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a man slumped on his desk, from 'The Sleep of Reason Produces



Archive for the ‘Indulgent’ Category


geek old semi-formal

I love this articleby Christine Peterson about her coinage of the term “open source”, not just for the story (which I’d known about, but never heard in detail), but for the tone of the piece. It’s written in what I generally think of as “Geek Old Semi-formal”: this precise, slightly low-affect, somewhat wry tone that seeks to depict the maximum number of factual points, in a simple but almost shockingly accurate way.

In pretty much everything I’ve done, I’ve fought with the hellish triangle of being readable, entertaining, and truthful. Sometimes you end up flexing the absolute clinical truth for one of the others: for instance, I don’t really “generally think” of Christine’s tone as “Geek Old Semi-Formal”. I just made that term up on the spot. I didn’t quite confess that earlier, because it sounded funnier to imply I’ve used this name, even just internally, for years.

Compared to just describing the tone flatly,  I did very mildly better on the entertaining axis (at least in my own mind), probably just as readably, but really not as true. (It was also easier to write — because a term like that is actually exactly what I need for a title. Great, I’ll paste that into the title box up there, and maybe that will become the hook for others who reblog this.)

Anyway, where was I? Right: so, actually honest documents are rare, mostly unentertaining and largely unreadable. We rarely optimise for the absolute truth, because either one of “readable” or “entertaining” is more immediately valued, and rewarded.

Geek Old Semi-Formal is readable and true, at the expense of some of the fripperies of language that we associate with entertaining speech. It’s this beautiful upgrade of technical writing to convey conversation, stories, anecdotes, and the communal trivialities of our lives.

As part of my Plan 9 binge (did I tell you about my Plan 9 binge?), I’ve been reading lots of old Unix papers, which all aspire to this style. As the New York Times said in its obituary of Dennis Ritchie:

Colleagues who worked with Mr. Ritchie were struck by his code — meticulous, clean and concise. His writing, according to Mr. Kernighan, was similar. “There was a remarkable precision to his writing,” Mr. Kernighan said, “no extra words, elegant and spare, much like his code.”

I don’t want to say that computer geeks got this from Kernighan; I think that there’s a wide set of folks involved in factual-seeking professions and hobbies that hold similar aspirations, and end up admiring and adopting the same style.

Cover of MICRO Magazine

This morning, I opened a mystery package delivered by the “browsing ebay auctions at 3AM”-fairy. It was a paper copy of this February 1980 issue  of MICRO: The 6502 Magazine purchased for reasons of unstoppable nocturnal nostalgia.

I think even the august editors of MICRO would concede that the writing skills of its contributors were pretty variable. The year 1980 seems to be a seller’s market for 6502 periodical literature: There’s a full-page advert pretty much begging for people to write articles. (They’re paying $50-$100 a page, too, if you want to go back in time.) But for me, that variability is just a great opportunity to watch the Geek Old Semi-Formal style fail and crumble in different ways. The feigned jocularity! The laundry lists! The science paper formalism! I won’t point fingers, but you can flick through this copy of MICRO to see for yourself the rich panoply of Geek Old stylings.

It’s also a style I really have come to enjoy in face-to-face interactions too. There’s just something deeply comforting about sitting and talking slowly and precisely with someone, each of you carefully constructing entirely accurate sentences with little overall variation in tone or pace. Especially by contrast to the usual chit-chat of slapdashing word-sounds together and slinging them out your mouth in order to fill time and show off, between gurning physical expressions  and uncontrollable emotional explosions.

Not that it doesn’t also work for emotions, too. I think of all the times someone I know has flatly, compactly and desperately clearly conveyed their experiences: remaining calm, grammatical and short-sentenced even as the tears stream down their face, and their life fell apart.

I wonder, too, why I associate it with older geeks (older than me, for sure). It smacks a little of the repressed-fifties model of male scientist, though I don’t think of it as entirely gendered; in real life, it seems as strange on men as women. And I see people younger than me adopting it, often comically until they get it right. It’s definitely a bit on-the-spectrum—but I’m not on-the-spectrum and I use it, and aspire to it.

Well, now I’ve felt it so strongly in Christine’s great piece, I’ll start looking for it more, in words and in conversation. And now I have a name to call it!







i am a passenger and i ride and i ride

I’m 48 years old now, and I’ve never learnt to drive. When I was 17, on a deserted street with big ditches either side, my dad and I discovered that I needed new glasses more badly than I needed to learn driving right then.And since then, the time has never seemed right. Brief windows of driving-opportunity have opened and closed around me.

For most of my twenties, I think the collective income of all my housemates could not have paid for a car, and besides, in London, where would we put it? In the sink with the dirty dishes? The move to California was the obvious opportunity. I figured somehow that it would be easier here, and that my people’s collective knowledge of stick shift might give me a head start.

My first American driving instructor simply didn’t believe someone as old as me could not drive. If you’ve ever seen Richard Herring’s Driving Instructor sketch, it was the same, but with a 70 year old J.D. “Boss” Hogg. “Don’t you even know how to drive?

I suppose he thought that if he insisted I drive back from the car-lot, I’d finally snap out of my charade. He held himself in horror as I immersed myself in the role of someone who could not drive — only now I was improvising the not-driving extremely quickly and at random things within sight of the El Camino freeway. I think I was his cue to retire.

After that, I even avoided driving videogames. In 2010, I looked up a San Francisco driving school that specialized in fearful, phobic or just unnaturally old non-drivers. This instructor was much nicer, and would tell me inspiring stories of previous incompetents who had finally got it together under his guidance.

With his careful stewardship, I failed three times, the last time (I swear this is true) before I’d even pulled out of the DMV. The Californian provisional license actually expires if you fail three times, as if you were playing Donkey Kong or something.

Really, the only thing all this car-learning got me was enough to understand that car-driving is madly dangerous,  barely within the capabilities of a baseline human to master. I’d sit in the passenger seat and watch the driver, like Ripley and the marines watched Bishop play the knife game.

At some point, I gave up my dreams of buying a pickup truck and claw back all rideshare debt I’d built up. Instead, I’d tell people that I’d chosen never to learn to drive. Basically, I said, at fifteen I’d anticipated self-driving cars and was just a bit out on the timing. I don’t think I really planned that far ahead — though I did believe as a child that tooth decay would soon be a solved problem, and declined to listen to a bunch of future unemployed doctors tell me to waste years of my life flossing obsolescent teeth. But I  convinced myself of this rationalisation when autonomous vehicles began to be a thing. After that DARPA Grand Challenge footage, I knew I was never going to face my demons. I’d be carried to the doors of heaven by obedient robots.

I’m not entirely rejecting the idea I could learn one day. It feels kind of wantonly ignorant to defy learning to drive. Plus, I’m learning the ukulele, and it can’t be more difficult than that, right? Actually some of my new skills, like managing a chord change while not dropping the instrument, might even be transferable into the motoring context.

But mostly I’m getting pretty good at just accepting my fate, and taking a lot of cabs. Also, I found out on one of those shifty-looking, FDA-unapproved DNA analysis sites, that I actually have a gene which is associated with, scientifically, not being able to get it together in any physical activity more complicated than hopscotch. So if the carbots doesn’t pan out, maybe CRISPR will get me there, faster.




Emergent themes

Look! Another no-publicity big-star tv-imitating-but-not-actually-tv feature! One more, and we shall have a trend!

Looks like the Flirble Organization has finally sublimated. I must write a proper obit for it, and, which held together so much of the early British Internet scene. In the exodus, I’m temporarily stashing my decades-old home domain, on an Amazon instance until I can find it a better home.

It’s pretty hard to navigate AWS’s billing system, but when I did, I found that I’d been paying them 3 cents a month for … quite a while. Digging around, I found that I’d already used it as a potential escape route — I created a backup copy of oblomovka from the time of the Haystack Affair. I don’t know if I ever actually switched Oblomovka over to that after Oblomovka started getting a lot of hits, but it’s been patiently waiting to deal with the failover ever since.

I really can’t escape the distant past in this posting series, can I?

I’ve often wondered what I would have done differently with Haystack, if I had the opportunity to go back in time. It seems like it was one of the first of a general rise in the j’accuse mode of dealing with issues in public infosec projects. I don’t do that sort of activism any more, I think because it’s far too stressful on everyone involved, and had a lot of less than optimal outcomes. The hope is that you can get people out of a bad situation quickly with gentler strategies.

I think this may be another emergent theme, though: large explosions of public group emotional intensity may be suspicious. I am certainly suspicious of them, and these days I actively avoid such events, perhaps a little too much. They are contagious, and defining — and are often effective.

It feels to me that part of the current meta-debate online is how emotion should be moderated online. What emotions should you express? What are you allowed to do or say with emotion as your impetus? Who is showing emotion, and who is showing no emotion? (Think of the discussions about trolling and harassment, of civil behaviour and safe and trusted platforms.) Who is deploying emotion, who is authentically demonstrating their emotion, what emotions can you/should you/must you empathise with. Which ones can you/should you/must you reject?

When I am discussing something intensely online (yes that is a euphemism for “being in a flame-war”), I am very emotional. I pace around, am distracted, am twitchy. A few times I’ve asked the other person in the argument how they feel, and I’m surprised when people say that they’re not feeling any emotion at all. Even when they’re writing twenty replies in an hour. Can that be true? I assume good faith, even in an Internet fistfight, but I find it hard to imagine. I have also noted that I have had to explicitly say I’m feeling emotional, because my written style never indicates that, because I’m usually trying to maintain the form of a “correct” Internet discussion.

It feels like one of the shifts in the last few years has been the acceptability of expressing strong emotion in discussion, especially in public debate. When the first time the tone argument (&c, &c, &c, &c, &c) was identified as a trope in online discussion, was also the place where people realized that being angry didn’t always reduce your points to rubble. That anger might actually help emphasise and underline your point. That it might be dishonest and unbalancing to discredit or put it to one side.

Yet when I say that, I am suffixing the description of this shift with “at least in one of the subcultures that might make a claim to define the broad parameters of Internet discussion.”

But what does *that* mean, in an Internet of billions?

I just spent a good 20 minutes attempting to eke out the first use of the phrase “tone argument.” I’m pretty sure most of my trails end just pre-Racefail, a seminal moment which brought many of these issues to a head in the online English-speaking science fiction community. But note that despite carefully picking out a broad set of sources above, I know at least two of the authors personally, heck I live with one of the founders of the definition sites linked to, and am probably within two hops, or 500 miles of almost all of the other authors. All of them come from political viewpoints that, while scattered across a political spectrum, are shared by a tiny (but growing?) percentage of the population, even in the countries they write from. Those countries, meanwhile, are all Western, and all in the anglosphere.

That parochialism used to be less weird. But given that part of this discussion is about diversity, it begins to get weirder. Much of the form of Internet discussion is formed by the protocols, and later the platforms that dominated it early on. But is it also defined by broad cultural rules that spread through that medium? Barlow’s Declaration has its force because it came from the epicenter. Now it feels like the strongest, most generative part of the current zeitgeist is a critique of that centering. But much of its most forceful forms come from incredibly close to the same epicenters, the same sources.

(I do apologise if none of this makes any sense to you! These are disjointed notes on my thinking than anything more substantial or coherent. I’m also a little weirded out by often I refer to myself in this. I think there’s an eventual version of this that doesn’t sound quite so personal or egocentric, but for now I’m stuck with being inside my own head, a place full of my personal effects.)



I gave up social media for a month, like Lent, yesterday. It was a whim, at heart — I realised I was bouncing like a Pong puck between the stress of work, to evading work by browsing media, to bouncing back off into work from the stress of reading my social media.

After years of gleeful woolgathering, my social media makes me anxious. The Internet and its people: watching them interact now is like watching parents fight. My friends argue, or steam in their own rage, or trot out simple words that provoke me into argument, even when I don’t know or can no longer care what their original intention was. Every tweet had become a poke in the guts. Every notification had me flinching.

Look at my hat! Am I bad for not liking your hat? Am I not liking your hat because it is just a hat, and I am not interested in a hat right now, but I feel pressured to “like” you hat?

These terrible things are happening. Are you angry at me for not doing more? Are you doing even less, and a hypocrite?

These kittens, I acknowledge, are cute. But what about that bad thing I just saw? Are you trying to confuse me?

So I signed off from Twitter and Facebook.

I kept Tumblr, because my Tumblr is a strange distant thing, of a small group of strangers in their twenties I randomly discovered. They are smart and happy and have carefully moderated their distance from the drama surrounding them, even on Tumblr. I watch like a sci-fi scientist might use tachyons to light up the post-apocalyptic tribes of her dismal future. What can I learn from them? Can I use their obvious intelligence and hyper-evolved adaption to their devastated world to change my own fate?

Ironically, the day after I forswore social media, I ended up physically *at* Twitter. @Twitter. There was a meeting to discuss keeping people safe from harassment, which is the absolute pinnacle of the stress I have. All my online hyperventilation comes from the expectation that one day, everything I say (including this paragraph) will be used against me. I sat and chatted with people so abraded by mass harassment that they had a kind of shine to them, a sensitivity and an invulnerability. We argued a bit. We don’t necessarily agree. It was really nice. We’d argue a bit, and then mutter sorry under our breaths, and then find more pleasant things in common to talk about.

I wish I could work out how to map that: that joy of shared communication over exaggerated gulfs, back onto my Internet again.

This bit of the Net still feels okay, at least. I’ll be making camp for the month at least. Maybe longer. I might not write, but I’ll be doing some housekeeping. I’m not trying to be nostalgic. You can join me here if you like.


)))))))))), or the dying words of John McCarthy

It’s now a few months after my 45th birthday, which is almost exactly the date when one can no longer, with any reasonable expectation of acceptance from anyone non-senile, call oneself “young”.

My main regret regarding my youth (and the one I’m sure most of my friends would hurl at me) is that I never actually finished much. Fortunately, one of those things I didn’t finish was my own life, so I still have a few more decades to wrap things up, put matters in order, settle accounts, tie a bow on it all, and so on.

So my new resolution, this year and ongoing is to stop starting new projects, and dedicate the remaining decades of my life to completing all the things that I started and let trail off.

Given my track record, this fortunately gives me an incredible set of audacious feats to carefully back-track and re-establish. These will include:

There’s probably some others, but that seems to be enough for the next forty or so years. The rest I think will be sitting around under a warm duvet of some design and trying to get Haskell things to compile.

Meanwhile, the first project I will officially declare completed is “being young.”

Tick! Check!


Auxiliary Ancillary

I’m greatly enjoying Ancillary Sword, the sequel to Ann Leckie’s Ancillary Justice. Everyone always goes on about Ancillary’s treatment of gender, but my favorite bits are Leckie’s gentle bit-twiddling of almost every other part of the Radch culture compared to the dominant Western default. The Radch idea of beauty tends to the “broad and heavy”. Despite being extremely officious and formal they indulge spoil their children terribly – my favorite scene in the novel so far is a tense social negotiation which is repeatedly interrupted by a one-year old stealing fruit from the protagonists from under their dining table. They have a thing about spiritual corruption and ritual soiling, but don’t seem that worried about toilet manners: one of the aide de camps constantly frets about using the correct tea sets and seating in a rough encampment, but all of the characters don’t seem that bothered by peeing in a bucket.

When a book so successfully paints a vividly strange human culture from the inside like this, I always wonder about how you would present it on television or film, where the audience has to begin at least as an outsider. (The Ancillary series has already been optioned for TV.)

My thought with the Imperial Radch would be to begin the film with, under the credits, a very slow and silent and precise sequence of Radch soldier dressing formally, reflected through a mirror so the soldier is looking straight into the camera. The Radch uniform is fairly muted and militaristic to begin with, but with placing each of those small pinned tokens, you could get the precision of it very well. It also gives time to notice the gender neutrality of the actor’s face, hands, and allow it to become normalized.


PRISM, Verizon: Surprise!

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

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

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

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

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


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?”





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…


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

When the magic smoke escapes

Drunkenly confessing all with Brady Forrest last week:

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

“Was it Lion for you too?”

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

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

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

My stumbling points on that enforced march:

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

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

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

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

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

Also, I spilled Coke on my keyboard.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

On saying goodbye to Mac hardware

“My new name for you will be clattering monkey”

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

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

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

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

On the X220’s aura

At Noisebridge:

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

“What kind?”

“A Thinkpad X220

“Hahahaha! Well, that’s a surprise.”

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

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

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

On the moral purity of Debian

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

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

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

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

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

On the post-multi-national status of GNOME

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

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

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

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


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