Memories And Palaces

Exploring

This is an old memory, dredged out of the cellar by this Metafilter thread about a Sierra game: The Colonel’s Bequest.

Bequest was a charmingly understated member of the “[Subject] Quest” games lineage, largely forgotten I suspect for the sin of being a character-driven mystery with a female protagonist rather than a puzzles-and-princesses nature excursion. Teenage Me remembers enjoying it. Present-day Me does not remember Teenage Me as a paragon of good taste and sound judgement, true, but let’s put that aside for the moment.

When the Colonel’s Bequest came out, a friend and I in high school were very much into the Sierra games, but we got our selves thoroughly stuck on this one. To my memory this would have been during that magical late-in-the-school-year part of spring time when teachers have given up on the curriculum and would rather just show you old movies. My English teacher – a magnificent old crank, in that particular way that English teachers close to retirement can blossom into magnificent old cranks – decided he was going to show us old Vincent Price horror movies, because why not.

One of those he played for us was The House Of Usher, closely based on the similarly-named Poe story. It’s a classic-in-the-classic-sense horror film; an iconic product of it’s time, though that time hasn’t aged spectacularly well. Apparently the US National Film Registry regards it as “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant”, though, and if you get a chance to watch it, dated as it seems, you’ll probably agree.

Until then my only exposure to Price had been “The Hilarous House Of Dr. Frightenstein” on PBS, reruns of Price well into his self-parody phase. Despite the fact that even then I could tell there was a joke going on I wasn’t getting, I could talk about that show at great and unreasonably enthusiastic length – its very possible The Professor had a formative influence on my eight-year-old self – but that is not what I am here to talk about.

What I’m here to talk about it how clearly I can remember that moment when the lights came on and both of us knew that we knew how to win the game. Because the architecture of the mansion and surrounding grounds in Bequest, blowing our tiny teenage minds, was very strongly influenced – straight-up cribbed, in some places – from the architecture of the eponymous House and its grounds in that movie. next time we played the game together we quickly found the hidden doors and switches exactly where they were in the movie, opening the way to the same secret passages; we moved quickly through to the conclusion of the game, and that was it.

I haven’t thought about that moment or that game in 25 years; it surprises me that this newfound ability we have to revisit the specific stimulus of our youth can feel like being ambushed by a choice between nostalgia and introspection. I can remember a few pivotal moments in my life like that, where can remember learning something, making a choice, and knowing that I was different person on the far side of it. There must have been a lot of them. Maybe this is one of them? I’ve had an interest in secret passages and video game architecture for a really long time; I wonder if that’s where it started.

Seems plausible.

Modernity

Modernity

For no particular reason, here’s a picture of a computer with a 1.3Ghz processor, 2 gigabytes of RAM, 32 gigabytes of solid-state internal storage and another 32 gigabytes on a MicroSD card, wifi, bluetooth and HDMI video output plugged into a standard 3.5″ floppy drive that would store 1.44MB, or approximately 0.002% of 64 gigabytes.

When you account for inflation, at the time of purchase the floppy drive was about $20 more expensive.

Switching Sides

Toronto Skyline

I’ve been holding off on a laptop refresh at work for a while, but it’s time. The recent Apple events have been less than compelling; I’ve been saying for a long time that Mozilla needs more people in-house living day to day on Windows machines and talk is cheaper than ever these days, so.

I’m taking notes here of my general impressions as I migrate from a Macbook Pro to a Surface Book and Windows 10.

I’ll add to them as things progress, but for now let’s get started.

  • I don’t think highly of unboxing fetishism, but it’s hard to argue against the basic idea that your very tactile first contact with a product should be a good one. The Surface Book unboxing is a bit rough, but not hugely so; there’s the rare odd mis-step like boxes that are harder than necessary to open or tape that tears the paper off the box.
  • I’ve got the Performance Base on the Surface Pro here; the very slight elevation of the keyboard makes a surprisingly  pleasant difference, and the first-run experience is pretty good too. You can tell Microsoft really, really wants you to accept the defaults, particularly around data being sent back to Microsoft, but you can reasonably navigate that to your comfort level it looks like. Hard to say, obvs.
  • I’m trying to figure out what is a fair assessment of this platform vs. what is me fighting muscle memory. Maybe there’s not a useful distinction to be made there but considering my notable idiosyncrasies I figure I should make the effort. If I’m going to pretend this is going to be useful for anyone but some alternate-universe me, I might as well. This came up in the context of multiple desktops – I use the hell out of OSX multiple desktops, and getting Windows set up to do something similar requires a bit of config twiddling and some relearning.The thing I can’t figure out here is the organizational metaphor. Apple has managed to make four-fingered swiping around multiple desktop feel like I’m pushing stuff around a physical space, but Windows feels like I’m using a set of memorized gestures to navigate a phone tree. This is a preliminary impression, but it feels like I’m going to need to just memorize this stuff.
  • In a multiple desktops setting, the taskbar will only show you the things running in your current desktop, not all of them? So crazymaking. [UPDATE: Josh Turnath in the comments turns out that you can set this right in the “multitasking” settings menu, where you can also turn off the “When I move one window, move other windows” settings which are also crazymaking. Thanks, Josh!]
  • If you’re coming off a Mac trackpad and used to tap-to-click, be sure to set the delay setting to “Short delay” or it feels weird and laggy. Long delay is tap, beat, beat, response; if you move the cursor the action vanishes. That, combined with the fact that it’s not super-great at rejecting unintentional input makes it mostly tolerable but occasionally infuriating, particularly if you’ve got significant muscle memory built up around “put cursor here then move it aside so you can see where you’re typing”, which makes it start selecting text seemingly at random. It’s way  better than any other trackpad I’ve ever used on a PC for sure, so I’ll take it, but still occasionally: aaaaaaargh. You’re probably better just turning tap-to-click off. UPDATE: I had to turn off tap to click, because omgwtf.
  • In this year of our lord two thousand and sixteen you still need to merge in quasi-magic registry keys to remap capslock . If you want mousewheel scrolling to work in the same directions as two-finger scrolling, you need to fire up RegEdit.exe and know the magic incantations. What the hell.
  • It’s surprising how seemingly shallow the Win10 redesign is. The moment you go into the “advanced options” you’re looking at the the same dialogs you’ve known and loved since WinXP. It’s weird how unfinished it feels in places. Taskbar icons fire off on a single click, but you need to flip a checkbox five layers deep in one of those antiquated menus to make desktop icons do the same.  The smorgasbords you get for right-clicking things look like a room full of mismanaged PMs screaming at each other.
  • You also have to do a bunch of antiquated checkbox clickery to install the Unix subsystem too, but complaining about a dated UI when you’re standing up an ersatz Linux box seems like the chocolate-and-peanut-butter of neckbearded hypocrisy, so let’s just agree to not go there. You can get a Linux subsystem on Windows now, which basically means you can have Linux and modern hardware with working power management and graphics drivers at the same time, which is pretty nice.
  • Pairing Apple’s multitouch trackpads with Windows only gets you one- and two-fingered gestures. C’mon. Really?
  • This is a common consensus here, after asking around a bit. Perplexity that Microsoft would put an enormous (and ultimately successful) effort into re-pinning and hardening the foundations underneath the house, recladding it and putting in an amazing kitchen, but on the 2nd floor the hinges on the wrong side of the doors and there’s a stair missing on the way to the basement.
  • I’m not surprised the Windows Store isn’t the go-to installer mechanism yet – that’s true on Macs, too – but my goodness pickings there are pretty slim. Somehow I have to go visit all these dodgy-looking websites to get the basic-utilities stuff sorted out, and it feels like an outreach failure of some kind. This is vaguely related to my next point, that:
  • The selection of what does vs. doesn’t come preinstalled is… strange. I feel like Microsoft has space to do something really interesting here that they’re not capitalizing on for some reason. Antitrust fears? I dunno. I just feel like they could have shipped this with, say, Notepad++ and a few other common utilities preinstalled and made a lot of friends.
  • The breakaway power cables are fantastic. A power brick with fast-charge USB built in and freeing up slots on the machine proper is extremely civilized. You can be sitting with your legs crossed and have the power plugged in, which I sincerely miss being able to do with underpowered 1st-gen Macbook Air chargers back in the mists of prehistory.
  • The Surface Dock is basically perfect. Power, Ethernet, two DisplayPorts and four USB ports over that same breakaway cable is excellent. If you’ve ever used a vintage IBM Thinkpad docking station, this is something you’ve been wishing Apple would make for the better part of a decade.
  • I assumed “Skype Preview” was a preview version of Skype. I wanted (and pay for) the whole thing, so I immediately uninstalled that and installed normal Skype, which it turns out is really outdated-looking and ugly on Win10. I was bewildered about why a premiere Microsoft-owned thing like Skype would look ugly on their flagship OS, so I did some research and discovered that “Skype Preview” isn’t a preview version of Skype. It’s the prettified modern Win10 version. So I reinstalled it and uninstalled Skype. I’m sure this is somehow my fault for not understanding this but in my defense: words mean things.
  • This hardware is really nice. The hinge works great, eject to tablet is crisp and works well, reversing it to the easel setup is both surprisingly good and for-real useful.

Anyway, this is where I am so far. More notes as I think of them.

Update:

  • Definitely turn off the two-finger-tap-to-right-click option – if you don’t and you’ve got fat hands like mine, sometimes it will get into a state where everything is a right-click, which is inexplicable and upsetting.
  • I saw my first tripped-over USB-C cable send a Macbook crashing to the floor today. I suspect it will not be the last.

Further updates:

  • It turns out there’s a (baffling!) option to turn a click on the lower right corner of the trackpad into a right-click, which is just super-weird and infuriating if you don’t know it’s there and (apparently?) turned on by default.
  • The trick to reversing mousewheel scrolling only is here, and involves RegEdit, finding all the instances of FlipFlopWheel in the registry under HKEY_LOCAL_MACHINE\SYSTEM\CurrentControlSet\Enum\HID\ and changing them from 0 to 1. Very user friendly.
  • A lot of network-related stuff in the Unix subsystem doesn’t work right or at all yet, but my understanding is that this is fixed in the Insider builds.
  • A nice as having the Unix subsystem is, the terminal thing you use to get to it is infuriating retro-bizarro DOS-window garbage.  [UPDATE: bwinton has introduced me to Cmder, a console emulator for Windows that is vastly better than the Ubuntu default in every observable respect. Use that instead.]
  • Unexpected but pleasant: CPU in the lid instead of the base means your lap doesn’t overheat.

Further-er updates:

  • A nice touch: searching for common OSX utility names with the taskbar brings you directly to their Windows counterparts, like “grab” brings you to the snippets tool.
  • It’s surprising how often the “how do I do [something]?” links in the Settings dialog box take you to the same undifferentiated and completely un-navigable Windows 10 support page. Really rookie stuff, like they fired the intern responsible three weeks into their placement and just forgot about it.
  • It’s really frustrating how both of those experiences coexist basically everywhere in this OS. Nice, elegantly-deployed and useful touches in some places, arbitrarily broken or ill-considered jank in others.

Further Updates 4: The Furthening;

  • There’s now a Surface Book User Guide, and it’s got some good information in it. For example, fn-del and fn-backspace adjust screen brightness, something I’ve missed from my Macbook. Also, fn-space for screenshots is nice enough, though the provided snipping tool is better (better than OSX Grab, too.)
  • You can use AutoHotKey scripts to remap what pen-clicking does, turning it into a passable presenter’s tool. Which is kind of neat.

Finally, one of the most upsetting things about Windows 10 is how power management just doesn’t reliably work at all. There’s no safe-sleep; running out of battery means state loss, potentially data loss, and a cold reboot. I’ve had to set it to hibernate on a lid closed because sometimes suspend just… doesn’t. Before I did that, I’d put it into my bag with the lid closed and it would mysteriously wake in my backpack, once hot enough that it was uncomfortable to touch. Despite the fact that my unmodified default settings say “critical power level is 6% and the action to take here is hibernate”, I routinely see 4%-power-remaining warnings and then hard shutdowns, and if I’m not careful hard reboots afterwards. Honestly, what the hell.

Last update: Well, this is unfortunate:

IMG_20170207_172319

Minimum Viable Basic Human Decency

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

Pageant Knight

Sunset At The Beach

On September 17th, DC “celebrated” what they called “Batman Day”. I do not deploy scare quotes lightly, so let me get this out of the way: Batman is boring. Batman qua Batman as a hero, as a story and as the center of a narrative framework, all of those choices are pretty terrible. The typical Batman story arc goes something like:

  • Batman is the best at everything. But Gotham, his city, is full of terrible.
  • Batman broods over his city. The city is full of terrible but Batman is a paragon of brooding justice.
  • An enemy of justice is scheming at something. Batman detects the scheme, because he is the World’s Greatest Among Many Other Things Detective and intervenes.
  • Batman is a paragon of brooding justice.
  • Batman’s attempt to intervene fails! Batman may not be the best at everything!
  • Batman broods and/or has a bunch of feelings and/or upgrades one of his widgets.
  • Batman intervenes again, and Batman emerges triumphant! The right kind of punching and/or widgeting makes him the best at everything again.
  • Order is restored to Gotham.
  • Batman is a paragon of brooding justice.

If you’re interested in telling interesting stories Batman is far and away the least interesting thing in Gotham. So I took that opportunity to talk about the Batman story I’d write given the chance. The root inspiration for all this was a bout of protracted synesthesia brought on by discovering this take on Batman from Aaron Diaz, creator of Dresden Codak, at about the same time as I first heard Shriekback’s “Amaryllis In The Sprawl”.

The central thesis is this: if you really want a Gritty, Realistic Batman For The Modern Age, then Gotham isn’t an amped-up New York. It’s an amped-up New Orleans, or some sort of New-Orleans/Baltimore mashup. A city that’s full of life, history, culture, corruption and, thanks to relentlessly-cut tax rates, failing social and physical infrastructure. A New-Orleans/Baltimore metropolis in a coastal version of Brownback’s Kansas, a Gotham where garbage isn’t being collected and basic fire & police services are by and large not happening because tax rates and tax enforcement has been cut to the bone and the city can’t afford to pay its employees.

Bruce Wayne, wealthy philanthropist and Gotham native, is here to help. But this is Bruce Wayne via late-stage Howard Hughes; incredibly rich, isolated, bipolar and delusional, a razor-sharp business mind offset by a crank’s self-inflicted beliefs about nutrition and psychology. In any other circumstances he’d be the harmless high-society crackpot city officials kept at arm’s length if they couldn’t get him committed. But these aren’t any other circumstances: Wayne is far more than just generous, but he wants to burn this candle at both ends by helping the city through the Wayne Foundation by day and in his own very special, very extralegal way, fighting crime dressed in a cowl by night.

And he’s so rich that despite his insistence on dressing up his 55-year-old self in a bat costume and beating people up at night, the city needs that money so badly that to keep his daytime philanthropy flowing, six nights a week a carefully selected group of city employees stage another episode of “Batman, crime fighter”, a gripping Potemkin-noir pageant with a happy ending and a costumed Wayne in the lead role.

Robin – a former Arkham psych-ward nurse, a gifted young woman and close-combat prodigy in Wayne’s eyes – is a part of the show, conscripted by Mayor Cobblepot to keep an eye on Wayne and keep him out of real trouble. Trained up by retired SAS Sgt. Alfred Pennyworth behind Wayne’s back, in long-shuttered facilities beneath Wayne Manor that Wayne knows nothing about, she is ostensibly Batman’s sidekick in his fight against crime. But her real job is to protect Wayne on those rare occasions that he runs into real criminals and tries to intervene. She’s got a long, silenced rifle under that cloak with a strange, wide-mouthed second barrel and a collection of exotic munitions that she uses like a surgical instrument, not only to protect Wayne but more importantly to keep him convinced his fists & gadgets work at all.

She and Harleen Quinzel, another ex-Arkham staffer trained by Alfred, spend most of their days planning strategy. They have the same job; Quinn is the sidekick, shepherd and bodyguard of the former chief medical officer of Arkham. Quinn’s charge is also in his twilight years, succumbing to a manic psychosis accelerated by desperate self-administration of experimental and off-label therapies that aren’t slowing the degeneration of his condition, but sure are making him unpredictable. But he was brilliant once, also a philanthropist – the medical patents he owns are worth millions, bequeathed to Gotham and the patients of Arkham, provided the city care for him in his decline. Sometimes he’s still lucid; the brilliant, compassionate doctor everyone remembers. And other times – mostly at night – he’s somebody else entirely, somebody with a grievance and a dark sense of humor.

So Gotham – this weird, mercenary, vicious, beautiful, destitute Gotham – becomes the backdrop for this nightly pageant of two damaged, failing old men’s game of cat and mouse and the real story we’re following is Robin, Quinn, Alfred and the weird desperation of a city so strapped it has to let them play it out, night after dark, miserable night.

Falsehoods Programmers Believe About Economics

IMG_20160521_152840

Late update: This post has been added to this excellent list of falsehoods programmers believe, and I’m pretty proud of that.

Two similar jokes rolled past me late last week, the first when I mentioned that running a Java program in JVM in a Linux VM in a container on AWS is a very inefficient way of generating waste heat, and that I could save a lot of time and effort by cutting out the middleman and just setting money on fire.

For the second, a friend observed that startups are an extremely inefficient way of transferring wealth from venture capitalists to bay-area landlords; there’s a disruptive opportunity here to shortcut that process and just give venture capital directly to the SoCal rentier class for a nominal service fee. I suggested he call his startup “olygarchr”, or maybe “plutocrysii”; you heard it here first, in two years YCombinator will be obsolete.

With that in mind and in the spirit of the now-classic Falsehoods Programmers Believe About Time and Falsehoods Programmers Believe About Names, I asked for this on Twitter the other day and got some pretty good feedback. But I guess if I want something written up, I’ll be the one writing it up.

I may add some more links to this over the next little while, but for now here you go.

Falsehoods Programmers Believe About Economics

  1. Economics is simple.
  2. Econ-101 is a comprehensive overview of the field.
  3. Economics is morally neutral.
  4. Economics is racially- and gender-neutral.
  5. The efficient markets hypothesis is true.
  6. Classical economics is empirically grounded.
  7. Politics is an entirely unrelated field.
  8. Externalities are the same as inefficiencies.
  9. Pareto efficiency exists.
  10. Information symmetry exists.
  11. People are rational actors.
  12. OK, sure, people, I get it. But I’m a rational actor.
  13. “Rational” to me is the same as “rational” to everyone else.
  14. Rational actors exist at all.
  15. Advertising doesn’t influence or distort markets.
  16. Ok, fine, but advertising doesn’t influence me.
  17. Just-so stories make predictive economic models.
  18. Just-so stories make effective public policy.
  19. Price is an indication of cost.
  20. Price is an indication of value.
  21. The system works for me, therefore the system works for everyone.
  22. Wealth is an indication of worth.

Historical Precedent

Framed

A while back in Architecture For Loners I wrote a bit about a how in-game architecture can fail a video game’s narrative if you’ve got the right eyes, the right incentives and maybe the right jetpack:

The environments, though… if you have the right eyes you can’t help but notice that built-for-a-shooter feeling that pervades the designed landscapes of that franchise. […] whether it’s a forcefield deployed pointlessly in a cave, an otherwise-empty room with one door and twenty or so alien warriors milling around inside waiting to no discernable purpose or an massive structure of dubious architectural merit built by an advanced alien species whose accomplishments include intergalactic teleporters but not doors, you never have a moment to shake off the sense that the world is built entirely around sight lines.

I’ve just come across two great posts about other games I wanted to share with you. The first is about Hidetaka Miyazaki’s “Bloodborne”, called “Understanding the sublime architecture of Bloodborne”:

Like director Hidetaka Miyazaki and company’s previous titles, Demon’s Souls and Dark Souls, Bloodborne involves the player in a sublime romance with pre-industrial European architecture. As broadly as mannerism can be described, then, it makes the most sense to place Bloodborne within this particular European lineage.

To get a grasp on what this means, we need to return to Michelangelo, who was as imaginative an architect as he was anything else, and there’s no better example of mannerist elements at play in his work than the Laurentian Library’s vestibule. At first glance, it may seem like an attractive but unremarkable room: essentially a cube with sparsely decorated walls and a staircase. A closer look reveals a number of oddities.

The second is a translated interview with Maria Elisa Navarro Morales, who was the architectural history consultant for the Ezio Auditore games in the Assassin’s Creed series, set between 1476 and 1503 in the Rome, Florence and Venice of Renaissance Italy:

I would have never imagined that the clothing could be so different between Florence and Venice. To document that I had to base a lot off of the paintings of that time period, studying them in great detail to detect the particular differences. For example, the cities had different laws about the kind of neckline women were allowed to wear. In Venice the laws were more lax, and that’s where the courtesan character shows up. None the less, the noblewomen weren’t allowed to go into the streets uncovered in Venice or in Florence. In Florence the men wore a unique hat, while in Venice they didn’t, etc.

Another thing was the hairstyles, that we studied through artists like Botticelli. For example, the ideal beauty in Venice was the blonde woman, so many women dyed their hair. Apart from those more general types of jobs, there was a questionnaire that the artists could fill out to ask me more specific things. All of that appeared in the game.

Both articles are wonderful and you should read them; if you enjoyed them, you’d probably also enjoy Darran Anderson’s “Imaginary Cities”, about which more later.

Let me take a moment to renew my call for a “tourist mode” in video games; I would pay good DLC money for an assisted-walkthrough mode in games like these, that took the time to talk in depth about the why, how, and historical background of their construction and design.

The Planet Is Safe For Now

This is a followup to this post – The Future Of The Planet – where I said we had four choices about what to do next:

  1. Do nothing; leave Planet as is.
  2. Improve Planet as a Planet.
  3. Replace Planet with something better suited to Mozilla’s needs.
  4. Replace Planet with nothing.

To give away the punchline, we’re going with option two.

I reviewed all the feedback from various places that post ended up – the Mozilla Community discourse forums, HackerNews, Reddit, my inbox, a handful of others – and was delighted to find that it was was generally positive and spoke to Planet’s ongoing relevance. The suggestions for improving the situation were also generally good and helpful, and even the person who accused me of planning to destroy Planet just so that I could put something on my CV that made me sound like a supervillain was worth a laugh.

In broad terms, that feedback was:

  • Planet is the best tool available for getting an overall sense of what all the different parts of Mozilla-the-global-community are up to, and there doesn’t seem to be anything more effective waiting in the wings. Virtually all Mozilla-related news sites or discussion forums are downstream of Planet aggregation in some way.
  • The signal to noise ratio is good enough. Constant vigilance, sure, but good enough.
  • Participatory but also low-effort and easy to skim is a nice combination, and makes it a good tool for an important job. However,
  • Accessing Planet – both as a participant and a consumer – is harder than it has to be in a number of ways. There’s room for improvement, and often new teams or projects feeds’ are overlooked.

With that in mind, I think we can do the following things in no particular order to improve Planet as both a tool and an experience.

  • The most common request was from people who’d rather have Planet show up in their inbox than open another app, so create an email-digest option for people who live in their inboxes.
  • Make a Bugzilla form for adding feeds.
  • Update the page style(s) to something modern and responsive that works well on mobile. Being able to pin more important posts to the top of these pages without disturbing the feeds would be a very nice feature to have.
  • Anoint a feed reader as Planet Mozilla’s reader of choice and point to it from the Planet homepage (along with information like “what is a feed” and “why do I need a reader”, because RSS usability is at an all time exactly where it’s always been.)
  • Possibly do the same for a comments forum? I’m open to suggestions, but it looks like Reddit is where most of that action happens these days. I’m definitely not building a new one.
  • Since new Mozilla projects and feeds pop up periodically, somebody needs to be more disciplined about getting the internal-comms part right. Mozilla team and project feeds should all be syndicated as a matter of course. Call me vain if you like, but I’m pretty confident the “somebody” they’re talking about here is me.

Some of these are more work than others, but I’ll open bugs for the ones that need them the next little while.

Thanks for your feedback, everyone.

Brought To You By The Letter U

Being a global organization, Mozilla employees periodically send out all-hands emails notifying people of upcoming regional holidays. With Labour Day coming up in Canada, this was my contribution to the cause:

The short version: Monday is Labour Day, a national holiday in Canada – expect Canadian offices to be closed and our Canadian colleagues to be either slow to respond or completely unresponsive, depending on how much fun they’ve had.

The longer version:

On Monday, Canadians will be celebrating Labour Day by not labouring; as many of you know, this is one of Canada’s National Contradictions, one of only two to appear on a calendar*.

Canada’s labour day has its origin in the Toronto Typographical Union’s strike for a 58-hour work-week in 1872, brought on by the demands of the British government for large quantities of the letter U. At the time, Us were aggressively recirculated to the British colonies to defend Imperial syntactic borders and maintain grammatical separation between British and American English. In fact, British grammarian propaganda from this period is the origin of the phrase “Us and Them”.

At the time, Canadian Us were widely recognized as the highest quality Us available, but the hard labour of the vowel miners and the artisans whose skill and patience made the Canadian Us the envy of western serifs is largely lost to history; few people today realize that “usability” once described something that would suffice in the absence of an authentic Canadian U.

Imperial demands placed on Union members at the time were severe. Indeed, in the weeks leading up to the 1872 strike the TTU twice had to surrender their private Us to make the imperial quota, and were known as the Toronto Typographical Onion in the weeks leading up to the strike. While success of the Onion’s strike dramatically improved working conditions for Canadian labourers, this was the beginning of a dramatic global U shortage; from 1873 until the late early 1900s, global demand for Us outstripped supply, and most Us had been refurbished and reused many times over; “see U around” was a common turn of phrase describing this difficult time.

Early attempts at meeting the high demand for U were only somewhat successful. In the 1940s the British “v for victory” campaign was only partially successful in addressing British syntactic shortages that were exacerbated by extensive shipping losses due to sunken U-boats. The Swedish invention of the umlaut – “u” meaning “u” and “mlaut” meaning “kinda” – intended to paper over the problem, was likewise unsuccessful. It wasn’t until the electronic typography of the late seventies that U demand could easily be fulfilled and words like Ubiquity could be typed casually, without the sense of “overuse” that had plagued authors for most of a century.

Despite a turnaround that lexical economists refer to as “The Great U-Turn”, the damage was done. Regardless of their long status as allies the syntactic gap between American and British Englishes was a bridge too far; anticipated American demand for Us never materialized, and American English remains unusual to this day.

Today, Labour Day is effectively a day Canada spends to manage, and indeed revel in the fact, that there are a lot of Us; travellers at this time of year will remark on the number of U-Hauls on the road, carting Us around the country in celebration. This is all to say that we’ll be celebrating our labour heritage this upcoming Monday. Canadians everywhere may be seen duing any number of thungs to commumurate this uccasiun: swumming, canuing, guardening, vusuting neighbours, and spunding tume at the couttage

Thunk you, und see you all un Tuesday.

– mhuye

* – The other being the Spring National Resignation, where Canadians repeatedly declare Hockey their national sport while secretly enjoying watching the Leafs choke away another promising start.

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.

 [ https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=joMK1WZjP7g ]

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.

[ https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=obSOaKTMLIc ]

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.