been extremely well-served by fostering violence, racism and fear, and tragedies like this one don’t exist in a void.

December 3, 2010


Filed under: a/b,digital,doom,linux,lunacy — mhoye @ 3:38 pm

Fresh Rain

From Douglas Adams “The Restaurant at the End of the Universe”:

It is a curious fact, and one to which no one knows quite how much importance to attach, that something like 85% of all known worlds in the Galaxy, be they primitive or highly advanced, have invented a drink called jynnan tonnyx, or gee-N’N-T’N-ix, or jinond-o-nicks, or any one of a thousand or more variations on the same phonetic theme. The drinks themselves are not the same, and vary between the Sivolvian “chinanto/mnigs” which is ordinary water served at slightly above room temperature, and the Gagrakackan “tzjin-anthony-ks” which kills cows at a hundred paces; and in fact the one common factor between all of them, beyond the fact that the names sound the same, is that they were all invented and named before the worlds concerned made contact with any other worlds.

What can be made of this fact? It exists in total isolation. As far as any theory of structural linguistics is concerned it is right off the graph, and yet it persists. Old structural linguists get very angry when young structural linguists go on about it. Young structural linguists get deeply excited about it and stay up late at night convinced that they are very close to something of profound importance, and end up becoming old structural linguists before their time, getting very angry with the young ones. Structural linguistics is a bitterly divided and unhappy discipline, and a large number of its practitioners spend too many nights drowning their problems in Ouisghian Zodahs.

This is somehow an oblique parable for the greater open-source community. I’m not sure how or why, but the idea’s been gnawing at me all day.

November 26, 2010

On The Relative Proximity Of Apples, Trees, Smoke And Fire.

Filed under: awesome,doom,life,lunacy,parenting — mhoye @ 2:12 pm

Baby's First Chocolate Goatee

Maya ran into the room this morning, grabbed a stuffed monkey and a plush Mario mushroom, started laughing maniacally and then ran back out of the room.

“Maya? Maya, what’s your plan there?”

And from down the hall, I hear “pie!”

Well… OK, then. Pie it is.

October 15, 2010

Picking Turing’s Pocket

Filed under: a/b,academia,awesome,digital,doom,future,interfaces,science,weird — mhoye @ 1:06 am

Pleasingly Apocalyptic

This is interesting, and stirs some pleasingly cyberpunkish ideas around in my brain. Three months ago, from The Atlantic:

Mysterious and possibly nefarious trading algorithms are operating every minute of every day in the nation’s stock exchanges.

What they do doesn’t show up in Google Finance, let alone in the pages of the Wall Street Journal. No one really knows how they operate or why. But over the past few weeks, Nanex, a data services firm has dragged some of the odder algorithm specimens into the light.

The trading bots visualized in the stock charts in this story aren’t doing anything that could be construed to help the market. Unknown entities for unknown reasons are sending thousands of orders a second through the electronic stock exchanges with no intent to actually trade. Often, the buy or sell prices that they are offering are so far from the market price that there’s no way they’d ever be part of a trade. The bots sketch out odd patterns with their orders, leaving patterns in the data that are largely invisible to market participants.

This week, from various sources including Futures Magazine:

“Two Norwegian traders, Svend Egil Larsen and Peder Veiby, were handed suspended prison sentences on charges related to market manipulation. According to the Financial Times, the two were charged for figuring out how a computerized trading system at a large American firm that is a subsidy of Interactive Brokers would react to certain stock moves and using that information to manipulate the price of low-volume stocks.”

From the The New York Times:

“But Mr. Brosveet says the court would never have ruled the way it did “if it was just a stupid human being” on the other side of the trade. Instead, it was a computer, and “the computer must be held as a responsible actor,” he said.”

The examples of the patterns mentioned in the Atlantic article are fascinating, and are almost certainly exactly doing procedurally what these clever Norwegians were doing (apparently) manually. Except thousands of times a second, looking for a response that’s not clear; I wonder how many of the stock market’s algorithm designers even have threat models, much less models that account for subtly malicious input. I suspect all of them will, by this time next week!

September 9, 2010

Baby Vs. Tech, Round 2

Filed under: awesome,doom,future,interfaces,life,lunacy,parenting,toys — mhoye @ 2:23 pm

Hello again?

A few days ago Maya was talking with her grandparents via Skype. Anyone remember when videoconferencing was all expensive and futuristickey, and not approximately free and marginally annoying when it’s not immediately available? Yeah, me neither.

So while they’re watching Maya fool around, she picks up my iPhone and shows it to them. And they say oh, that’s so cute. Do you know how to use that?

And then Maya, who let me remind you is sixteen months old:

  1. Pushes the button to turn on the screen,
  2. Unlocks it and picks the phone app,
  3. Picks their names off the Favorites list, and
  4. Calls them.

And when they pick up, she holds the phone up to her ear and says “Hi.”

No joke; that is how that happened.

Most of me was thinking, that can’t have really been entirely on purpose, can it? This is clearly my girl, cute and awesome, but really? But there’s also a tiny, terrified little voice in the back of my head yelling “WHAT… WHAT THE HELL WAS THAT“.

I don’t remember it all that clearly, but I’m pretty sure that when I was sixteen months old I’d barely figured how to put tinkertoys in my nose. Yesterday as I was coming inside, I handed her the car keys and said “Ok, Maya, lock the car”, and she took the keyfob and pushed the button to lock the car. The only thing stopping her from driving it away is that she’s not tall enough to reach door handles yet. She’s already standing on her toes with the keys to reach the locks, and she’s not quite there yet.

But almost. Lately she’s been having me read to her all the time, but I’m pretty sure she’s just humoring me.

This Singularity that’s apparently coming? I predict that it will actually get here, but it won’t be driven by artificial intelligence. Not even a little.

July 22, 2010

The Semiannual Mobile Devices Rant (Updated)

Filed under: digital,doom,future,interfaces,losers,toys,vendetta — mhoye @ 8:17 pm

Up Against The Wall

In my audit of my 2009 predictions I’d overlooked that I mistakenly implied that Speed would be the high point of Sandra Bullock’s career. I found out recently that she went on to win both the Oscar for Best Actress and the Razzie for Worst Actress, apparently the first time anyone has won both awards in the same year. While I certainly concede that I was incorrect, I also don’t see how anyone could possibly have seen that one coming.

There’s been a lot of grim news in the portable space since I last mentioned it, and since free software in the portable space is kind of important to me and this is my blog and you’re not the boss of me, let’s review.

The big surprise a few months back was that HP bought Palm for a bucket of money. Which whoa, a billion sounds like kind of a lot, and also briefly a source of optimism as the rumors of a WebOS tablet made the rounds, which to be frank I would buy the hell out of. But then nothing happened, and it turns out nothing is expected to keep happening until sometime in mid-2011 at which point WebOS will have been out of contention for at least a year.

You may if you are familiar with HP’s products find this optimism bewildering but let me explain.

I’ve used this analogy a lot recently, but HP makes the fleet vehicles of the computer world. They make Crown Vics and Impalas; individual humans don’t want or care about them, but corporate purchasing types buy them in batches of 1000 or 100,000 for people who aren’t them to use. And there’s room in the world for that, don’t get me wrong, but that room is a parking garage full of Crown Vics and Impalas and shelves of their spare parts, and unless you’re looking directly at a bottom line with large numbers on it they’re basically impossible to love.

But it’s the strangest thing; if you have an HP PDA in a drawer somewhere, try this: pull it out and turn it on. By modern standards it’ll be a pretty pokey, irritating experience in that eponysterical way WinCE always was, but here’s the thing: modulo a bit of battery life it will almost certainly work exactly as well as it did the first time you turned it on. When they’ve set their minds to it HP can make clunky, kind of inelegant but (provided they’re aiming at businesses, not consumers) absolutely rock-solid portable hardware. And every now and then (some of the later Jornadas, for example) a flower will unexpectedly poke out of the concrete of their keep-the-industrial-in-industrial-design process; despite their unambiguously crappy consumer hardware, despite their horrific website (the worst thing about which being, a friend of mine notes, that the prize at the end of it is HP’s products) there may still be some people working there who remember how to build things that actual humans not only covet, but care about.

And not coincidentally, we’re now on the verge of the time when mobile devices, like desktops and laptops before them, are just getting past the point where line-item hardware features are a discriminating factor and software design, functionality and integration are going to carry the future. The hardware is all just about good enough, so now is a fantastic time to make up your mind and figure out if you’ve got the talent and the resources to compete on software and design. And if Apple has made one thing painfully clear here it’s that tight vertical integration will carry that day and a lot of the days afterward, and if you want to own the user experience you also need to own the OS.

Relatedly, that’s also why you should take HP’s buying Palm as a billion-dollar signal that they thinks Windows Phone 7 is doomed, an albatross they’d rather not have around the company’s neck.

On the other side of that coin Motorola, in an atypically sensible move for them, has looked around and finally come to the (likely painful, for the creators of the once-prized RAZR) realization this isn’t a game they’re good at. They made a decent run at it, and built some pretty good hardware, but somehow despite getting an upgradeable, Marketplace-equipped OS brought to them on a platter, Motorola made some classically Motorola decisions, took Android and added so much value to it that it could barely stand up to call the cops afterward.

I’ve claimed before that this bad behavior was one of Google’s prime motivators for selling unlocked Nexus Ones directly to consumers, but I’m going to take that a step further here and claim (without a ton of supporting evidence) that Google’s selling the Nexus One led directly to Motorola’s decision-slash-realization that they can’t compete in mobile telephony.

Can’t say I’ll miss you, Moto. You guys squandered better opportunities than most companies will ever see.

So their mobile division will get sold to Nokia, or maybe Siemens? Not RIM, who have their hands full with QNX. Sony/Ericsson are all about the not-invented-here-even-it-kills-us, a process that’s moving predictably along, so not them.

LG, maybe? They’re one of the bigger manufacturers of pretty-but-not-all-that-smart phones, and might be looking for a quick in to that market.

Anyhow, the upshot of all this is that if you’re shopping for a phone you should know that Motorola hardware will never do anything more or better than what it does the moment you open the box. Even if it says “Android” on the side they’re working hard (and apparently successfully) at keeping you from upgrading, and won’t be around long enough to change their minds anyway.

But if you’re in the market for a good phone built on free software the options are (as usual, I guess) slim and grim right now. The N900 is still not shipping in quantity, and is still not a great device anyway. Nokia has this glorious five year plan wherein they ship progressively-less-crappy devices year over year until they finally get it close to right sometime in 2012, and that’s been working out as well as you’d think against competition hell-bent on shipping something great this quarter. Worse yet, the latest news out of the Meego (Intel/Nokia) camp is that their open-source efforts are currently hamstrung by their dependence on PowerVR hardware from a patent-licensing company that’s only available under NDA. And Google just stopped selling Nexus Ones, boo-urns. They’ve said they’ll start up again, selling them through retail channels sometime in the future, but they haven’t said when. Maybe we’ll see that in a couple of months with new hardware and a Nexus Two.

Did I mention I was really optimistic about HP and Palm? I really was. Because right now, the short game for a competent open source phone is Intel/Nokia, and unless they can get away from PowerVR and Nokia’s habit of deciding that something not great today is good enough to ship as-is in six months, then that’s that. The long ball is HP, an unlikely maybe, but still enough to hope.

And, really, there’s nobody else.

UPDATES: Three things. First and second, my loyal cult following has hit the ground running, noting that there will in fact be no Nexus Two, and suggesting a possible purchaser for Moto’s stuff that I had overlooked, HTC. To which I reply, “that makes me very sad” and “I don’t understand why they’d do that, what’s in it for them that they don’t already have”, respectively. My loyal cult following rarely disappoints, let me tell you.

Thirdly, and hitting the wires at the same time I was finishing off my little diatribe here, HP announces WebOS 2.0 running on new hardware this year. Which: woo! I’d like a front-facing camera, Skype and a pony.

April 9, 2010

The Unfrozen Caveman Employment Agency

Filed under: awesome,digital,doom,fail,hate,interfaces,losers,vendetta — mhoye @ 1:59 pm


Mein leben, check this out. Adobe – Career Opportunities:

At Adobe, we take pride in creating a vibrant and dynamic workplace that is fueled by ingenuity and innovation and that is recognized as a top employer. Great ideas can come from everywhere in the organization, and we know the next big idea could be yours. From developing cutting-edge technology and products to collaborating with exceptional employees and serving our communities, Adobe is redefining the true meaning of success.


Adobe has a new talent acquisition system. This system is optimized for performance on IE 6 or IE 7, running on Windows XP. Unfortunately it is not supported on Firefox, nor is it supported on a Mac at this time.

I want to say I’ve spotted the flaw in their plan, but strictly speaking that is definitely a redefinition of success.

“Our talent acquisition system is optimized for performance on IE6”, gah. Dear Adobe: Honestly, what the hell?

Have a comment? The original article is here.

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