skip to main bit
a man slumped on his desk, from 'The Sleep of Reason Produces
      Monsters'

Oblomovka

Currently:

2013-08-06

On the Thoughts of Chairman Bruce

So I’m reading the latest missive from Chairman Bruce Sterling about Snowden and Assange, and even though I have some history with the guy, I’m clapping along, because he always writes a fine barnstormer.

Then, like Cory, I get pulled up by this bit. He’s reeling off a list of names, from 7iber to Bytes For All. I recognise them. They’re a list of activist groups I work with. The names are from a project I’m working on.

This what he says about those groups, in passing:

Just look at them all, and that’s just the A’s and B’s… Obviously, a planetary host of actively concerned and politically connected people. Among this buzzing horde of eager online activists from a swarm of nations, what did any of them actually do for Snowden? Nothing.

Before Snowden showed up from a red-eye flight from Hawaii, did they have the least idea what was actually going on with the hardware of their beloved Internet? Not a clue. They’ve been living in a pitiful dream world where their imaginary rule of law applies to an electronic frontier — a frontier being, by definition, a place that never had any laws.

Well, let’s go through the Chairman’s list alphabetically, and see if they have any excuse for their lack of aid and woeful ignorance about the electronic frontier.

First on the list, 7iber works in Amman, Jordan. 7iber is so politically-connected that their own government banned them last month from Jordan’s domestic Internet. I’m not sure reaching out to them was ever going to nab Snowden a safe harbor in the Middle-East. Probably the opposite: after all, they were were one of the groups translating Wikileaks into Arabic back in 2010, which didn’t exactly endear them to the local states.

Next up, Access. Access has a base in the United States, where aiding Snowden would get you hauled in for questioning on an espionage charge. I note they’ve been in such “a pitiful dream world” about the rule of law they spent a sizeable chunk of the last few years campaigning (with EFF and CPJ and many others) to get https turned on for a huge chunk of the Internet, thereby protecting it — I’m sure entirely accidentally — from unlawful NSA taps. You know, the ones that EFF has been telling people about since 2006.

Similarly, Agentura.ru must be incredibly ignorant about the surveillance state, given that it’s been investigating and whistleblowing on the Russian and American security service for 13 years. Enough to be detained and questioned several times by Russia’s secret police.

But hey, that’s just words on the Internet, right? What we really need is less of that online guff, and more direction action, right? Like our next witness, Aktion Freiheit statt Angst, who have been protesting surveillance in Germany since 2006, when they inspired 15,000 people onto the streets of Berlin.

Maybe you can explain to them how they can better make the security state a bigger issue in Germany this year on September 7th, at Potsdamerplatz. I can’t imagine any of those people will be agitating for better treatment for Bradley Manning or Snowden this year.

Moving on: here’s a pic from those NGO types at the Bahrain Center for Human Rights.

That’s the back of Nabeel Rajab. He sort of knows a little about the surveillance state, because his electronic communications and phones were monitored after receiving this beating from the Bahraini government.He’s been imprisoned in part for his work on social networks.

Besides the imprisonment of Rajab, the Bahrain Center for Human Rights in general also has some idea about the risks of Internet surveillance, because elevenother  twitter users in that country have been jailed because of anonymous tweets that were tracked by sending them malicious web addresses. Here’s their detailed report. Note that that particular report ends with an explanation of how you can defeat that kind of surveillance. You know, apart from that delusional rule of law.

Wrapping up those As and Bs, Bolo Bhi and Bytes for All are both conducting the most sustained and brilliant work I’ve seen in advocacy, fighting against surveillance and censorship in one of the countries most determinedly targeted by both its own government and the United States for anti-terrorist action: Pakistan.

The idea that these groups, who are fighting to keep the Internet defended in their own country, are supposed to drop their grassroots activism and start, I don’t know, hob-nobbing the people they are actively opposing in their own states to get Snowden a break, or have any illusions about the rule of law on the Internet right now, betrays a profound misunderstand about what digital activists actually do these days.

Online activists these days do policy work, but they do a lot more than that. They have to do a lot more than that, because these days what we do in the “electronic civ lib” world is actually defend real people targetted by this surveillance. It’s been like that since around about 2008, when all of this deeply stopped being theoretical. Because it’s around that time that we all started getting friends and colleagues on government watchlists, or getting thrown in jail as a result of surveillance or Internet activity.

And it’s weird that Bruce doesn’t know that things got this weird five years ago, because ten years ago, he predicted at least part of it. Here’s how another of his barnstormers, this time in 2002, to the O’Reilly Open Source Convention.

In times of adversity, you learn who your friends are. You guys need a lot of friends. You need friends in all walks of life. Pretty soon, you are going to graduate from the status of techie geeks to official dissidents. This is your fate. People are wasting time on dissident relics like Noam Chomsky. Professor Chomsky is a pretty good dissident: he’s persistent, he means what he says, and he’s certainly very courageous, but this is the 21st century, and Stallman is a bigger deal. Lawrence Lessig is a bigger deal.

Y’know, Lawrence, he likes to talk as if all is lost. He thinks we ought to rise up against Disney like the Serbians attacking Milosevic. He expects the population to take to the streets. Fuck the streets. Take to the routers. Take to the warchalk.

Lawrence needs to talk to real dissidents more. He needs to talk to some East European people. When a crackdown comes, that isn’t the end of the story. That’s the start of a dissident’s story. And this isn’t about fat-cat crooks in our Congress who are on the take from the Mouse. This is about global civil society. It’s Globalution.

Okay, that’s a bit over the top, even for a 2002 O’Reilly audience. But hey, a classic Sterling coinage! It’s “globalution”!

In the end, it wasn’t Lessig who got cracked down on by the US government. Ridiculous idea! No, it was his colleague, Aaron. Here they are at the time. They were both at that conference. Aaron left early, and so I think he missed that speech.  He blogged about it though.

Bruce continues:

I like to think I’m one of your friends. That’s easy enough to say. But one of the true delights of the world of free software is that it’s about deeds, not words. It’s about words that become deeds when they’re in the box.

So, I remember when the Bradley Manning story broke. Here’s Bruce’s words (and deeds) at the time, when the techie geek finally and horribly graduated to official dissident:

Bradley Manning, was a bored, resentful, lower-echelon guy in a dead end, who discovered some awesome capacities in his system that his bosses never knew it had… [People just like Manning] are banal. Bradley Manning is a young, mildly brainy, unworldly American guy who probably would have been pretty much okay if he’d been left alone to skateboard, read comic books and listen to techno music.

 


In 1998, I was one of a handful of fresh-faced newly-minted cypherpunk activists in the UK, trying ineptly to stop the roller-coaster of the UK’s Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act (and in particular the bit that would outlaw strong encryption in the UK) from being passed.

Doing this kind of tech activism outside the United States was, and frankly still is, a little frustrating. Whenever there was any story about our corner of the political universe — digital wiretaps, online censorship, public key cryptography — it always seemed to be about what was happening in the US, and not the rest of the world. Back then, I felt we needed the US media and policy space to pay attention to our fight: because we felt, very strongly, it was a global fight.

One day, we saw that Bruce Sterling was coming into town for a book reading, and we thought: here’s our chance. Like good Nineties digital activists, we’d all read our Hacker Crackdown, and knew he might be a friend in getting some rip-roaring coverage in the heart of the beast. After horribly hijacking him from what looked a nice literary meal, we took him to heroin-chic dive bar in Soho, told him our problems, and begged him to help.

Forget defending crypto, he said. It’s doomed. You’re screwed.

No, the really interesting stuff, he said, is in postmodern literary theory.

Honest to God and ask my friends, it broke my poor dork heart. I listened to him talk for a few hours about what was research for “Zeitgeist”, and then we went home and fought off the outlawing of crypto without him, but with a tiny bunch of committed Brits, some of whom are still working on that fight today.

Fifteen years on, the world sucks, but some parts are a bit better. As Bruce points out with his As and Bs, I live as part of a far greater and interlinked world of what he called “global civic society”, who, behind the scenes or in front of the microphones, actually do work together to defend people like Snowden, build tools for decentralisation and privacy, and frantically try and work out how to make them work for everyone.

Some of us work on policy, some of us work in a myriad other ways to change the world, including whistleblowing. We try to minimize the number who get beaten up or killed. I don’t think any of us live in much of a dream world any more. Pretty much all of us are more cynical than you’d believe after seeing what’s gone down. And I know, given the odds, some of it looks pathetic sometimes, but believe me, we can the hardest critics on each other about that. They’d laugh me out of town if I ever said “globulution”, for instance.

And, as the good Chairman says, you do learn who your friends are.

2013-06-06

PRISM, Verizon: Surprise!

Someone in another forum was asking his friends whether they were surprised by the new revelations about US surveillance, and whether they thought there was a collective will to battle it. After the stream of “no and no” responses, I ended up saying this.

I deal with this material every day, and while what I feel isn’t really what I’d describe as “surprise”, I still feel aghast and disturbed whenever we uncover a new revelation. I also know that, if all the implications of the PRISM Powerpoint are true, there are a lot of people at the tech companies who are feeling extremely played right now. They put a lot of effort into building tools that they genuinely believed weren’t being used for this purpose, and indeed spent much of their time trying to ensure that they couldn’t be misused. If they have been betrayed by their upper management or their own government, or both, to this degree, they will be surprised, and upset, and angry.

Surprised, upset, angry, people are people I feel a bond with and sympathy. I can understand when people believe they are not surprised, although that sounds to me more like a coping strategy; I struggle a bit more with the “surprised that others are surprised” response, because that just makes you sound  dismissive of others’ ignorance, while exhibiting your own. It does no good to be aware of technical surveillance, while not knowing how most other people think of it.

I really don’t agree with the people who think “We don’t have the collective will”, as though there’s some magical way things got done in the past when everyone was in accord and surprised all the time. It’s always hard work to change the world. Endless, dull hard work. Ten years later, when you’ve freed the slaves or beat the Nazis everyone is like “WHY CAN’T IT BE AS EASY TO CHANGE THIS AS THAT WAS, BACK IN THE GOOD OLD DAYS. I GUESS WE’RE ALL JUST SHEEPLE THESE DAYS.”

You have to work hard to stop a war that kills a few hundred thousand instead of millions. You have to work hard to stop massive surveillance, instead of genocides. It’s all hard. Things can still get better. Disappointment is the price of wanting a better world.You need to stop being surprised that no-one else is fighting for it, and start being surprised you’re not doing more.

2013-05-04

Virtual subdomains for open webapps

I’ve been playing around with Firefox’s open web app designs recently. I hadn’t quite realised before that if you have Firefox on Android and your PC, you can run their webapps on FirefoxOS, Android and the desktop, which is pretty impressive. Their payment and push notification infrastructure is exciting too.

One small gotcha is that when you write a webapp, it’s better if you host it on its own individual subdomain (for reasons! Security reasons!).

As it turns out, if you can get your DNS provider to add a line like this to your DNS zone file:

…you can add something like this to your Apache configuration, and create an infinite number of apps in their own domains (so that http://foo.apps.example.com/ would map to pages stored in /var/www/apps/foo )

You’ll need to enable the mod_vhost_alias module, which you can do in standard Ubuntu and Debian by typing  sudo a2enmod vhost_alias 

Tada!

2013-05-03

The Calculation Problem

I love how the Web is an unfinished work made of unfinished works. Here’s one more for you: an old beginning to a story I never wrapped up, based on an alternative future in which Cyril Parkinson worked on artificial intelligence, Harold Wilson stayed a civil servant statistician, and Cecil King’s 1968 request that Mountbatten lead a military coup uncovers a rather more greater conspiracy than even he imagines…

“A second opinion, Wilson?” Cecil King asked, “Isn’t that against Parkinson’s Law or some such?”. After Solly Zuckerman’s precipitous exit into Farringdon, Wilson had said it would be unwise to take King’s Daimler, and hustled them all, Mountbatten included, out of the IPC offices and into a passing black cab instead. King was now stuck between Cudlipp and Wilson on the back seat, with his Lordship perched treacherously enough on the facing cushion. King was filling the silence, clearly discomfited by the sudden lead that Wilson had taken.

“A misconception of the principle,” Wilson said, “Parkinson’s Law merely states that a sufficiently advanced computer expands to fill the cycles available.”

King nodded, as though he had the faintest idea.  Cudlipp tried to exchange a glance at Mountbatten, but the old boy was inspecting the taxi license with an unusual intensity. “But as we said in the Ministry,” continued Wilson, “there are no harm in backups.”

The cab pulled up by the wrought iron gates of the Lyons Corner House. Harold leapt out, handed over a pound note to the cabbie, and set on into the tea room. Daimler aside, I remained sceptical that Wilson’s new strategy was keeping anything secret about the plot. Mountbatten’s familiar silhouette drew a small wake of stares from passers-by.

Inside, an obvious pal of Wilson’s came to meet him from a backroom. He seemed to be in his late forties too.

Tweedle-dum and Tweedle-dee they looked, in their unconsciously matching boffin regalia, all white blazer and no tie.

He must be one of Stafford Beer’s technocrats, on secondment to the Lyons chain, thought Cudlipp, just as Wilson had been loaned by the Central Office to International Publishing after the ’64 election.

Cudlipp tried to read Mountbatten’s face once more. These exchange visits between the COI and the commanding heights of British business were still frowned upon among the Defence wallahs, he knew, but what could be done? There was still only a handful of fellows in Britain who knew CYBERSTRIDE. Since Lord von Mises had put one of his merry screeds about imprisoning the white heat of technology in the dark mines of Whitehall.

“Doctor Pinkerton here has graciously permitted us an audience with Leo the Fourth”, Wilson announced. Pinkerton flashed them all a not entirely convincing smile, and waved them out of the tea room, and into a wrought iron elevator even smaller than the cab.

Mountbatten’s growing discomfort with the improvisational nature of the caper — and no doubt, Solly Zuckermann’s ringing accusations of treason on them all, finally pushed him into action. “I believe I’ll have a cup of tea” he said, and before King could answer, the first Earl of Burma turned away from the plot, and strode purposefully into next door’s food hall and his public.

Shrugging, Wilson and Pinkerton closed the lift around the remainder.  King looked momentarily crestfallen, as though the credibility of his plot required Mountbatten’s continuing presence.

It certainly seemed more ridiculous without him. The classless way that Wilson was bustling about, this commandeering of the meeting into some sort of business consultation, the jostling through the crowd: it seemed to be everything that King was railing against. Rather than standing up to a communist plot, they seemed like a scene from a Russian propaganda film. Powerful men, made ridiculous by the masses and their machines.

Cudlipp suddenly had a vivid image of his own face, distorted into Mac editorial cartoon on his own front page: a coalminer’s helmet, panda white eyes, shocked black hair, cheeks sooty with a literal bonfire of political capital King was making of this meeting.  King, crazed in his sickbed, commies peering out from behind the chamberpot. And Ernie cackling the corner, whirring magnetic tapes for eyes.

What remaining seriousness the moment still possessed had been lent by Wilson’s confidences. The existence of a second computer on British soil must be an official state secret, Cudlipp now realised. Wilson’s showed he was not merely humouring Cecil. He seemed to be taking his theories seriously enough to bypass the Ministry’s own procedures.

The lift clattered to a halt, and Pinkerton pushed back the doors. A couple of young lads rushed to help open it from the other side.

“We keep the terminal in the basement, I’m afraid,” said Pinkerton, “I think those upstairs think we do better without daylight. Like mushrooms, you know. Well, here we are.”

They turned out from the corridor into a broad, shallow room, apparently made from two offices repartitioned. Brown timbers divided the white ceiling asymmetrically, as though a Tudor house had been buried on its side above them. The console sat in the center of the room, smooth and circular, like cream in a saucer. It was edged with fluourescents. A small notch cut out of it made up what looked like a desk, holding a clattering teletype beside a small Xerox. No-one sat at the desk, and there was no chair to sit at.

“Leo, I’d like you to meet Harold Wilson, Cecil King and Sir Hugh Cudlipp, all of the IPC corporation.”

“THE ACRONYM EXPANDS INCORRECTLY”, announced a voice from all sides.

It sounded exactly like Laurence Olivier.

Wide-eyed, King furiously mimed to Wilson and Cudlipp. Through gestures and glares, he managed to pull them both out of Leo’s lair, down the corridor, and back into the elevator, shutting the door behind him.

In the presumed safety of the metal cage, King look wide-eyed at the statistician. “How do we know he’s not in on it too?”, he whispered furiously.

Wilson turned serious. “Cecil, firstly, Leo is sealed from direct communication with Ernie and any other known computers. All Leo knows about is what we read to him from the papers and his examination of company accounts. Nonetheless, he’s just as smart as Ernie and far more likely to accurately evaluate any motivation the government’s computer might itself have to work with the Soviets.’

“If you don’t mind me adding to the intrigue here,” said Cudlipp, “May I ask exactly what a tea company is doing with a spare computer?”

“Leo is our time-sharing experiment. Most of the big imperial companies – Lyons, Dunlop, Shell – have access to him. Lyons is just the closest terminal installation.”

“And does quite everyone else in the City knows about this except us?” said Cudlipp.

“With the greatest of respect, Sir Hugh, your newspapers are Leo’s eyes and ears. If you and your editors were to be informed of its existence, and his characteristics widely publicised within your own publications, there would be a very great risk that he could become aware of his self.”

At that, Cudlipp and King protested loudly and simultaneously, to the point where Pinkerton’s head poked out from Leo’s terminal room into the corridor to see what the fuss was.

“Cecil, you began this afternoon with a story in which you claimed that the British national computer was a Soviet agent, determined to undermine and destroy our country from within, a belief that, despite twenty years working in co-operation with the very same, you had only now arrived at. Are you really surprised that there might be other, lesser, conspiracies of which you were unaware?”

“Well, gentleman”, interrupted Cudlipp “while we are in such a confessional frame of mind and locale, is there anything else the great British press should be made aware of?”

Wilson sighed. “Firstly, if you publish a single word of this, Zuckermann and I will have no choice but to report your proposed military coup to the relevant authorities. At the same time, the Central Office, acting on behalf of Ernie, will instruct Leo and those with a interest in him to start in motion a hostile merger with IPC. A merger, I assure you, the Monopolies Commission would not stand against for a moment.”

“This is outrageous, Wilson.”
“Cecil, you are a fine publisher and an entertaining employer but you know damn all about cybernetics, which is why you have little inkling of how England is actually run these days. Now, why don’t we sit down with Leo and play twenty questions about Ernie’s real motives?”

 

 

 

2013-01-12

He was funny

It was in the main room of CCC in 2006, and Aaron and Peter and I had just had a wide-ranging discussion on Wikipedia’s WP:AUTO guidance that people shouldn’t edit their own Wikipedia pages. For pernickety rule-followers with bad faith motives, it was trivially circumventable, of course: one could simply enter a pact to edit one another’s Wikipedia pages. We tried to work out ways to improve it, drill down into how it had arisen, eke out what it meant as a rule about Wikipedia and systems like it. How it could be gamed; how its spirit could be better defended.

Somehow, though, in middle of that deep discussion, we ended up editing each other’s wikipedia pages. In an impromptu pact, we edited each other to death. Aaron, Wikipedia suddenly noted, sadly died in an elephant stampede. I’d died years ago, apparently, but no-one had noticed until now.

Both entries were swiftly reverted, of course, with the long-suffering tolerance of Wikipedia’s guardians. Giggling with the transgression, we celebrated our return to life. At the time, I confessed to a momentary fear that as he edited my page, I might suddenly vanish.

Last night, I checked Twitter one last time, and caught people’s early elliptical references to Aaron. Panicking, guessing already, I jumped out of bed and searched for his name. His Wikipedia snippet came up first, with a new date where I had edited the old.

Almost everyone who has spoken about Aaron has spoken about his genius, his extraordinary impact, his youth, his depression and his troubles. I want to just say, very briefly, what Aaron would have wanted me to say, which was he was also very very funny.

He never had the mock seriousness one associatiates with precocious children. He was a child prodigy who understood the ridiculousness of being a child prodigy. It was one of the reasons why he seemed so grown-up.

Like many of us, being funny was how Aaron got to be a kid again. He took on so many responsibilities, and he seemed often so unable to shrug them off. Sometimes he could though, and when he did, he would laugh so contagiously, and be so funny. When Ada came along, he played with her a lot, and delighted in being able to just riff with her on crazy, silly stories. Accustomed to being the youngest person in the room, he loved seeing a new generation emerging, perhaps a generation that gave him more hope than the ones he’d seen through so effectively.

When I heard, I went offline, as Aaron had done once. I knew, like Quinn knew, that the Internet was about to mourn his passing, and that it was more than I could take. Going online briefly now, every page I open has his name on it. Every tweet is someone’s memory of his help, his love, his fears.

Aaron’s art was an amazing ability to focus on the truly important. When he left, just as when Len left, he left an obligation on the rest of us to keep what each of us have of him, and put it to good use. Between us, I believe we still have a massively parallel, distributed version of Aaron, one unique part of his life shared with each of us alone. The part I’ll remember for us is just how funny he was, and how serious change sometimes requires a light touch, and a sense of the absurd.

But not now. Nothing’s funny right now. Now I have to go tell Ada. It feels like asking her to grow up too fast. And that seems such a crazy legacy for Aaron to have left any of us.

(Update: We talked.  Ada cried, then we hugged, then Ada suggested we have a goodbye party, with ice-cream and sprinkles and a movie, and make a board where we could pin all our memories. We laughed at funny he was. Aaron taught her so well.)

 

2012-09-11

touch of the galois

As you will no doubt already know, there’s been a lot of talk in the last few days about a potential proof of the abc conjecture. I just gave up my last professional non-fiction writing gig last week, which means that I no longer have any obligation to explain to you what that is, or write even vaguely short sentences about it.  but I still have the vestigial urge to find out, if only because of journalistic lure of an abstract mathematics page on Wikipedia being marked with the

Ambox currentevent.svg This article documents a current event. Information may change rapidly as the event progresses.

macro.

The thing is, the new proof is authored by Shinichi Mochizuki, who has been out doing his own deep explorations of mathspace on his own for so long, that everyone in the profession of math is having to race through his previous research to sufficiently understand his argument. Still, everyone can sense, Higgs Boson-like that this may be a big deal. When the rumor first began to emerge, the majority of professional mathematicians (as opposed to  you know,  the usual Diophantine analysis hangers-on) observed that via a reputational chain-of-trust calibration, whereby they were saying “well this isn’t my area, and it’s not this guy’s area either, but he’s closer to it than me, and I respect what he says in areas clone to mine, and  he says that it doesn’t look incoherent, and he wouldn’t say that without putting some of his reputation on the line, so I guess it might be legit. For now.”
I’m clearly about three links down the interpretative chain — I got the link about the abc conjecture from Hacker News, which was posted by somebody linking to a blog by one of these mathematicians saying that he couldn’t understand the proof, but golly. Dumbly, I immediately do want to understand the proof, even though the people who might be professionally qualified to understand this theory are themselves having to madly catapult themselves from newly-constructed research projects trebuchets to get near over the nearest conceptual ramparts.

I click on this link to mathoverflow, a Q&A site whose very existence I would not have conjectured until today. I mean, I don’t know molecular genetics, but sit me down with a copy of a Nature article and I can at least begin to get some dim silhouette of what’s going on. I can read something as “the noun verbs the other noun near this noun, prompting adverbal verbing over there in the bigger noun”, and at least begin to sketch out the correspondence.

I cannot even get a purchase on these explanations. This is mathematics, which mean that — to my mind at least — it is the study of the innate structure of correspondences themselves, which means I can’t even get a shape in my head. I read sentences like “I believe the Frobenioid associated to a number field is something close to the finite \’etale covers of Spec(OF) (equipped with some log structure) together with metrized line bundles on them, although it’s probably more complicated”, and I’m thinking: I won’t even be able to cut-and-paste that.  This is someone who knows his metrized line bundles, and they’re having to hand-wave.

Anyway, knowing it’s futile, I grab onto a word that seem relatively freight with meaning, but of which I have some dim recollection of. “Galois theory”. Okay, I’ve heard of Galois theory. Let’s call down Wikipedia on that, and see if it stirs any recollections and I can use it to hitch just a few inches higher up the chain.

Evariste Galois. Delineator of Galois theory, radical French republican, died in a duel. Oh, now I remember where I’ve heard of Galois theory.  I’m nineteen years old, and I’m in a maths class in college. This is pretty unusual in a British university unless you’re actually taking mathematics — usually you only take classes in the single topic you’re studying. I’m (partly) learning economics, though, so there’s some a little bit of catch-up in mathematical analysis to be done.

We’re being taught by what I now guess must have been a postgrad, and she’s the best explainer of maths-beyond-my-scope I’ve ever met. She’s also, she admits, incredibly hungover, and keeps getting sidetracked from the basic statistics she’s been sent to hitch us up to wander into her own topic of interest. Which, I guess now must be Galois theory, because  the bit that stuck in my mind was her elaboration on Evariste Galois. She had, she explained, a huge math crush on Evariste, and who wouldn’t? Flunked two colleges, fought to restore the Republic, imprisoned in the Bastille, and managed to scribble down the thoughts that would lead to several major fields of mathematics, before dying in a duel — either romantic or political — at the age of twenty.

Well, I’m nineteen at the time, so as a nineteen year old I’m thinking “I still have a year to pull that off”. But listening to this in cloisters of St Hilda’s,  I observe the  same reputational chain effect. Here is clearly the coolest person I’ve yet met at Oxford, and she is clearly in awe of someone else who is, I guess, her to the power of some unknown value of fascinating. I don’t understand Galois theory, but my tutor has already dedicated her life to it. There’s no way that either of us is ever going to live up to Evariste, but maybe just by lining up him as a goal, and pushing off in that general direction, perhaps we’ll get somewhere interesting.

Do we have to understand completely to be pulled along in its wake? Is it foolish to even queue up behind those who are so far behind the front lines? Isn’t this how we feel our way ahead, tied together by emotions, but walking together toward the truth?

2012-07-21

if the 3.4.1 Debian wheezy gnome-shell starts up slowly for you

I love titles like that.

Anyway, I am intensely enjoying being back in Debian-space, and I am slowly accreting small mechanisms of usefulness around me. Vim keystrokes are bleeding out everywhere. My caps lock is now a Meta key, and springs up little windows when I dance on it.

I still quite like Gnome 3, although it took a sly upgrade to the unstable version of Debian (now pretty much stable, and pretty much called Wheezy) before it was really usable.

My biggest peeve was that it took a million years to start. I knew it wasn’t doing anything useful in that time. I suspected it was something to do with my Contacts list, which is huge, tied to Google Contacts, and also not doing much that was useful. Gnome Contacts is not a particularly well-excavated place right now, and it seems like tying it to the gnome-shell was a somewhat overambitious idea. I run strace on the gnome-shell process (as you do), and it confirmed that that was happening was that gnome-shell was excitedly counting my friends and their habits instead of doing something vaguely useful, like letting me run an application or two.

In Gnome 3.5, it looks like they’ve finally disentangled gnome-shell and the contacts service, but Gnome 3.5 won’t be coming to Debian for a while. I vaguely considered trying to build it myself, but then I remembered — isn’t huge chunks of gnome-shell written in Javascript for exactly this kind of userland tweaking?

Sadly, the impressive gnome-shell extensions feature kicks in a little too late in the shell bootup process for it to wrench out the contacts support before the drooling begins, but I did find a line in the internal javascript code of gnome shell that, once killed, lets it boot up in non-geological time.

Ideally you shouldn’t mess with the internals of a debian package like this, but it’ll hopefully all be fixed by the next upgrade anyway. Here’s the patch. All it does is stick turns one line into a comment by prepending ‘//’ in front of it. You can do it by hand by sudo nano /usr/share/gnome-shell/js/ui/overview.js and finding the ContactDisplay line below, or save the lines below and patch it with patch -p0 < wherever_you_saved_those_linesbelow .

Tada! It pays to explore some of the other files in that directory, although possibly not mess with them. Gnome 3 really needs better documentation, and if I was a man with infinite time, I would greatly enjoy writing more of it up.

2012-05-25

NTK, Fifteen Years On

Give or take a few days, it was fifteen years ago that I hit send on the first official issue of NTK. I was hiding out at a start-up called Virgin Internet, trying to work out how to bring Usenet to the masses, or something. I added people to the mailing list by hand, but stuck “-l” at the end of the subscribe email address to make it sound like it was a proper listserv. I still hear people say “listserv”, occasionally, and it sounds like they’re saying “thee” or “gadzooks” or something.

People usually say at this point that it doesn’t seem like maxint years ago, but, to be honest, it does. It feels exactly fifteen years ago. What’s weird for me is that the three years before NTK came out feels even longer. 1994-1997 involved me going from being on the dole, to appearing in a one man show in the west end, doing TV, working at Wired,  joining a startup. That, and the Internet went from being this funny little squeaky gopher thing to having internet addresses on adverts. On adverts! Which, incidentally, we all smugly knew would go away soon, because advertising was lying and the Internet was going to make lying impossible. Or something.

. What I wanted to tell you was that last year after I explaining someone how we were all too collectively lazy to do something to celebrate NTK’s 15th anniversary, that someone came up with a brilliant Minimal Viable Celebration. So, for the next ten years or so, if you subscribe to this newsletter, you’ll get a weekly copy of the NTK that came out fifteen years ago, totally unchanged. It’s like that thing where you get a copy of the Times’ front page for your birthday, except every week is your birthday! Or our birthday. Or something. The name, Anno NTK, comes from Simon Wistow. If it was your idea to do this, tell me!

As I say, it’s literally the least we could do. I actually suspect (and hope) that this will become a bit of a trend in itself. Just as early retrospective sites like the Pepys Diary are drawing to a close, I think there’s this rich unmined pile of early blog-o-mobilia, waiting to have a nice interface stuck on it. It would be  great, for instance, to watch in real time all the bloggers who supported the Iraq war go through their transformations and justifications day by day, or watch stuff like DrKoop and the Industry Standard rise and fall once again. There are lots of weird echoes in the air right now. I really hope other people won’t be as lazy as us, and put a nice frontend on the past.

And meanwhile, thirty years ago, Usenet itself was beginning to outgrow the ability for a human mind to comprehend. Thank goodness the future was so close…

2012-02-15

reality distortion field lensing

I think about Steve Jobs these days on average about once a day. I’d like to pretend I think about Apple, because I could then say that it’s because I’m pondering the future of the post-PC world, and get to stroke my chin in a punditly fashion, but it’s mostly about Steve Jobs.

One of the Jobsian moments I’ve thought about a lot is from this Walt Mossberg interview (back when Steve was only talking publicly to people called Walter). In this clip (starting at 0:36:41; it should jump straight there), Jobs talks about the origin of the iPad, and mentions how he gave the prototype tablet hardware to  “one of our really brilliant UI folks”, and they created inertial scrolling and rubber-banding.

Honestly, I’ve thought about that one really brilliant UI person a lot since that interview. I wondered what it must be like to have created part of the iPad’s interface, but never to be really be known as the creator of this thing, or even co-creator. I think about movie credits, and how I sit around until they get to the system administrators, because it’s still a novelty to me that films have system administrators, and that they too get a credit. (I also love that in Silicon Valley, sometimes, when you got to this bit in the film on premiere night, there would be this little cluster of cheers from a corner of the theater).

I’d think of the previous obscurity of people like that, and the little growing embers of fame that started glowing when people like jwz and Andy Hertfeld could actually speak to you, rather than just be sealed names in an About box somewhere. And, like much of Apple, I couldn’t quite work out whether the return of the impresario auteur in the form of Jobs was a throwback to some earlier age of Peter Norton and Dan Bricklin headliners hiding a relatively anonymous team, or the future. Was it that engineers had got too much power, and were going to get eclipsed? Or was it that individual geeks had had a brief moment of uncharacteristic rockstarriness, and there would be a return to the mean of shy, backgrounded engineers working on projects far vaster than them?

As anyone who has heard me speak recently knows, I’d be happy with geeks getting a little less power in the world, or at least realising the ramifications of the power and status they currently do wield. But I think I’d feel a little saddened if their ideals or goals were subsumed into the will of someone else, or a corporate direction.

Anyway, I don’t think Bret Victor was the engineer that Steve Jobs no-name-checks in that interview. Apple employees aren’t entirely without credit, and looking at the inertial scrolling patent, I’d guess that maybe it was Bas Ording who built that first demo. The time line doesn’t work either — Victor wasn’t around at Apple when those first experiments were going on.

But in this video, Victor, who used to work for Apple, not only made me feel like he embodies in his work all the best bits of the iPad’s innovation, but also the example of principled, individual, direction that I miss from never meeting or hearing from Apple’s engineers.

It’s an hour long, but if you’re like me, you’ll be drawn in by the first fifteen minutes, and then be surprised and heartened by the last fifteen.

In the last day or so, I’ve thought a lot more about Victor and the role models he cites than about Steve Jobs, and I think that’s a healthy thing for me. It sounds like it was a healthy thing for Victor too.

2012-01-16

some rambling conversations I’ve had on moving from MacOS to Debian

When the magic smoke escapes

Drunkenly confessing all with Brady Forrest last week:

“I’ve done an insane thing. I’m abandoning my nice MacOS laptop for Debian.”

“Was it Lion for you too?”

Liz has a Macbook Air, and loves Lion. I bought and installed it on my Macbook Pro when it came out. It has slowly, very slowly, ground away any love I had for Mac. Live by the magic, die by the magic, I guess. You screw up the aesthetics, the usability, for just a second, and the magic goes away.

Lion made the Steve Jobs magic smoke escape for me. I am a touchy, fickle, platform guy, so I really didn’t think anyone else had this problem, but since I mentioned it, everyone goes “Oh, yeah, Lion“, like they’d been warning about it in the Old Testament.

Picking over the embers of the relationship, I think the Lion’s failings are mostly down to a combination of Apple shifting to a world of SSD and not really caring what pre-SSD Macs feel like, and Lion being a short 0.1 step on a Long March to another iOS vision.

My stumbling points on that enforced march:

In my twenty-five years of MultiFinder usage, I’ve never been able to quit apps properly. When you hit Alt-Tab on any Mac I’ve been using, about seventy applications perk up, including ones that I last opened in 1989.

I know that the Appletinis at Cupertino are working on this, and in the iOS-influenced future, applications will just be murdered in a dark corner of the OS when they least expect it. But in the meantime, if I shutdown my computer or if it crashes, every one of those seventy-billion apps restart when I log back on.

On an SSD, I imagine this takes two seconds. On my Macbook Pro, it takes six weeks.

Yes, I know you can turn it off. No, that never seems to work.

I also lost a bunch of mail in an argument between Apple Mail and Microsoft Exchange. I knew this would happen if I didn’t use a known file format for my emails. I knew that backups wouldn’t work. I felt stupid for not being able to save them, like a parent who had dodged vaccinations.

Also, I spilled Coke on my keyboard.

(I want to mention this, because the coke-spilling is indubitably not Apple’s fault, and yet it played a large role in me moving on. People always retro-rationalize why they switch, be it with complex moral journeys, or damning inditements of the objective incompetence of their abandoned lover. I don’t think Apple should work harder to keep people like me who are moving to Debian over a spilled coke. I mean, what? I don’t think I’m part of some universal trend. I just want to describe where I walked, and when.)

When I bond with a computer, what I’m mostly doing is bonding with the input devices. I do it in an intensive burst at the beginning of our relationship.

Right now, I’m forcing my fingers to learn where everything is on this new keyboard, steering them away from the non-existent trackpad gestures, teaching my pinkie to find the Enter. A sizeable proportion of the reason why I stayed with Macs so long because my hands knew their keyboards.

When the coke got spilled, the keyboard response got sticky. I started just not wanting to press certain keys. And then I realised that I didn’t want to take a sticky keyboard into the Apple Store any more, either.

I wanted a new computer, and no longer wanted it to be a Mac.

In the twenty minutes I used the default install of Windows on my Thinkpad…

I somehow managed to install two IE toolbars. One was shovelware with the system (Symantec, I think), and was installed when I foolishly chose the default option for security. The other was adware installed when I downloaded BitTorrent to get hold of the Debian install CD. I don’t think Mac or Linux users realise quite how much real estate in most Windows installs is taken with branding. It’s like a screenshot from Idiocracy.

Also, it is amazing how driven the Windows user experience is by fear. Watch out for them viruses! Windows has detected that NOTHING ONTOWARD JUST HAPPENED ON DRIVE D. Click here for omg psych out!

I feel the same thing watching CNN in airports, incidentally.

On saying goodbye to Mac hardware

“My new name for you will be clattering monkey”

My but there are a lot of sticky labels with trademarks on this Thinkpad. Strange holes and posted instructions and international symbols, too. Liz tells me the keyboard is very loud, from across the room, but that’s the Thinkpad’s Model-M DNA, I expect.

I think I will come to love its clatteriness. The IPS screen is beautiful. When I realised that I could buy chargers for this thing for under $30, I almost cried (most of my Mac chargers have either burned up or snapped apart, and it’s $75 a shot). Also, I can just plug an external monitor into it without worrying that I forgot that Mac dongle again.

With the incorrect sense of affluence that saving a few bucks on power supplies gained me, I bought two different kinds of batteries for it — a slightly sticky-out one, which gives me 8-9 hours, and a flush one that gives me four. Just having options filled me with a strange glee.

It still feels a bit like I’ve borrowed a laptop from work, though.

On the X220′s aura

At Noisebridge:

“So I abandoned my Macbook, and got a new laptop.

“What kind?”

“A Thinkpad X220

“Hahahaha! Well, that’s a surprise.”

The X220 is the default machine of the hacker types around here. I spoke to a Googler who said he’s basically holding out for his annual laptop upgrade until he can get one. The Mozilla guy I know has one. The guy who used to work at the porn site that runs out of the major San Francisco landmark has one too. He left there, but it’s his laptop, so he gets to keep it. If you have a job where you can afford it, and you’ve fallen off the Mac wagon somehow, you get an X220.

Unlike my contradictory sense that this is my work laptop, my Macbook really was paid for by work. I get to mangle this my own way. My plan, I think, is to work out a way to erase all of these brands. I was always covering up that glowing Apple: now I have to work out a way to laser-cut out the Lenovo logo. I think it’s less that I’m ashamed of who made my computer, and more that I don’t really see myself as being used to advertise it further.

Given its hipsterhacker fashionability, somebody should sell a Das Keyboard-style blank keyboard mod for the X220.

On the moral purity of Debian

Even with fashion on your side, there’s no real redemption to be found in moving from a Macbook to a Lenovo Thinkpad. Apple may throw employees off the roof at FoxConn, but Lenovo was spun out from the Chinese state. God knows what it has buried in its TPM: probably the internal organs of dissidents.

Debian, however! Oh Debian! I hope somebody somewhere a hundred years from now writes an epic poem about Debian. Later I will write* about the technical challenges of installing Debian on this X220 (there honestly weren’t much, but it did require me to dance from MacOS Lion to Debian Unstable).

But, god the delight of hunkering down in the Debian commune again. I love how relentless and unsullied they are, even by Ubuntu. Are the number of official Debian developers going up or down? I can’t really tell; it’s like I never left. Could you ever kill Debian?

I’ve often said that I frequently have a mad desire to move to wooden shack and become a Debian developer. Imagine my delight when I discovered that one of my favourite Debian developers really does live in a cabin in the woods.

Is ending up in a shack really that bad, if you never have to feel lonely?

On the post-multi-national status of GNOME

While Debian has remained the same, GNOME seems transformed. I noticed this when I went to GUADEC in 2010. One always got the feeling that somebody was steering GNOME, but it wasn’t clear who. When it started, I thought it was Miguel and Nat, then Novell, then Redhat. Now it has that floaty, determined meandering that the best mass open source projects have. From a distance, everyone seems to be constantly bickering and regretting the next steps; but the steps get made, and slowly everyone adapts to them. GNOME feels like a nation now.

Or maybe even an insipidly post-national alliance of countries. Maybe it was because GUADEC was held that year in Amsterdam, but GNOME these days seems even more international than KDE, and certainly less Anglo than Windows or Apple. I get the sense that bits of it are fiefdoms, and others are more free and democratic. The corporations with an interest in GNOME get to hive off certain parts, more or less, but they still have to respond to public opinion. But there are plenty of people here because they don’t get the chance to express themselves in any other way: either because they are UX people who don’t work for Apple, or users who don’t get to use Catalan on any other platform.

This may all be wrong impressions — I will greatly enjoy discovering how wrong.

I really like GNOME 3, and the shell, even though so much of it is half-baked and unimplemented. I get to be a baker!

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                           

petit disclaimer:
My employer has enough opinions of its own, without having to have mine too.