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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!

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.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                           

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