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.

It’s Not Just For Lolcats

So, this is pretty awesome.

How does Wells Fargo secure your communications channel?

With animated gifs.

Ladies and gentlemen, Wells Fargo’s security. And, not to put to fine a point on it, their opinion of how trivially gulled their clients are.

Are you a client of Wells Fargo?

I’m just asking.

Narrative Paralysis

Yesterday on the subway I watched a man write “KEY INSIGHTS” at the top of a page in his Moleskine, and then just stare at the page unmoving for the next six stops. He hadn’t budged when I stepped off to switch trains; I have to admit that as the minutes ticked by, I struggled not to start laughing right there. “ZOMG Thought Leadership Liek Woah”, I was thinking.

This morning I realized I’d been staring at an email window with a “To:” line, a title, and a cursor blinking away in an otherwise empty editor for at least five minutes, maybe more.

Sorry, key-insights-on-the-subway-guy. The inside of my head could have been a little more sympathetic, it turns out.

That’s Too Much Machine For You

Keep This Area Clear

Man, how awful is it to see people broken by the realization that they are no longer young. Why are you being cantankerous, newly-old person? It’s totally OK not to be 17 or 23, things are still amazing! Kids are having fun! You may not really understand it, but just roll with it! The stuff you liked when you were 17 isn’t diminished by your creeping up on 40!

This has been making the rounds, a lazy, disappointing article from Wired about the things we supposedly “learned about hacking” from the 1995 almost-classic, Hackers. It’s a pretty unoriginal softball of an article, going for a few easy smirks by cherrypicking some characters’ sillier idiosyncrasies while making the author sound like his birthday landed on him like a cartoon piano.

We need a word for this whole genre of writing, where the author tries far too hard to convince you of his respectable-grownup-hood by burning down his youth. It’s hard to believe that in fifteen years the cycle won’t repeat itself, with this article being the one on the pyre; you can almost smell the smoke already, the odor of burning Brut and secret regrets.

The saddest part of the article, really, is how much it ignores. Which is to say: just about everything else. There’s plenty of meat to chew on there, so I don’t really understand why; presumably it has something to do with deadlines or clickthroughs or word-counts or column inches or something, whatever magic words the writers at Wired burble as they pantomime their editor’s demands and sob into their dwindling Zima stockpile.

I’ve got quite a soft spot in my heart and possibly also my brain for this movie, in part because it is flat-out amazing how many things Hackers got exactly right:

  • Most of the work involves sitting in immobile concentration, staring at a screen for hours trying to understand what’s going on? Check.
  • It’s usually an inside job from a disgruntled employee? Check.
  • A bunch of kids who don’t really understand how severe the consequences of what they’re up to can be, in it for kicks? Check.
  • Grepping otherwise-garbage swapfiles for security-sensitive information? Almost 20 years later most people still don’t get why that one’s a check, but my goodness: check.
  • Social-engineering for that one piece of information you can’t get otherwise, it works like a charm? Check.
  • Using your computer to watch a TV show you wouldn’t otherwise be able to? Golly, that sounds familiar.
  • Dumpster-diving for source printouts? I suspect that for most of my audience “line printers” fit in the same mental bucket as “coelecanth”, and printing anything at all, much less code, seems kind of silly and weird by now, so you’ll just have to take my word for it when I say: very much so, check.
  • A computer virus that can affect industrial control systems, causing a critical malfunction? I wonder where I’ve heard that recently.
  • Abusive prosecutorial overreach, right from the opening scene? You’d better believe, check.

So if you haven’t seen it, Hackers is a remarkable artefact of its time. It’s hardly perfect; the dialog is uneven, the invented slang aged as well as invented-slang always does. Moore’s Law has made anything with a number on the side look kind of quaint, and there’s plenty of that horrible neon-cars-on-neon-highways that directors seem to fall back on when they need to show you what the inside of a computer is doing. But really: Look at that list. Look at it.

For all its flaws, sure, Hackers may not be something you’d hold aloft as a classic. But it’s good fun and it gets an awful lot more right than wrong, and that’s not nothing.

Majora’s Mask

Bricks

I’ve been thinking a lot about Majora’s Mask recently, and as usual the best way for me to get something out of my head is to blog about it. I suspect this is going to turn into one of those awkward, poorly-disguised confessionals that says more about inside of my head than to anything in the actual game, but at least I’ve warned you up-front about that, so let’s proceed.

I’m going to start into it with Maya, I think, once she I are done with Windwaker (HD remake coming soon!). But mostly I’ve been thinking about it in terms of its thematic structure, story arc and use of space in its various environments; it resonates with me as a sysadmin and a parent, so let me tell you about it.

For my money Majora’s Mask is one of the darkest and most fascinating video games ever made, rewarding a great deal of introspection and careful deconstruction. It’s far and away the darkest Zelda game, if it actually counts as one, and perhaps one of the most darkly introspective games ever made. Certainly one the most underrated; you get to be a epic hero in lots of games, sometimes you even play an antihero in games that are trying way too hard to be “dark” and “gritty”, but I can’t think of another game where your role is to be the hero of an anti-epic.

It’s hard to say exactly what I mean by that, but bear with me.

Uniquely of any quest-RPGs I know, the game runs on a pauseless three day cycle. The inexorable passage of time is a core element of the gameplay, and unless you can figure out what to do in 72 hours a demonically-possessed moon is going to crash into Clocktown, the doomed city at the center of Termina. And while you can reset the clock you also reset virtually all of your progress, restarting without much more than what you’ve learned from the last time.

As game mechanics go, it’s surprisingly intense.

But every facet of Majora’s Mask – gameplay, narrative arcs, hidden secrets and overarching themes, all of it – is The Ocarina Of Time seen through a dark mirror. The anchors of the traditional Legend Of Zelda narrative, the Princess, Ganon and the Triforce, don’t even put in an appearance; the primary antagonist of Majora’s Mask is an angry Skull Kid, a minor character you crossed briefly in Ocarina. Lashing out from a sense of abandonment, the Skull Kid is enabled by a powerful artefact he’s stolen but doesn’t understand; this isn’t a powerful arch-villain with designs for world domination, it’s a child who’s found a gun.

And you’re not the Hero Of Time, on a quest to rescue the princess and cast down the evil facing the land. In fact, you’re not a hero at all; you spend the entire game hidden behind the masks of the people you’re trying to help. Nobody knows who you are or why you’re important, and even when you’ve managed to help them, well, next time you reset that clock they won’t remember you at all.

And their problems you have to set out to solve aren’t huge, world-rescuing problems. They’re by and large just messed-up relationships; people with bad communication, bad timing or bad luck. The broken-down relationship between the Skull Kid and the Giants – pillars of the world in Termina, where Hyrule’s three Goddesses are notably absent – is the big one driving the game’s central crisis, but all the core quests follows the same broad motif. There’s some screwed up family situation, generally with a lost or absent mother-figure, that Link has to put right. And he has to do it not by being an epic hero himself, but by wearing the death-mask of the real hero who should be there, but for whatever reason is not.

Virtually all the side quests are like that too; very few monsters or fetchquests, almost all about you needing to show up in the right place at the right time and talk to somebody and be the person that small moment needed. Unlike Ocarina’s Hyrule where everything revolves around you, you quickly get the sense that nothing in Termina does. You just happen to the only person there with the power to set things right. In Hyrule, people will remember you as a legend; in Termina nobody will ever really even realize you were there.

Day to day events aren’t driven by your arrival either – very much like real life, you have to figure out where you need to be and show up on time or the day just moves on. And the ending reflects that – no music, no fanfare, you’re told you’re done and should go away now and you do, to no more reward than a single whispered “Thank you…” you don’t even hear. Everyone else in Clocktown goes on to see the fourth day, celebrating the town’s festival without you.

In fact, that’s Majora’s Mask in a nutshell. Why did you do any of that? There’s none of the epic heroism forced on you by the world in Ocarina here, only the obligations of a duty you’ve imposed on yourself. You spend a lot of time just wandering around, talking to people and trying to figure out how things work and where you need to be, just so you can show up on time and do what needs doing. Not for any fanfare or reward or even thanks, but because you can help, and you’re the only person who can.

And the fundamentally tragic nature of this isn’t really driven home until later in the series: in Ocarina we’re told that a creature called a Stalfos is the skeleton of a traveler who loses their way in the Kokiri’s Lost Woods, the same woods that Link returns to at the end of Majora’s Mask. The game opens with Link on a personal quest to find his friend Navi, lost at the end of Ocarina; it’s not immediately apparent until you’ve put those things together, but the Hero’s Spirit from Twilight Princess – the armored Stalfos who teaches the Hero of Twilight how to fight – is the remains of the now-lost Hero Of Time, who never finds his friend.

I can’t think of any other game like it. I can’t think of a game that’s even tried, really; you can make a decent argument that other games have been extremely Zelda-like vis-a-vis the more traditional Zelda structure – Arkham City comes to mind, though there are others – I can’t think of another pseudo-epic built around small, human misunderstandings. I’d love to see it redone here in our glorious high-definition modernity; this incredible fan-made footage (Made by Pablo Belmonte) gives you an idea of what it could look like:

I’ve always preferred my heroism untainted by the heroic, if that makes any sense. The next Zelda, on the WiiU, is reportedly going to be reconsidering many of the tropes of the Zelda series to build an entirely new kind of Zelda.

Here’s hoping.

Baking Bacon

You need a Silpat nonstick cooking mat, a baking tray, an oven and tongs. Turn the oven up to 400, but you don’t need to let it finish preheating; this starts from cold. Silpat goes on the tray, bacon goes on the Silpat and it all goes in the oven for 20 to 25 minutes.

No other interaction, no stirring, no splatter, no mess. Pull out the tray when it’s as crispy as you like; I prefer crispy bacon so I aim for the 25 minute mark, but there’s room for debate here. Pick the bacon up and shake off any excess fat, plate your evenly cooked, perfect-all-the-way-across bacon, done. Cleanup is incredibly easy, just pour the grease out and rinse the Silpat and tray with hot water.

This has really revolutionized my bacon-having experience. You should try it.

Memetic Diversity

On my subway ride home last night two elderly Chinese ladies were sitting across from me having an animated conversation I couldn’t understand a word of, when one of them suddenly ended a sentence with “… like a boss.”

The conversation paused, as the other just lifted her eyebrows and nodded appreciatively.

The moment passed; they started back into it, and I stepped off the train shortly afterwards.

It was beautiful, truly.

Besides The Photo And The Memory

After explaining the death of a neighbor’s cat to Maya, every conversation we have can now get incredibly heavy without the least bit of advance warning.

“Dad, I want eggs for breakfast.”
“Ok, Maya, how do you ask for things?”
“Please can I have eggs for breakfast please?”
“Sure. We can make scrambled eggs.”
“Ok. Dad, are you going to die?”
“Eventually. Hopefully not soon, but eventually everyone dies. That’s why we have to be kind to each other with the time we have.”
“Can I have ketchup?”
“Maya.”
“Please can I have ketchup with breakfast please please?”
“Certainly.”
“Is mom going to die?”

It’s honestly like having a cartoon piano land on your mood four times a day.