blarg?

January 8, 2019

Feature Request

Filed under: digital,documentation,fail,interfaces,linux,toys,vendetta,want — mhoye @ 9:50 am

If I’m already in a Linux, ideally a Debian-esque Linux, is there a way for me to say “turn this new external hard drive into a bootable Linux that’s functionally identical to this current machine”? One that doesn’t involve any of dd, downloading an ISO or rebooting? It’s hard to believe this is as difficult as it seems, or that this isn’t a standard tool yet, but if it is I sure can’t find it.

Every installer I’ve seen since the first time I tried the once-magical Knoppix has let you boot into a workable Linux on its own and install that Linux to the hard drive if you like, but I can’t a standalone tool that does the same from a running system.

What I’m after is a tool (I briefly wrote “ideally graphical”, but yeah. Let’s be real here.) that you point at a hard drive, that:

  • Formats this new hard drive in some rough approximation of what you’ve already got and making it bootable. (grub-whatever?)
  • Installs the same packages onto that drive as are on the host system, and
  • Optionally copies over account information required, /home/*, passwords, whatever else is in /etc or /opt; skip (or be smart about?) stuff like the hostname or iptables, maybe.

…and ends with a hard drive I can plug into another system, boot and log into as comfortably-preconfigured me.

debootstrap almost gets part of the way there, and you can sort of convince that or multistrap to do the job if you scrape out your current config, pour it into a config file and rsync over a bunch of other stuff. But then I’m back in roll-it-yourself-land where I started.

Ideally this apparently-hypothetical magic clone tool would be able to do this with minimal network traffic, too – it’s likely I’ve already got many or most of those packages cached, no? And alternatively, it’d also be nice to able to keep my setup largely intact while migrating across architectures.

I go looking for this every few years, even though it puts me briefly back on the “why would you ever do it like that? You should switch distros!” You Asked A Linux Question On The Internet Treadmill. But I haven’t found a decent answer yet beyond rolling my own.

Welp.

(Comments are off permanently. You’re welcome to mail me, though?)

November 9, 2018

The Evolution Of Open

Filed under: digital,future,interfaces,linux,losers,mozilla,science,toys,vendetta,work — mhoye @ 5:00 pm

This started its life as a pair of posts to the Mozilla governance forum, about the mismatch between private communication channels and our principles of open development. It’s a little long-winded, but I think it broadly applies not just to Mozilla but to open source in general. This version of it interleaves those two posts into something I hope is coherent, if kind of rambly. Ultimately the only point I want to make here is that the nature of openness has changed, and while it doesn’t mean we need to abandon the idea as a principle or as a practice, we can’t ignore how much has changed or stay mired in practices born of a world that no longer exists.

If you’re up for the longer argument, well, you can already see the wall of text under this line. Press on, I believe in you.

Even though open source software has essentially declared victory, I think that openness as a practice – not just code you can fork but the transparency and accessibility of the development process – matters more than ever, and is in a pretty precarious position. I worry that if we – the Royal We, I guess – aren’t willing to grow and change our understanding of openness and the practical realities of working in the open, and build tools to help people navigate those realities, that it won’t be long until we’re worse off than we were when this whole free-and-open-source-software idea got started.

To take that a step further: if some of the aspirational goals of openness and open development are the ideas of accessibility and empowerment – that reducing or removing barriers to participation in software development, and granting people more agency over their lives thereby, is self-evidently noble – then I think we need to pull apart the different meanings of the word “open” that we use as if the same word meant all the same things to all the same people. My sense is that a lot of our discussions about openness are anchored in the notion of code as speech, of people’s freedom to move bits around and about the limitations placed on those freedoms, and I don’t think that’s enough.

A lot of us got our start when an internet connection was a novelty, computation was scarce and state was fragile. If you – like me – are a product of this time, “open” as in “open source” is likely to be a core part of your sense of personal safety and agency; you got comfortable digging into code, standing up your own services and managing your own backups pretty early, because that was how you maintained some degree of control over your destiny, how you avoided the indignities of data loss, corporate exploitation and community collapse.

“Open” in this context inextricably ties source control to individual agency. The checks and balances of openness in this context are about standards, data formats, and the ability to export or migrate your data away from sites or services that threaten to go bad or go dark. This view has very little to say – and is often hostile to the idea of – granular access restrictions and the ability to impose them, those being the tools of this worldview’s bad actors.

The blind spots of this worldview are the products of a time where someone on the inside could comfortably pretend that all the other systems that had granted them the freedom to modify this software simply didn’t exist. Those access controls were handled, invisibly, elsewhere; university admission, corporate hiring practices or geography being just a few examples of the many, many barriers between the network and the average person.

And when we’re talking about blind spots and invisible social access controls, of course, what we’re really talking about is privilege. “Working in the open”, in a world where computation was scarce and expensive, meant working in front of an audience that was lucky enough to go to university or college, whose parents could afford a computer at home, who lived somewhere with broadband or had one of the few jobs whose company opened low-numbered ports to the outside world; what it didn’t mean was doxxing, cyberstalking, botnets, gamergaters, weaponized social media tooling, carrier-grade targeted-harassment-as-a-service and state-actor psy-op/disinformation campaigns rolling by like bad weather. The relentless, grinding day-to-day malfeasance that’s the background noise of this grudgefuck of a zeitgeist we’re all stewing in just didn’t inform that worldview, because it didn’t exist.

In contrast, a more recent turn on the notion of openness is one of organizational or community openness; that is, openness viewed through the lens of the accessibility and the experience of participation in the organization itself, rather than unrestricted access to the underlying mechanisms. Put another way, it puts the safety and transparency of the organization and the people in it first, and considers the openness of work products and data retention as secondary; sometimes (though not always) the open-source nature of the products emerges as a consequence of the nature of the organization, but the details of how that happens are community-first, code-second (and sometimes code-sort-of, code-last or code-never). “Openness” in this context is about accessibility and physical and emotional safety, about the ability to participate without fear. The checks and balances are principally about inclusivity, accessibility and community norms; codes of conduct and their enforcement.

It won’t surprise you, I suspect, to learn that environments that champion this brand of openness are much more accessible to women, minorities and otherwise marginalized members of society that make up a vanishingly small fraction of old-school open source culture. The Rust and Python communities are doing good work here, and the team at Glitch have done amazing things by putting community and collaboration ahead of everything else. But a surprising number of tool-and-platform companies, often in “pink-collar” fields, have taken the practices of open community building and turned themselves into something that, code or no, looks an awful lot like the best of what modern open source has to offer. If you can bring yourself to look past the fact that you can’t fork their code, Salesforce – Salesforce, of all the damn things – has one of the friendliest, most vibrant and supportive communities in all of software right now.

These two views aren’t going to be easy to reconcile, because the ideas of what “accountability” looks like in both contexts – and more importantly, the mechanisms of accountability built in to the systems born from both contexts – are worse than just incompatible. They’re not even addressing something the other worldview is equipped to recognize as a problem. Both are in some sense of the word open, both are to a different view effectively closed and, critically, a lot of things that look like quotidian routine to one perspective look insanely, unacceptably dangerous to the other.

I think that’s the critical schism the dialogue, the wildly mismatched understandings of the nature of risk and freedom. Seen in that light the recent surge of attention being paid to federated systems feels like a weirdly reactionary appeal to how things were better in the old days.

I’ve mentioned before that I think it’s a mistake to think of federation as a feature of distributed systems, rather than as consequence of computational scarcity. But more importantly, I believe that federated infrastructure – that is, a focus on distributed and resilient services – is a poor substitute for an accountable infrastructure that prioritizes a distributed and healthy community.  The reason Twitter is a sewer isn’t that Twitter is centralized, it’s that Jack Dorsey doesn’t give a damn about policing his platform and Twitter’s board of directors doesn’t give a damn about changing his mind. Likewise, a big reason Mastodon is popular with the worst dregs of the otaku crowd is that if they’re on the right instance they’re free to recirculate shit that’s so reprehensible even Twitter’s boneless, soporific safety team can’t bring themselves to let it slide.

That’s the other part of federated systems we don’t talk about much – how much the burden of safety shifts to the individual. The cost of evolving federated systems that require consensus to interoperate is so high that structural flaws are likely to be there for a long time, maybe forever, and the burden of working around them falls on every endpoint to manage for themselves. IRC’s (Remember IRC?) ongoing borderline-unusability is a direct product of a notion of openness that leaves admins few better tools than endless spammer whack-a-mole. Email is (sort of…) decentralized, but can you imagine using it with your junkmail filters off?

I suppose I should tip my hand at this point, and say that as much as I value the source part of open source, I also believe that people participating in open source communities deserve to be free not only to change the code and build the future, but to be free from the brand of arbitrary, mechanized harassment that thrives on unaccountable infrastructure, federated or not. We’d be deluding ourselves if we called systems that are just too dangerous for some people to participate in at all “open” just because you can clone the source and stand up your own copy. And I am absolutely certain that if this free software revolution of ours ends up in a place where asking somebody to participate in open development is indistinguishable from asking them to walk home at night alone, then we’re done. People cannot be equal participants in environments where they are subject to wildly unequal risk. People cannot be equal participants in environments where they are unequally threatened. And I’d have a hard time asking a friend to participate in an exercise that had no way to ablate or even mitigate the worst actions of the internet’s worst people, and still think of myself as a friend.

I’ve written about this before:

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.

In the long term, I see that as the future of Mozilla’s responsibility to the Web; not here merely to protect the Web, not merely to defend your freedom to participate in the Web, but to mount a positive defense of people’s opportunities to participate. And on the other side of that coin, to build accountable tools, systems and communities that promise not only freedom from arbitrary harassment, but even freedom from the possibility of that harassment.

More generally, I still believe we should work in the open as much as we can – that “default to open”, as we say, is still the right thing – but I also think we and everyone else making software need to be really, really honest with ourselves about what open means, and what we’re asking of people when we use that word. We’re probably going to find that there’s not one right answer. We’re definitely going to have to build a bunch of new tools.  But we’re definitely not going to find any answers that matter to the present day, much less to the future, if the only place we’re looking is backwards.

[Feel free to email me, but I’m not doing comments anymore. Spammers, you know?]

September 13, 2017

Durable Design

Filed under: awesome,digital,documentation,future,interfaces,toys — mhoye @ 10:47 am

Flip

It seems like small thing, but it’s an engineering detail I’ve always had a lot of respect for.

That picture is of a Flip video camera with the lid off, a product from about nine years ago. It was a decent little video camera at a time that phones weren’t up to it, storing a bit over an hour of 720p video with decent sound. The company that made them, Pure Digital Technologies, was bought by Cisco in 2009 for about $590M and shut down less than two years later. Their last product – that ultimately never shipped – could stream video live to the Web, something we wouldn’t really see from a pocket-sized device until Periscope and (now-dead) Meerkat took a run at it five years later.

The thing I wanted to call attention to, though, is the shape of that case. The Flip shipped with a custom rectangular battery that had the usual extra charging smarts in it and you could charge off USB, like all civilized hardware that size. But it also gave you the option of putting in three absolutely standard, available-everywhere AAA batteries instead, after that exotic square thing finally died.

You only get to run the camera about two-thirds as long, sure. But long after they’ve stopped making those custom batteries or supporting the device itself, the fact of the matter is: you can still run it at all. It may not be the best thing around, but it’s also not in a landfill. It still does everything it said it would; my kids can make movies with it and they’re good fun. It didn’t suddenly become junk just because the people who made it aren’t around anymore.

I’ve often wondered what those product meetings looked like at Pure Digital. Who pushed for that one extra feature that might give their product a few extra years of life, when so many market forces were and are pushing against it. What did they see, that convinced them to hold the line on a feature that few people would ever use, or even notice? You see it less and less every day, in software and hardware alike – the idea that longevity matters, that maybe repair is better than replace.

If you’re still out there, whoever made this what it was: I noticed. I think it matters, and I’m grateful. I hope that’s worth something.

June 8, 2017

I’m Walking, Yes Indeed

Filed under: arcade,awesome,digital,interfaces,toys — mhoye @ 10:00 pm

They’re called “walking simulators”, which I guess is a pejorative in some circles, but that certain type of game that’s only a little bit about the conventions of some gaming subgenre – puzzles, platforming, whatever – and mostly about exploration, narrative and atmosphere is one of my favorite things.

Over the last year or two, I suspect mostly thanks to the recent proliferation of free-to-use, high-quality game engines, excellent tutorials and the generally awesome state of consumer hardware, we’re currently in a golden age of this type of game.

One of the underappreciated things that blogging did for writing as a craft was free it from the constraints of the industries around it; you don’t need to fit your article to a wordcount or column-inch slot; you write as much or as little as you think your subject required, and click publish, and that’s OK. It was, and I think still is, generally underappreciated how liberating that has been.

Today the combination of Steam distribution, arbitrary pricing and free-to-use engines has done much the same thing for gaming. Some of the games I’ve listed here are less than half an hour long, others much longer; either way, they’re as long as they need to be, but no more. A stroll through a beautifully-illustrated story doesn’t need to be drawn out, diluted or compressed to fit a market niche precisely anymore, and I thought all of these were a good way to spend however much time they took up.

Plenty of well-deserved superlatives have already been deployed for The Stanley Parable, and it is absolutely worth your time. But two short games by its creators – the free Dr. Langeskov, The Tiger, and The Terribly Cursed Emerald: A Whirlwind Heist and the much longer The Beginner’s Guide are radically different, but both excellent. Dr. Langeskov is brief and polished enough to feel like a good joke; The Beginner’s Guide feels more like exploring the inside of a confession than a game, a unique and interesting experience; I enjoyed them both quite a bit.

Firewatch is, in narrative terms, kind of mechanical – despite its may accolades, you eventually get the sense that you’re turn the handle on the dialogue meat grinder and you know what’s coming out. But it’s still affecting, especially in its quieter moments, and the environment and ambience is unquestionably beautiful. it’s worth playing just to explore. I’d be happy to wander through Firewatch again just to see all the corners of the park I missed the first time around, and there’s a tourist mode in which you can find recordings that explore the production process that I enjoyed quite a bit more than I’d expected.

“Homesick” is very much the opposite of Firewatch, a solitary and mostly monochromatic struggle through environmental and psychological decay, set in a rotting institution in what we eventually learn is an abandoned industrial sacrifice zone. The story unfolds through unexpected puzzles and mechanisms, and ends up being as much a walkthrough of the experience of mental illness as of the environment. Homesick isn’t a difficult game to play, but it’s a difficult game to experience; I’m cautiously recommending it on those terms, and I don’t know of any game I can compare it to.

“Lifeless Planet” is a slow exploration of a marooned FTL expedition to an alien world discovering the abandoned ruins of a fifties-era Soviet settlement. It’s not graphically spectacular, but somehow there is something I found really great about the slow unfolding of it, the pacing and puzzles of this well, if obliquely, told story. I found myself enjoying it far more than I would have expected.

Another space-exploration type game, though (supposedly?) much more sophisticated, Event[0] was generally very well received – Procedurally generated dialog! An AI personality influenced by the player’s actions! – but I played through it and found it… strangely boring? I suspect my gameplay experience was sabotaged by my Canadianness here, because I went into it knowing that the AI would react to your tone and it turns out if you consistently remember your manners the machine does whatever you want. The prime antagonist of the game this ostensibly-secretive-and-maybe-malevolent AI, but if you say please and thank you it turns out to be about as menacing as a golden retriever. Maybe the only reason I found it boring is because I’m boring? Could be, I guess, but I bet there’s a lesson in there somewhere.

The most striking of the bunch, though, the one that’s really stuck with me and that I absolutely recommend, is Everybody’s Gone To The Rapture, essentially an exploration of a small, inexplicably abandoned English village near an observatory in the aftermath of something Iain Banks once referred to as an “Outside-Context Problem”. It is all of interesting, beautiful and relentlessly human, investing you in not just the huge what-just-happened question but the lives and relationships of the people confronting it and trying to live through it. If walking simulators appeal to you – if exploring a story the way you’d explore an open-world game appeals to you – then I don’t want to tell you anything more about it so that you can experience it for yourself.

I’ve played a few other games I’m looking forward to telling you about – some of the best 2D-platformer and Sierra-like games ever made are being made right now – but that’s for another day. In the meantime, if you’ve got some other games that fit in to this genre that you love, I’d love to hear about them.

December 2, 2016

William Gibson Overdrive

Filed under: digital,documentation,interfaces,mozilla,toys,work — mhoye @ 4:56 pm

From William Gibson’s “Spook Country”:

She stood beneath Archie’s tail, enjoying the flood of images rushing from the arrowhead fluke toward the tips of the two long hunting tentacles. Something about Victorian girls in their underwear had just passed, and she wondered if that was part of Picnic at Hanging Rock, a film which Inchmale had been fond of sampling on DVD for preshow inspiration. Someone had cooked a beautifully lumpy porridge of imagery for Bobby, and she hadn’t noticed it loop yet. It just kept coming.

And standing under it, head conveniently stuck in the wireless helmet, let her pretend she wasn’t hearing Bobby hissing irritably at Alberto for having brought her here.

It seemed almost to jump, now, with a flowering rush of silent explosions, bombs blasting against black night. She reached up to steady the helmet, tipping her head back at a particularly bright burst of flame, and accidentally encountered a control surface mounted to the left of the visor, over her cheekbone. The Shinjuku squid and its swarming skin vanished.

Beyond where it had been, as if its tail had been a directional arrow, hung a translucent rectangular solid of silvery wireframe, crisp yet insubstantial. It was large, long enough to park a car or two in, and easily tall enough to walk into, and something about these dimensions seemed familiar and banal. Within it, too, there seemed to be another form, or forms, but because everything was wireframed it all ran together visually, becoming difficult to read.

She was turning, to ask Bobby what this work in progress might become, when he tore the helmet from her head so roughly that she nearly fell over.

This left them frozen there, the helmet between them. Bobby’s blue eyes loomed owl-wide behind diagonal blondness, reminding her powerfully of one particular photograph of Kurt Cobain. Then Alberto took the helmet from them both. “Bobby,” he said, “you’ve really got to calm down. This is important. She’s writing an article about locative art. For Node.”

“Node?”

“Node.”

“The fuck is Node?”

I just finished building that. A poor man’s version of that, at least – there’s more to do, but you can stand it up in a couple of seconds and it works; a Node-based Flyweb discovery service that serves up a discoverable VR environment.

It was harder than I expected – NPM and WebVR are pretty uneven experiences from a novice web-developer’s perspective, and I have exciting opinions about the state of the web development ecosystem right now – but putting that aside: I just pushed the first working prototype up to Github a few minutes ago. It’s crude, the code’s ugly but it works; a 3D locative virtual art gallery. If you’ve got the right tools and you’re standing in the right place, you can look through the glass and see another world entirely.

Maybe the good parts of William Gibson’s visions of the future deserve a shot at existing too.

November 26, 2016

Home Coffee Infrastructure

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

Flight

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

Exploring

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.

November 15, 2016

Modernity

Filed under: a/b,digital,interfaces,toys — mhoye @ 11:25 am

Modernity

For no particular reason, here’s a picture of a computer with a 1.3Ghz processor, 2 gigabytes of RAM, 32 gigabytes of solid-state internal storage and another 32 gigabytes on a MicroSD card, wifi, bluetooth and HDMI video output plugged into a standard 3.5″ floppy drive that would store 1.44MB, or approximately 0.002% of 64 gigabytes.

When you account for inflation, at the time of purchase the floppy drive was about $20 more expensive.

November 14, 2016

Switching Sides

Filed under: a/b,digital,documentation,interfaces,linux,mozilla,toys,work — mhoye @ 4:48 pm

Toronto Skyline

I’ve been holding off on a laptop refresh at work for a while, but it’s time. The recent Apple events have been less than compelling; I’ve been saying for a long time that Mozilla needs more people in-house living day to day on Windows machines and talk is cheaper than ever these days, so.

I’m taking notes here of my general impressions as I migrate from a Macbook Pro to a Surface Book and Windows 10.

I’ll add to them as things progress, but for now let’s get started.

  • I don’t think highly of unboxing fetishism, but it’s hard to argue against the basic idea that your very tactile first contact with a product should be a good one. The Surface Book unboxing is a bit rough, but not hugely so; there’s the rare odd mis-step like boxes that are harder than necessary to open or tape that tears the paper off the box.
  • I’ve got the Performance Base on the Surface Pro here; the very slight elevation of the keyboard makes a surprisingly  pleasant difference, and the first-run experience is pretty good too. You can tell Microsoft really, really wants you to accept the defaults, particularly around data being sent back to Microsoft, but you can reasonably navigate that to your comfort level it looks like. Hard to say, obvs.
  • I’m trying to figure out what is a fair assessment of this platform vs. what is me fighting muscle memory. Maybe there’s not a useful distinction to be made there but considering my notable idiosyncrasies I figure I should make the effort. If I’m going to pretend this is going to be useful for anyone but some alternate-universe me, I might as well. This came up in the context of multiple desktops – I use the hell out of OSX multiple desktops, and getting Windows set up to do something similar requires a bit of config twiddling and some relearning.The thing I can’t figure out here is the organizational metaphor. Apple has managed to make four-fingered swiping around multiple desktop feel like I’m pushing stuff around a physical space, but Windows feels like I’m using a set of memorized gestures to navigate a phone tree. This is a preliminary impression, but it feels like I’m going to need to just memorize this stuff.
  • In a multiple desktops setting, the taskbar will only show you the things running in your current desktop, not all of them? So crazymaking. [UPDATE: Josh Turnath in the comments turns out that you can set this right in the “multitasking” settings menu, where you can also turn off the “When I move one window, move other windows” settings which are also crazymaking. Thanks, Josh!]
  • If you’re coming off a Mac trackpad and used to tap-to-click, be sure to set the delay setting to “Short delay” or it feels weird and laggy. Long delay is tap, beat, beat, response; if you move the cursor the action vanishes. That, combined with the fact that it’s not super-great at rejecting unintentional input makes it mostly tolerable but occasionally infuriating, particularly if you’ve got significant muscle memory built up around “put cursor here then move it aside so you can see where you’re typing”, which makes it start selecting text seemingly at random. It’s way  better than any other trackpad I’ve ever used on a PC for sure, so I’ll take it, but still occasionally: aaaaaaargh. You’re probably better just turning tap-to-click off. UPDATE: I had to turn off tap to click, because omgwtf.
  • In this year of our lord two thousand and sixteen you still need to merge in quasi-magic registry keys to remap capslock . If you want mousewheel scrolling to work in the same directions as two-finger scrolling, you need to fire up RegEdit.exe and know the magic incantations. What the hell.
  • It’s surprising how seemingly shallow the Win10 redesign is. The moment you go into the “advanced options” you’re looking at the the same dialogs you’ve known and loved since WinXP. It’s weird how unfinished it feels in places. Taskbar icons fire off on a single click, but you need to flip a checkbox five layers deep in one of those antiquated menus to make desktop icons do the same.  The smorgasbords you get for right-clicking things look like a room full of mismanaged PMs screaming at each other.
  • You also have to do a bunch of antiquated checkbox clickery to install the Unix subsystem too, but complaining about a dated UI when you’re standing up an ersatz Linux box seems like the chocolate-and-peanut-butter of neckbearded hypocrisy, so let’s just agree to not go there. You can get a Linux subsystem on Windows now, which basically means you can have Linux and modern hardware with working power management and graphics drivers at the same time, which is pretty nice.
  • Pairing Apple’s multitouch trackpads with Windows only gets you one- and two-fingered gestures. C’mon. Really?
  • This is a common consensus here, after asking around a bit. Perplexity that Microsoft would put an enormous (and ultimately successful) effort into re-pinning and hardening the foundations underneath the house, recladding it and putting in an amazing kitchen, but on the 2nd floor the hinges are on the wrong side of the doors and there’s a stair missing on the way to the basement.
  • I’m not surprised the Windows Store isn’t the go-to installer mechanism yet – that’s true on Macs, too – but my goodness pickings there are pretty slim. Somehow I have to go visit all these dodgy-looking websites to get the basic-utilities stuff sorted out, and it feels like an outreach failure of some kind. This is vaguely related to my next point, that:
  • The selection of what does vs. doesn’t come preinstalled is… strange. I feel like Microsoft has space to do something really interesting here that they’re not capitalizing on for some reason. Antitrust fears? I dunno. I just feel like they could have shipped this with, say, Notepad++ and a few other common utilities preinstalled and made a lot of friends.
  • The breakaway power cables are fantastic. A power brick with fast-charge USB built in and freeing up slots on the machine proper is extremely civilized. You can be sitting with your legs crossed and have the power plugged in, which I sincerely miss being able to do with underpowered 1st-gen Macbook Air chargers back in the mists of prehistory.
  • The Surface Dock is basically perfect. Power, Ethernet, two DisplayPorts and four USB ports over that same breakaway cable is excellent. If you’ve ever used a vintage IBM Thinkpad docking station, this is something you’ve been wishing Apple would make for the better part of a decade.
  • I assumed “Skype Preview” was a preview version of Skype. I wanted (and pay for) the whole thing, so I immediately uninstalled that and installed normal Skype, which it turns out is really outdated-looking and ugly on Win10. I was bewildered about why a premiere Microsoft-owned thing like Skype would look ugly on their flagship OS, so I did some research and discovered that “Skype Preview” isn’t a preview version of Skype. It’s the prettified modern Win10 version. So I reinstalled it and uninstalled Skype. I’m sure this is somehow my fault for not understanding this but in my defense: words mean things.
  • This hardware is really nice. The hinge works great, eject to tablet is crisp and works well, reversing it to the easel setup is both surprisingly good and for-real useful.

Anyway, this is where I am so far. More notes as I think of them.

Update:

  • Definitely turn off the two-finger-tap-to-right-click option – if you don’t and you’ve got fat hands like mine, sometimes it will get into a state where everything is a right-click, which is inexplicable and upsetting.
  • I saw my first tripped-over USB-C cable send a Macbook crashing to the floor today. I suspect it will not be the last.

Further updates:

  • It turns out there’s a (baffling!) option to turn a click on the lower right corner of the trackpad into a right-click, which is just super-weird and infuriating if you don’t know it’s there and (apparently?) turned on by default.
  • The trick to reversing mousewheel scrolling only is here, and involves RegEdit, finding all the instances of FlipFlopWheel in the registry under HKEY_LOCAL_MACHINE\SYSTEM\CurrentControlSet\Enum\HID\ and changing them from 0 to 1. Very user friendly.
  • A lot of network-related stuff in the Unix subsystem doesn’t work right or at all yet, but my understanding is that this is fixed in the Insider builds.
  • A nice as having the Unix subsystem is, the terminal thing you use to get to it is infuriating retro-bizarro DOS-window garbage.  [UPDATE: bwinton has introduced me to Cmder, a console emulator for Windows that is vastly better than the Ubuntu default in every observable respect. Use that instead.]
  • Unexpected but pleasant: CPU in the lid instead of the base means your lap doesn’t overheat.

Further-er updates:

  • A nice touch: searching for common OSX utility names with the taskbar brings you directly to their Windows counterparts, like “grab” brings you to the snippets tool.
  • It’s surprising how often the “how do I do [something]?” links in the Settings dialog box take you to the same undifferentiated and completely un-navigable Windows 10 support page. Really rookie stuff, like they fired the intern responsible three weeks into their placement and just forgot about it.
  • It’s really frustrating how both of those experiences coexist basically everywhere in this OS. Nice, elegantly-deployed and useful touches in some places, arbitrarily broken or ill-considered jank in others.

Further Updates 4: The Furthening;

  • There’s now a Surface Book User Guide, and it’s got some good information in it. For example, fn-del and fn-backspace adjust screen brightness, something I’ve missed from my Macbook. Also, fn-space for screenshots is nice enough, though the provided snipping tool is better (better than OSX Grab, too.)
  • You can use AutoHotKey scripts to remap what pen-clicking does, turning it into a passable presenter’s tool. Which is kind of neat.

Finally, one of the most upsetting things about Windows 10 is how power management just doesn’t reliably work at all. There’s no safe-sleep; running out of battery means state loss, potentially data loss, and a cold reboot. I’ve had to set it to hibernate on a lid closed because sometimes suspend just… doesn’t. Before I did that, I’d put it into my bag with the lid closed and it would mysteriously wake in my backpack, once hot enough that it was uncomfortable to touch. Despite the fact that my unmodified default settings say “critical power level is 6% and the action to take here is hibernate”, I routinely see 4%-power-remaining warnings and then hard shutdowns, and if I’m not careful hard reboots afterwards. Honestly, what the hell.

Last update: Well, this is unfortunate:

IMG_20170207_172319

Postmortem: Still like Windows 10, but after putting up with that screen yellowing and an increasing number of baffling hangs (and the discovery that the backup software had been silently failing for weeks), this machine got RMA’ed. I’ll have another one soon; hopefully it was an isolated hardware problem, but I guess we’ll see.

July 10, 2016

Witness Me

Filed under: arcade,beauty,digital,documentation,interfaces,toys,vendetta — mhoye @ 9:21 pm

Seaside

Having recently forced myself to play through the ending-plus-the-real-ending of The Witness, I’m finding myself wondering if it was worth playing. I’m surprised to find myself thinking that it wasn’t.

As far as you can “spoil” something without a meaningful narrative (which is itself a spoiler, I suppose) then there are spoilers ahead, so make a decision here. I won’t be solving any of the puzzles for you, but that’s largely because at some point I lost interest in grinding them out myself.

Just to get this out of the way, The Witness is beautiful. It is very nice to look at.

Sadly, that’s almost all it is.

The creeping sense that you might be gazing into a beautiful, elaborate navel sets in early, and the thin edge of that wedge is the scattered voice-recorders. It doesn’t take long to notice their placement is very deliberate, and it’s not to tell you anything about this abandoned island, its strange statues and presumably-absent residents. Instead, their role is to constantly remind you that you have to look everywhere. At everything, from every angle, all the time, for reasons that never materialize.

Jonathan Blow – creator of The Witness – has said that he wants to make games for “people who read Gravity’s Rainbow“, and I think he’s succeeded at that provided we’re talking about people who read it, cranked out a disinterested B- essay for the compulsory 1st-year humanities credit that assigned it, and never looked back.

The other thing it doesn’t take long to notice is that the reveal of the central conceit and pivotal epiphany of The Witness is also the precise moment the joy of playing the game starts wobbling on the rails. First of all, however you come to that revelation – that the world is itself full of these circle-and-line puzzles – you have almost no say in the fact of coming to it; I hope you had that magic moment before you’d made it to the top of the mountain, because that’s where you get clubbed over the head with it. And second, that’s also the moment the game stops being an exploration and starts being a grind.

You’re not farming gold or breaking jars here, and that’s not nothing, but after you’ve seen a few of those world-puzzles every archway or semicircle you wander past or glance by the edge of the screen stops looking like a beautiful detail in a beautiful world and starts looking like a job.

And they are, of course, everywhere. The dirt path that ends in a curve, the cloud with the semicircular edge, the half-submerged pipe and its reflection, the whole island turns into one long brightly-colored to-do list. Climb something else to look at it or wander around it until the circle shows up, activate or trace whatever it is, and then… move on to the next one, because there’s definitely a next one. But there’s no story to advance, nothing gained beyond the sense that you’ve been spoon-fed a sense of cleverness. The minor epiphanies that pleasantly surprise you at the beginning of the game are silently haunting every twisted set of branches or curving shadow now, waiting for you to wander around this Ouija board of a world and invoke them for no particular reason.

The boss battles of this perspective-grinding exercise are sometimes clever, always pretty and invariably hollow. The perfect narrative void of this game screams at you in those moments; you’re standing where you can see the reflected fish or the harpy’s flowing hair or the two statues linking hands. “This moment would tell you so much”, the void says, “if there was anything to tell you at all. Go find more puzzles.”

Res ipsa loquitor, sed per se” is a line that came to mind, here – the thing speaks for itself, but only about itself. It’s a game that wants you to really understand the vital importance of paying careful attention to detail and perspective, and sets out to do that by giving you hundreds of nearly-identical problems and devoutly refusing to give you a reason to solve any of them.

It’s really hard to care how many levels a joke works on when you’re hearing it for the two hundredth time.

Anyway: the exact moment I tuned all the way out was partway down the inside of the mountain, when the Aperture Science aesthetic kicks in and of the randomly scattered recordings – hidden wherever they are without any reason or pattern beyond being hidden, obvs – plays you a long B.F. Skinner quote that cut more than a little too close to the bone. At that point I’d had just about enough of this B- essay that I could make a pretty good guess how it would end and didn’t care much if I was right or wrong. I pushed on, but the eye-rolling Witness-To-The-Hotel-California sequence didn’t change my opinion for the better.

I really wanted to love this game. I can kind of see the rough outlines of a lot of other games I’ve loved in it, but I suppose I never figured out where to stand to make it work.

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