multi-billionaire Steve Jobs, RIP

Posted on: Thu, 10/06/2011 - 11:40 By: Tom Swiss

So Steve Jobs has died. I was never a member of the cult of Jobs -- anyone pro-censorship hits a ratings ceiling pretty quick in my book -- but I don't care to badmouth the guy right now. Instead, in the spirit of the ongoing Occupy Wall Street movement, I'd like to point out a few things that his story illustrates about corporate capitalism and the concentration of wealth.

Perhaps first should be the fact that we are talking about his death now, rather than two years ago. Jobs was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer in 2004, and had a liver transplant in 2009. The questionable circumstances around this transplant, including the fact that he was able to obtain the transplant surgery on the other side of the country from his home, are a perfect illustration of how the concentration of wealth is a matter of life and death. "Multiple listing" for a transplant is not something you or I would be able to do in Job's place

So Jobs's fantastic wealth -- estimated to be $8.3 billion as of 2010, making him the 42nd wealthiest American -- gave him a few extra years of life. Well, didn't he earn it? Look at his contribution to technology, after all!

But Jobs is getting a lot of credit right now for things he did not do.

He did not "invent the personal computer", as some headlines are putting it. There were PCs before Apple, going back to 1973's Micral N. The original Apple hit the market the same time as the Commodore PET and the TRS-80, with Commodore getting the nod as "the first successfully mass marketed PC", according to the wik. The technical genius behind the original Apple/Apple II was Steve Wozniak, Job's contribution was more on the business/marketing side. (According to Woz, Jobs "never programmed in his life, though that's a bit of an exaggeration.)

The Macintosh GUI was based on work from Xerox PARC. The iPod was far from the first personal digital music player around. Job's genius was in polishing existing ideas, and making designs that captivated people -- branding and marketing.

The "genius lone inventor" myth contributes to both our screwed-up patent system and our "winner take all" economics. I'll bet you some right-wing talking head has already used Jobs as an example of someone who "deserved" to have the wealth of 8,300 mere millionaires, or of 89,000 average American families. Allowing Jobs to have credit for the work of many, many others distorts important truths about the concentration of wealth in our society.

Finally, I ought to note that unlike Bill Gates (for whom I have no great love!), Jobs was noted for a lack of philanthropy during his life, including cutting corporate philanthropy programs at Apple. It will be interesting to see how Jobs directed his wealth to be distributed after his death.

a salute to the timezone database and its maintainer

Posted on: Fri, 03/04/2011 - 01:57 By: Tom Swiss

Computers have a simple way of keeping time: generally, they count seconds. Real Computers -- those running Unix-like operating systems -- count the number of elapsed seconds since midnight January 1 1970, UTC. As I write this, it's about 1299218806 in this system. That number, often called "Unix time" or a "time_t", is the same in Baltimore, London, or Tokyo. Simple.

But as experienced by us biological organisms, trying to keep our activities somewhat in sync with the diurnal light-dark cycle and the lengthening and shortening of the day over the seasons, time is much trickier.

Most of us only have to think about that when we change the clocks in the spring and fall, or when traveling to a new time zone. But on the internet, a computer in Baltimore might be connected to one in London, several timezones away; and those computers might be analyzing data containing timestamps -- not time_ts like 1299218806, but human-meaningful times like March 4 2011, 1:06:46 am -- from months ago, when daylight savings time was (or wasn't) in effect. Or even from years ago, when the very rules governing daylight savings time were different. Trying to convert from, say, October 31 1985, 7:00 pm Eastern Time to a pure number, or even to UTC time, requires being able to figure out if daylight savings time was in effect in the Eastern time zone at that moment -- a fairly complex question, as the rules have changed twice since that date!

Timezone information is used in such important Internet protocols as DHCP (the protocol that lets your laptop get an IP address -- as well as the local timezone -- from the WiFi service at the airport) and iCalendar (which is what lets you coordinate your meetings via Google Calendar -- or if you're stuck in hell, Outlook).

To keep it straight, since the early 1980s a group of volunteers has maintained the "TZ Database" -- a.k.a. the Olson Database, after its founder, Arthur David Olson. It's an amazing document, as Jon Udell reports -- rich with bits of history and politics.

Now Olson is preparing to retire, and IANA (the Internet Assigned Numbers Authority) is considering how to hand off maintenance of the vital bit of infrastructure to someone new.

It's a good opportunity to stop and reflect on how much of this Internet that we take for granted relies on volunteer efforts -- cyber-Tzadikim Nistarim, if you will.

Javascript "Asteroids"-like game

Posted on: Tue, 03/01/2011 - 22:01 By: Tom Swiss

This made my day: a Javascript version of the old "Asteroids" game that lets you blow up HTML elements on web pages.

To try it out on this page, you can click this link. Rotate with left and right arrow keys, up arrow for thrust, shoot with the spacebar, press B to highlight shootable regions, and Esc to quit. (You'll probably want to reload the page afterwards.) For more fun, drag that link to your bookmarklet toolbar, then invoke it from some other webpage -- maybe one laden with ads, or maybe one with photos of whoever's pissing you off this week...

A tip of the hat to young Mr. Erik Rothoff Andersson, author of this applet.

so maybe Big Brother isn't watching very closely...

Posted on: Tue, 02/22/2011 - 14:30 By: Tom Swiss

It seems that every few days we see another story about employers firing or suspending employees for comments made of Facebook or elsewhere on the web. It's a worrisome trend.

Given that, you might think that if a company finds your resume on-line, before their recruiters call you up they might Google your name + their company's name, and see if you've bad-mouthed them. For example, I'd expect someone from to Google '"Tom Swiss" amazon' before calling me about a job, and see on the first page links to my post, "Amazon must be destroyed", where I write about my loathing for these patent-abusing pro-censorship bastards, and then cross me off their list. (BTW, such a search also finds the MP3 downloads for my tracks for Words on War.)

Apparently not, though, since I just got a call from an recruiter. (I was polite.)

I'm not in the job market right now, and my resume page even has a link explaining this. But since my resume has been at the same URL since, IIRC, the late 90s, I guess it comes up fairly high on Google searches.

Egypt shuts down Internet access

Posted on: Thu, 01/27/2011 - 21:47 By: Tom Swiss

Woody Guthrie used to have the words "This Machine Kills Fascists" on his guitar. I've often thought that that would be a fine sticker to put on Internet-connected computers. The free flow of information is anathema to authoritarians.

Need proof? Reports are coming in that Egypt has shut down all internet access, as protests continue against the U.S.-backed regime of Hosni Mubarak.

That, I think, is pretty much a sign that the cat is out of the bag, and that this regime's days are numbered. (The question, though, it whether what replaces it will be better...)

Amazon must be destroyed

Posted on: Thu, 12/30/2010 - 11:26 By: Tom Swiss

Amazon -- the company, not the river -- has been on my shit list since they became patent-abusing bastards. But their recent actions have moved them up the list.

Most troubling is the sudden removal of WikiLeaks's content from Amazon Web Services. There was much speculation that the U.S. government put pressure on Amazon to make this happen -- but just a few weeks later, Amazon was bragging that the federal government is one of its biggest customers. This suggests that the pressure involved was good ol' money: piss of one of AWS's big customers, and Amazon will pull the plug on you.

But wait -- there's more. Rather like the rat bastards at Apple, Amazon's censorship of WikiLeaks goes along with a pattern of censorship of sexually explicit material.

It's not as if they don't know what they're doing. When people objected to a book with the (disgusting, to be sure) title Pedophile's Guide to Love and Pleasure showing up the Kindle store, Amazon said, "Amazon believes it is censorship not to sell certain books simply because we or others believe their message is objectionable. Amazon does not support or promote hatred or criminal acts, however, we do support the right of every individual to make their own purchasing decisions." That's a wonderful statement -- but Amazon then caved in and removed the book.

Amazon is now removing erotic incest fantasy fiction and works that portray homosexual rape -- and not just removing such stories from further sales, but deleting stories from purchaser's Kindles. Amazon was famously sued over such remote deletion last year, and supposedly set a policy which limited its use.

Amazon now says that the recent retroactive deletion was due to a "technical issue". Ha.

Woz on net neutrality

Posted on: Fri, 12/24/2010 - 00:21 By: Tom Swiss

As you may have gathered from my last post about them, I am not a fan of Steve Jobs and Apple; they've been on my shit list since the infamous look and feel lawsuits of the late 80s and early 90s. But I am a fan of Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak. "Woz", as many know him, is pretty much the anti-Jobs: he was the engineering genius behind Apple's early success, back in the pre-Mac days when functionality and openness were Apple's virtues. He was the sole developer of the hardware, circuit board designs, and operating system for the Apple I, and did the vast majority of the design and development for the Apple II. Many technophiles have contrasted the openness and elegance of Woz's work with the closed, walled-garden, and pretty but technologically deficient designs pushed by Jobs.

Before Apple, Woz founded a Dial-a-Joke line; after Apple, he spent almost a decade teaching computer science, without pay, for public schools in Los Gatos. When Apple went public, Woz shared his stock options with employees he though had been unfairly left out. Wired columnist Leander Kahney calls Woz "a man who has lived his life according to deeply geeky and humanistic principles," which seems to me like a correct description and a high complement.

So when Woz talks about something with both technological and humanistic implications, like network neutrality, the wise pay heed:

The early Internet was so accidental, it also was free and open in this sense. The Internet has become as important as anything man has ever created. But those freedoms are being chipped away. Please, I beg you, open your senses to the will of the people to keep the Internet as free as possible. Local ISP's should provide connection to the Internet but then it should be treated as though you own those wires and can choose what to do with them when and how you want to, as long as you don't destruct them. I don't want to feel that whichever content supplier had the best government connections or paid the most money determined what I can watch and for how much. This is the monopolistic approach and not representative of a truly free market in the case of today's Internet.

Imagine that when we started Apple we set things up so that we could charge purchasers of our computers by the number of bits they use. The personal computer revolution would have been delayed a decade or more. If I had to pay for each bit I used on my 6502 microprocessor, I would not have been able to build my own computers anyway.

Apple pulls WikiLeaks app

Posted on: Tue, 12/21/2010 - 15:18 By: Tom Swiss

If you needed more proof that Apple is a bunch of evil censoring bastards, here it is: Apple has pulled a "WikiLeaks" app from its App store. The $1.99 app, created by Igor Barinov to make the WikiLeaks data more browsable and accessible, was yanked without explanation. The app had no data in it that isn't already public.

This comes on top of Steve Jobs telling us he wants to give us "freedom from porn", and Apple banning apps with political cartoons by a Pulitzer-winning cartoonist, a gay travel guide to New York, and graphic novels based on James Joyce's Ulysses and on The Importance of Being Earnest. Public outcry has made them pull back on some of those decisions, but it does not make the fact that they were made in the first place less outrageous.

"Think Different"? No. More and more, Apple shows that it wants people who use its hardware to think the same.

And if you have a problem with that, Apple might just put you down the memory hole, as when they delete from their message boards discussion threads that are critical of their shiny but underfunctional geegaws.

Of course, censorship never does take very well. (Let's be clear: this is censorship. Apologists for corporatism like to say that only the government can engage in censorship, but that's not what the word means; when a business says "this is objectionable" rather than "people won't buy this", that's censorship.) The iPad has a built-in web browser, and though it doesn't support Flash -- the format of most video on the web today -- adult website "YouPorn" is already offering a selection of its videos in HTML5, which does work on the iPad.

So you can still view pr0n on the iPad -- just like you can still view WikiLeaks information. That does not change the fact that Apple's attempt to moralize is more appropriate for a church than for a technology company; and given that Apple is getting its fingers more and more around our information channels, it's much more disturbing.

If you support free expression, support free software. So long as you don't have the choice of what to install on your computer, your freedom is limited. We're headed more and more toward the world RMS envisioned in his short story The Right To Read.

why I prefer to pay with cash

Posted on: Fri, 12/03/2010 - 15:51 By: Tom Swiss

Wired reports on documents obtained by security researcher Christopher Soghoian under a FOIA request, which show how federal law enforcement agencies have been tracking Americans -- in real time -- via credit cards, retail "loyalty program" cards, and rental car agencies.

More detail is at Soghoian's blog. He notes:

The document also reveals that DOJ's preferred method of obtaining this information is via an administrative subpoena. The only role that courts play in this process is in issuing non-disclosure orders to the banks, preventing them from telling their customers that the government has spied on their financial transactions. No Fourth Amendment analysis is conducted by judges when issuing such non-disclosure orders.

While Congress has required that the courts compile and publish detailed statistical reports on the degree to which law enforcement agencies engage in wiretapping, we currently have no idea how often law enforcement agencies engage in real-time surveillance of financial transactions.

interactive fiction via typewriter

Posted on: Mon, 11/15/2010 - 18:54 By: Tom Swiss

As a young geek, I whiled away many hours playing interactive fiction text games like Adventure (Colossal Cave), Zork, and Planetfall.

So I was quickly enchanted with this video of Jonathan Guberman and Jim Munroe's Automatypewriter. Guberman has essentially converted an old Smith-Corona into a fanciful teletype terminal for interactive fiction.

Watching the type type "by itself" reminds me of a scene from the Star Trek episode "Assignment: Earth", where Roberta Lincoln -- played by a young Terry Garr -- encounters a voice-operated typewriter in the office of time-traveling secret agent Gary Seven. Anyway, it's cool.

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