The James Mickens Collection

James Mickens works at Microsoft Research. Amongst his more serious work, he has written some hilarious papers for Usenix, and given some funny talks. I’ve collected a selection of my favourite quotes here, but you should really read and watch them all from start to finish.


Usenix papers:

The Night Watch

When you debug systems code, there are no high-level debates about font choices and the best kind of turquoise, because this is the Old Testament, an angry and monochromatic world, and it doesn’t matter whether your Arial is Bold or Condensed when people are covered in boils and pestilence and Egyptian pharaoh oppression. HCI people discover bugs by receiving a concerned email from their therapist. Systems people discover bugs by waking up and discovering that their first-born children are missing and “ETIMEDOUT ” has been written in blood on the wall.

The Saddest Moment

Listen, regardless of which Byzantine fault tolerance protocol you pick, Twitter will still have fewer than two nines of availability. As it turns out, Ted the Poorly Paid Datacenter Operator will not send 15 cryptographically signed messages before he accidentally spills coffee on the air conditioning unit and then overwrites your tape backups with bootleg recordings of Nickelback. Ted will just do these things and then go home, because that’s what Ted does. His extensive home collection of “Thundercats” cartoons will not watch itself. Ted is needed, and Ted will heed the call of duty.

Mobile Computing Research Is a Hornet’s Nest of Deception and Chicanery

So, your phone just starts doing stuff, all the stuff that it knows how to do, and it’s just going nuts, and your apps are closing and opening and talking to the cloud and configuring themselves in unnatural ways, and your phone starts vibrating and rumbling with its little rumble pack, and it will gently sing like a tiny hummingbird of hate, and you’ll look at the touchscreen, and you’ll see that things are happening, my god, there are so many happenings, and you’ll try to flip the phone over and take out the battery, because now you just want to kill it and move to Kansas and start over, but the back panel of the phone is attached by a molecule-sized screw that requires a special type of screwdriver that only Merlin possesses, and Merlin isn’t nearby, and your phone is still rumbling, and by this point, you can understand the rumble, it’s a twin language that you and your phone invented, and the phone is rumbling, and it’s saying that it’s far from done, that it has so much more that it wants to do, that there are so many of your frenemies that it wants to “accidentally” call and then leave you to deal with the social ramifications, and your phone, it buzzes, and you think that you see it smiling, and you begin to realize that land-line telephones were actually a pretty good idea.

This World of Ours

My point is that security people need to get their priorities straight. The “threat model” section of a security paper resembles the script for a telenovela that was written by a paranoid schizophrenic: there are elaborate narratives and grand conspiracy theories, and there are heroes and villains with fantastic (yet oddly constrained) powers that necessitate a grinding battle of emotional and technical attrition. In the real world, threat models are much simpler. Basically, you’re either dealing with Mossad or not-Mossad. If your adversary is not-Mossad, then you’ll probably be fine if you pick a good password and don’t respond to emails from If your adversary is the Mossad, YOU’RE GONNA DIE AND THERE’S NOTHING THAT YOU CAN DO ABOUT IT. The Mossad is not intimidated by the fact that you employ https://. If the Mossad wants your data, they’re going to use a drone to replace your cellphone with a piece of uranium that’s shaped like a cellphone, and when you die of tumors filled with tumors, they’re going to hold a press conference and say “It wasn’t us” as they wear t-shirts that say “IT WAS DEFINITELY US”.

To Wash It All Away

The fourth and seventh errors represent uncaught JavaScript exceptions. In a rational universe, a single uncaught exception would terminate a program, and if a program continued to execute after throwing such an exception, we would know that Ragnarok is here and Odin is not happy. In the browser world, ignoring uncaught exceptions is called “Wednesday, and all days not called ‘Wednesday.’” The JavaScript event loop is quite impervious to conventional notions of software reliability, so if an event handler throws an exception, the event loop will literally pretend like nothing happened and keep running. This ludicrous momentum continues even if, in the case of the seventh error, the Web page tries to call init() on an object that has no init() method. You should feel uncomfortable that a Web page can disagree with itself about the existence of initialization routines, but the page is still allowed to do things with things. Such a dramatic mismatch of expectations would be unacceptable in any other context. You would be sad if you went to the hospital to have your appendix removed, and the surgeon opened you up, and she said, “I DIDN’T EXPECT YOUR LIVER TO HAVE GILLS,” and then she proceeded with her original surgical plan, despite the fact that you’re apparently a mer-person. Being a mer-person should have non-ignorable ramifications in the material universe. Similarly, if a Web page thinks than an object should be initialized, but the object has no initialization method, the browser shouldn’t laugh about it and then proceed under the assumption that the rest of the page is agnostic about whether its objects are composed of folly.

The Slow Winter

Perhaps the processor could run multiple copies of each program, comparing the results to detect errors? Perhaps a new video codec could tolerate persistently hateful levels of hardware error? All of these techniques could be implemented. However, John slowly realized that these solutions were just things that he could do, and inventing “a thing that you could do” is a low bar for human achievement. If I were walking past your house and I saw that it was on fire, I could try to put out the fire by finding a dingo and then teaching it how to speak Spanish. That’s certainly a thing that I could do. However, when you arrived at your erstwhile house and found a pile of heirloom ashes, me, and a dingo with a chewed-up Rosetta Stone box, you would be less than pleased, despite my protestations that negative scientific results are useful and I had just proven that Spanish-illiterate dingoes cannot extinguish fires using mind power.