Stand In The Place Where You Work


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Algorithmically Marginalized

I wouldn’t have thought that mathematics or signal processing would have a cultural bent, but I just sat through a conference call where everyone was reasonably clear except for one guy, with a pronounced central-African accent, whose voice was getting audibly butchered by the noise cancellation algorithm on the line. The beginning of every sentence, and every pause, was punctuated by a sort of wierd, static-and-squarewave tug-of-war with the background noise.

I think it’s some combination of his accent and cadence of his speech, and it was really weird to notice the trend. On reflection, it makes perfect sense – algorithms optimized for the majority, as defined by the people who wrote them, would of course have a cultural impact on people at the margins – it just hadn’t occurred to me how that would work until just now.

So Far


The Swing

Crypto Is Not A Panacea


I was going to write this to an internal mailing list, following this week’s PRISM excitement, but I’ve decided to put it here instead. It was written (and cribbed from other stuff I’ve written elsewhere) in response to an argument that encrypting everything would somehow solve a scary-sounding though imprecisely-specified problem, a claim you may not be surprised to find out I think is foolish.

I’ve written about this elsewhere, so forgive me, but: I think that it’s a profound mistake to assume that crypto is a panacea here.

Backstory time: in 1993, the NSA released SHA, the Secure Hashing Algorithm; you’ve heard of it, I’m sure. Very soon afterwards – months, I think? – they came back and said no, stop, don’t use that. Use SHA-1 instead, here you go.

No explanation, nothing. But nobody else could even begin to make a case either way, so SHA-1 it is.

It’s 2005 before somebody manages to generate one, just one, collision in what’s now called SHA-0, and they do that by taking a theoretical attack that gets you close to a collision, generalizing it and running it for around 80,000 CPU hours or so on a machine with 256 Itanium-2 processors running this one job flat out for two weeks.

That hardware straight up didn’t exist in 1993. That was the year the original Doom came out, for what it’s worth, so it’s very likely that the “significant weakness” they found was found by a person or team of people scribbling on a whiteboard. And, note, they found the weaknesses in that algorithm in the weeks after publication when those holes – or indeed “any holes at all” – would take the public-facing crypto community more than a decade to discover were a theoretical possibility.

Now, wash that tender morsel down with this quote from an article in Wired quoting James Bamford, longtime writer about all things NSA:

“According to another top official also involved with the program, the NSA made an enormous breakthrough several years ago in its ability to cryptanalyze, or break, unfathomably complex encryption systems employed by not only governments around the world but also many average computer users in the US. The upshot, according to this official: “Everybody’s a target; everybody with communication is a target.”

“Many average computer users in the US”? Welp. That’s SSL, then.

So odds are good that what we here in the public and private sectors consider to be strong crypto isn’t much more of an impediment for the NSA than ROT-13. In the public sector AES-128 is considered sufficient for information up to level “secret” only; AES-256 is for “top secret”, and both are part of the NSA’s Suite B series of cryptographic algorithms, outlined here.

Suite A is unlikely to ever see the light of day, not even so much as their names. The important thing that this suggests is that the NSA may internally have a class break for their recommended Series B crypto algorithms, or at least an attack that makes decryption computationally feasible for a small set of people that includes themselves, and indeed for anything weaker, or with known design flaws.

The problem that needs to be addressed here is a policy problem, not a technical one. And that’s actually great news, because if you’re getting into a pure-math-and-computational-power arms race with the NSA, you’re gonna have a bad time.

How Does Anyone Work In These Conditions

A little while ago, the espresso machine in our office broke down. This doomsday scenario is, and I say this without the least bit of hyperbole, the most catastrophically dire situation that can exist in this or any other possible universe. If the intertubes felt slow for you the last few weeks, that’s probably why.

After a while, I started asking a colleague, Sean Martell, to ‘shop up some old war propaganda every few days, to express our dismay.

So, here you go.

We Need Coffee To Survive

It Can Happen Here

We Can Do It

Mercifully it is now fixed, and productivity should normalize in a day or two.

Lightweight Notepad In A Bookmark

So, this is a cute trick that’s been making the rounds:

In Firefox, right-click your bookmarks bar and pick “new bookmark”. Call it “Quick Notepad”, and in the Location box, put:

data:text/html,<html contenteditable>

and now when you click on that bookmark, your browser window will basically become Notepad, a very light text editor. File -> Save works great, too.

Perhaps better, if you check the “Load this bookmark in the sidebar” option, that will give you an nice little way of making notes about a tab, though unfortunately this option isn’t easy to save.




Aww yeah.

All Scrollbars Are Fleeting

“For over a thousand years, Roman conquerors returning from the wars enjoyed the honor of a triumph – a tumultuous parade. In the procession came trumpeters and musicians and strange animals from the conquered territories, together with carts laden with treasure and captured armaments. The conqueror rode in a triumphal chariot, the dazed prisoners walking in chains before him. Sometimes his children, robed in white, stood with him in the chariot, or rode the trace horses. A slave stood behind the conqueror, holding a golden crown, and whispering in his ear a warning: That all glory is fleeting.” – Patton (film)

I wish, just at this second, that the executives at Sony and Microsoft (though not exclusively them, to be sure) each had an employee, assigned personally to them, with a single task.

Their job is this: at any moment, day or night, at the instant that executive is about to begin something, they will decide arbitrarily, according to their whims and utterly without regard for the importance of the situation, to say the words “software update”.

At that point, the executive in question is obligated to simply stop. To be still, and do nothing. Perhaps they can decline – they can simply choose not to do whatever they were about to, knowing they’ll have to pay for this time later regardless – and after a period of time, perhaps five minutes, perhaps an hour, their employee will then simply say “restart”, and they can go on their way.

Over and over again, until they learn.

Raising A Revolution

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

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

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

So much work to do.

No Shirt, No Shoes, No Service

No Wearable Cameras

If you own a public establishment, consider putting one of these near the door.

The keynote file it comes from is right here, under a CC-BY-SA 3.0 license, and you’re welcome to use it as often as you feel is necessary.