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"Far Beyond the Stars" and Visionary Fiction

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An essay about a Deep Space Nine episode and the ability of fiction to combat oppression.
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brennen
1 day ago
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Boulder, CO
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brennen
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The castle on the keyboard

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In March, the graphic artist Susan Kare, who is best known for designing the fonts and icons for the original Apple Macintosh, was awarded a medal of recognition from the professional organization AIGA. It occurred to me to write a post about her work, but when I opened a gallery of her designs, I found myself sidetracked by an unexpected sensation. I felt happy. Looking at those familiar images—the Paintbrush, the Trash Can, even the Bomb—brought me as close as I’ve come in a long time to what Proust describes after taking a bite of the madeleine in the first volume of In Search of Lost Time:

Just as the Japanese amuse themselves by filling a porcelain bowl with water and steeping in it little crumbs of paper which until then are without character or form, but, the moment they become wet, stretch themselves and bend, take on color and distinctive shape, become flowers or houses or people, permanent and recognizable, so in that moment all the flowers in our garden…and the good folk of the village and their little dwellings and the parish church and the whole of Combray and of its surroundings, taking their proper shapes and growing solid, sprang into being, town and gardens alike, from my cup of tea.

In my case, it wasn’t a physical location that blossomed into existence, but a moment in my life that I’ve tried repeatedly to evoke here before. I was in my early teens, which isn’t a great period for anyone, and I can’t say that I was content. But for better or worse, I was becoming whatever I was supposed to be, and throughout much of that process, Kare’s icons provided the inescapable backdrop.

You could argue that nostalgia for computer hardware is a fairly recent phenomenon that will repeat itself in later generations, with children who are thirteen or younger today feeling equally sentimental toward devices that their parents regard with indifference—and you might be right. But I think that Kare’s work is genuinely special in at least two ways. One is that it’s a hallmark of perhaps the last time in history when a personal computer could feel like a beguiling toy, rather than an indispensable but utilitarian part of everyday life. The other is that her icons, with their handmade look and origins, bear the impression of another human being’s personality in ways that would all but disappear within a few years. As Alexandra Lange recounts in a recent profile of Kare:

In 1982, [Kare] was a sculptor and sometime curator when her high-school friend Andy Hertzfeld asked her to create graphics for a new computer that he was working on in California. Kare brought a Grid notebook to her job interview at Apple Computer. On its pages, she had sketched, in pink marker, a series of icons to represent the commands that Hertzfeld’s software would execute. Each square represented a pixel. A pointing finger meant “Paste.” A paintbrush symbolized “MacPaint.” Scissors said “Cut.” Kare told me about this origin moment: “As soon as I started work, Andy Hertzfeld wrote an icon editor and font editor so I could design images and letterforms using the Mac, not paper,” she said. “But I loved the puzzle-like nature of working in sixteen-by-sixteen and thirty-two-by-thirty-two pixel icon grids, and the marriage of craft and metaphor.”

That same icon editor, or one of its successors, was packaged with the Mac that I used, and I vividly remember clicking on that grid myself, shaping the building blocks of the interface in a way that seems hard to imagine now.

And Kare seems to have valued these aspects of her work even at the time. There’s a famous series of photos of her in a cubicle at Apple in 1984, leaning back in her chair with one New Balance sneaker propped against her desk, looking impossibly cool. In one of the pictures, if you zoom in on the shelf of books behind her, it’s possible to make out a few titles, including the first edition of Symbol Sourcebook by Henry Dreyfuss, with an introduction by none other than R. Buckminster Fuller. Kare has spoken highly of this book elsewhere, most notably in an interview with Alex Pang of Stanford, to whom she explained:

One of my favorite parts of the book is its list of hobo signals, that hobos used to contact each other when they were on the road. They look like they’re in chalk on stones…When you’re desperate for an idea—some icons, like the piece of paper, are no problem; but others defy the visual, like “undo”—you look at things like hobo signs. Like this: “Man with a gun lives here.” Now, I can’t say that anything in this book is exactly transported into the Macintosh interface, but I think I got a lot of help from this, just thinking. This kind of symbol appeals to me because it had to be really simple, and clear to a group of people who were not going to be studying these for years in academia. I don’t understand a lot of them—“These people are rich” is a top hat and a triangle—but I always had that at Apple. I still use it, and I’m grateful for it.

And it seems likely that this was the “symbol dictionary” in which Kare discovered the Bowen Knot, a symbol once used to indicate “interesting features” at Swedish campgrounds, which lives on as the Command icon on the Mac.

According to Kare, the Bowen Knot originally represented a castle with four turrets, and if you’re imaginative enough, you can imagine it springing into being from the keys to either side of the space bar, like the village from Proust’s teacup. Like the hobo signs, Kare’s icons are a system of signals left to those who might pass by in the future, and the fact that they’ve managed to survive at Apple in even a limited way is something of a miracle in itself. (As the tech journalist Mike Murphy recently wrote: “For whatever reason, Apple looks and acts far more like a luxury brand than a consumer-technology brand in 2018.” And there isn’t much room in that business for castles or hobo signs.) When you click through the emulated versions of the earliest models of the Macintosh on the Internet Archive, it can feel like a temporary return to those values, or like a visit to a Zen garden. Yet if we only try to recapture it, we miss the point. Toward the end of In Search of Lost Time, Proust experiences a second moment of revelation, when he stumbles in a courtyard and catches himself “on a flagstone lower than the one next it,” which reminds him of a similar sensation that he had once felt at the Baptistry of St. Mark in Venice. And what he says of this flash of insight reminds me of how I feel when I look at the Happy Mac, and all the possibilities that it once seemed to express:

As at the moment when I tasted the madeleine, all my apprehensions about the future, all my intellectual doubts, were dissipated. Those doubts which had assailed me just before, regarding the reality of my literary gifts and even regarding the reality of literature itself were dispersed as though by magic…Merely repeating the movement was useless; but if…I succeeded in recapturing the sensation which accompanied the movement, again the intoxicating and elusive vision softly pervaded me, as though it said, “Grasp me as I float by you, if you can, and try to solve the enigma of happiness I offer you.”



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brennen
2 days ago
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Bloop! Audible Error Logs

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As a frequent deployer of software, I’m usually watching several different flavors of system monitoring all at the same time. A few logstash dashboards in a few browser windows, a few grafana dashboards, a few different logs being tailed in a few different tmux windows.

If it all goes wrong during a deployment – if the error log suddenly explodes – I want to know. Even if I’m looking at another metric, or at IRC, or at my email – I want to know about log explosion immediately.

So I made a thing that plays a little noise whenever a new line is recieved on stdin. I call it Bloop!

And I’ve been using it to tail logs like:

ssh logsever -- tail -f /var/log/important/error.log | bloop -s

So now my stomach drops when I hear, “bloop…bloop…blobloopboopbloop”.

I’m sure this thing has been build a million times because it’s a braindead-simple idea, but I couldn’t find the right words to search for it so I made new one. Now all I need is an EKG monitor so I can see how much this bloop thing makes my heart rate match the overall error rate.

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brennen
2 days ago
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GitHub: quo vadis?

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As GitHub user #139 I feel compelled to say something about GitHub getting bought by Microsoft.

I still remember, back when GitHub was founded, I was both thrilled and frightened. Thrilled, because the three founders managed to bootstrap a startup the right way: profitable from day one, focussed on a single, successful product, that did what people wanted. I told myself that if I’d ever do a startup, I’d do it like them. (Yet they took venture capital in 2012 and 2015 and as a result grew from 50 to over 800 employees by now, making loss at least in 2016 until they changed their business plans.)

Why was I frightened? I saw GitHub was immedately getting very successful, and many people, especially in the Ruby community, moved their projects to it, creating both a monopoly and a single point of failure.

One of my most successful projects, Rack, was converted from Darcs to Git in May 2008. I put it on GitHub (which was only a few months old by then) about that time, but I also provided my own Git mirror on own infrastructure. However, development quickly shifted to GitHub only, mostly because pull requests and issues were very convenient. Over time, my skepticism vanished, using GitHub was a no-brainer, and while occasional outages remembered us of the central position GitHub is in, we didn’t do anything.

Let me emphasize a few ways GitHub vastly improved my own open source work: finally, it was easy to report issues for many projects, without having to register yet another Bugzilla account, and issues could easily link issues at other projects. GitHub made it simple to quickly look into the actual source of many projects in a straight-forward way, without having to figure out CVS checkouts or fetch tarballs. It was easy to see which people contribute to which projects, and I discovered some cool projects this way.

So, now they are getting bought by Microsoft. I’m sad that they are getting bought at all, because I think it’s very important that such a central piece of the open source community stays independent of major software vendors. As for getting bought by Microsoft, I cannot share the enthusiasm many have: it is still a huge company that makes its profits primarily from proprietary, closed-source software and vendor lock-in, and while their management certainly changed a lot in the last decade, who knows how long this will last. Worse buyers are easily imaginable, however.

It is therefore sensible to think of alternatives to GitHub. Contrary to many, I don’t think switching to alternative offerings such as GitLab.com, BitBucket or SourceForge significantly improves the situation: while GitHub’s monopoly could get whittled down, we are still dependent on another for-profit company that is likely to be acquired by a major corporation sooner or later, too.

As for my own projects, I plan to be moving the most part of my recent projects (so called leahutils) from GitHub to a self-hosted solution. The details are not fixed yet, but I have enough experience with GitLab that I’m sure I’ll use something else. For these projects, I also have different needs compared to what GitHub offered: I’m often the sole committer, and I prefer receiving patches by mail and refining them myself rather than telling people how to improve their pull requests. So likely, I’ll set up a mix of cgit and public-inbox, and adopt a quite different workflow.

Other projects I’m involved in, most importantly VoidLinux, are far more dependent on outside contributions and having access to CI infrastructure, which already makes it hard to move away from GitHub and Travis. For now we’ve decided to stick to GitHub, as there are more pressing issues currently, and we don’t expect GitHub to go haywire anytime soon. Still, our autonomy as an open source project is something we need to bethink more often and take care of.

NP: Julia Weldon—Comatose Hope

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brennen
5 days ago
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the single most important criteria when replacing Github

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I could write a lot of things about the Github acquisition by Microsoft. About Github's embrace and extend of git, and how it passed unnoticed by people who now fear the same thing now that Microsoft is in the picture. About the stultifying effects of Github's centralization, and its retardant effect on general innovation in spaces around git and software development infrastructure.

Instead I'd rather highlight one simple criteria you can consider when you are evaluating any git hosting service, whether it's Gitlab or something self-hosted, or federated, or P2P[1], or whatever:

Consider all the data that's used to provide the value-added features on top of git. Issue tracking, wikis, notes in commits, lists of forks, pull requests, access controls, hooks, other configuration, etc.
Is that data stored in a git repository?

Github avoids doing that and there's a good reason why: By keeping this data in their own database, they lock you into the service. Consider if Github issues had been stored in a git repository next to the code. Anyone could quickly and easily clone the issue data, consume it, write alternative issue tracking interfaces, which then start accepting git pushes of issue updates and syncing all around. That would have quickly became the de-facto distributed issue tracking data format.

Instead, Github stuck it in a database, with a rate-limited API, and while this probably had as much to do with expediency, and a certain centralized mindset, as intentional lock-in at first, it's now become such good lock-in that Microsoft felt Github was worth $7 billion.

So, if whatever thing you're looking at instead of Github doesn't do this, it's at worst hoping to emulate that, or at best it's neglecting an opportunity to get us out of the trap we now find ourselves in.


[1] Although in the case of a P2P system which uses a distributed data structure, that can have many of the same benefits as using git. So, git-ssb, which stores issues etc as ssb messages, is just as good, for example.

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brennen
5 days ago
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