December 13, 2018

Looking Skyward

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




November 19, 2018

Faint Signal

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

P2270158 (2)

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

Something Else.

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

Warren Ellis, August 21, 2018.

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

I think it’s going to be interesting.

November 10, 2018


Filed under: a/b,analog,documentation,interfaces,life,travel — mhoye @ 2:13 am

Toronto’s oldest subway line, and the newest. This the view east from the Bloor Station platform:

Subway Tunnel, Bloor Station

… and this is the view north from York University:


July 5, 2017

The Minimum Viable Context

Filed under: analog,documentation,interfaces,life,vendetta — mhoye @ 10:51 am


This is not a subtweet; if I thought this should be about you, I’d have said so to your face months ago. If you get all the way through it and still kind of suspect it’s about you, though, you should spend some time looking inward and gear yourself up to deal with whatever you find in there, rattling the chains.

I’ve started and stopped writing this a couple of times now. Some drafts have been didactic, other self-congratulatory. “Blogging isn’t real if it’s not the first draft”, I’ve read somewhere, but I’ve never been able to do that; writing has always been a slog from what I’ve got written to what I can just barely sense I could. If I wanted to flatter myself I’d wheel out the old Mozart/Beethoven analogy, but that feels too much like fishing for compliments and besides, that garbage was in an early draft too.

So let’s lead with the punchline. Here’s the checklist: does everyone on your team…

  1. have a shared understanding of success?
  2. know what everyone else’s role is, and what they need to do their job well?
  3. know how their work contributes to the team’s success?
  4. know how their team’s success contributes to their own?

If you’re surveying the field from the executive suite and need big-picture, master-class management advice, well. This is not that. Talk to my friends Shappy and Johnath at Raw Signal. If you understand what they’re offering you know better than to look for it here. What I’ve got here is penny-ante table stakes, the difference between a team and a handful of people sharing the same corner of an orgchart. It is not complicated; it should, in theory, be trite. But to borrow a line, the fact is that in the day-to-day trenches of adult existence banal platitudes can have life-or-death importance.

In theory, you’d think hitting 4 out of 4 would be not just easy, but expected. In practice, in my experience, you’ll be lucky to make it to 2.

A few months ago I was asked to help a team out of the weeds. Getting into the details would be a disservice, so I won’t; in the broad strokes, I’m talking about a cross-discipline team of smart, invested people doing an important job. But for whatever reason, something – several somethings, it turned out – had gone really, really wrong. Execution, morale and retention were all going south. Everyone knew it, but nobody was really sure what had happened or what to do about it.

So I talked to a lot of people, I read a lot of mailing lists and bugs, and offered some advice.

If you’ve been around the team-dysfunction block before, you know there are plenty of probable causes. Shakeout from a reorg, a company pivoting hard, a team managing some sudden turnover, maybe the organization has grown from everyone being in the same room to nobody even being in the same city. Maybe you’ve hit that critical mass where communicating has suddenly gone from something nobody needed to worry about to something nobody remembers how to do. Maybe the one person who made it work left, maybe it’s just been that way so long nobody remembers the possibility that it could be different.

The advice I had for them was straightforward, a word I love for the veneer of upright nobility it adds to a phrase I could just as easily close out with “simple” or “obvious”. Get everyone into the same room for a few days, preferably away from everyone’s home base. Start the first day by having everyone give a talk about their jobs, not some name-and-title intro but a deep dive into what their job involves and the information, context and resources they need to do it well. Have some conversations – some public, some privately – between team leads and members about personal or professional goals and growth paths.

And then take the roadmap and the entire work backlog for the team and – ideally in the last meeting of that first day – print it out, stand up in front of everyone and drop it on the floor. Then tell everyone to come back the next day ready to start fresh.

The goal of this exercise was to make all the hidden costs – all the hidden work, all the hidden friction, everything people couldn’t see through the lens of their own disciplines – visible. And then, with that information, to take a hard reset. To narrow the team scope down to one or two tightly focused, high-impact features that could ship soon, and – critically – explicitly stop working on everything else. That sounded a bit dramatic, maybe impossible – I’ve been called worse – but nothing else seemed like it would work at all.

Because when I was asking my questions, the answers I got were mostly about the questions those teammates were asking each other. And it wasn’t hard to spot a common theme.

“If only it weren’t for the people, the goddamned people,” said Finnerty, “always getting tangled up in the machinery. If it weren’t for them, earth would be an engineer’s paradise.” – Kurt Vonnegut, “Player Piano”, 1952

Does everyone on the team understand that when you ask a designer to make a new button, that you’re asking them for a few dozen hours of product and market research, and a few more of design and testing, and not half an hour in Illustrator drawing pretty pictures? Does everyone really get that accommodating that schema change means refactoring a pile of business logic or backup processes? Did you all notice that you were asking for a contractual change with a major partner when you said “just change this string”?

I made those questions up for this post; the real ones were different in the specifics but definitely not in substance. You realize that you’re asking for the entire process, not just the output at the end, right? Why don’t you just?

You’ve seen this. You’ve probably even asked questions like them; I sure have. And unchallenged, even the mildest case of engineer’s disease left untreated will fester; eventually cultural rot sets in. We don’t really have a word for the long decline that happens next, the eventual checking out that happens the moment you clock in. The septic shock, the team’s paralysis and organ failures of core people ragequitting near the end. But you’ve seen that, too.

“You should focus on a small number of things” and “it helps to understand how your colleagues do their best work” is not exactly going to spur a revolution in technical leadership. I get that. But: don’t mistake the roadmap for the terrain. If you’ve made that plan without a clear, shared idea of where you’re going, how everyone can help you get there, and why you’re going at all? Then it’s hard to see how that will succeed, much less give rise to the kind of work or working environment you can be proud of. So toss it. Do the work of understanding where and who you are, and draw the map from there to somewhere that matters.

I told you this was table stakes, and I was not kidding about that at all. I wanted to help them get to a point where everyone on the team could confidently go 4 for 4 on the list, to get them to necessary so they could launch themselves at sufficient. And now, a couple of months later, I think it worked. They’re not all the way there yet – culture’s got a lot of inertia, and if I ever find a way to hard-pivot a whole org I’ll let you know – but they’re on the way, with a lot of clarity about what they’re doing, how they’re going to get it done together, and why it matters.

So: what about your team? Does everyone on your team have a shared understanding of success? Do you know what everyone else’s role is, and what they need to do their job well? Do you know how your work, and theirs, contributes to the team’s success and to your own?

Or does your team – maybe, possibly, kind of, just – suck at being a team?

You should do something about that. What are you going to do about that?

May 5, 2017

Nerd-Cred Level-Up

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


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

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

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

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

I’m unreasonably stoked about that for some reason.

February 6, 2017

The Scope Of The Possible

Filed under: digital,future,interfaces,life,lunacy,mozilla,want,weird,work — mhoye @ 5:34 pm


This is a rough draft; I haven’t given it much in the way of polish, and it kind of just trails off. But a friend of mine asked me what I think web browsers look like in 2025 and I promised I’d let that percolate for a bit and then tell him, so here we go. For whatever disclaimers like this are worth, I don’t have my hands on any of the product direction levers here, and as far as the orgchart’s concerned I am a leaf in the wind. This is just my own speculation.

I’m a big believer in Conway’s Law, but not in the sense that I’ve heard most people talk about it. I say “most people”, like I’m the lone heretic of some secret cabal that convenes once a month to discuss a jokey fifty year old observation about software architecture, I get that, but for now just play along. Maybe I am? If I am, and I’m not saying one way or another, between you and me we’d have an amazing secret handshake.

So: Conway’s Law isn’t anything fancier than the observation that software is a collaborative effort, so the shape of large piece of software will end up looking a lot like the orgchart or communication channels of the people building it; this emerges naturally from the need to communicate and coordinate efforts between teams.

My particular heresy here is that I don’t think Conway’s Law needs to be the curse it’s made out to be. Communication will never not be expensive, but it’s also a subset of interaction. So if you look at how the nature of people’s interactions with and expectations from a communication channel are changing, you can use it as a kind of oracle to predict what the next evolutionary step of a product should look like.

At the highest level, some 23 years after Netscape Navigator 1.0 came out, the way we interact with a browser is pretty much the same as it ever was; we open it, poke around it and close it. Sure, we poke around a lot more things, and they’re way cooler and have a lot more people on far end of them but… for the most part, that’s it.

That was all that you could do in the 90’s, because that’s pretty much all that interacting with the web of the 90’s could let you do. The nature of the Web has changed profoundly since then, and like I’ve said before, the web is everywhere and in everything now. But despite that, and the fact that browsers are very different beasts now than they were when the Web was taking its first tentative steps, that high-level interaction model has stayed pretty much the same.

But if the web is everywhere and in everything, then an interaction that involves opening an app, looking through it and closing it again seems incredibly antiquated, like you’re looking out a porthole in the side of a steamship. Even the name is telling: you don’t “browse” the web anymore. You engage with it, you interact with it, and with people, groups and businesses through it.

Another way to say that is the next generation of web browser won’t look like a browser at all: it will be a service.

More specifically I think the next generation of what we currently call a web browser will be a hybrid web-access service; like the current Web, it lives partly on a machine somewhere and partly on whatever device or devices are next to you, and act as the intermediary – the user agent – that keeps you connected you to this modern, always-on Web.

The app model is almost, kind-of-partway there, but in so many ways it makes life more complicated and less interesting than it needs to be. For the most part, apps only ever want to connect you to one place or set of people. Maybe that’s fine and that’s where your people are. But maybe you have to juggle a bunch of different communities in your life across a bunch of apps that go out of their way to keep those communities from discovering each other, and they all seem to want different slices of your life, your time and data depending on what the ad revenue people think is trendy this week. And because companies want to cover their bases you end up with these strange brands-pretending-to-be-people everywhere. It’s a mess, and having to juggle a bunch of different apps and communities doesn’t make a ton of sense when we’ve already got a reliable way of shipping safe, powerful software on demand.

I think the right – and probably next – thing is to push that complexity away from their device, to this user-agent-as-a-service living out there on a serverin the cloud somewhere, just sitting there patiently paying attention. Notifications – a superset of messaging, and the other part of this picture – can come from anywhere and be anything, because internet, but your Agent can decide whether forward them on directly, filter or bounce them, as you like. And if you decide to go out there and get something – a video, a file, a page, whatever, then your Agent can do all sorts of interesting work for you in-flight. Maybe you want ad filtering, maybe you paid for an antivirus service to give that file a once-over, maybe your employer has security protocols in place to add X or strip out Y. There’s lots of room there for competing notification services, agent providers and in-agent services, a marketplace of ideas-that-are-also-machines.

There’s a couple of things that browsers, for all their warts and dated ideas, do better than any app or monolithic service; most of those have to do with user intent, the desire for safety and privacy, but also the desires for novelty, variety and unique humanity. I’ve talked about this before, the idea of engineering freedom in depth. I still think it’s possible to build human-facing systems that can – without compromise – mitigate the possibility of harm, and mount a positive defense of the scope of the possible. And I think maybe this is one way to do that.

(Updated: Typos, phrasing, added some links.)

November 26, 2016

Home Coffee Infrastructure

Filed under: documentation,food,life,toys — mhoye @ 9:45 pm


We can take as a given that good coffee is to pod coffee as good people are to pod people.

Since seasonal sales are making the rounds, I thought I’d tell you about how I make coffee at home. It’s not super-complicated, but I’m very happy with it. Previously, my home coffee-making setup was:

  • Hario Skerton ceramic hand mill and Aeropress for single servings.
  • Cuisinart “Spice & Nut” blade grinder and French press for when I’ve got guests.

I bought the French press at a garage sale for $3, so altogether that setup cost me about $120 Canadian, and reliably made very good, if not world-class, coffee. After a while I found the 5 minutes of hand-powered grinding kind of tedious first thing in the morning, though, so I started looking around.

At one point I bought and immediately returned a Cuisinart coffee grinder; it had more than a few design flaws that I soon learned were common across much of that product category. After I realized that, I took the time to lay out my requirements:

  • No custom and hard-to-clean receptacle for the grinds. In particular, a grinder that won’t work without that specific container inserted just so is out.
  • Set-and-forget on the burr grinder. I’m the only coffee drinker in the house, so I want one button that does the right thing when I push it.
  • Super-easy cleanup. Aeropress cleanup is easier than the French press, but not a lot easier, so I set the bar there.
  • Not ridiculously loud, and
  • Makes excellent coffee.

After some research and patience this is what I’ve settled on, and now I think I’m set for the foreseeable future. I’m using:

So far I’m very happy with this. The Breville meets all my requirements for a grinder; I’m about four months into owning it and consider it excellent value for money.  One nice thing about it is that there’s no intermediate steps; you put the filter in the ceramic dripper, tuck it in under the grinder’s spout and push the button. Once you’ve boiled the water, making the coffee is quick and simple and cleanup could not be easier.

You have to start with excellent whole-bean coffee, clearly, but Toronto is in the middle of some sort of coffee renaissance right now and there are a number (Six? Eight? Maybe more?) of local roasters all doing excellent work, so let your heart guide you.

Some caveats:

  • There’s no difference between Breville’s “Dose Control” and “Dose Control Pro” grinders beyond cosmetics. I’d get whichever’s cheaper.
  • I can’t tell if there’s a difference between the filters I’ve got, but the Hario filters are cheaper. When I run out, I’ll only refill the Harios.
  • It takes a bit of time to dial in your preferences, but five or six seconds of moderately fine grind is a good place to start.
  • There’s a minor design flaw with the Buono kettle, in that if you heat it too quickly it spits water out the spout. Boil on medium-high, not on high.

So, there you go. This is not substantially more difficult than making pod-coffee, but the results are vastly better.

November 20, 2016

Memories And Palaces

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Seems plausible.

August 29, 2016

Free As In Health Care

This is to some extent a thought experiment.

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

 [ ]

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

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

– Philip Pettit, Freedom As Anti-Power, 1996

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

… and

Windshield Wiping and Washing System

104 (1) In this section,

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

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

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

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

That’s the car. Next you need roads.

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

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

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

– Philip Pettit, ibid.

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

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

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

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

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

[ ]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

No injuries have been linked to either issue.

Potential defects.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

August 18, 2016

Culture Shock

Filed under: analog,documentation,interfaces,life,mozilla,vendetta,work — mhoye @ 3:18 pm

I’ve been meaning to get around to posting this for… maybe fifteen years now? Twenty? At least I can get it off my desk now.

As usual, it’s safe to assume that I’m not talking about only one thing here.

I got this document about navigating culture shock from an old family friend, an RCMP negotiator now long retired. I understand it was originally prepared for Canada’s Department of External Affairs, now Global Affairs Canada. As the story made it to me, the first duty posting of all new RCMP recruits used to (and may still?) be to a detachment stationed outside their home province, where the predominant language spoken wasn’t their first, and this was one of the training documents intended to prepare recruits and their families for that transition.

It was old when I got it 20 years ago, a photocopy of a mimeograph of something typeset on a Selectric years before; even then, the RCMP and External Affairs had been collecting information about the performance of new hires in high-stress positions in new environments for a long time. There are some obviously dated bits – “writing letters back home” isn’t really a thing anymore in the stamped-envelope sense they mean and “incurring high telephone bills”, well. Kids these days, they don’t even know, etcetera. But to a casual search the broad strokes of it are still valuable, and still supported by recent data.

Traditionally, the stages of cross—cultural adjustment have been viewed as a U curve. What this means is, that the first months in a new culture are generally exciting – this is sometimes referred to as the “honeymoon” or “tourist” phase. Inevitably, however, the excitement wears off and coping with the new environment becomes depressing, burdensome, anxiety provoking (everything seems to become a problem; housing, neighbors, schooling, health care, shopping, transportation, communication, etc.) – this is the down part of the U curve and is precisely the period of so-called “culture shock“. Gradually (usually anywhere from 6 months to a year) an individual learns to cope by becoming involved with, and accepted by, the local people. Culture shock is over and we are back, feeling good about ourselves and the local culture.

Spoiler alert: It doesn’t always work out that way. But if you know what to expect, and what you’re looking for, you can recognize when things are going wrong and do something about it. That’s the key point, really: this slow rollercoaster you’re on isn’t some sign of weakness or personal failure. It’s an absolutely typical human experience, and like a lot of experiences, being able to point to it and give it a name also gives you some agency over it you may not have thought you had.

I have more to say about this – a lot more – but for now here you go: “Adjusting To A New Environment”, date of publication unknown, author unknown (likely Canada’s Department of External Affairs.) It was a great help to me once upon a time, and maybe it will be for you.

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