a glob of nerdishness

February 20, 2012

Freelance in a teeming creation

written by natevw @ 6:21 pm

The crew at &yet is an honest team, a friendly team, a world-class team — a Good team! — and yet for some reason it never could stay feeling like my team. So I never became comfortable inflicting my ideas upon it. After so many months of alternately trying to change and trying to ignore that fact, I still craved a little more time and freedom away from my responsibilities there. Now I have generous amounts of both.

Now it’s time to stop thinking what could have been — with the first Calf Trail, with the previous team — and start working wisely on what should be.

Practically, this means I’m now a freelance software developer. There’s a big distinction between “freelance” and “independent”. What I’m setting out to do, I can’t do alone.

I’m depending on clients to apply my strengths to their markets. I’m depending on friends to cover my weaknesses with their sight (and insight). I’m depending on family to keep me healthy and homed. I’m depending on faith, to not disappoint when all I’m really after is all that is left.

Freelance means I am dependent on all of creation but possessed by none of it. This, I fiercely believe, is how life here should be.

December 5, 2011

Beyond 1984

written by natevw @ 4:08 pm

A few weeks after writing that personal computers are no longer quite what they could be, I came across an article declaring that The Personal Computer Is Dead — with the implication being that this is not quite what it should be.

Jonathan Zittrain, in this article (which you should read) and in his book (which I should read), argues that a society in which a few corporations completely control our devices in the name of security, and to better serve their profitholders — that a society which allows that will ultimately end up an un-safe, and un-growing, society. So we should be building up and building on platforms that don’t discourage freedom and sharing and other similarly unpatriotic ideas.

Which is half, but not the better half, of my little Beyond 1984 project.

I’m tempted to say the other half is about homeland-warming things like such as in money making and consumer happiness. But that’s a cynical take. The other half is about putting away cynicism. We already have Zittrain’s “angry nerds”: they’re the Stallmanites, the cypherpunks, the anarcho-pacifists and other tinfoil-hat flouride-fearers that you’d never want at your company Christmas party.

Angry nerds? Angry nerds are a dime a dozen! We’re the solution to what exactly now?

Meanwhile, Twitter’s repressed are excited that maybe Google+Path can re-centralize the violence inherent in Facebook — O frabjous day! And if that’s already more than what 99% of computer owners care about, it’s certainly not the world’s richest 1% who are going to patronize the development of a free society either.

So the other half of going Beyond 1984 is going not so much by avoiding what’s wrong with the Orwellian but by embracing what’s good. Embracing well-distributed, privacy-respecting, citizen-empowering hardware and software designs may be a worthwhile goal — or maybe not.

I don’t imagine anger, or fear, or even schadenfreude, can inspire much great industrial design. Angry nerds like me need to go beyond building systems that are Anti-Ungood. Going beyond what 1984 represents will require abandoning those themes ourselves.

So that’s what this little Beyond 1984 project is: researching libertarian technology, if it could be built for healthy reasons.

November 14, 2011

Triumph of the Nerds

written by natevw @ 10:27 pm

I love the history of personal computers — we’ve gone from the Altair 8800 to the Kindle Fire. We’ve gained so much, but I worry we’ve lost sight of something along the way.


We’ve gone from blatantly complicated devices that Only Nerds Control, to superficially simple devices…that Only Nerds Control.

Somehow it is cheaper to build iCloud on top of a new $1 billion data center across the country than on, say, a couple hard drives attached to an Airport Extreme in my living room and yours.

One billion dollars.

That’s what storing our data is worth to Apple.

They aren’t the only ones giving away the mainframe to sell the…the what? “If you are not paying for it, you’re not the customer…”

…though that’s not always the full story. Of the biggest datacenters: only Google and Facebook simply sell our Attention. Amazon mostly asks for our Acquirings. Apple hopes to earn our iAllegiance.

It’s worth, by their estimation, over one Billion dollars.

The end result is that Personal Computers are no longer quite what they could be.

We’ve outsourced backups, we’ve outsourced shared storage, we’ve outsourced network security. These were once luxuries of only the dedicatedly computer-savvy.
We value these luxuries enough to give up whatever it is the big iron gets for providing them.
We’ve outsourced ourselves.
We’ve gotten some very accessible technology — in exchange for our previous privacy, our former fraternity and our iNdividuality.
Us nerds escaped centralized mainframes for complete computers we could call our own.
But now we’re escaping back to centralized mainframes which complete computers we could call our own.
Our users’ computers, or perhaps the computerized “users” themselves, we can now own.
And we’re finding it quite profitable.
Is this okay? Or —
Is this some 1% winning?
Is this just economies of scale?
Or is this a tragedy of the commons?
The joke is the jocks start with the power in school, which buys them nothing, and the nerds end up with the power in the rat race, which buys them yachts. A better triumph of the nerds would be changing the world order, rather than controlling it.
Or so I suspect.

October 20, 2011

Creating a self-signed S/MIME certificate for Mac and iOS 5 email

written by natevw @ 12:43 pm

Today I needed to send some passwords to someone over the internet again. The recipient recommended using PGP/GPG to send an encrypted email, but unfortunately that protocol appears to be quite a hacky hassle if you use the built-in email clients on Apple’s (and apparently Microsoft’s) platforms.

Fortunately, iOS 5 just added support for a more standard protocol called S/MIME, and so I had recently come across a nice article on setting up secure email on both Mac OS X and iOS 5. Since I mostly want S/MIME for email encryption rather than signing (there’s a good overview of the distinction on its Wikipedia article) I decided to just create a self-signed pair rather than procuring a certificate from some annoying, overpaid and insecure centralized certificate “authority” as that article recommends.

Creating a self-signed S/MIME certificate is actually very quick and relatively easy using the Keychain app that comes with Mac OS X, but I wanted to document the process as getting a certificate that Mail recognizes did require overriding at least one of the assistant’s defaults:

Update: Turns out Mozilla Thunderbird will not accept the certificates generated through this process. I’ve had success by creating a standalone personal certificate authority and then using that to sign a user-only certificate. I need to test it a bit more before writing it up here, but it might be a bit simpler process in the end.

  1. In the Keychain utility application’s menu, choose “Create a Certificate…”:
    Self-signed S/MIME certificate creation, figure 1
  2. I had to override the defaults primarily so I could include my email address necessary for Mail.app to use it:
    Self-signed S/MIME certificate creation, figure 2
  3. Confirm that self-signed is okay
  4. I just accepted the default serial number (1) and validity period (365 days)
  5. Then the part where you enter (at least) the email address you want to use this certificate with:
    Self-signed S/MIME certificate creation, figure 3
  6. For the actual keypair, I went with DSA mostly just because:
    Self-signed S/MIME certificate creation, figure 4
  7. I unchecked all the certificate metadata stuff in the next 4 steps, you can try playing with it but didn’t seem worth the complication:
    Self-signed S/MIME certificate creation, figure 5
  8. Then just have the assistant create it in your login keychain unless you have some different setup. It will take a bit to generate the keypair.
  9. Once it’s created you’ll need to find the certificate and double click it…
    Self-signed S/MIME certificate creation, figure 6
  10. …so that you can manually trust it for at least S/MIME:
    Self-signed S/MIME certificate creation, figure 7

Once you’ve done that, you’ve taken care of the “The Certificate” step and can just follow the rest of the instructions in Ars Technica’s “How to secure your e-mail under Mac OS X and iOS 5 with S/MIME” article using the certificate you created instead of one from some corporation.

There is one major drawback to a self-signed (decentralized) certificate. As you’ve seen yourself after creating your certificate, it will not be trusted by default — only several dozen corporations and governments and rogue nations are trusted to forge certificates; you are not on any platform’s pre-approved issuer list. So: after you give your public key to your email contacts (as will be necessary for them to decrypt your messages) they will have to repeat steps 9 and 10 above to manually trust your self-signed certificate on their own machine.

July 2, 2011

Parting questions for PalmHP

written by natevw @ 2:51 pm

To be clear, I LIKE webOS and want it to succeed. :/
Steven Frank, 2011 July 1

One of my first memories of Palm’s new “New Palm” thing was when they were in the papers every month for making their first webOS device pretend to be an iPod. For USB syncing purposes. Clever way to get some free advertising from MacRumors, but you know what? I hate what iTunes has become and loved being able to just drag and drop MP3 files onto my Palm Pre 2.

Anyone wanna buy a Palm Pre 2?

I tried to love it, just like how for years I’d been trying to love the heavy, bulky reel mower I also bought online. It’s good for the ecosystem, it’s got some very very nice qualities designed into it…

I’ve decided I don’t like either the lawnmower or the smartphone. And while I don’t need perfect landscaping in an efficient amount of time or energy, with greater responsibility at work comes greater need to join the same technological century as the rest of the world. Even though I’ve owned a Palm Pre 2 since last December, it’s never felt okay nor have I had room for it on my person. Thus it was not until this week that I became a cellphone person.

More honestly: I am now an iPhone people. It seems like such a silly insignificant change to go from having an iPod touch always in my pocket to an iPhone always in my pocket, but for me it is a defeat.

When something fails I wanna know why. So here are some poignant, probing questions that will magically make Palm/HP awesome again:Good questions are hard please read the following rants instead:

  • what’s with the HP logo when my phone reboots? The original palm wordmark was a reserved, artistic logo. The new .(h|p)*…thing is a glowing gradient of a corporate wart that only calls all the nice things the Palm people have said about their acquisition into question.
  • for example. why is “http://h41112.www4.hp.com/promo/webos/us/en/smartphones/pre3.html” the URL for the Palm Pre 3 (and why is it down while I’m trying to gather info for this post?)
  • why is the Palm Pre 3 still only [no worky web page, no getty authoritative tech specs...] X millimeters “thin”-ner than the mainframe computer I am typing this on?
  • why does it still have a stupid slidey keyboard thing that I could never shake the feeling would remain in my pocket when I accidentally pulled out only the other half?
  • why, after I really really really wanted to love my Palm Pre 2 but couldn’t, am I now completely uninterested in any incremental non-improvement you’ve not really made at all since then? Since the very first Pre?!
  • I know HP used to be a great company and all, but can you please just license the poor operating system that still somehow shows the most spectacular promise of being potentially both usable and open, try taking it and licensing it to a company that might actually be capable of combining it with some decent hardware before it’s too late?
  • and also: I said “potentially spectacular” operating system, not “actually spectacular”. Pls to put a hard-driving perfectionist in charge of software. No more Mr. Nice People, otherwise only Mr. Nice People will be able to say Mr. Nice Things about the promising prototype-grade rubbish you keep. shipping.
  • Buying an iPhone was a defeat because now i’mStuck with iCloud instead of a Synergy plugin that could talk to data on a server I control. Now i’mStuck with iStore monopolies instead of your fun official instructions for owning the device I bought. Now i’mStuck with the same iPhone that everyone else and their soccer mothers all sport like a luxury item because a truly useful phone still is — and it’s cheaper than yours!

    But the saddest thing about it all is that this sticks me with an even better web browser — w00t! — than I got on a platform called webOS. So even while Apple keeps shoving native adults into a sandbox, they’ve also been pushing web technologies up towards where I suspect native vs. web will meet: the same amount of power, but on the latter: the freedom to innovate that only a real platform can provide.

    The web is the only tool developers have left. I feel defeated because it’s not thriving as or even on anyone else’s operating system and I don’t know what that means.

    October 23, 2010

    The final straw

    written by natevw @ 4:35 pm

    From Calf Trail’s farewell post:

    With the announcement of the Mac App Store, Apple has broken any lingering hope I had for one day succeeding at indie Mac development. Being treated as a responsible adult, innovating without restriction, connecting directly with customers, and being able to fix my mistakes quickly — the things I cherished most about my job at Calf Trail — are being gradually replaced by a “submission” process.

    Today I gave all my Cocoa code to github; up for adoption or left for hospice care, I don’t know.

    May 22, 2010

    The right Orwell

    written by natevw @ 12:39 pm

    I’ve sneered at Apple for calling the iPhone, iPod touch and iPad “revolutionary” when their App Store’s economic model seems a bit outmoded. But the devices are impressive, and while Orwellian comparisons referencing the 1984 ad are fun I haven’t been totally convinced of the analogy. Thought control is really more Google’s goal: knowing the world’s information and making it universally adsensable. All Apple control is the means to publication (German: Publikationsmittel) on their revolutionary new cropland.

    Orwell’s 1984 wasn’t about a revolution and its metaphors are more apt for pervasive, world domination type situations. Orwell did write another book, however: a much funner read that just happened to be all about a revolution. So without further ado, I present:

    The Animal Farm SDK Agreement

    I wonder — what will be this revolution’s “Four legs good, two legs better” moment?

    April 12, 2010

    Glastnost sold separately

    written by natevw @ 12:39 pm

    Last week Apple held a press event and updated their developer agreements in anticipation of a major upgrade to their iPhone OS. One change in the App Store rules has been generating quite a lot of news: Apple now forbids writing applications using anything but native tools.

    Much has been written about what this means for cross-platform toolkits, game engines and advanced programming techniques. Certainly, if this rule is taken to its logical conclusion, App Store developers can’t even invent programs in the shower. In short, Apple continues to bring “innovation” to their digitally restricted “revolution”.

    But I agree with Michael Tsai in this article: “I doubt that Apple cares whether applications use libraries or interpreters or parser-generators for their engines.”

    It’s surprising to me how many dozens of articles have focused on a tiny little extension of Apple’s incredible power over App Store developers. The written rules have changed a bit: so what? Apps still get rejected for all sorts of unwritten reasons or just sit unapproved for “continued study”.

    Why is this? The official answer came last week, and it’s straight out of Orwell’s 1984: “There’s a porn store for Android…so we’re not going to [stop censoring apps].”

    Translation: “We have triumphed over the unprincipled dissemination of facts.” to quote from Apple’s own “1984″. Either Steve Jobs has been buried by the confusion of his own Doublethink, or he is a liar. There is nothing right about pornography, but the best solution Apple can come up with is dressing every iPhone, iPod touch and iPad in a corporate burqa, strings attached to their Cupertino Ministry of Plenty?

    So Android owners have the freedom to succumb to sensual lust, just like iPhone users can browse to any site they desire in Mobile Safari. It’s not the business of any corporation to have any say in what freedoms me or my children have. All Apple needs to do is take the provisioning infrastructure they’ve had in place for years, and give the user the right to decide which developers to trust. That’s all.

    Until then, we are talking ourselves to death. I am certain now that either Apple hates the App Store and loves the HTML-based SDK they originally announced, or they love power and hate independent developers. Against evidence, I’ll give them the benefit of the doubt and go with the first option.

    Web applications must overcome many technological, usability and privacy deficiencies. They cannot (or at least, should not) provide a native experience on most devices. Dealing with broad spectrum of screen sizes and browser capabilities slows down web development. While this means I won’t have time to whine much about some megalomaniacal yet innovative corporation down in California, it also means it will be an interesting challenge. And I do like interesting challenges.

    I hope I’ve made myself abundantly clear through my many tweets and blog posts on this tired subject. I no longer have time to waste thinking, complaining or explaining about the dystopia of App Store development. Just as I enjoy listening to the music of Shostakovich despite the influence of Soviet censorship, there are so many beautiful and user-friendly apps that have been approved for these devices. I am happy that there are developers willing to produce under the conditions.

    I’ll be even happier if a free world of decentralized Web technologies can compete well enough to encourage Perestroika in the motherland. Maybe then I can return. Until then, I’ve got some work cut out for me.

    January 29, 2010

    A story NOT about iBooks.app

    written by natevw @ 10:35 am

    Some fellow perfects the bound book. He threatens to have drawn and quartered anyone who tries to make a similarly improved book. Then he says to the writers, “If I like what you write, I’ll bind it as one of my books and give you most of the profits.”

    Some experienced writers say, “Silly books, clay tablets are so much better at knocking sense into people. Part ye from my paddock, fellow!”

    But this man’s books are very well made. And so long as you don’t write a sequel to one of his own stories, or speak against his friend the mayor, you can make a good bit of money writing bound books. Most writers respond, “Books are clearly the future, and look how good they are for the readers!”

    But there’s this other crowd. They’re not really writers, because they spend most of their time patting themselves on the back and talking about politics and how the future isn’t clay tablets or bound books, because papyrus scales so much better. Some of them are stitching their scrolls together so they can be read kind of like books. These scroll-books are a bit awkward to page through, but you can read them in any library branch and even sign some of them out for a few weeks.

    Now the interesting part of this story is that scrolls and, by extension, scroll-books can actually be used on clay tablets and between any sort of book cover, including our book-binding fellow’s. The analogy is falling apart now, so I’ll finish explaining my previous post more directly.

    No cheap, flimsy Chrome OS netbook will have more necessary features or be more pleasant to use than the iPad. I am also sure that native, platform-specific applications will always be superior to web-apps. What I am saying is this: until we can develop native iPhone/iPod/iPad/iPony applications with our First Amendment rights intact, making “native Chrome OS applications” (i.e., web apps) is the only way to publish independent software for Apple’s newest and best devices.

    January 28, 2010

    A Gradual Divestment

    written by natevw @ 10:13 pm

    I’ve been thinking about the last two years’ investment on a number of levels. Regarding the platform I chose, I’ve been struggling to find the right words for several months. I came across them today, at the end of a dead-on post by Alex Payne:

    Wherever we stand in digital history, the iPad leaves me with the feeling that Apple’s interests and values going forward are deeply divergent from my own.

    I’m most energetic while inventing a self-contained tool to improve some aspect of life. Writing native software for OS X was a dream come true. I hope the Mac’s open platform has many good years left, but it’s time I learn to enjoy building native software for Chrome OS as well.

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