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Archive for the ‘Indulgent’ Category

2022-08-18

no words

I’ve been having a bit of a rollercoaster time at work; nothing you need to bother your giant head about, but this week has been a mix of incredible highs, and also some really hard introspection.

One of them, which will seem silly to regular readers of this blog (who are the only ones left right now, and I’m not even sure what “regular” means in this context), is having to admit to a co-worker that I have terrible writer’s block and have had for… ooh, thirty years or so? I remember reading somewhere that “writer’s block didn’t exist” and I think that added another couple of decades to my refusal to really take it seriously. That and at least two book deals, careers in scriptwriting and journalism, and a perpetual sense that I was failing at the one thing people expected me to do.

Well, you know, I have taken it seriously — lots of therapy where we’d eventually get around to it as a topic, that whole “lifehacks” side-tour, endless agonising and bending the ear and wetting the shoulder of my closest confidants. But I’ve never really said it in a work context as a thing that people need to watch out for.

Mostly, I just say I will try to do better. But I really don’t; this is who I am. To give you an example: these days I’m practically a walking Oral Tradition — I don’t write memos at work, I give hour long internal talks, and fill up meetings with these improvisational marvels of ad-libbed wisdom that amaze me, even as they probably bore or annoy a sizeable chunk of my co-workers (though they are all really nice about it).

Of course, I’ve had that thought where I just go, hey, maybe I could just speak to a microphone, and transcribe all of this genius and magically turn it from mid-brow hand-waving into high-status prose. Somehow it doesn’t work that way.

Anyway, usually this kind of post ends with me dedicating myself to you, regular reader, and promising to blog more, or what have you. Followed by another six months or more of silence. I know enough to know not to say that now, and bring down the curse. But I guess what I am feeling is a sense that even if I don’t write it’s time to saddle up again and try and push the ideas out there, with a keyboard, or a prosc arch or livestream or something. It’s never too late to start, and it’s always too early to end.

2019-02-17

Stream of conscientiousness

I had a list of new year’s resolutions this year, which I wrote and then forgot about, but at some level have been trying to complete ever since. Let me dig them up; hold on. Ah, here they are.

Well, I’m not losing any weight, but I am managing to live stream pretty often. I share a weird corner of the streaming world, where amateur programmers show strangers their screens and their faces while they do random coding. Mostly it happens on Twitch TV, which has cornered the market in esports and mass live video demonstrations of gaming prowess. Twitch TV also streams the long tail of what it used to call “Creative” — enthusiasts building PCs, drawing pictures, messing with clay, and growing chickens. After a mixed beginning (where you could see Twitch trying avoid turning into a video sexworker marketplace, or just troll central), Twitch has clearly developed a fondness for these corner cases. Maybe it’s because they hark back to when it used to be Justin TV, and people showing you things they did was all it had.

Anyway, I’m hovering at the bottom of the “Science & Technology” category(!), a long way away from the 13 million followers of gamers like Ninja, and honestly a fair bit below popular coders like Al “The Best Python Teacher I Know Of” Sweigart, game developers like ShmellyOrc, and even other Lisp-exploring streams like Baggers and the mysterious algorithmic trader Inostdal. It’s okay though. I’m doing this for my own entertainment and sanity: livestreaming, for reasons that I’m still trying to understand, snapped me out of depression a year ago. (It’s not called Code Therapy for nothing.) Plus I’ve always enjoyed playing to small rooms, if they’re full of good people.

Anyway, as they say, subscribe and follow, follow and subscribe. Set it up to notify when I’m streaming, and come sit with me sometime. We’ll have a safely mediated chat, through protocols and stacks and obscene amounts of bandwidth.

2019-02-15

living with guile

Liz is BLOGGING LOUDLY next to me, inspiring me to write in her wake. I do have plenty to say, but most of it is wrapped around work, and consequently needs to bake a little before I reveal it to the world. I love my job, but there’s a part of me that’s sad at how little I can talk informally about. Law firms are taciturn places by nature, and my own work is so … frequently diplomatic. Oh well, it all appears eventually, in some form or another.

Meanwhile, in real life, I continue to hack on my guile ‘n’ guix constructed machine. I submitted my first guix patch! My approach to this laptop is to make only the most incremental of changes when I absolutely feel I need to do them. So, for instance, I wanted to submit that patch, so I set up mail — but only outgoing email. I admit to some fripperies: I’ve just discovered that recent Xft/cairo/fontconfig/something support color emojis, and so I splashed out on fonts. But otherwise, it’s interesting cobbling everything slowly from scratch.


2018-02-01

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!

 

 

 

 

 

2018-01-23

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.

 

 

2016-02-11

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 plum.flirble.org, which held together so much of the early British Internet scene. In the exodus, I’m temporarily stashing my decades-old home domain, spesh.com 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.)

2016-02-05

Anti-Social

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.

2014-11-29

)))))))))), 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!

2014-11-22

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.

2013-06-06

PRISM, Verizon: Surprise!

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

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

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

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

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

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                           

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