blarg?

April 17, 2019

Why Don’t You Just

Filed under: documentation,interfaces,life,vendetta — mhoye @ 12:12 pm

This is a rough transcript of short talk I gave at a meeting I was in a few years ago. Enough time has passed that I don’t feel like I’m airing out any dirty laundry, and nothing’s brought this on but the periodic requests I get to publish it. No, I won’t be taking questions. I hope it’s useful to someone.

Can I get a show of hands here? Raise your hands if your job is hard. Raise your hand if there are a lot of difficult trade-offs, weird constraints and complicated edge-cases in it, that aren’t intuitively obvious until you’ve spent a lot of time deep in the guts of the problems you’re working on.

[everyone raises hands]

OK, now keep your hand up if you’re only here for the paycheck and the stickers.

[everyone lowers hands]

I’d like to try to convince you that there’s a negative space around every conversation we have that’s made up of all the assumptions we’ve made, of all the opinions we hold that led us to make whatever claim we’re making. Of all the things that we don’t say out loud that are just as much a part of that conversation as the things we do.

Whenever you look at a problem somebody’s been working on for a week or a month or maybe years and propose a simple, obvious solution that just happens to be the first thing that comes into your head, then you’re also making it crystal clear to people what you think of them and their work.

“I assume your job is simple and obvious.”

“Maybe if you’ve been working on a problem this simple for this long, you’re not that smart.”

“Maybe if it’s taken you this long to solve this simple, obvious problem, maybe the team you’re working with is incompetent?”

“Why has your manager, why has your whole management chain had you working on this problem for so long, when the answer is so simple and obvious?”

“And even if I’m wrong about that, your job doesn’t matter enough for me to be the least bit curious about it.”

There’s not a single person in this room who’d ever say something like this to one of their colleagues’ faces, I hope. But somehow we have a lot of conversations here that involve the phrase “why don’t you just”.

One of the great burdens on us as leaders is that humans have feelings and words mean things. Our effectiveness rests on our ability and willingness to collaborate, and the easiest way to convey that you respect somebody’s work is to have enough curiosity and humility to open conversations with the assumption that maybe the other person’s job is just as challenging and complicated and important as yours.

This “why don’t you just” thing is bullshit. Our people deserve better and I want it to stop.

Thank you.

April 9, 2019

Reflections

Filed under: a/b,arcade,digital,documentation,interfaces,vendetta — mhoye @ 8:57 am

Tevis Thompson, games critic and author of the excellent Second Quest has posted a new article on the best and worst games of 2018, and as always his work is worth your time.

So the question is not: what is it? Or: is it good? The question is: why are you still playing? Why do you need another chaos box? Was the tropical island version not enough in 2012? Nor the Himalayan one in 2014? Did you really need the rural American flavor too? I know this isn’t your first rodeo. Chaos boxes were kinda novel and fun in the 2000s, but there’s nothing wild or crazy about them now, no matter how many grizzly bears named Cheeseburger you stuff in. Surely you have a higher standard for dipshittery in 2018. Besides, there are so many virtual ways to unwind and let off steam these days. So why are you still playing this?

I’ll tell you why: because you like high definition murder. You like it. It’s not an accident that the most violent shooters are always on the cutting edge of graphical fidelity. They know what you want. And as your stunted adult imagination knows, mouth gun sounds just won’t cut it anymore. You need 4K fire and blood, bodies twisting and breaking at 60 frames per second. You need local color to give just enough specificity and grit to make each shot really land, to make sure your deadened senses feel anything at all. You especially need a charismatic villain to see you, recognize your violence, say you’re just like him. And then, absolve you. Because both of you poor souls have no other way to be in this fallen world. Except that he’s a videogame character and you’re a person.

That’s part of his review of Far Cry 5, a game that only took second place on his list of the worst games of the year. He digs into the first, Red Dead Redemption 2, at much greater length.

Read the whole thing.

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.

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 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?]

July 5, 2017

The Minimum Viable Context

Filed under: analog,documentation,interfaces,life,vendetta — mhoye @ 10:51 am

2017-05-09_08-06-58

This is not a subtweet; if I thought this should be about you, I’d have said so to your face months ago. If you get all the way through it and still kind of suspect it’s about you, though, you should spend some time looking inward and gear yourself up to deal with whatever you find in there, rattling the chains.

I’ve started and stopped writing this a couple of times now. Some drafts have been didactic, other self-congratulatory. “Blogging isn’t real if it’s not the first draft”, I’ve read somewhere, but I’ve never been able to do that; writing has always been a slog from what I’ve got written to what I can just barely sense I could. If I wanted to flatter myself I’d wheel out the old Mozart/Beethoven analogy, but that feels too much like fishing for compliments and besides, that garbage was in an early draft too.

So let’s lead with the punchline. Here’s the checklist: does everyone on your team…

  1. have a shared understanding of success?
  2. know what everyone else’s role is, and what they need to do their job well?
  3. know how their work contributes to the team’s success?
  4. know how their team’s success contributes to their own?

If you’re surveying the field from the executive suite and need big-picture, master-class management advice, well. This is not that. Talk to my friends Shappy and Johnath at Raw Signal. If you understand what they’re offering you know better than to look for it here. What I’ve got here is penny-ante table stakes, the difference between a team and a handful of people sharing the same corner of an orgchart. It is not complicated; it should, in theory, be trite. But to borrow a line, the fact is that in the day-to-day trenches of adult existence banal platitudes can have life-or-death importance.

In theory, you’d think hitting 4 out of 4 would be not just easy, but expected. In practice, in my experience, you’ll be lucky to make it to 2.

A few months ago I was asked to help a team out of the weeds. Getting into the details would be a disservice, so I won’t; in the broad strokes, I’m talking about a cross-discipline team of smart, invested people doing an important job. But for whatever reason, something – several somethings, it turned out – had gone really, really wrong. Execution, morale and retention were all going south. Everyone knew it, but nobody was really sure what had happened or what to do about it.

So I talked to a lot of people, I read a lot of mailing lists and bugs, and offered some advice.

If you’ve been around the team-dysfunction block before, you know there are plenty of probable causes. Shakeout from a reorg, a company pivoting hard, a team managing some sudden turnover, maybe the organization has grown from everyone being in the same room to nobody even being in the same city. Maybe you’ve hit that critical mass where communicating has suddenly gone from something nobody needed to worry about to something nobody remembers how to do. Maybe the one person who made it work left, maybe it’s just been that way so long nobody remembers the possibility that it could be different.

The advice I had for them was straightforward, a word I love for the veneer of upright nobility it adds to a phrase I could just as easily close out with “simple” or “obvious”. Get everyone into the same room for a few days, preferably away from everyone’s home base. Start the first day by having everyone give a talk about their jobs, not some name-and-title intro but a deep dive into what their job involves and the information, context and resources they need to do it well. Have some conversations – some public, some privately – between team leads and members about personal or professional goals and growth paths.

And then take the roadmap and the entire work backlog for the team and – ideally in the last meeting of that first day – print it out, stand up in front of everyone and drop it on the floor. Then tell everyone to come back the next day ready to start fresh.

The goal of this exercise was to make all the hidden costs – all the hidden work, all the hidden friction, everything people couldn’t see through the lens of their own disciplines – visible. And then, with that information, to take a hard reset. To narrow the team scope down to one or two tightly focused, high-impact features that could ship soon, and – critically – explicitly stop working on everything else. That sounded a bit dramatic, maybe impossible – I’ve been called worse – but nothing else seemed like it would work at all.

Because when I was asking my questions, the answers I got were mostly about the questions those teammates were asking each other. And it wasn’t hard to spot a common theme.

“If only it weren’t for the people, the goddamned people,” said Finnerty, “always getting tangled up in the machinery. If it weren’t for them, earth would be an engineer’s paradise.” – Kurt Vonnegut, “Player Piano”, 1952

Does everyone on the team understand that when you ask a designer to make a new button, that you’re asking them for a few dozen hours of product and market research, and a few more of design and testing, and not half an hour in Illustrator drawing pretty pictures? Does everyone really get that accommodating that schema change means refactoring a pile of business logic or backup processes? Did you all notice that you were asking for a contractual change with a major partner when you said “just change this string”?

I made those questions up for this post; the real ones were different in the specifics but definitely not in substance. You realize that you’re asking for the entire process, not just the output at the end, right? Why don’t you just?

You’ve seen this. You’ve probably even asked questions like them; I sure have. And unchallenged, even the mildest case of engineer’s disease left untreated will fester; eventually cultural rot sets in. We don’t really have a word for the long decline that happens next, the eventual checking out that happens the moment you clock in. The septic shock, the team’s paralysis and organ failures of core people ragequitting near the end. But you’ve seen that, too.

“You should focus on a small number of things” and “it helps to understand how your colleagues do their best work” is not exactly going to spur a revolution in technical leadership. I get that. But: don’t mistake the roadmap for the terrain. If you’ve made that plan without a clear, shared idea of where you’re going, how everyone can help you get there, and why you’re going at all? Then it’s hard to see how that will succeed, much less give rise to the kind of work or working environment you can be proud of. So toss it. Do the work of understanding where and who you are, and draw the map from there to somewhere that matters.

I told you this was table stakes, and I was not kidding about that at all. I wanted to help them get to a point where everyone on the team could confidently go 4 for 4 on the list, to get them to necessary so they could launch themselves at sufficient. And now, a couple of months later, I think it worked. They’re not all the way there yet – culture’s got a lot of inertia, and if I ever find a way to hard-pivot a whole org I’ll let you know – but they’re on the way, with a lot of clarity about what they’re doing, how they’re going to get it done together, and why it matters.

So: what about your team? Does everyone on your team have a shared understanding of success? Do you know what everyone else’s role is, and what they need to do their job well? Do you know how your work, and theirs, contributes to the team’s success and to your own?

Or does your team – maybe, possibly, kind of, just – suck at being a team?

You should do something about that. What are you going to do about that?

June 8, 2017

A Security Question

To my shame, I don’t have a certificate for my blog yet, but as I was flipping through some referer logs I realized that I don’t understand something about HTTPS.

I was looking into the fact that I sometimes – about 1% of the time – I see non-S HTTP referers from Twitter’s t.co URL shortener, which I assume means that somebody’s getting man-in-the-middled somehow, and there’s not much I can do about it. But then I realized the implications of my not having a cert.

My understanding of how this works, per RFC7231 is that:

A user agent MUST NOT send a Referer header field in an unsecured HTTP request if the referring page was received with a secure protocol.

Per the W3C as well:

Requests from TLS-protected clients to non- potentially trustworthy URLs, on the other hand, will contain no referrer information. A Referer HTTP header will not be sent.

So, if that’s true and I have no certificate on my site, then in theory I should never see any HTTPS entries in my referer logs? Right?

Except: I do. All the time, from every browser vendor, feed reader or type of device, and if my logs are full of this then I bet yours are too.

What am I not understanding here? It’s not possible, there is just no way for me to believe that it’s two thousand and seventeen and I’m the only person who’s ever noticed this. I have to be missing something.

What is it?

FAST UPDATE: My colleagues refer me to this piece of the puzzle I hadn’t been aware of, and Francois Marier’s longer post on the subject. Thanks, everyone! That explains it.

SECOND UPDATE: Well, it turns out it doesn’t completely explain it. Digging into the data and filtering out anything referred via Twitter, Google or Facebook, I’m left with two broad buckets. The first is is almost entirely made of feed readers; it turns out that most and maybe almost all feed aggregators do the wrong thing here. I’m going to have to look into that, because it’s possible I can solve this problem at the root.

The second is one really persistent person using Firefox 15. Who are you, guy? Why don’t you upgrade? Can I help? Email me if I can help.

June 4, 2017

What I’m Talking About When I’m Talking About Biking

Filed under: analog,interfaces,travel,vendetta — mhoye @ 4:08 pm

It’s a funny little quirk of Ontario traffic laws that the fine for killing a cyclist is often less expensive than the bike they were riding when they were killed.

I’m a cyclist. I own bikes for different jobs, I commute to work every day I can on a bike, and ride for fun when I have a chance. There’s no better way to get around this city; you have almost perfect freedom and nothing is faster. If I’m pushing hard my commute at the height of rush hour is 25 minutes. 22 is a personal best, pretty good for a 10 kilometer ride.

I only drive it two or three times a year but in a car I’ve never been able make it door to door in rush hour in less than 45. As a cyclist I’m faster and more agile than anything else on the road, but all that speed and freedom comes at one cost: total vulnerability. I am, I think I’ve mentioned, one of those proverbial “scofflaw cyclists”. I can guess what you think about that; I don’t particularly care.

Riding in Toronto means you’re quote-sharing-unquote the road; there are very few genuinely separated bike lanes, mostly disconnected from each other. All of them are about five feet wide, maybe enough for two cyclists to pass each other if one hugs the curb. About one and a third car doors, to use a metric that matters. If you’re lucky something more robust than a painted line separates you from passing cars, but usually not.

Navigating infrastructure built with your existence as less as than an afterthought is never boring; the casual transgressions drivers barely notice themselves committing every day can injure or kill an inattentive cyclist, so space and direction are never things you can just have, or trust. You fight for every inch of it, carve it out and press forward. What you’re given is the worst parts of the pavement if anything, where people will pull up to park, unload, and cut you off without so much as a glance. So you take as much of the lane as you can. It might be rough, the route might end up circuitous, but if you don’t assert your right to the lane you’re stuck. You might get in somebody’s way and they might get angry but you do it anyway because the alternative to being loud and visible is being a statistic.

And if you’ve ever been in an accident bad enough to warrant the police showing up, you know the drill already: it’s always an exercise in figuring out what the cyclist did wrong. Did they have lights on their bike? A bell? Did they signal? Maybe their clothes weren’t visible enough. It must have been something like that, but if not it was probably the cyclist being “too aggressive”. Just to give you a taste of how little the Toronto police think of cyclists, here’s an accident prevention campaign they ran on May 16th of this year by parking an old-timey novelty police car in the Adelaide bike lane. That’s right, a traffic safety awareness campaign forcing cyclists into traffic at rush hour.

For the most part, that’s just how it is. Cops don’t actually think cyclists are people, and the laws don’t actually treat cyclists like people. Cars, yes, definitely! Cyclists, not so much; this is why so many cyclists have bike- or helmet-cams now; without the recording, the police will always – always – find a reason it was the cyclists’ fault. If somebody threatens to kill you with a knife or a gun, police are on the way, sirens blazing. With a car, though? If they show up at all, it’s to tell the cyclist it was their fault.

So as a cyclist, you have to navigate this world full of people who are wearing three thousand pounds of indestructible, gasoline-powered armour and do not care enough if you live or die to glance in their mirrors – motorists who’ve lived in the armour of their privilege for so long they can’t distinguish it from a capital-R Right – but who will get incredibly upset if you do anything that so much as hurts their feelings.

And, Oh My God, they have so many feelings. They’re full to bursting with Driver Feelings. If you so much as startle somebody in a car, those feelings all come out at once. They’ll chase you down, cut you off, roll down their windows and start into the insults, the death threats, it’s amazing.

You’d think being functionally invulnerable would give you some sort of minimal sense of confidence, but my goodness no. That’s not the case at all; I’ve swerved around a car that decided to park in the Bloor bike lane, only to have the person in the SUV who had to brake behind me honk, pull up and start yelling. I’ve had a car on the Danforth start swerving into me like he’s playing chicken. Screaming, swearing, all of it, from people who’ve got three other lanes to choose from and an entire city of infrastructure purpose-built for their vehicles ahead of them. I’ve had a car run a stop sign just so they could catch up with me and yell at me not to run stop signs. I’ve been told, by somebody parked in the bike lane, that I should think of the reputation of cyclists and stay in my lane.

This is a routine experience in this city. You’re riding through a city where four- and eight- lane highways crisscrossing the downtown core are completely normal but safe bike lanes are somehow “controversial”. Nobody really cares about following the rules, to the point where people get upset if you’re following the wrong ones, and if you’re on a bike those rules aren’t, by design, going to protect you anyway. They’re just what drivers point back to when you’ve made them angry, and they’ll get angry if you break the rules, or if you follow the rules, or if you’re nearby, or if cyclists exist at all. It’s the veil of authority people hide behind, when they have power and want to vent their anger at people without.

You’ve heard this story before, I suspect. With different labels, in a different context maybe, but I bet the broad strokes of it are familiar. My routine bike commute is at the core of my politics, of my understanding of the nature of power.

For me, though, that ride is a choice. Ultimately I can put the bike down. And because I’m an upper-middle-class white man who works in tech, when I put the bike down I get to step into my own, different suit of nearly-invulnerable power armour.

It says a lot about you, I think, if you can look at any imbalance of power and vulnerability and your first reflexive reaction is to talk about how important rules are. I don’t know about you, but that’s not who I want to be. I live and work in a world full of people who can’t put their vulnerabilities aside so casually, who are full time, 24/7 navigating social and economic structures that are far more pervasive and hostile to them than cars are to me and my adorable little hour per day of commute. People who understand how those “rules” really work where the rubber (and sometimes the skin, and sometimes the skull) meets the road. So the least, the very least I can do is listen carefully to people who can’t put down their gender, their disability or the color of their skin, who suffer the whims of those oppressive, marginalizing systems, and to try to understand more than the problem or grievance they’re facing right now, but the architectures that give those problems their durability, their power. And to do the day-in, day-out work of understanding my own blind spots and taking responsibility for the spaces and systems around me.

It’s not super-convenient for me personally, to be honest. It takes me a bit longer to get places or find a place to park. But this is the job.

May 1, 2017

Wooden Shoes As A Service

Filed under: academia,digital,doom,future,interfaces,vendetta — mhoye @ 10:57 pm

P5012703

In international trade, the practice of selling state-subsidized goods far below cost – often as a way of crushing local producers of competing goods – is called “dumping”:

Under the Tariff Act of 1930, U.S. industries may petition the government for relief from imports that are sold in the United States at less than fair value (“dumped”) or which benefit from subsidies provided through foreign government programs. Under the law, the U.S. Department of Commerce determines whether the dumping or subsidizing exists and, if so, the margin of dumping or amount of the subsidy; the USITC determines whether there is material injury or threat of material injury to the domestic industry by reason of the dumped or subsidized imports.

To my knowledge there’s not much out there as far as comparable prohibitions around services. Until recently, I think, the idea wouldn’t have made much sense. How do you “dump” services? The idea was kind of nonsensical; you couldn’t, particularly not at any kind of scale.

If you put your black hat on for a minute, though, and think of commerce and trade agreements as extensions of state policy: another way to put that might be, how do you subject a services-based economy to the same risks that dumping poses to a goods-based economy?

Unfortunately, I think software has given us a pretty good answer to that: you dig into deep pockets and fund aggressively growing, otherwise-unsustainable service companies.

Now a new analysis of Uber’s financial documents suggests that ride subsidies cost the company $2 billion in 2015. On average, the analysis suggests, Uber passengers paid only 41% of the cost of their trips for the fiscal year ended in September 2015.

In other words: given enough subsidy, a software startup can become an attack vector on a services-based economy. A growing gig economy is a sign of extreme economic vulnerability being actively exploited.

I don’t know what to do about it, but I think this is new. Certainly the Canadian Special Import Measures Act only mentions services as a way to subsidize the offending company, not as the thing being sold, and all the recent petitions I can find in Canada and the U.S. both involve actual stuff, nothing delivered or mediated by software. At the very least, this is an interesting, quasi-guerilla way to weaponize money in trans-national economic conflicts.

For industries not yet established, the USITC may also be asked to determine whether the establishment of an industry is being materially retarded by reason of the dumped or subsidized imports.

I have a theory that the reason we’re not calling this out an as act of trade war – the reason we can’t see it at all, as far as I can tell – is that the people worst affected are individuals, not corporations. The people losing out are individuals, working on their own, who have no way to petition the state for redress at that scale, when the harm done in aggregate is functionally invisible without a top-down view of the field.

It’d be easy to make this sound isolationist and xenophobic, and that’s not what I intend – I like cool things and meeting people from other places, and international trade seems like the way the world gets to have that. But we know to put a stop to that when trade policies turn into weapons by another name. And I don’t understand down here at street level if there’s much of a difference between “foreign subsidies artificially undercut price of steel ingots” and “foreign subsidies artificially undercut price of cab rides”.

March 24, 2017

Mechanized Capital

Construction at Woodbine Station

Elon Musk recently made the claim that humans “must merge with machines to remain relevant in an AI age”, and you can be forgiven if that doesn’t make a ton of sense to you. To fully buy into that nonsense, you need to take a step past drinking the singularity-flavored Effective Altruism kool-aid and start bobbing for biblical apples in it.

I’ll never pass up a chance to link to Warren Ellis’ NerdGod Delusion whenever this posturing about AI as an existential threat comes along:

The Singularity is the last trench of the religious impulse in the technocratic community. The Singularity has been denigrated as “The Rapture For Nerds,” and not without cause. It’s pretty much indivisible from the religious faith in describing the desire to be saved by something that isn’t there (or even the desire to be destroyed by something that isn’t there) and throws off no evidence of its ever intending to exist.

… but I think there’s more to this silliness than meets the rightly-jaundiced eye, particularly when we’re talking about far-future crypto-altruism as pitched by present-day billionaire industrialists.

Let me put this idea to you: one byproduct of processor in everything is that it has given rise to automators as a social class, one with their own class interests, distinct from both labor and management.

Marxist class theory – to pick one framing; there are a few that work here, and Marx is nothing if not quotable – admits the existence of management, but views it as a supervisory, quasi-enforcement role. I don’t want to get too far into the detail weeds there, because the most important part of management across pretty much all the theories of class is the shared understanding that they’re supervising humans.

To my knowledge, we don’t have much in the way of political or economic theory written up about automation. And, much like the fundamentally new types of power structures in which automators live and work, I suspect those people’s class interests are very different than those of your typical blue or white collar worker.

For example, the double-entry bookkeeping of automation is: an automator writes some code that lets a machine perform a task previously done by a human, or ten humans, or ten thousand humans, freeing those humans to… do what?

If you’re an automator, the answer to that is “write more code”. If you’re one of the people whose job has been automated away, it’s “starve”. Unless we have an answer for what happens to the humans displaced by automation, it’s clearly not some hypothetical future AI that’s going to destroy humanity. It’s mechanized capital.

Maybe smarter people than me see a solution to this that doesn’t result in widespread starvation and crushing poverty, but I only see one: an incremental and ongoing reduction in the supply of human labor. And in a sane society, that’s pretty straightforward; it means the progressive reduction of maximum hours in a workweek, women with control over their own bodies, a steadily rising minimum wage and a large, sustained investments in infrastructure and the arts. But for the most part we’re not in one of those societies.

Instead, what it’s likely to mean is much, much more of what we already have: terrified people giving away huge amounts of labor for free to barter with the machine. You get paid for a 35 hours week and work 80 because if you don’t the next person in line will and you’ll get zero. Nobody enforces anything like safety codes or labor laws, because once you step off that treadmill you go to the back of the queue, and a thousand people are lined up in front of you to get back on.

This is the reason I think this singularity-infected enlightened-altruism is so pernicious, and morally bankrupt; it gives powerful people a high-minded someday-reason to wash their hands of the real problems being suffered by real people today, problems that they’re often directly or indirectly responsible for. It’s a story that lets the people who could be making a difference today trade it in for a difference that might matter someday, in a future their sitting on their hands means we might not get to see.

It’s a new faith for people who think they’re otherwise much too evolved to believe in the Flying Spaghetti Monster or any other idiot back-brain cult you care to suggest.

Vernor Vinge, the originator of the term, is a scientist and novelist, and occupies an almost unique space. After all, the only other sf writer I can think of who invented a religion that is also a science-fiction fantasy is L Ron Hubbard.
– Warren Ellis, 2008

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