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mail

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.

Some of you may be wondering why I’ve been grinning like an idiot since noon, so I’ll tell you.

I had an idea today, and it seemed like a decent one so I emailed it to Gabe Newell.

Sir –

My daughter, who is all of two and a half years old, has asked me if I can get her an Aperture Science Turret for Christmas. I told her that Santa wasn’t likely to bring her a turret, but I would see if we could get her a companion cube, and she seems OK with that.

I thought that it would be perfect, though, if there were kids’-sized shirts in the Valve store commemorating Aperture Science’s “Bring Your Daughter To Work” day. There don’t seem to be, though, and I thought I should bring that oversight to your attention.

Thanks for everything,

— Mike Hoye

An hour later I got an email from Arsenio Navarro, in charge of Valve’s merchandising, which read in part:

Hello Mike,

Thank you for your email – and excellent t-shirt idea.
We will correct this oversight and offer a design at the Valve Store. [...]

Cheers,

Arsenio

I haven’t been that giddy about something in my inbox since I got an email from Don Knuth. I’m sure that most of you are aware that Valve Software, and Gabe Newell in particular, are 100% awesome. But for those of you who were not, let me assure you: that is the case.

Been a while, hasn’t it? Well, I’ve been cogitating; sometimes that takes time. In particular, I might add, when people dump a dozen loosely-related ideas into your brain with no regard whatsoever for how much effort it will take you to sort them all out. If I were in a blame-shifting mood I’d be pointing at Dave, Luke, David and these dinners we periodically have, which should say I go into expecting a good meal and some stimulating conversation and leave feeling like a glutton who’s been tasered in the brain.

“Interesting” doesn’t scale without a fight, is I guess what I’m saying.

So let’s get right to the heavy stuff: let’s say, apropos of nothing, for argument’s sake, that “sin” is a explicit negative valuation of an act without immediate cost. Did I couch that in enough conditionals? Well, you’re the one reading it. Let that be a lesson to you then.

For some reason I’ve been thinking about belief, narrative and cost lately, and the idea of sins and punishment in economic terms. Not necessarily with respect to actual money, but more by borrowing the terminology of economics to frame some ideas. Some actions have costs, you know? And some of those costs aren’t obvious, or aren’t immediately accrued, but they’re nevertheless real. So let’s say, just for the sake of saying so, that social capital and political capital are real, and that to some extent you can treat them, or at least describe the space around them, a lot like regular old capital capital.

This is going to be shorter than I wanted, but I’ve been struggling to get this out of my system for weeks.

We understand this, viscerally, when we’re talking about personal debts. We get that with ideas like “playing fair” or “I cut, you choose”. We largely agree that justice worthy of the name isn’t arbitrary or capricious and that cruel and unusual punishment is bad. But there’s this whole class of acts that certain groups of people are proscribed from doing, not for any obviously consequential reason, but because for no reason anyone alive remembers, that’s a sin. Or a taboo, or proscribed, you just don’t do that.

So I’ve got this notion that the founding conceit of act thus labeled is likewise an economic one, an “externality“: a cost that is otherwise unaccounted for. In this context, a story of divine punishment for a sinful act isn’t going to be a literal occurrence any more than political capital is real capital, but in a sense it’s a price tag regardless – your act has a real cost, and in a full accounting you will be made to bear that cost. You may not accrue that cost yourself, maybe not today, and you might even come out ahead. But if everyone does it, then all this falls apart; it’s a price to avoid the perverse incentives that steer towards a “tragedy of the social commons”, for lack of a better term.

Oddly enough, to some extent a belief in the existence or agency of some final arbiter is irrelevant – it’s sufficient for a moral person to know those cost exists, whether or not they believe they will ultimately bear them. The implication being that sin can exist without religion, which is the kind of conclusion you get to reach when you’re just making up arbitrary sociocultural taxonomies on the fly.

But the cannier among you will be saying right now “who is everyone, and what is this ‘all this’ you speak of”, and my somewhat wishy-washy answer is “that depends”. If everyone-who-goes-to-church just stopped going to church on Sunday would Christianity be worse off? It’s hard to say, but the church-as-institution might. And to be clear I’m not saying that’s good, bad, relevant, indifferent or purple. I’m wondering about the things you’re just Not Allowed To Do, whether they’re proscribed by your religion or your church group or your workplace culture or the dirty looks your cats give you, and the notion that we shouldn’t just take these impositions for granted. What I’m really interested in looking at those situations through this lens and trying, at a minimum, to understand and account for real costs, of time, effort and goodwill. Mine and others’.

Have you seen Merlin Mann’s Time And Attention talk? You really should; it’s a great talk, and there’s a couple of bits in there that have been rattling around in my brain for weeks. There’s a pretty distressing number of great points in there, but there’s three I want to pull out for attention:

(1)

“If you don’t manage your time well, you won’t make great stuff. But if you don’t manage your attention well, you won’t make great stuff.”

(2)

“If I just grabbed you in the street and asked ‘what’s the most important thing in your life?’, you’d probably say your family or, your church group, or your career. Maybe your kid or your pet or whatever. And the thing is… in some part of your heart that’s absolutely true. But do you have a sense of how well your time and attention tracks to doing good stuff for that thing you say is really important? Do you have an internal barometer that tells you how well that’s going? In fact, is the thing you claim is important really important? Because if a lot of people looked at where their time and attention went, the parts they do have control over, it would look like the most important thing in their life was Facebook.”

And (3):

“Saying you have more than two priorities is like saying you have more than two arms. You still only have two, but now you’re also crazy.”

You should really watch the whole thing. I’ll get back to it shortly.

Somewhat Skeptical

Maya’s learning awfully fast these days in that scary, scattershot way that kids soak up the firehose of information the world points at them every day. And apropos narrative through the terminology of economics? Children’s stories, jeebus, here we go.

We’re very clearly getting close to the point where the stories I tell Maya stop being the random noises that Dad makes before she goes to sleep and start having words and sentences and eventually morals and significance in them, so I’ve been spending a lot of time thinking about the lessons she’ll hopefully learn from them. They may not be exactly what it says on the box, I’ve noticed; I’ve been putting a lot of thought into how these stories look from the child’s perspective, not least from that of a child being addressed by a parent.

It’s been kind of distressing at times.

Some kids’ books are more amusingly phonetic than instructive, some others are about the equally important learning to count (and even those ones impart some notion of value in what’s described as “good” or not) but a few of I’ve pretty much decided to stop reading to Maya on account of their completely ignoring their ostensible target audience in ways that end up seeming petty, mean, weird, creepy or worse.

Two in particular: “Guess How Much I Love You” (apparently a sentimental favorite in my family) has a moral which looks, from an adult perspective, to be about telling your child how much you care about them, but if you’re in that smaller chair comes across as “Guess How Much Smaller You Are Than I Am” which when you’re trying to plant the seeds of a moral framework is not exactly on-message. The other, “Runaway Bunny” is worse: in-house we refer to it as “Guess How Fast I’ll Fucking Find You”; put yourself in that other, smaller chair and yeah, it turns out when you’re trying to get the hell away from somebody it stops being loving and heartfelt and starts being weird and aggro-stalkerish.

“You should put up with that sort of person”, as a lesson for my daughter, is simply not on. Unfortunately the alternate ending where the big bunny gets a broken nose and a restraining order doesn’t seem to be in print. Alas.

I hope I’m not the only person who thinks this, but historically when I say that I am frequently informed that, yes, I am in fact the only person who thinks that. But people are vulnerable to narrative, especially young people, especially children. Maybe I’m being paranoid and overprotective; an odd thing for somebody who’s let his one-year-old play with his electric screwdriver but skinned knees heal, you know? Some ideas are forever. And while for the most part I think that vulnerability is a feature, not a bug, I still think I should be careful. People tell each other a lot of stuff that’s dumb or false or both just ’cause it’s entertaining or dramatic, sure. But it’s also how we learn, without each of us needing to rediscover it, that fire burns, steel cuts and even if the creepy guy offers you candy you don’t get into the van. And unless you’ve heard the story before, you might not know about (you guessed it) those hidden costs.

And here we are evaluating costs again.

You don’t have to be at any lofty height before this all starts to blur together, and that’s pretty much where I am now. I’m spending a lot of time trying to figure out where my time and effort goes, where it doesn’t go, and making the costs of those tradeoffs as blindingly obvious as I can. I send a lot less email, and I’m cautious about what I do send, because there are these huge opportunity costs and externalities to imposing yourself on other people’s time. I’ve been trying to schedule short, sharp meetings with people, and ask them if they need it to book it with me. And when I go home, I go home; I lock my phone to keep myself from reflexively checking it during dinner, because email and twitter aren’t Maya and Arlene, and mostly look at work stuff until I get back to it the next day.

But mostly I’m trying to make 100% of my attention go, for real, and for real stretches of time, towards the stuff I think is actually important. And a big part of how I’m trying to do that is by doing my best to understand other people’s perspectives, to tell compelling stories about what’s important to me, and to act as though their time and effort and attention are as scarce and valuable as mine.

I’ll let you know how it works out.

A Church

This evening I’ll be deleting my facebook profile; I was asked why, though, so I want to hang this out for a bit beforehand to let people on Facebook know.

There are a couple of reasons for this; I outlined the dramatic changes in their privacy policy the other day, which have since been presented in a much more visual way here, and that trend isn’t slowing down.

Since then, though, a few other things have come up. The least of these is that in addition to what Facebook has done on purpose, it turns they’ve done a surprising number of pretty miserable things by accident.

The second most important reason was the ideas that have been rattling around in my head after watching this talk by Merlin Mann, which is eminently worthwhile. I think a lot of things about it, but the relevant one is that without even considering the threat-modeling aspects of it, Facebook just isn’t a good time-value tradeoff anymore.

Hello again?

The most important thing, though, is something my staunchly eminent friend and general-purpose good person Mike Shaver said. That he asked himself, what would it take for me to delete my Facebook profile? Would it have to be worse than this? And if so, do I want to be around when that worse thing happens? Which is a variation of a question I’ve heard before, in a different context, that is getting more important to me every day. If not now, when?

Ok, then. Now.

There are people that I consider to be good friends that I’ve never met and in many cases likely never will; you know who you are, I hope. I’m not going to pretend that “friends” is a meatspace-only definition; I know the future isn’t like that, because I care about those people. But I also don’t think I’m going to participate in any more systems that treat relationships, appreciation, affinity or contact as binary conditions. I’m not just your friend or not. I don’t just like things or don’t, and I don’t want to participate in systems that treat my life like an elaborate graph of false dichotomies. I’d like to think my relationships are a little more nuanced than the light in my fridge.

So, if you’re just interested in my writing, you can follow that here on my blog, or the short-form stuff on Twitter. My photos go to Flickr, as per usual. If you like, send me some email! I don’t even need to know you for any of that to work, but I’d be glad to hear from you either way.

In any case; good luck, Facebook people. If you need me, I’ll be over here with the internet. It’s messier, sure, but it’s also bigger and way, way better than this.

Update: Done.

Zoom!

From H. P. Lovecraft’s “At The Mountains Of Madness, we have Exhibit 1:

And now, when Danforth and I saw the freshly glistening and reflectively iridescent black slime which clung thickly to those headless bodies and stank obscenely with that new unknown odour whose cause only a diseased fancy could envisage—clung to those bodies and sparkled less voluminously on a smooth part of the accursedly re-sculptured wall in a series of grouped dots—we understood the quality of cosmic fear to its uttermost depths. It was not fear of those four missing others—for all too well did we suspect they would do no harm again. Poor devils! After all, they were not evil things of their kind. They were the men of another age and another order of being. Nature had played a hellish jest on them—as it will on any others that human madness, callousness, or cruelty may hereafter drag up in that hideously dead or sleeping polar waste—and this was their tragic homecoming.

From Ars Technica, “IBM takes on Google with new webmail, calendaring solution“, Exhibit 2:

Google has put a lot of effort and money into developing and marketing Google Apps as an inexpensive, easy-to-administer webmail, calendaring, and productivity solution. It has a new competitor in the shape of IBM, which is trying to beat Google at its own game. Big Blue announced LotusLive iNotes, a new e-mail service priced cheaper than Google’s offering. [...] Many of us have used or are familiar with LotusNotes, a product that, despite its interface quirks, is a solid e-mail, calendaring, and collaboration solution. IBM is counting on the cachet of the Lotus brand to distract IT types from the allure of Google Apps.

The “cachet of the Lotus brand”, you say?

Good luck with that.

Be Safe And Considerate

Another technical note, of no particular interest to people who come here coveting the funny. It’s about software deployment, which isn’t even funny when it goes wrong, so there is no funny today. There will be more of the funny later, I promise. I hope, at least.

A friend of mine asked me some questions about Symantec, formerly Norton, Ghost; it was giving him grief, but he knows that I love it very much and that it loves me back and he felt (and I’ll admit to putting words in his mouth here) that he wasn’t getting any of that love, which was making him sad. I said (and I’ll admit to putting words in my mouth here) that baby, it doesn’t need to be like that, you just need to know how to treat it right. So, for the sake of posterity and Google and so forth, this is how you treat it right. His actual goal was a piece of bootable standalone media that would quickly blow a clean Windows machine image onto a standard(ish) standalone PC with minimal human intervention. There are two files mentioned here that I won’t link to, for fear of abusing my gracious hosts’ bandwidth, but I’ll mail you the disk image and the sysprep.inf file if you need them.

Oddly enough, the original recipient’s mail filter sent all this back to me twice for reasons of profanity, urging me to be more polite while also including the full text of the mail-filtering rule, a surprisingly complete list of variations on the offending terms. Which made me laugh: “Our politeness filter doesn’t want our delicate users to see this, but also thinks you’d be interested in this elaborate, comprehensive fecal howto!”

You must be this tall to ride the mail server, I guess. This sort of thing is, incidentally, the reason the inside of my head is such a sewer.

Ok, so are you all seated comfortably? Then we’ll begin.

You’ll need:

  • WinImage from here : http://www.winimage.com/ for manipulating floppy images.
  • IsoBuster from here: http://www.isobuster.com/isobusterdownload.php is helpful for tearing apart existing .iso images and getting the floppy image out of them, but not necessary to this process.
  • Nero is my preferred burner for this – it’s got very clear options about making bootable media. Making sure you’ve picked “2.88 MB floppy image” is I think the only thing you need to remember, during that process.

So, using WinImage on the floppy image that I mentioned above (a modified Win98 recovery disk), extract Autoexec.bat and look at these lines:

LOADHIGH MSCDEX /D:MSCD001 /M:8 /L:X
LOADHIGH SMARTDRV
LOADHIGH DOSKEY /INS
x:\ghost.exe -clone,mode=restore,src=x:\winxp_img.gho,dst=1 -fni

The “/L:X” bit in the first line chooses the drive letter to assign to the contents of the CD, and it’s used immediately in the last line. You’ll need to change the name of the file specified in “src=X:\whatever” to whatever the name of your ghost image is. Make your modifications and use winimage to reinsert it. The “dst=1″ bit means “restore to the first drive”. The -fni option, though, is critical. It is hard-won knowledge, and you will respect it as such; none of this will work on SATA drives if you don’t have that switch in that place, and that shit isn’t written down anywhere, because it’s Symantec and fuck those guys.

So, all you need to do is to change src=x:\winxp_img.gho to whatever.gho and burn the CD with ghost.exe and whatever.gho in the root directory, and the floppy image you’ve appropriately-modified as the magic 2.88MB booty thing, and the DVD that comes out the other end will boot straight into Ghost and ask the monkey in front of the screen if they want to restore that image, and they say yes, and you’re off. On modern systems, that should be done in less than half an hour.

So, that’s what happens if you have no hardware drift ever, and those machines never coexist on the same network. If so, you need to create that image using Sysprep and the sysprep.inf file that I mentioned above. You can read about sysprep here: http://support.microsoft.com/kb/302577 but the gist of it is “copy my sysprep file over the default, modified so that where it says

[UserData]
ProductKey=XXXXX-XXXXX-XXXXX-XXXXX-XXXXX
FullName=”Guy LeGuy”
OrgName=”GuyCorp”

… you have a legit Windows prodkey, username and orgname, then run sysprep.” Check the “use minisetup” option and click the “reseal”, not “factory prep” button. All this does is that instead of ghosting an image onto random hardware and then losing its mind when it boots and finds out that it’s a spirit inhabiting a different body, it boots into a defensive posture and does a hardware autodetect and autoinstall before moving on.

That should about cover it. Let me know if you’ve got any questions about the process.

So, remember how a tree fell on my garage?

Yeah, about that:

Councillor Davis,

We are writing to you today to express our disappointment and frustration with an ongoing permit issue we have had, and our interactions with City Hall.

We are new home owners in the East York area; we have lived here for just over a year. Late in September of 2007, a neighbor’s tree fell over, landing on our detached garage. The garage was effectively destroyed, and we have been trying since October of last year to obtain permits to demolish and re-build the garage exactly as it was.

In our initial visits to City Hall we were informed by the permit-issuing department that we needed to supply plans, so we hired a contractor who supplied us with plans to use.On subsequent visits, we were then told that we needed detailed information on the materials and existing foundation.After several attempts to provide this information to the satisfaction of city officials, our original contractor withdrew stating that he did not expect to be able to find his way through the permit process in a reasonable amount of time.

We found a new contractor in November who advised us to wait until Spring of 2008 to rebuild as he would not be able to work once it began to snow.

In April 2008 our contractor went to the Building Permits Department of City Hall with extensive plans and building material details but was told he needed a site map and survey. We provided him with the survey of our property from 1976. He was told that the City had no record of our garage and that it was built illegally, despite the fact that the garage appears on the 1976 survey taken by the City of Toronto. We were then informed that there now exists a by-law prohibiting more than thirty-five percent of our property to be roofed – if we are to rebuild the garage on the existing undamaged foundation then we would be exceeding this amount. A building permit was not issued and we were told to contact the Building Inspectors to deem our garage unsafe so that we could then demolish and rebuild it.

Our initial contact with the Building Inspectors resulted in no action; they referred us back to the Permits Department, insisting that this was not their area, and that being issued a permit in these instances was entirely routine. After contacting the Permits Department again we were informed that the tree falling on our garage was classified as an “Act of God” and it was the responsibilities of the Building Inspectors. So after contacting the Building Inspectors again and referring to it specifically as an act of god, the inspection was performed.

After the garage was inspected we did not receive any information for two weeks. We were then informed that because we had the side of the garage propped up to keep it from falling over it was not considered an imminent danger. Therefore the Building Inspectors could not issue a demolition order, and that in order for such a thing to be issued, we would need to hire an engineer (at a cost, we were told, of approximately $500) to certify that our our garage is unsafe.

Our garage is currently 20 degrees from true and being propped up to keep it from falling over. We have once again been informed to return to the Permit Division and request a building permit, though it has now been suggested that we do so with a stern voice. No joke, that is the latest suggestion we’ve been given; that the next thing we should try is to yell at City of Toronto desk staff, in the hope that they will relent and give us permission to tear down our crushed one-car garage.

The bureaucracy, the run-around we have been dealing with trying to rebuild a garage that is obviously unsafe is astounding, and the City has made it essentially impossible for us to do things their way. While we appreciate that permits are in place to ensure that buildings are safely constructed to code, we have spent dozens of hours over the course of nine months in repeated attempts to comply with the requests of the Building Division, to do this entirely above-board, and in a few weeks it will be an entire calendar year since we started this process, when our garage was destroyed by a tree that the City of Toronto, ironically, would not allow our neighbors to remove some years ago.

The City of Toronto has, despite ostensible ownership of the tree that caused the damage and the authority to determine the legal status of our garage, taken no responsibility for the cleanup, or for providing us with the least hint of how to proceed. For the last nine months, we’ve looked out our rear window at a destroyed garage that the City has not permitted us to demolish and replace; it gives us no confidence that our tax dollars are being well-spent, or that following the rules and processes we have followed assiduously thus far is the right approach.

We would like, I think reasonably, to be able to tear down and rebuild our garage before the next snowfall. Our circumstances cannot possibly be unique, and we would like to know what next steps we can take to make sure this happens.

Pictures of the tree before it was removed, and the state of the garage now, are here: http://www.flickr.com/photos/mhoye/sets/72157605804868343/

We look forward to your reply,

Michael Hoye and Arlene Chan,
134 Woodmount Avenue, Toronto
(posted and e-mailed)

Just to be clear, I’ve got no problem paying taxes; bridges, roads, sewers, fire trucks, clean-running-water, network effects and not dying in substandard-building cave-ins, I like those things just fine. But this is absurd.

To: Team Members Who All (ALL) Dropped The Course Without Telling Me
Date: Day Of The Team Presentation
Re: Your Contributions To The Presentation

Fuck all of you.

-mhoye

“Grammar has displaced sex as a locus of shame. Discuss.”
– Ellen Fremedon