errorsandexceptions

Code, etc.

Conway’s Game of Life in Java

This morning I was looking at Wikipedia pages about cellular automata and I got an urge to implement Conway’s Game of Life as a Java exercise. This is what I came up with. It generates a random matrix for the starting position that then iteratively evolves in accordance with the Rules of the Game.

package Conway;

import java.awt.*;
import javax.swing.*;
import java.util.*;
import java.util.Timer;

public class GameOfLife extends Canvas {
	
	private static final long serialVersionUID = 1L;
	
	int[][] arena = new int[200][200];
	int[][] newArena = new int[200][200];
	
	public GameOfLife() {
		Random rand = new Random();
		for (int i=0; i<200; i++) {
			for (int j=0; j<200; j++) {
				arena[i][j] = rand.nextInt(2);
			}
		}
	}
	
	public void paint(Graphics graphics) {
		for (int i=0; i<200; i++) {
			for (int j=0; j<200; j++) {
				if (arena[i][j] == 1) {
					int vPos = i * 4;
					int hPos = j * 4;
					
					graphics.fillRect(hPos, vPos, 4, 4);
				}
			}
		}
	}
	
	public void LifeLoop() {
		Timer timer = new Timer();
		timer.scheduleAtFixedRate(new NextIter(),2000, 500);
	}
	
	class NextIter extends TimerTask {
		public void run() {
			int square1;
			int square2;
			int square3;
			int square4;
			int square5;
			int square6;
			int square7;
			int square8;
			int neighbours;
			
			for (int i=0; i<200; i++) {
				for (int j=0; j<200; j++) {
					
					//Get the eight adjacent squares
					try {
						square1 = arena[i-1][j-1];
					}
					catch (ArrayIndexOutOfBoundsException e) {
						square1 = 0;
					}
					
					try {
						square2 = arena[i-1][j];
					}
					catch (ArrayIndexOutOfBoundsException e) {
						square2 = 0;
					}
					
					try {
						square3 = arena[i-1][j+1];
					}
					catch (ArrayIndexOutOfBoundsException e) {
						square3 = 0;
					}
					
					try {
						square4 = arena[i][j+1];
					}
					catch (ArrayIndexOutOfBoundsException e) {
						square4 = 0;
					}
					
					try {
						square5 = arena[i+1][j+1];
					}
					catch (ArrayIndexOutOfBoundsException e) {
						square5 = 0;
					}
					
					try {
						square6 = arena[i+1][j];
					}
					catch (ArrayIndexOutOfBoundsException e) {
						square6 = 0;
					}
					
					try {
						square7 = arena[i+1][j-1];
					}
					catch (ArrayIndexOutOfBoundsException e) {
						square7 = 0;
					}
					
					try {
						square8 = arena[i][j-1];
					}
					catch (ArrayIndexOutOfBoundsException e) {
						square8 = 0;
					}
					
					neighbours = square1 + square2 + square3 + 
						square4 + square5 + square6 + square7 + square8;
					
					if (arena[i][j] == 1 & (neighbours == 2 | neighbours == 3)) {
						newArena[i][j] = 1;
					}
					
					else if (arena[i][j] == 0 & neighbours == 3) {
						newArena[i][j] = 1;
					}
					
					else {
						newArena[i][j] = 0;
					}
				}
			}
			
			for (int i=0; i<200; i++) {
				for (int j=0; j<200; j++) {
					arena[i][j] = newArena[i][j];
				}
			}
			
			repaint();
		}
	}
	
	public static void main(String[] args) {
		GameOfLife canvas = new GameOfLife();
		JFrame frame = new JFrame();
		frame.setTitle("Conway's Bestiary");
		frame.setSize(816, 838);
		frame.setDefaultCloseOperation(JFrame.EXIT_ON_CLOSE);
		frame.getContentPane().add(canvas);
		frame.setVisible(true);
		
		canvas.LifeLoop();
	}
}
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Quicksort and Mergesort in Python

I wrote these small implementations of the quicksort and mergesort algorithms in Python. They take a list of numbers and return it sorted from lowest to highest. The WordPress code tags behave very strangely.

Here is Quicksort:

# Sorting a List using Quicksort in Python
# 2011-05-16

def quickSort(toSort):
	if len(toSort) <= 1:
		return toSort

	end = len(toSort) - 1
	pivot = toSort[end]

	low = []
	high = []

	for num in toSort[:end]:
		if num <= pivot:
			low.append(num)
		else:
			high.append(num)

	sortedList = quickSort(low)
	sortedList.append(pivot)
	sortedList.extend(quickSort(high))

	return sortedList

def main():
	l = [1, 6, 7, 2, 76, 45, 23, 4, 8, 12, 11]
	sortedList = quickSort(l)
	print sortedList

if __name__ == '__main__':
	main()

And Mergesort:

# Sorting a List using Mergesort in Python
# 2011-05-16

def mergeSort(toSort):
	if len(toSort) <= 1:
		return toSort

	mIndex = len(toSort) / 2
	left = mergeSort(toSort[:mIndex])
	right = mergeSort(toSort[mIndex:])

	result = []
	while len(left) > 0 and len(right) > 0:
		if left[0] > right[0]:	
			result.append(right.pop(0))
		else:
			result.append(left.pop(0))

	if len(left) > 0:
		result.extend(mergeSort(left))
	else:
		result.extend(mergeSort(right))

	return result

def main():
	l = [1, 6, 7, 2, 76, 45, 23, 4, 8, 12, 11]
	sortedList = mergeSort(l)
	print sortedList

if __name__ == '__main__':
	main()

Why I Deleted My Facebook Account

On February 22, 2011 I deleted my Facebook account. Or rather, I deactivated it. They really don’t want you to delete it, you see. You need to deactivate it first and then ask their magnanimous staff to schedule it for deletion. Then you have to wait for two weeks, during which time your account will be reactivated if you log back in.

I had been thinking about doing it for a while, but, to be honest, I didn’t have the balls. I was worried that deleting it would spell the end of my social life, such as it is, and turn me into a hermit. This was obviously ridiculous. Did people not socialize before Facebook? Would shutting down just one of the many avenues of interaction with others really have that drastic an effect? When I eventually deleted it, I felt like Sisyphus reprieved. This essay is an attempt to explain the reasoning that led me to my decision.

Firstly, I had concerns about privacy. This is probably the issue that receives the most attention, although it is by no means the only issue. Mark Zuckerberg has shown himself willing to abuse the trust that Facebook users have placed in him on more than one occasion. The following extract from an IM conversation between the 19 year old Facebook founder and an (erstwhile?) friend presage the abuses we have come to expect.

Zuck: Yeah so if you ever need info about anyone at Harvard

Zuck: Just ask.

Zuck: I have over 4,000 emails, pictures, addresses, SNS

[Redacted Friend’s Name]: What? How’d you manage that one?

Zuck: People just submitted it.

Zuck: I don’t know why.

Zuck: They “trust me”

Zuck: Dumb fucks.

Facebook has attempted to spin the contents of this chat log as youthful indiscrection and bravado, but more recent actions suggest a continuity in his thinking about privacy right up to the present. One could be in little doubt, after the contempt he showed for all of us with the December 2009 revision of Facebook’s privacy policy, that their current helmsman and the author of the instant messages are reading from the same page with regard to users’ personal information. The effect of the revision was to make certain user data public by default with, in some cases, no option to hide them. At the time the change elicited criticism from the American Civil Liberties Union and Electronic Privacy Information Center, who filed a complaint with the FCC in relation to it.

Zuckerberg’s attempts to justify his stance on privacy have required a certain amount of mental gymnastics. In an interview with Techcrunch’s Mike Arrington, he said the following:

A lot of companies would be trapped by the conventions and their legacies of what they’ve built, doing a privacy change – doing a privacy change for 350 million users is not the kind of thing that a lot of companies would do. But we viewed that as a really important thing, to always keep a beginner’s mind and what would we do if we were starting the company now and we decided that these would be the social norms now and we just went for it.

I really don’t know where to start with this. It’s all very well to defy conventions and legacies, and to do so with a “beginner’s mind,” when doing so has positive results. Zen musings aside, certain conventions and legacies are valuable. The keeping of promises made (in however implicit and non-binding a manner) to millions of users is a convention that really should not be discarded. Here’s another attempt to spin the issue by Facebook’s COO, Sheryl Sandberg:

Mark really does believe very much in transparency and the vision of an open society and open world, and so he wants to push people that way. I think he also understands that the way to get there is to give people granular control and comfort. He hopes you’ll get more open, and he’s kind of happy to help you get there. So for him, it’s more of a means to an end. For me, I’m not as sure.

I fail to see what making the consumer preferences of hundreds of millions of private citizens available to the world of business has to do with promoting the ends of transparency and an open society. Either Mark (I’m sure he won’t mind if I call him Mark. He is the champion of openness after all.) has got the wrong end of the stick and doesn’t grasp that it is institutional and governmental transparency that is required for an open society, or this is just another attempt to bamboozle us.

Let us be charitable for a moment and assume that he does in fact believe the Open Society schtick. Is erosion of the privacy of individuals not contrary to the ends he professes to support? Institutional transparency is a laudable goal, but it is not served by enforcing the disclosure of personal information on the internet in a way the facilitates surveillance and indexing by marketers and governments. This is not a double standard. There is no irony or hypocrisy in desiring transparency for institutions and privacy for individuals. The reason why is very simple: institutions and governments are strong and require scrutiny; individuals are weak and require protection. Mistrust in the ability of institutions to ethically dispose of the power given to them by individuals is the reason for the checks and balances included in the constitution of all modern governments.

Let’s leave aside the privacy concerns. They have been done to death. My second concern is about the effect Facebook has on social relations. In the past, distance and forgetfulness set a limit to the endurance of casual ties between people. Facebook has overturned this natural and desirable limit by becoming a surrogate social memory subject to no organic process of forgetting.

Nietzsche, of course, has dealt with the necessity of forgetfulness in his Untimely Meditation on the cow grazing in the field:

Consider the cows, grazing as you pass by; they do not know what is meant by yesterday or today, they move about, they eat, rest, digest, move about again, and so from morning until night and from day to day, fettered to the moment and its pleasure or displeasure, and thus neither melancholy nor bored.

This is a hard sight for man to see; for he thinks himself better than the animals because he is human, he cannot help envying them their happiness – what they have, a life neither bored nor painful, is precisely what he wants, yet he cannot have it because he refuses to be like an animal.

A human being may well ask the animal: “Why do you not speak to me of your happiness but only stand and gaze at me?” The animal would like to answer, and say, “The reason is I always forget what I was going to say” – but then he forgets that answer too, and stays silent, so that the human being is left wondering.

It has been said that progress is the multiplication of tasks that we can carry out without thinking. In that case Facebook is a world-changing innovation in the field of social life. It is now possible for people to outsource the maintenance of their relationships to Zuckerberg and company.

In the past, neglected friendships would wither gradually. Someone might move away for school or work. At the start he would maintain contact with people from back home. Eventually, he would let most contact lapse, except for close friends and family. The hundreds of acquaintainces that he had amassed in a place would mostly be abandoned. He would meet new people, and form new friendships and romantic entanglements. This worked quite well. Time is limited for all of us and maintaining relationships takes up a lot of it. In relationships, as in many other things, depth is better than breadth. The minor stresses that distance puts on human bonds help to provide perspective. When maintaining contact is easier, it is less reliable as an indicator of feeling. The old way, in which contact is a choice and not a reflex, lets time winnow the false friends from the true.

All this still happens with Facebook, but to a lesser extent. It is easier for undesired bonds to live on, zombie-like, through guilt or inertia when old excuses for discontinuing contact are removed. The old excuses of moving house or going away to college were never an obstacle for true friends and existed solely to spare people’s feelings. Facebook does not allow one to subtly phase someone out, but only to abruptly excise them, as one would a boil – “delete.”

The punctual shock that people were afforded by life events such as moves and job changes before Facebook was also an opportunity for emotional and intellectual maturation. When people can meet each other as strangers, as discrete units of humanity, free of baggage, they are free to try out new personas, activities and opinions. They can set aside past mistakes, shames and embarrassments and start afresh with little to link them to the historical version of themselves. Actions that to old acquaintances (old friends are more understanding) may appear inauthentic or incongruous, are genuine in this new light. Fear of embarrassment and judgement can lead to stagnation and a narrowing of horizons.

Much has been made of Facebook’s usefulness as a tool for revolutionary organization in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya and elsewhere. The phrase “Facebook Generation” has been coined to denote the cosmopolitan, secular and liberal young population of these countries who have never known a world without social networking. They see the futility of ethnic and religious rivalries and covet the freedoms and fashion of the West (such as they are). This is not spin, or a psychological operation targeting the hearts and minds of the privileged in order to convince them of the goodness of globalism and mass immigration. This generation exists. I have listened to its representatives. I have exchanged brief words with some of them. Due to the magic of the internet we stood before each other as equals and shared a moment of recognition. And I was changed. (For me, these fleeting contacts have taken place through Twitter, a service that does far less to encourage its users to disclose personal information.)

Most people do not use Facebook like this. They “friend” their real friends, their extended family, acquaintances from school and work, and actual and potential romantic partners. They may have friends all over the world, but in general they have cohabited a real-world community at some point. The knowledge that contact with remote strangers is possible does have the psychological effect of making the world seem like a smaller place, but otherwise offers no insight or perspective in and of itself.

Recognition of the polysemous nature of the Facebook phenomenon is the key to understanding it. Most analyses are black and white. They either eulogize or decry, without perceiving that the very nature of Facebook and the cultural and economic movement in which it is embedded is to redistribute freedoms and attitudes as well as wealth. Such a movement is either malignant or benign, depending on your vantage point.

These two facets of social media do not constitute a dichotomy. Next time you see the question posed in those terms in an editorial or a blog post, you can save yourself some reading, safe in the knowledge that the author is bringing a shoddy conceptual apparatus to bear on the problem. The exclusive disjunction ‘or’ is inappropriate in this analysis, because Facebook is not “either a subversive tool for revolutionaries or an instrument for governmental surveillance and control.” It is both, and cannot but be both due to the precise manner of its constitution.

What do I mean by this? I mean that daily exposure to the aggregated opinions and behaviour of hundreds of people is a powerful inducement to conformity. A natural psychological propensity to place oneself between extremes of opinion is commandeered in order to flatten the intellectual landscape. Disagreement with the views of the majority are penalized quickly and brutally through defriending and confrontational comments. It becomes that much more difficult to hold opinions that deviate from those of the crowd. The congenial atmosphere and the sense that one is “amongst friends” encourage one to share opinions and editorialize, but the high social stakes (one might imagine oneself naked on a stage, or traversing a tightrope while a spiteful audience wills you to lose your footing) involved in Facebook arguments discourage unvarnished expression. Friends who might voice agreement in private do not dare to do so on Facebook because they too fear the scorn of the bien-pensant majority. Such pressure incites everybody to play it safe, resulting in increased alienation, on an individual level, from what one sees as the depressing orthodoxy of one’s peers. It lures you in with the promise of community, but instead delivers isolation.

In such an environment, where difference is extinguished and homogeneity promoted, it becomes that bit more difficult to chart one’s own course. And yet humanity owes a lot to people who did just that. There is a story about the physicist Richard Feynman: He had been traversing a fallow period in his career, expending all the energy that could have been applied to original research in keeping up with the latest publications. Upon reading a book about Crick and Watson’s investigations of DNA, he was struck by how a small team, relatively isolated from the wider scientific community and not publishing much, could arrive at an epoch-making breakthrough. John Gribbin relates this Emersonian epiphany in his biography of Feynman:

Feynman held up the pad he had been doodling on. In the middle, surrounded by all kinds of scribble, was one word, in capitals: DISREGARD. That, he told Goodstein, was the whole point. That was what he had forgotten, and why he had been making so little progress. The way for researchers like himself and Watson to make a breakthrough was to be ignorant of what everybody else was doing and plough their own furrow.

These, then, are my reasons. I wanted freedom from the forces of homogenization that seek to force us all, like Procrustes, into an arbitrary pattern. I wanted to reclaim the joy of ties with my fellows maintained through mutual desire and not through indifference or embarrassment. Most of all, I wanted to put an end to the tyrannical compulsion, half voyeurism and half insecurity, that led me to waste so many precious hours that could have been better spent. I have not regretted deleting my account. I sent messages to the friends I cared about and told them of my intentions. They responded with email addresses and warm wishes. I have not heard anything from the rest. I don’t disclaim their fellowship; we are all cut from the same human cloth. But do I miss knowing what they had for breakfast? Not on your life!

Notes on the Mars Trilogy, part 3

The ecological themes of the trilogy centre around the question of the terraformation of Mars. Attitudes towards terraformation can be separated broadly into two camps: Reds, conservationists who oppose all attempts to drastically alter the Martian bioshere, and Greens, who want to alter surface conditions to make them suitable for human habitation by whatever means necessary. There are, of course, a great number of intermediate positions.

The Red camp are conservationists. The human presence, as far as they are concerned, should have minimal impact on the Martian landscape. Ann Clayborne, their de facto leader, is a geologist who supposedly prefers stones to people. Unfortunately (because it is the only false note I detected in over 2,000 pages), this propensity of hers is given a trite explanation in Blue Mars. Their point of view is that Mars is an object of study, and human interference pollutes the data. The question of whether life arose independently on Mars in the ancient wet phase of the planet’s history would undoubtedly be complicated by the presence of immigrant microbes. Their position is not based on solely scientific motives, nor are their motivations uniform. While the general thrust of the Red movement seems to imply a belief in the innate value of the landscape reminiscent of deep ecology, certain sections seem to be motivated by a misanthropic opposition to what they see as human pollution of a primal and unspoiled ecosystem. The catastrophic conditions on Earth lends backing to their cause, due as it is to the rapacious conduct of the human species. While the specific comparison is never invoked by Robinson, one cannot help but recall the humanity-virus equation of The Matrix. This is, in any case, a common theme, but it helps explain the Red misanthropy. A species that lives in permanent disequilibrium with its environment could not but defile the rocky stillness of the Arean plain.

For the Greens, on the other hand, humanity’s restless disequilibrium is a facet of its worth. Humanity’s expansionist tendencies are a result of its viriditas (a concept that owes as much to Dylan Thomas as to Aristotle).

The Reds and the Greens can be read as representing two opposing views on how to deal with climate change on Earth. There are those who say that in order to avert disaster we must reduce emissions, halt deforestation and decrease population through a massive effort of social reorganization. This view makes sense, but lack of international cooperation and the constant growth required by capitalism make it unlikely to be implemented in enough time to make a difference. The other group prefers to play dice. They bet that the human ability to manipulate the climate will keep pace with our destruction of it. They imagine deploying legions of carbon scrubbers like postboxes all over the planet’s surface, or pouring iron filings into the sea to reflect sunlight back into space. Oxygen-producing vegetation can be replaced with machines that replicate photosynthesis. These strategies are not necessarily bad ones. They require no magic, only an understanding of processes already going on in nature. Implementing them is a political and engineering challenge, nothing more.

As usual, the comparison is more suggestive than exact. In reality, there is no strict opposition between the two strategies and a composite strategy would probably be best. we can still salute Robinson’s prescience, however, in foreshadowing the growing interest in zero-impact living, taking modern earthly ecological positions and adapting them to Mars.

Notes on the Mars Trilogy, part 2

The quality of the prose varies widely between the volumes of the trilogy. In Red Mars it is workmanlike. In Green Mars, Robinson hits his stride. Up to this point the style is serviceable, but not a conspicuous quality. Blue Mars contains the finest writing of all three, but also some purple passages.

The changes in tone could negatively affect the unity of the trilogy, but for the particularity of the subject. The lexicon of Martian geography – caldera, albedo, planitia – and the cod-Latin names of planetary features from Lowell and Schiaparelli are used throughout. These, and the frequent references to scientific theories, confer a Martian quality on the writing. The abstruse terms that punctuate the prose create a sense of cohesion, setting up resonances that tie the work together and constantly remind the reader of the strangeness of the venue.

Notes on the Mars Trilogy, part 1

Kim Stanley Robinson’s Mars Trilogy is the story of the exploration, colonization and terraformation of the planet by an increasingly technologically adept human race. It follows the lives of the First Hundred permanent settlers as they build a new Martian society out of the red rock of the inhospitable world. It is also the story of the planet’s changing aspect, as it is transformed from a desert of iron oxide under a CO sky (Red Mars), through an expanse of extremophilic algae (Green Mars), to a leafy oceaned world with a breathable atmosphere (Blue Mars).

Robinson’s outlook is fundamentally more optimistic than pessimistic. While he does not fall prey to the sort of techno-utopianism that marrs something like Star Trek, he also eschews the dystopianism that characterises novels from, say, the cyberpunk movement. The future, for Robinson, is up for grabs. It will be decided by the outcome of the race between technological development and resource depletion in which one constantly leapfrogs the other.

That is not to say that he sees innovation as a panacea. The Tragedy of the Commons seems to be an almost inevitable consequence of a capitalist social structure where personal enrichment at the expense of the community is a possibility. There are really two problems to be addressed: scarcity and self-interest.
Space to build and materials with which to do it seem finite from the point of view of an earthbound culture. Expansion into space would change all that. In a world where space transportation is reliable and commercially available, resources are, for all intents and purposes, infinite. The ne plus ultra hitherto placed on economic development by the sum of the resources the Earth can contain is no longer relevant in a universe where interplanetary travel and cooperation is a possibility. For the moment, at least, we inhabit a planet of scarcity, but it is in a universe of abundance.

And a good thing it is too. Although the nascent Martian society that Robinson describes needs to adopt recycling and minimal use of resources due to the logistics of transporting raw materials, there is not attempt, at the start, to adapt their sustainable lifestyle to the Malthusian conditions on Earth. There, increases in efficiency and technology actually supercharge the process of depletion, as one would expect from the Jevons paradox.

(Jevons was an English economist who proposed that increases in the efficienty with which a resource is used tends to increase, rather than decrease, the rate of depletion of the resource.)

In a move that echos utopian thinkers of future political economy, Robinson predicts that the shift in human perspective from scarcity to plenitude and the end of resource use as a zero-sum game will result in an attendant change in social organization. If there is an explicit philosophy of history in the Mars Trilogy, this the kernel of it. Human culture progresses through a mixture of reaction and innovation, with scientific development being the driving force. Emancipation is the end to be hoped. This might sound like one of the cruder misreadings of Marx, but there are some crucial differences. There is no teleological force drawing humanity on. Its progress is not inexorable, but happens in fits and starts, and might not happen at all. The “Accelerando” that is gathering pace in Blue Mars (the settlement and flowering of human culture in the far reaches of the solar system) has nothing necessary about it. It is merely a strong possibility.

(I am not saying that this is what is in Marx, just defending Robinson from the charge that he subscribes to a caricature of Marxist philosophy.)

The overdetermination of culture by economic conditions that is a feature of most Marxisms is not a feature of Martian historical development either. While economic forces play a vital determining role in lots of ways, individual contributions, so absent in the tidal flow of dielectical materialism, often play a decisive role. So it is with Vladimir Taneev, whose gerontological treatment precipitates the world war and population crisis that shape the political destinies of Mars and Earth through the series.

Science Fiction

Science Fiction has a bad reputation in some quarters. It conjures up ideas of childish fantasies of escape from the hardships of life, naive utopianism, bad prose, carboard characters, improbably lustful female aliens and epic space battles. Surely not the kind of thing that serious people should waste their time on.

There is some truth to this. All these things exist in science fiction, just as in supposedly literary writing there are airheaded girls who think of nothing but making a good marriage, tedious dipsomaniac novelists and acres of unneccessary pondering of the meaning of various banal but oh-so-authentic experiences. It is not my mission to defend schlock, irrespective of the heading it is shelved under in Waterstones. Let’s just agree that good writing transcends genre (that snobbish notion) and that, as far as the rest is concerned, Sturgeon got it right: 90% of everything is crap.

The Desktop Computer and the Technology Lifecycle

Even though he is known for his more outlandish prognostications, most of what Ray Kurzweil does is not “futurology”, but history. That is as it should be. There is no hope of successfully predicting anything without first identifying patterns in historical development from which to extrapolate. It’s still problematic, given that this process of identifying patterns is vulnerable to the cherry-picking of events that support the most elegant interpretation, and the reliance of the whole enterprise on the unverifiable assumption that patterns we see in history will persist into the future.

Be that as it may, some of his ideas provide a framework in which to think about certain technological developments, in the near term at least.

Here is his seven-stage technology lifecycle, from The Singularity is Near:

1. During the precursor stage, the prerequisites of a technology exist, and dreamers may contemplate these elements coming together. We do not, however, regard dreaming to be the same as inventing,even if the dreams are written down. Leonardo da Vinci drew convincing pictures of airplanes and
automobiles, but he is not considered to have invented either.

2. The next stage, one highly celebrated in our culture, is invention, a very brief stage, similar in some respects to the process of birth after an extended period of labor. Here the inventor blends curiosity, scientific skills, determination, and usually of showmanship to combine methods in a new way and brings a new technology to life.

3. The next stage is development, during which the invention is protected and supported by doting guardians (who may include the original inventor). Often this stage is more crucial than invention and may involve additional creation that can have greater significance than the invention itself. Many tinkerers had constructed finely hand-tuned horseless carriages, but it was Henry Ford’s innovation of mass production that enabled the automobile to take root and flourish.

4. The fourth stage is maturity. Although continuing to evolve, the technology now has a life of its own and has become an established part of the community. It may become to intertwined in the fabric of life that it appears to many observers that it will last forever. This creates an interesting drama when the next stage arrives, which I call the stage of the false pretenders.

5. Here an upstart threatens to eclipse the older technology. Its enthusiasts prematurely predict victory. While providing some distinct benefits, the newer technology is found on reflection to be lacking some key element of functionality or quality. When it indeed fails to dislodge the established order, the technology conservatives take this as evidence that the original approach will indeed live forever.

6. This is usually a short-lived victory for the aging technology. Shortly thereafter, another new technology typically does succeed in rendering the original technology to the stage of obsolescence. In this part of the life cycle, the technology lives out its senior years in gradual decline, its original purpose and functionality now subsumed by a more spry competitor.

7. In this stage, which may comprise 5 to 10 percent of a technology’s life cycle, it finally yields to antiquity (as did the horse and buggy) the harpsichord, the vinyl record, and the manual typewriter).

The desktop computer as a technology has clearly reached maturity. It has long passed the stage of mass adoption, which Kurzweil defines as frequent use by one quarter of the population of developed countries. Competitors are emerging. The PC is at stage 5 or 6, depending on how you rate the success or failure of the iPad and its tablet brethren.

Much has been made of the limitations of tablets. The absence of a reliable and fast form of textual input is probably the thing that is holding them back from mass adoption. They seems to be only suited to consuming content at the moment, rather than creating it. The tablets that we have seen have also been woefully underpowered. An ARM just isn’t going to cut it in a world of high definition video and web content of ever-increasing complexity. Combine this with the closed-down nature of some of the tablet implementations and you have something that, while offering some benefits over traditional PCs and laptops, is unsuitable as a replacement.

Companies like Apple will never understand this. For years, their strategy has been to create products that do less with more panache. Yes, the Apple user experience is extremely polished, but this polish is bought at the expense of versatility and openness. The iPad is great, if you only want to do the things that Apple thinks you should do. They may persuade the Apple hardcore that the future lies in reduced functionality, but most of us will only be wooed by substantially improved functionality. We will not abandon one type of device for another unless everything we can do with the old device can be done with the new one. That includes tinkering, for those so inclined.

Kurzweil counsels against conservatism. It looks like the tablets are the upstart in this instance, but that does not mean desktop computers will live forever. As elsewhere, hegemony in technology is only ever temporary. I don’t know what the technology will look like that will eventually supplant the PC, but maybe it will look something like this.

A Review of WikiRebels, the Wikileaks documentary

This is a review of “WikiRebels”, a documentary on Wikileaks from SVT, the Swedish national broadcaster.

First let’s get something out of the way. The title, “Wikirebels”, is an embarrassment. Here we have another example of the propensity to coin neologisms by prefixing terms from IT and online culture. It is in the same vein as “cyberactivist”, “technoanarchist”, and other such monstrosities. In their defence, I should point out that this review is based on a rough cut posted on the SVT website, and the original Swedish title seems to be something different. I do not speak Swedish, so I cannot comment on whether it is better, worse, or equally terrible.

Another problem is the voiceover. It frequently strays into cliche and populism, all breathlessly delivered. Here is an example:

What we have here is a new breed of rebel. IT guerillas without a national base. Student digs, coffee bars and server rooms: these are their command and control centres.

I appreciate the necessity of making a documentary for people who do not necessarily know anything about Wikileaks, but I can’t see why in doing that they had to assume that the viewer has never even touched a computer. Again, criticisms aimed at the rough cut may not hold for the finished product. Hopefully some of the more egregious flaws will be remedied before the documentary is broadcast.

This documentary will appeal to two kinds of people: people who know nothing about Wikileaks and hardcore supporters. That is to say that it is not very substantial. People unfamiliar with the whistle-blowing website and looking to get up to speed will be well served by the hour-long portrait, while enthusiasts may be able to look past its faults. More critical viewers, meanwhile, might be frustrated by the lack of new information or insight into the inner workings of the organization.

Here is the root of the problem. Wikileaks is a clandestine group that can only do its work in secret. Julian Assange, and later Kristinn Hrafnsson, have chosen to be the public face of the organization. They are the ones willing to speak to cameras and take the considerable risks that come with media exposure. But this is supposed to be a documentary, not an interview, and the need for other talking heads and other viewpoints is filled by people who are no longer affiliated with Wikileaks or who never really were. Some of them have their own agendas. Others, such as PRQ CEO Mikael Viborg, give us an interesting glimpse into Wikileaks’s electronic infrastructure.

Daniel Domscheit-Berg, aka Daniel Schmidt, features heavily. A lot of time is given to his criticism of Assange’s leadership and his new Openleaks project. It is said that Domscheit-Berg left Wikileaks of his own accord due to ideological differences with Assange. It has been alleged elsewhere that his resignation followed his being suspended for unspecified misconduct. While it is true that his earlier involvement in Wikileaks makes him a useful source of information, the circumstances around his departure and the conflict of interest created by his current project mean that he could hardly be considered an impartial commentator.

The same goes from Birgitta Jonsdottir. She was heavily involved in editing the Collateral Murder video and creating and promoting the Icelandic Modern Media Initiative. All this makes her a valuable witness to Wikileaks’s recent history, but her vocal opposition to Assange’s leadership and remarks she has made about him in the press cast doubt on her reliability.

But it’s not all bad. The most valuable thing reporters Jesper Huor and Bosse Lindquist have done in this documentary is to give centre stage to the Collateral Murder video. Three or four minutes of the forty-minute video are shown. They have removed everything but the tough indigestible kernel. An Apache helicopter mows down a group of unarmed men, including two Reuters employees, then engages a van driven by a father bringing his children to school who has stopped to help one of the wounded. In the context of the longer video the footage was already harrowing, but here, edited, it is a stomach-churning vomit-inducing atrocity. If Huor and Lindquist’s intention was to galvanize support for Wikileaks, which I suspect it was, this part of the documentary will do the trick.

The elephant in the room was always going to be the allegations against Assange. The documentary devotes some time to them at the end, but very few details are given. The filmmakers do not pass judgement either way. Wikileaks supporters might have hoped to see some more investigative work here, but it is undoubtedly better to avoid public speculation about an ongoing criminal investigation.

Though this documentary is a worthy effort, it feels a little out of date. Assange’s arrest is mentioned, but none of the subsequent developments. There is also very little treatment of the technological developments that have taken place since the release of the State Department cables. The problems with hosting, the mass-mirroring efforts and the recent DDoS attacks are all neglected. Perhaps this is to be expected. This documentary is the result of several months’ work, and the television production cycle is not suited to such a fast-moving story. The nimbleness of blogging, Twitter, etc., makes the internet a better arena for information and discussion in this instance. “WikiRebels” left me feeling as if traditional media are merely playing catch-up.

You can watch the documentary on SVT Play until Monday, 13 December.

Operation Payback: activism or idiocy?

Recent attacks by governments and private enterprises on the expressive and economic freedoms of Wikileaks and its founder Julian Assange have provoked the wrath of the Interwebs. Following the release of the first batch of 250,000 diplomatic cables, Amazon, Mastercard, Paypal, Postfinance and others have sought to distance themselves from the group.

In response, Anonymous has unleashed a massive Distributed Denial of Service attack against the online infrastructure of the offending corporations, as well as against the website of the Swedish Prosecution Authority and US Senator Joe Lieberman, he of the Kill-Switch Bill, who called Amazon to put pressure on them over their hosting of Wikileaks in their EC2 cloud.

The description of Anonymous in the mainstream media belies their lack of engagement with online culture. Variously designated as “online activists”, “cyber activists” and other even more ridiculous monikers, Anonymous is simply the group of people who post without usernames on the internet image board 4chan. Their past actions can be characterized by an overriding puerility, punctuated by random displays of kindness and some legitimate activism, such as when they organized Operation Chanology, a series of online and real-world actions against the Church of Scientology.

Operation Payback, the name given to the recent DDoS attack against Wikileaks’s enemies, is not a typical Anonymous operation. Firstly, it has vastly more participants. Anonymous has no leadership structure. Membership has no conditions. Anyone can join in the attack simply by installing a piece of software called LOIC (Low Orbit Ion Cannon). Although Anonymous is characterized as a decentralized collective with no leaders, in recent days a Twitter account has been transmitting orders for sites to attack.

In many countries, DDoS attacks are a legal grey area. Since 2006, the UK has had anti-DDoS laws in place. Similar laws came into force in Sweden in 2007. The USA, unsurprisingly, imposes harsh sanctions on coordinatiors of DDoS attacks. In 2009 a man was jailed in relation to Operation Chanology, the previously mentioned operation to disrupt the Church of Scientology website. Where there is legislation concerning attacks, they are generally outlawed. However, law concerning the internet is not sufficiently advanced in many jurisdictions to take the phenomenon into account.

I would like to suggest that the law should take a different view of DDoS attacks. Operation Payback is showing us that they can be a legitimate form of protest. In the classic DDoS, a horde of infected computers are commandeered unbeknownst to their owners and aimed at a website merely to cause disruption or as a form of extortion. We already have the laws to deal with this. Trespassing on someone else’s computer system is illegal. So is extortion. But in the case of the Operation Payback swarm there is no extortion and participation is voluntary. In effect, it is a form of mass gathering. Hordes of people, disgusted at the actions of the companies, public bodies and individuals targeted, have turned up at their websites to register their disapproval and prevent others from entering. By making themselves visible in this way and disrupting the targets’ business, they are conveying a message to the targets and the public at large.

This action has a real-world corrollary: the picket line. The two phenomena are remarkably similar in purpose and effect. Picketing/DDoS activism both aim to bring public attention and sympathy to an issue, to disrupt the business of the target, and to discourage others from patronizing or otherwise associating with the target. (As a form of industrial action, picketing seeks to discourage people from crossing the picket line and going to work.)

In many places, the actions of picketers are protected by labour laws. So long as the picketing takes place on public property, there is little that can be done to stop it. Likewise, the rights of people to protest and assemble peacefully are generally protected by constitutional provisions. DDoS attacks – like Operation payback – that involve no trespassing, vandalism or extortion, and are undertaken as a peaceful form of protest ought to be afforded the same protection.