Glass Maze Every jumbled pile of person

Specialization is for Insects

Heinlein:

A human being should be able to change a diaper, plan an invasion, butcher a hog, conn a ship, design a building, write a sonnet, balance accounts, build a wall, set a bone, comfort the dying, take orders, give orders, cooperate, act alone, solve equations, analyze a new problem, pitch manure, program a computer, cook a tasty meal, fight efficiently, die gallantly. Specialization is for insects.

Do I get to not be an insect if I can (sort of) do (approximately) three of those things?


Brave New Walled Garden

Is it better to buy Mac applications directly from developers, or from the Mac App Store? Wolf Renztsch enumerates the pros and cons of both alternatives and concludes that, ultimately, the new sandboxing requirements tilt the balance decisively toward direct purchase. Here’s the salient point:

Less Risk of Losing Your Software Investments: I bought Divvy via the Mac App Store. Unfortunately Divvy relies on Apple’s Accessibility APIs, which aren’t allowed for sandboxed apps. That means aside from minor bug fixes, I will no longer receive updates for the application I purchased.

… Sandboxing is just the latest App Store rule change, I’m sure there’s more to come. All things being equal, it’s safer to buy directly instead of being cut off from your own software based on an arbitrary Apple policy change.

Sandboxing aside, this is the key consideration: whether you’re comfortable allowing Apple to be the aperture through which your app purchases must pass. There are undeniable advantages to this, all of them revolving around better user experience.

But Apple has demonstrated over and over again its willingness to abuse the power they’ve granted themselves (on iOS in particular, where there is no possibility of direct purchases) and there’s no reason to think they won’t do the same with Mac software. As soon as the Mac App Store achieves enough critical mass that they can confidently screw their developers, then the screwing will commence, in earnest.

For example: as Renztsch points out, Smile software has figured out a way around Apple’s policy of only allowing App Store applications to access iCloud:

Apple has decided only Mac App Store apps (and thus now sandboxed apps) can access iCloud. Fortunately this isn’t much of an issue since the smart folks at SmileOnMyMac have already demonstrated a work-around of having a “bridge” Mac App Store application which allows its directly-sold PDFPen to access iCloud as well.

It is indeed a clever solution, but it’s also at the mercy of Apple’s arbitrary and ever-changing store policies. When Apple decides that they don’t like what Smile is doing (as seems likely), then new rules will suddenly appear, prohibiting it.

What’s so insidious about this is that normal people are, for the most part, completely unaware of what’s going on here. Most users will (understandably) gravitate toward what’s easiest, and the Mac App Store is certainly that. Any costs they incur will be opportunity costs — not the things they lose now, but the things that never see the light of day, because of Apple’s gatekeepers.

It’s an ugly situation, and all the incentives (for both developers and users) herd us inexorably to a future inside the brave new world of Apple’s walled garden.


Wrong Target

Digby on the ridiculousness of the Edwards trial:

But I suppose we have to give credit where credit is due. Wall Street gamblers and high flying bankers have so far been smart enough not to do the one thing that can get important, high-profile, white males in trouble with the law: get caught paying for unauthorized sex. Other than that, it’s clear that pretty much anything goes.

It really is shocking how skewed our ethical universe has become. Righteous moral indignation has its uses, but we always direct it at the wrong targets. All these justice department resources used up on a cad and an adulterer, while the malefactors who tried to murder our economy sit unperturbed in their moneyed lairs. It’s like driving a firetruck to the site of a raging housefire and jumping down and pulling out the hoses and then watering the garden nextdoor. Inexplicable.


A Good Day for the Internet

Yesterday was a good day for the internet. Lots and lots and lots of sites either went entirely dark to protest SOPA and Protect-IP, or posted prominent banners explaining why these awful, awful bills would kill the internet as we know it.

A bit of confusion aside, this really got the message out there. Thirteen senators have withdrawn their support for it (including mine!).

As many have said, this is just the beginning. There’s a war looming. But it’s an auspicious beginning.


Of Course SOPA Is a Free Speech Issue

Here’s the AFL-CIO’s Paul Almeida, on why SOPA doesn’t represent a massive and disastrous abridgment of our rights to free speech:

There is no inconsistency between protecting an open Internet and safeguarding intellectual property. Protecting intellectual property is not the same as censorship; the First Amendment does not protect stealing goods off trucks.

This isn’t even wrong: it just takes two unrelated concepts — internet content and theft — and puts them in vague proximity to one another. We’re supposed to hear “stealing” and think oh noes stealing! and then blindly sign on to whatever it takes to make the stealing stop — which, in this case, means making the internet, as we know it, stop.

Because what our current laws do protect (sticking with this demented mixed metaphor for a moment) is the right to drive your truck around even if there’s a chance that it contains stolen goods — or, more to the point, even if someone gets it in his head that it contains stolen goods and asserts as much, without proof. If we were to apply the same standard to truck content as this stupid bill does to website content, then:

  1. The truck could be forced off the road if some jerk with an axe to grind writes a letter to the Trucking Authority saying he suspects it’s carrying contraband. That’s all it would take. No judge, no lawsuit, no cops — just a notice.
  2. The trucking company could be cut off from its payment processors and advertisers — effectively preventing it from doing business — and removed from the yellow pages. Again, without due process.
  3. Furthermore, any third party running an ad for — or otherwise directing customers to — the trucking company would also be breaking the law, and be liable for damages, because of the bill’s “anti-circumvention” clause.
  4. Conversely, if the Trucking Authority — either through an (understandable) excess of caution, or for more nefarious reasons — preemptively does any of this stuff without an actual due-process-free takedown notice, they’d be effectively immune from liability.

And this is to say nothing of the government itself — which, as the silencing of Wikileaks has demonstrated, is more than willing to bring extra-legal pressure to bear in order to silence its critics, even without the express authority to do so.

In short: if this becomes law, we can look forward to media behemoths training their giant howitzers on little guys who post non-infringing content, taking them down without even having to pull the trigger. We can look forward to curated link sites like BoingBoing and Slashdot severely curtailing what they link to, and getting sued out of existence if they’re not careful enough (or even if they are); and sites that depend on user-generated content (like Facebook and Twitter and YouTube and MetaFilter) going dark, unless they find a way to severely restrict what people can post.

We can look forward to sites suddenly disappearing from the internet, just like that.

Again: the end of the internet as we know it. An endless vista of possibility reduced to a nightmare of chainlink fences and disappeared websites and everyone always looking over their shoulder, not sure where the next blow is going to come from, or why.

Anybody who tells you this isn’t a free speech issue is either deeply confused about what free speech is or — far more likely — lying. Don’t believe them.


Mute

There’s been a bit of of tempest in a teapot recently in the Apple community, around an incident where some poor guy stopped a performance of the New York Philharmonic with an ill-timed iPhone alarm. He’d put the phone on mute, but the iOS alarm app ignores the mute button, so it went off anyway.

Gruber and Marco have both mounted their inevitable defense of the iPhone’s muting behavior — but, uncharacteristically, I actually agree with something Marco said:

The user told the iPhone to make noise by either scheduling an alarm or initiating an obviously noise-playing feature in an app.

The user also told the iPhone to be silent with the switch on the side.

The user has issued conflicting commands, and the iPhone can’t obey both.

It’s a typical design problem: it can’t be heavy and light and big and small. Neither decision will satisfy everyone all the time or cover every edge case: if Apple implemented Mute in Ihnatko’s preferred way, millions of people would be just as irritated when their scheduled alarms didn’t wake them up.

This is hard to quibble with. If you have one mute switch and no ability to tell the alarm what you want it to do in that situation, then, yes, you’re going to piss somebody off.

So Marco makes a good point: under those constraints, there is no right decision. But then he goes on to say that Apple made the right decision:

When implementing the Mute switch, Apple had to decide which of a user’s conflicting commands to obey, and they chose the behavior that they believed would make sense to the most people in the most situations.

That’s good design.

But that’s not good design. That’s just choosing one of two bad designs, on a hunch.

I think this is emblematic of the Apple enthusiast mindset: that it doesn’t even occur to them to expand the scope of the problem beyond the constraints that Apple has imposed. There are other options: you could make the alarm vibrate instead. Or you could present the user with a choice (something that Apple rarely does) — in the alarm app itself, say, or the first time the user puts the phone on mute with alarms active. Or something. But all other options are, apparently off the table: the alarm either must go off or mustn’t go off. Those are your choices.

Most of iOS’s “user-centric” design decisions are predicated on the notion that Apple knows best. But this is a situation where Apple not only doesn’t, but can’t, know best. I’d be a lot less annoyed with Apple zealotry if it would just acknowledge this: not that Apple makes mistakes, but that their uncompromising ethos often forces them into situations where every available option is a mistake.


Prose That Takes Your Breath Away

This is some of the most powerful prose I’ve ever seen. It’s from a leaflet handed around during the 1992 primaries, written by Zoe Leonard, an artist and activist:

I want a dyke for president. I want a person with aids for president and I want a fag for vice president and I want someone with no health insurance and I want someone who grew up in a place where the earth is so saturated with toxic waste that they didn’t have a choice about getting leukemia. I want a president that had an abortion at sixteen and I want a candidate who isn’t the lesser of two evils and I want a president who lost their last lover to aids, who still sees that in their eyes every time they lay down to rest, who held their lover in their arms and knew they were dying. I want a president with no airconditioning, a president who has stood on line at the clinic, at the dmv, at the welfare office and has been unemployed and layed off and sexually harassed and gaybashed and deported. I want someone who has spent the night in the tombs and had a cross burned on their lawn and survived rape. I want someone who has been in love and been hurt, who respects sex, who has made mistakes and learned from them. I want a Black woman for president. I want someone with bad teeth and an attitude, someone who has eaten that nasty hospital food, someone who crossdresses and has done drugs and been in therapy. I want someone who has committed civil disobedience. And I want to know why this isn’t possible. I want to know why we started learning somewhere down the line that a president is always a clown: always a john and never a hooker. Always a boss and never a worker, always a liar, always a thief and never caught.

It’s the way this builds, the words tumbling against each other in their eagerness to be heard, swelling off the page, yearning to get to you. As if in their urgency they forget that they’re symbols for a thing and in forgetting become the thing, three-dimensional and real and emphatically present.

I found this breathtaking, in the most literal way possible. I hope I manage to write a paragraph half as good one day.


Decentralized, Participatory Digital Democracy

Zachary Schneirov, the creator of Notational Velocity, on the pernicious qualities of the Cloud:

There’s absolutely no reason a community group, organization, or collection of friends couldn’t share everything they needed using protocols and servers that have existed almost since the dawn of UNIX. And with federated protocols like XMPP (on which Google Wave was built) there’s also no reason that such services couldn’t “scale” to include progressively larger circles of contact.

In the end, the need for profit can only ever add unnecessary and unwanted side-effects to our medium of communication, whether it’s omnipresent and invisible tracking of everything we read and say, a visual landscape overrun with advertisements, or software that disappears and takes our data with it once we stop paying rent. The “cloud” model is becoming popular first and foremost because it enables new forms of profit. However with just a tiny amount of work and responsibility, we can make the Cloud’s few advantages redundant, re-possess our information, and finally move to an era of worldwide, decentralized, participatory digital democracy.

I think I’m in love.


Loving Their Servitude

Aldous Huxley, in a letter to George Orwell:

Within the next generation I believe that the world’s leaders will discover that infant conditioning and narco-hypnosis are more efficient, as instruments of government, than clubs and prisons, and that the lust for power can be just as completely satisfied by suggesting people into loving their servitude as by flogging them and kicking them into obedience.


2 Kings 2:23-25

From there Elisha went up to Bethel. As he was walking along the road, some boys came out of the town and jeered at him. “Get out of here, baldy!” they said. “Get out of here, baldy!” He turned around, looked at them and called down a curse on them in the name of the LORD. Then two bears came out of the woods and mauled forty-two of the boys.

Stephen Colbert bit or biblical verse? You decide!

Seriously, this is what happens when you’re not allowed to make revisions.


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