jeweled platypus


thursday, march 06, 2014
Why I care about jailbreaking (my talk at JailbreakCon New York, 2013)

In August, I gave a talk at JailbreakCon, an annual conference that gathers together fans of jailbreaking and people who help make jailbreaking happen. This is a large and complex community: security researchers who develop the jailbreaks themselves, developers who make software for jailbroken iOS, designers who make themes for jailbroken iOS, repository managers (who host those software packages and themes), documentation and support forum helpers, bloggers and video makers, the three of us who work on Cydia as SaurikIT, and others. It’s pretty great to see each other in person, and to meet lots of other people who are into jailbreaking. (If this sounds interesting, JailbreakCon 2014 will be April 12-13 in the Bay Area.)

Instead of doing a typical JailbreakCon talk explaining something about security research or software development, I decided to look at the reasons why we care about those technical parts. Why have tens of millions of people figured out how to jailbreak their iOS devices and use Cydia, and why have hundreds of people spent money on planes and cars to talk to each other about these things in person? This is fascinating and exciting to me, and I’d like to convince you to be fascinated and excited too.

Here’s a video and a slightly-edited transcript for people who prefer reading. But the video might be entertaining; I’m pretty enthusiastic in it.


What I think is interesting to talk about is: why did you jailbreak your phone? Oh, I should introduce myself first; I work for saurik on community and support for Cydia. A lot of the time I stay a bit behind the scenes, but I moderate forums like JailbreakQA and /r/jailbreak (the subreddit), and I write some of the information inside Cydia.

So. Why did you jailbreak your phone? It’s sort of an obvious question. Usually people answer it with something like “I wanted to delete Newsstand”, or “I wanted quick-reply for text messages”, or “I wanted to toggle WiFi and 3G on and off more quickly, because Apple’s way of doing that is really lame”. These are very reasonable answers. But if you asked people a few years ago, they would have said: “I wanted to customize my wallpaper because Apple won’t let me”, or “I wanted to put apps in folders”, or “I wanted to record video”.

But these sound like entirely different reasons to jailbreak; there’s not much in common since the old reasons are part of iOS now. So, what’s going on with that? Do these reasons change all the time? Every time a new iOS version gets ready to be released, a bunch of tech blogs publish articles like this one:

screenshot of blog post

They say, “Is jailbreaking dead? Is there any reason to jailbreak anymore, because all of the old cool features are now part of iOS?” But each jailbreak is more popular than the last one: evasi0n was even bigger than Absinthe, which was bigger than the ones before that. So something else is going on here, something strange.

My hypothesis is that even though you think the reason you jailbroke your phone was to get Five Icon Dock or WinterBoard — instead there was a more durable reason that hides in the background. I think this reason, at least for me, is to get access to this rich, complicated, hybridized primordial soup of software features. They’re not just the features and decisions that one company in California made, but this cornucopia of product decisions made by lots of people, such as the people in this room — with lots of conflicting and different ideas, like four or five different kinds of app switchers — which is awesome.

Something that I like, that most of you probably aren’t into, is fanfiction: where you take a TV show, or in this case an operating system, and you build new stories or new features on top of it, unauthorized. The quality of these stories and features may vary widely, and they may have conflicting plotlines — you have one TV show with sixteen fan stories that go off in different directions, or you have sixteen different features built on the same operating system with different ideas of how something should work.

And it’s really fun. People have these different visions of what software can be like. It’s creative, and it’s playful, and it generates a lot of good stuff along with the stuff that’s not so good. One company can’t cover everything that somebody wants out of a device. They can get to maybe 90% if they’re Apple, but there’s that last 10% of something that bugs you, or something that could be cooler, and jailbreakers are great at filling up that last 10% with awesome stuff.

We can take their pretty good operating system and write our own stories with their characters. We can fill in the missing scenes in Notification Center or the lockscreen, even if Apple wants to be the only person telling stories with this interface. Some of these features may be implemented by Apple someday, but there will always be new ones that we’ll make up, because you don’t run out of stories. A lot of them Apple will just never add, because they require extra battery or memory, or they’re confusing for ordinary people, or they’re just kind of goofy. Like this one, which is one of my favorites, called NyanSliders, where the sliders are Nyan Cats:

a screenshot of nyan cat sliders

This should be animated; they do the little running dance as you change your volume. That’s cool! Jailbreaking is this big prototyping lab where we can experiment with what software interfaces can do, and how we can make them more fun. Instead of coming up with a concept in Photoshop, and everybody just thinks “that’s a cool way to do keyboards”, you can implement that feature right away. You don’t have to wait for Apple to maybe see your blog post, and maybe decide that it’s OK for them to implement it. You can do it right now, and see how it works. Like SwipeSelection, an alternate way to use your keyboard, which sounds kind of cool and kind of weird, and then you use it, and it’s interesting. It’s maybe not perfect, but it’s valuable to have this experimental attitude and experience.

That’s one reason to jailbreak! There are more reasons. I won’t list all of them, because I’ll be here all day. But one thing, that I think doesn’t get enough appreciation, is being able to turn off features in iOS. I maintain the featured packages list in Cydia, and one day we realized that we should have a special list of packages that start with “no”:

a screenshot of nyan cat sliders

That’s NoCoverFlow, NoNewsIsGoodNews, NoPasscodeBlock, and NoStoreButton, and if you search Cydia for “no”, you’ll see a lot more of these tweaks that turn off annoying features that Apple doesn’t provide options to disable. Like “shake to undo” — a lot of people just find that feature irritating. And you can fix Apple’s default features that favor their own apps instead of App Store apps, such as BrowserChanger if you like Chrome, or MapsOpener if you like Google Maps, which makes a more level playing field. So that’s one set of reasons: you can add features and you can take them away, which is useful.

There’s a second reason that I find interesting, which is that you jailbreak because you can, because you should be able to jailbreak your device. To be able to use your phone as a general-computing device instead of a limited device, and to have the capability to do research on the software to verify that it does what Apple says it does, that’s cool.

screenshot of a blog post

It goes along with a third reason that is important to me: jailbreaking is a way to learn something, to explore a technical subject even for a lot of people who have no experience. These people can be frustrating — you have a lot of new people who ask…seemingly-dumb questions. But let’s say you’re a kid who doesn’t have your own computer, but you’re playing around with jailbreaking your iPod touch and asking questions about it, and you are on your way to learning something technical that you might not have had a chance to learn otherwise. This is great.

You end up learning this whole new vocabulary: what is a bootrom? What is a kernel? What are SHSH blobs? SHSH blobs are this complicated cryptography-related concept that millions of people are now dealing with on a regular basis — that’s amazing. When you open up iFile, the whole iOS filesystem is right there. Even a desktop computer will try to hide parts of the filesystem from you because it doesn’t think you can handle that. But in iFile, it’s there for exploring. You can even SSH into your phone and learn how to use the command line.

And if you mess up your phone, you can restore it. If you mess up your desktop computer, or your mom’s desktop computer, that is going to be a massive hassle, and it’s going to take you more than half an hour to fix that. If you restore your phone after deleting a system file, it’ll take you half an hour, and it’s kind of a hassle since you lost your jailbreak, but it won’t ruin your day. Well, maybe. But it won’t ruin your mom’s day, which can be important!

This educational reason might not be the first thing that occurs to people when you ask them why they jailbroke their phone. Nobody is going to say “I wanted to learn more about SHSH blobs”, but learning new things is a hidden and powerful reason that keeps people in the jailbreaking community. They can even start writing code without asking Apple for permission or paying Apple, which is great.

I see this on the forums that I moderate. Somebody comes in asking a “dumb” question, and a few months later you see them pop up again, answering a question about how to downgrade a baseband. You might be like “Whoa! Where did that come from?” — but that person has been learning and reading the whole time. It warms my little heart, and it’s a big part of why I work on this stuff. I like to imagine we’re training a whole secret generation of people who actually know how to tinker with computers.

So if somebody asks you why you jailbroke your phone, it’s probably still best to say “oh, I have this cool theme”, because if you try to explain all this, they might get confused and bored — but hopefully it’ll linger in the back of your mind that there are these deeper, more important reasons why we do this stuff and spend time with it.


I also convinced a few of the newer developers attending the conference to get up in front of everyone and give a series of two-minute talks after mine! Here we are among the other speakers:

a photo of most of the JailbreakCon speakers

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saturday, july 20, 2013
Leveling up conferences

view from AdaCamp reception at Google SF

Last month I went to AdaCamp and learned a ton partly because the Ada Initiative runs it both as a place to discuss solving problems and as a testbed for better ways to hold conferences. Lots of conferences try to encourage a diverse group of participants and speakers, but making conferences better is specifically part of the Ada Initiative’s mission, and this was especially fun because a bunch of the participants were community organizers/managers/coordinators like me. Among topics such as running real-life meetups for open source projects and the ramifications of using gender-neutral usernames, we talked a lot about AdaCamp itself!

I’m in Portland for Community Leadership Summit this weekend, I’ll be at Defcon soon, and I’m going to XOXO in September, so I’ve been thinking about things AdaCamp did that I’d like to see more conference organizers consider. Of course I like the idea of making tech events better for women, but this stuff is especially interesting to me because worthwhile efforts to make a tech event more welcoming to women also make the event more welcoming to other non-majority types of people (for example, including women means not just including able-bodied women). It’s the magic of intersectionality! Some of these ideas are conveniently compiled on the page of resources for conference organizers on the Geek Feminism Wiki, but here’s my list too:

I haven’t been to WisCon, but its “Universal Design” accessibility policies and details go into more depth than I learned about at AdaCamp…a mind-boggling level of depth.

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thursday, june 28, 2012
The neighborhood crude oil tanks

tanks in the distance

I grew up in Los Angeles where there are a lot of oil wells, usually somewhere out along a freeway. (I always liked the wells you can see on the way to LAX, ones that look like dinosaurs eating from the ground.) In Santa Barbara, our oil wells are out in the ocean, and the university-owned nature preserve leases some space to an oil company to store crude oil drained from the ocean floor. This nature preserve is next to the neighborhoods around the university, and you can just walk out into the fields and look at the tanks with their coded markings and geodesic dome tops.

oil tank closeup

Nobody really tells you that the tanks are there, since most people either don’t find them particularly spectacular or haven’t been to the nature preserve. You hear about them when you acquire a boyfriend who lives next to them; he shows them to you because you both like infrastructure. (From his apartment we listened together to trains whistling, the coastal fog horn, and airplanes headed to and from the little airport next to the university.) We found out about a historic gas station down the road, built as a showcase by one of the oil companies in the 1920s, now picturesquely defunct and a favorite of everybody in town with a fancy camera. On a few Saturdays we took long driving trips to visit other oil fields — he’d tell me we were going on an adventure, and a couple hours later I’d look out to see more oil pumps than I’d ever seen in one place before.

water tank closeup

The native Chumash people used the natural tar on the beaches here to caulk their canoes, and the tar still comes up and caulks the bottoms of your feet if you’re not careful while walking on the sand. There was even an asphalt mine for a couple years in the late 1800s where the Art Department building is now; there are a few surprising pictures of very grimy-looking men hauling things around the campus lagoon.

tanks from another angle

I’ve read that the oil company’s lease on this nature preserve land ends in 2016 and the university doesn’t plan to let them renew it, which makes sense, but I like living in a place where its history is so close to the surface. By looking you can find clues that this land was once a slough, then ranches, then explored for oil, then a small WWII marine base, then a university nature preserve. It’s not heavily developed enough yet to obscure the origins of the place, unlike where I grew up in LA — where old underground oil developments sometimes come back to bite people in the form of gas explosions, and where the remaining active oil wells are carefully hidden.

tanks with venoco sign

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thursday, february 03, 2011
Observational math

I like learning geometry and topology terms that make you notice and describe patterns out in the wild:

The wires hanging between those pylons form catenary curves, which describe what happens when you hang an ideal string between two points. The word is also used for catenary wires (which power trains).

These shiny light shapes are caustics generated by a spotlight shining on a curved piece of plastic (Untitled, 1967, Giovanni Anselmo, Museum of Modern Art). You can see a typical caustic by taking a mug of tea into the sunlight and looking at the curvy, pointy light on the tea surface. This is also what you call the light patterns in the shadow of a glass and wavering at the bottom of a pool.

reaction diffusion
These wiggly lines are a reaction-diffusion system of air bubbles between two panes of glass in a layered piece of art by Dustin Yellin. This type of wiggly pattern also happens in places like bird feathers, rabbitfish scales, and shriveled paint.

Angle of repose
in the Bay Area
The dirt in this pile is showing off its angle of repose: the slope that a pile of granules forms when it is “at rest”. You can watch for the angle of repose when you shovel snow and throw it in a pile, or when you build sandcastles, depending on where you happen to live right now.

Read more

My friend Dan is writing about geometrical curiosities on his blog. My favorite post so far is an introduction to pseudospheres and tractrices.

Vi Hart makes lots of related projects including looking at the hyperbolic shriveling of dried apple slices.

Bonus words

Non-geometry-related things to find and name: bollards, wall ties, ghost signs, perforated screen walls, former Fotomats, benchmarks (find some near you), manicules, telephone exchange buildings, skeuomorphs in general. And obsolete technologies that are still in use or still visible: sidewalk prisms, Quonset huts, civil defense air sirens, glass insulators, old-style phone numbers.

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wednesday, august 18, 2010
Augmented reality for non-programmers

When people care about the place where they live, they often end up helping make it a better place. But how do people get interested? It might help if the history of that place is brought to the surface, making its compelling stories more noticeable. A good local newspaper or blog can do this, but only if you find one and read it regularly. An augmented-reality mobile app might be able to do this instantly for anyone curious about their surroundings, but only if they have that device. What about for everyone? These are some stories about a place I like.

modern house at the end of Del Playasurfboard and IV houseslide in Anis'q'oyo parktiki-style A-frame facade

Isla Vista is the only neighborhood right next to UCSB, and it has a bad reputation as a half square mile of drunken student parties. It is that, but it’s also a lively dense community with its own complex history, where people walk and bike everywhere, with more of a sense of place than you can find in some whole cities. It’s noisy on weekend evenings (starting on Thursday), and if you’re used to nice suburban neighborhoods then it probably looks like a crowded mess, but it’s interesting and deserves more than the usual stories of terrible landlords and beer pong tournaments.

A few examples of Isla Vista’s self-image: there’s a local blog called Only in IV where all the posts are photos of drunk student shenanigans (and a few beach sunsets), the more outrageous the better. A website called The Dark Side of UCSB compiles and sensationalizes statistics about crime and drugs in Isla Vista, with the attitude that these problems are endemic to IV and can’t be avoided or improved. A personalized map of the Santa Barbara area, with Isla Vista on the left, describes it as “STDs, broken glass, sex, loud music, bikes, theft, bike theft.” A photo essay describes IV as a “teeming ghetto paradise…Children or adults are odd apparitions here…Trampolines and beer pong tables litter most yards…a glorious mess of potential and pollution, treasure in trash.” All of this is only one aspect of IV, mostly Del Playa Drive (the street closest to the ocean), but it’s the reputation of the whole place.

So I spent my first three years at UCSB mostly ignoring Isla Vista. I only walked in to get a sandwich or cookies (a friend had told me about the IV food co-op), and sometimes I ran into the main park along the way. It’s a very nice park, with lots of trees and a little pond, and this confused me then because IV was supposed to be some kind of den of stupidity, not a lovely place to escape from campus for a little while. In my fourth year I moved to an apartment there with a friend, and out of curiosity I started walking around, taking photos, and googling what I found. (And then I started playing, which turned these walks from “occasionally” to “every single day, up and down as many streets as possible.”) I learned that when you look carefully at a place, it starts to tell a story.

yellow and orange lawn furniturepainted mural on a shedanother modern house at the end of Del Playaa church in IV

Each thing in Isla Vista has something to say: a small stand of oak trees remaining from a very old forest that helped feed the nearby Chumash village (until the Santa Barbara Mission moved in), an earthquake-damaged polo barn built by a gentleman rancher a hundred years ago, place names with grammatically incorrect Spanish phrases thanks to speculative land developers in the 1920s (Isla Vista, Del Playa, etc.), kitschy apartment buildings built in the 1960s after UCSB moved to the defunct marine base campus next door, a system of pretty little parks developed as part of post-riot community organizing in the 1970s, a solar-powered parking lot built last year as part of a “Master Plan” to fancy up the area, and a zillion other bits and pieces within this half square mile that is more interesting than it looks at first.

But few people have the time or inclination to develop a gigantic enthusiasm for local land-use history, so a lot of students graduate from UCSB without ever seeing the fancy old barn, or learning why the street names are so weird, or noticing the lovely modern houses at the end of Del Playa — and now I think they’ve missed out on something good. IV is not a place where most people want to live for decades if they have a choice (hearing drunk guys peeing on the plants outside your window gets annoying, and thumping party music from next door probably doesn’t help babies sleep, and did I mention that most of the housing stock was cheaply built in the 60s and hasn’t been properly maintained), but it offers an alternative to the anonymous apartments and quiet single-family houses that we’re all likely to drive home to for the rest of our lives.

some photos taken by other people in IV

Fortunately there are a lot of students (and other residents and friends) who love IV and work to keep the good side of it healthy through participating in the food and housing co-ops, organizing all-ages live music shows, helping out the homeless residents, painting fantastic murals (official and unofficial), picking up trash, publishing a local magazine with the help of the university, making community banners, and lots more. But there’s something that could be added to this, counteracting the kind of short-term memory that comes from most of the population spending fewer than four years in the place. You can collect parts of the story if you search around a lot: an UCSB and Isla Vista Walking Tour and Historical Accounts and Maps of the Goleta Slough (both compiled by a UCSB physics professor), “Goleta, the Bad Land” (an article about the town next door), a graduate student project covering the history of the IV Parks and Recreation District (although those PDFs seem to no longer be online), and a couple of works from specific activist points of view: Isla Vista: A Citizen’s History and Don’t Bank on Amerika.

So I read everything about IV that I could find online, and my nice patient friends listened to me when I went into the mode of “Area Man Way Too Into Local County History” and rambled about why this or that church building in IV is fascinating, or about my gleeful discovery of the Tree Monument, or finding bushes of blackberries along a sidewalk. So I decided to put all of this together and hold a walking tour for whoever wanted to come. We talked about The Big Here, we had fun, it was very dorky, and I learned that this wasn’t scalable to large numbers of people (both because it’s tough to yell loud enough for a crowd, and because not many people voluntarily show up for this kind of thing). Here are my raw notes for it. What next?

in San Francisco at Sutro Park in Santa Barbara at the Presidio

I like interpretive signs, so I thought about whether IV could use some of those, but I think that kind of informative historical marker sometimes fossilizes the subject instead of bringing it alive — it becomes something to look at from a distance, a mediated artifact. I like sidewalk plaques better in many cases, since they don’t interfere with your view of a structure or place, instead quietly adding to the ground if you want to look down and learn more.

So I’d like to install some sidewalk plaques in IV! Traditional bronze markers would be very expensive (and require who knows what kind of permission and work to install), but there’s an alternative made with linoleum: messages in the style of Toynbee tiles, which are crackpot graffiti anonymously glued to asphalt roads in a few cities:

'found embedded in the street in downtown Washington DC' 'House of Hades Toynbee tile in SOHO at the intersection of Waverly and 6th Avenue in NYC'

I found a guide to making this type of tile, and they sound labor-intensive but doable. They break apart after a few years, but that’s fine. You can make different shapes and designs, like these:

'Drink Coffee and Destroy - love, Sprout' 'House of Hades Holy Death'

I’d like to install tiles that add little bits of information to places around IV, just enough so that a curious viewer would have a clue toward what to search for on Google:

Or something like that. It’d be perfect if these tiles looked mysterious and a little crazy, but you could also use them as anchors for an extensive pamphlet/online walking tour of IV. All of this would probably be eligible for a UCIRA Undergraduate Action Research Grant to cover the cost of materials and maybe support a couple people working on it for a summer. I’m no longer hanging around Isla Vista most of the time, but I’m hoping that somebody else might be interested in doing this someday. If you are, let me know!

The same idea with fewer words: photos of Isla Vista in 2009, my last year at UCSB, and post-college visting UCSB and IV.

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I’m Britta Gustafson.

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