July 24, 2017

Integrating LuaJIT and Autogenerating C Bindings In Visual Studio

Lua is a popular scripting language due to its tight integration with C. LuaJIT is an extremely fast JIT compiler for Lua that can be integrated into your game, which also provides an FFI Library that directly interfaces with C functions, eliminating most overhead. However, the FFI library only accepts a subset of the C standard. Specifically, "C declarations are not passed through a C pre-processor, yet. No pre-processor tokens are allowed, except for #pragma pack." The website suggests running the header file through a preprocesser stage, but I have yet to find a LuaJIT tutorial that actually explains how to do this. Instead, all the examples simply copy+paste the function prototype into the Lua file itself. Doing this with makefiles and GCC is trivial, because you just have to add a compile step using the -E option, but integrating this with Visual Studio is more difficult. In addition, I'll show you how to properly load scripts and modify the PATH lookup variable so your game can have a proper scripts folder instead of dumping everything in bin.

Compilation

To begin, we need to download LuaJIT and get it to actually compile. Doing this manually isn't too difficult, simply open an x64 Native Tools Command Prompt (or x86 Native Tools if you want 32-bit), navigate to src/msvcbuild.bat and run msvcbuild.bat. The default options will build an x64 or x86 dll with dynamic linking to the CRT. If you want a static lib file, you need to run it with the static option. If you want static linking to the CRT so you don't have to deal with that annoying Visual Studio Runtime Library crap, you'll have to modify the .bat file directly. Specifically, you need to find %LJCOMPILE% /MD and change it to %LJCOMPILE% /MT. This will then compile the static lib or dll with static CRT linking to match your other projects.

This is a bit of a pain, and recently I've been trying to automate my build process and dependencies using vcpkg to act as a C++ package manager. A port of LuaJIT is available here that you can copy+paste into your own vcpkg installation, and then it will automatically build the correct version of LuaJIT for you. If you have changed your triplets to statically link to the CRT, it will automatically edit msvcbuild.bat to change /MD to /MT.

An important note: the build instructions for LuaJIT state that you should copy the lua scripts contained in src/jit to your application folder. What it doesn't mention is that this is optional - those scripts contain debugging instructions for the JIT engine, which you probably don't need. It will work just fine without them.

Once you have LuaJIT built, you should add it's library file to your project. This library file is called lua51.lib (and the dll is lua51.dll), because LuaJIT is designed as a drop-in replacement for the default Lua runtime. Now we need to actually load Lua in our program and integrate it with our code. To do this, use lua_open(), which returns a lua_State* pointer. You will need that lua_State* pointer for everything else you do, so store it somewhere easy to get to. If you are building a game using an Entity Component System, it makes sense to build a LuaSystem that stores your lua_State* pointer.

Initialization

The next step is to load in all the standard Lua libraries using luaL_openlibs(L). Normally, you shouldn't do this if you need script sandboxing for player-created scripts. However, LuaJIT's FFI library is inherently unsafe. Any script with access to the FFI library can call any kernel API it wants, so you should be extremely careful about using LuaJIT if this is a use-case for your game. We can also register any C functions we want to the old-fashioned way via lua_register, but this is only useful for functions that don't have C analogues (due to having multiple return values, etc).

There is one function in particular that you probably want to overload, and that is the print() function. By default, Lua will simply print to standard out, but if you aren't redirecting standard out to your in-game console, you probably have your own std::ostream (or even a custom stream class) that is sent all log messages. By overloading print(), we can have our Lua scripts automatically write to both our log file and our in-game console, which is extremely useful. Here is a complete re-implementation of print that outputs to an arbitrary std::ostream& object:
int PrintOut(lua_State *L, std::ostream& out)
{
  int n = lua_gettop(L);  /* number of arguments */
  if(!n)
    return 0;
  int i;
  lua_getglobal(L, "tostring");
  for(i = 1; i <= n; i++)
  {
    const char *s;
    lua_pushvalue(L, -1);  /* function to be called */
    lua_pushvalue(L, i);   /* value to print */
    lua_call(L, 1, 1);
    s = lua_tostring(L, -1);  /* get result */
    if(s == NULL)
      return luaL_error(L, LUA_QL("tostring") " must return a string to "
        LUA_QL("print"));
    if(i > 1) out << "\t";
    out << s;
    lua_pop(L, 1);  /* pop result */
  }
  out << std::endl;
  return 0;
}
To overwrite the existing print function, we need to first define a Lua compatible shim function. In this example, I pass std::cout as the target stream:

int lua_Print(lua_State *L)
{
  return PrintOut(L, std::cout);
}
Now we simply register our lua_Print function using lua_register(L, "print", &lua_Print). If we were doing this in a LuaSystem object, our constructor would look like this:

LuaSystem::LuaSystem()
{
  L = lua_open();
  luaL_openlibs(L);
  lua_register(L, "print", &lua_Print);
}
To clean up our Lua instance, we need to both trigger a final GC iteration to clean up any dangling memory, and then we call lua_close(L), so our destructor would look like this:
LuaSystem::~LuaSystem()
{
  lua_gc(L, LUA_GCCOLLECT, 0);
  lua_close(L);
  L = 0;
}

Loadings Scripts via Require

At this point most tutorials skip to the part where you load a Lua script and write "Hello World", but we aren't done yet. Integrating Lua into your game means loading scripts and/or arbitrary strings as Lua code while properly resolving dependencies. If you don't do this, any one of your scripts that relies on another script will have to do require("full/path/to/script.lua"). We also face another problem - if we want to have a scripts folder where we simply automatically load every single script into our workspace, simply loading them all can cause duplicated code, because luaL_loadfile does not have any knowledge of require. You can solve this by simply loading a single bootstrap.lua script which then loads all your game's scripts via require, but we're going to build a much more robust solution.

First, we need to modify Lua's PATH variable, or the variable that controls where it looks up scripts relative to our current directory. This function will append a path to the beginning of the PATH variable, giving it highest priority, which you can then use to add as many script directories as you want in your game, and any lua script from any of those folders will then be able to require() a script from any other folder in PATH without a problem. Obviously, you should probably only add one or two folders, because you don't want to deal with potential name conflicts in your script files.
int AppendPath(lua_State *L, const char* path)
{
  lua_getglobal(L, "package");
  lua_getfield(L, -1, "path"); // get field "path" from table at top of stack (-1)
  std::string npath = path;
  npath.append(";");
  npath.append(lua_tostring(L, -1)); // grab path string from top of stack
  lua_pop(L, 1);
  lua_pushstring(L, npath.c_str());
  lua_setfield(L, -2, "path"); // set the field "path" in table at -2 with value at top of stack
  lua_pop(L, 1); // get rid of package table from top of stack
  return 0;
}
Next, we need a way to load all of our scripts using require() so that Lua properly resolves the dependencies. To do this, we create a function in C that literally calls the require() function for us:
int Require(lua_State *L,const char *name)
{
  lua_getglobal(L, "require");
  lua_pushstring(L, name);
  int r = lua_pcall(L, 1, 1, 0);
  lua_pop(L, 1);
  WriteError(L, r, std::cout);
  return r;
}
By using this to load all our scripts, we don't have to worry about loading them in any particular order - require will ensure everything gets loaded correctly. An important note here is WriteError(), which is a generic error handling function that processes Lua errors and writes them to a log. All errors in lua will return a nonzero error code, and will usually push a string containing the error message to the stack, which must then be popped off, or it'll mess things up later.
void WriteError(lua_State *L, int r, std::ostream& out)
{
  if(!r)
    return;
  if(!lua_isnil(L, -1)) // Check if a string was pushed
  {
    const char* m = lua_tostring(L, -1);
    out << "Error " << r << ": " << m << std::endl;
    lua_pop(L, 1);
  }
  else
    out << "Error " << r << std::endl;
}

Automatic C Binding Generation

Fantastic, now we're all set to load up our scripts, but we still need to somehow define a header file and also load that header file into LuaJIT's FFI library so our scripts have direct access to our program's exposed C functions. One way to do this is to just copy+paste your C function definitions into a Lua file in your scripts folder that is then automatically loaded. This, however, is a pain in the butt and is error-prone. We want to have a single source of truth for our function definitions, which means defining our entire LuaJIT C API in a single header file, which is then loaded directly into LuaJIT. Predictably, we will accomplish this by abusing the C preprocessor:

#ifndef __LUA_API_H__
#define __LUA_API_H__

#ifndef LUA_EXPORTS
#define LUAFUNC(ret, name, ...) ffi.cdef[[ ret lua_##name(__VA_ARGS__); ]]; name = ffi.C.lua_##name
local ffi = require("ffi")
ffi.cdef[[ // Initial struct definitions
#else
#define LUAFUNC(ret, name, ...) ret __declspec(dllexport) lua_##name(__VA_ARGS__)
extern "C" { // Ensure C linkage is being used
#endif

struct GameInfo
{
  uint64_t DashTail;
  uint64_t MaxDash;
};

typedef const char* CSTRING; // VC++ complains about having const char* in macros, so we typedef it here

#ifndef LUA_EXPORTS
]] // End struct definitions
#endif

  LUAFUNC(CSTRING, GetGameName);
  LUAFUNC(CSTRING, IntToString, int);
  LUAFUNC(void, setdeadzone, float);

#ifdef Everglade_EXPORTS
}
#endif

#endif
The key idea here is to use macros such that, when we pass this through the preprocessor without any predefined constants, it will magically turn into a valid Lua script. However, when we compile it in our C++ project, our project defines LUA_EXPORTS, and the result is a valid C header. Our C LUAFUNC is set up so that we're using C linkage for our structs and functions, and that we're exporting the function via __declspec(dllexport). This obviously only works for Visual Studio so you'll want to set up a macro for the GCC version, but I will warn you that VC++ got really cranky when i tried to use a macro for that in my code, so you may end up having to redefine the entire LUAFUNC macro for each compiler.

At this point, we have a bit of a choice to make. It's more convenient to have the C functions available in the global namespace, which is what this script does, because this simplifies calling them from an interactive console. However, using ffi.C.FunctionName is significantly faster. Technically the fastest way is declaring local C = ffi.C at the top of a file and then calling the functions via C.FunctionName. Luckily, importing the functions into the global namespace does not preclude us from using the "fast" way of calling them, so our script here imports them into the global namespace for ease of use, but in our scripts we can use the C.FunctionName method instead. Thus, when outputting our Lua script, our LUAFUNC macro wraps our function definition in a LuaJIT ffi.cdef block, and then runs a second Lua statement that brings the function into the global namespace. This is why we have an initial ffi.cdef code block for the structs up top, so we can include that second lua statement after each function definition.

Now we need to set up our compilation so that Visual Studio generates this file without any predefined constants and outputs the resulting lua script to our scripts folder, where our other in-game scripts can automatically load it from. We can accomplish this using a Post-Build Event (under Configuration Properties -> Build Events -> Post-Build Event), which then runs the following code:
CL LuaAPI.h /P /EP /u
COPY "LuaAPI.i" "../bin/your/script/folder/LuaAPI.lua" /Y
Visual Studio can sometimes be finicky about that newline, but if you put in two statements on two separate lines, it should run both commands sequentially. You may have to edit the project file directly to convince it to actually do this. The key line here is CL LuaAPI.h /P /EP /u, which tells the compiler to preprocess the file and output it to a *.i file. There is no option to configure the output file, it will always be the exact same file but with a .i extension, so we have to copy and rename it ourselves to our scripts folder using the COPY command.

Loading and Calling Lua Code

We are now set to load all our lua scripts in our script folder via Require, but what if we want an interactive Lua console? There are lua functions that read strings, but to make this simpler, I will provide a function that loads a lua script from an arbitrary std::istream and outputs to an arbitrary std::ostream:
const char* _luaStreamReader(lua_State *L, void *data, size_t *size)
{
  static char buf[CHUNKSIZE];
  reinterpret_cast(data)->read(buf, CHUNKSIZE);
  *size = reinterpret_cast(data)->gcount();
  return buf;
}

int Load(lua_State *L, std::istream& s, std::ostream& out)
{
  int r = lua_load(L, &_luaStreamReader, &s, 0);

  if(!r)
  {
    r = lua_pcall(L, 0, LUA_MULTRET, 0);
    if(!r)
      PrintOut(L, out);
  }

  WriteError(L, r, out);
  return r;
}

Of course, the other question is how to call Lua functions from our C++ code directly. There are many, many different implementations of this available, of varying amounts of safety and completeness, but to get you started, here is a very simple implementation in C++ using templates. Note that this does not handle errors - you can change it to use lua_pcall and check the return code, but handling arbitrary Lua errors is nontrivial.
template<class T, int N>
struct LuaStack;

template<class T> // Integers
struct LuaStack<T, 1>
{
  static inline void Push(lua_State *L, T i) { lua_pushinteger(L, static_cast<lua_Integer>(i)); }
  static inline T Pop(lua_State *L) { T r = (T)lua_tointeger(L, -1); lua_pop(L, 1); return r; }
};
template<class T> // Pointers
struct LuaStack<T, 2>
{
  static inline void Push(lua_State *L, T p) { lua_pushlightuserdata(L, (void*)p); }
  static inline T Pop(lua_State *L) { T r = (T)lua_touserdata(L, -1); lua_pop(L, 1); return r; }
};
template<class T> // Floats
struct LuaStack<T, 3>
{
  static inline void Push(lua_State *L, T n) { lua_pushnumber(L, static_cast<lua_Number>(n)); }
  static inline T Pop(lua_State *L) { T r = static_cast<T>(lua_touserdata(L, -1)); lua_pop(L, 1); return r; }
};
template<> // Strings
struct LuaStack<std::string, 0>
{
  static inline void Push(lua_State *L, std::string s) { lua_pushlstring(L, s.c_str(), s.size()); }
  static inline std::string Pop(lua_State *L) { size_t sz; const char* s = lua_tolstring(L, -1, &sz); std::string r(s, sz); lua_pop(L, 1); return r; }
};
template<> // Boolean
struct LuaStack<bool, 1>
{
  static inline void Push(lua_State *L, bool b) { lua_pushboolean(L, b); }
  static inline bool Pop(lua_State *L) { bool r = lua_toboolean(L, -1); lua_pop(L, 1); return r; }
};
template<> // Void return type
struct LuaStack<void, 0> { static inline void Pop(lua_State *L) { } };

template<typename T>
struct LS : std::integral_constant<int, 
  std::is_integral<T>::value + 
  (std::is_pointer<T>::value * 2) + 
  (std::is_floating_point<T>::value * 3)>
{};

template<typename R, int N, typename Arg, typename... Args>
inline R _callLua(const char* function, Arg arg, Args... args)
{
  LuaStack<Arg, LS<Arg>::value>::Push(_l, arg);
  return _callLua<R, N, Args...>(function, args...);
}
template<typename R, int N>
inline R _callLua(const char* function)
{
  lua_call(_l, N, std::is_void<R>::value ? 0 : 1);
  return LuaStack<R, LS<R>::value>::Pop(_l);
}

template<typename R, typename... Args>
inline R CallLua(lua_State *L, const char* function, Args... args)
{
  lua_getglobal(L, function);
  return _callLua<R, sizeof...(Args), Args...>(L, function, args...);
}
Now you have everything you need for an extensible Lua scripting implementation for your game engine, and even an interactive Lua console, all using LuaJIT. Good Luck!

June 24, 2017

Discord: Rise Of The Bot Wars

The most surreal experience I ever had on discord was when someone PMed me to complain that my anti-spam bot wasn't working against a 200+ bot raid. I pointed out that it was never designed for large-scale attacks, and that discord's own rate-limiting would likely make it useless. He revealed he was selling spambot accounts at a rate of about $1 for 100 unique accounts and that he was being attacked by a rival spammer. My anti-spam bot had been dragged into a turf war between two spambot networks. We discussed possible mitigation strategies for worst-case scenarios, but agreed that most of them would involve false-positives and that discord showed no interest in fixing how exploitable their API was. I hoped that I would never have to implement such extreme measures into my bot.

Yesterday, our server was attacked by over 40 spambots, and after discord's astonishingly useless "customer service" response, I was forced to do exactly that.

A Brief History of Discord Bots

Discord is built on a REST API, which was reverse engineered by late 2015 and used to make unofficial bots. To test out their bots, they would hunt for servers to "raid", invite their bots to the server, then spam so many messages it would softlock the client, because discord still didn't have any rate limiting. Naturally, as the designated punching bags of the internet, furries/bronies/Twilight fans/slash fiction writers/etc. were among the first targets. The attack on our server was so severe it took us almost 5 minutes of wrestling with an unresponsive client to ban them. Ironically, a few of the more popular bots today, such as "BooBot", are banned as a result of that attack, because the first thing the bot creator did was use it to raid our server.

I immediately went to work building an anti-spam bot that muted anyone sending more than 4 messages per second. Building a program in a hostile environment like this is much different from writing a desktop app or a game, because the bot had to be bulletproof - it had to rate-limit itself and could not be allowed to crash, ever. Any bug that allowed a user to crash the bot was treated as P0, because it could be used by an attacker to cripple the server. Despite using a very simplistic spam detection algorithm, this turned out to be highly effective. Of course, back then, discord didn't have rate limiting, or verification, or role hierarchies, or searching chat logs, or even a way to look up where your last ping was, so most spammers were probably not accustomed to having to deal with any kind of anti-spam system.

I added raid detection, autosilence, an isolation channel, and join alerts, but eventually we were targeted by a group from 4chan's /pol/ board. Because this was a sustained attack, they began crafting spam attacks timed just below the anti-spam threshold. This forced me to implement a much more sophisticated anti-spam system, using a heat algorithm with a linear decay rate, which is still in use today. This improved anti-spam system eventually made the /pol/ group give up entirely. I'm honestly amazed the simplistic "X messages in Y seconds" approach worked as long as it did.

Of course, none of this can defend against a large scale attack. As I learned by my chance encounter with an actual spammer, it was getting easier and easier to amass an army of spambots to assault a channel instead of just using one or two.

Anatomy Of A Modern Spambot Attack

At peak times (usually during summer break), our server gets raided 1-2 times per day. These minor raids are often just 2-3 tweens who either attempt to troll the chat, or use a basic user script to spam an offensive message. Roughly 60-70% of these raids are either painfully obvious or immediately trigger the anti-spam bot. About 20% of the raids involve slightly intelligent attempts to troll the chat by being annoying without breaking the rules, which usually take about 5-10 minutes to be "exposed". About 5-10% of the raids are large, involving 8 or more people, but they are also very obvious and can be easily confined to an isolation channel. Problems arise, however, with large spambot raids. Below is a timeline of the recent spambot attack on our server:

messages
19:41:25
19:41:45
19:42:05
19:42:25
19:42:45

This was a botched raid, but the bots that actually worked started spamming within 5 seconds of joining, giving the moderators a very narrow window to respond. The real problem, however, is that so many of them joined, the bot's API calls to add a role to silence them were rate-limited. They also sent messages once every 0.9 seconds, which is designed to get around Discord's rate limiting. This amounted to 33 messages sent every second, but it was difficult for the anti-spam to detect. Had the spambots reduced their spam cadence to 3 seconds or more, this attack could have bypassed the anti-spam detection entirely. My bot now instigates a lockdown by raising the verification level when a raid is detected, but it simply can't silence users fast enough to deal with hundreds of spambots, so at some point the moderators must use a mass ban function. Of course, banning is restricted by the global rate limit, because Discord has no mass ban API endpoint, but luckily the global rate limit is something like 50 requests per second, so if you're only banning people, you're probably okay.

However, a hostile attacker could sneak bots in one-by-one every 10 minutes or so, avoiding setting off the raid alarm, and then activate them all at once. 500 bots sending randomized messages chosen from an English dictionary once every 5 seconds after sneaking them in over a 48 hour period is the ultimate attack, and one that is almost impossible to defend against, because this also bypasses the 10-minute verification level. As a weapon of last resort, I added a command that immediately bans all users that sent their first message within the past two minutes, but, again, banning is subject to the global rate limit! In fact, the rate limits can change at any time, and while message deletion has a higher rate limit for bots, bans don't.

The only other option is to disable the @everyone role from being able to speak on any channel, but you have to do this on a per channel basis, because Discord ignores you if you attempt to globally disable sending message permissions for @everyone. Even then, creating an "approved" role doesn't work because any automated assignment could be defeated by adding bots one by one. The only defense a small Discord server has is to require moderator approval for every single new user, which isn't a solution - you've just given up having a public Discord server. It's only a matter of time until any angry 13-year-old can buy a sophisticated attack with a week's allowance. What will happen to public Discord servers then? Do we simply throw up our hands and admit that humanity is so awful we can't even have public communities anymore?

The Discord API Hates You

The rate-limits imposed on Discord API endpoints are exacerbated by temporary failures, and that's excluding network issues. Thus, if I attempt to set a silence role on a spammer that just joined, the API will repeatedly claim they do not exist. In fact, 3 separate API endpoints consistently fail to operate properly during a raid: A "member joined" event won't show up for several seconds, but if I fall back to calling GetMember(), this also claims the member doesn't exist, which means adding the role also fails! So I have to attempt to silence the user with every message they send until Discord actually adds the role, even though the API failures are also counted against the rate limit! This gets completely absurd once someone assaults your server with 1000 spambots, because this triggers all sorts of bottlenecks that normally aren't a problem. The alert telling you a user has joined? Rate limited. It'll take your bot 5-10 minutes to get through just telling you such a gigantic spambot army joined, unless you include code specifically designed to detect these situations and reduce the number of alerts. Because of this, a single user can trigger something like 5-6 API requests, all of which are counted against your global rate limit and can severely cripple a bot.

The general advice that is usually given here is "just ban them", which is terrible advice because Discord's own awful message handling makes it incredibly easy to trigger a false positive. If a message fails to send, the client simply sends a completely new message, with it's own ID, and will continue re-sending the message until an Ack is received, at which point the user has probably send 3 or 4 copies of the same message, each of which have the same content, but completely unique IDs and timestamps, which looks completely identical to a spam attack.

Technically speaking, this is done because Discord assigns snowflake IDs server-side, so each message attempt sent by the client must have a unique snowflake assigned after it is sent. However, it can also be trivially fixed by adding an optional "client ID" field to the message, with a client-generated ID that stays the same if the message is resent due to a network failure. That way, the server (or the other clients) can simply drop any duplicate messages with identical client IDs while still ensuring all messages have unique IDs across their distributed cluster. This would single-handedly fix all duplicate messages across the entire platform, and eliminate almost every single false-positive I've seen in my anti-spam bot.

Discord Doesn't Care

Sadly, Discord doesn't seem to care. The general advice in response to "how do I defend against a large scale spam attack" is "just report them to us", so we did exactly that, and then got what has to be one of the dumbest customer service e-mails I've ever seen in my life:

Discord Being Stupid

Excuse me, WHAT?! Sorry about somebody spamming your service with horrifying gore images, but please don't delete them! What happens if the spammers just delete the messages themselves? What happens if they send child porn? "Sorry guys, please ignore the images that are literally illegal to even look at, but we can't delete them because Discord is fucking stupid." Does Discord understand the concept of marking messages for deletion so they are viewable for a short time as evidence for law enforcement?! My anti-spam bot's database currently has more information than Discord's own servers! If this had involved child porn, the FBI would have had to ask me for my records because Discord would have deleted them all!

Obviously, we're not going to leave 500+ gore messages sitting in the chatroom while Discord's ass-backwards abuse team analyzes them. I just have to hope my own nuclear option can ban them quickly enough, or simply give up the entire concept of having a public Discord server.

The problem is that the armies of spambots that were once reserved for the big servers are now so easy and so trivial to make that they're beginning to target smaller servers, servers that don't have the resources or the means to deal with that kind of large scale DDoS attack. So instead, I have to fight the growing swarm alone, armed with only a crippled, rate-limited bot of my own, and hope the dragons flying overhead don't notice.

What the fuck, Discord.


June 1, 2017

Programmers Should Take Linguistics

The older I get, the more I realize that 90% of all disagreements or social drama results from a miscommunication of some kind. Every time I wind up having to resolve a dispute, I'll try to get both sides of the story, only to realize that they're the same story, and both parties were actually either in agreement or fighting over a perceived insult that never actually existed. Unsurprisingly, a disproportionate amount of this miscommunication often involves programmers being far too strict with their interpretations of what certain words mean.

A linguistics class teaches you about what a language actually is - a bunch of sounds that we mutually agree mean certain things. Language is, intrinsically, a social construct. The correct definition of a word is whatever the majority of your primary social circle thinks it is. However, this also means that if you interact with a secondary social circle, and they all think the word means something else, then whenever you interact with them, it really does mean something else. Language is inherently contextual, and the possible meanings of a word can change based on who is saying it and to whom they're saying it to. If everyone else on Earth has decided that 'literally' can also mean 'figuratively', then it does, even if the dictionary says otherwise. It also means most people don't actually care if you say jif or gif, they'll just say whatever pronunciation gets you to shut up about it.

It's important to realize that a word's meaning is not defined by a dictionary, but rather by how people use it. The dictionary is simply a reflection of it's usage, and is generally a few years out of date. Just as the pronunciation of a word can vary by dialect, so can the potential meanings of a word. Meanings can be invented by regional subdialects and spread outward from there, which is the origin of many slang terms. Sometimes we invent entirely new words, like "dubstep", but young words may have fuzzy definitions. In some dialects of electronic music listeners, "dubstep" is not actually a a specific genre, but instead refers to all electronic music. Using dubstep to refer to any electronic song is currently incorrect if used in general parlance, because most people think it is referring to a very specific kind of music. However, if this usage of the word continues to be popularized, eventually the meaning of the word will change into a synonym for electronica, and the dictionaries will be updated to reflect this.

The fluid nature of language is why prescriptive grammar is almost always unnecessary, unless you are deliberately conforming to a grammar standard for a specific medium, such as writing a story. In almost any other context, so long as everyone in your social group understands your 'dialect' of English, then it is valid grammar. However, if you attempt to use this dialect outside of your social circle with people who are not familiar with it, you will once again be in the wrong, as they will have no idea what you're talking about. This, however, does not mean there are no mandatory grammar rules, it's just that most of the rules that are actually necessary to speak the language properly are usually so ingrained that you don't even think about them.

A fantastic example of this is a little known rule in English where all adjectives must come in a very specific order: opinion-size-age-shape-color-origin-material-purpose Noun. So you can have a lovely little old rectangular green French silver whittling knife, but if you switch the order of any of those adjectives you'll sound like a maniac. Conversely, you can never have a green great dragon. Despite the fact that this grammar rule is basically never talked about in any prescriptive grammar book, it is mandatory because if you don't follow it you won't be speaking proper English and people will have difficulty understanding you. True grammar rules are ones that, if not followed, result in nonsensical sentences that are difficult or impossible to parse correctly.

However, this does not mean all sentences that are difficult to understand have incorrect grammar. In fact, even some words are completely ambiguous by default. If I say I'm "dusting an object", the meaning of the phrase is completely dependent on what the object is. If it's a cake, I'm probably dusting it with something. If it's a shelf, I'm probably dusting it to get rid of the dust.

Programmers tend to be very literal minded people, and often like to think that language is a set of strict rules defined by their English class. In reality, language is a fluid, dynamic, ambiguous, constantly changing enigma that exists entirely because we all agree on what a bunch of sounds mean. We need to recognize this, and when we communicate to other people, we need to be on the lookout for potential misinterpretations of what we say, so we can provide clarifications when possible. If someone says something that seems ridiculous, ask them to clarify. I'm tired of resolving disagreements that exist only because nobody stopped to ask the other side to clarify what they meant.

Stop demanding that everyone explain things in a way you'll understand. That's impossible, because everyone understands language slightly differently. Instead, ask for clarification if someone seems to be saying something unusual or before you debate a point they made. Maybe then we can keep the debates to actual disagreements, instead of arguing over communication failures.

May 4, 2017

Why Bother Making An App?

I have an idea for an app. According to startup literature, I'm supposed to get initial fundraising from small-time investors, or "angel" investors, possibly with help from an incubator. Then, after using this money to build an MVP and push the product on the marketplace, I do a Series A round with actual venture capitalists. Now, the venture capitalists probably won't give me any money unless I can give them a proper financial outlook, user growth metrics, and a solid plan for expansion, along with a market cap estimation. Alternatively, I can just use enough meaningless buzzwords and complete bullshit to convince them to give me $120 million for a worthless piece of junk.

Either way, venture capitalists usually want a sizable 10-30% stake in your company (depending on if it's Series A, Series B, or Series C), given how much money they're pouring into a company that might fail. That's okay though, because my app does reasonably well and sells lots of copies on the app store and journalists write about it. Unfortunately, soon sales start tapering off, and ad revenue declines because customers either purchase the pro version or block the ads entirely. While the company is financially stable and making a modest profit, this isn't enough for the investors. They want growth, they need user engagement, they need ever increasing profits. Simply building a stable company isn't enough for them.

So the investors start pushing for you to be bought out. You get lucky, and your app would make a great accessory to Google Assistant, or Cortana, and you get huge buyout offers from Microsoft, Google, and Amazon, because they have more money than most small countries. Investors immediately push for you to take the most lucrative offer from whoever is willing to give you the most cash for fucking over all of your customers. You can push back, but your power is limited, because those investors hold a significant chunk of your company. At best, you can pick the offer that is least likely to completely destroy your product.

If you get lucky, your cross-platform app that worked on everything gets discontinued and re-integrated into one device that people have to buy due to vendor lock-in. If you aren't lucky, your app gets discontinued and completely forgotten about, until someone else comes up with the same idea and the process repeats. Maybe this time they'll get bought out and actually integrated into something.

Either way, your customers lose. Every time. They are punished for believing that a new app, by some new company, could actually survive long enough to be useful to them without being consumed by the corporate monstrosities that run the world. If the company founders are nice, maybe some of the employees walk away rich, but most of them will probably just end up trapped inside a corporate behemoth until they can't take it anymore and finally quit. In your efforts to make the world a better place, you've managed to screw over your company, your customers, and even your employees, because investors don't care about your product, they care about milking you for all you're worth.

But hey, at least you're rich, right?

March 23, 2017

Companies Can't Be Apolitical

One of the most common things I hear from people is that companies should be "apolitical". The most formal way this concept is expressed is that a company should make decisions based on what maximizes profits and not political opinions. Unfortunately, the statement "companies should only care about maximizing profits" is, itself, a political statement (and one I happen to disagree with). Thus, it is fundamentally impossible for a company to be truly apolitical, for the very act of attempting to be apolitical is a political statement.

How much a company can avoid politics generally depends on both the type and size of the company. Once your company becomes large enough, it will influence politics simply by virtue of its enormous size, and eventually becomes an integral part of political debates whether or wants to or not. Large corporations must take into account the political climate when making business decisions, because simply attempting to blindly maximize profit may turn the public against them and destroy their revenue sources—thus, politics themselves become part of the profit equation, and cannot be ignored. Certain types of businesses embody political statements simply by existing. Grindr, for example, is a dating app for gay men. It's entire business model is dependent on enabling an activity that certain fundamentalists consider inherently immoral.

You could, theoretically, try to solve part of this quandary by saying that companies should also be amoral, insofar that the free market should decide moral values. The fundamentalists would then protest the companies existence by not using it (but then, they never would have used it in the first place). However, the problem is that, once again, this very statement is itself political in nature. Thus, by either trying to be amoral or moral, a company is making a political statement.

The issue at play here is that literally everything is political. When most everyone agrees on basic moral principles, it's easier to pretend that politics is really just about economic policy and lawyers, but our current political divisions have demonstrated that this is a fantasy. Politics are the fundamental morals that society has decided on. It's just a lot easier to argue about minor differences in economic policy instead of fundamental differences in basic morality.

Of course, how companies participate in politics is also important to consider. Right now, a lot of companies participate in politics by spending exorbitant amounts of money on lobbyists. This is a symptom of money in general, and should be solved not by removing corporate money from politics, but removing all money, because treating spending money as a form of speech gives more speech to the rich, which inherently discriminates against the poor and violates the constitutional assertion that all men are created equal (but no one really seems to be paying attention to that line anyway).

Instead of using money, corporations should do things that uphold whatever political values they believe in. As the saying goes, actions speak louder than words (or money, in this case). You could support civil rights activism by being more inclusive with your hiring and promoting a diverse work environment. Or, if you live in the Philippines, you could create an app that helps death squads hunt down drug users so they can be brutally executed. What's interesting is that most people consider the latter to be a moral issue as opposed to a political one, which seems to derive from the fact that once you agree on most fundamental morals, we humans simply make up a bunch of pointless rules to satisfy our insatiable desire to tell other humans they're wrong.

We've lived in a civilized world for so long, we've forgotten the true roots of politics: a clash between our fundamental moral beliefs, not about how much parking fines should be. Your company will make a political statement whether you like it or not, so you'd better make sure it's the one you want.