Category: Digital Rights

White European Males, GamerGate and DongleGate

First things first, a disclaimer:

  1. I don’t condone, nor I accept any form of harassment, physical, verbal or electronic.
  2. I don’t mix technical qualities with life situations. Your choices, opinions, abilities and disabilities may affect the quality of your work, but this is not about those, but about the result: your work.
  3. I don’t promote abusive behaviour as a form of getting your point across, even if no abusive intention was meant.
  4. I do promote inclusion in STEM to balance towards the real proportion in society.
  5. Both GamerGate and DongleGate were disasters on their own, for very different reasons. I want neither to happen.
  6. I have Asperger’s Syndrome and see things more black and white than most people. I cannot accept qualitative features being used for quantitative purposes. None of this is meant as an offence, or to explain or validate harassment, abuse or any other unethical behaviour. It’s just an analysis.

What was

When Charles Babbage begun creating his analytical machine, he was worried about the hardware and the implications of it for mathematics and the world. But we all know that hardware is only as good as its software, and so Ada Lovelace’s work was of equal importance on that critical milestone. Both of them were mathematicians of an elite that weren’t thoroughly recognised until much later. Both were extremely methodical, eccentric and disconnected from reality. All well known characteristics that Hans Asperger recognised circa 1920 as what we now know as autism.

In the 40’s to 60’s, only really brilliant mathematicians could understand computing, mostly because they were just developing it, but thousands of men and women took part in building and using them. At that time, the proportion of people “using computers” was closer to the social distribution than it is today. However, the number of people working “with computers” was independent of their understanding of the underlying technology. Naturally, the distribution then follows the source group’s own. But after the first real case for general computing (WWII), the world was left with a tool that could do so much more, and people realised that they needed to take it to the next level.

Still too many people were clueless as to how computers worked, and a huge effort was made to get people “into computing”. But the importance and prevalence of computing those days were inexistent, so the appeal to the general public, men and women, were close to zero. The kind of people that felt attracted by it then, and during the 70’s and 80’s were the same groups as Babbage, Lovelace, Turin: people in the autistic spectrum. This is not to say that non-autistic people did’t do it, or worse, that they couldn’t do it. On the contrary, the proof that this is not an autistic-only field is today’s proliferation of computer scientists around the world, regardless of their mental status, gender, race or culture.

During the 70’s, computers had specific purposes, and only universities and very big companies had them. The 80’s saw the first boom in “personal” computing, but it was still dominated by self-built kits, and those like me that remember that time fondly, know how much of a weirdo we were in the eyes of the general population. While more people were taking on computing careers, those experimenting at home still had a clear autistic predisposition.

It was only in the 90’s, when Bill Gates became a millionaire, that people started giving “some” credit to the field, and personal computing toppled and then completely replaced mainframes. During the 80’s, operating systems were developed for the common tasks like word editing, spreadsheets and simple databases, but it wasn’t until the 90’s that most people had one in their homes and small shops. It became ubiquitous only then.

But even in the 90’s, all the attempts to simplify programming (Logo? Basic?) couldn’t really help you do much with computers. They were (and still are) basically toys. So, people that learnt Basic have realised early on that they couldn’t write anything meaningful and would either have to delve deep into C, or give up completely. That was still promoting those of the more autistic disposition to stay and the rest to find something more interesting to do.

The niche

But as with every spectrum, thresholds are biased.

If you understand a bit about autism, you know that all we want is to be left alone to our own devices. Don’t come to my house telling me what to do and how. This is most upsetting for autistic people and you will be faced with some unintentional harsh responses due to the genetic reasons that autistic people cannot control or fix.

Autistic people were *always* banned from social life for thousands of years (maybe more?), and since ever they tried to group into segregated societies, often characterised with bigotry and rudeness, not uncommonly harassment. The Royal Society was such a place, and not unlike the current computer science scenario, was dominated by “White European Males“.

It seems obvious to me that the “White European” part is easily explained because of the degree of development that Europe had at the time (1600’s), compared to everywhere else in the world. The parallel with modern computer scientists is clear: North America and Western Europe have a much higher rate of Caucasians well educated and positioned in society, for obvious reasons that don’t fit this text to discuss, than the other groups.

When a field is new and needs pressure to get to, most of the people that will get in will be of a similar disposition. In the same way that most voluntary army cadets will have a similar mentality. I would never be an army volunteer, but I was a computer enthusiast since I was 5 years old.

Recent studies have shown that the proportion of males and females in high-functioning autistic people (the ones that like to solve complex problems for fun) is 4:1. But boys and girls behave very differently, with boys having a lot more physically and verbally violent games, and girls being more sensitive. With a start ratio of 4:1, it’s not hard how that biased self-selection can get to 10:1 or more.

What has become

But after the initial self-balancing, true bigots and abusers (trolls), saw the chance to belong to a society that was professing, for completely different reasons, that different people be kept out. I hope it’s clear enough that high-functioning autistic people have a valid and important reason to keep people out of their lives and groups. Otherwise, they cannot function properly.

Moreover, autistic people have the tendency of responding badly to social pressure, and that includes behaviour that is often misinterpreted as harassment, bullying and violent. It is not uncommon to see very drastic ends to really sad stories.

Autistic people also have a higher than usual rate of trusting people, and therefore much more easily abused by trolls, who will become part of a community and extend their modus operandi, but not necessarily their intention.

People on less advantageous backgrounds (wealth, disabilities, minorities, life choices) had even less chances of getting in a club that was trying to keep people out. But with trolls inside, they’ll make sure this becomes impossible, and that’s how situations like GamerGate happen.

It is important to separate the original cause of aggregation and demand for separation, sometimes aggressively, as a classic high-functioning autistic process, from the subsequent harassment and directed intentional aggression that trolls had after they took over well meaning but fearful and trusting mostly autistic people.

That fact, however, does not condone any aggression, including from autistic people. But what people have to understand is that, if the aggression comes from an autistic person, even high-functioning, they very likely cannot control it and need help. Being offended is ok, but reserving the right to then discharge your own contained aggression, even if you are a minority, is not the way to solve this.

We all have problems, but turning off your care-meter because you are a minority and have just being offended is not ok. And that includes autistic people, too.

Why is this important?

Because computer science has moved on from the nerd-zone for at least 20 years, but much more so in the last 10.

Nowadays there are a huge number of architectures, languages, tools, spare parts and they’re all accessible to a huge chunk of the world to play with. It is not a mostly autistic activity any more, and there are languages (like Python, Java, Haskell, Go, Swift, even JavaScript and Scratch) and hardware (like RaspberryPi, Arduino, Mindstorms) which allow you to do amazing things very easily.

The barrier into technology is so low now that anyone can enter, and once they’re in, they don’t need to be autistic to enjoy. Furthermore, neurotypical people can be as good (or better) than autistic people even in the hardest of problems. After all, being high-functioning autistic doesn’t mean you’re smarter, just means you want to do something that keep you away from people, and talking to machines is the best thing I can think of.

So nowadays we have all kinds of people, and with that, we’re back to the real distribution that societies have. All minorities are now represented by what they are in society. But trolls are haters, and they know some very cunning ways to keep unwanted people around, mostly using subversive tactics like physical, verbal and social abuse, doxing, DDoSing, etc.

We need to remove the trolls from our societies together. This is not a minorities vs majorities fight, this is a fight for the right to be safe. The new minorities have as much right to be safe as the original minority who created the space. And both minorities have the right to be represented, but so does the majorities. The only thing we want to get rid of are the trolls.

What we should move towards

So, autistic people want a space of their own, trolls take over, destroy the Internet. Minorities try to participate, trolls shoot them down, behave like assholes. What else is news? As it all started in the 40’s, we need a compatible distribution with the rest of society. The very definition of minority is that there is less of. So it makes no sense to expect an equal distribution of minority and majority on each specific scale.

For instance, on average worldwide, we have half men, half women. So I would expect the same distribution in STEM subjects. We may be far from it in computer science and physics, but not in biology or chemistry. It’s still not 50/50, so we can’t take each topic to be exactly 50/50, but we can expect the whole STEM subjects to be around that ballpark.

Of the world population, at a glance I see 18% is Han Chinese, while about two thirds of that is “European”, and a third of each Arabic, Hindu and African, living all over the world. The real distribution doesn’t matter much, but I’d expect a similar distribution for STEM in the same way.

Now, getting there will involve two distinct activities:

  1. Deep grass root movements to increase the development and literacy of impoverished communities, education of better off communities regarding equality and inclusion.
  2. Improve STEM inclusion and attractiveness for all members of society, as well as remove the exclusion characteristics (trolls) of the already existing community.

People that are keen on seen global equality (1) have to fight that battle outside of STEM subjects. The fights you should have inside are those that discriminate minorities that can already be represented in STEM subjects (2).

For example, all the feminists advocate for inclusion in open source communities already have the will and ability to participate on equal grounds as men. The fact that someone is gay or transgender makes absolutely no difference in a STEM community and should bear no value in inclusion or acceptance. The fact that they are not included is a horrible mistake and has to be fixed inside STEM communities.

We should move towards STEM communities that have a relevant distribution as far as STEM can have on its own. We’re not looking for equal numbers of all minorities, we’re looking for equal distribution of minorities, and those are two very different things.

What we cannot have

What seems to be happening, and it’s something that will not fix anything, is that we’re moving to the other side.

We have to discourage any kind of troll, regardless if they agree with you. It may be satisfying to see someone on your side trolling someone you’re against, but that’s as bad as their side’s troll behaviour. Encouraging hate, even in the form of biased consensus and imposed cultural traits is just as bad as any other form of harassment.

More importantly, it’s that form of harassment that gets to the core of autistic people, including high-functioning ones. It’s the very reason why we hide from people and talk to machines. Cases like DongleGate are as extremist as GamerGate, and as offensive to me.

The fact that one misinterpreting person with one picture and one tweet can get someone fired is disconcerting beyond words. As disconcerting as people ganging up on girls just because they want representativeness on their games, or some of those girls ganging up back and doing horrible things with the “excuse” of retaliation. All those behaviours are equally beyond words.

What we cannot have is to flip sides and have the suffering minorities so far gaining the upper hand and gaining the right to harass the majority or worse still, the forgotten minority that started it all and had no intentional part in any of the bullying.

We need to protect the minorities from abuse, and that includes the odd folks that don’t look mentally retarded or deficient in any way but behave oddly and sometimes aggressively. Those people are too often interpreted as bullies when all they want is to be left alone, and all they need is help adapting to an alien society.

Collection of data is not the only problem

What the NSA has taught us is that mass surveillance is not as hard as people used to think. Other governments, and most commercial companies, do that, too. With the advent of smartphones we’ve learned to ignore most of that for the sake of convenience, and most of the time, it’s ok.

It’s true that the bulk surveillance from governments can spark enough false positives to make people worried, or that Google and Facebook are using your personal details to make a bucket load of money, and some others are selling those details, sometimes not even realising.

When you think of all the power that the government can do with your data, or all the money that big corporations are making with your personal information, it’s nor surprising to think: “where’s my share in this?”. Some people even tried to evaluate how much would you get for selling different types of personal information to corporations. But, is that the real question that we should be asking?

Should we be concerned with what data do we leak and try to minimise it, or should we really be thinking what can they really do with that information? Of course, any answer will be a mix of both (since not all investigating parties are well intentioned or law abiding), but there is the limit of government and corporation’s powers that can go a long way of making the data useful but not harmful.

Privacy

I said this before and I still maintain my position that no one has ever had privacy. Parents eavesdrop on their kids behaviour since the dawn of humanity as a way to grow them into responsible adults. The concept of “being responsible” has changed over the millennia, but parents have not.

Law making and enforcing bodies have eavesdropping as their primordial way of acquiring information. Since people normally only do bad stuff when no one is looking, expecting the police to only use highly visual enquiring methods (such as asking personally or patrolling an area) become impossibly expensive very quickly. It is true that random checkpoints, fake speed cameras and signs do help awareness, but that’s also not optimal from a monetary point of view.

Privacy also goes against any common sense in the outside world. If you take a bus, every one in that bus knows you’re there, even if they don’t know who you are. If there is a picture of you on the bus saying “wanted, dead or alive”, they will see you and report you. There’s little you can do, besides hiding and never showing your face again. Famous people (actors, etc) have the same problem and the solution is pretty much hide.

Data

The data you “leak” is also the data that defines you. Where you have been, what you like, where you work and live, what food you eat and what you do on Saturdays. Collecting that data and providing a service on that is actually extremely beneficial to you. The problem is who has access to that information.

Tesco knows what I need to buy better than I do. They send me vouchers with discount on fresh mozzarella cheese, fresh basil and fresh tomato on the vine. They know I love Caprese salad, and I actually like Tesco knowing that, because I get a slightly cheaper Caprese salad once in a while.

Google Maps knows where I live and work, so that when I’m going home I can just say: “Ok Google, go home”, and it does the rest. If I don’t share that kind of information with Google, it would never be able to do what I want it to. Examples like that are everywhere, and each company must have access to a wide range of data from you (location, shopping habits, browsing habits) for them to be able to do so. It’s the unavoidable fact of information theory that you need enough entropy to find patterns.

Legality

The real problem here is what companies end up doing with your data, and how well they protect it from malicious outsiders. Even if the company is benign, once they get hacked, your bundle of personal data which is enough to infer pretty accurate patters about your personal life, are out there. Who know what the attackers will do you that?

Another problem is blanket approvals to bypass any legal system and arrest, judge and execute individuals solely based on bulk surveillance patterns that are known to generate an immense amount of false positives, not only because the algorithms are inexact, but because the people filtering and creating the rules don’t posses enough knowledge to know what they’re looking for in the first place.

Finally, what happens if the benign company that provides you an invaluable service is suddenly acquired by an unscrupulous company? Can the reach of the service widen based on the parent company’s privacy policy? Or is the data protected like source code that is licensed as open source with, for example, the GNU license?

Solutions

So, a pragmatic view on surveillance should attack the problem of the legality of actions on data, not just the legality of acquiring data in the first place. The legal system can already cope with that, for instance when evidence is found via illegal means (unapproved wire or microphone), it cannot be used against the accused. The “Patriot Act” changed all that in the US, and in other countries, and that’s the first thing that has to be changed back to a sane standard. Governments should never have the ability to bypass the judicial and executive system based on *any* collected data, especially if it was done in bulk, with irrelevant patterns to match.

Another topic that needs addressing is licences on data, especially collected data for the purposes of personal services. There are licenses that cover open data, such as Creative Commons, but these cannot be applied to private data that a company has access with the sole purpose of providing a service. Each company has a different privacy policy and the EFF has great tools to monitor them all, but all of that is solely dependent on the company’s ethics.

A change of the board, or the managing directors, or even an acquisition, is enough to pervert the privacy policy and render the previous data they had on you (that you cannot ever delete any more) to their benefit. What we need is a data license that is not open (since it’s private data), but that is protected in the same way against future changes.

There may be cases for more or less stringent licenses (like GNU vs. BSD) for different uses, but once they’re standard licenses, we don’t need to read every single privacy policy of every company every time they change some minor wording, we’d know what kind of freedoms and guarantees we’re getting, and companies won’t have the right to subversively change it.

Finally, there should be a guarantee in the license that the company is required to store such data in a protected way, following a set of standard cryptographic techniques and solutions, and there should be a clause on how they would destroy the data on the minimal attempt of intrusion. To compensate the total loss of service for all users, they must store such data in different locations, using different techniques and keys, and distribute it across multiple locations.

It may seem daunting for small companies to provide small services, but so did cheap scalable storage and service providing until Amazon created the AWS and all others followed suit. If there is a demand, someone will create the solution. That has been the human response to everything since we came down trees to conquer the planet and we won’t stop here.

Conclusion

It’s not the data, it’s what governments and corporations can do with the data, and how to protect it from malicious parties.

Tale of The Water

In a village, far from any big city, there lived a family which had access to clean water from a nearby river. With the rain from many spring and autumn months being abundant, the family never had any trouble to wash clothes, cook and drink, or even have a good long bath. But the village, as any good village in the world, grew along that river, and each family had access to clean and fresh water.

As times pass, the legend of good water spread across the land, and more and more people joined the thriving community of the water village. But with growth, there’s lack of space, and not everyone had direct access to the river, but had to cross the original settlers’ gardens to get to water. Some fights and some profits later, the community, that now extended across several rows of houses on both sides of the river, as far as the eye could see, had a meeting to decide what would be done about the “water problem”.

The eldest, and self-elected leader of the community, had many friends among the first settlers. He wasn’t himself living by the river, since he got there not long ago, but with a few favours (especially helping increasing the profits of the original settlers to share their water with the newcomers), he got himself in a pretty good spot, and had enough contacts on both sides of the river to reign almost unimpeded.

To no surprise, he was the first to speak: “Friends of the Water Village, we gather today to decide what to do with the water.” Half-way through the sentence, every body had stopped talking, so he proceeded: “We all know that the water in this village is of the best quality in all the land”, and a chorus in the background said “yeah!”. “We all know that the first settlers have the rights in accessing and distributing the water, which you all know I am not part of, nor I profit from their enterprise, I only help to see that their profits and rights are guaranteed.” There was silence, for most knew that it was a lie, but they either didn’t want to oppose (at least not publicly), or didn’t care.

“But recent events called for a special gathering. So many of you hear that there are people accessing the river via the bridge, which blocks the crossing and put the bridge, which is not of the best quality, in danger!”. “Not to mention that this is a disrespect with the original settlers, that fought so hard to build our thriving community, and gave us the bless of such good water, and have helped us in reaching the water in such beautiful and useful buckets of their own creation.” “We owe them the right to share with us their water, the right to charge for the tireless efforts to provide our homes with the best water, carefully selected and cared for.” There was a faint ovation from the bench where the original settlers were, with many of them only shrugging, or not even that.

“Some of you reported the efforts of our friend that decided to pass a pipe through his land to make it easier to other villagers to have access to water, and that was already dealt with. We destroyed his pipe, and let that be a warning of anyone trying to pervert the art of the original settlers, as we owe them our delicious water!”. “Now, as with any democracy, I open the floor for comments, on how are we going to solve this problems.”

With this, some of the original settlers mentioned how the town should restrict the access to the bridge, and to charge a fee to cross, so that people that uses the bridge have the intention to cross the bridge, not to collect water. Others mentioned that it still wouldn’t stop collectors, but, as some said, they could restrict the validity of the tickets to a short period of time, in which a new charge would be collected.

About the pipe “problem”, many suggested that it should be made illegal to have pipes in any house, not just on the original settles, because connecting pipes between houses was not technically difficult, and it would be hard to solve the problem in case many houses ended up connecting to each other, as it was already happening in the north area.

When all the citizens were heard, and all the votes were taken, most of the ideas were unanimously approved. When the final hammer stroke down, finishing the meeting, one citizen, who was not one of the original settlers rose up: “This is outrageous! It doesn’t make sense, the water comes from the rain, and there is no innate right of the original settlers to charge anything for it!”. As he was saying this, one of the man standing behind the bench left in silence.

To that, not much was done from the central bench, where the eldest was sitting in the middle. He slowly rose is head, adjusted his glasses and smiled. “Friend, we’d be happy to hear your pledge, but as you all know, you don’t have the right to address the council. Only original settlers, and those appointed by them, can speak at the council. If you want to voice your concerns, I suggest you talk to your representative.” To which the man responded: “But my representative is an original settler, and I can’t vote for anyone that is not one, so they don’t represent me, they never had!”. “I’m sorry friend, but this is how democracy works, we can’t change the world just because of you.”.

The villager’s face was red, his eyes twitched slightly. The despair in his mind was clear, but he didn’t have much time to fall into it, for the silent men returned to the settlers’ bench and whispered something to the eldest’s ear only. The eldest turned his head again to the nonconformist villager. “Dear sir, we hear stories that you have been consistently using the bridge in the past days, is that true?”. “Well, yes, my sister lives on the other side, and I go visit her every day.”. “The reports also say that you take a bucket with you, and that you fill it with water, do you agree?”. “Well, yes, of course, I take the water for my sick sister, she needs it to aid her recovery.”. “And you haven’t paid a single settler for more than a month, how much water do you have stored at your house, dear sir?”.

It didn’t take long for the strong men behind the bench take the poor villager into a closed room, and he was never heard of ever again. Even though the water is a resource from nature, and despite the fact that water is essential to every living creature, the innate right of ownership of basic needs is common place in many parts of the world.

Creativity is a gift we received from evolution, as a way to save ourselves from more powerful foes. Creativity has a large proportion of imitation, since other living beings have different ideas, equally effective, against our common foes, and those that copy and share ideas, survive for longer. And yet, out society believes, for some serious distortion of natural reality, that the right to own something is more important than the right to survive.

If you read this story again, but replacing “water” with “music”, and making the appropriate changes, you’ll see that it makes as much sense as the original tale. And yet, a huge empire is built on the presumption that creativity can be owned by anyone. Who was the first to play certain tune? How many completely separate cultures have the same beat on their millenarian songs? There are infinite ways of combining words, but only a few actually make sense, and a lot less than that ends up beautiful.

Songs, poems, tales, videos, films, theatre are all forms of expressing the same feelings in different ways, but some people have the luxury of owning the rights of a particular way of expression, mainly because the law is written to favour them, than because they have actually created something truly new. No one has.

We all copy ideas. That’s called survival. That’s genetic. That’s what define us.

Why are we so ashamed of our own past? Why do we accept that the rich gets richer on our own account? Why do we agree that paying millions of dollars to an already filthy rich actors, directors and producers makes sense, for them to give us the benefit of watching the “Hangover III”, when it’s an absolute copy of itself for the second time, when the original was a pout-pourri of many other films and stories? Why do we accept a law that makes us criminals by sharing creativity, a basic instinct of the human race?

What has come of the human race to accept this as “normal”?

Open Source and Profit

I have written extensively about free, open source software as a way of life, and now reading back my own articles of the past 7 years, I realize that I was wrong on some of the ideas, or in the state of the open source culture within business and around companies.

I’ll make a bold statement to start, trying to get you interested in reading past the introduction, and I hope to give you enough arguments to prove I’m right. Feel free to disagree on the comments section.

The future of business and profit, in years to come, can only come if surrounded by free thoughts.

By free thoughts I mean free/open source software, open hardware, open standards, free knowledge (both free as in beer and as in speech), etc.

Past Ideas

I began my quest to understand the open source business model back in 2006, when I wrote that open source was not just software, but also speech. Having open source (free) software is not enough when the reasons why the software is free are not clear. The reason why this is so is that the synergy, that is greater than the sum of the individual parts, can only be achieved if people have the rights (and incentives) to reach out on every possible level, not just the source, or the hardware. I make that clear later on, in 2009, when I expose the problems of writing closed source software: there is no ecosystem in which to rely, so progress is limited and the end result is always less efficient, since the costs to make it as efficient are too great and would drive the prices of the software too high up to be profitable.

In 2008 I saw both sides of the story, pro and against Richard Stallman, on the views of the legitimacy of propriety control, being it via copyright licenses or proprietary software. I may have come a long way, but I was never against his idea of the perfect society, Richard Stallman’s utopia, or as some friends put it: The Star Trek Universe. The main difference between me and Stallman is that he believes we should fight to the last man to protect ourselves from the evil corporations towards software abuse, while I still believe that it’s impossible for them to sustain this empire for too long. His utopia will come, whether they like it or not.

Finally, in 2011 I wrote about how copying (and even stealing) is the only business model that makes sense (Microsoft, Apple, Oracle etc are all thieves, in that sense) and the number of patent disputes and copyright infringement should serve to prove me right. Last year I think I had finally hit the epiphany, when I discussed all these ideas with a friend and came to the conclusion that I don’t want to live in a world where it’s not possible to copy, share, derive or distribute freely. Without the freedom to share, our hands will be tied to defend against oppression, and it might just be a coincidence, but in the last decade we’ve seen the biggest growth of both disproportionate propriety protection and disproportional governmental oppression that the free world has ever seen.

Can it be different?

Stallman’s argument is that we should fiercely protect ourselves against oppression, and I agree, but after being around business and free software for nearly 20 years, I so far failed to see a business model in which starting everything from scratch, in a secret lab, and releasing the product ready for consumption makes any sense. My view is that society does partake in an evolutionary process that is ubiquitous and compulsory, in which it strives to reduce the cost of the whole process, towards stability (even if local), as much as any other biological, chemical or physical system we know.

So, to prove my argument that an open society is not just desirable, but the only final solution, all I need to do is to show that this is the least energy state of the social system. Open source software, open hardware and all systems where sharing is at the core should be, then, the least costly business models, so to force virtually all companies in the world to follow suit, and create the Stallman’s utopia as a result of the natural stability, not a forced state.

This is crucial, because every forced state is non-natural by definition, and every non-natural state has to be maintained by using resources that could be used otherwise, to enhance the quality of the lives of the individuals of the system (being them human or not, let’s not block our point of view this early). To achieve balance on a social system we have to let things go awry for a while, so that the arguments against such a state are perfectly clear to everyone involved, and there remains no argument that the current state is non-optimal. If there isn’t discomfort, there isn’t the need for change. Without death, there is no life.

Profit

Of all the bad ideas us humans had on how to build a social system, capitalism is probably one of the worst, but it’s also one of the most stable, and that’s because it’s the closest to the jungle rule, survival of the fittest and all that. Regulations and governments never came to actually protect the people, but as to protect capitalism from itself, and continue increasing the profit of the profitable. Socialism and anarchy rely too much on forced states, in which individuals have to be devoid of selfishness, a state that doesn’t exist on the current form of human beings. So, while they’re the product of amazing analysis of the social structure, they still need heavy genetic changes in the constituents of the system to work properly, on a stable, least-energy state.

Having less angry people on the streets is more profitable for the government (less costs with security, more international trust in the local currency, more investments, etc), so panis et circenses will always be more profitable than any real change. However, with more educated societies, result from the increase in profits of the middle class, more real changes will have to be made by governments, even if wrapped in complete populist crap. One step at a time, the population will get more educated, and you’ll end up with more substance and less wrapping.

So, in the end, it’s all about profit. If not using open source/hardware means things will cost more, the tendency will be to use it. And the more everyone uses it, the less valuable will be the products that are not using it, because the ecosystem in which applications and devices are immersed in, becomes the biggest selling point of any product. Would you buy a Blackberry Application, or an Android Application? Today, the answer is close to 80% on the latter, and that’s only because they don’t use the former at all.

It’s not just more expensive to build Blackberry applications, because the system is less open, the tools less advanced, but also the profit margins are smaller, and the return on investment will never justify. This is why Nokia died with their own App store, Symbian was not free, and there was a better, free and open ecosystem already in place. The battle had already been lost, even before it started.

But none of that was really due to moral standards, or Stallman’s bickering. It was only about profit. Microsoft dominated the desktop for a few years, long enough to make a stand and still be dominant after 15 years of irrelevance, but that was only because there was nothing better when they started, not by a long distance. However, when they tried to flood the server market, Linux was not only already relevant, but it was better, cheaper and freer. The LAMP stack was already good enough, and the ecosystem was so open, that it was impossible for anyone with a closed development cycle to even begin to compete on the same level.

Linux became so powerful that, when Apple re-defined the concept of smartphones with the iPhone (beating Nokia’s earlier attempts by light-years of quality), the Android system was created, evolved and dominated in less than a decade. The power to share made possible for Google, a non-device, non-mobile company, to completely outperform a hardware manufacturer in a matter of years. If Google had invented a new OS, not based on anything existent, or if they had closed the source, like Apple did with FreeBSD, they wouldn’t be able to compete, and Apple would still be dominant.

Do we need profit?

So, the question is: is this really necessary? Do we really depend on Google (specifically) to free us from the hands of tyrant companies? Not really. If it wasn’t Google, it’d be someone else. Apple, for a long time, was the odd guy in the room, and they have created an immense value for society: they gave us something to look for, they have educated the world on what we should strive for mobile devices. But once that’s done, the shareable ecosystem learns, evolves and dominate. That’s not because Google is less evil than Apple, but because Android is more profitable than iOS.

Profit here is not just the return on investment that you plan on having on a specific number of years, but adding to that, the potential that the evolving ecosystem will allow people to do when you’ve long lost the control over it. Shareable systems, including open hardware and software, allow people far down in the planing, manufacturing and distributing process to still have profit, regardless of what were your original intentions. One such case is Maddog’s Project Cauã.

By using inexpensive RaspberryPis, by fostering local development and production and by enabling the local community to use all that as a way of living, Maddog’s project is using the power of the open source initiative by completely unrelated people, to empower the people of a country that much needs empowering. That new class of people, from this and other projects, is what is educating the population of the world, and what is allowing the people to fight for their rights, and is the reason why so many civil uprisings are happening in Brazil, Turkey, Egypt.

Instability

All that creates instability, social unrest, whistle-blowing gone wrong (Assange, Snowden), and this is a good thing. We need more of it.

It’s only when people feel uncomfortable with how the governments treat them that they’ll get up their chairs and demand for a change. It’s only when people are educated that they realise that oppression is happening (since there is a force driving us away from the least-energy state, towards enriching the rich), and it’s only when these states are reached that real changes happen.

The more educated society is, the quicker people will rise to arms against oppression, and the closer we’ll be to Stallman’s utopia. So, whether governments and the billionaire minority likes or not, society will go towards stability, and that stability will migrate to local minima. People will rest, and oppression will grow in an oscillatory manner until unrest happens again, and will throw us into yet another minimum state.

Since we don’t want to stay in a local minima, we want to find the best solution not just a solution, having it close to perfect in the first attempt is not optimal, but whether we get it close in the first time or not, the oscillatory nature of social unrest will not change, and nature will always find a way to get us closer to the global minimum.

Conclusion

Is it possible to stay in this unstable state for too long? I don’t think so. But it’s not going to be a quick transition, nor is it going to be easy, nor we’ll get it on the first attempt.

But more importantly, reaching stability is not a matter of forcing us to move towards a better society, it’s a matter of how dynamic systems behave when there are clear energetic state functions. In physical and chemical systems, this is just energy, in biological systems this is the propagation ability, and in social systems, this is profit. As sad as it sounds…

Amazon loves to annoy

It’s amazing how Amazon will do all in their power to annoy you. They will sell you DRM-free MP3 songs, and even allow you to download on any device (via their web interface) the full version, for your own personal use, in the car, at home or when mobile. But, not without a cost, no.

For some reason, they want to have total control of the process, so if they’ll allow you to download your music, it has to be their way. In the past, you had to download the song immediately after buying, with a Windows-only binary (why?) and you had only one shot. If the link failed, you just lost a couple of pounds. To be honest, that happened to me, and customer service were glad to re-activate my “license” so I could download it again. Kudos for that.

Question 1: Why did they need an external software to download the songs when they had a full-featured on-line e-commerce solution?

It’s not hard to sell on-line music, other people have been doing it for years and not in that way, for sure. Why was it so hard for Amazon, the biggest e-commerce website on Earth, to do the same? I was not asking for them to revolutionise the music industry (I leave that for Spotify), just do what others were doing at the time. Apparently, they just couldn’t.

Recently, it got a lot better, and that’s why I started buying MP3 songs from Amazon. They now had a full-featured MP3 player on the web! They also have the Android version of it that is a little confusing but unobtrusive. The web version is great, once you buy an album you go directly to it and you can already start listening to songs and all.

Well, I’m a control freak, and I want to have all songs I own on my own server (and its backup), so I went to download my recently purchased songs. Well, it’s not that simple: you can download all your songs, on Windows and Mac… not Linux.

Question 2: Why on Earth can’t they make it work on Linux?

We’re not talking about Microsoft or Apple. This is Amazon, a web company that is supposed to know how JavaScript works, right? Why create executables, ActiveX, SilverLight or whatever those platforms demand from their developers when they can do the same just using JavaScript? The era when JavaScript was too slow and Flash rocked is over, like, 10 years ago. There simply is no excuse.

Undeterred, I knew the Android app would let me download, and as an added bonus, all songs downloaded by AmazonMP3 would be automatically added to the Android music playlists, so that both programs could play the same songs. That was great, of course, until I wanted to copy them to my laptop.

When running (the fantastic) ES File Explorer, I listed the folders consuming most of the SDCARD, found the amazonmp3 folder and saw that all my songs were in there. Since Android changed the file-system, and I can’t seem to mount it correctly via MTP (noob), I decided to use the ES File Explorer (again) to select all files and copy to my server via its own interface, that is great for that sort of thing, and well, found out that it’s not that simple. Again.

Question 3: Why can I read and delete the songs, but not copy them?

What magic Linux permission let me listen to a song (read) and delete the file (write) but not copy to another location? I can’t think of a way to natively do that on Linux, it must be a magic from Android, to allow for DRM crap.

At this time I was already getting nervous, so I just fired adb shell and navigated to the directory, and when I listed the files, adb just logged out. I tried again, and it just exited. No error message, no log, no warning, just shut down and get me back to my own prompt.

This was getting silly, but I had the directory, so I just ran adb pull /sdcard/amazonmp3/ and found that only the temp directory came out. What the hell is this sorcery?!

Question 4: What kind of magic stops me from copying files, or even listing files from a shell?

Well, I knew it was something to do with the Amazon MP3 application itself, if couldn’t be something embedded on Android, or the activists would crack on until they ceded, or at least provided means for disabling DRM crap from the core. To prove my theory, I removed the AmazonMP3 application and, as expected, I could copy all my files via adb to my server, where I could then, back them up.

So, if you use Linux and want to download all your songs from Amazon MP3 website, you’ll have to:

  1. Buy songs/albuns on Amazon’s website
  2. Download them via AmazonMP3 Android app (click on album, click on download)
  3. Un-install the AmazonMP3 app
  4. Get the files via: adb pull /sdcard/amazonmp3/
  5. Re-install the AmazonMP3 app (if you want, or to download more songs)

As usual, Amazon was a pain in the back with what should be really, really simple for them to do. And, as usual, a casual user finds its way to getting what they want, what they paid for, what they deserve.

If you know someone at Amazon, please let them know:

We’re not idiots. We know you know JavaScript, we know you use Linux, and we know you can create an amazing experience for all of us. Don’t treat us like idiots. If your creativity is lacking, just copy the design and implementation from someone else, we don’t care. We want solutions, not problems.

Hypocrite Internet Freedom

Last year, the Internet has shown its power over governments, when we all opposed to the SOPA and PIPA legislations in protests across the world, including this very blog. Later on, against ACTA and so on, and we all felt very powerful indeed. Now, a new thread looms over the Internet, the ITU is trying to take over the Internet.

To quote Ars Technica:

Some of the world’s most authoritarian regimes introduced a new proposal at the World Conference on International Telecommunications on Friday that could dramatically extend the jurisdiction of the International Telecommunication Union over the Internet.

Or New Scientist:

This week, 2000 people have gathered for the World Conference on International Telecommunications (WCIT) in Dubai in the United Arab Emirates to discuss, in part, whether they should be in charge.

And stressing that:

WHO runs the internet? For the past 30 years, pretty much no one.

When in reality, the Internet of today is actually in the precise state the US is trying to avoid, only that now they’re in control, and the ITU is trying to change it to an international organization, where more countries have a say.

Today, the DNS and the main IP blocks are controlled by the ICANN, however, Ars Technica helps us reminding that ICANN and IANA are:

the quasi-private organizations that currently oversee the allocation of domain names and IP addresses.

But the ICANN was once a US government operated body, still with strong ties with Washington, localized solely on the US soil, operating on US law jurisdiction. They also failed on many accounts to democratize their operations, resulting in little or no impact for international input. Furthermore, all top level domains that are not bound to a country (like .com, .org, .net) are also within American jurisdiction, even if they’re hosted and registered in another country.

But controlling the DNS is only half the story. The control that the US has on the Internet is much more powerful. First, they hold (for historical and economical reasons), most of the backbone of the Internet (root DNS servers, core routers, etc). That means the traffic between Europe and Japan will probably pass through them. In theory, this shouldn’t matter and it’s actually an optimization of the self-structuring routing tables, but in fact, the US government has openly reported that they do indeed monitor all traffic that goes within their borders and they do reserve the right to cut it, if they think this presents a risk of national security.

Given the amount of publicity the TSA had since 2001 for their recognition of what poses a security threat, including Twitter comments from British citizens, I wouldn’t trust them, or their automated detection system to care for my security. Also, given the intrusion that they have on some governments like the case of Dotcom in January, where national security operations in New Zealand were shared inappropriately with the American government, I never felt safe when crossing American soil, physically or through the Internet.

Besides, Hollywood has shown in Scandinavia and in UK that they hold a strong leash on European governments when related to (US) copyright laws, forcing governments, once liberals, to abide to American rules, arresting their own citizens, when content is being distributed over the Internet. It’s also interesting to remember than SOPA, PIPA and ACTA, mainly driven by Hollywood, were all created within closed doors.

So, would ITU control be better?

No. Nothing could be further from the truth. Although, in theory, it’s more democratic (more countries with decision power), this decision power has been sought for one main purpose: to enforce more strict laws. I generally agree that the ITU would not be a good controlling body, but believing that nobody controls the Internet is, at least, naive, and normally a pretentious lie.

A legal control of many countries over something as free as the Internet would impose the same dangers as having it free of legal control, since it leaves us with indirect control from the strongest player, which so far, has been the US. The other countries are only so strongly minded about the ITU because the US won’t let them have their voices, and the ITU is a way to create an UN for the Internet.

In that sense, the ITU would be a lot like the UN. Worthless. A puppet in the hands or the strong players. Each country would have more control over their borders, and that would impact almost nothing in the US, but the general rules would stop being valid, and the US (and other countries) would have to do a lot more work than they do today. One example is the stupid rule in the UK where the sites, including international ones, have to warn users that they are using cookies.

Don’t be fooled, the US government is not really worried about your safety and security, nor your freedom. They’re trying to avoid a lot of work, and a big loss in market in the Middle East and South Asia. With countries (that they like to say are authoritarian regimes) imposing stricter rules on traffic, including fees, taxes and other things that they have on material goods, the commerce with those governments will be a lot more expensive.

Ever since the second world war, the US economy is based mainly on military activities. First, helping Europe got them out of the big depression, then they forced rebellions throughout Latin America to keep the coins clinking and currently, it’s the Middle East. With the climate change endangering their last non-war resources (oil), they were betting on the Internet to spread the American Way Of Life to the less fortunate, with the off chance of selling a few iPads on the process, but now, that profit margin is getting dangerously thin.

Not to mention the military threat, since a lot of the intelligence is now being gathered through the Internet, and recent attacks on Iranian nuclear power plants via the Stuxnet worm, would all become a lot harder. The fact that China is now bigger and more powerful than they are, in every possible aspect (I dare say even military, but we can’t know for sure), is also not helping.

What is then, the solution? Is it possible to really have nobody running the Internet? And, if at all possible, is it desirable?

Mad Max Internet

I don’t think so.

It’s true that IPv6 should remove completely the need for IP allocation, but DNS is a serious problem. Letting DNS registration to an organic self-organized process would lead to widespread malicious content being distributed and building security measures around it would be much harder than they already are. The same is true with SSL certificates. You’d expect that, on a land with no rules, trusted bodies would charge a fortune and extort clients for a safe SSL certificate, if they actually produce a good one, that is, but this is exactly what happens today, on ICANN rule.

Routing would also be affected, since current algorithms rely on total trust between parties. There was a time when China had all US traffic (including governmental and military) through its routers, solely done via standard BGP rules. On a world where every country has its own core router, digitally attacking another country would be as easy as changing one line on a router.

We all love to think that the Internet is a free world already, but more often than ever, people are being arrested for their electronic behaviour. Unfortunately, because there isn’t a set of rules, or a governing body, the rules that get people arrested are the rules of the strongest player, which in our current case, is Hollywood. So, how is it possible to reconcile security, anonymity and stability without recurring to governing bodies?

The simple answer is, it’s not. The Internet is a land with no physical barriers, where contacting people over 1000s of miles is the same as the one besides you, but we don’t live in a world without borders. It’s not possible to reconcile the laws of all countries, with all the different cultures, into one single book. As long as the world keeps its multiculturalism, we have to cope with different rules for different countries, and I’m not in favour of losing our identity just to make the Internet a place comfortable to the US government.

Regulating multi-body

It is my opinion that we do, indeed, need a regulating body. ICANN, ITU, it doesn’t matter, as long as the decisions are good for most.

I don’t expect that any such governing body would come up with a set of rules that are good for everybody, nor that they’ll find the best rules in the first N iterations (for large N), but if the process is fair, we should reach consensus (when N tends to infinity). The problem with both ICANN and ITU is that neither are fair, and there are other interests at play that are weighted much more than the interests of the people.

Since no regulating body, governmental or not, will ever account for the interests of the people (today or ever), people tend to hope that no-rule is the best rule, but I hope I have shown that this is not true. I believe that instead, a governing multi-body is the real solution. It’s hypocrite to believe that Russia will let the US create regulations within its borders, so we can’t assume that will ever happen from start, if we want it to work in the long run. So this multi-body, composed by independent organizations in Europe, Asia, Oceania, Africa and Americas would have strong powers on their regions, but would have to agree on very general terms.

The general terms would be something like:

  1. There should be no cost associated with the traffic to/from/across any country to any other country
  2. There should be no filtering of any content across countries, but filtering should be possible to/from a specific country or region based on religious or legal grounds
  3. It should be possible for countries to deny certain types of traffic (as opposed to filtering above), so that routing around would be preferred
  4. Misuse of Internet protocols (such as BGP and DNS spoofing) on root routers/DNS servers should be considered an international crime with the country responsible for the server in charge of the punishments or sanctions against that country could be enforced by the UN
  5. Legal rights and responsibilities on the Internet should be similar (but not identical) as they are on the physical world, but each country has the right and duty to enforce their own rules

Rule 1 is fundamental and would cut short most of the recent ITU’s proposals. It’s utter nonsense to cross-charge the Internet as it is to do it with telecoms around the world, and that is probably the biggest problem of the new proposal.

Rules 2 and 3 would leave control over regional Internet with little impact on the rest. It’d also foment creation of new routes around problematic countries, which is always beneficial to the Internet reliability as a whole. It’s hypocrite to assume that the US government has the right to impose Internet rules on countries like Iran or China, and it’s up to the people of China and Iran to fight their leaders on their own terms.

It’s extremely hypocrite, and very common, in the US to believe that their system (the American Way of Life) is the best for every citizen of the world, or that the people of other countries have no way of choosing their own history. It’s also extremely hypocrite to blame authoritarian governments on Internet regulations and at the same time provide weapons and support local authoritarian groups. Let’s not forget the role of the US on Afghanistan and Iraq prior to the Gulf War, as opposition to Russia and Iran (respectively), and their pivot role on all major authoritarian revolution in Latin America.

Most countries, including Russia and the ones in Middle East would probably be fine with rules 2 and 3, with little impact on the rest of the world. Which leaves us with rule 4, to account for the trust-worthiness of the whole system. Today, there is a gang of a few pals who control the main routers and giving more control over less trust-worthy pals over DNS and BGP routes would indeed be a problem.

However, in fact, this rule is in vigour today, since China routed US traffic for only 18 minutes. It was more a show of power than a real attack, but had China been doing this for too long, the US would think otherwise and with very strong reasons. The loose control is good, but the loose responsibility is not. Countries should have the freedom to structure their Internet backbones but also do it responsibly, or be punished otherwise.

Finally, there’s rule 5. How to account when a citizen of one country behaves in another country’s website as it’s legal for his culture, but not the other? Strong religious and ethical issues will arise from that, but nothing that there isn’t already on the Internet. Most of the time, this problem is identical to what already happens on the real world, with people from one country that commit crimes on another country. The hard bit is to know what are the differences between physical and logical worlds and how to reconcile the differences in interpretation of the multiple groups that will take part on such governing multi-body.

Conclusion

ITU’s proposal is not good, but ICANN’s is neither. The third alternative, to lack complete control is only going to make it worse, so we need a solution that is both viable and general enough, so that most countries agree to it. It also needs to relinquish control of internal features to their own governments in a way to not affect the rest of the Internet.

I argue that one single body, being it ITU or ICANN, is not a good model, since it’s not general enough nor they account for specific regions’ concerns (ICANN won’t listen to the Middle East and ITU won’t regard the US). So, the only solution I can see possible is one that unites them all into a governing multi-body, with very little in global agreement, but with general rules powerful enough to guarantee that the Internet will be free forever.

The American constitution is a beautiful piece of writing, but in reality, over the years, their government have destroyed most of its beauty. So, long term self-check must also be a core part of this multi-body, with regular review and democratic decisions (sorry authoritarian regimes, it’s the only way).

In a nutshell, while it is possible to write the Internet Constitution and make it work in the long term, humanity is very likely not ready to do that yet, and we’ll probably see the destruction of the Internet in the next 10 years.

Sigh…

 

Hypocrisy in Hollywood

Paralegal‘s Peter Kim sent me this nice info-graphic about a short history of the media industry in Hollywood, and I thought I would share with you.

I’m not a Lawyer, but his site seems to have some good bite-sized information about copyrights and other law terms that we should all know if we are to avoid The Big Brother in our society. Most of it obviously only apply to the US, but as we all know, US law has been extended to the world far too much. British hackers being extradited to US, European citizens getting harassed by US media companies and Asian companies being shut down by the mighty power of Hollywood.

There are other info-graphics on the site that are worth looking at. Thanks for the tip, Peter.

Post-SOPA-protest, what’s on?

So, the day has ended and we’ve seen many protests around the world. Did it help? Well, a bit, but don’t hold your breath right now.

European citizens are still being sued by the American government and being extradited to the US because their sites had links to copyrighted material. So, in a way, what SOPA and PIPA stands for is already reality, but it takes the US government a lot of effort and money to do so. With SOPA and PIPA, enyone in the world could end up in Guantanamo Bay, as easy as any American.

While I welcome the protest, and feel that Americans did a good job converting 30 more senators to their cause (it was 5, now it’s 35), it’s far from enough. I think people still haven’t realised that this is not an American issue. Just like American copyright laws have bankrupted creativity around the world (think Mickey Mouse effect) and the American patent system has destroyed technological advancement (patent trolls, et al), SOPA and PIPA will spread throughout the world and be the icing on their cake.

The people that are so desperate to preserve their profits by breaking the rest of the world are the people that already have more than anyone. Last year, Viacom’s CEO had a 50mi raise in his salary. Not a bonus, mind you, a raise. To protect those people’s profits, we’re letting them destroy the entire world, stop technological advancements (that don’t give profits to them) and kill all the artists in the process.

If you, like me, are outside of the US, please make sure your government stops short of bending to the US government, as they always do. Europe, and particularly UK and France, has been America’s puppet for far too long. The US is not the only country in the world, and nowadays, it’s not even the most important one. We need to change the world to multi-polar and promote countries like China, Russia, Brazil, India. Not that I like any of them, but we must not put all our coins into one crazy country, we need more crazy countries to re-balance the world.

Now, for some of the protests

Apart from the obvious Wikipedia, Google, WordPress, there were some others I’ve seen that are worth mentioning.

It was not just that, some people actually went on to the streets (NY and SF) and it seems most senators’ phones and websites went dead for the traffic. It’s working, but this is not the end, nor this is just about copyright. This is about freedom of thought, freedom to share, freedom to be a human being. Stopping SOPA/PIPA is just the first step, we need to undo most of what the media/war/oil/tobacco industry has done for the past 80 years, unless you like dictatorships, of course.

May the 4th be with you

Today is the annual Day Against DRM, please remember to check your shopping list for possible DRM-ed products, and consider doing some of the ideas on the site… I can give you a few examples why this is bad.

First, I own an iPad and cannot use it. It won’t be recognized by my Linux machine, I can’t copy music or books to it, I can’t browse my music collection on my server to play random songs, I have to sync it with iTunes (and only iTunes) that I have to run on a Windows virtual machine inside my Linux machine. It’s dead slow, it won’t sync up things from my iPad unless I find the magical option pull changes from iPad instead of the ubiquitous sync option, etc.

Secondly, the Play Station is a wonderful machine and many people wanted (and could) run Linux on it. Years ago there were clusters of Play Stations, since its GPU was powerful enough to do scientific computation (better than many computers at the time), but now, you can’t even touch it without going to jail.

Finally, in the age of the internet, companies are still attached to material values such as possession and ownership, whereas the internet transforms everything into a service. Amazon, although they still use DRM on Kindle, they understood it quite well and have created the most important cloud service on the planet.

Why those companies are not using the same model for everything? Well, generally reality doesn’t get transformed that quickly, so it was a great shock. But now society is demanding new rules for a new reality and the fact that many people are going to jail for preserving their own rights is alarming and a crucial sign that the old rules don’t apply any more.

This day is to remind you that you are not alone in thinking that this is all wrong, that you should be able to listen to any music, on any device, anywhere, since the technology allows you to. If the business model does not account for it, change the business model!

May the 4th be with you…

iPad

I got an iPad for Christmas. Didn’t buy it, got as a gift, and I have to say that it didn’t change my point of view on Apple a single bit.

A few years ago, while getting an iBook for my sister, I had to configure it to speak French for her and still English for me, which was a pain. I wanted to run OpenOffice, only to learn that there wasn’t one. I couldn’t find the configuration files or anything that would resemble running a Unix system. Some people say I just didn’t find it in the right place, that I could have used such and such software to make it the way I like it, but that kinda killed completely Apple’s spirit of “just work”.

All in all, I was happy to go back to my old faithful Linux and eventually bought a Dell Studio, now running a vanilla Ubuntu 10.10. I used to be the hard core Linux user, compiling the kernel, changing modules and fiddling with the configuration a lot, but there’s something I’ve learned in all these years is that a desktop (or a laptop) has to just work. And having used a iBook and an iPad, the créme de la créme of usability and user experience, I have to say that, unfortunately, there is no miracle.

To summarize my experience with the iPad in a sentence: the hardware is good, the software is average, the philosophy is disgusting.

The hardware

The hardware is good, not great. First, it’s got a good CPU+GPU combo and memory enough to run some cool games without glitches. I was actually surprised with the quality of some games, and the screen resolution and the quality of the capacitive touch-scree is really something.

But the (stereo) speakers I have in my Nokia N95 are far better than the (mono) speaker in the iPad, even in quality (despite its smaller size). There is no camera, and no easy way to interconnect it to the world, unless this “world” is made of Apples. You can only print to an AirPrinter (or whatever that’s called), you can only connect Bluetooth with other iPads, maybe iPhones but it didn’t even recognize my Nokia.

Despite its lack of hardware, the case is pretty heavy, almost a kilogram. I normally think that heavy is good, but in this case, to hold the iPad while you play is quite tiring after a few minutes. I bought the Need for Speed (quite good game) and I ended up using cushions to rest my elbows after a while and a few minutes later I stopped playing because my arms were hurting.

All in all, the responsiveness and screen quality are really amazing, the rest is just not what I’d expect from Apple. However, I hear that since 2005 Apple has slowly and constantly reducing the quality of the parts not to increase the price of the gadgets. It’s a clever move for a while, works even better with a fan base (instead of customers) but that’s bound to fail one day.

Finally, a minor thing. There is a side button for the volume, and one to mute. Problem is, it doesn’t work with everything (even some things made by Apple). It’s mute and you can still hear the sounds. Even the volume works while in mute, only for those applications that ignore the mute button. The others, you need to un-mute it to hear. I expected more from Apple…

The software

The second expectation I had from Apple was that the software would be amazing. I’m not talking about third-party AppStore software, but bundled Apple software. How naive.

My experience developing software for 20 years tells me that every piece of software is crap, people just don’t realise because software engineers can hide the crap really well. Microsoft hides it behind zillions of useless features, Oracle hides it behind zillions of useless configuration steps, Google hides it in a secret box that only his advertisers can read, open source don’t hide it at all and Apple hides it by giving poisoned apples to their fan base.

Because I’m not a fan boy, I’m unfortunately exposed to the naked truth: it sucks.

First, there is no Flash. I don’t care if HTML 5 is better than Flash, the web has zillions of Flash applications, web pages, videos and animations in Flash and it’s not going to change just because Apple doesn’t like it. Youtube has moved to HTML5 (probably because of Apple), but I can’t follow links of any other pages that have flash. That sucks.

Second, Safari sucks. Try to use eBay on safari. Try to sell something on eBay using Safari… I dare you. In many other pages it broke, as in falling back to the welcome-screen. Yesterday it locked the iPad completely. I was using the Twitter application that redirected me to an youtube page, when I opened in Safari it locked. When I closed Safari, the welcome-screen was locked. I couldn’t click (tap?) on anything. Nothing worked, and you can’t turn it off (the way to go for non-unix OSs), just make it sleep. After a few desperate taps on applications, I managed to tap on the Youtube application (that wasn’t running, so far) and when I hit on another random video on it and it played, I closed the youtube app and the rest started working again.

It breaks so many times and in so unpredictable ways, that now I only use it for Gmail and Google reader, because I know those pages were hand-crafted for the iPad. As a web experience, that sucks big time.

Another big fight I had, until I got in terms with the iPad, was iTunes. In the PC, iTunes does it all: play and download songs, books and videos, buys apps, browse the university programme (excellent, by the way). When I got some songs, videos and a few apps, I went to the iPad and where was all my stuff?

Well, I found out that you must use the iPod software to listen for songs, the Video app to view videos, the iBook to read books, the AppStore to buy apps, the… wait, every time I have an argument about Linux vs. Mac, I’m constantly reminded that normal users want less applications, less complication and with Apple you (supposedly) have the same interface all over the platforms. Well, I just learnt that, with the iPad, this is exactly the opposite. I’ve seen systems better integrated than that…

Another big problem is the bloody spell checker. If you don’t speak English, you’re screwed. First, you can’t disable the spell checker and whatever you type WILL be checked and the version that stays is the spell checker version. You can disable on a word-per-word basis, by clicking on the little X button, every time you type a word. The problem is, if you’re writing in a burst, that kills your speed. Also, in some screens you can’t cancel the spell checker. It shows up with the little X but you can’t click it. Does it make sense? To show the balloon with the X that you can’t click? I expected more from Apple.

App Store

For me, it doesn’t make sense to have a computer and not be able to run programs you want in it. Ever since I wrote my first program when I was 5 years old, I learnt that that’s what a computer is. Even Apple computers at that time were like this, I had some, and I could write programs to them and run. The fact that I have to download it from an App Store is out of my comprehension. (I understand the immediate business model, but I still think that it kills in the long term, lets wait and see).

The same friends again had the excuse of it being a quality control, that Apple can control what’s going in and make sure it won’t break the user experience. Well, if you have used the iPhone or the iPad you know very well that that’s far from the truth. Most applications suck, break, explode, or are just badly coded. And let’s be honest, do you really think that Apple spend time reviewing every single application?

In the end, I found some pretty cool apps, but nothing that I wouldn’t have found if there was no App Store.

So, in a nutshell, the software side of the iPad is mediocre, at best.

The philosophy

And here’s where we get the nasty bits. I could go on and on about all the little details, but I’ve said enough already about Apple, DRM and everything. As I read in another blog reviewing the iPhone vs. Android: “Apple, I’m not your bitch”. I don’t like someone else deciding what applications I can use, what books I can read, what songs (and where) I can hear, etc, etc.

For me, this is the crucial point and to have used a iBook before and to have an iPad now, I can categorically say: I don’t like Apple products, I’m not their bitch.

Tablets

To be fair to Apple, they do get one thing right: what people want. Before the iPhone, everyone wanted something like an iPhone, but Nokia was too busy fixing Symbian to realise that (and when they finally realised, they copied Motorola). I always wanted a tablet, really, since I saw it in Star Trek, 23 years ago and I bet every one want one, too. When the first tablets arrived in the 90’s, they were absurdly expensive and only ran a few programs that actually used the tablet, in other words, the touch-screen was merely a substitute for the mouse.

What Apple did was to consolidate the interface into a simple and easy to use touch-screen, which children and animals alike can use as if it was their third hand. What is really disappointing is that they know so well what people want and give so little effort to actually make it complete. They create a very good interface and fail to consolidate the tools, they create a quality control mechanism and fail to control the quality, they give freedom to people, that otherwise wouldn’t be able to use computers, and take it away with so many restrictions, they simplify the use of so many things, and take away the basic assumptions people have about things, like being able to play songs anywhere or to borrow a book from a friend.

It’s amazing that a high tech company such as Apple haven’t yet realised that technology changes the way people live, communicate and do business. There’s no point is give half the freedom technology allows you to, just because you can’t monetise the other half. I’m sure Apple has lots of good people inside that could share some ideas on how to progress without handcuffs, if they would just listen to them…

In the end, tablets are really as great as I thought they would be, and I’m loving it. Pity it’s an Apple tablet… However, that gave me reassurance that I must buy an Android tablet next year or so, when they become as good as I hope them to be.

Final Veredict

  • Idea: 0, at least 23 years old and has been done before many times.
  • Time-to-market: 10, as usual, first to make it right.
  • Hardware: 7, a camera and good speakers would do nice.
  • Software: 5, Flash, Safari don’t work well, bad AppStore quality.
  • Integration: 3, only interconnects with Apple, DRM, iTunes on iPad.
  • Usability: 7, the interface is good and simple and always ready to work.
  • Philosophy: 0, DRM, dev. license only works on Macs.
  • Average: 4.6, don’t buy, wait for the Android tablets to arrive in full.