Today’s kids have a few things left to tinker with

[Drafts clean out. This one from January]

Mark Pilgrim laments the slow eradication of Apple products to which the owner has full (and gratis) software/hardware access.

Anyone can develop [for the iPad]! All you need is a Mac, XCode, an iPhone “simulator,” and $99 for an auto-expiring developer certificate. The “developer certificate” is really a cryptographic key that (temporarily) allows you (slightly) elevated access to… your own computer.

In the comments he claims, “By 2015, I predict Apple will not sell any devices with root access.” It’s a fun post—reminding me of my days with the CoCo (I had 1 and 3)—but a bit dramatic. Mark and I were pretty privileged and few to have several hundred dollar (in the early ’80s!) computers for us to tinker on; my dad let me drill into and add a motherboard switch to my CoCo 1! My tinkering was more or less limited to BASIC as I never found out about other programming languages really until high school. I mean, I’d heard of EDTASM for assembly editing but I had no idea what that was about, and it was hard enough getting decent documentation for BASIC.

What can today’s kids tinker on? Well, just about everything with a CPU and a port. It’s getting hard to find devices for which you can’t mod/jailbreak or find open firmware for on the web. You can compile and run programs right on the damn web.

I agree with Mark that bad laws and update patches make too much of this kind of tinkering illegal/temporary, but c’mon. Apple will not lead to a future where kids have no computers to experiment on. Yes, few iPad users will tinker, but in the past most kids didn’t have anything to tinker on at all.

Tercy and the Insufferable Incline

Kathleen and I have been lucky enough to be able to carpool until now, leaving our neglected Tercel “Tercy” (see right) to the rats and other inhabitants. The Good: runs well, good mileage, heat works. Bad: cramped driver’s seat, smells kinda like feet, back doors don’t open from outside, battery leaks out in a few days if you don’t disconnected the terminals, A/C refrigerant leaks out in a few weeks, radio barely tunes in close stations and has to be cranked up to be heard, wipers are weak and finicky and occasionally creep across the window when you accidentally glance the stick, a thorough exterior filth, sometimes after it stops the electrical system refuses to operate until you dis/reconnect the battery, on occasion the headlights have been known to flicker out. That’s at least what I knew of before coming to work.

Kathleen needs the reliability of the van for her new school and I’m going to be biking to work most days, but for those rainy or, recently, 20 degree mornings (ugh) I grudgingly bought an orange UF decal for Tercy. This morning I got to the parking garage with only one stall—I rarely drive stick—and made my way up to the much dreaded Gate of Hate, in which it requires you to slide your Gator1 card.

Perhaps to offend the few still driving stick, they place these gates on a healthy grade. While rolling my window down I find it can’t be rolled down enough to get my arm out; I’ll have to open the door. I engage the parking brake and release the brake pedal—the car begins to roll backwards, of course. While keeping a foot on the brake, I open the door and manage to reach the slot.

Perhaps to offend me personally, my !@#$ Gator1 card won’t activate the gate, which repeatedly repudiates me with beeps of dissatisfaction. As I realize I’m going to have to abort mission, a car pulls up behind me. Door still opened, foot firmly on brake, torso stretched out the side, I somehow compel the woman to leave her warm luxury sedan to come slide her card. (This is how I got in yesterday after I’d just received my decal in another enraging series of events. I had assumed my card issue would be resolved by today. That I assume anything to do with Parking “Services” will Just Work Out is a sign of chronic delusions.)

The lady swipes her blessed card and retreats, giving me moments to act. As I release the brake to hit the gas, the car jets backward at a furious pace. I hammer the gas, the car peels out, and I careen around the corner at the top with my door flying half open, surely making me look a maniac. I quickly park and head down the stairs lest the lady is someone of influence within the college.

We need a distributed social networking protocol…Could Opera Unite be a key?

(Written July 2007)

The digital dark ages is already a reality for a lot of people who grew up with hosted e-mail services like Compuserve and AOL. A lot of those users had no choice but to accept the loss of all their received and sent e-mail when they unsubscribed, the service went under, or their account was deleted from inactivity. Mark Pilgrim wrote about the challenge of long-term data preservation without open formats and source code:

Data readable by only one application is a big risk factor, because the application won’t be around forever. If that application only runs on one operating system, that’s even worse, because the operating system won’t be around forever either. If that operating system only runs on one hardware platform, that’s even worse still. No hardware lasts forever, and you may eventually need to resort to emulating the hardware in software. Emulation is the ultimate fallback. But if any or all of those layers are closed, emulation may be costly or even impossible. And if any of the layers are DRM-encumbered, emulating them may be illegal.

Most social network users don’t keep a copy of their data in any format, so how can we expect to preserve it? Will MySpace be around for 5 years? 20 years? People have already declared Friendster dead; all your testimonials and contacts of old friends could be gone any month now.

The next killer social networking application shouldn’t be another Friendster or MySpace, but rather an open standard allowing us to create and manage our own social data. And it is “our” data. Points of contact with old friends we’ve managed to track down, new friends made from shared interests, anecdotes and testimonials we’ve written for friends and loved ones, snapshots of our interests and personalities. Only by keeping this information in an open format, available for us to backup, can we expect for it to survive.

Let’s say that MySpace suddenly had an export feature. How much would it need to include to be meaningful in 50 years? Obviously you’d want your profile, pics, videos, and blog posts; your inbox and sent mail; probably comments you’ve made on friends’ profiles and blog posts. How much of your friends’ data would you want?

October 2009: We’re still not there. Google Wave will vastly improve the situation (at least having a permanent record for IM), but the real goal here is something trivially easy to install, letting users host their own personal and networking data. Big web providers could still carve out a business by caching copies of user data (to save bandwidth, or for backup) and concentrating on indexing, searching, and providing apps like those for Facebook.

When Opera released Unite (basically a webserver in the browser), I wasn’t sure what they’d get out of it, or what the use case was, but actually this the perfect platform on which to build a distributed social network app. The default storage location of all your data would be on your computer, easily backed up at any time.

Next best thing: SocialSafe, a Facebook backup tool. For three bucks you could be able to show your kids how their parents met, and what they were like then.

Hopes for 2009

In no particular order, I hope…

  • the release of IE8 will spur organizations currently standardized on IE6 to finally bite the bullet and either upgrade their users to IE8 or move them to other browsers. Killing off IE6 (and IE7 really) will significantly decrease web development costs and reinvigorate CSS by opening up a world of selectors and properties that have been unofficially “off the table” due to the prevalence of IE6. As bad as IE6 and 7 have been in comparison to its competitors, IE8 looks to be a major step forward for the default browser of Windows systems.
  • the popularity of IE8 will interest IE upgraders to try other browsers as well. While IE8 is great for the IE user, exactly what the web does not need is another browser market so dominated by one product that web developers move from web standards back to coding for the dominant browser. Although IE8 looks to be committed to standards support, there will be plenty of quirky rendering modes that ignorant developers will get accustomed to if they don’t test in other browsers.
  • Opera 10 will continue strides to increase compatibility with broken sites and stay so blazingly fast and handy out-of-the-box that I’m willing to do most of my browsing without the luxury of add-ons. As far as I know no other browser lets me put my addressbar and tabs on the bottom where I like em’; it’s the little things.
  • that the kids who vandalized a bunch of cars last night, including mine, will receive better parenting than they have in the past. God knows making them spend time with other messed up kids in juvenile detention or giving them permanent criminal records isn’t going to do anything positive for their lives.
  • that our family will have fewer health problems. For the past couple months illnesses just haven’t let up long enough for us to catch our breath. For several events we were looking forward to we were either out of town, sick, or just too exhausted to bother. A Roller Rebels bout, the Of Montreal show, Don & Sarah’s mixtape party…
  • that the new president will choose a drug czar with a background in harm reduction or, better yet, open a public dialogue to discuss if the current federal system (ONDCP, DEA, and CSA) is the right way to reduce the public harms associated with drug use.
  • that my friends and random readers (especially those, like me, who don’t use any drugs) will take some time to learn about what the War on Drugs is doing to the world. The top search engine results are as good a place to start as any, and, of those, the Drug Policy Alliance provides the best overview of the harms, while Rolling Stone describes the last 20 years and the battle of cocaine and meth. Since October I’ve found this topic fascinating, and every day I uncover more evidence that our current system based on blanket prohibition causes tremendous societal harm.
  • that the web will continue to be an exhaustive source of information about drugs, policies, and history and help people form educated opinions based on facts. I grew up knowing nothing about drugs but the old “this is your brain on drugs” ads, so when I started reading about the real science and history of illegal drugs it was quite eye-opening. First you realize how dangerous heroin and meth are, then you find to your shock that marijuana is hardly the drug the government makes it out to be, then that alcohol and tobacco are so much worse and you wonder why they’re exempt from the CSA, then you read about when alcohol was illegal and the havoc that caused, and finally you realize it’s not the drugs, but the prohibition causing the biggest problems.
  • that the media will continue its coverage on the harms of the War on Drugs in Mexico and continue to give voice to clear-headed intelligent criticism of drug policy as its done increasingly recently.
  • that online news sources continue to allow readers to openly discuss drug policy in their commenting systems. It’s obvious that more people are taking the time to do their research; the won’t please someone think of the children! arguments are thankfully falling from fashion, though I’m increasingly seeing the “sends the wrong message to kids” argument from drug warriors anytime anyone suggests reducing criminal penalties for marijuana possession.
  • I’ll play and record more music.
  • that Skate 2 will be as awesome as it looks.
  • state budget cuts will not cost me nor Kathleen a job. Did I mention the War on Drugs is damn expensive?
  • the recession will not cost Gainesville any of its awesome eateries. Yesterday at The Jones’ I had corn-flake-encrusted brioche french toast topped with almond whipped cream. It was possibly the most magical thing I’ve ever tasted.

Mankind is still capable of monstrocity

If you’ve fooled yourself that this is not true, you need only to check yesterday’s New York Times to sober up. In cultures where women still have little value, for at least a dozen years some men have thrown acid on the faces of women, and are rarely punished. In a recent case, girls with the audacity to seek an education were attacked.

Acid attacks and wife burnings are common in parts of Asia because the victims are the most voiceless in these societies: they are poor and female. The first step is simply for the world to take note, to give voice to these women.

Since 1994, Ms. Bukhari has documented 7,800 cases of women who were deliberately burned, scalded or subjected to acid attacks, just in the Islamabad area. In only 2 percent of those cases was anyone convicted.

The follow up has a few solutions.

Learning from the Free Market

When government regulation is completely removed from the picture, business thrives, and one industry has a particularly impressive success story. Its products are produced where costs are low and sold elsewhere with monumental margins. In fact these extraordinary profits help this industry overcome enormous hurdles of distribution; not even incredibly powerful organizations with endless supplies of arms, money and influence can prevent them from shipping on time to happy consumers all over the world. Without the interference of external regulations limiting product design, the resulting products are so effective that customer demand is virtually limitless.

The industry is, of course, the illegal drug market. Thanks to much of the world’s head-in-the-sand policies of prohibition, the resulting black market is free to act with brutal efficiency with no regard for human life. Nixon’s War on Drugs is a collosal failure in every respect, with the only mark of “success” being the criminalization of an enormous percentage of the population. Drug use is up in every age group and deadlier drugs are more commonplace. It’s easier for high schoolers to get marijuana than cigarettes or beer.

Just as the free market gives the illegal drug industry a huge advantage over all our efforts to reduce usage, a free market with reasonable regulation, or, indeed, no market (via direct governmental distribution), is the only solution to this epidemic. Many people throughout society have publicly recognized this to be true, and the evidence is overwhelmingly supportive, so what’s stopping us from wiping out this problem today?

You. And me. Reasonable people that recognize drug use as a public health issue rather than a criminal act; people that pretend there’s nothing that can be done about these laws and continue to quietly support politicians who tow these failing policies out of fear or ignorance.

What’s clear is that it’s ineffective to support third party candidates at the presidential level, as true candidate discourse at this level is long dead. We need to concentrate our efforts on letting Democrats and Republicans know that we recognize the absurdity and will  support dramatic reform on this issue. We also need to better inform the public about the harm directly caused by prohibition and the wisdom displayed in the 21st Amendment.

I linked to Law Enforcement Against Prohibition yesterday. You absolutely must read long-time narcotics officer Jack Cole’s story of his participation in the War on Drugs from 1969 to 1984, and its effect on everyone involved. It’s long, so at some point I may try to present this more succinctly.

Why the harping on this issue?

The more I learn about prohibition, the more I see it as an endless hidden war waged on ourselves due to policies we pretend don’t exist. It drags down the entire economy by moving wealth into the hands of kingpins and squandering tax dollars on enforcement, confinement, ER visits, and endless recidivism (thanks to our permanent labeling of suffering and innocent people as criminals). It allows the existence of international criminal organizations to feed demand and cause harm on a global scale.

I don’t see any other issue with such obvious signs of failure and such a clear path towards success.