December 15, 2016

Even the dedication to reason and truth might, for all we know, change drastically.

Filed under: academic,documentation,doom,future,interfaces,vendetta — mhoye @ 12:19 pm

The following letter, written by Carl Sagan, is one of the appendices of the “Expert Judgement on Markers To Deter Inadvertent Human Intrusion into the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant” document, completed in 1993.

It’s on page 331, and it hurts to read.

Dr. D. Richard Anderson
Performance Assessment Division
6342 Sandia National Laboratories
New Mexico

Dear Dr. Anderson:

Many thanks for your kind invitation to participate in the panel charged with making recommendations on signing to the far future about the presence of dangerous long-lived radioactive waste repositories (assuming the waste hasn’t all leached out by then). It is an interesting and important problem, and I’m sorry that my schedule will not permit me to participate. But I can, in a few sentences, tell you my views on the matter; perhaps you would be kind enough to pass them on to the members of the panel:

Several half-lives of the longest-lived radioisotopes in question constitute a time period longer than recorded human history. No one knows what changes that span of time will bring. Social institutions, artistic conventions, written and spoken language, scientific knowledge and even the dedication to reason and truth might, for all we know, change drastically. What we need is a symbol invariant to all those possible changes. Moreover, we want a symbol that will be understandable not just to the most educated and scientifically literate members of the population, but to anyone who might come upon this repository. There is one such symbol . It is tried and true. It has been used transculturally for thousands of years, with unmistakable meaning. It is the symbol used on the lintels of cannibal dwellings, the flags of pirates, the insignia of SS divisions and motorcycle gangs, the labels of bottles of poisons — the skull and crossbones. Human skeletal anatomy, we can be reasonably sure, will not unrecognizably change in the next few tens of thousands of years. You might very well wish also to include warnings in major human languages (being careful not to exclude Chinese and Arabic), and to attach a specification of the radioisotopes in question — perhaps by circling entries in a periodic table with the appropriate isotopic atomic numbers emphasized. It might be useful to include on the signs their own radioactive markers so that the epoch of radioactive waste burial can be calculated (or maybe a sequence of drawings of the Big Dipper moving around the Pole Star each year so that, through the precession of the equinoxes, the epoch of burial, modulo 26,000 years, could be specified) . But all this presumes much about future generations. The key is the skull and crossbones.

Unless a more powerful and more direct symbol can be devised, I think the only reason for not using the skull and crossbones is that we believe the current political cost of speaking plainly about deadly radioactive waste is worth more than the well-being of future generations.

With best wishes,


      Carl Sagan

October 12, 2016

Minimum Viable Basic Human Decency

Filed under: digital,documentation,future,interfaces,vendetta — mhoye @ 2:43 pm

Bay Eastbound

I’ve been batting this around for a few weeks now, ever since I started drafting Free As In Health Care. I’m not sure where to take it at this point, so I’m going to publish it and see what happens. I’d like to thank a number of my friends and colleagues for feedback with this list, but this is high-tension-wire stuff, so I’m not going to do that here. You know who you are and I’m grateful.

This was inspired by a combination of things, starting with Joel Spolsky’s now-ancient “Twelve Steps To Better Software” post and Atul Gawande’s “Checklist Manifesto”, washed down with a few dozen pages of early automotive and highway safety legislation.

“A score of 12 is perfect, 11 is tolerable, but 10 or lower and you’ve got serious problems. The truth is that most software organizations are running with a score of 2 or 3, and they need serious help, because companies like Microsoft run at 12 full-time.” – Joel Spolsky

One notable part of that early legislation is that for the most part it outlines the minimum standards that must be achieved without specifying how to achieve them; that was left up to the manufacturers’ ingenuity. But those manufacturers needed to prove that they’d met or exceeded all of those standards for that vehicle to go to market.

I believe that we can and should take the same approach to our design decisions about how software treats people. And I think we should be doing that at the very earliest parts of the design and planning stages; like security, like Jobs’ old quote about design, this isn’t a coat of paint you can add later.

To that end, here’s a list of vulnerable user stories. My goal was to end with a preflight checklist developers can quickly run down to give a yes or no (or doesn’t apply) answer to the list of risks or challenges that marginalized and vulnerable people will need to face if they’re navigating a life with this software in it.

This not meant to be comprehensive (or perfect, or finished). All I want to do is set a bar, knowing what we know about social software in 2016. The very lowest bar you have to clear to consider yourself a responsible developer – that is to say, a responsible human being, whose craft happens to be software.

I’ve put them on GitHub, if you want to look at them there.

The Minimum Viable Set of User Stories

  • User changes email addresses
  • User changes physical addresses
  • User is or becomes homeless
  • User changes legal status
  • User changes legal name
  • User changes gender
  • User identifies themselves by a pseudonym
  • User is not always, and/or or not reliably, connected to the internet
  • User does not control the hardware they use to access the internet
  • User is trying to escape an abusive spouse or partner
  • User is trying to escape an abusive family
  • User is trying to escape a cult
  • User is estranged from their family
  • User is managing an addiction
  • User is managing a mental health issue
  • User is targeted for abuse by an individual
  • User is targeted for abuse by an informally organized group
  • User is targeted for abuse by a corporation
  • User is targeted for abuse by a nation-state
  • User is a member of a group or demographic targeted for abuse by an informally organized group
  • User is a member of a group or demographic targeted for abuse by a nation-state

August 29, 2016

Free As In Health Care

This is to some extent a thought experiment.

The video below shows what’s called a “frontal offset crash test” – your garden variety driver-side head-on collision – between a 2009 Chevrolet Malibu and a 1959 Chevrolet Bel Air. I’m about to use this video to make a protracted argument about software licenses, standards organizations, and the definition of freedom. It may not interest you all that much but if it’s ever crossed your mind that older cars are safer because they’re heavier or “solid” or had “real” bumpers or something you should watch this video. In particular, pay attention to what they consider a “fortunate outcome” for everyone involved. Lucky, for the driver in the Malibu, is avoiding a broken ankle. A Bel Air driver would be lucky if all the parts of him make it into the same casket.

 [ ]

Like most thought experiments this started with a question: what is freedom?

The author of the eighteenth-century tract “Cato’s Letters” expressed the point succinctly: “Liberty is to live upon one’s own Term; Slavery is to live at the mere Mercy of another.” The refrain was taken up with particular emphasis later in the eighteenth century, when it was echoed by the leaders and champions of the American Revolution.’ The antonym of liberty has ceased to be subjugation or domination – has ceased to be defenseless susceptibility to interference by another – and has come to be actual interference, instead. There is no loss of liberty without actual interference, according to most contemporary thought: no loss of liberty in just being susceptible to interference. And there is no actual interference – no interference, even, by a non-subjugating rule of law – without some loss of liberty; “All restraint, qua restraint, is evil,” as John Stuart Mill expressed the emerging orthodoxy.

– Philip Pettit, Freedom As Anti-Power, 1996

Most of our debates define freedom in terms of “freedom to” now, and the arguments are about the limitations placed on those freedoms. If you’re really lucky, like Malibu-driver lucky, the discussions you’re involved in are nuanced enough to involve “freedom from”, but even that’s pretty rare.

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.

Indulge me for a bit but keep that in mind while you exercise one of those freedoms, get in a car and go for a drive. Freedom of movement, right? Get in and go.

Before you can do that a few things have to happen first. For example: your car needs to have been manufactured.

Put aside everything that needs to have happened for the plant making your car to operate safely and correctly. That’s a lot, I know, but consider only the end product.

Here is a chart of the set of legislated standards that vehicle must meet in order to be considered roadworthy in Canada – the full text of CRC c.1038, the Motor Vehicle Safety Regulations section of the Consolidated Regulations of Canada runs a full megabyte, and contains passages such as:

H-point means the mechanically hinged hip point of a manikin that simulates the actual pivot centre of the human torso and thigh, described in SAE Standard J826, Devices for Use in Defining and Measuring Vehicle Seating Accommodation (July 1995); (point H)

H-V axis means the characteristic axis of the light pattern of a lamp, passing through the centre of the light source, used as the direction of reference (H = 0°, V = 0°) for photometric measurements and for the design of the installation of a lamp on a vehicle; (axe H-V)

… and

Windshield Wiping and Washing System

104 (1) In this section,

areas A, B and C means the areas referred to in Column I of Tables I, II, III and IV to this section when established as shown in Figures 1 and 2 of SAE Recommended Practice J903a Passenger Car Windshield Wiper Systems, (May 1966), using the angles specified in Columns III to VI of the above Tables; (zones A, B et C)

daylight opening means the maximum unobstructed opening through the glazing surface as defined in paragraph 2.3.12 of Section E, Ground Vehicle Practice, SAE Aerospace-Automotive Drawing Standards, (September 1963); (ouverture de jour)

glazing surface reference line means the intersection of the glazing surface and a horizontal plane 635 mm above the seating reference point, as shown in Figure 1 of SAE Recommended Practice J903a (May 1966); (ligne de référence de la surface vitrée)

… and that mind-numbing tedium you’re experiencing right now is just barely a taste; a different set of regulations exists for crash safety testing, another for emissions testing, the list goes very far on. This 23 page PDF of Canada’s Motor Vehicle Tire Safety Regulations – that’s just the tires, not the brakes or axles or rims, just the rubber that meets the road – should give you a sense of it.

That’s the car. Next you need roads.

The Ontario Provincial Standards for Roads & Public Works consists of eight volumes. The first of them, General And Construction Specifications, is 1358 pages long. Collectively they detail how roads you’ll be driving on must be built, illuminated, made safe and maintained.

You can read them over if you like, but you can see where I’m going with this. Cars and roads built to these standards don’t so much enable freedom of motion and freedom from harm as they delimit in excruciating detail the space – on what road, at what speeds, under what circumstances – where people must be free from the possibility of specific kinds of harm, where their motion must be free from the possibility of specific kinds of restriction or risk.

But suppose we move away from the opposition to bare interference in terms of which contemporary thinkers tend to understand freedom. Suppose we take up the older opposition to servitude, subjugation, or domination as the key to construing liberty. Suppose we understand liberty not as noninterference but as antipower. What happens then?

– Philip Pettit, ibid.

Let me give away the punchline here: if your definition of freedom includes not just freedom from harassment and subjugation but from the possibility of harassment and subjugation, then software licenses and cryptography have as much to do with real digital rights and freedoms as your driver’s license has to do with your freedom of mobility. Which is to say, almost nothing.

We should be well past talking about the minutia of licenses and the comparative strengths of cryptographic algorithms at this point. The fact that we’re not is a clear sign that privacy, safety and security on the internet are not “real rights” in any meaningful sense. Not only because the state does not meaningfully defend them but because it does not mandate in protracted detail how they should be secured, fund institutions to secure that mandate and give the force of law to the consequences of failure.

The conversation we should be having at this point is not about is not what a license permits, it’s about the set of standards and practices that constitutes a minimum bar to clear in not being professionally negligent.

The challenge here is that dollar sign. Right now the tech sector is roughly where the automotive sector was in the late fifties. You almost certainly know or know of somebody on Twitter having a very 1959 Bel-Air Frontal-Offset Collision experience right now, and the time for us to stop blaming the driver for that is long past. But if there’s a single grain of good news here’s it’s how far off your diminishing returns are. We don’t need detailed standards about the glazing surface reference line of automotive glass, we need standard seatbelts and gas tanks that reliably don’t explode.

But that dollars sign, and those standards, are why I think free software is facing an existential crisis right now.

[ ]

I think it’s fair to say that the only way that standards have teeth is if there’s liability associated with them. We know from the automotive industry that the invisible hand of the free market is no substitute for liability in driving improvement; when the costs of failure are externalized, diffuse or hidden, those costs can easily be ignored.

According to the FSF, the “Four Freedoms” that define what constitutes Free Software are:

  • The freedom to run the program as you wish, for any purpose (freedom 0).
  • The freedom to study how the program works, and change it so it does your computing as you wish (freedom 1). Access to the source code is a precondition for this.
  • The freedom to redistribute copies so you can help your neighbor (freedom 2).
  • The freedom to distribute copies of your modified versions to others (freedom 3). By doing this you can give the whole community a chance to benefit from your changes. Access to the source code is a precondition for this.

The cannier among you will already have noted – and scarred Linux veterans can definitely attest to the fact – that there’s no mention at all of freedom-from in there. The FSF’s unstated position has always been that anyone who wants to be free from indignities like an opaque contraption of a user experience, buggy drivers and nonexistent vendor support in their software, not to mention the casual sexism and racism of the free software movement itself, well. Those people can go pound sand all the way to the Apple store. (Which is what everyone did, but let’s put that aside for the moment.)

Let’s go back to that car analogy for a moment:

Toyota Motor Corp has recalled 3.37 million cars worldwide over possible defects involving air bags and emissions control units.

The automaker on Wednesday said it was recalling 2.87 million cars over a possible fault in emissions control units. That followed an announcement late on Tuesday that 1.43 million cars needed repairs over a separate issue involving air bag inflators.

About 930,000 cars are affected by both potential defects, Toyota said. Because of that overlap, it said the total number of vehicles recalled was 3.37 million.

No injuries have been linked to either issue.

Potential defects.

I think the critical insight here is that Stallman’s vision of software freedom dates to a time when software was contained. You could walk away from that PDP-11 and the choices you made there didn’t follow you home in your pocket or give a world full of bored assholes an attack surface for your entire life. Software wasn’t everywhere, not just pushing text around a screen but everywhere and in everything from mediating our social lives and credit ratings to pumping our drinking water, insulin and anti-lock brakes.

Another way to say that is: software existed in a well-understood context. And it was that context that made it, for the most part, free from the possibility of causing real human damage, and consequently liability for that damage was a non-question. But that context matters: Toyota doesn’t issue that recall because the brakes failed on the chopped-up fifteen year old Corolla you’ve welded to a bathtub and used as rally car, it’s for the safety of day to day drivers doing day to day driving.

I should quit dancing around the point here and just lay it out:  If your definition of freedom includes freedom from the possibility of interference, it follows that “free as in beer” and “free as in freedom” can only coexist in the absence of liability.

This is only going to get more important as the Internet ends up in more and more Things, and your right – and totally reasonable expectation – to live a life free from arbitrary harassment enabled by the software around you becomes a life-or-death issue.

If we believe in an expansive definition of human freedom and agency in a world full of software making decisions then I think we have three problems, two practical and one fundamental.

The practical ones are straightforward. The first is that the underpinnings of the free-as-in-beer economic model that lets Google, Twitter and Facebook exist are fighting a two-ocean war against failing ad services and liability avoidance. The notion that a click-through non-contract can absolve any organization of their responsibility is not long for this world, and the nasty habit advertising and social networks have of periodically turning into semi-autonomous, weaponized misery-delivery platforms makes it harder to justify letting their outputs talk to your inputs every day.

The second one is the industry prisoner’s dilemma around, if not liability, then at a bare minimum responsibility. There’s a battery of high-caliber first-mover-disadvantages pointed at the first open source developer willing to say “if these tools are used under the following conditions, by users with the following user stories, then we can and should be held responsible for their failures”.

Neither of these problems are insoluble – alternative financial models exist, coalitions can be built, and so forth. It’ll be an upheaval, but not a catastrophic or even sudden one. But anyone whose business model relies on ads should be thinking about transitions five to ten years out, and your cannier nation-states are likely to start sneaking phrases like “auditable and replaceable firmware” in their trade agreements in the next three to five.

The fundamental problem is harder: we need a definition of freedom that encompasses the notion of software freedom and human agency, in which the software itself is just an implementation detail.

We don’t have a definition of freedom that’s both expansive in its understanding of what freedom and agency are, and that speaks to a world where the line between data security and bodily autonomy is very blurry, where people can delegate their agency to and gain agency from a construct that’s both an idea and a machine. A freedom for which a positive defense of the scope of the possible isn’t some weird semitangible idea, but a moral imperative and a hill worth dying on.

I don’t know what that looks like yet; I can see the rough outlines of the place it should be but isn’t. I can see the seeds of it in the quantified-self stuff, copyleft pushback and the idea that crypto is a munition. It’s crystal clear that a programmer clinging to the idea that algorithms are apolitical or that software is divorced from human bias or personal responsibility is a physicist holding to the aetheric model or phlogiston when other people are fuelling their rockets. The line between software freedom and personal freedom is meaningless now, and the way we’ve defined “software freedom” just about guarantees its irrelevancy. It’s just freedom now, and at the very least if our definition of what freedom is – and our debate about what freedom could be –  isn’t as vast and wide-ranging and weird and wonderful and diverse and inclusive and scary as it could possibly be, then the freedom we end up with won’t be either.

And I feel like a world full of the possible would be a hell of a thing to lose.

August 18, 2016

Culture Shock

Filed under: analog,documentation,interfaces,life,mozilla,vendetta,work — mhoye @ 3:18 pm

I’ve been meaning to get around to posting this for… maybe fifteen years now? Twenty? At least I can get it off my desk now.

As usual, it’s safe to assume that I’m not talking about only one thing here.

I got this document about navigating culture shock from an old family friend, an RCMP negotiator now long retired. I understand it was originally prepared for Canada’s Department of External Affairs, now Global Affairs Canada. As the story made it to me, the first duty posting of all new RCMP recruits used to (and may still?) be to a detachment stationed outside their home province, where the predominant language spoken wasn’t their first, and this was one of the training documents intended to prepare recruits and their families for that transition.

It was old when I got it 20 years ago, a photocopy of a mimeograph of something typeset on a Selectric years before; even then, the RCMP and External Affairs had been collecting information about the performance of new hires in high-stress positions in new environments for a long time. There are some obviously dated bits – “writing letters back home” isn’t really a thing anymore in the stamped-envelope sense they mean and “incurring high telephone bills”, well. Kids these days, they don’t even know, etcetera. But to a casual search the broad strokes of it are still valuable, and still supported by recent data.

Traditionally, the stages of cross—cultural adjustment have been viewed as a U curve. What this means is, that the first months in a new culture are generally exciting – this is sometimes referred to as the “honeymoon” or “tourist” phase. Inevitably, however, the excitement wears off and coping with the new environment becomes depressing, burdensome, anxiety provoking (everything seems to become a problem; housing, neighbors, schooling, health care, shopping, transportation, communication, etc.) – this is the down part of the U curve and is precisely the period of so-called “culture shock“. Gradually (usually anywhere from 6 months to a year) an individual learns to cope by becoming involved with, and accepted by, the local people. Culture shock is over and we are back, feeling good about ourselves and the local culture.

Spoiler alert: It doesn’t always work out that way. But if you know what to expect, and what you’re looking for, you can recognize when things are going wrong and do something about it. That’s the key point, really: this slow rollercoaster you’re on isn’t some sign of weakness or personal failure. It’s an absolutely typical human experience, and like a lot of experiences, being able to point to it and give it a name also gives you some agency over it you may not have thought you had.

I have more to say about this – a lot more – but for now here you go: “Adjusting To A New Environment”, date of publication unknown, author unknown (likely Canada’s Department of External Affairs.) It was a great help to me once upon a time, and maybe it will be for you.

July 10, 2016

Witness Me

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


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

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

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

Sadly, that’s almost all it is.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

March 4, 2016

In Transit

Filed under: documentation,flickr,interfaces,travel,vendetta — mhoye @ 10:42 am

The Tunnels


Southbound On Spadina

Yonge Station @ 08:30


December 5, 2015

Barbiephonic (redux)

Filed under: awesome,digital,doom,interfaces,lunacy,parenting,toys,vendetta — mhoye @ 9:51 pm


I have a funny story about the recent Hello Barbie networked-device security failure. This is doubly a repost – it started its current incarnation as a twitter rant, and longtime readers may remember it from the dim recesses of history, but the time has come for me to tell it again.

Back in 2007 Mattel had a site where they’d charge parents two bucks to have one of Mattel’s franchise characters give their child a real phone call, because people still did that in 2007. They’d let you hear the call before paying, which I suppose was good of them, but I poked around a bit and pretty quickly discovered that whatever company Mattel had hired for this was not so good with the infosec.

The subject of the calls – Dora would say it’s important to learn to read or help around the house, Barbie would tell you to work hard in school, that sort of thing – was pretty pedestrian, harmless despite the weirdly Reagan-era-esque Kid-Celebrities-Help-You-Just-Say-No-To-Drugs vibe. But the indexes on the folders storing all those component sound files they’d assemble into your custom call were wide open.

And the other thing lying around on those open shares were recordings of names. To reach a wide audience they’d recorded some unstoppably perky young woman reciting kids’ first names, Aaron, Abbot, Abby, Abigail, Adana, Adena, in an upbeat barbie-girl voice, every single one. And there I was with a pile of free disk space, university bandwidth, wget and why not.

There were seventeen thousand of them.

After a bit of experimentation, I figured out how to stitch them all together with .4 seconds of silence between each. The resulting audio file was almost five hours long; four hours and forty five minutes of relentless Barbiedoll voice reciting seventeen thousand first names in alphabetical order.

To my knowledge, nobody has ever listened to the whole thing.

Of the six attempts I’m aware of, four were called off when the death threats started, one due to the near-breakup of the couple making the attempt, and one person drinking themselves to unconsciousness at about the 90 minute mark. I’m not saying that to make a joke. I’m telling you because this is real and it’s an SCP-grade psychic biohazard. No highly esteemed deed was committed here; this is not a place of honour.

So don’t say I didn’t warn you.

For your listening pleasure: here it is.

Have a good weekend, Internet.

UPDATE: Somebody made a Youtube video.

November 9, 2015

The Devil And Strong Crypto

Filed under: digital,documentation,doom,future,interfaces,linux,vendetta — mhoye @ 1:23 pm

Period scenery-chewing aside, this is largely how I feel about strong, backdoorless cryptography.

When the last wires were tapped, your last passwords broken and the State finally turns on you, how would you hide, with all your secrets exposed? The internet is a forest of crypto from coast to coast – the user’s crypto, not the State’s – and if you cut that down, and you’re just the man to do it, do you really think you could stand upright in the winds that would blow then? Yes, I’d give the internet’s worst users the benefit of strong crypto, for my own safety’s sake.

September 30, 2015

Burning Down The Future

Filed under: doom,future,life,vendetta — mhoye @ 2:40 pm

There’s an old line in the military: amateurs study tactics and academics study strategies, but professionals study logistics. It doesn’t matter how good your grand strategy is if you can’t feed your troops, gas up the humvees and keep planes in the air for the duration.

In the same vein, in the political arena your amateurs watch poll numbers seesaw back and forth and economists follow policies, but professionals study demographics. That’s why most of the serious talk is about redistricting and immigration. Mostly about immigration.

There are now for the first time more Canadians over 65 than children under 14. This is to put it mildly a serious problem. It does however have an obvious, straightforward solution.

The difficulty is that our current government’s policies – and more importantly, that party’s electoral goals and messaging – are fundamentally racist and xenophobic. And to what should be our collective shame, that seems to be effective. Dog-whistle lines like “old stock Canadians” and arguments about wearing head scarf to a citizenship ceremony have made it perfectly clear that despite whatever thin veneer of politeness we like to pretend makes us special, Canada has always been what our current government wants us to be: racist, xenophobic and really, really shortsighted.

Who do we think are going to buy all these houses that the sitting Government believes we should all own? Whose taxes are going to pay for the Canada Pension Plan? Young people aren’t buying cars and old people won’t be driving for long, so what will all these houses we’ve built in the suburbs be worth? What do our cities look like, when so many of them start to empty out?

For now these questions seem superficial, and those cuts will come slowly, but they’ll cut deep and may not stop when they hit bone.

But somehow the obvious solution, the one thing that prevents a looming financial implosion isn’t even up for discussion. Everyone can see the cliff coming, but the people behind the wheel would rather steer us straight for it than let anyone else drive. So despite living in one of the richest, safest countries that has ever existed in recorded history of all human civilization, enough people can be convinced to be frightened enough that we’re apparently willing to bring an entirely avoidable crisis on ourselves. We are going to deliberately throw our children’s economic future into a garbage fire for no better reason than raw xenophobic fear.

It doesn’t need to be this way.

Maybe our country should be able to see forty years ahead, instead of four months.

Maybe you should run the numbers to see what happens if you live another twenty years, and ask yourself what that really means that your retirement plan is worth 70 cents on the dollar and your grandchildren will be too busy working two shit jobs to pick up the slack.

Maybe the people who’ve told you to be frightened and angry all the time are wrong. Maybe you don’t need to feel that way.

And maybe, just maybe, a woman’s choice of headdress is not a good enough reason to burn down the future.

September 20, 2015

The Bourne Aesthetic

“The difference between something that can go wrong and something that can’t possibly go wrong is that when something that can’t possibly go wrong goes wrong it usually turns out to be impossible to get at or repair.”

–Douglas Adams

I’ve been trying to get this from draft to published for almost six months now. I might edit it later but for now, what the hell. It’s about James Bond, Jason Bourne, old laptops, economies of scale, design innovation, pragmatism at the margins and an endless supply of breadsticks.

You’re in, right?

Bond was a character that people in his era could identify with:

Think about how that works in the post war era. The office dwelling accountant/lawyer/ad man/salesman has an expense account. This covers some lunches at counters with clients, or maybe a few nice dinners. He flirts with the secretaries and receptionists and sometimes sleeps with them. He travels on business, perhaps from his suburb into Chicago, or from Chicago to Cleveland, or San Francisco to LA. His office issues him a dictaphone (he can’t type) or perhaps a rolling display case for his wares. He has a work car, maybe an Oldsmobile 88 if he’s lucky, or a Ford Falcon if he’s not. He’s working his way up to the top, but isn’t quite ready for a management slot. He wears a suit, tie and hat every day to the office. If he’s doing well he buys this downtown at a specialty men’s store. If he’s merely average, he picks this up at Macy’s, or Sears if he’s really just a regular joe. If he gets sick his employer has a nice PPO insurance plan for him.

Now look at Bond. He has an expense account, which covers extravagant dinners and breakfasts at the finest 4 star hotels and restaurants. He travels on business, to exotic places like Istanbul, Tokyo and Paris. He takes advantage of the sexual revolution (while continuing to serve his imperialist/nationalist masters) by sleeping with random women in foreign locations. He gets issued cool stuff by the office– instead of a big dictaphone that he keeps on his desk, Bond has a tiny dictaphone that he carries around with him in his pocket! He has a work car — but it’s an Aston Martin with machine guns! He’s a star, with a license to kill, but not management. Management would be boring anyways, they stay in London while Bond gets to go abroad and sleep with beautiful women. Bond always wears a suit, but they’re custom tailored of the finest materials. If he gets hurt, he has some Royal Navy doctors to fix him right up.

In today’s world, that organization man who looked up to James Bond as a kind of avatar of his hopes and dreams, no longer exists.

Who is our generations James Bond? Jason Bourne. He can’t trust his employer, who demanded ultimate loyalty and gave nothing in return. In fact, his employer is outsourcing his work to a bunch of foreign contractors who presumably work for less and ask fewer questions. He’s given up his defined benefit pension (Bourne had a military one) for an individual retirement account (safe deposit box with gold/leeching off the gf in a country with a depressed currency). In fact his employer is going to use him up until he’s useless. He can’t trust anyone, other than a few friends he’s made on the way while backpacking around. Medical care? Well that’s DIY with stolen stuff, or he gets his friends to hook him up. What kinds of cars does he have? Well no more company car for sure, he’s on his own on that, probably some kind of import job. What about work tools? Bourne is on is own there too. Sure, work initially issued him a weapon, but after that he’s got to scrounge up whatever discount stuff he can find, even when it’s an antique. He has to do more with less. And finally, Bourne survives as a result of his high priced, specialized education. He can do things few people can do – fight multiple opponents, hotwire a car, tell which guy in a restaurant can handle himself, hotwire cars, speak multiple languages and duck a surveillance tail. Oh, and like the modern, (sub)urban professional, Bourne had to mortgage his entire future to get that education. They took everything he had, and promised that if he gave himself up to the System, in return the System would take care of him.

It turned out to be a lie.

We’re all Jason Bourne now.

posted by wuwei at 1:27 AM on July 7, 2010

I think about design a lot these days, and I realize that’s about as fatuous an opener as you’re likely to read this week so I’m going to ask you to bear with me.

If you’re already rolling out your “resigned disappointment” face: believe me, I totally understand. I suspect we’ve both dealt with That Guy Who Calls Himself A Designer at some point, that particular strain of self-aggrandizing flake who’s parlayed a youth full of disdain for people who just don’t understand them into a career full of evidence they don’t understand anyone else. My current job’s many bright spots are definitely brighter for his absence, and I wish the same for you. But if it helps you get past this oddly-shaped lump of a lede, feel free to imagine me setting a pair of Raybans down next to an ornamental scarf of some kind, sipping a coffee with organic soy ingredients and a meaningless but vaguely European name, writing “Helvetica?” in a Moleskine notebook and staring pensively into the middle distance. Does my carefully manicured stubble convey the precise measure of my insouciance? Perhaps it does; perhaps I’m gazing at some everyday object nearby, pausing to sigh before employing a small gesture to convey that no, no, it’s really nothing. Insouciance is a french word, by the way. Like café. You should look it up. I know you’ve never been to Europe, I can tell.

You see? You can really let your imagination run wild here. Take the time you need to work through it. Once you’ve shaken that image off – one of my colleagues delightfully calls those guys “dribble designers” – let’s get rolling.

I think about design a lot these days, and I realize that’s about as fatuous an opener as you’re likely to read this week so I’m going to ask you to bear with me.

Very slightly more specifically I’ve been thinking about Apple’s latest Macbook, some recent retrospeculation from Lenovo, “timeless” design, spy movies and the fact that the Olive Garden at one point had a culinary institute. I promise this all makes sense in my head. If you get all the way through this and it makes sense to you too then something on the inside of your head resembles something on the inside of mine, and you’ll have to come to your own terms with that. Namasté, though. For real.

There’s an idea called “gray man” in the security business that I find interesting. They teach people to dress unobtrusively. Chinos instead of combat pants, and if you really need the extra pockets, a better design conceals them. They assume, actually, that the bad guys will shoot all the guys wearing combat pants first, just to be sure. I don’t have that as a concern, but there’s something appealingly “low-drag” about gray man theory: reduced friction with one’s environment.

– William Gibson, being interviewed at Rawr Denim

At first glance the idea that an Olive Garden Culinary Institute should exist at all squats on the line between bewildering and ridiculous. They use maybe six ingredients, and those ingredients need to be sourced at industrial scale and reliably assembled by a 22-year-old with most of a high-school education and all of a vicious hangover. How much of a culinary institute can that possibly take? In fact, at some remove the Olive Garden looks less like a restaurant chain than a supply chain that produces endless breadsticks; there doesn’t seem to be a ton of innovation here. Sure, supply chains are hard. But pouring prefab pomodoro over premade pasta, probably not.

Even so, for a few years the Tuscan Culinary Institute was a real thing, one of the many farming estates in Tuscany that have been resurrected to the service of regional gastrotourism booked by the company for a few weeks a year. Successful managers of the Garden’s ersatz-italian assembly lines could enjoy Tuscany on a corporate reward junket, and at a first glance amused disdain for the whole idea would seem to be on point.

There’s another way to look at the Tuscan Culinary Institute, though, that makes it seem valuable and maybe even inspired.

One trite but underappreciated part of the modern mid-tier supply-chain-and-franchise engine is how widely accessible serviceable and even good (if not great or world-beating) stuff has become. Coffee snobs will sneer at Starbucks, but the truck-stop tar you could get before their ascendance was dramatically worse. If you’ve already tried both restaurants in a town too remote to to be worth their while, a decent bowl of pasta, a bottle of inoffensive red and a steady supply of garlic bread starts to look like a pretty good deal.

This is one of the rare bright lights of the otherwise dismal grind of the capitalist exercise, this democratization of “good enough”. The real role of the Tuscan Culinary institute was to give chefs and managers a look at an authentic, three-star Tuscan dining experience and then ask them: with what we have to hand at the tail end of this supply chain, the pasta, the pomodoro, the breadsticks and wine, how can we give our customers 75% of that experience for 15% the cost?

It would be easy to characterize this as some sort of corporate-capitalist co-option of a hacker’s pragmatism – a lot of people have – but I don’t think that’s the right thing, or at least not the whole picture. This is a kind of design, and like any design exercise – like any tangible expression of what design is – we’re really talking about the expression and codification of values.

I don’t think it’s an accident that all the computers I bought between about 1998 about 2008 are either still in service or will still turn on if I flip the switch, but everything I’ve bought since lasts two or three years before falling over. There’s nothing magic about old tech, to be sure: in fact, the understanding that stuff breaks is baked right into their design. That’s why they’re still running: because they can be fixed. And thanks to the unfettered joys of standard interfaces some them are better today, with faster drives and better screens, than any computer I could have bought then.

The Macbook is the antithesis of this, of course. That’s what happened in 2008; the Macbook Pro started shipping with a non-removable battery.

If you haven’t played with one Apple’s flagship Macbooks, they are incredible pieces of engineering. They weigh approximately nothing. Every part of them seems like some fundamental advance in engineering and materials science. The seams are perfect; everything that can be removed, everything you can carve off a laptop and still have a laptop left, is gone.

As a result, it’s completely atomic, almost totally unrepairable. If any part of it breaks you’re hosed.

“Most people make the mistake of thinking design is what it looks like. People think it’s this veneer – that the designers are handed this box and told, ‘Make it look good!’ That’s not what we think design is. It’s not just what it looks like and feels like. Design is how it works.” – Steve Jobs

This is true, kind of; it depends on what you believe your scope of responsibility is as a designer. The question of “how a device works” is a step removed from the question of “how does a person engage with this device”; our aforementioned designer-caricature aside, most of us get that. But far more important than that is the question of how the device helps that person engage the world. And that’s where this awful contradiction comes in, because whatever that device might be, the person will never be some static object, and the world is seven billion people swimming in a boiling froth of water, oil, guns, steel, race, sex, language, wisdom, secrets, hate, love, pain and TCP/IP.

Our time is finite, and entropy is relentless: knowing that, how long should somebody be responsible for their designs? Are you responsible for what becomes of what you’ve built, over the long term? Because if you have a better way to play the long game here than “be a huge pile of rocks” you should chisel it into something. Every other thing of any complexity, anything with two moving parts to rub together that’s still usable or exists at all today has these two qualities:

  1. It can be fixed, and
  2. When it breaks, somebody cares enough about it to fix it.

And that’s where minimalism that denies the complexity of the world, that lies to itself about entropy, starts feeling like willful blindness; design that’s a thin coat of paint over that device’s relationship with the world.

More to the point, this is why the soi-disant-designer snob we were (justly and correctly) ragging on at the beginning of this seemingly-interminable-but-it-finally-feels-like-we’re-getting-somewhere blog post comes across as such a douchebag. It’s not “minimalist” if you buy a new one every two years; it’s conspicuous consumption with chamfered edges. Strip away that veneer, that coat of paint, and there are the real values designer-guy and his venti decaf soy wankaccino hold dear.

Every day I feel a tiny bit more like I can’t really rely on something I can’t repair. Not just for environmentalism’s sake, not only for the peace of mind that standard screwdrivers and available source offers, but because tools designed by people who understand something might fall over are so much more likely to have built a way to stand them back up. This is why I got unreasonably excited by Lenovo’s retro-Thinkpad surveys, despite their recent experiments in throwing user security overboard wearing factory-installed cement boots. The prospect of a laptop with modern components that you can actually maintain, much less upgrade, has become a weird niche crank-hobbyist novelty somehow.

But if your long game is longer than your workweek or your support contract, this is what a total-cost-accounting of “reduced friction with your environment” looks like. It looks like not relying on the OEM, like DIY and scrounged parts and above all knowing that you’re not paralyzed if the rules change. It’s reduced friction with an uncertain future.

I have an enormous admiration for the work Apple does, I really do. But I spend a lot of time thinking about design now, not in terms of shapes and materials but in terms of the values and principles it embodies, and it’s painfully obvious when those values are either deeply compromised or (more typically) just not visible at all. I’ve often said that I wish that I could buy hardware fractionally as good from anyone else for any amount of money, but that’s not really true. As my own priorities make participating in Apple’s vision more and more uncomfortable, what I really want is for some other manufacturer to to show that kind of commitment to their own values and building hardware that expresses them. Even if I could get to (say) 75% of those values, if one of them was maintainability – if it could be fixed a bit at a time – I bet over the long term, it would come out to (say) 15% of the cost.

Late footnote: This post at War Is Boring is on point, talking about the effects of design at the operational and logistical levels.

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