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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!

2011-09-12

song for noisebridge

It is entirely appropriate that I came from hanging out at Noisebridge today with business cards from an Applied Anthropologist and an associate from the Institute of the Future. I also got to hang out with Dan Kaminsky and Eric Butler (of Firesheep fame). I wrote some Python, sat next to others writing Python in separate rooms (and by the side of a crowd learning machine learning, if that is a sentence). I yelled at someone, which I never do, and made up. Noisebridge drama! I worked at persuading someone that throwing out someone’s entire server rack (with server) onto the streets in the middle of the weekend, was an extremely poor – but not unpermitted – choice of things to do. I marveled at the genius of visually portraying the state of the internal network by nailing it to a wall, which had been some impromptu group’s impromptu project over the same weekend.
A Wall O' Tubes

Around me ten people learned to solder, someone rebuilt the lighting system with a clutch of borrowed TED-5000s from the great Google PowerMeter shutdown , and I talked Syrian insider politics with someone wanted to teach Scratch to local kids. I gave tours to three groups, including the Applied Anthropologist, and gave the standard pitch: a hackerspace open to all, 24/7, where there was deliberately no rules and no leadership, just decision consensus and the ever-present sudo do-ocracy.

The Applied Anthropologist seemed fascinated, although really it’s hard to tell how rivetted people are when I can’t hear them over the rattle of my own obsessive proclaiming. I sincerely hope he is interested. I’ve often craved a Noisebridge in-house anthropologist, because Noisebridge is deeply, deeply culturally weird, and needs someone to unpick how it even stays in the air.

It’s a hybrid of cold war Berlin radical politics, maker culture, defcon-with-issues emotionality, FSF/EFF idealism, and just San Franciscan High Weirdness. It’s created press passes and space projects and mushrooms and robots. It’s run like an anarchist collective, if all the anarchists were asocial individualists who try to fix problems by throwing technology at them. We put off actual anarchists, because people come to the consensus meetings with T-shirts saying “I BLOCK” and frequently improvise ad-hoc solutions with powertools. In some sort of karmic test, I once had to eject a Buddhist monk from the space.

It provokes a huge range of emotions, and not just within me. Right now, it seems like an engine for generating social ideas, both stupid and painful and inspiring and positive and strange. Lots of people burn out from it, which I totally understand; I think I have only survived this long because I am so crispy for dozens of previous burn-outs. But I watch lots of people continually burn outward from it, or who re-ignite their passions from it, or save themselves from far worse fates. Its most driven members go through huge cycles of love and hate, which I think power the place with their alternating currents. If you’re in San Francisco, I’ll give you a tour.

2011-09-10

RSS died for your sins

This blog has a mild obsession with celebrity, aging, and the past. As its author, I don’t much share these enthusiasms (my hobbies including eating corned beef sandwiches and reading), but I am happy to play along when required to do so, which is always. So:

This year, I have a really good idea, which at some point I must write down properly. It’s such a good idea, I tried to pitch it to SXSW as a keynote. (It’s okay, you can’t vote any more.)

This raised a problem: how do you tell the SXSW people “Look, I’m not a wanker or anything, I just think I could give a good keynote?”. Because, really, if you’re pitching yourself for a SXSW keynote, I think you’ve pretty much established a high Bayesian prior of being a wanker.

And what I ended up writing to the SXSW people, in the same gabbling way as those letters you write to the exam marker when you have nothing to say and two hours more of examination time, was a sort of spirited defence of why they hadn’t heard of me. I can’t remember what I wrote, but I think I may have said that I’d spent the last few years being “economical with celebrity”.

But the thing is, the more I think of it, the more it’s true. I have this internal governor of fame, which I crank up and down depending on how threatened I feel. I’d already taken a strategic risk in even pitching the keynote. I remember thinking to myself “Yeah, I could do this, I think, without being universally reviled.” And at this point, I’m actually quite proud of my ability to surf obscurity, apparently on command.

Nothing brought home the value of doing this as joining Google Plus fairly early on. I’m not proud of this — I think I got an invite from Skud (who ironically is now the Neo of G+, as far as I can see, and was hunted down by Google assassination bots until she fleed to Australia, where the bandwidth caps mean that every house has a protective robots.txt file).

But one of the side-effects of joining early is that you get thousands and thousands of followers, out of a fairly obvious founder effect I’m sure a lot of them are just spam accounts, but because it’s G+, you can’t tell which are the spam accounts because they’re all got names like “Reginald McFarlane” and “Evita Tavistock”. It’s a civilised place in that respect. But unfortunately, while G+ encourages spambots to at least adopt WASPy names, it transformed me — me of all people! — into a horrible, horrible person.

The problem is this: if I had blogged this entry on G+, the comments would have instantly be full of people either asking me what Bayesian probability was, or arguing with me about whether I’d used it properly. That and/or “founder effect’.

Let me say now that this is not one of those debates about civility online, and the rights of pseudonymous people, and whether it’s your fault you have such horrible commenters and such. I have different obsessions.

And let me also add that now I have touched elliptically on all of those topics, if this was G+ we’d end up talking about those topics instead, also.

This is an allied issue, which I still don’t think people pay enough attention to; which is that if you have seven thousand people following you, a good six thousand of those are going to be people you don’t particularly like. Even if you were Jesus, you can’t love those people. (And actually if you read the Gospels, you can see that Jesus is a pretty good example of this. He spends his whole time going WTF in the comment threads of his own parables. WTF, Peter, did you even RTFP?)

If they comment all over your posts, you will end up hating them, and shortly, mankind.

The problem, as ever, is — how do you pick out the other thousand? Especially when they keep changing?

I firmly believe that one of the pressing unsolved technological problems of the modern age is getting safely away from people you don’t like, without actually throttling them to death beforehand, nor somehow coming to the conclusion that they don’t exist, nor ending up turning yourself into a hateful monster. And that this problem invisibly creeps on people as their level of fame increases. And that the Internets continues to be amazingly good at randomly bestowing non-linear amounts of fame on people, in a remarkably well-distributed way.

Which comes to why I’m writing here. There’s a good chance – a good Bayesian chance, my friend – that you’ve been whittled down in some way. I’m hoping you’ve found this because I’ve been stuck in your RSS reader since whenever it was that RSS was hip (2004?). I’m pretty confident that you’re reading this because we have something better in common than just sharing the same web browsing protocols. Unless somehow I’ve accidentally crafted link-bait. Shit, well, fortunately my server crashes whenever I do that. (Yet another great reason to self-host!)

It’s a stupid way to filter people, but I really don’t know how else to do it, short of just posting this to my friends. Which of course is exactly what you’re supposed to do on Google+, via some sort of endless pal-pruning interface.

But really, posting public or private  isn’t a question of narrow strategy, it’s a question of personality. I’m not going to post privately, am I, because, really, what’s the point? I clearly crave having this linked to by millions of people, even if some of them might not say the right things.

Similarly, scores of my friends in their private Twitter accounts agonize over every added follower, and every one who leaves. And people of those two personality types will just spend the rest of time lecturing the other on how they should be more private, or how they should spurn obscurity. We both want our audiences hand-picked, we just don’t want to be our hands doing it.

Well, anyway, what I meant to post was that I have a ton of writing to do in the next few weeks, and the only way I know of writing more, is to write a lot more, so hopefully you’ll see me here more often.

And that you’re all my special friends, but you knew that.

Be sure to post something really dumb in the comments.

2010-09-14

Haystack vs How The Internet Works

There’s been a lot of alarming but rather brief statements in the past few days about Haystack, the anti-censorship software connected with the Iranian Green Movement.  Austin Heap, the co-creator of Haystack and co-founder of parent non-profit, the Censorship Research Center, stated that the CRC had “halted ongoing testing of Haystack in Iran”; EFF made a short announcement urging people to stop using the client software;  the Washington Post wrote about unnamed “engineers” who said that “lax security in the Haystack program could hurt users in Iran”.

A few smart people asked the obvious, unanswered question: What exactly happened? Between all those stern statements, there is little public information about why the public view of Haystack switched from it being a “step forward for activists working in repressive environments” that provides “completely uncensored access to the internet from Iran while simultaneously protecting the user’s identity” to being something that no-one should ever consider using.

Obviously, some security flaw in Haystack had become apparent. But why was the flaw not more widely documented? And why now?

As someone who knows a bit of the back story, I’ll  give as much information as I can. Firstly, let me say I am frustrated that I cannot provide all the details. After all, I believe the problem with Haystack all along has been due to explanations denied: either because its creators avoided them, or because those who publicized Haystack failed to demand them. I hope I can convey why we still have one more incomplete explanation to attach to Haystack’s name.

(Those who’d like to read the broader context for what follows should look to the discussions on the Liberation Technology mailing list. It’s an open and public mailing list, but it with moderated subscriptions and with the archives locked for subscribers only. I’m hoping to get permission to publish the core of the Haystack discussion more publicly.)

First, the question that I get asked most often: why make such a fuss, when the word on the street is that a year on from its original announcement, the Haystack service was almost completely nonexistent, a beta product restricted to only a few test users, all of whom were in continuous contact with its creators?

One of the many new facts about Haystack that the large team of external investigators, led by Jacob Appelbaum and Evgeny Morozov, have learned in the past few days is that there were more users of Haystack software than Haystack’s creators knew. Despite the lack of a “public” executable for examination, versions of the Haystack binary were being passed around, just like “unofficial” copies of Windows (or videos of Iranian political violence) get passed around. Copying: it’s how the Internet works.

But the understood structure of Haystack included a centralized, server-based model for providing the final leg of censorship circumvention. We were assured that Haystack had a high granularity of control over usage. Surely those servers blocked rogue copies, and ensured that bootleg Haystacks were excluded from the service?

Apparently not. Last Friday, Jacob Appelbaum approached me with some preliminary concerns about the security of the Haystack system. I brokered a conversation between him, Austin Heap, Haystack developer Dan Colascione and the CEO of CRC CRC’s Director of Development, Babak Siavoshy. Concerned by what Jacob had deduced about the system, Austin announced that he was shutting down Haystack’s central servers, and would keep Haystack down until the problems were resolved.

Shortly after, Jacob obtained a Haystack client binary. On Sunday evening, Jacob was able to conclusively demonstrate to me that he could still use Haystack using this client via Austin’s servers.

When I confronted Austin with proof of this act, on the phone, he denied it was possible. He repeated his statement that Haystack was shut down. He also said that Jacob’s client had been “permanently disabled”. This was all said as I watched Jacob  using Haystack, with his supposedly “disabled” client, using the same Haystack servers Austin claimed were no longer operational.

It appeared that Haystack’s administrator did not or could not effectively track his users and that the methods he believed would lock them out were ineffective. More brutally, it also demonstrated that the CRC did not seem able to adequately monitor nor administrate their half of the live Haystack service.

Rogue clients; no apparent control. This is why I and others decided to make a big noise on Monday: it was not a matter of letting just CRC’s official Haystack testers quietly know of problems; we feared there was a potentially wider and vulnerable pool of users who were background users of Haystack that none of us, including CRC, knew how to directly reach.

Which brings us to the next question: why reach out and tell people to stop using Haystack?

As you might imagine from the above description of  Haystack’s system management, on close and independent examination the Haystack system as a whole, including these untracked binaries, turn out to have very little protection from a high number of potential attacks — including attacks that do not need Haystack server availability. I can’t tell you the details; you’ll have to take it on my word that everyone who learns about them is shocked by their extent.  When I spelled them out to Haystack’s core developer, Dan Colascione late on Sunday, he was shocked too (he resigned from Haystack’s parent non-profit the Censorship Research Center last night, which I believe effectively kills Haystack as a going concern. CRC’s advisory board have also resigned.)

Deciding whether publishing further details of these flaws put Haystack users in danger is not just a technical question. Does the Iranian government have sufficient motivation to hurt Haystack users, even if they’re just curious kids who passed a strange and exotic binary around? There’s no evidence the Iranian government has gone after the users of other censorship circumvention systems. The original branding of Haystack as  “Green Movement” software may increase the apparent value of constructing an attack against Haystack, but Haystack client owners do not have any connection with the sort of high-value targets a government might take an interest in. The average Haystack client owner is probably some bright mischievous kid who snagged it to access Facebook.

Lessons? Well, as many have noted, reporters do need to ask more questions about too-good-to-be-true technology stories.  Coders and architects need to realize (as most do) that you simply can’t build a safe, secure, reliable system without consulting with other people in the field, especially when your real adversary is a powerful and resourceful state-sized actor, and this is your first major project. The Haystack designers lived in deliberate isolation from a large community that repeatedly reached out to try and help them. That too is a very bad idea. Open and closed systems alike need independent security audits.

These are old lessons, repeatedly taught.

New lessons? Well, I’ve  learned that even apparent vaporware can have damaging consequences (I originally got re-involved in investigating Haystack because I was worried the lack of a real Haystack behind the hype might encourage Iranian-government fake Haystack malware — as though such things were even needed!).

Should one be a good cop or a bad cop? I remember sitting in a dark bar in San Francisco back in July of 2009, trying to persuade a blasé Heap to submit Haystack for an independent security audit. I spoke honestly to anyone who contacted me at EFF or CPJ about my concerns, and would prod other human rights activists to share what we knew about Haystack whenever I met them (most of us were skeptical of his operation, but without sufficient evidence to make a public case). I encouraged journalists to investigate the back story to Haystack. I kept a channel open to Austin throughout all of this, which I used to occasionally nudge him toward obtaining an audit of his system, and, finally, get a demonstration that answered some of our questions (and raised many more). Perhaps I should have acted more directly and publicly and sooner?

And I think about Austin Heaps’ own end quote from his Newsweek article in August, surely the height of his fame.”A mischievous kid will show you how the Internet works”, he warns. The Internet is mischievous kids; you try and work around them at your peril. And theirs.

2010-07-08

the secret history of ntk

shift run stopI know that this blog (and probably me as a person) are firmly categorised with the “where_are_they_now” nostalgia tag in most people’s RSS feeds: it behooves me, therefore, to point you to this fantastic interview with me and Dave on the only podcast I ever regularly download and listen to while doing the washing-up, Shift Run Stop. Roo and Leila got to ask all the questions that I (and I’m sure you) rhetorically ask late at night, including “Will NTK be returning for a second series?” and “How can marketing ruin a perfectly nice mascarpone and pineapple confectionery snack?”

Even without me in it, Shift Run Stop is one of the best-edited and hilarious geek podcasts out there. If you really are jonesing for an NTK-like fix in your modern 21st century life, you should subscribe, donate, floss, whatever to it. There will be no regrets.

2010-04-08

Guy Kewney

I don’t know why but from the age of eight to I think fifteen, I just assumed every drawing of a bearded man in or on Personal Computer World was meant to be Guy Kewney. He was the model journalist to me– why wouldn’t he also be the model for all those techies PCW’s graphic editors had to draw?


Not Guy.

As a pre-teen, I was a Personal Computer World kid. I loved the binding, the glossy cover, the thick tall pages, the sprawling reviews, the narrow columns of crazy computer classifieds that would stand like columns over pages and pages and pages of dot-matrix printed listings at the back, the love-hate relationship with the dull business business that would dog it into the grey IBM years, the arty covers, the bearded pundits. But most of all I loved reading Guy Kewney, the beardyist pundit of all.

Cromemco and Nascom, Siriuses and Osbornes. They seemed like far-off planets, and Kewney seemed like some pipe-smoking Dan Dare, giving a jocular downbeat debriefing in the mess, of his latest voyages with the Osborne or the COSMAC ELF, even when the most exciting software they did was inventory management. Kewney made even dull corporate machinations the stuff of high drama.

Aged 10 or 11, I would run around the house playing these elaborate fantasy games, muttering under my breath stage directions, and leaping from chair to chair in our living room. My adventures were set — and I am not joking here — in a 21st century where Apple-IBM and Sinclair-Acorn would heroically battle as giant zaibatsu corporations flying amazing robot battalions around in space. The dramatic climax would always involve me, as the captain of the flagship of the corporate fleet, controller of the inventory, master of the Science of Cambridge, shouting some secret password that would override all the command centers of the opposing army. My favourite Words Of Power in these fantasies was Angelo Zgorelec!, the mystical founder of PCW, whose name appeared on every issue’s masthead, and who I imagined to be a Tharg-like being of supreme wisdom (and great aural resonance).

But the person from whose writing I drew the strategies and the battles and the drama of those corporate tussles was Kewney.


Also not Guy.

I still remember one of his columns. In it, Kewney, boggling at the effort to which software publisher Acornsoft had gone to copy-protect software , published the one-line command for rendering its primitive DRM completely useless. I don’t remember the details, but I do recall just stopping and staring and then laughing and rocking in glee at the audacity of it, and wondering why no-one ever said all those other hidden incantations that I was sure existed out loud in other newspapers and magazines. Then I watched him defend his decision after a barrage of outraged readers (swamped by those who cheered him on) chastised him the next month. It really stuck in my mind as this example of the power of words to unwind elaborate but unsustainable practices.

John Lettice says in his obituary that PCW had to pay Acorn for that Kewney column. They shouldn’t have. And if they had to because of the law, well then, the law was wrong: spelling out these magical words of power, causing corporate battalions to flash out of existence at a single, carefully-researched command, really was Kewney’s job, and he did it masterfully.

I met him once. I’d just started writing for PCW myself, in about 1990, only to discover that my rapid promotion to the flagship of the British tech mag fleet was because they’d sacked all the old guard in a labour dispute and were desperate to fill those gaping pages with cheap young new writers. I tagged along to some press conference and actually overhearing David Tebbutt or Christopher Bidmead or some other Elder God complaining loudly about the wide-eyed children who had stolen everyone’s jobs, yet wouldn’t stop babbling about how honoured they were to meet them.

After that, I always averted my eyes and ceased to bother the titans. When I finally met Kewney, I think I just stood awkwardly by his side, surely making him even more uncomfortable than he must have been.

Or looked. To me, some idiot kid, he did not look well. When I said this to equally squeaky kid co-worker, they told me he had always looked ill, a boney, pale man who was constantly being stabbed with allergies and posture problems, aches and pains and deadlines and all-nighters, triumphing over the all to file his copy mere hours before printers might knock down his door and wring his neck.

I found this hard to believe, because he always looked so erect and noble in his byline pictures. Also in all those cover paintings of him. And in those games where he flew across the corporate landscape, making the world change with a word or two. It just made him seem all the braver.

Now Guy Kewney is gone, and I have this beard, but the words of power are all gone too. And frankly, I do not feel too well myself. Timor mortis conturbat me.

2010-04-06

brother against brother

Oh, but I hate it when the Internets fight! The argument rending my family — and you are all family, to me — it seems so unnecessary. Right now, it is broadly missummarised as: a) you hate my iPad because you’re old geeks who can’t get hep and want all my family to struggle with the command line, and b) you love your iPad because you HATE FREEDOM and are TOO DUMB to OPERATE a PROPER MANUAL LOOM and are Steve Job’s LITTLE CONSUMERIST POODLE THE SIZE OF WILLIAM GIBSON’S BABY HIPPO.

Here’s how to end this pain. Imagine an iPad. It’s the same iPad, built by Jobs and Ives and the rest of Apple in absolute secrecy, beholden to no-one, built on proprietary MacOS and unicorns and last Xerox Silmaril’s gleaming. It has the same Apple App store, same SDK, same no filing system, same no multitasking, same whatever. Only buried deep in the Settings, buried under “Battery Percentage”, “Factory Reset”, there’s an option that says “Allow Third-Party Applications”. Its default is not to allow that. But you can flip it to say “yes”.

That’s it.

Apple doesn’t have to put that option in. But if they did, I think most of us who are discomfited by the iPad would feel a lot less weirded out. And I guess the question is: are those who are angered by the negative iPad response think that one concession would instantly sink it, in terms of usability and being “the future of technology”, and so on? After all, both Cory Doctorow and John Gruber want Hypercard. Right now, Hypercard would violate Apple’s ban on interpreted content on the iPhone OS. What would happen if Apple changed its policy just a little, to allow us to have one fewer gatekeepers again? Would that be okay? Could we all learn to love one another again?

2010-04-01

cd-roms and ipads

Watching that $14 Elements demo for the iPad reminded me again of the throwaway line that geeks of a certain age make of the iPad — that it all seems a bit CD-ROM.

For those of you blessed with senile amnesia or youth, CD-ROMs were the first wave of “interactive media” in the mid-eighties, and the great hope for publishing houses struggling to understand what they might be doing in the 21st century. Companies from Dorling-Kindersley to News Corp threw millions into CD-ROM publishing, with very little ultimate return. They’d do some fancy-schmancy David Bowie joint project, or an incredibly complex animated re-working of their existing bestsellers. Each one won more awards than it sold copies, and eventually those “interactive divisions” were rolled into the “online media” departments, where their designers would get drunk and bitter, until one night they were sacked after uploading 640MB Adobe Director files onto the website front page.


look before you jump

Back then, geeks were unused to other industry sectors barging into our little rustic byte farmyards with their fancy suits and corporate expense accounts, braying triumphantly about digital convergence, and then, seconds later, striding into the business-model threshing machine that thrummed in the corner. We did not know then that there was a queue of people like this, waiting to dance past us into the bloody knives. We watched their cockiness with alarm, not with the disdain that would come later (and definitely not with own brand of hubristic Internet rockstar smugness, the smugness that tempts us all to look a bit less closely at ourselves, and a bit more closely at that thresher).

No, back then it was all a bit shocking. We assumed these people knew what they were doing. God knows we knew we didn’t have a clue. The only way we knew how to fill a CD-ROM was burning a complete archive of Fred Fish Amiga Freeware on it. Seven hundred megabytes just seemed an insanely large amount to want to fill with professional product.

Subsequent to the threshing, people muttered about how it was the Internet that killed the CD-ROM, but I think that, as ever, the real murderer was economics. A “professional” CD-ROM was just too expensive to produce, relative to the format it was generally parasitical upon.

The classic example for me was the brief phase of magazines including a free CD-ROM on the front of their mag. Dave and I would marvel at the incredible lopsided nature of this venture. The CD-ROM could hold close to a gigabyte of data, including programs, movies and graphics; all of which had to be commissioned, collated, edited, integrated together, checked for viruses, cleared for copyright, tested, mastered, and burned. If done welll, a front-mounted CD-ROM was clearly a far more complex and expensive venture than actually putting out a magazine — and yet they usually paid a single person to do it all, didn’t charge for the CD, and probably got little advertising revenue from it.

The ultimate portrayal of this problem was when, in a desperate attempt to include some unique content, they’d include on the CD-ROM a PDF file of the magazine it was sellotaped to. The PDF would usually take 50MB, if they were lucky. All that unique content that it had taken the rest of the editorial team a month to create — and there was still 650MB to go.

Most started attempting to bridge that gap with incredibly fancy interactive environments that would quickly consumer their annual budget. The ones that survived would ultimately collapse into padding the CD-ROM out with… well, the Fred Fish Amiga Archive, generally. Professional product got thrown out of the window in an attempt to feed the ever-hungry maw of interactive content.

This, to me, is the flipside of the “digital technology makes everything cheaper” argument. It makes a lot of work cheaper, but it can also professional media fantastically more expensive than its analogue equivalents.

In some ways, the equivalent to a newspaper is just a README HTML file, full of plaintext with a few images — but no-one is going to pay a quid for a README file. So what will you pay a quid for? Maybe some other super-awesome interactive newspaper with 3D pictures and audio interviews and in-depth statistical analysis and a 30 minute vodcast with the most famous writers, and, and, and… how much editorial budget do you want to throw on this again?

Elements is going to do fantastically, because it benefits from that “fresh platform” smell that exudes from the iPad. But can you re-gear a newspaper or a publishing house to produce the level of interactive complexity that a $5 app is going to demand, when it is competing with games and films in the same app niche?

Honestly, it might be possible. We’re not in the age of CD-ROMs now. Our price-points are all over the shop, and a sealed environment like the iPad permits all kinds of unnatural pricing inversions. We’ll pay more for a ringtone than a full MP3. We pay $10 for a README file on our Amazon Kindle, and a dollar for a pocket application that plays farts.

But if you want to play that game, you’re running against the clock. Other applications are going to make yours look ridiculously clumsy in a matter of months (honestly, in a year people will be amazed anyone paid $14 for a bunch of text, a rotating picture of a rock, and a quick Wolfram Alpha search). Plus the seals on that environment get corroded by open competition every day.

Often the solution to this problem really is to run away and hide. Don’t listen to those “interactive media” gurus: stick with what you know. No-one demands now to know why their magazines don’t have DVDs on the cover. When books have CD-ROMs or allied websites these days, they’re usually buried at the back, hardly updated, and just contained the original text and some errata. We don’t really care. It’s okay. We just wanted a book. We love you as you are.

I know that publishing companies will be tempted to go for the all-singing, all-dancing iPad application. But what they’re doing that, my suspicion is that what they’re aiming for is a product which exudes credibility, status — an aura of a professional media product. And when you’re spending the kind of money that a professional application requires, solely to improves your status in the world, you’re not selling a product, you’re buying the love of your audience. That may be an investment in credibility, but it’s not an incoming revenue stream.

The goldrush economics of the iPad will hide this for a little while, because everything will be briefly profitable. But to be sustainable, you need to either be producing something that consistently costs you less than it earns, or will produce regular super-hits among a string of drabber products, or just makes you so much money in its first few months that you never need work again. You can’t just make some single wonderful shiny demo product. You need to keep producing them; you need some way of economizing that process. And you need to stop others from making their shiny thing cheaper than, yet interchangeable with, yours. Otherwise you’re just throwing nice fancy gee-gaws into the thresher’s hungry mouth.

2010-03-28

en vacance, and a seafailing race

I’m halfway through my time between jobs. (“Oh,” said King, “so when you say you’re between jobs, you really mean you’re between jobs”). It turns out that my idea of a holiday is pretty much the same as my normal life, only with more naps, greater daughter indulgence, less guilt and more Doctor Who. The Doctor Who is driven by my indulgence in the publicly-funded brand-frenzy that is the build up to the new series (he’s going to be all right!), augmented by a recent dive through Russell T. Davies and Benjamin Cook’s brilliant Writers’ Tale, which makes you feel if only you stayed up and agonized all night, you too could write a cyberman episode or three. I never actually wrote any screenplays in the long nights reading this book, but it did make me rewatch some of the wobblier RTD episodes and feel a little more sympathetic to the man. He, too, had a lot of email to answer.

The rest of the time has been messed about with upon boats. Let me say this: I am very badly engineered for seafaring. My average interval between boat trips is about a decade. I am bad at knots. Even my proportions are unshipshapelike. My head is Irishman-large compared to my Puckoon-thin legs, giving me an unusually high center of gravity. I can capsize craft by nodding enthusiastically within them.

That said, my life has taken a watery bent recently and I greatly appreciate it. I spend a lot of my time living in a houseboat on the shores of Silicon Valley, where I stare out of a bedroom window filled with a water-level view of neighbourly riggings, sterns and curious ducks. I bought a cheap sixties dinghy hand-designed by a retiring Alameda sailmaker, Donald Goring, a man who, he said, kept his Nazi surname until the day he discovered his family was actually jewish, and then named his company after both halves.


In which the author does everything wrong.

Donald Goring-Bogart (or Bogart-Goring) designed Daisy to be a hard-chined 8 ft lifeboat that could survive a sinking in the Alaskan Pacific. She has handmade sails, custom-fitted oars and a 1983 2.5hp motor. The motor doesn’t run, I can’t sail her yet, and I row those oars like my arms are caught in a threshing machine, but she’s mine.

More practically than my Daisy-flails, Ada and I have been kayaking. My first kayak trip was sort of sales-pitch, I think, but unless they were selling me on the idea of paying protection money to keep me from future kayaks, it wasn’t successful. Somehow I agreed to be crammed into a sporting model about the width of my ankle and, while struggling to escape, kick-launched into a river. They did this to me at sundown, and within minutes it was pitch black. I swung around like a metronome in a moccasin until I could find a quay to clutch onto. Whoever the race of Kayaks are, they failed to either sell me on their device or drown me in their bloody rituals, but I had learned a lesson.

I finally unlearned it this weekend, when Ada and I merrily day-kayaked around the harbour. We bumped around together and gradually learned the subtleties together, such as which way the paddles don’t go, and how to get out of the thing without firing both feet from underneath you like a torpedo. Ada reassured me that in all her seven years, she had never seen a father sink beneath the waves yet. She also quietly sung “Ponyo, ponyo, fishy in the sea” as she paddled around the neighbours. A very good vacation.

2010-03-24

ada etc

My real Ada Lovelace day piece goes out this Friday, in my Irish Times column. Honestly, it’s more an introduction to the idea (and why identifying diverse role models in tech is important) than a real story about a technologist I know, though it does mention a few.

I sort of sabotaged myself last year by listing forty women in tech who have inspired me, not realising I could have padded that out for an entire lifetime of ALDs. This year, I was going to salute the women of the EFF (without looking like I was just sucking up to my bosses), but Cory beat me to it with his profile of Cindy Cohn, EFF’s legal director.

(Then again, he didn’t mention EFF’s executive director, Shari Steele, who led the EFF to its current amazing successes; Jennifer Granick, its senior criminal lawyer (you want to watch this video to get an idea of Granick’s work); Marcia Hofmann who has leads many of EFF’s FOIA-related scoops, Gwen Hinze who steers EFF’s work at WIPO, against ACTA and beyond; Corynne McSherry who mends free speech when it runs into the DMCA; Eva Galperin who is your first responder when your digital rights catch on fire, Rebecca Jeschke who keeps obscure tech issues in the headlines where they belong; Alyssa Ralston who brings the money in, Katina Bishop who masterminds EFF’s awesome events and more awesome major donors; Leticia Perez and Andrea Chiang who make sure the briefs get filed and the bills get paid — and I sabotaged myself again, didn’t I?)

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                           

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