blarg?

toys

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.)

This has been sitting around in the drafts folder for a while. I’m not sure why I wanted to finish it off tonight, but I want to get all these half-finished posts done. This seemed like a good way to knock off some of the rust.

Rust Never Sleeps

Occasionally when I’m in one of my darker moods I’ll fire up a game that’s meant to be multiplayer and walk through it alone, crawling around the fringes and corners to see how the game reacts to unexpected stimuli, looking for soft spots and exposed nerves.

I’ve always been a lurker in open worlds games, real life being no exception; I don’t remember when I started looking for the seams, the little gaps where the walls don’t quite line up or the high ledge that offers a long view, but it’s not a thing I can turn off. And when I’m in that sullen loner’s mood, sitting in the dark soloing multiplayer spaces is a pleasant way to spend an hour or two on just that sort of wallhack tourism.

Halo’s Spartan Ops, is kind of fun though not particularly replayable distraction. It’s a neat idea, and I sort of wish they’d done more with the idea of serving up Halo in smaller episodic doses. The environments, though… if you have the right eyes you can’t help but notice that built-for-a-shooter feeling that pervades the designed landscapes of that franchise.

Its not just the trademark gun-litter; whether it’s a forcefield deployed pointlessly in a cave, an otherwise-empty room with one door and twenty or so alien warriors milling around inside waiting to no discernable purpose or an massive structure of dubious architectural merit built by an advanced alien species whose accomplishments include intergalactic teleporters but not doors, you never have a moment to shake off the sense that the world is built entirely around sight lines.

Specifically, as they emerge from you.

This is a pretty niche failure mode, I’ll admit. It’s possible I’m the only person who will ever notice or care about it. But it’s been a long time since I’ve seen a space designed for a shooter that didn’t undercut any grandeur and greater aspirations the game might have. It maybe unavoidable; as lush as some of these environments seem at first, how do you evoke that sense of being part of something much bigger than yourself when everything is designed around you?

So much video game architecture fails that test of basic significance, worlds of outsized and beautiful physics-defying structures that don’t speak to any motive beyond themselves. Halo 4 is hardly the worst example, but the scale it aspires to makes this kind of anarrative laziness hard to overlook. This incredibly ambitious backstory, these huge structures and it’s all facade; there’s no “why”, because you’re there with the controller in your lap and you’re the “why” and there is no larger story than that.

“This place once belonged to an ancient and noble civilization, whose might and wisdom spanned the galaxy”, these structures say, “and as a monument to our glories we have built this: a monochromatic rhombus.”

Also I’m not sure how that Spartan Miller guy got his job, but he’s kind of excitable for an ostensibly hardened space marine.

But if you’re the sort of person who appreciates a jetpack – and if you’re not I don’t really see how we can keep being friends – then a lot of these arbitrary obstructions and forced perspectives are suddenly, inexplicably tractable. That extra degree of freedom is enough; in some places – Science Mountain is a good choice here – suddenly you can fly over a gate you were meant to fight past. And the game, of course, doesn’t appreciate being spoken to like that: Halo is on rails, and always will be thus! And you’re frightening the AI and this is just the way things are and I don’t care for your tone, young man. You can’t just leave the rails, that’s why it’s called “going off the rails”, and… hey, get back here!

And in this transgression, of course, Halo reveals itself for what it is.

You clear that gate, mop up a few stragglers and hop back to flip the switch to proceed. Enemies appear, less and listless. Defeat them, and now you’re alone. The next part of the sequence simply doesn’t happen. No-one else appears, no more doors open. Your team never contacts you and you, stoic and silent, never reach out to them.

There’s no meaning, there’s no more, there’s no distraction; there’s just reflection and just you, silently exploring a small corner of a deserted island intended only for you, forever. And there’s nothing to do but look for another seam, another glitch, to allow you maybe possibly move on.

It’s a weird, lonely feeling; kind of what you’d expect from soloing a multiplayer game alone in the dark.

You can think of them as the Fry and Laurie of malevolent synthetic intelligences that are going to murder you.

In a fortuitous coincidence, this video – a collection of communications from SHODAN, antagonist of the classic System Shock 2,

and this video, of GlaDOS‘ spoken dialogue from the first Portal,

… are both about 14 and a half minutes long.

You should listen to them both at the same time.

I bought a new bag.

I’ve come to the conclusion that I shouldn’t buy anything in the wintertime; I spend too much time indoors and it’s bad for my head. After a while I start believing that I should start having things that are nice, and maybe even – dare I say it – fancy, and when you’re a guy in the throes of middle-age that can end poorly.

As a side anecdote: my personal canonical example (is “headcanonical” a word?) comes from late winter about two years ago, when I mentioned to an old friend that I’d been (at 37, with two kids; painfully trite, I know) casually window-shopping for motorcycles. She’s known me forever, and her reply slid in flat between the ribs that special way only an old friend’s can.

“So did your dad ever hug you when you were a kid, or are you going to get one of the really loud ones?”

Painful wince, scene.

Gentlemen, having women in your life who will call you on your bullshit is invaluable. I’m not getting a motorbike.

Which, in fact, is great – all that cabin-fever stir-craziness ends in the spring, because what I really want, every year, isn’t fancy shoes or a motorcycle, it’s to get back on my bike. A few weeks of summer commutes has cemented it, too; I fly past a lot of expensive European metal on my ride in and your Porsche or Ducati doesn’t matter much if everyone in front of you is parked. But on a bike I can blow through traffic like the wind, and in rush hour traffic – and that’s most of the time, downtown – I’m far and away faster than anything else on the road.

Anyway, back to the topic at hand: after a fair bit of screwing around trying to turn my venerable old laptop bag into the messenger bag I actually wanted, I’d decided I needed to solve the problem once and for all.

I’m partial to messenger bags as because of the kind of riding I tend towards is the “playing-in-traffic” kind, and for that you need any weight you’re carrying to sit as high on your back as possible. It’s hard to cinch the load on a backpack up over you, and the lateral stability on them is usually iffy. They’re just not meant for this kind of work. I love the look of Saddleback Leather’s bags – so beautiful, so utterly impractical – but when spring rolled around I had to own up to the fact that they’re not right thing. I’m the semi-mythical Scofflaw Cyclist that comes up whenever people talk about traffic, and I needed something for the aggro bike commuting I do every single day. So I laid out my criteria and broadened my search.

My needs turned out to be pretty straightfoward:

  • Waterproof for real. Not “resistant”; clean-it-with-a-hose waterproof.
  • Holds a 15″ laptop plus the usual nerd fixins’ plus two days’ clothing.
  • Replaceable straps – that is, the straps can’t be sewn in to the bag.
  • Quick-adjust straps. Gotta be able to cinch it down and step out of it easily.
  • Second support strap, ideally also quick-adjust.
  • Side pockets I can reach without opening the whole bag.
  • Little or no velcro, just because it annoys me.
  • Being able to clip stuff to the sides is a plus, and Molle webbing is nice and everything but
  • if the word “tactical” appears anywhere in the product’s page, close the tab. “Tactical” has become shorthand for “substandard gear aimed at the macho bullshit market”, so when you’re in the market for sturdy, dependable gear this is a huge timesaver. Remember: amateurs study tactics, professionals study logistics.

The replaceable straps part is really important. They’re generally the least-thought-out part of the bag, despite being the most important. Being able to either get them just right or replace them is a deal-breaker.

As beautiful as they are, the Saddleback bags – any leather bags – were disqualified early on, and the strap criteria ruled out all of Crumpler’s products. Maxpedition bags are solid, but they suffer from that mall-commando velcro-and-tiny-pockets-everywhere aesthetic that makes you look like a deflated Rob Leifield character, so that’s that. They’re like some of the better Targus bags, in that sense; all the ingredients of a great product are there, you can see them, but nobody with any taste cared enough about how they worked or fit together.

I had a couple of strong choices, though. The last candidates to get cut were:

  • The Tom Bihn Ego/Superego, cut for the straps. It’s a nice bag and Tom Bihn sees a lot of love around the office, but bags that hang low off clips generally seem to be designed for casual cyclists and pedestrians.
  • I spent a very long time looking at Acronym’s Third Arm products – this one is just so close to perfect – but $1100 for a messenger bag indefensible lollerskates.
  • The MEC Velocio, a very strong contender particularly for the price, maxes out at a 13″ laptop and was cut for size & strap reasons.
  • Chrome’s Buran looks great and is well-reviewed, and the seatbelt-buckle strap is compelling. but falls down on the side pockets and removable strap questions. Chrome makes great bags in general, and the Buran was the last cut. [UPDATE: This was an error - the Buran has removable/adjustable straps that are equivalent to those on the Timbuk2 Especial, and if I were doing this again it would be a tossup; the Buran also meets my requirements.]

The winning candidate was the Timbuk2 Especial Cycling Messenger Bag, which is as close to perfect as I’ve seen. Sits high on the back. waterproof, the strap is great and the magnetic-clip latches are good enough that I find going back to the old kind pointlessly cumbersome now. Fits a lot if it has to, cinches down if it doesn’t, comfortable and lifts off the back a little bit to air out which is quite nice. This plus their extra 3Way phone case for the strap has been making me very happy for about a month now.

There are a few caveats::

  • I generally dislike velcro, but Timbuk2’s “silencer” straps aren’t worth it. A yard of velcro does the job for a fraction the price. If those straps had incorporated some extra molle-style gear loops I’d have jumped at them – some extra clip-in points under the flap would be welcome – but you’d need two sets to quiet this bag, so I wouldn’t bother.
  • I’ve replaced the stock support strap with $5 worth of straps and buckles from MEC so that I can loosen it up or cinch it down as easily as the main strap. This isn’t a big deal until you’ve got to wear a jacket, but it was worth it. Likewise I’ve added a small strap to the main buckle so that it’s easier to unlatch with gloves.

… but that’s not much, and the result is exactly what I wanted.

Well, we have to get back to making jokes at some point. I bought some glasses from the internet.

I bought new glasses from the internet.

It didn’t go exactly as I’d hoped.

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.

Watching

Before they were called cubicles, the prefabricated office furniture we all now take despondently for granted was part of an idea called an “Action Office”. Though they’ve apparently lost their way at Herman Miller where the idea was born the idea was, at least in part, that:

[...] during the 20th century, the office environment had changed substantially, especially when considering the dramatic increase in the amount of information being processed. Despite the change in what an employee had to analyze, organize, and maintain on a daily basis, the basic layout of the corporate office had remained largely unchanged, with employees sitting behind rows of traditional desks in a large open room that was devoid of privacy. Propst’s studies suggested that an open environment actually reduced communication between employees, and impeded personal initiative. On this, Propst commented that “one of the regrettable conditions of present day offices is the tendency to provide a formula kind of sameness for everyone.“ In addition, the employee’s bodies were suffering from long hours of sitting in one position. Propst concluded that office workers require both privacy and interaction, depending on which of their many duties they were performing.

Action offices, in short, were meant to provide a variety of environments and physical working positions, so people weren’t forced into a single space and position for the whole day. Which, it turns out, is really really bad for you. That’s not the history of office furniture we know, of course – all it quickly became was a cheap way of providing prefab desks and air circulation to shabby, beige and slightly greenishly-lit cubefarms furnished by the lowest bidder, because the invisible hand of the free market likes nothing better than flipping off the proles. But the idea, at least, had a lot of merit.

About three weeks ago, I switched to a standing desk. It’s this bolt-on model, and while I love it, it’s not perfect. My desk has an unfortunate amount of of flex to it, making the heavy Ergotron dingus a bit bouncy, but I’ve mostly addressed that that a bit by screwing in an extra table leg just under the bracket.

I love it. A lot. I don’t think I’m going to be able to go back to using an office chair.

What moved me to do this was two things. First: after poking around, the best information available suggests that spending ten or fifteen hours a day sitting is approximately as bad for you as smoking, and in a lot of ways worse. The other thing was that largely of curiosity I picked up a Jawbone Up wristband and, doubling down on the metrics tools, a Fitbit One*.

Whatever else those Quantified Life dongles claim, the one thing they can do very accurately is tell you how much time you spend doing nothing. And would you look at that, it turns out that I spend… nineteen hours or more of a typical day basically immobile. Um, that can’t be good. I’m going to have to do something about that.

During the first week. you really feel it. All those little muscles in my back that I really hadn’t been using, they expressed considerable displeasure at being suddenly called back into active duty, and understandably given the abusive relationship I’ve had with my knees, they’re were right there in line too. But sometime late in week two, that all settled right down. Even biking to work and lifting stuff around the house, back and knee pains I’ve had for years are going away, my posture is clearly getting better and that oh-god-it’s-painful-to-stand-up process I used to experience after uncoiling from an hour or four over hunched over a terminal just doesn’t happen anymore.

I feel unaccountably strong. I doubt I’m actually any stronger than I was a month ago, but I end my day feeling like I’ve put in a day of real work and I’m looking forward to the bike ride home, rather than feeling like I’m spent and I’ve got to drag my sorry ass across town again, and that’s not nothing.

I don’t know who’s got my chair at MoTo right now, and I don’t care. I think I’m pretty much done with it.

I had a long conversation with the very excellent people of Samantha Blackmon’s “Not Your Mama’s Gamer” podcast the other day; I get rolling at around the half-hour mark. They’re quite flattering about the whole thing; we talk a lot about video games and parenting, and I had a great time doing it.

One of the points I got to make there was about the reaction I get when I tell people that I received death threats for making the Windwaker mod. They fall into basically two camps; I tell that story to men, and they’re invariably surprised, or at least feigning surprise. “Really? Death threats? No way. Really? For that?”

When I mention it to women, on the other hand, the reaction is invariably just a slow breath and long stare into the middle distance. “Yeah, that’s how it is. Did any one threaten to rape you to death? No? Well, you’re only halfway to your Being A Woman On The Internet Merit Badge, then. Oh, you though it would be any other way? That’s adorable.”

So much work to do.

Keep This Area Clear

Man, how awful is it to see people broken by the realization that they are no longer young. Why are you being cantankerous, newly-old person? It’s totally OK not to be 17 or 23, things are still amazing! Kids are having fun! You may not really understand it, but just roll with it! The stuff you liked when you were 17 isn’t diminished by your creeping up on 40!

This has been making the rounds, a lazy, disappointing article from Wired about the things we supposedly “learned about hacking” from the 1995 almost-classic, Hackers. It’s a pretty unoriginal softball of an article, going for a few easy smirks by cherrypicking some characters’ sillier idiosyncrasies while making the author sound like his birthday landed on him like a cartoon piano.

We need a word for this whole genre of writing, where the author tries far too hard to convince you of his respectable-grownup-hood by burning down his youth. It’s hard to believe that in fifteen years the cycle won’t repeat itself, with this article being the one on the pyre; you can almost smell the smoke already, the odor of burning Brut and secret regrets.

The saddest part of the article, really, is how much it ignores. Which is to say: just about everything else. There’s plenty of meat to chew on there, so I don’t really understand why; presumably it has something to do with deadlines or clickthroughs or word-counts or column inches or something, whatever magic words the writers at Wired burble as they pantomime their editor’s demands and sob into their dwindling Zima stockpile.

I’ve got quite a soft spot in my heart and possibly also my brain for this movie, in part because it is flat-out amazing how many things Hackers got exactly right:

  • Most of the work involves sitting in immobile concentration, staring at a screen for hours trying to understand what’s going on? Check.
  • It’s usually an inside job from a disgruntled employee? Check.
  • A bunch of kids who don’t really understand how severe the consequences of what they’re up to can be, in it for kicks? Check.
  • Grepping otherwise-garbage swapfiles for security-sensitive information? Almost 20 years later most people still don’t get why that one’s a check, but my goodness: check.
  • Social-engineering for that one piece of information you can’t get otherwise, it works like a charm? Check.
  • Using your computer to watch a TV show you wouldn’t otherwise be able to? Golly, that sounds familiar.
  • Dumpster-diving for source printouts? I suspect that for most of my audience “line printers” fit in the same mental bucket as “coelecanth”, and printing anything at all, much less code, seems kind of silly and weird by now, so you’ll just have to take my word for it when I say: very much so, check.
  • A computer virus that can affect industrial control systems, causing a critical malfunction? I wonder where I’ve heard that recently.
  • Abusive prosecutorial overreach, right from the opening scene? You’d better believe, check.

So if you haven’t seen it, Hackers is a remarkable artefact of its time. It’s hardly perfect; the dialog is uneven, the invented slang aged as well as invented-slang always does. Moore’s Law has made anything with a number on the side look kind of quaint, and there’s plenty of that horrible neon-cars-on-neon-highways that directors seem to fall back on when they need to show you what the inside of a computer is doing. But really: Look at that list. Look at it.

For all its flaws, sure, Hackers may not be something you’d hold aloft as a classic. But it’s good fun and it gets an awful lot more right than wrong, and that’s not nothing.