July 11, 2008

Open and closed, Part II—Microblogging

Microblogging is one of those things that's hard to explain to the uninitiated, and doesn't really begin to make sense until you've used it for a while. It's like instant messaging, only public. It's like a bulletin board, only for short messages. It's a status update system. It's a very small blog. It's...well, it's hard to explain.

The granddaddy of the microblogs, of course, is Twitter. Twitter has been much in the news of late, not only for its random crashes and frequent unavailability, but also for its recent infusion of venture capital from the likes of Jeff Bezos. Twitter's popularity has spawned a multitude of competitors, all of whom have tried to differentiate themselves from Twitter by adding features.

Pownce, brought to you by Kevin Rose, the creator of Digg.com, offers file transfer and the ability to send messages to selected groups of people.Jaiku, from a team in Finland, added the ability to follow RSS feeds and introduced threaded replies. It showed great potential until Googlebought it and made it invitation-only, which effectively killed whatever momentum it acquired after tech journalist and podcaster Leo Laportemade a well-publicized switch from Twitter, bringing with him his audience. There's Friendfeed, which also has RSS aggregation ability plus commenting, and the quirky Plurk.

What all of these services have in common is that they are silosâclosed systems, vertically integrated and walled off from the outside world. Twitter has taken some criticism for its frequent outagesâwhich have become so common that the "fail whale" image it displays at such times <span>has its own Wikipedia entry</span>_(Wikipedia entry deleted as of 2008-07-15) but all of them are potentially subject to the same issues of reliability. Just last week, though, a new competitor went public that has the potential to be radically disruptive.

The new entrant is Identi.ca, a Canadian offering that is based on an open-source microblogging platform known as Laconica. I'm no programmer, but as I understand it, the idea behind Identi.ca is that individuals or companies can download and install the Laconica software on a server and run their own microblog, and all these microblogs can interact with each other and with Identi.ca. Suddenly, you're not in a silo, you're part of a distributed network of microblogs, and if one fails the others can go on undisturbed. This means, in theory at least, that the kind of scaling issues we've seen with Twitter won't be a factor. It also means that you can be on one service, and a friend can be on another, and you can still see their status updates and follow their posts.

Of course, right now Identi.ca is the main user of the software, but there is a list on the Laconica website of other servers running Laconica,and there is no reason to think there won't be more. The Laconica software is open-source, so anyone can maintain or develop it, and then donate those changes back to the community. It's essentially the same model used by the Linux community and the popular browser Firefox, and it has been shown to work well.

The only fly in the ointment, if there is one, is the numbers. Right now, Twitter is still where the majority of users are, but the "cool kids"âthe developers, programmers, and open-source advocates who can see the potential of a distributed microblogging networkâare already moving towards Identi.ca (here's one example). In the first 24 hours it was public, Identi.ca registered over 8000 new users and posted more than 19,000 status updates. Clearly, the early adopters are interested. What is needed now is for regular users to adopt it as well.

So, I'm doing my part. I'm moving to Identi.ca as my main status blog, and I'm asking my friends, family, and anyone who reads this to join me over there. At the very least, register an account there and get your preferred username while it's still relatively new and uncrowded. I'll still be posting my sutff at Twitter, Plurk, Jaiku, etc. through the miracle of Ping.fm, but I'll be hanging out at Identi.ca. It isn't feature-complete yetâthings like an SMS gateway and direct messaging are still to come. But it's evolving rapidly, and so far shows impressive stability. The main developer is responsive, and the community (the Identi.cans?) is ever so congenial.

Won't you join me?

July 11, 2008

Open and closed, Part I(a)—iPocalypse

I can't move on to Part II without saying something about today's disastrous rollout of the 3G iPhone. Apple is normally very good at providing an excellent customer experience, but today provided a cautionary lesson to Apple in what _not_ to do.

For starters, it's been said, fairly in my opinion, that the Achilles heel of the iPhone is the linkup with AT&T. When we're talking about AT&T in this context, we're really talking about what used to be Cingular. The old AT&T Wireless was absorbed by Cingular a few years ago, and since then the former AT&T network has been obliterated in favor of the ex-Cingular GSM network, which was definitely not ready for prime time, at least not in my area—and their customer service was singularly (Cingularly?) bad.

For example, when I complained of bad reception, I was told that my office, which lays directly next to one of the two major highways between Los Angeles and San Francisco, and is in a city of over 100,000 people within a broad valley, was in a "tough area." Gee, thanks.

Anyway, it looks like today's problems were caused not by AT&T, but by Apple itself. There are conflicting stories out there, but it appears that Apple's iTunes activation servers went downat a _very_ inconvenient time. Imagine standing in line for several hours, finally purchasing the phone, having your number ported over, and then not being able to activate the thing. Nice. The basic problem here is something that has served Apple very well up until now: Apple's insistence on controlling every aspect of the user experience. While this has allowed Apple to craft a consistent look and feel across multiple computing platforms, in this case it worked against them in a big way.

Most of the time, when you buy a GSM phone, it's a simple matter of taking the SIM card out of the old phone and putting it in the new one (or, in the case of a new customer, activating a new SIM card). In this case, an extra step was inserted into the process, because Apple does not want you to use the phone in ways that Uncle Steve disapproves of—and, apparently, because of concerns over unauthorized unlocking of the phone. Because the price of the iPhone is being subsidized by AT&T, AT&T wants to make sure you activate the phone on the AT&T network, and there is doubtless a contractual obligation on Apple's part to help ensure that this happens, and that iPhones are used only on AT&T's network. This, of course, is a losing battle.

There's an interesting corollary to the music industry here. The record companies would love it if everyone bought the same music over and over again. This is why they initially pushed so hard for digital-rights management (DRM). This led to Apple selling music files through the iTunes Music Store that were hobbled by DRM and were consequently unable to be played on anything but an approved iPod by the person who originally bought the music. Predictably, various methods were found to strip out the DRM from tracks purchased through the iTunes store, and ultimately the record companies were forced by consumer pressure to offer DRM-free tracks through other merchants. Like the record companies with their music, Apple and AT&T are following an outdated business model. Instead of locking down the iPhone six ways from Sunday, what Apple should do is fairly obvious, at least to me:

  1. Sell the iPhone as an unlocked and unsubsidized GSM phone. The initial iPhone proved that people were willing to spend large sums of money for an Apple-branded phone that just worked. Why not let them?
  2. Permit its use on any GSM network.
  3. Either sell it exclusively through Apple Stores, or offer it through multiple providers.
  4. Develop and market a CDMAversion of the iPhone that can be sold via Sprint and Verizon. In many areas of the USA, those are the most complete and reliable networks; why not take advantage of them? Palm and Blackberry manage to do both GSM and CDMA versions; why can't Apple?

Of course, for those who just can't wait for this eventuality to take place, there is an option. But then, if you read Part I, you already know that.

July 10, 2008

Open and closed, Part I

The last few weeks have seen a couple of announcements in the tech world: the launch of the new 3G iPhone from Apple, and a new round of investment in the popular but increasingly unreliable microblogging service Twitter. Each of these events has been discussed in the tech press, and the iPhone in particular is currently the subject of much hype and publicity,having gone on sale today.

Both of these things, however, have eclipsed a couple of developments that are, arguably, far more interesting and with much greater potential to shake up the established order. With all due respect to the iPhone, which has had a dramatic impact on the smartphone market, the new model is probably more accurately seen as an upgrade of the first-generation model than as something all-new—at least in terms of hardware. The new hardware features are GPS and 3G support (i.e., support for the GSM HSDPAprotocol, a mobile broadband standard). Unfortunately, GPS tends to drastically reduce battery life, and AT&T offers 3G access in only a limited number of areas. Because the new phone requires a much more expensive calling plan, and the other improvements to the new iPhone are software improvements that are available to current iPhone owners as a download, there has been some grumbling that upgrading to the new iPhone may not be worth it to current owners.

What the iPhone hype has obscured is the launch of a phone that, while not a direct competitor to the iPhone in any real sense, is at least a shot across the bow from an unlikely source. The OpenMoko group has introduced the Neo Freerunner, a touch-screen, tri-band unlocked GSM phone that bears more than a passing resemblance to a rounded-off iPhone. The potentially game-changing thing about the Freerunner is its open-source nature. While the iPhone runs a version of OS X, the Freerunner uses a mobile version of Linux—and unlike the iPhone, an owner can legally hack into its operating system, add programs to it, and generally alter it to his or her heart's content.

True, most people aren't interested in doing that to their mobile phone, but the emergence of the iPhone Dev Team showed that a fair number of people want the ability to customize their phone regardless of the manufacturer's wishes. Apple would prefer that this not happen, which is likely the reason why the new iPhone must be activated in-store rather than at home through iTunes, as was the case with the previous model. With the Freerunner, there is no such limitation, and the inclusion of a Linux-style package manager should make installation of new programs a breeze. The Freerunner is not an exact match for the iPhone feature-for-feature; for example, there is no camera, it doesn't support HSDPA, and you won't be using it to sync up to your iTunes library anytime soon.

Because it's an unlocked phone, not subsidized by a mobile operator such as AT&T, it's also more expensive. But for what it is, it's an extremely interesting peek into a world of much greater wireless freedom than we're used to. Lots of people must agree; as I write this, the GSM 900 version is sold out at the NeoMoko store. Coming up in Part II: Twitter and the world of microblogging, and a new open-source competitor.

July 7, 2008

Giving the people what they want

Listening to this week's episode of This Week in Tech, reference was made to the film "Who Killed the Electric Car?"Now, I haven't seen the film in question. I can't speak to whatever argument it puts forth. I do, however, have a fairly good idea of the answer to the question posed in the title.

Folks, the electric car was killed by the public. I know that isn't the answer people want to hear. It's much more satisfying to blame General Motors and Toyota for killing off their electric cars (although Toyota receives kudos for its hybrid technology). The fact remains, however, that if enough people had wanted them, they'd still be producing them, because that's how free enterprise works. If there is demand, someone will fill that demand. If there is insufficient demand to profitably produce something, it's going to be killed off. Like it or not, that's how the world works.

Here's an example from another industry: when I worked for McDonald's (which I did for almost fifteen years, as a manager), there was a general outcry that McDonald's needed to produce healthier food. In response, the company replaced its soft-serve ice cream with frozen yogurt, introduced salads, developed a low-fat hamburger (the McLean Deluxe), and lowered the fat content of its milkshakes. And then... Sales tanked. People complained that the yogurt had an aftertaste (guess what, people, it's yogurt), that the shakes weren't rich enough, that the McLean was dry. The most popular dressings for the salads were bleu cheese and ranch.

You see, people often say they want one thing, and then go out and spend their money on something else. While Mickey D's was introducing healthier options, people kept right on buying Big Macs and Double Quarter Pounders with Cheese. And when GM introduced the EV1, people kept right on buying Tahoes, and Silverados, and Yukons, and Hummers, and did so in ever-increasing numbers, because twenty years after the Arab oil embargo, people forgot that gasoline could get expensive and scarce. Sure, there were some people who wanted an electric car, but not enough to make it a profitable enterprise--and so GM, and the rest of the industry, gave people what they wanted, until even Cadillac, Lincoln, and Lexus started building huge, glitzy trucks.

So the next time you're tempted to blame the industry for its stupidity, take a look in your own driveway. If you're driving a full-size truck or SUV, and you're not a farmer--or if you don't live in an extreme climate--blame yourself instead. We only got what we asked for.

June 26, 2008

By any other name...

Note (2016-10-14): Since I first wrote this eight years ago, I have learned much more about the historic practice of jizya than I knew at the time, and this post no longer reflects my thinking.

From the New York Times this morning comes word that murdered Iraqi Chaldean Catholic archbishop Paulos Faraj Rahho, whose body was found in a shallow grave outside Mosul earlier this year, had been paying protection money to insurgents:

For more than 1,000 years, northern Iraq has been shared by people who for the most part believe and worship differently...Since the time of the Prophet Muhammad, the founder of Islam, Muslims in the Middle East permitted that diversity in part through a special tax on Jews and Christians. The tax was called a jizya--and that is the name with which the insurgents chose to cloak extortion, Mafia-style, from Christians...

Um, excuse me... How is what the insurgents did any different from the historic practice of jizya , except for the official sanction of the latter? Answer: it isn't any different. The New York Times doesn't go so far as to say so, but jizya is, and has always been, nothing more than legalized, sanctified extortion. It's a stain on Islam. Extortion is extortion. I'm just sayin'.

June 23, 2008

Small is beautiful

In the 1960s, when the cult of the big American car was at its zenith, Volkswagen published an advertisement with the headline, "Small is beautiful." It went on to talk about the benefits of a small car payment, small insurance, small repair bill, etc. In the last few days, I had an experience that convinced me that Volkswagens and Orthodoxy have something in common.

Frederica Mathewes-Green once wrote that "Orthodoxy works best when a priest knows his parishioners well, and can give them personal spiritual direction and visit in their homes a few times each year." I had occasion over the weekend to witness the truth of that statement. Yesterday, my wife and I accompanied a friend of mine--the first friend I made in the Orthodox church--to another parish in our area.

My friend--let's call him Stephen to protect everyone's anonymity--had chosen to leave the Greek Orthodox parish where we met following some unfortunate unpleasantness with several different people. Things were said, feelings were hurt, and Stephen decided that life was too short to keep banging his head against a wall (my description, not his). He attended a parish in a nearby city a couple times, but the distance was a problem. I'd had my own frustrations, unrelated to his (and perhaps the subject of a future post), and was also considering making a change, simply for a fresh start.

Fortunately, there was an OCA parish closer to both of us, with a priest whom Stephen had already met. Over coffee, we agreed we'd visit it together. The differences were remarkable. I'd driven past the church many times on my way home from work. It occupies a converted house, next to a used-car dealer in an undistinguished part of town. Once inside, though, there was an overwhelming impression of sanctity. We arrived during Hours (Orthros), to the sounds of the choir, harmonizing in tones inherited from the Russians who first brought Orthodoxy to America. The smell of the incense, the light of the candles, and the glint of sunlight off the gold of the icons brought one into the presence of another world. The priest and deacon, moving behind the iconostasis and preparing for the liturgy about to begin. Of course, all of this could be said of my usual parish, but the difference here was the scale. Whereas my usual parish occupied a converted military chapel, here we were in a space essentially the size of someone's living room (which it undoubtedly once was). There was an intimacy here with the divine; it was impossible to hide in the back pew and melt into the crowd. Indeed, there were no pews at all, save the benches along the back and sides. A few folding chairs were set up to the sides, but the central space was open, giving one a clear view to the iconostasis and making one feel immediately part of the liturgy. The liturgy itself was a revelation. It was conducted entirely in English, and for the first time I was able to understand everything that was said. Although the service books at my usual parish are bilingual--so non-Greeks and visitors can follow along with an English translation--and I have no objection to hearing Greek, there have been times when I have felt somewhat lost. Here, that was not an issue.

Ironically, it is somewhat more traditionally Orthodox to use the vernacular in the service--the first Russian missionaries to Alaska assiduously translated the liturgy into the various native tongues, native languages are a required subject to this day in the Alaskan seminaries, and the Russian alphabet itself was devised so that the liturgy could be translated from Greek and written in the ancient Slavonic tongue. After the liturgy, there was an education hour followed by coffee hour, and here the beauty of a small parish made itself evident. In my usual parish, the priest is quite popular, extremely overworked, and usually quite stressed, and everyone wants a piece of him. The most one can hope for in coffee hour is a few quick words before he has to move on to the next person. Unless it's an urgent situation, anything more than that requires an appointment. Here, we were able to sit down and have lunch with the priest, and spent probably over an hour in conversation with him. He patiently answered questions, and was in no hurry to end our time together. It was exactly the kind of relationship I want to have with my priest, and it will never be possible in the parish I currently attend. That's where things currently stand. Stephen will undoubtedly be attending the new parish, and I'm probably going to do the same. It's not that things are so awful at my old parish (although there have been challenges), it's just that the new one feels so much more inviting--and, it has to be said, without the ethnic distractions of a parish and an archdiocese invested in promoting the culture of the old country. It may be small, but it feels like home. And small, in this case, is definitely beautiful.

June 20, 2008

Up in the cloud

Recently, I've been thinking about the changing nature of computing. This was occasioned by an email that showed up in my inbox informing me that there was a new version of NeoOfficeavailable (NeoOffice is a Mac port of the OpenOffice.orgproject). I've been a big fan of OpenOffice and its derivatives over the years; when I was in college at UCSB, I used it in preference to Microsoft Word, which had a nasty habit of crashing on my G3 iBook, and used it in Linux when I wrote my proseminar paper, which was effectively my senior thesis. Overall, I found it more stable, more customizable, and just plain more to my taste than the Microsoft product. I've kept current versions of it on all our computers, given it away to friends, and its free and open-source nature means I can do so legally without taking out a loan to pay for it. It opens corrupted Word files more reliably than Word does, reads old Word formats that the current version of Word doesn't want to know about, and its native format is the Open Document Format, which has been recognized as an ISO standard.

It's not perfect; until recent versions of NeoOffice, its user interface made it look like a Windows 98 app, early versions took forever to start up, and it's a bloody huge download. But overall I've been so happy with it that I haven't really considered other options--until now.

What's changed my mind is, as you might guess, Google Docs. I'd tried early versions of it, which had limited functionality, and had gone back to NeoOffice. Then I decided to move my email hosting. I signed up for Google Apps For Your Domain, which also gives you a variety of other services including Google Docs. I tried it again, and...I liked it. A lot. I liked it so much, in fact, that it's now my default word processor.

It does have its limitations. If you need mail merge and footnotes and adjustable letter spacing, you won't be happy. But if you want to write a letter, or a to-do list, or any other basic word processing function, it's in there--and your document is stored on Google's servers, securely, available to you anywhere you have an internet connection. This might be problematic if you don't have reliable Web access, but even there Google's engineers have figured out a solution--Google Gears, which gives you offline access. It can handle PDF files, and will import and export files in several formats. And it isn't just a word processor--Google Docs also does spreadsheets and presentations.

So now you have a free office suite, running in your browser, with documents accessible anywhere. Suddenly, a desktop application--particularly an expensive one--doesn't make as much sense as it did before. To be sure, there are lots of good ones out there--Word, WordPerfect, AbiWord, Mellel, OpenOffice, Pages, etc.--but increasingly, the question you have to ask is, _"why bother?"_

Indeed, that is becoming a question in many areas of computing. As it stands, you can do word processing, spreadsheets, presentations, file backup, and a host of other things using web apps and web services. I'm a good example of what can be done--my email is hosted by Google, my photos are on Flickr, backed up to Amazon S3via JungleDisk, my check register is a Google spreadsheet, and my documents are mostly Google Docs (downloaded to my computer as ODF files and backed up to Amazon S3, just in case).

The upshot of all this is that you need less computer with which to do your everyday tasks. Why bother with a huge optical drive if almost everything you do is web-based? Thus, something like the Asus eeePC(on the low end) or the MacBook Air(on the high end) starts to look like a reasonable solution. Operating systems aren't even all that important anymore, since the web is cross-platform, so you have real choice there as well.

And the best part is, you never have to download and update an application ever again.

June 18, 2008

Polygamy, the next frontier

As we all know, same-sex marriages commenced in California this week. I've been struggling to come up with a blog posting about the subject that isn't the length of a magazine article, because there are so many aspects that are worth talking about. My personal feeling is that this is just the beginning of a major shift, and that we will eventually see normative marriage redefined to include polygamy. I believe this to be true not only because in many cases there are issues of religious freedom involved, but because some of the same arguments that are used in favor of gay marriage can be used in favor of plural marriage--which, for what it's worth, has more historical precedent behind it than gay marriage does.

This morning, I was listening to the podcast of Bill Handel's KFI morning show from yesterday, and he got frustrated with someone who suggested that polygamy was next. Dismissing the notion as ridiculous, he said, "that's simply where we draw the line."

Sorry, Bill, but you're going to have to do better than that. For all of the recorded history of western civilization, the acceptable definition of marriage has been limited to one man and one woman. That's simply where we drew the line. Now, the line has shifted, and having shifted once, there is no reason why it cannot shift again.

In fact, it may be shifting already. Prosecutors in Utah and Arizona have, for the most part, stopped prosecuting polygamy cases except where issues of child abuse exist, a tacit recognition that polygamy (at least the religiously-based variety) cannot be stamped out by legal means. Public reaction in the wake of the 1953 Short Creek raid sent a clear message that there was no support for heavy-handed police action against polygamists, and permitted polygamy to flourish for decades in the area of Short Creek, which was renamed Colorado City. The aftermath of the raids on the FLDS compound in Texas seem to confirm this lack of public will to confront the issue; the children of sect members have been returned to their parents, and there are no polygamy prosecutions forthcoming. The church's spokesman has stated that they will discontinue the practice of underage marriage, which seems to have satisfied the authorities for now.

This, of course, stops well short of legalizing the practice of plural marriage, but it is unquestionably a step towards toleration. So when can we expect it to be taken to its logical conclusion?

That's easy. Homosexual marriage became thinkable to society at large when gays and lesbians began to be seen not as bizarre creatures of unnatural habits, but as normal people who loved each other and wanted the same benefits as other couples. When the face of polygamy ceases to be the strange women with unibrows and homemade prairie dresses who inhabit isolated compounds in remote areas, and begins to be jeans-wearing, Tahoe-driving soccer moms in extra-large houses in suburban Salt Lake City (and yes, they do exist), then legalized polygamy will surely not be far off.

June 16, 2008

Welcome

This was originally the first post on my old Blogger site.

Welcome to my blog. Things are a bit sparse at the moment, so please bear with me as I get the furniture in place and spruce it up a bit.

I'm not going to drone on about what this blog will be. Right now, it's a blank slate, and it remains to be seen whether or not I'll keep up my good intentions and write something on a regular basis.

Meanwhile, have a look around, and check in from time to time, or subscribe to my RSS feed. I'll try to keep the pipeline filled with stuff to read.

April 20, 2008

The end of one journey

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