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angry penguin


Scritturare (engage)

Brian Alleyne's weblog on culture, politics, and technology

Dropping out of the gadget upgrade race
angry penguin

Not sure when or why, but I’ve lost my enthusiasm for new gadgets. Quite something for a person who was labelled as ‘homo gadgetus’ by his best mate.  Might be because I don’t really like touch screens. I tried an ipad a few months ago and recoiled at the feel of the slick shiny screen (had the same reaction when I tired an iphone). Found the large icons ugly. But the real problem is that I could not get under the hood. Apple products seem like closed worlds to me. And that is the problem. My wanting to go under the hood is very last century, as is my attachment to physical keys.

The writing may have been some time on the wall. To the surprise of many of my hacker geek friends, I am a regular user of Windows. I actually like Windows 7. Despite also using Linux, I run a Windows 7 laptop for its stability. Yes. Stability. In the past two years I have re-installed Linux dozens of times and had various sub systems fail. In that same period I had  one Windows 7 crash, in 19 months. NO viruses. Becoming comfortable with Microsoft technologies is a sign of losing one’s tech edge, I was told.

Was I losing my edge? I have been in computing since 1982. I am an expert user. I have worked on every personal computer platform and can read and write code. Maybe after 28 years the thrill is gone. I still love Linux as a political movement and the technology is fantastic, but when I want to get some work done, I reach for the Windows lappie. And so  it slowly dawned on me that I was no longer on the tech cutting edge. That was reinforced when I realised that I had no interest in what Apple have been  up to in recent years. I ran OS X for a year,  then went back to Windows and Linux. The iphone and ipad leave me cold. Its great that Apple made complex technology so accessible, but what I love about technology is its very complexity. I DON’T want my gadgets simplified too much.

Nothing symbolised my dropping out of the tech race so much as when I went in to renew my Vodafone mobile contract last week. As a long standing customer I had a good upgrade discount, so I could have any phone I wanted on my existing tariff: an iphone 4s or the latest Samsung Galaxy with android (used Blackberry for a year and not going back there). I have a serviceable Nokia N900 running Linux – the perfect geek phone, but it is a bit battered so it was time to upgrade.

The helpful bloke in Carphone Warehouse was shocked that a person who could afford the latest iphone did not want one; how about the  top of the line android then? I refused that too. The atmosphere became a bit strained. There was a frisson of disapproval from people behind me in the queue. The salesperson then took on a patronising tone and started talking to me as if I were ignorant, so I had to set him straight (ALMOST told him that my knowledge of mobile tech was greater than his and that I’d been working as  a programmer when he was probably still in nappies, but held my tongue).

In the end  I went for the newest Nokia running Windows phone 7.5 Mango. Sadly a touch screen, but very different from the visual style of apple and android. NOT cutting edge, no member of the hipnorati would be seen out and about with  such a phone. Stuff the hipnorati, I thought.

In making that choice I was fatally, but knowingly,  damaging my credentials as a member of the technorati. But I didn’t care. Not at all. I wanted a phone that would play well with my Windows 7 laptop. For the first time in many many years, I had refused to go for a cutting edge technology. Oh well. I am middle aged. I’ll leave the gadget race to others. I’m out of here.

Decline of the West (a very personal reflection)
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My father was an ex-colonial nationalist. In the  late 1950s and early 1960s, before I was born, I gather that he took a decision to stake a claim to the soon to be independent nation sate of Trinidad Tobago. In this he was very much at odds with his own siblings, and indeed those of my mother, all of whom saw the coming independence of Trinidad as a plot by the British to rid themselves of the problem of acceding to full political rights for the people of the islands. While my parents stayed on, their siblings all left for England, and never returned to live in the island. Most never even had Trinidadian passports, since they left while the island was still a British colony.

I have always wondered about that decision on my father’s part. About his belief in the emergence of new nations in the aftermath of colonialism. He had hope. He died in 1978, when I  was 13,  so I never had the chance to talk fully  about these issues with him. What would he have made of my own decision to settle in the UK, I wonder?

I grew up hearing a great deal about Fanon, and Mao, and Castro, of course. One of my most enduring memories of childhood was being taken by my father to see an exhibition, organised  by Communist China, that toured the Caribbean and central America, around 1974 or ‘75. I remember my dad admiring some Chinese-made  tractors. He said to me and my brothers: “The British and Americans will never admit that the Chinese can compete in industry. But one day China will overtake them.  We in the Caribbean should be aligned with China.”

After all of these years I smile at that memory. My dad would have had a great deal to say about China being asked to bail out the rich and powerful West.

Egypt - a cautionary note
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As I write, it seems the Egyptian military are trying to clear the square that has been the centre of the popular uprising; and they are going to dissolve the parliament. This is a worrying, but not unexpected development. Anyone with an ounce of democratic spirit could not have failed to be moved by the events of the past weeks in Egypt and Tunisia. Many of us hope to see the obnoxious regimes in places like Saudi Arabia come under pressure next. But in the cold light of day, we MUST all realise that the overthrow of a dictator is only the first in many steps required to buuild a democratic and economically just society. In the case of Egypt it is by no means clear what will happen next.

Egypt is facing a titanic economic crisis. With a population of 85 million, much of it young, a poorly managed economy run by a decrepit regime, and low human development index, it will require much more than change at the top for Egypt to meet the basic human needs and aspirations of all its people. By way of comparison, consider that more than two decades separate the Braizil of the dictators from the promising country it is today - an indication of the mountain the Egyptians have still to climb. Over the next five to ten years, resources will have to be found to invest in basic housing and infrastructure, to modernise agriculture, to upgrade the entire education system and to address pressing environmental issues. At the same time the political system must be reinvented and a secure basis laid for a pluralist democratic civil society. It is extremely unlikely that some cobbled together government of present or former military chiefs can archive much if indeed any of this.

People in Egypt and those of us watching are swept up in the euphoria of popular power. But popular power is futile without a clear political programme and the means to carry it thorough. Political democracy has always had complex linkages to economic development, and both have had tenuous linkages to improving general human welfare. Can Egypt find a way to juggle all of these? We shall see.

Nokia workers walkout in protest at deal with microsoft - Wow!
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Nokia workers walk out in protest after Microsoft news – Cell Phones & Mobile Device Technology News & Updates | Geek.com

So the fallout from the Microsoft bomb continues. I think we have not seen the last of this. The new Nokia CEO does not understand how important Nokia is to Finns ... this could get VERY INTERESTING ...  I predict a spin-off worker owned company that will seek to keep Symbian and Meego going ... maybe in conjunction with a Chinese white box manufacturer.

Sad day for Finnish and British geeks
angry penguin

A bomb dropped in the European geek world today. Nokia announced that it was moving it's phones to Windows Phone 7. In the process, Nokia would be winding down development work on Symbian software. Okay, not many people know or care what Symbian software is, but here goes.

At the beginning of 2010, Nokia, with Symbian software in its smartphones, had a combined market share equal to that of Apple, Blackberry and Google's Android combined, as reported on Allaboutsymbian.com.

Just a few weeks ago it was reported, wrongly it turned out, that Android had just overtaken Symbian in the market. Symbian was the offshoot of a software system called EPOC32 that was built to power the last generation of Psion handlheld computers.

Psion was the plucky little UK high tech firm that for a few years looked set to challenge Microsoft and Palm in the handlebar market. Then with the Tech crunch of 2001, Psion threw in the towel. But the software was spun off into a firm called Symbian, with Psion, Nokia, Ericsson and Motorola, and Sharp as shareholders. Psion sold its shareholding, Nokia bought out most of the other firms and Symbian's software grew to be the most widely used operating system software on the planet. Of relevance here is that Symbian was a London firm, with some development work taking place in Cambridge.

Nokia's Symbian powered phones peaked in 2007 with the revolutionary N95, then the world's most converged smartphone. In that very same year the first iphone was launched, to mixed acclaim and derision by geeks, especially European geeks for whom Nokia and Symbian was a European technology champion. In retrospect it was from that point on that things went downhill for Nokia. They failed to match the touch screen innovation of Apple; they failed to respond to Google's android. Then Nokia foolishly got swept up in open source euphoria and wasted time and energy open sourcing Symbian software. Though it was one of the largest software opening exercises exercise ever, it was a spectacular failure: the Symbian Foundation lost most of its big corporate members within a year of its starting up: Motorola, Samsung and Sony Ericsson departing for Google's android. Nokia, through the Symbian Foundation, had thrown a massive open source party and no-one came. In late 2010 the Symbian Foundation was closed, and Nokia again took overall control of the Symbian software.

Nokia continued to sell more phones that most of their competitors combined, but mostly in markets outside the US. The US had, unusually from their perspective of presumed technological leadership, fallen behind in the smartphone race , so with the rise of the iphone and android, US tech journalists were quick to exact their revenge for years of being told by the European tech media that the US was a backward market in mobile communications(which is in some key respects, true). Unfortunately for Nokia, the US tech press exercises an influence out of all proportion to the actual size of the US market for smartphones. Having been slow to respond to the Silicon Valley challenge, Nokia's latest lineup of touch screen smartphones were roundly dismissed by the US tech media. Some European based commentators took offence as what they saw as US arrogance; a transatlantic row in the smartphone mug was brewing.

Even through the figures on which the 2010 Android takeover turned out to be wrong, Nokia were now in full panic mode, with their shares falling, and being squeezed on one side by the iphone and on the other by a tide of Google Android phone produced in East Asia. The Nokia board fired their Finnish CEO. The new Nokia CEO, an ex-Microsoft man, just two days ago described Nokia as sitting on a 'burning platform'. Friday 11 February was set as the day for a major strategy announcement.

Over the past 48 hours the smartphone blogoshpere has been abuzz with rumours. Most commentators agreed on one thing: that Nokia would not decide to adopt Microsoft software for their smartphones. Many felt that Nokia just had to polish the interface of Symbian and get more new products to market faster, while also pushing out high-end devices based on the a slick adaptation of the Linux operating system by a small team within Nokia.

CEO Steve Elop's announcement of a Nokia-Microsoft alliance today called a halt to the speculation. For many of the geeks on this side of the Atlantic, Nokia had made a catastrophic move in going with Microsoft, and in so doing had betrayed European hopes for an indigenous presence in the new world of net connected smartphones and tablets.

The pain and anger expressed in the Symbian blogoshpere are palpable, as on Allaboutsymbian and respected industry analyst Tomi Ahonen's blog. And while I sympathise, as someone who used Psions and liked and still use Nokia phones, the geeks need to realise that information technology has long been transnational: it just so happens that the present centre of gravity of the global IT industry is Silicon Valley. The bruised Finns and Brits need to move on, hard though it seems now. There will be no European champion in the smartphone business.

The Financial Sector has not failed. And here is why …
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The recent Merlin Deal here the  UK saw the banks agree to lend large sums of money to businesses. They made some concessions on high-level executive pay. And they will pay a bit more taxes. George Osborne called for an ‘end to retribution’ and for a move to ‘recovery’. But there was no retribution. Public anger yes, but no retribution. You see, the banks did not fail. They played the major role in exacerbating the financial crisis. They certainly dodged a bullet. But fail they did not.

Name any other sector of a modern economy in which wealth destruction on the scale of the financial crisis (over USD $11000 billion) could have happened, and which would be met by a socialisation of the costs, and ritualistic pruning of a few top figures. Difficult, eh?  So the banks have succeeded in the sense of making massive errors with titanic consequences, and having to pay no price for their mistakes. If that is not success, then I do not know what is.

The Human Economy: a book for our times
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It is difficult to have  hope in these times. Having seen over a decade of privatised wealth turn into socialised misery in the wake of the financial crisis, it is easy to see why Finance is so out of favour with many people.Most of us now see that here is urgent need to reinvent economics. A key resource in that reinvention is the The Human Economy, edited by Keith Hart, Jean-Louis Laville, and Antonio David Cattani.

“The human economy is not a dream. It exists theoretically and practically, but it has been obscured by the economic models and approaches that dominate the media and universities.”

It is nothing short of radical manifesto for an economy fit for human beings. All human beings. It is such an important text that I feel it requires a multipart review, which I will be posting here  over the next three weeks. By all means go out and buy a copy, but in the meantime, here is Hart’s overview.

Hardware hacking: a route out of poverty in Africa
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As part of my on-going research into hacker culture, I have come across a very interesting website that documents ways in which people in Africa are inventing and adapting technology to solve the problems they face: http://www.afrigadget.com.

Toy Remote Controlled Car made from recycled materials – Cameroon.

The situation is grim: life expectancy in much of Africa is twenty years lower than the norm for rich countries. And perhaps most telling of all, is that most of the Millenium Development goals articulated in 2000, will not be achieved by the 2015 target. The reasons for this are many: the global economic crisis and continued political instability on the content are two that come most readily to mind. In the main, the rich world has failed to live up to their promises.

Africa needs  help, and that help is less than often thought, as economist Jeffrey Sachs has shown. But entrenched ideas of African backwardness, underpinned by residual racism, mean that Africans are generally portrayed in the West as either mendicants, or as the authors of their own tragic circumstances. Revolution in thought and action saw the Western elites of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries come to understand that they share the nation-state with masses who must be uplifted in order for the whole nation to  make peaceful progress. We need such a revolution now, but on a global scale, as anthropologist Keith Hart has argued. We all have to see ourselves as part of a global humanity engaged in a collective project to improve the human condition, which must leave no one behind. Communitarian thinking based on out-dated notions of  nation and ethnicity is a barrier to achieving this and must be swept away. The refusal to see Africans as part of a global humanity is thus to be condemned, but changing that perception will require time. Meanwhile thousands of children will continue to die on that continent due to lack of adequate food and shelter and from easily preventable diseases.

In this context I see hope in the emergence of a hacking culture in Africa, where local people adapt technologies in ways that suit their circumstances and that meet their needs. Out of  this there will emerge indigenous technologically-based industry in Africa, from which economic growth will surely follow. Sach’s Millennium Village projects, and the work highlighted on Afrigadget point the way forward.

Ten Years of Wikipedia and Open Culture
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In the ten years since the launch of Wikipedia, the online open encyclopaedia that is now one of the world’s most consulted sources of information, we have seen major shifts in how  knowledge is produced and circulated. The key to these shifts is openness: open source software, open content, and open culture.

In almost every society on the planet there are calls for greater openness in government, more increased access to electronic databases, and for more access to the means of communication itself. Systems of copyright that have protected individual expression for more than a century are being challenged or ignored altogether, especially by the generation of 'digital natives' natives, those born since the middle 1990s. Digital natives see little point in paying for access to many kinds of digital goods, and this creates a headache for the multinational corporations that produce these goods, but also for individual authors and artists. We are in the throes of an information revolution.

Two developments kick-started all of this: the spread of affordable computers and internet access; and growth of open source software. We are nearing the point where 2 billion people will have access to the Internet, even if as in the poorest countries it is only through a basic mobile phone. Rapidly expanding net access set the scene for the opening up of global culture and communication, of which Wikipedia is a prime example.

Open source software may be used, distributed and modified without restriction, provided that these freedoms are preserved for others. It is usually free of charge. This software has surprising roots. The Internet, originally designed to allow US military communications to survive nuclear attack, was adopted in the late 1960s by academic researchers, first in the US and then eventually world-wide, who used it to share software and data. Out of this the open source hacker culture emerged, and it grew into today’s global community of millions of programmers, writers, and artists, working collectively, and usually for free, on countless software projects, which are then made freely available to users.

Wikipedia itself grew out of its founders’ dreams to produce an encyclopaedia that would be open to anyone’s contribution and which would be freely accessible over the Internet. The project has been spectacularly successful, though not without its controversies, but then we are still in the infant stages of building global scale collaborative projects. Whatever the bumps along the way, Wikipedia’s success assures us that the future will be Open.

Community: what does it mean today?
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I am working on a new article, “Realizing Community in Software Projects”. What prompted my interest in this topic is the pervasive talk of community in our digital world: Facebook, Twitter, Linux, and strangely, in new business models that seek to mobilise, and monetize, ‘community’. As an ethnographer, I am fascinated by all this talk of community. But I am also sceptical, especially when I read of business models based on community. In Free and Open Source Software, there has been considerable thought and action around building communities, and sometimes I get the impression that community building is just a precursor to assemble a large group of potential customers, to whom a product will be sold at a later stage. Putting cynicism to one side for moment, what if there was something here? So I have set out to render a sociological account of community in our networked world.

Fortunately I do not have to start from scratch: some years ago I wrote a paper on ideas of community, which has been cited by several other researchers, sometimes in contexts that I would not have imagined when I was writing the paper. A good development I guess. My target in that paper was to examine the idea of ethnic community, as it is used in official and popular discourse in Britain. I came to the conclusion that ‘community’ was often used a a way of containing complexity and simplifying difference. A rather negative reading, in hindsight.

As a start, I am revisiting literature on community that I read when I was a research student in anthropology. In parallel, I am looking at some recent work on community building, especially the book by Jono Bacon, who is a  Software evangelist and hacker, and the Ubuntu Community Manager; his book is called  ‘The Art of Community’. I am finding Bacon’s book a strange read, mainly because of his hostility to what he calls  ‘theory’, by which I understand him to refer to the kind of work that we do in sociology and anthropology.  But, I am determined not to take offence, and indeed, I find that he has an excellent set of practices on how to build an open and democratic community around a project, be that project software or otherwise.