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February 2, 2009

Filed under: culture»internet»excession

Time Out

Like a lot of people, I have a hard time leaving well enough alone when it comes to Internet argumentation. And the Internet being what it is, there's a lot of argument out there. Tech forums, political blogs, the extremists who got my e-mail address from Ars and decided to add me to their lunatic press release list... the available incendiary material is endless. And in some way's, that's a good thing: I believe strongly that the Internet's soup of ideas and opinion, debated rationally, can be a great place to learn and explore.

That said, it can also be stressful, and possibly hazardous. I find it way too easy to get into a cycle of comment/refresh/comment, fuming the entire time--and even when I think I've pulled myself away, there's a certain compulsion to check the laptop and keep the cycle going. Indeed, it's probably a good idea that few people read this: I've had the experience of hostile commenters here, and it wasn't worth the stress.

If you have this problem as well--and in my experience, most moderately-opinionated people can fall into this behavior online--it might be helpful to mandate a cooldown period. This weekend, when I found myself starting to obsess a little over a minor point of disagreement, I took a deep breath and then installed BlockSite in Firefox to keep myself away from the site getting me worked up. After a couple of days, I unblocked it--but by that point, I'd gotten some emotional distance. It's not artificial self control, merely assisted.

There are people who believe that the problem with the Web (and, to some extent, the problem with modern life in general) is that it's too fast, too much, and too easy. I don't really agree with that. The way I see it, if technology gives us tools for wreaking havoc in one way or another, it also gives us tools to keep the situation under control. Just because progress makes something possible, it doesn't make it inevitable. Indeed, while it's not always possible to take personal responsibility for the excesses of technology, but this is one of those cases. And since I enjoy the advantages that progress brings, I don't think a little augmented restraint on my part is too much to ask--particularly when it improves my own emotional health as well. Better to have that choice, and not use it, than never to have the choice at all.

January 27, 2009

Filed under: culture»internet

A Merry Life, and a Short One

Apparently it's in Wired's lease or something that every year they have to write another article about crazy libertarians who think they can recreate Galt's Gulch on a floating ocean city (this one's the grandson of Milton Friedman, of all people). I assume it's next to the clause requiring Wired to dedicate a certain amount of annual space to Ray Kurzweil, since in both cases there's never anything new, or even remotely feasible, to write about without a legally-binding reason to do so.

The reoccurrence of Rapture is usually a good opportunity to link to China Mieville's dissection of the Freedom Ship just last year. But of course, this year the seas have been uncommonly dramatic, thanks to the rise of Somali piracy. It's hard not to daydream, so long as there could be no actual chance of it happening, of Patri Friedman's Seasteading Institute drifting into the waters surrounding the Horn of Africa--only to be confronted by a very real example of weak governance and market dysfunction, via the business end of a second-hand AK47.

Linking the two together, both Mieville and Johann Hari (who wrote "You Are Being Lied To About Pirates" regarding the Somalian situation) reference the work of Marcus Rediker when discussing their respective sea communities. Rediker wrote The Many-Headed Hydra in 2002 with Peter Linebaugh, examining the lineage of revolutionary thought (including pirates) in the Atlantic, then he followed it in 2005 with Villains of All Nations, which focused on the "golden age" of piracy. Both books highlight the radical political experimentation that arose in the pirate communities of the 17th and 18th centuries: pirates elected their captains, shared their booty equally, and lived in a roughly egalitarian society that was multiethnic, multicultural, and even relatively subversive in its opportunities for women. It was also fervently anti-state, with pirates declaring that they were "from the sea." Before any of the libertarian sailors-to-be consider appropriating this legacy, however, they'd probably do well to remember that the pirates of the Atlantic were primarily opposed to--and spawned from--the rudimentary free market being established as the new social order of the day. They often turned to piracy in reaction to the brutal treatment of their merchant captains, and took great pleasure in destroying property and sinking merchant ships. The pirates were, in other words, early anti-globalization activists of the most violent kind.

As Hari points out, the parallels to the events off the coast of Somalia are striking. In the absence of a functioning national coast guard, the country has become prey for European commercial ships that fish illegally in Somali waters--or worse, use them as a dumping ground for toxic waste. Hari writes: "This is the context in which the 'pirates' have emerged. Somalian fishermen took speedboats to try to dissuade the dumpers and trawlers, or at least levy a 'tax' on them. They call themselves the Volunteer Coastguard of Somalia - and ordinary Somalis agree. The independent Somalian news site WardheerNews found 70 per cent 'strongly supported the piracy as a form of national defence'."

This is not to defend the actions of pirates, but it is instructive to consider the full picture--and to appreciate the use of the terminology. Both then and now, as Rediker says in his introduction for Villains, sea piracy represents "a terror of the weak against the strong." A similar motivation exists for enterprises like the Seasteading Institute, but their definition of the "weak" and the "strong" is very different.

Given those facts, one striking thought after reading these histories is how the use of the word "pirate" in an intellectual property context is an utter debasement of the term. The golden age pirates existed in opposition to the exploitative labor practices and social structure of the day. The Somali pirates exist in opposition to environmental and commercial exploitation. But what exploitation does the software pirate, or the music pirate, oppose? The harsh world of having to pay for goods? Ironically, referring to IP theft as "piracy" serves the interest of both sides. For the thieves, it glorifies their actions by association with a glamorous history of rebellion. For the commercial interests, it distracts from legitimate issues of intellectual property, like sampling and fair use.

I have a solution, of course. We're going to need a very large boat...

December 18, 2008

Filed under: culture»internet

The Red Rose

I have a soft spot for web sites that maintain the classic "Geocities circa 1999" look and feel. Belle and I both started building HTML back in those days, when marbled backgrounds and marquee tags were the hottest technologies going. We remember them fondly, even if they look funny now. It's Gen-Y kitsch.

My favorite example of this is Bass Northwest, Seattle's premiere boutique bass dealer. Great store, and host to a fine collection of animated horizontal rules and fake 3D text in .GIF form (always a nice touch in an age of slow mobile Internet access). It's not that they've forgotten about it--the stock is constantly updated online. It's just that they have better things to do than to learn anything other than the H1 and P tags. Honestly, I respect that.

But my boss has, today, forever "won" this particular contest. Behold: The Red Rose Inn and Suites of lovely Plant City, FL, where her high school reunion will be held next summer. Words cannot adequately describe it. As she says, "It's like every single thing that I ever made fun of in high school came slamming back in one big pink opera-gloved fell swoop." I highly recommend the virtual tour on the left rail.

I'm really tempted to come up with a pre-2000 CSS flavor now, complete with beveled borders on all the div tags, a la Netscape Navigator 3.0.

What's your favorite Web dinosaur? Anyone else miss those old table-based tar pits?

December 16, 2008

Filed under: culture»internet

All of Us Sidekicks

On Friday, someone named Aaron Swartz pointed out the obvious: that user-friendly smartphones had existed before a certain computer company entered the market, but were ignored for cultural reasons.

But, of course, neither minorities nor schoolchildren rule the world, so the Sidekick has been written out of history. 2007 was the first time anyone had thought to give a smartphone a decent UI, or a web browser, or an over-the-air application store. Well, at least it was the first time anyone thought to tell white people.
Shockingly (or not), hipster gadget bloggers like Joel Johnson overreacted, posturing like they'd been accused of Klan membership for owning an iPhone. There's no reason to reprint his rant, since it's just embarrassing (particularly that Johnson has room to accuse anyone of being "mouthbreathingly turtlenecked"), but I did find this graf interesting:
Sociologically and culturally it was a trend of note. While I'm positive that consumer electronic choice often breaks down differently over cultural and economic lines, phones are one of the few items that we commonly can observe on the street. But to presume that there is some sort aspect of ignorance by "white people" in passing the Sidekick by -- especially when "white people" almost certainly means "working adults" -- is exactly the sort of goofy injection of race into an argument that drives me crazy.
In other words, Johnson recognizes that there are different class issues (and make no mistake, Swartz's point is really more about class than race) related to technology adoption--and then he goes ahead and dismisses those issues anyway, preferring to get hung up on the phrase "white people" and insist that only the features he finds useful (as an upper/middle class, white hipster) are the ones that count "holistically" in a great smartphone.

Now, no-one's going to argue that tech blogs are a source of enlightened social discourse. But I think there is a deeper issue here that we--let's flatter ourselves as fairly cutting-edge folks--could stand to examine, and that's how class informs both the technology we use and how we use it.

Take SMS/MMS, for example. I hate getting SMS, personally. I grew up at a time when none of my friends had cell phones, but we were always within 30 feet of a computer with e-mail access. I never used text messages on my old phone, and now I have a phone that does e-mail, so I don't use it now. All I see when I get an SMS is $.10 extra on my phone bill and a technology that's a bit kludgy and error-prone. The iPhone doesn't even really support MMS--a fact that's led a lot of fans to dismiss the technology out of hand.

But of course, some really exciting stuff is being done with SMS. Systems like FrontlineSMS, which give activists powerful tools for organizing and communicating, and the Obama campaign's announcement database are fascinating solutions built on top of it. And even if that weren't the case, it's still snobbish of me to look down on SMS. After all, what is Twitter but SMS blogging--in other words, SMS/MMS for rich white people?

This is one of the reasons that I love reading blogs like Afrigadget: it's a way to get outside of my comfort zone and see people fixing problems using technology that I would have wrongly ignored as "unsophisticated" or clumsy. And perhaps they are, but here's the thing: they're also cheap, widespread, and egalitarian, not just outside the US but inside as well. As someone whose job is to get news and information out to different audiences using technology, it's good to keep principles of resource-constraint in mind. Even tech-savvy people can find themselves in a situation where a text message--or similarly unglamourous medium--is the most effective way to make a query or get an announcement.

The digital divide isn't just physical or economic. It's also a factor of class culture, particularly since the people who are getting the venture capital funding are from the upper levels of that culture. They're the people who don't think MMS has any particular use, who have shiny smartphones with really nice web browsers, who see a future in rich Internet applications and high-bandwidth multimedia. As Dan Lyons wrote while attending one Web 2.0 conference:

My first reaction was that in the greater scheme of things (economy in free fall, war in Iraq, global warming, energy crisis, not to mention the old reliables like cancer and poverty and AIDS, etc.) this challenge of finding a good restaurant seems like a fairly trivial and unimportant problem for our big geek brains to be trying to solve. If I were funding these guys I might go home scratching my head about what those kids are doing with all of my millions. Maybe there is a point to what they're doing, but honestly, what great problem are these companies trying to solve? Sitting there watching this spectacle - watching these guys unable to simply explain what they do and and how they are going to make a business out of it - it was staggering to think that someone has entrusted these people with very large sums of money. But someone has. I weep for those people.
Unlike Lyons, I don't weep for the money men, the venture capitalists, or the eager young startups. My sympathy is with the rest of us. Because eventually, a lot of us are going to end up on the wrong end of the curve. And when we do, I'd like to think that there's going to be more waiting for us than the scorn of the in-crowd at BBG and Gizmodo.

October 25, 2008

Filed under: culture»america»tourism

Our Vacations Are Better than Your Vacations, Pacific Northwest Edition

A few of my favorite pictures from our trip:

Welcome to the Portland area, where you can get your hair done, buy yourself a high-powered assault weapon, and then have yourself some fresh, raw fish for lunch--all without leaving the strip mall.

This raccoon, and a couple of others, were just hanging out in Vancouver's Stanley Park while tourists took pictures of them. Belle is terrified of raccoons. It was awesome.

It was kind of funny running into the EA Vancouver headquarters by random. But even better was the Mounted Police souvenir store located in the same building, shown here in the lower right. Want a mountie apron and grill set? Or a copy of Need for Speed? Now you know where to go.

True fact: Belle grew up just down the street from the Billy Goat Gruff family. She has nothing to fear from Seattle's bridge troll.

Near the troll, there's the country's largest statue of Lenin, which prominently features this disclaimer. What does it mean that the photo opportunity is (c) Getty? What about the disclaimer itself, is that also under copyright? Suddenly I feel like a character from a Cory Doctorow novel.

How, exactly, do you put a wax statue of Gene Simmons in a museum and not have his tongue sticking out? Luckily, Belle has it covered.

This boutique in Seattle had elephant and donkey masks on the mannequins for the political season. It did not really heighten my patriotic spirit so much as give me the creeps.

In Portland, we visited the Japanese garden, where the two forms of life thriving most were the moss and amateur photographers. We interrupted one on the way up these beautiful stairs, and I got a shot myself.

Belle says: "I didn't know what this was at first. I was all like, look, lots of rocks."

In a real earthquake, as opposed to this simulator at the Oregon Museum of Science and Industry, one assumes that she would not look so thrilled about it.

Completely by chance, Belle pulled me into a music shop near Voodoo Donuts, and they turned out to have a huge collection of pedals, including a whole bunch from Z. Vex. This is me trying out a Wooly Mammoth, which is one of the baddest bass distortions I've ever heard. It was very, very tempting.

Instead of the Mammoth, I pulled the trigger on the Lo-Fi Loop Junky. I dig the blue monster.

October 24, 2008

Filed under: culture»internet»excession

On the Grid

I guarantee you, right at this moment, someone is trying to figure out how to display ads, or porn, or ads for porn, based on your current latitude, longitude, and browser history. "Location, location, location" is not just a cliched real-estate slogan anymore. It's the guiding principle behind a whole slew of web startups and new technologies: location-aware browsers, geotagged photos, RFIDs, and who knows how many budding social networks--and those are the least annoying ones. Expect the Beltway to be getting a lot of shipments from the makers of "Margaret Thatcher Gone Wild."

But those applications, like most Web 2.0 startups, are trying so hard to be groundbreaking that they're missing the point. It's not that there aren't legitimate commercial uses for that data, or that those uses won't be seen as essential one day. It's that there's a more intrinsic, human aspect to location awareness, and it has the potential to be culture-changing at a level that's a lot more profound than just virtual grafitti and inventory maintenance.

When Belle and I have travelled in the past, we've often planned our days carefully. And by "we," I mean Belle. It's not so much that she likes planning (although I suspect she does), but probably more that I'm really bad at it, and someone usually has to do it since we rely on public transportation at our destination. That means writing down at least a couple of transit routes, and carrying a lot of maps. It's stressful, especially if (for example) someone read a map wrong in Paris once by accident, resulting in a 30-block trek to a restaurant that the guidebook neglected to note was closed, and then that same person might have made a wrong turn in Chicago once with similar results, and now his girlfriend HAS to second-guess his map-reading skills constantly even though those were ISOLATED INCIDENTS, BELLE, GIVE IT A REST ALREADY.

For the second half of this trip to the Pacific Northwest, we did things a little differently. I've got a smartphone, and Belle's been using a Samsung Instinct, which has a GPS and a number of smartphone-ish features. We'd pick a few things to do each day, then figure out routes and detours dynamically via the data connection. The difference was night and day, and better by orders of magnitude.

As a side note, not to sound like a shill, but I cannot say enough good things about the Google Maps app on S60. It's not only fast and smart, which you'd expect from a search company, but the more recent versions have integrated public transit directions that worked flawlessly for us in Portland. Given the limitations of cellular triangulation-based location-finding, it still requires a little map-reading and common sense, but that's a small price to pay to never look at a bus map again.

Having location information instantly available did more than just make it easy to get from place to place. We stopped worrying about missing a stop on the bus--just keep Maps open and check to see when the blue circle gets close to the end of the purple line. It was still possible to get lost, but it didn't provoke feelings of helplessness anymore. Likewise, we could still spontaneously make little discoveries as we walked--Belle stopped me by chance at a local music shop that happened to sell the Z. Vex boutique effects pedals I've been coveting for years--but it was actually less stressful to just wander around because we could always at least find out where we were, relatively, if not exactly how to get back to where we started.

I suspect sometimes that the core engine of human psychology is a tiny, churning knot of doubt. Hidden deep under layers of rationalization and ego, there's something constantly in need of reassurance: "What's going on? What time is it? Where am I? Who are these people, and why are they staring at me like that? What happened to my pants?" As tool-using mammals, people instinctively gravitate to answers for those questions. The first step in soothing the internal doubt mechanism is to invent a device that answers its queries, like clocks and watches did for time. But the second step is to create a standard for those devices, allowing them to be universal, like the Greenwich Mean Time. Universality means familiarity means comfort. When everyone agrees on the time, it becomes possible to order our lives and interactions from a common reference point, which is not only convenient but also psychologically pleasing.

Yet cell phones were, as others have observed, a disruptive technology for timekeeping etiquette--not because they ruined our ability to plan, but because they decoupled it from the extensive scheduling burden. People no longer coordinate their schedules in such depth, but negotiate them around the less flexible portions of the day. When Belle and I met up with Corvus and Rachel at Powell's in Portland, we didn't bother to set a precise time or part of the bookstore to meet. We just agreed to call when we got there, coordinating on the fly. In general, plans are more vague, and yet everyone's still comfortable with that because the overall level of uncertainty is lower.

Location awareness, I think, has the potential to take that kind of ad-hoc social improvisation even further. Because if you can always figure out where you are, and the others in your group can do the same, meeting places become much more nebulous things. In that situation, any place that meets the necessary criteria for the task at hand--a place to talk, say, and maybe get coffee or other social lubricants--can be determined, shared, and navigated easily. The need for it to be familiar or known beforehand is eased, because when you're always plugged into your physical location every place is a little bit familiar.

One of the revelations I had at the World Bank was the realization, during our street-numbering education project, that not all cities have a systematic method of describing location by street. People in developed countries take for granted the ability to navigate using a series of concrete, standardized instructions instead of searching for landmarks and fumbling with relative distances. Perhaps it's possible that location services will alter the way we look at street mapping the same way that cell phones have blurred our mapping of time. Or maybe it won't. All I know is that it's gone right to the top of my packing list for my next trip.

July 14, 2008

Filed under: culture»internet

One Machine to Rule Them All

Does anyone have any idea at all what Kevin Kelly is trying to say with this editorial?

I mean, granted, the man hasn't made sense in years (if ever), and it's probably hard for people to say no at the magazine where he was an executive director. But is it too much to ask that Wired at least try to enforce some kind of standard?

July 8, 2008

Filed under: culture»asia»china»mandarin

Adventures in Translation: Snapple Edition

Snapple, beverage company known for its Real Facts That Aren't, has launched a new line of green tea, which touts its health benefits on the label, including the following sentences:

It's loaded with a natural antioxidant and boosts your metabolism. Scientists call it EGCG, tea farmers call it 茶, you'll just call it another reason to pop open a bottle of Snapple Green Tea.
Really? Farmers call it 茶? Sounds exotic--those wise Chinese tea farmers and their traditional knowledge of antioxidants. Wonder what that translates to?

As it turns out, that's just the character for "tea" (pronounced "cha" with a rising intonation).

Personally, I'm torn. "Scientists call it EGCG, tea farmers call it 'tea'" is most likely a mistake in the marketing department akin to bad hanzi tattoos (or, I don't know, a set of bottle caps spreading false trivia). But there's also a chance that it's a sly joke at the label's own inflated antioxidant pitch, in which case I applaud their self-awareness.

Either way, sadly, the tea itself is pretty awful.

June 5, 2008

Filed under: culture»internet

You've Been Shunned!

Know what I want? An antisocial network.

Every time I end up joining another one of these services, I go through the same frustrating process of adding all the people that I "knew" on previous social networks to the new one. I find this both exhausting, and, to some extent, embarrassing, since I don't actually have that many friends. And I kind of like it that way, honestly. I'm not really the kind of person who goes out of their way to contact other people unless I've actually got a good reason to do so (although I do feel bad about my terrible blog commenting habits lately, and have resolved to do better). I'm not trying to reach some kind of social network "high score," in other words--not that there's anything wrong with that.

The sensible way to fix social networking transfers, in my opinion, would be to have a common interchange format--JSON or XML--that you could download from one service and upload to the next. Combined with something like OpenID, we could skip the entire hassle of starting from scratch on a new network. Facebook and Twitter, at least, have not done this. Instead, they've put together some kind of creepy API-based address book import, where all you have to do is give them your e-mail password. This is both terrifying and idiotic.

You could argue that social networks want it to be hard to move between them, because then they're less likely to lose subscribers when new contenders show up. But I'm not sure this is actually a concern. I think most people would be more than willing to belong to more than one competent (read: not MySpace) social network, if for no other reason than it gives them more stuff to obsess over during their workday.

So sometimes, when I'm idly trying to figure out how to motivate myself to use these services, I think about my antisocial network. I'm hip-deep in Flash at work, so I can't bring myself to look at Actionscript in my spare time, but once I get free I think it might make a good Facebook app: a social network where you can't friend anyone, and instead of poking and verbing people they can only be shunned (an action which sends the target no notification at all of their status). I imagine a network topology as a globe filled with dots, each a node in the web but with no lines connecting them, like a constellation of potential friends forever just slightly out of reach.

June 1, 2008

Filed under: culture»pop

White Gold

Belle thinks I'm nuts, but this may be the greatest campaign for milk (or any other beverage) ever made:

It's like the Darkness and Monster Magic got together to write (surprisingly catchy) music about dairy. There's five songs, apparently, hidden at the obligatory obnoxious Flash site.

Future - Present - Past