blarg?

March 18, 2020

Notice

Filed under: analog,documentation,interfaces,life,mozilla,work — mhoye @ 9:56 pm

Untitled

As far as I can tell, 100% of the google results for “burnout” or “recognizing burnout” boil down to victim-blaming; they’re all about you, and your symptoms, and how to recognize when you’re burning out. Are you frustrated, overwhelmed, irritable, tired? Don’t ask for help, here’s how to self-diagnose! And then presumably do something.

What follows is always the most uselessly vague advice, like “listen to yourself” or “build resiliency” or whatever, which all sounds great and reinforces that the burden of recovery is entirely on the person burning out. And if you ask about the empirical evidence supporting it, this advice is mostly on par with leaving your healing crystals in the sun, getting your chakras greased or having your horoscope fixed by changing your birthday.

Resiliency and self-awareness definitely sound nice enough, and if your crystals are getting enough sun good for them, but just about all of this avoiding-burnout advice amounts to lighting scented candles downwind of a tire fire. If this was advice about a broken leg or anaphylaxis we’d see it for the trash it is, but because it’s about mental health somehow we don’t call it out. Is that a shattered femur? Start by believing in yourself, and believing that change is possible. Bee stings are just part of life; maybe you should take the time to rethink your breathing strategy. This might be a sign that breathing just isn’t right for you.

Even setting that aside: if we could all reliably self-assess and act on the objective facts we discerned thereby, burnout (and any number of other personal miseries) wouldn’t exist. But somehow here we are in not-that-world-at all. And as far as I can tell approximately none percent of these articles are ever about, say, “how to foster an company culture that doesn’t burn people out”, or “managing people so they don’t burn out”, or “recognizing impending burnout in others, so you can intervene.”

I’ll leave why that might be as an exercise for the reader.

Fortunately, as in so many cases like this, evidence comes to the rescue; you just need to find it. And the best of the few evidence-based burnout-prevention guidelines I can find come from the field of medicine where there’s a very straight, very measurable line between physician burnout and patient care outcomes. Nothing there will surprise you, I suspect; “EHR stress” (Electronic Health Records) has a parallel in our lives with tooling support, and the rest of it – sane scheduling, wellness surveys, agency over meaningful work-life balance and so on – seems universal. And it’s very clear from the research that recognizing the problem in yourself and in your colleagues is only one, late step. Getting support to make changes to the culture and systems in which you find yourself embedded is, for the individual, the next part of the process.

The American Medical Association has a “Five steps to creating a wellness culture” document, likewise rooted in gathered evidence, and it’s worth noting that the key takeaways are that burnout is a structural problem and mitigating it requires structural solutions. “Assess and intervene” is the last part of the process, not the first. “Self-assess and then do whatever” is not on the list at all, because that advice is terrible and the default setting of people burning out is self-isolation and never, ever asking people for the help they need.

We get a lot of things right where I work, and we’re better at taking care of people now than just about any other org I’ve ever heard of, but we still need to foster an “if you see something, say something” approach to each others’ well being. I bet wherever you are, you do too. Particularly now that the whole world has hard-cutover to remote-only and we’re only seeing each other through screens.

Yesterday, I told some colleagues that “if you think somebody we work with is obviously failing at self-care, talk to them”, and I should have been a lot more specific. This isn’t a perfect list by any means, but if you ask someone how they’re doing and they can’t so much as look you in the eye when they answer, see that. If you’re talking about work and they start thumbing their palms or rubbing their wrists or some other reflexive self-soothing twitch, notice. If you ask them about what they’re working on and they take a long breath and longer choosing their words, pay attention. If somebody who isn’t normally irritable or prone to cynical or sardonic humor starts trending that way, if they’re hunched over in meetings looking bedraggled when they normally take care of posture and basic grooming, notice that and say so.

If “mental health” is just “health” – and I guarantee it is – then burnout is an avoidable workplace injury, and I don’t believe in unavoidable mental-health injuries any more than I believe in unavoidable forklift accidents. Keep an eye out for your colleagues. If you think somebody you work with is failing at self-care, talk to them. Maybe talk to a friend, maybe talk to their manager or yours.

But say something. Don’t let it slide.

March 6, 2020

Brace For Impact

I don’t spend a lot of time in here patting myself on the back, but today you can indulge me.

In the last few weeks it was a ghost town, and that felt like a victory. From a few days after we’d switched it on to Monday, I could count the number of human users on any of our major channels on one hand. By the end, apart from one last hurrah the hour before shutdown, there was nobody there but bots talking to other bots. Everyone – the company, the community, everyone – had already voted with their feet.

About three weeks ago, after spending most of a month shaking out some bugs and getting comfortable in our new space we turned on federation, connecting Mozilla to the rest of the Matrix ecosystem. Last Monday we decommissioned IRC.Mozilla.org for good, closing the book on a 22-year-long chapter of Mozilla’s history as we started a new one in our new home on Matrix.

I was given this job early last year but the post that earned it, I’m guessing, was from late 2018:

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. […] That’s the other part of federated systems we don’t talk about much – how much the burden of safety shifts to the individual.

Some inside baseball here, but if you’re wondering: that’s why I pushed back on the idea of federation from the beginning, for all invective that earned me. That’s why I refused to include it as a requirement and held the line on that for the entire process. The fact that on classically-federated systems distributed access and non-accountable administration means that the burden of personal safety falls entirely on the individual. That’s not a unique artifact of federated systems, of course – Slack doesn’t think you should be permitted to protect yourself either, and they’re happy to wave vaguely in the direction of some hypothetical HR department and pretend that keeps their hands clean, as just one example of many – but it’s structurally true of old-school federated systems of all stripes. And bluntly, I refuse to let us end up in a place where asking somebody to participate in the Mozilla project is no different from asking them to walk home at night alone.

And yet here we are, opting into the Fediverse. It’s not because I’ve changed my mind.

One of the strongest selling points of Matrix is the combination of powerful moderation and safety tooling that hosting organizations can operate with robust tools for personal self-defense available in parallel. Critically, these aren’t half-assed tools that have been grafted on as an afterthought; they’re first-class features, robust enough that we can not only deploy them with confidence, but can reasonably be held accountable by our colleagues and community for their use. In short, we can now have safe, accountable infrastructure that complements, rather than comes at the cost, of individual user agency.

That’s not the best thing, though, and I’m here to tell you about my favorite Matrix feature that nobody knows about: Federated auto-updating blocklist sharing.

If you decide you trust somebody else’s decisions, at some other organization – their judgment calls about who is and is not welcome there – those decisions can be immediately and automatically reflected in your own. When a site you trust drops the hammer on some bad actor that ban can be adopted almost immediately by your site and your community as well. You don’t have to have ever seen that person or have whatever got them banned hit you in the eyes. You don’t even need to know they exist. All you need to do is decide you trust that other site judgment and magically someone persona non grata on their site is precisely that grata on yours.

Another way to say that is: among people or communities who trust each other in these decisions, an act of self-defense becomes, seamlessly and invisibly, an act of collective defense. No more everyone needing to fight their own fights alone forever, no more getting isolated and picked off one at a time, weakest first; shields-up means shields-up for everyone. Effective, practical defensive solidarity; it’s the most important new idea I’ve seen in social software in years. Every federated system out should build out their own version, and it’s very clear to me, at least, that is going to be the table stakes of a federated future very soon.

So I feel pretty good about where we’ve ended up, and where we’re going.

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.

I’ve got a graph here that’s pointing up and to the right, and it’s got nothing to do with scraping fractions of pennies out of rageclicks and misery; just people making a choice to go somewhere better, safer and happier. Maybe, just maybe, we can salvage this whole internet thing. Maybe all is not yet lost, and the future is not yet written.

February 20, 2020

Synchronous Messaging: We’re Live.

Filed under: digital,documentation,future,irc,mozilla,vendetta,work — mhoye @ 5:15 pm

Untitled

After a nine month leadup, chat.mozilla.org, our Matrix-based replacement for IRC, has been up running for about a month now.

While we’ve made a number of internal and community-facing announcements about progress, access and so forth, we’ve deliberately run this as a quiet, cautious, low-key rollout, letting our communities find their way to chat.m.o and Matrix organically while we sort out the bugs and rough edges of this new experience.

Last week we turned on federation, the last major step towards opening Mozilla to the wider Matrix ecosystem, and it’s gone really well. Which means that as of last week, Mozilla’s transition from IRC to Matrix is within arm’s reach of done.

The Matrix team have been fantastic partners throughout this process, open to feedback and responsive to concerns throughout. It’s been a great working relationship, and as investments of effort go one that’s already paying off exactly the way want our efforts to pay off, with functional, polish and accessibility improvements that benefit the entire Matrix ecosystem coming from the feedback from the Mozilla community.

We still have work to do, but this far into the transition it sure feels like winning. The number of participants in our primary development channels has already exceeded their counterparts on IRC at their most active, and there’s no sign that’s slowing down. Many of our engineering and ops teams are idling or archiving their Slack channels and have moved entirely to Matrix, and that trend isn’t slowing down either.

As previously announced, we’re on schedule to turn off IRC.m.o at the end of the month, and don’t see a reason to reconsider that decision. So far, it looks like we’re pretty happy on the new system. It’s working well for us.

So: Welcome. If you’re new to Mozilla or would like to get involved, come see us in the #Introduction channel on our shiny new Matrix system. I hope to see you there.

February 18, 2020

Dexterity In Depth

Filed under: a/b,academic,documentation,interfaces,mozilla,science,vendetta,work — mhoye @ 10:50 am

Untitled

I’m exactly one microphone and one ridiculous haircut away from turning into Management Shingy when I get rolling on stuff like this, because it’s just so clear to me how much this stuff matters and how little sense I might be making at the same time. Is your issue tracker automatically flagging your structural blind spots? Do your QA and UX team run your next reorg? Why not?

This all started life as a rant on Mastodon, so bear with me here. There are two empirically-established facts that organizations making software need to internalize.

The first is that by wide margin the most significant predictive indicator that there will be a future bug in a piece of software is the relative orgchart distance of the people working on it. People who are working on a shared codebase in the same room but report to different VPs are wildly more likely to introduce errors into a codebase than two people who are on opposite sides of the planet and speak different first languages but report to the same manager.

The second is that the number one predictor that a bug will be resolved is if it is triaged correctly – filed in the right issue tracker, against the right component, assigned to the right people – on the first try.

It’s fascinating that neither of the strongest predictive indicators of the most important parts of a bug’s lifecycle – birth and death – actually take place on the developers’ desk, but it’s true. In terms of predictive power, nothing else in the software lifecycle comes close.

Taken together, these facts give you a tools to roughly predict the effectiveness of collaborating teams, and by analyzing trends among bugs that are frequently re-assigned or re-triaged, can give you a lot of foresight into how, where and why a company need to retrain or reorganize those teams. You might have read Agile As Trauma recently, in which Dorian Taylor describes agile development as an allergic reaction to previously bad management:

The Agile Manifesto is an immune response on the part of programmers to bad management. The document is an expression of trauma, and its intellectual descendants continue to carry this baggage. While the Agile era has brought about remarkable advancements in project management techniques and development tools, it remains a tactical, technical, and ultimately reactionary movement.

This description is strikingly similar to – and in obvious tension with – Clay Shirky’s description of bureaucracy as the extractive mechanism of complexity and an allergic reaction to previous institutional screwups.

Bureaucracies temporarily suspend the Second Law of Thermodynamics. In a bureaucracy, it’s easier to make a process more complex than to make it simpler, and easier to create a new burden than kill an old one.

… which sounds an awful lot like the orgchart version of “It’s harder to read code than to write it”, doesn’t it?

I believe both positions are correct. But that tension scribes the way forward, I think, for an institutional philosophy that is responsive, flexible and empirically grounded, in which being deliberate about the scale, time, and importance of different feedback cycles gives an organization the freedom to treat scaling like a tool, that the signals of different contexts can inform change as a continuum between the macro and micro levels of organizational structure and practice. Wow, that’s a lot of words in a strange order, but hear me out.

It’s not about agile, or even agility. Agility is just the innermost loops, the smallest manifestation of a wide possible set of tightly-coupled feedback mechanisms. And outside the agile team, adjacent to the team, those feedback loops may or may not exist however much they need to, up and down the orgchart (though there’s not often much “down” left in the orgchart, I’ve noticed, where most agile teams live…) but more importantly with the adjacent and complementary functions that agile teams rely on.

It is self-evident that how teams are managed profoundly affects how they deliver software. But agile development (and every other modern developer-cult I’m aware of) doesn’t close that loop, and in failing to do so agile teams are reduced to justifying their continued existence through work output rather than informing positive institutional change. And I don’t use “cult” lightly, there; the current state of empirical evaluation of agile as a practice amounts to “We agiled and it felt good and seemed to work!” And feeling good and kinda working is not nothing! But it’s a long way from being anything more than that.

If organizations make software, then starting from a holistic view of what “development” and “agility” means and could be, looking carefully at where feedback loops in an organization exist, where they don’t and what information they circulate, all that suggests that there are reliable set of empirical, analytic tools for looking at not just developer practice, but the organizational processes around them. And assessing, in some measurable, empirical way, the real and sustainable value of different software development schools and methodologies.

But honestly, if your UX and QA teams aren’t informing your next reorg, why not?

December 19, 2019

Over The Line

IMG_1500044662340

[ This first appeared over on the Mozilla community discourse forums. ]

You can scroll down to the punchline if you like, but I want to start by thanking the Mozilla community, contributors, industry partners and colleagues alike, for the work everyone has put into this. Hundreds of invested people have weighed in on our hard requirements, nice-to-haves and long term goals, and tested our candidates with an eye not just to our immediate technical and community needs but to Mozilla’s mission, our tools as an expression of our values and a vision of a better future. Having so many people show up and give a damn has a rewarding, inspiring experience, and I’m grateful for the trust and patience everyone involved has shown us in helping us get this over the line.

We knew from the beginning that this was going to be a hard process; that it had to be not just transparent but open, not just legitimate but seen to be legitimate, that we had to meet our hard operational requirements while staying true to our values in the process. Today, after almost a year of research, consulting, gathering requirements, testing candidate stacks and distilling everything we’ve learned in the process down to the essentials, I think we’ve accomplished that.

I am delighted and honored to say that we have one candidate that unambiguously meets our institutional and operational needs: we have decided to replace IRC with Riot/Matrix, hosted by Modular.IM.

While all of the candidates proved to be excellent team collaboration and communication tools, Riot/Matrix has distinguished itself as an excellent open community collaboration tool, with robust support for accessibility and community safety that offers more agency and autonomy to the participants, teams and communities that make up Mozilla.

That Matrix gives individual community members effective tools for both reporting violations of Mozilla’s Community Participation Guidelines (“CPG”) and securing their own safety weighed heavily in our decision-making. While all of the candidates offered robust, mature APIs that would meet the needs of our developer, infrastructure and developer productivity teams, Riot/Matrix was the only candidate that included CPG reporting and enforcement tooling as a standard part of their offering, offering individual users the opportunity to raise their own shields on their own terms as well as supporting the general health and safety of the community.

Riot/Matrix was also the preferred choice of our accessibility team. Mozilla is committed to building a company, a community and a web without second class citizens, and from the beginning the accessibility team’s endorsement was a hard requirement for this process.

Speaking personally, it is an enormous relief that we weren’t forced to make “pick-two” sort of choice between community safety, developer support and accessibility, and it is a testament to the hard work the Matrix team has done that we can have all three.

Now that we’ve made our decision and formalized our relationship with the Modular.IM team, we’ll be standing up the new service in January. Soon after that we’ll start migrating tooling and forums over to the new system, and as previously mentioned no later than March of next year, we’ll shut down IRC.mozilla.org.

Thank you all for your help getting us here; I’m looking forward to seeing you on the new system.

– mhoye

December 17, 2019

Poor Craft

Filed under: future,interfaces,linux,microfiction,toys,want,weird,work — mhoye @ 1:53 pm

Ghosting

“It’s a poor craftsman that blames his tools” is an old line, and it took me a long time to understand it.

[ https://www.youtube.com/embed/ShEez0JkOF ]

A friend of mine sent me this talk. And while I want to like it a lot, it reminded me uncomfortably of Dabblers and Blowhards, the canon rebuttal to “Hackers And Painters”, an early entry in Paul Graham’s long-running oeuvre elaborating how special and magical it is to be just like Paul Graham.

It’s surprisingly hard to pin Paul Graham down on the nature of the special bond he thinks hobbyist programmers and painters share. In his essays he tends to flit from metaphor to metaphor like a butterfly, never pausing long enough to for a suspicious reader to catch up with his chloroform jar. […] You can safely replace “painters” in this response with “poets”, “composers”, “pastry chefs” or “auto mechanics” with no loss of meaning or insight. There’s nothing whatsoever distinctive about the analogy to painters, except that Paul Graham likes to paint, and would like to feel that his programming allows him a similar level of self-expression.

There’s an old story about Soundcloud (possibly Spotify? DDG tends to the literal these days and Google is just all chaff) that’s possibly apocryphal but too good not to turn into a metaphor, about how for a long time their offices were pindrop-quiet. About how during that rapid-growth phase they hired people in part for their love of and passion for music, and how that looked absolutely reasonable until they realized their people didn’t love music: they loved their music. Your music, obviously, sucks. So everyone there wears fantastic headphones, nobody actually talks to each other, and all you can hear is in their office is keyboard noise and the HVAC.

I frequently wonder if the people who love Lisp or Smalltalk fall into that same broad category: that they don’t “love Lisp” so much as they love their Lisp, the Howl’s Moving Memory Palaces they’ve built for themselves, tailored to the precise cut of their own idiosyncracies. That if you really dig in and ask them you’ll find that other people’s Lisp, obviously, sucks.

It seems like an easy trap to fall in to, but I suspect it means we collectively spend a lot of time genuflecting this magical yesteryear and its imagined perfect crystal tools when the fact of it is that we spend almost all of our time in other people’s code, not our own.

I feel similarly about Joel Spolsky’s notion of “leaky abstractions”; maybe those abstractions aren’t “leaking” or “failing”. Instead it’s that you’ve found the point where your goals, priorities or assumptions have diverged from those of the abstraction’s author, and that’s ultimately not a problem with the abstraction.

The more time I spend in front of a keyboard, the more I think my core skills here aren’t any more complicated than humility, empathy and patience; that if you understand its authors the code will reveal itself. I’ve mentioned before that programming is, a lot more than most people realize, inherently political. You’re making decisions about how to allocate scarce resources in ways that affect other people; there’s no other word for it. So when you’re building on other people’s code, you’re inevitably building on their assumptions and values as well, and if that’s true – that you spend most of your time as a programmer trying to work with other people’s values and decisions – then it’s guaranteed that it’s a lot more important to think about how to best spend that time, or optimize those tools and interactions, rather than championing tools that amount to applied reminiscence, a nostalgia with a grammar. In any other context we’d have a term for that, we’d recognize it for what it is, and it’s unflattering.

What does a programming language optimized for ease-of-collaboration or even ease-of-empathy look like, I wonder? What does that development environment do, and how many of our assumptions about best collaborative practices are just accidental emergent properties of the shortcomings of our tools? Maybe compiler pragmas up front as expressions of preferred optimizations, and therefore priorities? Culture-of-origin tags, demarking the shared assumptions of developers? “Reds and yellows are celebratory colors here, recompile with western sensibilities to swap your alert and default palettes with muted blues/greens.” Read, Eval, Print looping feels for all its usefulness like a huge missed opportunity, an evolutionary dead end that was just the best model we could come up with forty years ago, and maybe we’ve accidentally spent a lot of time looking backwards without realizing it.

Long Term Support

Filed under: a/b,digital,future,interfaces,linux,toys,want,work — mhoye @ 11:34 am

I bought a cordless drill from DeWalt a few years before they standardized on their current 20 volt form factor. Today the drill part of the drill is still in good shape, but its batteries won’t hold a charge – don’t store your batteries in the shed over the winter, folks, that’s rookie mistake – and I can’t replace them; they just don’t make them anymore. Nobody does.

I was thoroughly prepared to be annoyed about this, but it turns out DeWalt makes an adapter that slots right into my old drill and lets me use their new standard batteries. I’ll likely get another decade out of it as a result, and if the drill gives up the ghost in the meantime I’ll be able to use those batteries in its replacement.

Does any computer manufacturer out there anywhere care about longevity like that, today? The Cadillac answer to that used to be “Thinkpad”, but those days are long gone and as far as I can tell there’s nothing else in this space. I don’t care about thin or light at all. I’m happy to carry a few extra pounds; these are my tools, and if that’s the price of durable, maintainable and resilient tools means a bit of extra weight in the bag I’ll pay it and smile. I just want to be able to fix it; I want something I can strip all the way down to standard parts with a standard screwdriver and replace piecemeal when it needs piecemeal replacing. Does anyone make anything like this anymore, a tradesman’s machine? The MNTRE people are giving it a shot. Is anyone else, anywhere?

November 29, 2019

Historical Reasons

Filed under: digital,documentation,interfaces,mozilla,work — mhoye @ 12:09 pm

Untitled

I’ve known for a while how to override bash builtins, but it was something I’d long filed under “ok but why” in my mental repository of software esoterica. Until I saw this comment I hadn’t considered how useful it could be.

I’ve long held the position that our tools are so often ahumanist junk because we’re so deeply beholden to a history we don’t understand, and in my limited experience with the various DevOps toolchains, they definitely feel like Stockholm Spectrum products of that particular zeitgeist.  It’s a longstanding gripe I’ve got with that entire class of tools, Docker, Vagrant and the like; how narrow their notions of a “working development environment” are. Source, dependencies, deploy scripts and some operational context, great, but… not much else?

And on one hand: that’s definitely not nothing. But on the other … that’s all, really? It works, for sure, but it still seems like a failure of imagination that solving the Works On My Machine problem involves turning it inside out so that “deploy from my machine” means “my machine is now thoroughly constrained”. Seems like a long road around to where we started out but it was a discipline then, not a toolchain. And while I fully support turning human processes into shell scripts wherever possible (and checklists whenever not), having no slot in the process for compartmentalized idiosyncracy seems like an empty-net miss on the social ergonomics front; improvements in tooling, practice or personal learning all stay personal, their costs and benefits locked on local machines, leaving the burden of sharing the most human-proximate part of the developer experience on the already-burdened human, a forest you can never see past the trees.

This gist is a baby step in a different direction, one of those little tweaks I wish I’d put together 20 years ago; per-project shell history for everything under ~/src/ as a posix-shell default. It’s still limited to personal utility, but at least it gives me a way to check back into projects I haven’t touched in a while and remind myself what I was doing. A way, he said cleverly, of not losing track of my history.

The next obvious step for an idea like this from a tool and ergonomics perspective is to make containerized shell history an (opt-in, obvs) part of a project’s telemetry; I am willing to bet that with a decent corpus, even basic tools like grep and sort -n could draw you a straight line from “what people are trying to do in my project” to “where is my documentation incorrect, inadequate or nonexistent”, not to mention “what are my blind spots” and “how do I decide what to built or automate next”.

But setting that aside, or at least kicking that can down the road to this mythical day where I have a lot of spare time to think about it, this is unreasonably useful for me as it is and maybe you’ll find it useful as well.

October 23, 2019

The State Of Mozilla, 2019

Filed under: awesome,documentation,future,interfaces,linux,mozilla,vendetta,work — mhoye @ 11:52 am

As I’ve done in previous years, here’s The State Of Mozilla, as observed by me and presented by me to our local Linux user group.

Presentation:[ https://www.youtube.com/embed/RkvDnIGbv4w ]

And Q&A: [ https://www.youtube.com/embed/jHeNnSX6GcQ ]

Nothing tectonic in there – I dodged a few questions, because I didn’t want to undercut the work that was leading up to the release of Firefox 70, but mostly harmless stuff.

Can’t be that I’m getting stockier, though. Must be the shirt that’s unflattering. That’s it.

80×25

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

punch-photograph

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So, as is now the usual in these things:

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

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

Older Posts »

Powered by WordPress