Archive for the ‘issues’ Category

a sense of entitlement

May 14th, 2008

By some people's logic, this how the economy is supposed to work:

  1. New companies emerge all the time.
  2. No companies ever close.
  3. Consumers always buy the cheaper and better products.
  4. No products ever become obsoleted and force the company to go out of business.

Sounds perfectly reasonable, doesn't it?

When a new company opens in a town and provides a thousand new jobs, there's noone protesting that this is unfair, we didn't do anything to deserve this, that you can't just suddenly create new jobs out of nothing, there aren't people complaining that it's not right, we didn't get jobs at the new company. No, people accept it with great fanfare. Great, the economy is growing, our town will prosper! People will have more money, there'll be less unemployment, we'll be able to afford a higher standard of living.

And yet when, after 40 years, the company goes out of business or moves their production to a cheaper location, people say this is outrageous, 1000 jobs will be lost! There's anger and pandemonium, how can they do this to us, we were loyal to the company for 40 years. People appeal to some sort of higher ethical body; you can't take our livelihood away, what are we going to do with ourselves? And the town itself, which never had much industry, and really just had that one company that employed everyone in town, starts to regress. People move out in search of jobs, young people leave and don't come back, noone moves in because there's no local economy.

It's a sensitive topic. Losing your livelihood is one of the more challenging life situations. But before you start screaming that it's those damn crooked politicians and those greedy executives that have stolen your life, take a moment to think about why you had that job in the first place. In fact, let's start with the basics: what does it mean to have a job?

It means that you are producing a product or offering a service that someone is willing to buy. It does not mean any of these things:

  1. Someone is being nice to you.
  2. You deserve this.
  3. You're going to keep your job because you've been loyal to the company.

If you actually believed any of that then you were under a complete misapprehension. Sure, sentimental concerns do come into it sometimes, like the boss's son getting a summer job because he's family. But in the long run, the only thing that matters is the economic reality.

If you think that's a raw deal, think about this. Most artists aren't wealthy, in fact most artists are struggling to get enough work to live on. A painter may think that he deserves to live a decent life as a painter, but if noone is willing to buy his work, well he's not going to. Is that unfair? No, it isn't, because if he's not producing anything of value, why should anyone have to pay to keep him in business? So if a painter can't do the job he wants to, why should it be any different for you making shoes, or catching fish, or whatever it is you do?

There used to be people working in elevators who would press the buttons. We don't need them anymore. Shepherds aren't in great demand either. Neither are telegraph operators. These professions have all be superseded and they're not coming back. Many others still exist, but have been moved to where production is cheaper, like textiles.

It's always a turbulent transition, you can be sure of that. We don't have hunters anymore, we have domesticated animals now, no need to chase them in the woods. Think about how many hunters were out of work when this happened. But what should they have done, lynch the guy who came up with the idea of keeping animals on the property? Compared to the hunters' relatively narrow interests (although there were many of them), domestic animals were very beneficial to the village. For one thing, you didn't wonder where dinner was coming from, the animals were right there. So should the villagers have discarded this new idea just to make sure the hunters could keep their jobs?

I've got news for you. The very same thing you're protesting against, your job being taken away, you're doing the same thing to people everyday. That's right, you're not so innocent yourself. Have you ever bought a car from a different automaker, because it was cheaper? Did you ever buy peaches from Spain instead of domestic apples? Well, I'm sure it must have been a very gruelling decision for you, right? I mean to think that you could be putting car makers and farmers out of business because you're not buying their products, that's a tough one to swallow.

And what did you get out of it? You could afford to buy more things, because the new products were cheaper. And they didn't break as quick, so you could use them longer. And they had some functions that the old products didn't have, which made you happy. And just as this was happening, the old companies that couldn't stay competitive were going out of business one by one, people were losing their jobs. But hey, you got a pretty good deal out of it, didn't you?

Here's what it comes down to. You're not entitled to your job. You'll only have it for as long as people are willing to buy your product. And even if you've had it for 40 years, that doesn't mean the global market won't make it obsolete tomorrow. There was a demand for your product, now there isn't. You didn't do anything to deserve getting it, and you didn't do anything to deserve losing it.

why you'll never have security with Microsoft

May 6th, 2008

Here's the thing. I hate stating the obvious. It really annoys me. On the other hand, obvious things are sometimes things that most need to be repeated. So I wrestle with myself and I finally decide that I should, because there is a shockingly large number of people out there who don't realize how obvious this is. See if you can learn something from this mock dialog.

Vendor: Good morning, is this Harry, the CTO*, I'm speaking to?
Client: Yes, how may I help you?
Vendor: Hey Harry, this is Steve from Microsoft. I would like to talk to you about Windows Vista.
Client: What's that?
Vendor: Why, it's the brand new version of our Windows operating system.
Client: Oh, that.
Vendor: I was wondering if I could interest you in our product.
Client: You know what, I don't think so, we are a very security sensitive company, and..
Vendor: But that's precisely the reason I'm calling, I would like to tell you how you can enhance your security with Windows Vista. You see, we've built the operating system with security in mind and it's the state of the art in operating systems.
Client: Hey, that sounds pretty exciting. So how does this work now, you ship us the source code and...
Vendor: No no, we don't distribute the source code.
Client: You don't?!?
Vendor: No, you see it's a trade secret. (my precious etc)
Client: You're kidding, right?
Vendor: No, really.
Client: So how do we know that it's actually secure if we can't see for ourselves? How do we know there isn't anything malicious in it?
Vendor: Well you'll just have to trust us.
*Harry hangs up*
Vendor: Hello? Harry?
*CTO - the highest placed person who makes technical decisions in a company.

How did it go? Did you get it? It was kind of a long thing, huh? Ok, stop racking your brains, I'll give you the answer: no source code, no security.

Here's how that works. It's simple economics, so try to keep up. If they give you the source code, then they put their cards on the table. You can see what the code does, and if it's doing something stupid (security hole) or nasty (like sending your data to back to the vendor), then you'll be able to check for this. Now you may say "I don't know how to check", and that's okay. But just by giving you the source code the vendor knows that you can see everything the code is doing. And if you find something nasty in there, they know you'll never trust them again. So it doesn't really matter if *you* don't know how to check, because there are others who do, and sooner or later someone will find the nasty code if it's in there. Thus, if the vendor gives you the source code, then he'll be a lot more careful about what's in there, because he's risking losing your trust and your business forever. That will keep him honest.

Is there then anything surprising about finding out that Microsoft is putting in backdoors in Windows? No, because how would you know it's there? You don't have the source code! In case you were wondering, the words "security" and "backdoor" are mutually exclusive.

So what have we learned today? Is there somehow we could summarize all this in just one sentence? There is: If you want security, ask for the source code. If you can't get the source code, you know that the vendor isn't taking security seriously.

OLPC about to self destruct?

May 4th, 2008

I consider OLPC to be one of the most exciting initiatives of the last few years. When the idea was first circulated it was such an exciting call to arms to do something about the lack of education in poor regions of the world. And the project has produced what appears to be a pretty incredible product, the research of which is now recycled back into the general hardware industry, so it has brought advances that wouldn't otherwise have happened (now).

I recall pondering the real purpose of the project, asking what is going to be achieved with these laptops. The OLPC project had a very good answer to this. They said the laptops will promote learning in areas where school books are a luxury. Furthermore, the laptop itself is completely tweakable, you press a special key and the source code of the current program pops up. This will promote learning through tweaking and experimentation, so that eventually an industry can be built on these foundations, in regions where little industry exists today and where perhaps the potential for one (in terms of natural resources) is bleak. A beautiful dream, one that could change the world in big ways.

Now Negroponte has changed his tune. Visionary that he is, he failed to convince the clients of the value of free software. So now he's humming "forget open source, it's all about the kids!" while preparing to run Windows on the laptop. There is a new smoke screen being constructed:

Negroponte says that the organization is working to ensure that Sugar can run smoothly on Windows.

Riiiight, running Sugar on Windows. Tell me, what exactly is the value of running Windows with an all free software stack? It's completely useless, that's what. The whole value of Windows is as a platform, not merely as an operating system. People buy Windows to run Windows applications, not for Windows itself. Or are we actually buying that Egyptian officials are eager to purchase Windows licenses in order to run the free software suite?

Congratulations, Negroponte, you've just become a licensed Windows vendor. The kids will no doubt have fun clicking on the Start menu and playing Solitaire. There is a great deal to learn from that, just nothing about the operating system or the applications, you know, actual learning.

OLPC in its original form was about empowering the users, with Windows that capability is entirely destroyed. The fact you cannot mix learning with trade secrets should be blindly obvious to anyone. Open souce is important, but it's especially important when you want people to learn something.

Furthermore, learning doesn't happen in isolation. It's accelerated when it happens in a community of ideas and impulses that flow freely. Resigning OLPC president gets it when he says:

"What comes part and parcel with open source is a culture, and it's the culture that I'm interested in," he says. "It's a culture of expression and critique, sharing, collaboration, appropriation." And this culture can and should spill into classrooms, he says.

war is a racket

April 30th, 2008

For all the patriotic baloney nations are fed in pre-war time, with grandiose appeals to moral rightousness and complete confidence in their own success, it is little more than powerful, rich men sending clueless (or powerless) poor men to their death.

War is a racket. It always has been. It is possibly the oldest, easily the most profitable, surely the most vicious. It is international in scope. It is the only one in which the profits are reckoned in dollars and the losses in lives.

A racket is best described, I believe, as something that is not what it seems to the majority of the people. Only a small "inside" group knows what it is about. It is conducted for the benefit of the very few, at the expense of the very many. Out of war a few people make huge fortunes.

Who wrote this? Why, only the highly decorated general Smedley D. Butler, in 1935.

Yeap, that's right, folks. The plot in Inside Man wasn't made up. It was a real plot about a fictional person, crafted on the histories of real people.

Here's another truth ringer:

Like all the members of the military profession, I never had a thought of my own until I left the service.

But of course. Who in their right mind would go kill people at the risk of getting killed just so that a few rich men can get richer?

when faced with ethical ickiness

April 16th, 2008

And by ickiness I mean a question that you don't have the answer to, but you nevertheless have a gut feeling one way or the other. For instance: should gay couples be allowed to adopt? Another example would be: should it be permitted to clone humans? Or how about the old favorite: should sex play in kinder garden be encouraged (which I have absolutely no answer to)?

These are questions which have no prior answer, because we've only just been faced with them for the first time (or for that matter, only now been willing to consider them). There are many questions like this which have no answer (yet), but which nevertheless raise a certain instinctive feeling in us that makes us prone to lean to one side. This icky feeling is a fear within us that "something bad will happen" if this new thing is allowed to happen, without knowing what we really are scared of.

Many such questions have received answers in the past. For example the question of whether a brother and sister should be allowed to marry has been settled on the basis that children of such parents are born with serious deformities. Therefore we have a rational answer, not merely a fear.

What not to do: alternative A

Do not take your unarticulated fear to draw the conclusion that your instinct must be correct, and therefore suggest banning or condemning the practice. This is a purely emotional response with no rational justification.

Do not further aim to strengthen your argument by associating yourself with a large group of people who share your unarticulated fear and has decided to "do something about it". The ignorance of a thousand is no more equivalent to wisdom than the fact that the sun is the center of our solar system was discovered by popular opinion.

Those who would rather pretend that certain new possibilities were never discovered will desire to ban these, so that we can go back to believing these things are not possible. And if it is banned, no one will be doing it, so we can live in this illusion we've created for ourselves.

What to do: alternative B

Resign yourself to the fact that certain questions have no answer at the moment, and that at any given time there will always be such questions. Your pretty little head will resist this, because this makes certain things undecidable. But it is nevertheless the quickest path to happiness, as you will soon see.

What to do: alternative C

Pursue the answer intellectually, and aggressively. Read up on the science that is happening in this field and the discourse that is taking place between interested parties. Once you go in depth you will begin to understand not just the issue, but also your own fear and what it really is you're worried about. This will then prevent you from choosing the emotional answer of alternative A, because you will no longer be able to convince yourself that a rational answer is optional.

The final, undisputed answer to certain questions may not come for a long time, not even in the span of your lifetime. But with every step that you veer closer to the truth you will have a better idea of what it's likely to be. Until the truth is actually discovered, you will regularly find yourself faced with alternative B.