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Articles tagged with "rant"

On physical books and horses

I originally envisioned this post as a two-part brain dump, but then I realized that the type of people interested in libraries are also the type of people who aren't bothered by long text. So this post will be longer than usual.

Now that we are almost a quarter into the 21st century it is perhaps time to have the talk: what do we do with our public libraries?

I'd like to start by pointing out that I love libraries. I love the feeling of being surrounded by books, picking one of them at random and reading a couple pages -- sometimes I put the book back after a few seconds, and sometimes I rush to the nearest chair and remain there until it's dark outside. Having said that, I also realize that I'm only focusing on what libraries are instead of what they could be.

Part I: books

Physical books are awesome: paper is relatively inexpensive, lasts a long time, doesn't hurt your eyes, can survive some natural disasters, requires no electricity, an can be easily recycled if a book is really bad. Having said that, paper is also heavy, flammable, and duplicating its content takes work.

A book's physicality is both its blessing and its curse. The New York Society Library acquires 4800 books a year, meaning that they also need a plan for getting rid of 4800 books a year. What happens to those books is a touchy subject. History is full of brilliant artists who didn't get recognized during their time, but 90% of all books are crap. How to strike a balance between both extremes is a full-time job.

I am a fan of physical books. But I wouldn't be honest if I didn't consider that maybe I like them just because that's what I grew up with, the same way my dad's coworkers rejected computers because a calculator was all they ever needed. And I am willing to bet that, about a hundred years ago, someone somewhere must have rejected cars for being cold and boring in comparison to the horse they brushed and cuddled every day.

It isn't hard to imagine a library without physical books. You would simply show up to the reception desk, pick a tablet (or bring your own), sit in one of the multiple available couches (with all the books gone, there's plenty room for them), and browse the virtual catalog. No need for queues, no book needs ever be thrown away, and you could even do it from the comfort of your house.

(Note that "don't throw anything away" sounds suspiciously similar to hoarding, but we won't get into that today)

But this is where I worry: why stop there? If you can check out books from anywhere, why even have a building? Just make it a webpage that everyone can access. All you need to do is add Digital Restrictions Management (DRM) and you no longer need to worry about people making unauthorized copies and/or lending your books to non-members. It is also a very convenient way of getting rid of problematic books: one simple command and voilĂ !, the book is gone from every library in the country. And as a plus, you don't need to fight anymore with those pesky librarians who refuse to hand over library records without a court order.

Which touches on an important point: that if you were to invent the concept of a library today, you would be labeled a pirate and sued. A library is an inconvenient institution: it is not run for profit, it facilitates copyrighted material, and it provides access to dangerous ideas to anyone. If I were me, I would be scared of tinkering with such an important institution and risk breaking it forever.

Part II: activities

Whenever I think about what an ideal library would look like, I always come back to the same example: the Vancouver Public Library. If all you had was a VPL card and time, you could learn music theory, learn how to play an instrument (which you can borrow on the fourth floor), record a podcast with your progress in the recording booths, design an album cover in their computers (don't know how? there's a book for that), and eventually release your album. Not many other institution offer this much knowledge for free.

The VPL (and others like this, such as the Cologne Library) go straight to the core of a different concept of library: not a place to store books, but rather a place to explore ideas. And while in theory you could also do that with a virtual library, I wouldn't discount the power of moving your physical body somewhere. Once you are inside the library, a part of you knows that you are there with a purpose.

No one I know associates libraries with activities, but they definitely associate them with the idea of a safe, quiet place to study. Which is, once again, a blessing and a curse: the space you need for your activities is space you take away from the books. And just as important for this discussion, it is space: if you have tried to rent even a moderately sized empty room you'll know that it doesn't come cheap.

Perhaps I am conflating too many ideas. Perhaps the world doesn't needs a library-makerspace-coworking space. And yet, the idea of a Library as a "Temple of knowledge" is all my nerd brain ever wanted.

Part III: the Metaverse and Zoom meetings

This is the part where Mark Zuckerberg shows up and says "something something THE METAVERSE". And he could have a point: if you are not at least intrigued by the idea of reading a (virtual) book while sitting (virtually) in the Library of Babel you need to catch up. But until the day comes when we all wear Metaglasses (R) all the time, we could take about their little sibling the smartphone.

Have you tried working in a library in the past months? I have, and I tell you, it's a challenge. This was not a problem 4 years ago, when all I needed was fast internet and power for my notebook. But in a post-pandemic world where everyone and their dog want to rope me into Zoom meetings this is no longer enough: meetings require sound-proof cabins in short notice, and they are very scarce. The Staatsbibliothek Berlins has six such cabins for all of their members (split into 4 and 2 between its two buildings) and trust me, they are not even close to enough.

And so, the only people who can currently accept a phone call in a library are Olympic sprinters who can run down four flight of stairs in less time than it takes for a call to go to voicemail (ask me how I know this!). I imagine libraries will eventually adapt - if anything, those six cabins in the StaaBi did come from somewhere. But again, each one of those cabins takes away space from "regular" book readers, who may argue that libraries are not WeWork and that I should go somewhere else.

Conclusion

I believe books will still be an integral part of our daily lives way into the 22nd century and further. Sure, eventually all new books will be digitized and nothing will be lost ever again, but the value of holding a book in your hands cannot be matched. And in a time when sharing is no longer caring, I am not counting on any better replacement coming anytime soon.

I love my local library - I like the small ones, I like the big ones, and I definitely like the VPL. And precisely because I like them I can't stop wondering whether I'm the old guy who complains about cars while brushing his horse. But what does the future of the library look like? Is it in the comfort of my home? Is it in my pocket? Is it inside incredibly expensive VR glasses? Or is the future of my library the exact same place where it was the last couple hundred years? Sure, sometimes one of them catches fire, but doesn't everything? And it's not like we can't just rebuild them. Lucky for us, manuscripts don't burn.

Microsoft Teams sucks

If you told me I was going to die in the next 24hs, asked me to guess what from, and it was a working day of the week, "MS-Teams-induced aneurysm" would definitely be in my top 5 guesses.

I know what you are thinking: "he's exaggerating - no software can be that bad". This reveals one of two possible scenarios: either you don't use Teams in your daily work, or you do use it but you only pretend to work. Don't worry, your secret is safe with me. But just in case, please take a seat and let me tell you all about Teams.

First and foremost, Teams is where information goes to die. If I need a piece of information I know exists, I have to identify the Account (I have 2), the Team (around 25 and growing), the Channel (around 5 per team but only two in actual use) and the media type (was it in a chat? a wiki? a file? If so, in which folder?), all of which are just slow enough to make it frustrating but not slow enough for my office to ditch it (assuming they could and wanted to, which then can't and don't want to). And with a search function that works ~20 percent of the time, it's not unusual for me to just give up. "It's somewhere in our Teams channel" is what I tell people when I don't actually care about whether they find what they need or not. And if I'm looking for something said in a person-to-person Chat, this is different from a Channel chat and I need a different window altogether.

Chat brings us to notifications. Teams is the only tool I know that will display up to four notifications for a single event and leave more than one on. If someone sends a message during a meeting, Teams will display a box in the notification area, play a sound, add an indicator to the task bar, and a second indicator to the meeting windows. Your window will resemble a Christmas tree until you open the chat window, even if you already clicked on the very first notification box. As far as Teams is concerned, a single unread chat is the most important thing that has ever existed, and it will not rest until you've clicked on it.

The system requirements are also an issue, but all things considered they are a minor one. Sure, I cannot calculate the number of hours that I lost waiting for things to load, but I can at least estimate how much my employer had to pay to replace an otherwise perfectly good computer. And yet,if I only consider them a minor issue it's because they pale in comparison to the hours I wasted doing things the Teams way, a burden no hardware upgrade can relieve.

Teams empowers you to go through the motions of work without actually getting anything done. No project can start without yet-another useless channel, a bunch of documents you'll never find, a to-do list hidden at least four levels deep into the interface, and a collaborative editor that ruins your formatting until you open the desktop app. But it takes a strong company leader to stand to Microsoft, and those don't come easy nor cheap. Once your company has willingly chained itself to a Teams-based working environment, your fate is tied to that sinking ship.

And yet, the worst aspect of Teams had escaped me until today when a friend pointed it out: that we started using it because Microsoft imposed it on us right at the beginning of the pandemic. I guess some Microsoft salesman decided that the pandemic was not hard enough on us as it was, and that's why they decided to add a buggy, resource-hungry tool as the cherry on top of the pandemic dessert. I have not yet received my check for working as an alpha tester for a terrible tool I didn't want, and I am starting to believe that I might never get it.

Friends don't let friends implement MS Teams in their organizations. If you are going to choose a collaboration tool that sucks, you might as well choose one that's lighter on resources and less annoying. Even yelling at your coworkers down the hall is better, even if they are in another building.

Just say no to Teams.

I got Covid and I wouldn't recommend it

Two years and 44 days after the beginning of the Covid-19 pandemic, I caught it. I haven't felt this sick since at least January 2013 (probably longer), and I therefore spent an entire week lying on my couch. Which is ironic considering that, as I lay there "looking half dead" (not my words), Germany was scraping almost all protective measures.

What happens when you get sick right as the country is ready to move on? In my experience you get sent back and forth between different services who haven't yet noticed that there's a pandemic going on, you rage against "Corona test centers" who don't test sick people, and eventually someone takes pity on you and takes care of it.

My first difficulty was the PCR test: quick tests are not accepted by my employer, my girlfriend's employer, nor my soon-to-be-ex-doctor's office. But getting a PCR test while sick is bafflingly difficult: the test centers suggested by the 116117 Patient service only offer quick tests, and the multiple other test centers that sprung up these years don't accept customers with symptoms. The only choice is a 20 minutes ride to the nearest Hospital, meaning you need either a car (have fun driving while sick!), a driver (ideally someone who is willing to get sick by being in contact with you), or a moderately-full public bus. Fun fact: do you know which kind of people takes a bus on a working day during working hours? Answer: Old people! Have fun at night wondering how many of them you'll put in an intensive station next week.

I then tried to use the Corona Warn-App to tell anonymous people they should get tested, but that didn't work either. The app doesn't let you self-declare as sick, offering only the possibility of scanning your official code. The problem is that I started exhibiting symptoms on Wednesday, got my PCR results on Friday, and yet as of this writing (one week later) the results are still not uploaded and probably never will be. I said it before and I'll say it again: when security researcher Bruce Schneier said that contact tracing apps have no value, he was right.

And finally, the sickness certificate: my soon-to-be-ex-doctor has not yet learned that they are allowed to extend certificates per telephone, but won't see me in person either. I tried calling the 116117 people again for a referral, but they entered a loop and got me nowhere. I guess no one asked them for a doctor before? I next gave the health services of my employer a try, but they were as useless as always. And as I started going through a list of other possible doctors to call my girlfriend lost her patience, took time off work, and went to my soon-to-be-ex-doctor's office in person to get me the stupid certificate.

People, it's been OVER TWO YEARS since we canceled Karneval the first time, and yet we are still in the same spot where we started. I know that Germany is a bureaucratic place, but that's not the issue - if anything, the fact that there is a protocol to follow is a bit of a consolation. But when EVERY.SINGLE.STEP of that protocol is broken, it really makes you wonder what else might be FUBAR and waiting for you to discover it.

Why won't the music industry take my money?

I have tried this week to buy the soundtrack for The Greatest Showman for a gift and let me tell you, it's really hard.

I started naively thinking that, since the album is available on Amazon as MP3, I could just click "Buy" and be done with it. But Amazon, as it turns out, doesn't want my money. Sure, they say they will sell me the album. But once I actually try they reject my credit and debit cards with a mysterious error that, after some digging, may be related to Amazon not having the rights to that album in Germany. I say "may" because Amazon doesn't give me any usable information - all they show is this error:

We were unable to process your purchase with your current payment information. Please enter a valid payment method and an address which are both local.

Seeing that my credit card is valid, my address is local, and the buy page doesn't mention any kind of restrictions, that's my first dead end.

My second stop is Warner Music, who owns the soundtrack. This is also a waste of time: they will gladly sell me physical copies in vinyl, but digital? No luck there.

Next: Apple, the first big company to offer DRM-free music downloads and self-professed champions of user experience. We were off to a rocky start: you can only buy music using iTunes, which is not available in Linux and forces me to boot my Windows 10 PC. One hour later, courtesy of Windows 10 deciding it's a good time for an update, I am faced with this screen:

iTunes screen showing gibberish

If you think this well-known and yet unresolved issue stopped me, you are mistaken - I have signed way too many contracts in languages I don't fully grasp to be afraid of what is clearly a credit card details form. Luckily, after giving my password like 6 times, converting m4a files to mp3, and almost two hours later, I am finally the proud temporary owner of this soundtrack.

So let's talk now about Spotify. I reluctantly started using it again because it's one of the few services with an offline mode for Android phones that doesn't require giving my phone number. Seeing as I still object to their collection of private data, I created a fake profile that I regularly renew with gift cards. But do you know what happens when your subscription is about to run out? The answer is "nothing": you get zero notifications, no e-mail, nothing.

What happens when my subscription runs out? First: all of my offline music is deleted, which is the one feature I'm paying for. Since I'm often in offline mode for work, that means no music for me for the rest of the day. And second: just like there is no notification about my balance running out, there is also no option in the app to give a new gift card code. I can easily give my credit card and subscribe forever, but gift cards require extra steps.

What these two infuriating stories have in common is that they are examples of the music industry working both badly and as intended. Amazon, Spotify, and Apple (up to a point) will gladly give me access to the music I'm trying to pay for, but only if I agree to set recurring payments to their walled gardens and access to my private data. Owning my music and keeping my privacy, however, is really hard.

Which brings me to my final point. There is a service with an extensive, high-quality music catalog that's easy to use, works on every platform, let's you keep your privacy, and will take your money but only if you really want to. It's called piracy. And even though it's been almost 10 years since Gabe Newell publicly pointed out how to effectively get rid of piracy for good, we are somehow still living in a world where buying a single music CD takes two hours, Windows, fluency in fictitious languages, and a computer science degree.

At least you can now order your vinyl records via e-mail. Take that, 1980s!

Unity and Internet-Oriented Software Development

I am developing a simple HTML5 game with Unity. The experience reminded me of my post about Rust and led me to coin a new term that I'd like to discuss today.

Ladies and gentlemen, in the spirit of Object-Oriented Programming I present to you Internet-Oriented Software Development (IOSD): a style of software development in which the official way to program is by trying something, giving up, asking strangers on the internet, and hoping for the best.

You may wonder: how is this new, seeing as that's what we are all already doing? The keyword here is "official". If you want to program with (say) Keras during a long trip with unreliable internet, you could do it with an offline version of the API reference alone. Sure, getting the offline docs will take a bit of work, but at least there's an official repository of knowledge that you can always go to. Of course you can search on the wider internet for help too, but you don't have to.

IOSD is different: when you release IOSD software you publish an okay guide to your software, and that's it. There is no need for you to keep it up to date nor for it to be useful, because your documentation is Internet-Oriented: if someone has a problem, they can ask the internet, IRC channels, their co-workers, anyone but you.

Rust came to mind because, as I complained before, that's how their intended development cycle apparently works: if you don't know how to do something, you are encouraged to either search the forums or ask the developers. In the later case, "we don't know, we won't do it, and we won't tell you who is doing it right" is a possible response. TensorFlow used to be like that too (ask me about the Seq2Seq tutorial!), but they reversed course and their current official suggestion is that you use Keras (no, seriously).

But Unity is an even better example. For starters, the official docs are essentially useless because they tell you what something does but neither why nor what to use it for. Can you guess in which situations is a Sprite renderer required, and what do you need it for? Because I can't. One might argue that Unity Learn is where you should look for answers, in which case one would be wrong. Taking the first course in the "Game development" section, for instance, gets you this tutorial which is only valid for an outdated version of Unity.

No, the real source of answers are YouTube tutorials. Sure, sometimes they refer to windows that aren't there anymore and/or changed their name, but you can always add a "2019.4" to your search and try again.

I am not entirely a beginner with Unity, as I worked with it for my PhD projects. Even then, the list of resources I needed to complete my current project so far includes 5 YouTube tutorials, 2 forum threads, and zero links to official documentation. Is this a problem? Is IOSD better than the thick manuals we had before? Am I the only one getting outdated answers for trivial problems? I have no idea. So I propose a compromise: I will point at the situation and give it a name, let someone else answer the hard questions, and we will share the credit.

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