Friday, May 16, 2008

A case study in differential diagnosis of protestors' motives:

Let's say that you don't much like Chinese censorship of the Internet, or American cooperation with the same. Where might you protest, and why?

Ultimately, this is a matter of Chinese law, which can't be changed by anyone other than the Chinese government. So, you might protest there --- but the Chinese government isn't exactly known for its concern for the views of foreign protestors. So, are there other possibilities for a protest that might actually have some use?

As it happens, there are American companies who are bending over backwards to help the Chinese secret police. And it might make a difference to protest them. You might start with, say, Cisco, a company which aggressively markets and shamelessly supplies the technology that the Chinese have used to build the great firewall. Or, say, Yahoo!, which has cooperated with Chinese prosecution of reporters for revealing "state secrets" (which, in China, means any information that any bureaucrat finds inconvenient), and then lied about it.

These are what you'd do if the aim of your protest was to improve the world. On the other hand, if the aim of your protest was to prove your own virtue, and to heck with the rest of the world, there might be a more attractive target. Say, Google --- a company which, by contrast with these other two, does the bare minimum required to comply with Chinese law, limits its activities in China to minimize even that, and publicly wrings its hands over that level of cooperation, even though the only alternative would be to stay out of China altogether. And which, by the way, doesn't make a difference in China --- because of all this, their market share there is in the dumps.

If you protest against Yahoo! or Cisco --- well, it's not much to be better than those guys. But if you protest against Google, you prove to the world that you're better than the Googlers! They're proving their virtue by limiting their activities, but you're proving your superior virtue because it's not good enough!

So, guess where the Billboard Liberation Front was doing street theater the other day, with physical representations of the "Great Firewall of China". At Cisco, which supplied the bricks and mortar? Nope. At Google, which is trying to limit the degree to which they're compromised by it.

So, here's where we are. If your company enthusiastically buddies up to the corrupt authorities in an unavoidable, large, and growing market, these clowns will quietly leave you alone. On the other hand, if you limit your cooperation, and publicly agonize about it, they will go out of their way to embarrass you at your shareholders' meeting.

To encourage socially responsible behavior. Or to demonstrate, by comparison, the superior size of their ethical dicks. Whichever.

The sad thing is, I don't even like Google. Among the many things they do that piss me off: pervasively click-tracking any American internet user who doesn't adopt stringent technical measures to avoid it, and getting buddy-buddy with the American intelligence agencies --- marketing technology which no doubt gets used for surveillance here, and who knows what else. But the first issue is harder to explain, and the second has moral ambiguities that someone with more of a public profile might notice. So, neither issue is really suitable for a quick ethical dick-length demo. And so, China.

Thursday, May 15, 2008

The Republican Party seems to be in a bit of trouble. They've just lost a few by-elections for House seats that have been safe for decades. Clearly, they need to do something to reconnect with the voters. To reestablish that they share their concerns. And Republican Senator Arlen Specter has just the thing:

A day after NFL commissioner Roger Goodell met with former Patriots video employee Matt Walsh and said he did not expect any further sanctions against the team or coach Bill Belichick over Spygate, Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Penn.) called for an independent investigation into the Patriots' taping of opposing coaches' signals which violated league rules.
There may indeed be further questions that need asking, here. Why, for instance, were known instances of unauthorized taping by other teams subjected to nothing like the same penalty? But I'm not entirely sure that those are the questions Specter means to raise.

Then again, it's got to be better for the Republicans than talking about the economy. Or the war...

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

It looks like the long, drawn-out Democratic primary process may finally be drawing to a close, now that Obama has nearly secured the critical IOZ endorsement:

Barack Obama may in fact be precisely the hollow messiah that he appears, ... a sort of national Deepak Chopra, peddling easy salvation without actually doing anything. That, needless to say, is a program I can get behind. Four years of new-age-Christian babble is the least harmful outcome that I can imagine at the current moment in the empire. Let us all go upward and forward toward the future of our destiny leading the world forever. I am in favor of directions, whichever ones they are.
This will no doubt disappoint supporters of Hillary Clinton, who want the voters to have a meaningful choice in every single primary on the schedule, right to the last, now that her initial plan to end it all by Super Tuesday has failed to pan out.

For more on Clinton, see the Fafblog interview...

In case you think I was too hard on One Laptop Per Child head Nicholas Negroponte in my last blog post, here's one of the milder bits from a scathing polemic by former project security guru Ivan Krstić:

I quit when Nicholas told me — and not just me — that learning was never part of the mission. The mission was, in his mind, always getting as many laptops as possible out there; to say anything about learning would be presumptuous, and so he doesn't want OLPC to have a software team, a hardware team, or a deployment team going forward.

Yeah, I'm not sure what that leaves either.

It seems Negroponte's much touted rhetoric about "an education project, not a laptop project" was all for show. As I said in the last post, it's all about shipping as many computers as possible, never mind what happens next.

And yes, that quote is mild; Krstić goes on to warn of a looming "historical fuckup unparalleled in scale," unless the project starts to seriously work on deployment. There really wasn't much more to the plan than to ship thousands of laptops in crates, and let the kids figure it out; for complaining about this, Krstić got a ticket to South America to try to make it work. Which it did, in some places, to an extent that I find surprising, but that's a report from a pilot site that received Krstić's personal help during startup; part of the problem is the lack of effective surveys to see whether that best-case report is typical. Besides, if the kids really were all figuring it out for themselves, the remaining OLPC staffers wouldn't be pleading for outside assistance. (Though, regardless, "historical fuckup unparalleled in scale" is a little much even for me. With computers, you can err a great deal, but to really fuck up, you need deadly weapons.)

The whole jeremiad is worth a read, including some interesting and useful reality checks on utopian rhetoric in the open source community...

(via OLPC news; note also this entry subjected to a lot more late editing than usual...)

Monday, May 12, 2008

A success story of technology helping third-world farmers:

Ajit Singh, a farmer in the poor northern state of Uttar Pradesh, had never seen a computer until four years ago when ITC, the Indian agribusiness-to-hotels conglomerate, installed a PC in his village, Kurthia.

Now the thin 47-year-old farmer visits the ITC station, known as an "e-choupal" after the Hindi term for "gathering place", every day for online access to news-papers, crop prices, weather forecasts and farming techniques. As ITC's village manager, he passes on what he gleans to fellow farmers. ...

The result has been a big jump in crop productivity. Annual incomes in Kurthia have risen from Rs40,000- Rs50,000 ($1,000-$1,230) before e-choupal to Rs100,000- Rs120,000 now, says Mr Singh.

Gee. You know what could be really helpful in trying to spread this sort of thing? An extremely rugged, very low-power laptop (for long battery life) with sophisticated built-in wireless networking, designed for easy field repairs, with audio-visual features built in to help guide semi-literates through the UI. Kinda like the machine being built by One Laptop Per Child.

But alas, Mr. Singh is not a child, and so he is not in OLPC's target user base. Which remains, as before, children only. Though the project's direction is changing in other respects, as project founder and leader Nicholas Negroponte explains:

"I think that means and ends, as often happens, got confused," he says. "The mission is learning and children. The means of achieving that were, amongst others, open source and constructionism. In the process of doing that, open source in particular became an end in itself, and we made decisions along the way to remain very pure in open source that were not in the long-term interest of the project."
So, open source is no longer part of the mission, to the general distress of techies associated with the project. And constructivism was never much of a guiding star to begin with --- stripped to its essence, it amounts to asserting that if you give kids computers and leave them alone, they'll figure out what to do with them entirely on their own. (Indeed, some of them will, and they are the sort of people who tend to wind up at MIT --- which explains the appeal of that philosophy there. But the rest of them need lesson plans.)

In short, the goal of the project seems to devolve into getting computer hardware --- specifically their own hardware (recall OLPC's contentious and combative approach to anyone else in their space, like Intel's Classmate) --- into childrens' hands by any means necessary. As acknowledged by new project CEO Charles Kane:

"The OLPC mission is a great endeavor, but the mission is to get the technology in the hands of as many children as possible," he said. "Whether that technology is from one operating system or another, one piece of hardware or another, or supplied or supported by one consulting company or another doesn't matter."

"It's about getting it into kids' hands," he continued. "Anything that is contrary to that objective, and limits that objective, is against what the program stands for."

Which brings me to the question I was asking more than a year ago --- why just kids? Why just huge, bloc government deployments? Why not give them to anyone in the third world with a use for them? Why not just sell the damn things, and let the people in the third world themselves figure out what they're good for?

And to answer that, you've got to go back to what this project is really about. "Helping the children" will get Nicholas invited to the cool parties at Davos. "Selling computers" will not.

More: Here's one suggestion: a deployment plan modeled on what Grameen is already doing with cell phones: extending loans to local cooperatives which buy the gizmo and rent access. A similar model has been used in Nicaragua to fund deployment of local solar power systems in areas where there is no power grid; those are a heck of a lot more expensive than an OLPC unit.