Saheli*: Musings and Observations
Why I decided to help organize the first Hacks/Hackers Unite dev camp around the iPad even though I have concerns about Apple's policies
Dan Gillmor wrote a blogpost lamenting the decision of the organizers of Hacks/Hackers to organize their first Unite Dev camp around iPad development
despite the myriad problems that journalists have found with Apple's model for how content gets on the iPad. Since I'm one of the organizers, I felt the need to respond to his criticism. I appreciate Gillmor's emphatic insistence on talking about the constantly shapeshifting economic threats to the freedom of the press. While I respect his decision not to come to our event this weekend, simply because it's for the iPad, I wanted to explain why I wasn't ignoring the problems of the iPhone OS restrictions when I made my
decision to help with this event. I'm acknowledging (and even agreeing) with most of his points while making the case for the event as we envisioned it and as it is currently going on.
First of all, I am no Apple fanatic. I got my first Mac a couple weeks ago, and while I enjoy some of its features, I haven't fallen in love. I still consider myself a "PC" person. I was gifted an iPod that I use to play music and watch videos. My phone runs Android, and I am really looking forward to learning how to build things for it.
I too am skeptical of how Apple is structuring the iPhone/iPod/iPad store, and how it's keeping much more tight control of apps being developed for the iPhone OS compared to the control it has kept over apps being developed for Mac OS X. According to the Net Applications Data quoted in this Ars Technica post
from January, Mac OS X is still less than 10% of the personal computing operating systems market; Apple would have a hard time restricting developers to a controlled market when it was already hard enough to justify developing for such a small market. Many commenters agree that Apple's open market strategy for OS X worked, as evidenced by the plethora of good applications and the relief developers experienced
when Steve Jobs confirmed that there is no App store for OS X.
With the iPhone, Apple's power dynamic in the smartphone market was different from the beginning, a difference that's magnified as the userbase of the iPhone OS grows. According to the IDC numbers quoted in this Information Week article
, Apple's share of the smartphone market has grown to 16%: a single phone with a single carrier gaining on all the market share (19%) held by several Blackberry models on several carriers. About a year ago, Nielsen estimated
that there were 6.4 million active iPhone subscribers. None of these numbers indicate a majority, but they indicate something close to a controlling plurality from a media-based developer's point of view: as a friend in the mobile gaming industry told me, if your product is an interactive mobile widget, right now you will get the most bang for your buck developing it for iPhone OS. (Please see my note below, after my reason #2 for helping with this dev camp.)
That means more power for the guardians of the iPhone app store, which is what scares journalists, and rightfully so. Between the Mark Fiore incident (Wired
) and the so-called sexual content censorship (TechCrunch
), we of Hacks & Hackers are quite aware of the problems with going to readers through an app store's bottleneck, even had Wired's Brian Chen not pointed them out back in February
. It's not dissimilar to the situation faced by comics
carried in newspaper syndication during the 20th century: any large third party between the media-maker and the media-consumer allows for the possibility of corporate censorship--and also of government censorship or social-campaign censorship carried out by corporations too willing to kowtow. Centrally controlled device-based media even allows for further chilling possibilities: retroactive censorship and the backflow of information about identities and reading habits. (After all, our local ACLU chapter
says our digital privacy laws have been far outpaced by our digital copyright laws
.) One hacker friend's immediate response to the iPad dev camp was to ask me to read Richard Stallman's 1997 dystopic tale The Right to Read
, which I now recommend too. These are all issues that journalists should be thinking about deeply, and that journalistic institutions should be taking into account as they develop major strategies.
Hacks & Hackers is all about these kinds of discussions, and the iPad censorship issue has been brought up numerous times in our informal discussion events and twitter conversations. (It came up pretty early yesterday morning at the mic: what about an app explaining these censorship issues?) When Burt told me this was the first workshop-type event he was working on, I was skeptical for exactly the reasons listed above. I'd just begun reading You Are Not A Gadget by Jaron Lanier, and I was worried that excessive devotion to developing for the iPad would lead to "lock-in" issues for the journalistic development community. Three things made me change my mind about helping:
1) Right now, the iPad is the biggest multitouch device on the market. There will hopefully be more. But if you're interested in just playing around with the cognitive possibilities of what can happen when journalism consumers kinesthetically play around with their media, this is the place to start. As a new frontier in how human beings play with information, one that unites visual and aural communication with our innate desire to pick things up and turn them around, I think it's worth exploring. And HTML5 offers the possibility of conducting explorations so that all your work isn't eternally restricted to this device. There are too many creative user-interface designers playing in this space to simply ignore it.
2) The very reason we fear the iPhone OS---its potentially strangling market grip over mobile interactive apps--is also why it's a good place to build a bridge between hacks and hackers: there are an awful lot of iPhone OS hackers, at least around here, who have put a lot of thought into making engaging mobile experiences. The talent of their community is not automatically diminished by Apple's policies. (I am even more convinced of this after meeting some of these talented developers this weekend.) There's strict
lack of access due to concrete policies and legal restrictions, and then there's fuzzy
lack of access due to opacity and difficulty of use. Apple has invested in making iPhone development feel
accessible to people who might not otherwise try to code for a mobile device, and it shows in the community that's sprung up around this operating system. Android is growing, and I dearly hope we have an Android event soon. But this is the reality: when we shopped the various Unite ideas around, iPhone OS developers seemed to bite more. Maybe we can convince them that journalism and journalistic principles are so awesome they should transition their development focus to a more open system. But that would be a much easier sell if we actually got to know them and knew what we were asking them to leave. This event gives me an opportunity to learn. (NOTE: The recent data--see this Marketwatch story
--also indicate that Android, as a platform, is edging out iPhone OS. This is why I bought an Android. But developer expertise follows market share, and right now I know more people who have worked on iPhone OS apps than who have worked on Android apps. The same mobile game building friend who told me about the iPhone OS's greater "bang for your buck" developing interactive mobile media also said he and his peers are keeping an eye on Android, and hoping to learn its ways soon. But right now the iPhone OS still seems like the easiest platform for us to run a 2 day camp that could be exciting, focused and productive.
3) Many media friends of mine
, who do cool things in media & journalism while simultaneously pondering all these deep issues, still seem to be excited about the iPad. It's a consumer device as much as a platform, and it's not going away. Why not see if there are ways to develop items in parallel, for instance? I am willing to play with these ideas for now. This dev camp gives me a chance to stay in the conversation and keep it rolling, rather than roll my eyes and leave it. Since I first drafted this note on Friday, Virginia Heffernan wrote an essay in the New York Times Magazine, comparing controlled App stores to the white flight to suburbia of the mid-centur
y, and while I don't completely agree, I do think there are some apt lessons to be drawn from the analogy. As a nation we are still suffering from the market repercussions of those large collective choices, and the crowd doesn't always realize the true power of its economic decisions. But the passion of the responses
to that essay is also a simple indication that smart and creative people will be working in the Apple app store, and I want to learn from them. Boycotting an event with iPhone OS developers would be like refusing to conduct any kind of social activism in the suburbs.
Really we just wanted to jump in and experiment with an event where we were doing something, not just talking. And yes, Maker Faire is awesome, but I've been there a bunch of times and I wanted to try something different this year. We haven't tied our necks to Steve Jobs's ball and chain. It's great to listen to the great developers I've met this weekend and the guardians of the free press at the same time. I'll be writing about how this dev camp has gone so far later today, but so far I'm glad I decided to help: there's a lot of creativity and energy here, and plenty of learning that we can carry over to other platforms.
(Note: this isn't my main site, currently, but it functions to hold a post! sahelidatta.com should be back up soon.)
Labels: app, Apple, economic power, freedom, iPad, market, media, press
Time to Move On
Blogger has been good to us, but it's time to move on. The new blog
is at www.sahelidatta.com
We've been blogging for a while there, and I think we got most of the kinks ironed out. I'll be transferring over the blog roll and updating the template here as appropriate, but in the meantime, please come and visit! Thank you!
Today is the fourth day of the bright fortnight of the month of Padmanabha
. May true good fortune be had by all the inhabitants of the Universe. . ."Every soul is related to every other soul."
If, in the course of your life, you come across true, essential goodness, my advice to you is that you snatch it up and try to slip it into your heart. It's often not easy---like bringing a bouquet of lotuses home to a vase, when you realize your only vase needs washing. I'm still washing, but ever so grateful to have seen the lotuses.
Yarrrr. It's International Talk Like a Pyrate Day. Light be running out like grog on a barnacl'd ship, so set to it, me harties! Arrrr!
I bin talking like a pyrate near three days now, and my pate be addled. With all the brethren of the coast yarrin an arrin', some landlubbers growl that we be a dark and evil tide, throwing good booty after that which be real and very, very bad. Ye olde costumed pyrate aside, sea-robbers are real, they're still around
, and and nice they ain't
. So whence all this arrrrdor?
Any time ye be aiming for fancy britches and sword play and corsets, all hornpiped to history-like, ye be ignorin' problems with luck and morrrality. God'fearrin' pyrates from the Golden Age might have been right cruel sea-dogs, but so were the better dressed and better lettered Red Coats, Conquistadors, East India Company Men, and assorted other fortune-hunters who chased 'em this way, and stole their tricks that way. Even fancy land-lubbin Knights dined by common folk slavin'. I be sounding like a cheap scurvy dog, but there's a bit of truth in me excuses--those legal sailors were as often not dragged to the seas 'gainst any liking, see that yarn by Cap'n Melville, Billy Budd
. One man's pirate or mutineer is anothers' freedom fighting slave, as be found in Benito Cereno
. If the established legal crown are just sponsors of pirates themselves, what's wrong with being a pirate for yourself? Live free and die fighting be an old and true part of the Code.
Talking like pyrate doesn't mean killing like one, and there be new means to live free and die fighting. Leave out the plank walking and the keelhauling, I'll take the stomping and the hornpiping and the free range of britches. If there be warriors for peace, there be pirates for right heartiness, and let a bit o' blinnnnnng and arrrrin' remind ye there be treasure in freedom.
From Unfogged: Pyrate Alphabet
via Lizardbreath. From Daphne: Pyrate Law
Yarrrr! Harr Harr, Yaar!
Tomorrow be talk like a pyrate day, and if ye be addlepated, scurvy dogs, I'll lend ye timbered visions to bring about the groggy voice. Avast and watch! Link from Michelle
. Apologies to PowerPoint Bilge Rats.
Of Blogs and Bridges
The blogosphere can, in fact, occasionally get stuff done, and the proof was on Saturday.
My friend Steven met me because he read my blog. He's also a journalist, and when he came home to the Bay Area, he asked me if I wanted to meet up. We hit it off, not only with each other, but with each other's friends, and now we work mere blocks away from each other and meet up for coffee and collegial griping. We possibly would have met eventually, since many of his classmates have worked with me, but instead of being passing acquaintances, we've become good friends.
Steven's girlfriend Katie works at a spunky, ambitious charter school in Oakland, KIPP Bridge College Prep School
. It has slowly been moving into an old building that previously belonged to Lowell Middle School, finally getting the whole building this school year. They didn't have any janitorial service until very recently, so the teachers had to clean the classrooms themselves--on top of a grueling work schedule. (KIPP schools have very long days, and teachers carry cell phones so their students can call them for help after school and on the weekends.) Steven felt bad that no one had time to wash the school's windows, which were covered in cobwebs, and that the library was unusable because it was overflowing with old textbooks and dust. The teachers have had a slow time clearing it out on top of all their other duties. Since I'm an East Bayer he asked me if I'd be interested in helping them do a little cleaning, and maybe my friends . . .?
I put out an email request. A couple of the usual suspects you know answered--Scotto and Emily Cooper and EChan--as well as another friend Emily. Let us say these were the friends I have in "real life." That's a pretty good gathering. But from blogospheric-friendland I also got replies from Robin of Snarkmarket
, and Salil, a fellow commenting Sepia Mutineer
. Again, like Steven--perhaps I would have met these guys anyway, but probably not. And their enthusiastic email replies were the tipping factor that made me think that yes, this was going to happen.
Several flurries of email later, we met up on Saturday afternoon. Steven brought three of his friends. We boxed shelves and shelves worth of old text books up, clearing space in the warehouse so that the library itself can be cleared out and made clean and organized so children can go look for knowledge and stories and have a nice place to do their work. There's a lot of work left, but I think we made a sizable dent. Windows were cleaned, both from the inside and outside. Salil and Steven's friend Joel were quite a sight, standing on the roof of a walkway, hosing off cobwebs and grime, uncomplaining about the fact that they were soaking themselves wet, despite the cold. The Emilies applied their eyes for detai
l and organizational
skills. EChan boxed up copies of the U.S. Constitution study guides. Robin and I rebonded over library memories like D'Aulaire's Book of Greek Myths
. Steven's friends Sue and Ashanti brought bagels. Scotto kept everything safe
. (Not trivial with huge boxes of books--at one point he had to come and unpin me and EChan.) We worked pretty solidly for four or five hours with music and snacks. There's still a lot of work to be done, and I'm not sure if, when, or how it will get done. But I do think we helped. It's really wonderful to have friends who are willing to party with me like that.
The whole thing gave me a lot of food for thought on the whole subject of our public school system and the way our communities and our age group interact with that system. It'll be many years before I have school age children, and now I think I'm going to need all of them to do my bit for the school system. There's a lot to say and think about that, and I'll try to later. But for now I'm glad that we put aside the saying and thinking and did more of the doing. I was raised with the belief that unselfish hard work is life's greatest joy, and while I usually feel about as far away from that ideal as from the stars, every now and then I brush against it and feel its truth.
I want to emphasize how simple this was. All you need to do is have a friend who is a teacher at a school in need, a Saturday afternoon, and some other friends, and less coordination then you would put into a BBQ. Try it! It's a huge amount of fun.
Building 253 after the rains
My colleague Telstar Logistics, editor and flickr maestro extrordinaire, has been documenting the abandoned military bases of the Bay Area. I thought this photo was really lovely, even without considerations of context and history---the plate glass, the shimmering reflection, the colors and contrasts, the composition. Here's a black and white postcard of the same building in its engineering heydey
Why have terrorists not struck the US since 9-11?
In the current issue of Foreign Affairs
, Prof. John Mueller of Ohio State poses the obvious yet apparently subversive question is there still a terrorist threat?
He points out, quite reasonably, that despite how easy it would be to terrorize the US population with, say, a single sniper rifle
, we have not seen a single domestic terror attack since 9-11. His suggestion is that despite the rhetoric of the Bush Administration, al Qaeda is not the omnipresent danger that we've been led to believe -- that they are far less competent, coordinated, and threatening than Code Orange
would have us think.
This is an important question, and I wish somebody (i.e., the Democrats) would stand up and ask Bush why this is the case. Does the White House honestly believe that US efforts to seal the borders against terrorists and track down sleeper cells have been 100% effective? That despite the tons of illegal drugs entering this country every day, aQ has been prevented from sneaking in a suicide bomber or two to blow up a suburban shopping mall or a Starbucks? We've also heard the theory that aQ is "biding its time" for something Really Big. But it's hard to buy this as an explanation, since bide too long and you risk losing the attention, and the fear, of the American public.
I'm not convinced that Mueller is right, or that as a consequence of his arguments we should forget about the whole anti-terror campaign. Certainly we face threats, as was clear from the disruption of the UK airplane plot several weeks ago. But I do think we should ask why Americans should have their phone calls spied on and their library records secretly seized when the evidence for a clear and present domestic danger is thin indeed. Maybe the emperor has no clothes after all.
The Right to Travel
I don't normally reblog stuff from Sepia Mutiny, since they have a larger and more focused audience, but this is too important and too general to ignore. Siddhartha brings our attention
to the news that the United States has denied re- entry to two American citizens--one naturalized and one-native born--unless they first agree to be interrogated by the FBI abroad without a lawyer and take a polygraph test. They have not been charged with any crime. From the New York Times article by Randal Archibald
In Hong Kong, Ms. Mass said, they were told there was a problem with their passports; other family members traveled on to California, while the Ismails returned to Pakistan. There, a consular officer suggested there had been a mix-up and advised them to book a direct flight to the United States, but at the airport, they were told they were on the no-fly list, she said.
Jaber Ismail, who was born in the United States, was questioned by the F.B.I. at the American Embassy in Islamabad, but his father, a naturalized United States citizen from Pakistan, declined to participate, Ms. Mass said. Jaber Ismail has refused further interrogation without a lawyer and has declined to take a polygraph test; Ms. Mass said the men were told these conditions had to be met before the authorities would consider letting them back into the United States.
The San Francisco Chronicle's Demian Bulwa
appears to have broken the story, and here is more coverage from Reuters
and the Stockton Record
. Ms. Mass is a lawyer with the ACLU
As you can tell, these two American citizens are Pakistani-American. They are from Lodi, and are also related to Hamid Hayat, the 23-year old Lodi resident who was convicted of supporting terrorists earlier this year. They have apparently been in Pakistan for more than four years. It would not be surprising if the FBI had a good reason to want to question them.
But let us not forget that the FBI has a long and storied past of using its powers unjustly. Let us not forget the right to counsel in the Sixth Amendment, or that Habeas Corpus cannot be suspended for a citizen. The FBI could arrest them, handcuff them, and bring them home to be questioned in the presence of a lawyer. Instead it is treating them like foreigners and convicted criminals.
In some sense the specifics of the case are irrelevant to general discussion. If they are guilty, or dangerous, there are constitutional ways of dealing with that. What is relevant is this: two American citizens are being prevented from coming home except on condition of giving up the very rights of their citizenship. They are being deprived of liberty without trial or even accusation. There are two interpretations of this.
Either all American citizens now forfeit their rights by traveling. Or these two are not really considered American citizens.
The former is a disastrous attack on our liberty. And the latter is a disastrous attack on our citizenry. Please don't ignore it. Please support the ACLU.
Well, I knew it. It turns out that mice sing
, probably to attract mates. Timothy Holy and Zhongsheng Guo of Wash U. in St. Louis put male mice in a teeny tiny sound booth
along with cotton swabs soaked in (presumably hot) female mouse urine. The little hombres started crooning away, at ultrasonic frequencies, of course, and their songs show surprising structure. You can hear slowed-down recordings fit for human ears (ladies, don't get excited now) here
, although I'm told that this is best done with cats in the room since it drives them absolutely bonkers.
What not to do with LN2 dewars
In case you missed it,
LeConte Hall at Cal had some liquid nitrogen excitement a week ago, as reported by Arcane Gazebo
. Remember, don't take large dewars down stairs, and don't leave undergrads unattended for too long at a time ...
This is great: as the Washington Post reports today
, North America will be represented in the World Elephant Polo Association
tournament next month in Thailand by a team from the DC area. Of course, the DC team's elephant stable numbers exactly zero, and they practice by standing on a playset in somebody's backyard that's roughly elephant-height. But they have two advantages: enthusiasm, and the fact that they're probably the only elephant polo team in our hemisphere. The article contains such gems as a description of elephant polo by the Thai Elephant Polo Association president: It creates a fantastic adrenaline rush, and elephants enjoy it, as their natural instinct is to thrive in a herd environment. There is a lot of lively banter and much discussion of the rules. Elephants are, for example, not allowed to lie down in the goal mouth.
Our valiant team will face stiff competition, and if things go well they may go up against the feared Scottish team, led by the Duke of Argyll, who are the current champions. Having ridden elephants once or twice, I can't really imagine doing anything other than trying to stay on the top side rather than the bottom. But maybe things get easier after a nip or two of Chivas Regal, the official sponsor of the World Elephant Polo Association (WEPA).
Of course, the DC team is not the first American elephant polo team. In 2000, the WEPA Amateur Chivas Regal Quaiche (look it up) Cup (yes, it's redundant) was won by
Eldorado USA, from Palm Springs, and the runner up was the Screwy Tuskers, also Americans. And in case you were confused, there are indeed two people on each elephant, the player and the mahout, who actually does the driving.