blarg?

losers

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.)

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.

“For over a thousand years, Roman conquerors returning from the wars enjoyed the honor of a triumph – a tumultuous parade. In the procession came trumpeters and musicians and strange animals from the conquered territories, together with carts laden with treasure and captured armaments. The conqueror rode in a triumphal chariot, the dazed prisoners walking in chains before him. Sometimes his children, robed in white, stood with him in the chariot, or rode the trace horses. A slave stood behind the conqueror, holding a golden crown, and whispering in his ear a warning: That all glory is fleeting.” – Patton (film)

I wish, just at this second, that the executives at Sony and Microsoft (though not exclusively them, to be sure) each had an employee, assigned personally to them, with a single task.

Their job is this: at any moment, day or night, at the instant that executive is about to begin something, they will decide arbitrarily, according to their whims and utterly without regard for the importance of the situation, to say the words “software update”.

At that point, the executive in question is obligated to simply stop. To be still, and do nothing. Perhaps they can decline – they can simply choose not to do whatever they were about to, knowing they’ll have to pay for this time later regardless – and after a period of time, perhaps five minutes, perhaps an hour, their employee will then simply say “restart”, and they can go on their way.

Over and over again, until they learn.

Guys guys great news: it turns out that panicky superstitious people who deliberately misinterpret their shallow understanding of an incredibly narrow slice of a foreign culture they’re otherwise completely disinterested in aren’t reliable predictors of anything at all ever.

Who saw that coming, right?

I like to imagine that for months now somewhere in the Yucatan peninsula people have been saying “Oh shit, man! The white people’s calendar ends on December 31st!!” and then howling with laughter, because somehow it’s hilarious every time.

Just to set the mood, here’s a bit Matt Taibbi wrote about the ability of the American left get themselves organized, specifically with respect to the anti-war protests in 2007:

“The post-sixties dogma that everyone’s viewpoint is legitimate, everyone‘s choice about anything (lifestyle, gender, ethnicity, even class) is valid, that’s now so totally ingrained that at every single meeting, every time some yutz gets up and starts rambling about anything, no matter how ridiculous, no one ever tells him to shut the fuck up. Next thing you know, you’ve got guys on stilts wearing mime makeup and Cat-in-the-Hat striped top-hats leading a half-million people at an anti-war rally. Why is that guy there? Because no one told him that war is a matter of life and death and that he should leave his fucking stilts at home.”

A week ago, in response to the short-lived and possibly illegal Respect Democracy get-Rob-Ford-reelected site, I put up RespectTheLaw.ca. I publicized it with two tweets, it got a few thousand views and sort of made the rounds, at least as far as the small pond of Toronto-politics-on-Twitter is concerned.

The “Respect Democracy” site was completely obscured – it was difficult, intentionally, to figure out who is behind it or what the information is being collected for. I built Respect The Law with just one breadcrumb in it, one more than none, deliberately put my email address at the top of the source. Links to source material but no other pages, affiliations or policy statements, again deliberately.

It didn’t take long for people, via Twitter and email, to ask me to confirm it was me, which I did. But then a surprising thing happened – I got a lot, indeed quite a lot, of pushback from people asking me what my usage and data retention policies are, and accusing me in pretty stark language of being an enemy of democracy. “You either believe in accountability and transparency, or you don’t” said one poorly-nuanced commenter, they were not alone.

The most interesting thing about this is that all, not some or most but 100%, of the criticism I’ve received for the effort has come from self-described “leftists”. And these weren’t polite requests for information or gentle suggestions, my goodness no: these were repeated assertions that I wasn’t taking data integrity, transparency and accountability seriously, and was consequently a bad person.

Well then.

On the one hand, that is absolutely a legitimate concern. I did not tell anyone who I am, how I intended to use that data, or how it was stored. That’s absolutely true.

On the other hand: honestly, put a fucking sock in it.

I’m a straight-up socialist. Not a liberal or left-leaning, but an actual socialist. We live in one of the richest societies in the world; our schools and libraries should be palaces. Our hospitals should be the envy of the entire planet. Our boulevards and public buildings should be towering edifices of stone and steel that we’ll be proud to pass down to our great-grandchildren along with clean air and clean water, freely and equally accessible to all of us. And I’m increasingly convinced that the reason so many people call themselves “centrists” now is that calling yourself a “leftist” is a license for every unshaven pinhead with a Che shirt you cross paths with to explain to you, in granular, inclusive detail, how you’re doing it wrong.

I suspect I’m going to go back to that myself, if only to save myself the hours in the day. You know what’s way, way more important to me than the “progressive” label? Making some fucking progress. So next time you see somebody trying to move the world a little closer to the way you both think it should be, but you disagree with their approach? Put a lid on it and let them work. The political right by and large gets this, and consequently they can get a lot accomplished. The left, us, well. Not so much.

I’ve added a usage policy page to the site, clearly visible before user data goes in.

Thanks for your feedback.

At the November 24th, 2011 TTC Town Hall meeting, it was noted that:

The TTC has attempted to make incremental improvements as we provide new entrances / exits or elevators for step-free access. One of the recommendations made by the Customer Service Advisory Panel in 2010 focuses on improving signs and other customer information. We are working on a plan to do this but re-signing a station is an expensive proposition both in terms of the planning required, the material cost and implementation. We need better understanding of what priority customers give to improved way finding when balanced against things like an increase in service levels.

Having said that, we must get much better at not degrading the look and feel of our stations and trains with visual clutter such as handwritten signs. Such improvements should have little cost impact but can be difficult to ensure consistency. We are experimenting with a new “wrap” on the Davisville collector booth that we hope will balance our operational and customer needs and control some of the clutter on and in our booths.

Line Up

I took this a few weeks ago at Spadina Station during rush hour. It’s classic TTC signage: hastily assembled by TTC employees using all the resources they have at their disposal, which is usually the side of a cardboard box and a sharpie.

Noted accessibility author Joe Clark has written extensively on the subject, though as of early 2008 he has understandably abandoned that project. When an organization doesn’t even want to admit there’s a problem, what do you do?

A sign

I’ve said this a lot recently. When something is a priority for an organization, it has three things: a budget, a calendar and exactly one person responsible for it. Missing any one of those is a guarantee that whatever that organization says, its real priorities are elsewhere. So whatever the TTC’s management says about wayfinding and signage the budget they’ve actually allocated for all that is a pizza box, a broom handle and a sharpie. The person responsible for it is whoever happens to be there that day.

All the evidence suggests that there’s nobody at the TTC that anyone, inside or out, can call to say that signs are broken or missing or need to be printed. There’s no budget, no standards and nobody to ask about any of that and if there is, then boy howdy they’re not answering the phone.

That town hall comment above, as misguided as it is in many respects does get one thing exactly right: it can be inexpensive, but has to be consistent.

It’s impossible for me to blame the boots-on-the-ground TTC employees for this. Hand-scribbled signs like that are adorable; they make it look like the third-busiest transit system in North America is managed by some kids the TTC headhunted away from a lemonade stand, an image I love. And I’m not sure what else to expect, given that we’re looking at the best effort from well-meaning people without expertise, management support, goals, oversight or any guidelines at all, and a time and money budget of zero.

So remember a while ago when I mentioned that publishers wanted to collude to make ebooks really expensive?

Mr. Young lays it flat out: that laws prohibiting anticompetitive collusion and price-fixing are having a “chilling effect” on major publishers’ attempts to collude, fix prices and thwart competition.

Funny story: The law be damned, they went ahead and tried anyway. And the U.S. Government, rightly contending that price fixing is illegal, appears to have a solid case. Three of the seven publishers being sued by the U.S. Department of Justice for said collusion have reportedly settled already. Including the Hachette Book Group where the aforementioned Mr. Young may still be CEO in a month, or may not.

Like all those named in the suit the Hachette Book Group publishes quite a bit of crime fiction, stories you’d think would give them some insight into why your savvier white-collar criminals don’t preannounce their intention to engage in illegal business practices in the business section of the New York Times. And yet here we are.

So if you’d like a good look at what naked greed, fear and stupidity looks like, there you are.

Zooming

It’s an old joke, with that wonderful undercurrent of bigoted misogyny that so many old jokes have: some creepy old dude propositions young woman by asking if she’d sleep with him for a million dollars, which she concedes she would. He follows that up asking if she’d sleep with him for a nickel; she replies, of course not, what kind of person do you think I am?

“We’ve established that”, he replies. “Now we’re just haggling about the price.”

The sort of horrid old joke told by horrid old people, to be sure, but there’s a tiny kernel of capital-T Truth in there: we should be honest with ourselves, at the very least, about when we’re talking about matters of principle or when we’re dickering over the price tag, and what that means about us.

Exhibit 1: George Lucas testifying before Congress in 1998 about copyright and the importance of artistic integrity.

“The destruction of our film heritage, which is the focus of concern today, is only the tip of the iceberg. American law does not protect our painters, sculptors, recording artists, authors, or filmmakers from having their lifework distorted, and their reputation ruined. If something is not done now to clearly state the moral rights of artists, current and future technologies will alter, mutilate, and destroy for future generations the subtle human truths and highest human feeling that talented individuals within our society have created.”

“[...] People who alter or destroy works of art and our cultural heritage for profit or as an exercise of power are barbarians, and if the laws of the United States continue to condone this behavior, history will surely classify us as a barbaric society. The preservation of our cultural heritage may not seem to be as politically sensitive an issue as “when life begins” or “when it should be appropriately terminated,” but it is important because it goes to the heart of what sets mankind apart. Creative expression is at the core of our humanness. Art is a distinctly human endeavor. We must have respect for it if we are to have any respect for the human race.”

“These current defacements are just the beginning. Today, engineers with their computers can add color to black-and-white movies, change the soundtrack, speed up the pace, and add or subtract material to the philosophical tastes of the copyright holder. Tomorrow, more advanced technology will be able to replace actors with “fresher faces,” or alter dialogue and change the movement of the actor’s lips to match. It will soon be possible to create a new “original” negative with whatever changes or alterations the copyright holder of the moment desires. The copyright holders, so far, have not been completely diligent in preserving the original negatives of films they control. In order to reconstruct old negatives, many archivists have had to go to Eastern bloc countries where American films have been better preserved.”

“In the future it will become even easier for old negatives to become lost and be “replaced” by new altered negatives. This would be a great loss to our society. Our cultural history must not be allowed to be rewritten.”

Exhibit 2: Dancing to “I’m Han Solo”, in the Kinect Star Wars video game, a rewritten version of Jason Derulo’s “Ridin’ Solo”

I’m feeling like a star,
You can’t stop my shine.
I’m lovin’ Cloud City,
My head’s in the sky.

I’m solo, I’m Han Solo.
I’m Han Solo.
I’m Han Solo, Solo.

Yeah, I’m feelin’ good tonight,
Finally feelin’ free and it feels so right, oh.
Time to do the things I like,
Gonna see a Princess, everything’s all right, oh.
No Jabba to answer to,
Ain’t a fixture in the palace zoo, no.
And since that carbonite’s off me,
I’m livin’ life now that I’m free, yeah.

Told me to get myself together,
Now I got myself together, yeah.
Now I made it through the weather,
Better days are gonna get better.
I’m so happy the carbonite is gone,
I’m movin’ on.
I’m so happy that it’s over now,
The pain is gone.

I’m puttin’ on my shades
to cover up my eyes.
I’m jumpin’ in my ride,
I’m heading out tonight

I’m solo, I’m Han Solo.
I’m Han Solo.
I’m Han Solo, Solo.

I’m pickin’ up my blaster,
Put it on my side,
I’m jumpin’ in my Falcon,
Wookie at my side.

I’m solo, I’m Han Solo.
I’m Han Solo.
I’m Han Solo, Solo.

Possibly the worst part being that this is actually an inoffensive, blandly-rehashed second-order derivative of a parody MC Chris did better.