October 23, 2019


Every now and then, my brain clamps on to obscure trivia like this. It takes so much time. “Because the paper beds of banknote presses in 1860 were 14.5 inches by 16.5 inches, a movie industry cartel set a standard for theater projectors based on silent film, and two kilobytes is two kilobytes” is as far back as I have been able to push this, but let’s get started.

In August of 1861, by order of the U.S. Congress and in order to fund the Union’s ongoing war efforts against the treasonous secessionists of the South, the American Banknote Company started printing what were then called “Demand Notes”, but soon widely known as “greenbacks”.

It’s difficult to research anything about the early days of American currency on Wikipedia these days; that space has been thoroughly colonized by the goldbug/sovcit cranks. You wouldn’t notice it from a casual examination, which is of course the plan; that festering rathole is tucked away down in the references, where articles will fold a seemingly innocuous line somewhere into the middle, tagged with an exceptionally dodgy reference. You’ll learn that “the shift from demand notes to treasury notes meant they could no longer be redeemed for gold coins[1]” – which is strictly true! – but if you chase down that footnote you wind up somewhere with a name like “Lincoln’s Treason – Fiat Currency, Maritime Law And The U.S. Treasury’s Conspiracy To Enslave America”, which I promise I am only barely exaggerating about.

It’s not entirely clear if this is a deliberate exercise in coordinated crank-wank or just years of accumulated flotsam from the usual debate-club dead-enders hanging off the starboard side of the Overton window. There’s plenty of idiots out there that aren’t quite useful enough to work the k-cups at the Heritage Institute, and I guess they’re doing something with their time, but the whole thing has a certain sinister elegance to it that the Randroid crowd can’t usually muster. I’ve got my doubts either way, and I honestly don’t care to dive deep enough into that sewer to settle them. Either way, it’s always good to be reminded that the goldbug/randroid/sovcit crank spectrum shares a common ideological klancestor.

Mercifully that is not what I’m here for. I am here because these first Demand Notes, and the Treasury Notes that came afterwards, were – on average, these were imprecise times – 7-3/8” wide by 3-1/4” tall.

I haven’t been able to precisely answer the “why” of that – I believe, but do not know, that that this is because of the size of the specific dimensions of the presses they were printed on. Despite my best efforts I haven’t been able to find the exact model and specifications of that device. I’ve asked the U.S. Congressional Research Service for some help with this, but between them and the Bureau of Engraving and Printing, we haven’t been able to pin it down. From my last correspondence with them:

Unfortunately, we don’t have any materials in the collection identifying the specific presses and their dimension for early currency production. The best we can say is that the presses used to print currency in the 1860s varied in size and model. These presses went by a number of names, including hand presses, flat-bed presses, and spider presses. They also were capable of printing sheets of paper in various sizes. However, the standard size for printing securities and banknotes appears to have been 14.5 inches by 16.5 inches. We hope this bit of information helps.

… which is unfortunate, but it does give us some clarity. A 16.5″ by 14.5″ printing sheet lets you print eight 7-3/8” by 3-1/4″ sheets to size, with a fraction of an inch on either side for trimming.

The answer to that question starts to matter about twenty years later on the heels of the 1880 American Census. Mandated to be performed once a decade, the United States population had grown some 30% since the previous census, and even with enormous effort the final tabulations weren’t finished until 1888, an unacceptable delay.

One of the 1880 Census’ early employees was a man named Herman Hollerith, a recent graduate of the Columbia School of Mines who’d been invited to join the Census efforts early on by one of his professors. The Census was one of the most important social and professional networking exercises of the day, and Hollerith correctly jumped at the opportunity:

The absence of a permanent institution meant the network of individuals with professional census expertise scattered widely after each census. The invitation offered a young graduate the possibility to get acquainted with various members of the network, which was soon to be dispersed across the country.

As an aside, that invitation letter is one of the most important early documents in the history of computing for lots of reasons, including this one:

The machine in that picture was the third generation of the “Hollerith Tabulator”, notable for the replaceable plugboard that made it reprogrammable. I need to find some time to dig further into this, but that might be the first multipurpose, if not “general purpose” as we’ve come to understand it, electronic computation device. This is another piece of formative tech that emerged from this era, one that led to directly to the removable panels (and ultimately the general componentization) of later computing hardware.

Well before the model 3, though, was the original 1890 Hollerith Census Tabulator that relied on punchcards much like this one.

Hollerith took the inspiration for those punchcards from the “punch photographs” used by some railways at the time to make sure that tickets belonged to the passengers holding them. You can see a description of one patent for them here dating to 1888, but Hollerith relates the story from a few years earlier:

One thing that helped me along in this matter was that some time before I was traveling in the west and I had a ticket with what I think was called a punch photograph. When the ticket was first presented to a conductor he punched out a description of the individual, as light hair, dark eyes, large nose etc. So you see I only made a punch photograph of each person.

Tangentially: this is the birth of computational biometrics. And as you can see from this extract from The Railway News (Vol. XLVIII, No. 1234 , published Aug. 27, 1887) people have been concerned about harassment because of unfair assessment by the authorities from day one:


After experimenting with a variety of card sizes Hollerith decided that to save on production costs he’d use the same boxes the U.S. Treasury was using for the currency of the day: the Demand Note. Punch cards stayed about that shape, punched with devices that looked a lot like this for about 20 years until Thomas Watson Sr. (IBM’s first CEO, from whom the Watson computer gets its name) asked Clair D. Lake and J. Royden Peirce to develop a new, higher data-density card format.

Tragically, this is the part where I need to admit an unfounded assertion. I’ve got data, the pictures line up and numbers work, but I don’t have a citation. I wish I did.

Take a look at “Type Design For Typewriters: Olivetti, written by Maria Ramos Silvia. (You can see a historical talk from her on the history of typefaces here that’s also pretty great.)

Specifically, take a look on page 46 at Mikron Piccolo, Mikron Condensed. The fonts don’t precisely line up – see the different “4”, for example, when comparing it to the typesetting of IBM’s cards – but the size and spacing do. In short: a line of 80 characters, each separated by a space, is the largest round number of digits that the tightest typesetting of the day would allow to be fit on a single 7-3/8” wide card: a 20-point condensed font.

I can’t find a direct citation for this; that’s the only disconnect here. But the spacing all fits, the numbers all work, and I’d bet real money on this: that when Watson gave Lake the task of coming up with a higher information-density punch card, Lake looked around at what they already had on the shelf – a typewriter with the highest-available character density of the day, on cards they could manage with existing and widely-available tooling – and put it all together in 1928. The fact that a square hole – a radical departure from the standard circular punch – was a patentable innovation at the time was just icing on the cake.

The result of that work is something you’ll certainly recognize, the standard IBM punchcard, though of course there’s lot more to it than that. Witness the full glory of the Card Stock Acceptance Procedure, the protocol for measuring folding endurance, air resistance, smoothness and evaluating the ash content, moisture content and pH of the paper, among many other things.

At one point sales of punchcards and related tooling constituted a completely bonkers 30% of IBM’s annual profit margin, so you can understand that IBM had a lot invested in getting that consistently, precisely correct.

At around this time John Logie Baird invented the first “mechanical television”; like punchcards, the first television cameras were hand-cranked devices that relied on something called a Nipkow disk, a mechanical tool for separating images into sequential scan lines, a technique that survives in electronic form to this day. By linearizing the image signal Baird could transmit the image’s brightness levels via a simple radio signal and in 1926 he did just that, replaying that mechanically encoded signal through a CRT and becoming the inventor of broadcast television. He would go on to pioneer colour television – originally called Telechrome, a fantastic name I’m sad we didn’t keep – but that’s a different story.

Baird’s original “Televisor” showed its images on a 7:3 aspect ration vertically oriented cathode ray tube, intended to fit the head and shoulders of a standing person, but that wouldn’t last.

For years previously, silent films had been shot on standard 35MM stock, but the addition of a physical audio track to 35MM film stock didn’t leave enough space left over for the visual area. So – after years of every movie studio having its own preferred aspect ratio, which required its own cameras, projectors, film stock and tools (and and and) – in 1929 the movie industry agreed to settle on the Society of Motion Picture And Television Engineers’ proposed standard of 0.8 inches by 0.6 inches, what became known as the Academy Ratio, or as we better know it today, 4:3.

Between 1932 and 1952, when widescreen for cinemas came into vogue as a differentiator from standard television, just about all the movies made in the world were shot in that aspect ratio, and just about every cathode ray tube made came in that shape, or one that could display it reliably. In 1953 studios started switching to a wider “Cinemascope”, to aggressively differentiate themselves from television, but by then television already had a large, thoroughly entrenched install base, and 4:3 remained the standard for in-home displays – and CRT manufacturers – until widescreen digital television came to market in the 1990s.

As computers moved from teleprinters – like, physical, ink-on-paper line printers – to screens, one byproduct of that standardization was that if you wanted to build a terminal, you either used that aspect ratio or you started making your own custom CRTs, a huge barrier to market entry. You can do that if you’re IBM, and you’re deeply reluctant to if you’re anyone else. So when DEC introduced their VT52 terminal, a successor to the VT50 and earlier VT05 that’s what they shipped, and with only 1Kb of display ram (one kilobyte!) it displayed only twelve rows of widely-spaced text. Math is unforgiving, and 80×12=960; even one more row breaks the bank. The VT52 and its successor the VT100, though, doubled that capacity giving users the opulent luxury of two entire kilobytes of display memory, laid out with a font that fit nicely on that 4:3 screen. The VT100 hit the market in August of 1978, and DEC sold more than six million of them over the product’s lifespan.

You even got an extra whole line to spare! Thanks to the magic of basic arithmetic 80×25 just sneaks under that opulent 2k limit with 48 bytes to spare.

This is another point where direct connections get blurry, because 1976 to 1984 was an incredibly fertile time in the history of computing history. After a brief period where competing terminal standards effectively locked software to the hardware that it shipped on, the VT100 – being the first terminal to market fully supporting the recently codified ANSI standard control and escape sequences – quickly became the de-facto standard, and soon afterwards the de-jure, codified in ANSI-X3.64/ECMA-48. CP/M, soon to be replaced with PC-DOS and then MS-DOS came from this era, with ANSI.SYS being the way DOS programs talked to the display from DOS 2.0 through to beginning of Windows. Then in 1983 the Apple IIe was introduced, the first Apple computer to natively support an 80×24 text display, doubling the 40×24 default of their earlier hardware. The original XTerm, first released in 1984, was also created explicitly for VT100 compatibility.

Fascinatingly, the early versions of the ECMA-48 standard specify that this standard isn’t solely meant for displays, specifying that “examples of devices conforming to this concept are: an alpha-numeric display device, a printer or a microfilm output device.”

A microfilm output device! This exercise dates to a time when microfilm output was a design constraint! I did not anticipate that cold-war spy-novel flavor while I was dredging this out, but it’s there and it’s magnificent.

It also dates to a time that the market was shifting quickly from mainframes and minicomputers to microcomputers – or, as we call them today, “computers” – as reasonably affordable desktop machines that humans might possibly afford and that companies might own a large number of, meaning this is also where the spectre of backcompat starts haunting the industry – This moment in a talk from the Microsoft developers working on the Windows Subsystem for Linux gives you a sense of the scale of that burden even today. In fact, it wasn’t until the fifth edition of ECMA-48 was published in 1991, more than a decade after the VT100 hit the market, that the formal specification for terminal behavior even admitted the possibility (Appendix F) that a terminal could be resized at all, meaning that the existing defaults were effectively graven in stone during what was otherwise one of the most fertile and formative periods in the history of computing.

As a personal aside, my two great frustrations with doing any kind of historical CS research remain the incalculable damage that academic paywalls have done to the historical record, and the relentless insistence this industry has on justifying rather than interrogating the status quo. This is how you end up on Stack Overflow spouting unresearched nonsense about how “4 pixel wide fonts are untidy-looking”. I’ve said this before, and I’ll say it again: whatever we think about ourselves as programmers and these towering logic-engines we’ve erected, we’re a lot more superstitious than we realize, and by telling and retelling these unsourced, inaccurate just-so stories without ever doing the work of finding the real truth, we’re betraying ourselves, our history and our future. But it’s pretty goddamned difficult to convince people that they should actually look things up instead of making up nonsense when actually looking things up, even for a seemingly simple question like this one, can cost somebody on the outside edge of an academic paywall hundreds or thousands of dollars.

So, as is now the usual in these things:

  • There are technical reasons,
  • There are social reasons,
  • It’s complicated, and
  • Open access publication or GTFO.

But if you ever wondered why just about every terminal in the world is eighty characters wide and twenty-five characters tall, there you go.

October 19, 2019


Filed under: awesome,business,toys,weird — mhoye @ 7:43 am

I made a thing and somebody said “I want that on a shirt”. If that was you, here’s your chance.

It’s a great game, incidentally.

June 29, 2019



April 2, 2019

Occasionally Useful

A bit of self-promotion: the UsesThis site asked me their four questions a little while ago; it went up today.

A colleague once described me as “occasionally useful, in the same way that an occasional table is a table.” Which I thought was oddly nice of them.

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.


(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 about – 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


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.”



“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


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.

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