01.17.22

The GUI Challenge

Posted in Free/Libre Software, GNU/Linux at 5:13 pm by Guest Editorial Team

Authored by Andy Farnell

Free red light

Summary: The latest article from Andy concerns the Command Line Challenge

Cheapskates wonderful guide is currently running a “One Week Command Line Challenge“. Some of the students I teach now are so young (to an old beard like me) they think this is some “crazy new thing”. Is there new hope and a new perspective to be explored here? Something other than retro and cool. Perhaps historical baggage, the narrative of how “superior” graphical interfaces replaced “old” consoles is an obstacle to new visions for the next generation?

As a lifelong textual user interface (TUI) user this got me thinking. If you were to give me “The GUI Challenge” I’d be sunk! My world (dwm, emacs, w3m etc) feels so familiar, it’s in my bones. After thirty or forty years on the command line if I were forced to use “normal computers” it would cripple my ability to do anything.

“After thirty or forty years on the command line if I were forced to use “normal computers” it would cripple my ability to do anything.”The command-line is super empowering, but particular. Put me on a Mac or Windows machine and I revert to a child-like flap, randomly clicking around on icons that look promising. I’d be twenty times less productive than my peers, yet, modesty be damned, I’m ten times more effective/productive at average computing tasks than other professionals when in my comfort zone – at the command-line. Isn’t this true for us all, that we have our comfy shoes?

Of course this isn’t about some innate inability to use graphical tools. I’ve mastered some jolly complex ones like Blender and Unreal editors (virtual world building), and ProTools or Ardour (for sound and music). One of the most complex I recall was a VLSI/CAD creator that used two four button mice (or mouse and ball).

So, is the command line challenge unfair? I am no more capable of quickly learning a new graphical paradigm than an entrenched GUI user is of adopting the keyboard and console. This probably applies at any age or ability level where you are comparing like-for-like paradigm switching.

No, the issue here is deeper and is about utility paradigms. How do people relate to computers as tools at the highest level – at the operating system level and above?

If you dig back in the Usenet and mailing-list archives, you’ll find fascinating, passionate and intelligent debates on the merits of different interfaces going right back to Xerox-PARC. They are really separate computing cultures. There’s a fair historical summary here.

The above history ends in 2001. GUIs did not end there, the debate has moved further, and many new things have not been well analysed. Mobile, which essentially emulates button-based handheld appliances, cannot really be compared to GUI (in its traditional sense), even though it’s technically a computer running a graphical interface.

“Mobile, which essentially emulates button-based handheld appliances, cannot really be compared to GUI (in its traditional sense), even though it’s technically a computer running a graphical interface.”It’s only since about 2010 that the GUI function of abstracting (hiding away complexity) was subverted by wicked corporations to hide away deception and to effect control. This shift from the abstract to the abstruse and obstructive is what we sometimes call “Dark Computing Patterns”, but really it goes deeper than that – visual computing is it’s own realm of psychology, politics, semiotics, iconography and subterfuge that in many cases thoroughly bastardises the function of computers qua “tools”.

The GUI/TUI debate can be framed in many ways; preference, freedom, extensibility, cognitive overhead, portability, control (tweakability), depth of understanding (legibility), and more.

For me, tool longevity and stability are important. I still use the same applications and skills I learned in 1980. Some people, foolishly I think, imagine that to be a bad/anti-progressive stance. One of the most underrated abilities in computer programming is knowing when something is finished. As is the ability to just use something instead of worshipping it as a digital artefact (cue NFT “first editions of brand apps).

By contrast many of my colleagues must re-learn their entire productivity stack every few months at the whim of corporate developers or seemingly random events in “the market”. I literally hear them anthropomorphising:

“Oh, Slack won’t let me do that now”

“Oh, Google ate my email”

“Sorry, something broke, can you resend it please?”

Their “computers” are chaotic mystery machines, magic fun fairs where superstitious ritual ministrations must be performed. This sort of Scooby-Doo “clown computing” has no place in serious business, in my opinion. So, another hugely underrated quality that TUIs favour is stability.

Where did this mess come from? In the 1980s “home computers” created a culture of their own, and from there Apple and Microsoft, needed to counter a socially constructed but actually mythical “fear” of computers as nerdy and silly, but also “dangerous”. Remember granny worrying that it would “blow up” if you typed the wrong thing?

Continuing a culture of sysadmins from the time-sharing Unix days, we created the “user” as a particular stereotype. To put it quite bluntly, we manufactured “users” to be idiots. Indeed, use of the word “users” instead of a more neutral term like “operators” is significant. The developer-user relationship today is a power relationship, and often an abusive one (in both directions).

In fact denigrating attitudes have their roots in the fragility of early software development. The “user” was an enemy who would always find ways to break our software and exhibit extraordinary “stupidity” by failing to understand our non-obvious interface puzzles. We used tropes like (P.E.B.K.A.C), lusers, and treated others with disrespectful and superior smugness.

Computing had its hashtag moment, and markets demanded that perceptions change. Microsoft solved the problem by erecting some soothing blue fire-hazard cladding around a crumbling DOS. Underneath, exposure to “The Registry” was like staring directly into the open core of Chernobyl.

At that point, enter Apple, who could play Good Cop, adding value by simply subtracting (or consolidating) features. For many, Steve Jobs was elevated to the man who “invented computers”. For a certain generation, he did. The ancient science of HCI (human computer interaction) was beaten and disfigured into the designer denomination of UX/UI that emphasised intuition, feel, and experience, which in turn ushered in the age of performative productivity. This trajectory of form over function culminated in neurotic obsessions with $2000 disposable thin laptops and the Onion’s infamous Apple Wheel parody that confused many as to whether it was a genuinely good idea.

Meanwhile the command line simply kept calm and carried on. Nothing changed in 30 years. Those who ran the servers, databases, scientific and technical applications never strayed far from the console, except where “presentation” demanded. However, through the mass media and advertising, digital technology became synonymous with these corporate veneers over actual computers, while Hollywood made the command-line a glowing green preserve of malcontents bent on destroying civilisation.

So, although the Command Line Challenge is fun – and I hope it inspires some people to go beyond their comfort zone – let’s be aware that human factors, history and politics play a greater role behind the scenes. Yes, it’s about mental models, rote motor skills and habits, rather than any intrinsic good or bad. But it’s also about culture and popular ideas of what a computer “is”.

The emphasis of Cheapskate’s article is on TUI allowing the use of older computers. That’s a very topical and important concern in the age of climate emergency. If readers don’t know already about books like Gerry McGovern’s World Wide Waste, I urge you to read more about e-waste. Making the connections between textual interfacing, more modest tech-minimalist use, and a better society and healthier planet, isn’t obvious to everyone.

There are many reasons people may prefer to return to the command line. I vastly prefer TUI’s for another reason. As a teacher I deal in ideas not applications, so it’s a way of imparting lasting concepts instead of ephemeral glitter. Commands are connections of action concepts to words, essential for foundational digital literacy. Almost everything I can teach (train) students to use by GUI will have changed by the time they graduate.

For younger people the difference is foundational. My daughter and I sit down together and do basic shell skills. She can log in, launch an editor, play music and her favourite cartoon videos. We use Unix talk to chat. It’s slow, but great fun, because character based coms is very expressive as you see the other person typing. She’s already internalising the Holy Trinity – storage, processing and movement.

To make this work I obviously customised bash, creating a kind of safe sandbox for her with highly simplified syntax. This week we are learning about modifier keys – shift is for SHOUTING and control is to CANCEL (you can’t get around needing to teach CTRL-C). What we are really working on is her typing skills, which are the foundation of digital literacy in my opinion. I think at the age of 5 she is already a long way ahead of her school friends who paw at tablets.

In conclusion then, the TUI/GUI saga is about much more than interchangeable and superficial ways of interacting with computers. In it’s essence it is about literacy, the ability to read and write (type). Behind, and ahead of it, are matters of cultural importance relevant to education, autonomy, democracy, self-expression, and the economy. So if you’re a mouser or screen smudger, why not give Cheapskate’s challenge a try?

01.02.22

My Year as a Digital Vegan — Part IX — Hard Reckonings: The Nine Circles of E-Waste

Posted in Free/Libre Software, Hardware at 5:30 pm by Guest Editorial Team

By Dr. Andy Farnell

Series parts:

  1. My Year as a Digital Vegan — Part I — 2021 in Review
  2. My Year as a Digital Vegan — Part II — Impact of a ‘COVID Year’
  3. My Year as a Digital Vegan — Part III — Lost and Found; Losing the Mobile Phone (Cellphone)
  4. My Year as a Digital Vegan — Part IV — Science or Scientism?
  5. My Year as a Digital Vegan — Part V — Change in Societal Norms and Attitudes
  6. My Year as a Digital Vegan — Part VI — The Right Words
  7. My Year as a Digital Vegan — Part VII — Staying the Course and Fake It Till You Make It?
  8. My Year as a Digital Vegan — Part VIII — Who Teaches the Teachers?
  9. YOU ARE HERE ☞ Hard Reckonings: The Nine Circles of E-Waste

Penguins pair

Summary: Dr. Andy Farnell shares his knowledge of the great extent to which technology pollutes and ruins this planet, the only inhabitable planet, especially when overused (or used rather poorly, recklessly, lavishly, excessively, exceedingly, sparingly, selfishly for the sake of class vanity/voyeurism)

The problem of e-waste came into full focus for me in 2021. Prior to writing Digital Vegan I had not seen any connection between my fervour for technology and effects on the planet. I assumed that computer hardware I throw away creates a negligible environmental impact and that most of it is successfully recycled. In fact Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment (WEEE) is a significant problem. Two neighbouring issues are the real costs of production of electronics and the energy costs of running them.

“I found it horribly disappointing to face these facts, as like most computer scientists I’ve basked in the narrative that “at least digital technology is helping save the planet”.”In this article I don’t want to go too much into the extraordinary statistics around the subject. Please follow the links and read the books. However, in short, digital life is “costing us the Earth”. It’s at a scale comparable with global transport, fossil fuel burning and forest erosion. It’s one of the “Big Factors”. Each year we throw away billions of gadgets creating hundreds of millions of tons of waste and the consequences are alarming.

I found it horribly disappointing to face these facts, as like most computer scientists I’ve basked in the narrative that “at least digital technology is helping save the planet”. Surely communications stops unnecessary travel? Surely the efficiencies enabled by digital management reduce carbon overall? We are the good guys right? In a crude mechanical world that runs on oil, are we not beings of electricity and light, spotless pioneers of the meta world? Nothing could be further from the truth.

“Digital is physical. Every byte is supported by an atom. Every digital action costs the Earth energy.” – Gerry McGovernWorld Wide Waste 2021

Pondering this made me realise, the intersection of capitalism and digital technology can only be described as nine circles of an inferno, each interlocks with and confounds the others.

Circle One: Demand.

In the outer ring we have the totally unnecessary demand created by advertising, social configuration and addiction. These are predominantly the topics I deal with in Digital Vegan. Peer pressure to have “up to date” devices creates “techno-vanity”. Over-complex and poor quality web and “app” technology ensures a bariatric bloat of obscenely inefficient software that in turn fuels demand for more powerful hardware. The relationship between the software and hardware sides of BigTech is a closed feeding loop. Carriers encourage phone subscribers to dump perfectly good handsets during Black Friday and Cyber Monday orgies of consumption. We simply buy way too much stuff and extract only a fraction of is value before disposing of it.

Circle Two: Materials

Some of my research this year has been directed toward understanding the origins of material components of digital tech. This is circle two. Rare-earth elements are, eponymously, in rather short supply. Their mining and supply is the cause of wars, displacements, massacres, corruption and shady geopolitical machinations. Some are dubbed “conflict minerals” and their supply is officially regulated, but as you would expect, given extraordinary demand, regulation is weak and corruption common. Politically, the road-map for their exhaustion is ugly beyond imagination, and probably includes new wars for mineral rights in Africa and Antarctica.

Circle Three: Manufacture

Beyond raw materials let’s consider the manufacturing cost of electronic goods. There are three substantial problems afoot. The first is pure energy costs. By the time something as tiny as an iPhone is made it’s consumed a quarter gigajoule of raw energy, in silicon wafer processing, aluminium smelting, copper extraction and so forth. In terms of CO2 produced, it’s about 25kg, but the process also requires ten thousand litres of processed cooling water! That’s an extraordinary hidden cost in a world where clean drinking water is in short supply for some people. That 25kg is only what is required to create the device, before any logistics of getting it to you.

“The notorious Foxconn factory is likely only the most visible face of what are essentially slave labour camps in India, China and elsewhere.”The second issue here is global markets. We neither produce nor dispose of electronics close to its use point. If it’s shipped from China and flows through the typical supply lines of BigBox warehouses such as Amazon or Walmart, it accrues a further 25kg of carbon dioxide emissions.

The third issue is labour relations. The notorious Foxconn factory is likely only the most visible face of what are essentially slave labour camps in India, China and elsewhere. Mostly female workers, many underage, eat rotting food, live, sleep and work in dangerous conditions, experience physical abuse and sexual molestation, and are on permanent suicide-watch. We all seem quite happy that this is the price of our cheap iThings.

Circle Four: Operation

A factor that shocked me is the overall operating costs of digital, in terms of the networks and data-centres, microwave links, air-conditioning, and so forth. Using a phone for one hour per day consumes 1250kg of carbon dioxide in a year, or the equivalent of flying from Paris to New York. That’s before we even think about the colossal storage facilities and cloud services of Google, Amazon, and Microsoft in the civilian sector, and the gargantuan data centres intelligence agencies like the NSA are building for “Total Information Awareness”. Even if you accepted the ideological basis of the surveillance state, a valid objection would stand on environmental grounds alone, as the “collect it all and keep forever” mentality is unsustainable even in the short term.

Circle Five: Maintenance

I also spent time looking at the life-cycle of computers. Can they be reused, repaired, upgraded, side-graded, re-homed or repurposed? What happens when we decommission them? Can they be broken apart to reuse modules? What happens to the scrap steel, aluminium, and the waste electronics containing thousands of valuable, toxic or otherwise dangerous compounds? The sensible thing is to keep them operating as long as possible. We should look after digital gadgets.

“One problem with maintenance is knowledge. Simple skills like changing a battery or soldering a broken connector are vanishing from the world. Concomitant with spreading ignorance is changing attitudes, as Western “consumers” consider it beneath them to turn a screwdriver.”I am a big fan, and occasional contributor to cheapskates guide, a remarkable web resource that champions reuse and care for digital electronics. The author also spends time researching, testing Linux and other operating systems on old hardware, and exploring more human-centred approaches to digital lifestyle.

One problem with maintenance is knowledge. Simple skills like changing a battery or soldering a broken connector are vanishing from the world. Concomitant with spreading ignorance is changing attitudes, as Western “consumers” consider it beneath them to turn a screwdriver.

Other reasons people baulk at maintaining older equipment include space. Bulky computers seem a luxury in the ever diminishing urban living-spaces. A good reason to scrap older gear is that it’s much less power-efficient, so replacing an old tower computer with a Raspberry Pi might save a lot of electricity overall. Digital rights sometimes conflict with environmental concerns, for example if hard-drives with plenty of remaining service life are shredded for data protection reasons.

Circle Six: Growth

Generally, all-factors-growth in technology continues at between 5 and 7 percent annually. Half of the world owns at least one active smartphone or network connected device. The average Chinese person has three. That means we still have potentially 3.5 billion more people who might want to get connected, and an exploding range of new services that tech companies want to offer, or foist-upon, the other half of the planet. People are cycling devices at approximately 18 month intervals, bringing the total annual energy cost – just of production – to around 2EJ per year of use, currently ten percent of all electricity production. That’s not even considering operation costs or mentioning the energy costs of proof-of-work cryptocurrencies. There are no reliable overall figures but it looks like we may be using 25% of all global energy on digital.

“There are no reliable overall figures but it looks like we may be using 25% of all global energy on digital.”Not only is the numerical quantity of devices growing, and the measured activity of those devices, but the footprint of each unit of use is also growing despite more power efficient CPUs. We simply squeeze more function in. Though these units of energy seem insignificant, they are very significant observed at scale.

For example; roughly, a 1990′s style simple HTTP web page of about 1kB consumed the energy of tossing a coin, or a bird taking flight. A modern web page makes thousands of connections and brings down tens of megabytes of data just to load a page of text. It consumes as much energy as a cup of coffee or an apple. Now multiply that by a conservatively estimated 10 billion per second.

This growth also impacts on device longevity. Sheer speed of development renders any gadget apparently worthless within months of being unboxed. These factors contribute to billions more discarded devices constituting hundreds of millions of tonnes of e-waste.

Circle Seven: Software Quality

Then there is the laughable quality of software running on our gadgets. Software is the only kind of engineering that gets measurably less efficient every year. Bloat, reckless software engineering and awful security reduce the value of devices. Many IoT devices are junk and will incur tremendous clean up and disposal costs because they were designed with bad software. Only recently have any government standards of basic quality, security and fitness for purpose touched the “Internet Of Things”. BIOS and firmware updates sometimes render devices broken, but so does the lack of updates in a world where everything else is changing. Much of this can be seen as a software quality issue.

Circle Eight: The Law

Assuming that we could overcome the practical and political obstacles to our digital bonfire of resources, we still live in a society that gives legal incentives for, indeed thoroughly rewards, conspicuous and unnecessary waste. First consider the perverse incentives of manufacturers to deliberately break, inhibit, corrupt and maliciously control hardware as designed obsolescence. We have also failed to defend “consumer law” regarding quality, ownership, contract and proper remedy against abusive vendors.

There are so many laws that favour the wasteful behaviour of tech-giants, like trade agreements, DMCA type provisions, regioning, copyrights, patents, trademarks and so on. These maximise corporate profits by crippling peoples’ ability to share, repair, reuse and recycle technology. They guarantee landfills must swell with more e-waste.

Circle 9: Disposal

My father-in-law is a Nobel prize winner who, along with a team of pioneering chemists contributed to what is now known as the Kyoto Protocol. We’ve had many interesting chats on subjects of his expertise, one of which is “forever chemicals” – the bio-accumulative, mutagenic, indestructible constituents of much electronic technology. Electronic goods contain lots of these, used as fire retardants and waterproofing agents.

Whether obsolete and insecure by design, incompetence or pure malice, we are ensuring that any phone, IoT device or “smart” TV has a business-class privilege boarding pass for the “recycling boat” to Africa, China or India.

“Whether obsolete and insecure by design, incompetence or pure malice, we are ensuring that any phone, IoT device or “smart” TV has a business-class privilege boarding pass for the “recycling boat” to Africa, China or India.”On arrival the shipping containers are emptied into illegal open “recycling” sites, beside a river or lake, where child labourers smash it up with hammers, burn and wash the fragments with acid in open pyres. Welcome to the inner circle of Hell. The slurry, when crystallised reclaims a small percentage of valuable metals, but also releases toxic heavy metals, lead, mercury, cadmium, and chromium that wash into the water or leach from poor temporary storage.

The children inhale a lethal mixture of particulate carcinogens, from both the crushing and burning steps. The life expectancy of these workers does not bear thinking about. In addition, vast quantities of dioxins, phalates, and bromo-fluorocarbons belch into the atmosphere where, after falling as contaminated rain into the oceans they will cause sterility, cancers and birth defects for potentially hundreds of years.

What to do?

From the chemistry of electronic products, their energy and water use, and their longevity, to effects of waste on the environment… this year I’ve read much more than makes me feel happy. It feels bad, because I am a way above average contributor to the problem (from where I write I can see at least seven operational computers right now). Here’s a factor where I definitely cannot criticise anyone else.

“It’s one small part of thinking as a Digital Vegan.”Maybe much of it is untrue. the statistics are dizzying. One cannot gain an empirical feel for what is happening on a global scale. There is so much to take in, from chip fabrication, VLSI composition, technologies for recycling and the political/legal problems of hardware monopoly, global skills, manufacturing politics, questionable provenance of raw materials and supply chains.

I don’t know what we can do to work towards Greener Gadgets and tackle World Wide Waste 2021. I suggest you do more research on the real costs of your convenience, such as this article by Katie Singer or this by Alba Ardura Gutiérrez, to pick a couple of recent ones at random. It’s one small part of thinking as a Digital Vegan.

12.31.21

My Year as a Digital Vegan — Part VII — Staying the Course and Fake It Till You Make It?

Posted in Free/Libre Software at 1:31 pm by Guest Editorial Team

By Dr. Andy Farnell

Series parts:

  1. My Year as a Digital Vegan — Part I — 2021 in Review
  2. My Year as a Digital Vegan — Part II — Impact of a ‘COVID Year’
  3. My Year as a Digital Vegan — Part III — Lost and Found; Losing the Mobile Phone (Cellphone)
  4. My Year as a Digital Vegan — Part IV — Science or Scientism?
  5. My Year as a Digital Vegan — Part V — Change in Societal Norms and Attitudes
  6. My Year as a Digital Vegan — Part VI — The Right Words
  7. YOU ARE HERE ☞ Staying the Course and Fake It Till You Make It?

Fake Tech VeganSummary: Dr. Andy Farnell continues sharing his ‘Tech Vegan’ experiences from this past year; this series will carry on well into the new year (2022)

Staying the course

Another theme I have dealt with this year is “tenacity versus resignation”. People have different coping mechanisms to technological
stressors, some get mad, some get even, some get the hell out of there. I began the year helping a student edit an inspiring story of how he graduated without non-free software. I was very impressed with this individual’s ability to unerringly act with firm politeness and perseverance against the kind of institutional steamroller that crushes other students.

“I began the year helping a student edit an inspiring story of how he graduated without non-free software. I was very impressed with this individual’s ability to unerringly act with firm politeness and perseverance against the kind of institutional steamroller that crushes other students.”Elsewhere I have encountered learned helplessness (see Seligman et al. Hiroto75). Defeatism is one of the greatest enemies we face in seeking digital rights, as people seldom feel able to confront what they do not understand. A disappointing number of people (wrongly) said to me “What’s the point boycotting your supermarket Andy? They’re all just doing the same”. Despite there being absolutely no evidence that other British supermarkets were violating privacy rights there’s a pervading sense around tech that a possibility once is a necessity forever, which feeds into a nihilistic refusal to resist even the most tepid incursions by technological abusers.

What I’ve learned is that small, polite but resolute gestures make big changes. Standing up for principles as a single voice does make a difference. Sometimes you need to start as an army of one and remember that all progress “depends upon the unreasonable man“. Despite every armchair theorist’s wisdom on the intractability of ‘network effects’ we successfully flipped our whole family communication circle from Whatsapp to Signal in a few weeks.

But this raises a troubling question. By what right am I an evangelist? What prophet made me an influencer and missionary charged with saving the souls of technological sinners? None whatsoever. And wouldn’t it be grandiose and egotistical to take on such a role?

How the world has changed since the ’90s when I had a T-shirt that said, “No. I will not fix your computer”, because like every other geek I was inundated with requests for help. “Help me install a new hard drive”. “Help me connect to the Internet”. “Help me build this web page”… I have yet to hear an honest request – “Please, help me get off social media”.

“Like many of the most insidious harms, technological harms are invisible, delayed, accumulative and tolerance building. All you can do is stand back and hope others see the harm and abuse they are bringing upon themselves.”I wrote several chapters in Digital Vegan, about addiction, cults, entrenched behaviour and the impossibility of proselytising others to a crazy cause. I advise against it – and indeed the book title is an ironic take on that problem. Anyone who has dealt with alcohol or drug problems knows the pain of seeing those you love harm themselves and knowing that, generally, any interventions only make things worse. Like many of the most insidious harms, technological harms are invisible, delayed, accumulative and tolerance building. All you can do is stand back and hope others see the harm and abuse they are bringing upon themselves.

Fake it till you make it?

Being a Vegan “impostor” myself I’ve developed a sharp nose for “Fake Digital Vegans” – those who say “Oh yes, how ghastly it all is”, while messaging on Facebook. They care deeply about everything, so long as changing would not inconvenience them. I’ve also noticed a slew of click-bait stories in the popular press that tease us with “I quit my smartphone for a month and you’ll never guess what happened to me next!”. Actually, I can guess… you got paid a big bag of money for lying about it. Celebrities making grand public theatre of their few weeks without Alexa (the horror) actually subtract from responsible, moderate use.

“All platforms encourage token dissenters, because that legitimises them as “democratic”.”Only this week another latecomer joined the party. Comedian David Baddiel made his own apologies on the BBC for correctly naming everything wrong with social media, including his own daughter’s distress, before admitting his hopeless addiction and crawling back to it. The point is that Baddiel is a courageous intellectual, but ultimately seemed defeated in his bid to extricate. What does that bode for us lesser beings?

All platforms encourage token dissenters, because that legitimises them as “democratic”. One cannot wholly burn-down ones own platform in protest. How did this public spectacle of failure help? And if he had been successful, who would have ever heard of David Baddiel again? So, here lies the paradox of celebrities attempting to set an example regarding social media.

I’ve come to think that fetishism of “tech-fasting” only cements addict-like behaviour. It’s flip-side is Cyber Monday bingeing on IoT junk to “reward yourself”. Do or do not, there is no try. Like Baddiel’s, these accounts are generally pessimistic in their conclusion that it’s “impossible” to stand up against Big-Tech. They are coded messages from the establishment saying, “Don’t be so silly, nobody can really live without a smartphone and social media”. Of course that’s not true. But you won’t ever hear that on social media.

“When I made video lectures criticising Google, it felt awful that the most likely outlet would be YouTube.”Thus I am ambivalent towards those conflicted pragmatists “changing the system from the inside”. I decline joining their “Overthrow The Empire” Facebook groups. Yet I have respect for their courage. It takes something to fully embrace hypocrisy, or dualism. When I made video lectures criticising Google, it felt awful that the most likely outlet would be YouTube.

Successful projects I have encountered seem advocate modest and gradual change and are not too Puritan to use the platforms they denounce to spread their message. However, many projects that attempt to address subjects like social media dependency disorder and have been active since around 2015 have not found traction. They’ve achieved only modest success despite the growing prevalence and visibility of the problem. Why is this?

“If token dissent is no longer being tolerated and disaffection swept under the rug, it means the big platforms are scared.”Amidst mounting scientific evidence and whistleblower reports, widespread sentiment on the need for society to back away from collective smartphone and social media delirium is booming. However, critical discussion now encounters suppression across all corporate mass communications systems like Twitter, Facebook, TikTok, etc.

Active censorship of social technology critique is a good thing (and quite inevitable). It marks a vital advance in the sequence “first they ignore you, then they ridicule you, then they fight you, then you win.” If token dissent is no longer being tolerated and disaffection swept under the rug, it means the big platforms are scared.

_______

Bibliography

  • [Hiroto75] “Hiroto & Seligman, Generality of learned helplessness in man, “Journal of Personality and Social Psychology”, 31, 311-327 (1975).

12.30.21

Microsoft GitHub and Google YouTube Remove Source Code and Video for DOOM Running on IKEA Smart Lamp Due to DMCA Take Down

Posted in Google, Microsoft at 6:39 am by Guest Editorial Team

Guest post by Ryan, reprinted with permission from the original

SO Microsoft GitHub and Google YouTube removed source code and video for DOOM running on an IKEA smart lamp due to DMCA take down.

At the time of this writing, the Internet Archive has the directory layout, but not the source code, from the GitHub repo.

“Then again, IKEA is known for sending legal nastygrams.”It is unclear who demanded the takedown, but it may have been Microsoft themselves, as they own id Software now.

Since the DOOM engine is under the GPL and IKEA really can’t stop people who buy a smart lamp from hacking on it when they get it home using a DMCA take down against someone telling them how to do that, Microsoft is the likely suspect. The Shareware Doom levels were redistributable, they had to be modified in order to run on the IKEA smart lamp, which gives Microsoft attorneys an opening to make DMCA claims against the software.

Then again, IKEA is known for sending legal nastygrams.

Regardless of who the bully is this time (the author, “next-hack” was unclear), this is the threat we face with Big Tech like Microsoft and their Web of DRM and DMCA. Nothing is permanent. Nothing can be trusted,. The infrastructure is tainted and must be replaced.

I did find a clone repo where you can click code and then download as ZIP.

Since it too is on GitHub, I don’t know how much longer it will be available.

12.26.21

My Year as a Digital Vegan — Part I — 2021 in Review

Posted in Free/Libre Software at 3:48 pm by Guest Editorial Team

By Dr. Andy Farnell

Series parts:

  1. YOU ARE HERE ☞ 2021 in Review

Small ducks

Summary: Dr. Andy Farnell shares his experiences from this past year; today we start with a short first part

For those wondering “What’s it like to live as a Digital Vegan?”, here’s a quick review of my 2021, some of the pleasures and pains, wins and losses while taking a principled stand on digital technology.

My not-so-supermarket

2021 began with the minor annoyance of my local supermarket trampling on my privacy. They deployed face recognition in their stores and so convinced me to not shop there. I’d sometimes spend £10 per week at Co-Op. A few friends joined me in a boycott. The company have not budged despite consumer backlash and concerns over the legality of their actions. Maybe you can help change their minds in 2022. People in the US may soon need a bio-metric shakedown to buy food, so if this isn’t on your radar maybe take a closer look at where high-street shopping is headed. Papers please!

It made me think about the value of competition and diversity, and importance of small shops. I am lucky to live where there’s a choice of 4 other main supermarkets, and dozens of independent stores. You’re more vulnerable if you live in a rural area and your monopoly food-baron decides to go rogue. Supporting small shops, even if they cost much more is a long term investment, so when I can I buy more produce from the local butcher, greengrocer, bakery and hardware store. Commerce is about relationships, not just prices.

“It seems we need to develop a more mature model of public-private boundaries and “incidental harm” when, for example, a visitor is subjected to surveillance by “smart” TV or Siri type voice technology in your home.”A friend of mine got locked into a miserable dispute over a shared driveway, and drawn into a technological arms race. Battles over camera doorbells got me thinking about the concepts of space and ownership. A hard dualism between private and public spaces seems to create some poor outcomes. The scourge of CCTV, alarm systems, Amazon Ring doorbells and other components of the Fear Machine is a growing problem.

It may be your shop or house, but your presence in my neighbourhood doesn’t come without obligations. And the moment you invite me in, I essentially become a temporary stakeholder. Injurious man-traps protecting your drinks cabinet wouldn’t be okay (you’d at least get sued if not subject to criminal prosecution). It seems we need to develop a more mature model of public-private boundaries and “incidental harm” when, for example, a visitor is subjected to surveillance by “smart” TV or Siri type voice technology in your home. Anyway, on the plus side, all of these ideas are feeding into some great chapters for my next book Ethics For Hackers.

Going back to school

I resumed face-to-face teaching in 2021. Earlier in the pandemic I wrote about the value of online teaching. It was a biased analysis, speaking for myself as a teacher without ever really asking my students for their side. Being less experienced they simply didn’t know what they were missing until they came back into classes.

Many much-loved colleagues quit this summer. A university campus dominated by students with just a handful of lecturers feels strange – but somehow right, almost the antidote to Ben Ginsberg’s “all administrative faculty”. I fantasise that students might just figure out how to do their own degree-awarding and initiate an anarchist takeover of academia – the “all student university”.

“Many much-loved colleagues quit this summer.”The “great resignation” is an unknown factor. Is it really a thing? Are people just getting sick from Covid and too fatigued to bother any more? Or is it just changing age demographics mixed with a less mobile workforce? Or is it, as one colleague put to me, the productive classes “Going Galt” amidst final-stage surveillance capitalism with nothing left to extract? For my part, I’m really loving being back at real work, and the challenge to adapt and overcome (mostly piss-poor leadership) is pleasant.

I think we all just got burned out. But, crucially, technology misuse had a lot to do with that. It’s not Covid itself, anti-vaxers, corrupt leadership, or the tide of doom (psychological warfare that’s ground us down in this pandemic), it’s the “pushers” – those for whom doom-scrolling, dehumanising isolation and forced intermediation is their cash cow.

12.24.21

Alexandre Oliva’s Open Letter on Richard Stallman

Posted in Free/Libre Software, FUD, GNU/Linux, GPL at 9:21 am by Guest Editorial Team

Alexandre Oliva
Image source

Summary: The person whom many consider to be the ‘heir’ of RMS responds to common accusations, which are sadly not based on actual facts

The other day, I sent email to a celebrated feminist leader in the FLOSS community, letting her know about some good news I’d just come across that I thought would be of her interest, and congratulating her for some of her accomplishments. My email signature, pointing to https://stallmansupport.org, caught her attention, and she mentioned her disagreement with it in her kind and respectful response. I thought a lot about how to respond, and I’ve finally sent her the following response.

I’m sorry it seems to have been the most relevant part of my email to you. I almost took it out, suspecting you might differ and be offended, but I ended up leaving it there because I didn’t think you deserved dishonesty from me. This has been in my signature in emails I’ve sent out since May 3rd, and removing it didn’t feel honest.

I’ve been close to RMS for over 25 years. I, my wife and my daughter have hosted him a number of times, and arranged for others to host him a larger number of times. People who admire him, and people who hardly knew him. He was never easy to deal with, he’s persistent and often obsessed about issues that catch his attention. But harassment?

Harassment, to me, is ganging up on someone in a hate letter to bring them down. A hate letter that attempts to disguise its actual motivations by resorting to a bunch of shocking but false accusations, exaggerations and misrepresentations.

As for the experiences and reports you got… An FSF board committee whose members AFAICT all wanted RMS out investigated reports about RMS for over two years, before and after RMS resigned, and despite all the second-hand rumors, they could never get to any concrete findings. I have independently investigated various claims and invariably came to dead ends. Given how many false reports and ad hominem attacks on Free Software he’s been targeted with, it wasn’t at all unthinkable to conclude that this was yet another character assassination attack without substance.

He, clumsy, obsessive, meltdown-prone and sometimes harsh, as our shared condition makes us, has always been an easy target for this kind of discrimination. Besides, the movement he started and leads threatens various powerful monopolies, which makes him more of a target of such attacks. It’s easy and disappointing to see how his supposed offenses don’t seem to motivate action when committed by actual celebrities who work for the corporate forces who lead and who are served by the attacks on him.

Of course none of this proves him innocent, but that’s what’s suggested by the absence of credible evidence and the exclusivity of dead-end second-hand hearsay and fabrications. In case the people you know personally who have alleged harassment by RMS would like to report it to me, my opinion may change, and if they’re willing, I may pass it on to the FSF board. But, so far, what I’ve seen has been limited to false and dehumanizing allegations to support the discrimination of a person who fights for freedom and justice untiringly, without regard for much else, and with some traits that are hard for neurotypicals to understand or like.

I’m disappointed that someone like you, who purports to fight for justice and against discrimination, would join the beating up, let alone to label him a celebrity to further dehumanize him. But then, I have only my experiences to go by, not yours, and certainly not the reports you heard and chose to believe. Not knowing what they are, I can’t tell whether they justify mistreating him.

I can, howvever, tell that nothing justifies lying in false and exaggerated accusations: if the facts are not shocking enough to support that amount of mistreatment, fabricating alternative facts to carry it out doesn’t make them so. It rather makes the attack itself unjustified, disproportional and dishonest.

Subscribing ot the letter might be understandable in the height of emotions, but refraining from revoking the signature once it becomes clear that it’s no more than a collection of lies speaks a lot more about the moral alignment of the subscriber than about that of the target of the hate letter.

I hope these words and facts will find ressonance in your conscience and bring you to align your behavior with the rightful pursuit of justice and fight against the various forms of discrimination. Undoing the injustice you’ve been part of would be a long-overdue first step, even if other unrelated reasons remain to seek and pursue justice for or against this one person.

Happy holidays, and keep up the fights for good,


Alexandre Oliva, happy hacker https://FSFLA.org/blogs/lxo/
Free Software Activist GNU Toolchain Engineer
Disinformation flourishes because many people care deeply about injustice
but very few check the facts. Ask me about https://stallmansupport.org

So blong


Copyright 2007-2021 Alexandre Oliva

Permission is granted to make and distribute verbatim copies of this entire document worldwide without royalty, provided the copyright notice, the document’s official URL, and this permission notice are preserved.

The following licensing terms also apply to all documents and postings in this blog that don’t contain a copyright notice of their own, or that contain a notice equivalent to the one above, and whose copyright can be reasonably assumed to be held by Alexandre Oliva.

This work is licensed under the Creative Commons License BY-SA (Attribution ShareAlike) 3.0 Unported. To see a copy of this license, visit http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/ or send a letter to Creative Commons, 444 Castro Street, Suite 900, Mountain View, California, 94041, USA.

12.21.21

The Microsoft Shuffle: Making One’s Own Products Intentionally Defective

Posted in Deception, Microsoft at 8:59 pm by Guest Editorial Team

Original by Mitchel Lewis at HackerNoon/Medium, resposted here due to reported suppression attempts; reprinted with permission

Microsoft guns

In my previous post, I covered how Microsoft and their partners have a vested interest in keeping their products artificially defective and complex. But I didn’t get a chance to dive as far as I would have liked into how Microsoft could go about intentionally keeping their solutions artificially defective or the negative impact that these methods seem to have elsewhere within their company. Without involving employees though, there are only a few ways that a company can intentionally create defective products without making it look intentional. Obviously, its not as simple as their employees dropping random 💩 emojis into their code at night.

“In fact, as a former Microsoft employee myself, I can confirm that no one in this world hates defects and unnecessary complexity more than Microsoft employees and that great efforts are made to address such problems there. But, while the quality of an IT solution can absolutely reflect the quality and dedication of the engineers that made it, the quality of the environments where these solutions are produced are of equal importance and are reflected in the product just the same.”Certainly, Microsoft could just as well be ignorant and inept with regard to quality software engineering best practices and just accidentally make $89 billion dollars per year. They could also just be dated, as this business model was much more justifiable in the 80’s and 90’s when they had no real competition and the productivity boost that their products offered at the time was unparalleled. Without an intricate understanding of quality engineering though, Microsoft, as a premier software development firm throughout the world, could not get to the level that they are presently at nor could they capitalize on such a dynamic that benefits off of artificially defective products to the degree that they do.

It goes without saying, but Microsoft doesn’t actually instruct their employees to create defective software. In fact, as a former Microsoft employee myself, I can confirm that no one in this world hates defects and unnecessary complexity more than Microsoft employees and that great efforts are made to address such problems there. But, while the quality of an IT solution can absolutely reflect the quality and dedication of the engineers that made it, the quality of the environments where these solutions are produced are of equal importance and are reflected in the product just the same. Along with hiring top talent, tech companies, as with others, can nurture their desired end result by adjusting their environment accordingly. This happens to be why modern technology companies tend to spend a significant amount of revenue tuning their work environment with extravagant office perks and progressive management practices.

“By reducing vendor headcount, they can increase workload of their employees at scale while reducing morale which can increase the probability of defects occurring within their products in turn.”Regardless of how passionate and dedicated they may be, Microsoft employees, unlike Sr. leadership, have little to no influence on environmental variables such as headcount, workload, schedules, resources, morale, management, standards, or ideologies being leveraged; all of which influence the overall quality of their products. As such and just as companies can streamline their environment with this understanding in order to maximize quality, Microsoft can easily apply the same same logic inversely and make subtle changes to the aforementioned environmental variables in order to stifle quality. In doing this and almost as if they can turn a dial, Microsoft leadership can modulate the morale of employees at scale, increasing the tendency for them to be less motivated, more apathetic, less productive, and more error-prone without ever having to tell them to do anything but to do their best; all by simply making subtle changes to their environment.

For instance and since they depend heavily on vendors, which are almost as numerous as their full-time employees, leadership can easily modulate stress and pressure on their teams by increasing or reducing vendor headcount indiscriminately. It doesn’t matter how great of an employee they are, as people are worked harder and stretched thinner, they tend to cut corners in order to meet deadlines and among other things, they generally become more error-prone. By reducing vendor headcount, they can increase workload of their employees at scale while reducing morale which can increase the probability of defects occurring within their products in turn.

“…while employee layoffs always seem to make the news, Microsoft’s vendor attrition seldom generates any buzz and they can modulate pressure on remaining employees and vendors with impunity.”On top of modulating the pressure on their employees with variable vendor resources, Microsoft can also limit the quality of their products to various degrees by limiting the quality of their environment elsewhere. Besides simply laying off a ton of QAs and SDETs, they can also leverage antiquated leadership that often come attached with antiquated organizational and managerial practices. This kind of leadership often results in frequent re-orgs, tenurocracy, thick management structures, change resistance, complex roles, and a rat race for a review system. When combined with adjusting their vendor headcount and lowering the bar with leadership, such practices can have a significant negative impact on productivity and morale which again can have a limiting effect in the overall quality of their products that they just would not have otherwise.

In comparison to having their employees complicit in the sabotage of their products, operating like this can be beneficial for several reasons. For starters, it would be impossible to keep a lid on such a foul if their employees were complicit in it. Conveniently though, making environmental changes in order to make your products artificially defective can be incredibly difficult to correlate, which also distances them from complicity in the matter from a legal perspective. Since so few people are well-versed on the subject of defect density, finding someone with a deep enough understanding of it in order to make such correlations can be quite challenging while also making a plea of ignorance to the subject incredibly easy, believable, and convenient; even for a software engineer. Also, while employee layoffs always seem to make the news, Microsoft’s vendor attrition seldom generates any buzz and they can modulate pressure on remaining employees and vendors with impunity. However, there are drawbacks inherent to operating like this.

“The Playstation 4 has outsold Xbox One 2:1, Windows Phone was a complete bust along with their Nokia acquisition, they’re having trouble giving away Windows 10 for free, their health band lasted three minutes, Consumer Reports recently pulled their recommendation for the Surface line of products, Groove is going away, and no one seems to give a damn about their soon to be released Invoke speaker.”One unfortunate consequence of Microsoft optimizing their organization in order to make products that are more prone to defects is that doing so also makes their products less competitive in markets where innovation and quality take precedence over the influence of their partners, such as retail markets. To no surprise and presumably for this reason, Microsoft has been experiencing difficulty in reaching retail consumers. The Playstation 4 has outsold Xbox One 2:1, Windows Phone was a complete bust along with their Nokia acquisition, they’re having trouble giving away Windows 10 for free, their health band lasted three minutes, Consumer Reports recently pulled their recommendation for the Surface line of products, Groove is going away, and no one seems to give a damn about their soon to be released Invoke speaker.

In order to supplement their defective products in retail markets, Microsoft has to spend more on marketing as well as charging significantly more for support than the likes of Apple. For instance, Microsoft also had to give the NFL $400 million dollars to use their Surfaces for 5 years. Relative to their revenue in 2016, Microsoft spent 1/6th of their revenue on Marketing in comparison to Apple spending only 1/107th of their revenue. Also, a three year AppleCare hardware warranty with unlimited software support costs less than a call to Microsoft for a single Windows support case.

Microsoft Surfaces fail

Microsoft Surfaces fail

Further and by embracing their own solutions when better solutions are available, Microsoft also limits themselves in the same way that other businesses are limited by their products. Not only are Microsoft products more costly with regard to productivity loss, management, and support, there are much more productive and efficient tools available for such work which their competition is using. For a comparison, Apple employees equipped with Apple solutions generate 3x the amount of revenue per employee than Microsoft employees equipped with Microsoft solutions. Certainly, other environmental variables also contribute to this disparity, but the quality and efficiency of tools have a significant impact on the overall quality of the end product, just as the quality and efficiency of weapons influence the outcome of wars. This is yet another reason why IBM switched to Macs and why many startups are standardizing with Apple products to this day.

While most would consider Microsoft products to be a standard within industry, they are failing to see them for the monopoly that they are with the help of their partners. From the perspective of productivity software, they fit the profile quite well and there is not a realm of science that could justify the organizational moves and methodologies that Microsoft relies on outside their actions being that of a monopoly or of an inept company. Fortunately, as the IT industry improves its ability to engineer higher quality, more efficient, less expensive, and simpler solutions, Microsoft will eventually be forced to adapt or collapse. Credit where its due, they are trying incredibly hard to diversify their revenue outside of their partner network, but Microsoft’s many blunders throughout these efforts have forced them to revert back to their monopolistic tendencies and depend on artificially defective solutions in order to keep their partner network and investors happy, now more than ever.

“Without an incredibly high level understanding of engineering best practices, software defect density and the consequences of deviating from them, Microsoft wouldn’t have been able to operate at the level that they do, let alone realize and capitalize on their partner dynamic which is presently responsible for 95% of their revenue.”In summary, this is just one of many ways that monopolies work and to no surprise, Microsoft seems to have a monopoly in the same industries that their partners thrive on. Working in the industry that they built, Microsoft cannot claim to be ignorant of the relationship between the quality of the environment and the quality of their products or of the stimulating effects that their defective software can have on their partners and their own business at the expense of industry as a whole. Without an incredibly high level understanding of engineering best practices, software defect density and the consequences of deviating from them, Microsoft wouldn’t have been able to operate at the level that they do, let alone realize and capitalize on their partner dynamic which is presently responsible for 95% of their revenue. To make such a claim would essentially be the equivalent of saying that they make $89 billion dollars per year by accident.

12.19.21

Unified Patent Court is a Fake Common Court and Violates CJEU’s Jurisprudence of the Last 10 Years, Will Explode at launch, Says Professor Jaeger

Posted in Courtroom, Deception, Europe, Law, Patents at 8:41 am by Guest Editorial Team

Original at FFII

Prof. Dr. Thomas Jaeger

The Unified Patent Court (UPC) is a court outside of the design of the European Union, and won’t survive a legal challenge at the European Court of Justice (CJEU), says Pr Thomas Jaeger, legal researcher at the University of Vienna, who has analyzed in a paper “Delayed Again? The Benelux Alternative to the UPC” the jurisprudence of the CJEU for the last 10 years regarding international courts that have to interpret EU law.

Over the last 10 years, The European Court of Justice of the European Union (CJEU) has defined a clear jurisprudence on what consists a “common court” between the Member States, via a series of decisions that all follow the same logic: international courts that have to interpret EU law have to have functional links with the National Courts of the Member States, which the UPC does not have.

Pr Jaeger says in his paper:

“the narrative was invented that the UPC is a court common to the Member States. It is not, of course, because the functioning and jurisdiction of the court remained the same as envisaged for the EEUPC.”

He cites the CJEU’s Miles judgment (2011), which explains why the Benelux court is acceptable, and other models like the UPCA are not (lack of functional links with the national Courts of the Member States):

“‘It is true that the Court of Justice has held, in … Dior, that … a court common to a number of Member States, such as the Benelux Court of Justice, [is] able to submit questions to the Court of Justice, in the same way as courts or tribunals of any of those Member States. … However, the Complaints Board [at hand] is not such a court common to … Member States[.] Whereas the Benelux Court … procedure … is a step in the proceedings before the national courts leading to definitive interpretations of common Benelux legal rules …, the Complaints Board does not have any such links with the judicial systems of the Member States. … Moreover, although the Complaints Board was created by all the Member States and by the Union, the fact remains that it is a body of an international organisation which, despite the functional links which it has with the Union, remains formally distinct from it and from those Member States.”

— CJEU’s Case C-196/09, Paul Miles and Others v European Schools, 2011, https://eur-lex.europa.eu/legal-content/EN/TXT/HTML/?uri=CELEX:62009CJ0196&from=EN

In its Achmea decision (2018) to cancel controversial intra-EU ISDS investment courts, the CJEU recalled the same principle as in Miles (2011):

However, the arbitral tribunal at issue in the main proceedings is not such a court common to a number of Member States, comparable to the Benelux Court of Justice. Whereas the Benelux Court has the task of ensuring that the legal rules common to the three Benelux States are applied uniformly, and the procedure before it is a step in the proceedings before the national courts leading to definitive interpretations of common Benelux legal rules, the arbitral tribunal at issue in the main proceedings does not have any such links with the judicial systems of the Member States (see, to that effect, judgment of 14 June 2011, Miles and Others, C‑196/09, EU:C:2011:388, paragraph 41).

— CJEU’s Case Case C-284/16, Achmea, https://eur-lex.europa.eu/legal-content/EN/TXT/?uri=CELEX%3A62016CJ0284&qid=1639573183575

In a recent interview on Kluwer Patent Blog, Pr Jaeger says the Court design might be challenged by a complaint in front of national courts, of whom the competence was stolen by the Unified Patent Court:

Will the UPC’s legality be tested immediately after its launch, you think? “I have heard from a number of sides that such interest is there, especially since the hurdles for a challenge are low: Any national court whose jurisdiction is removed because of the UPC could put the question of EU law compatibility of that removal of jurisdiction (i.e. of legality of the UPCA) before the CJEU by way of a preliminary ruling. All it takes is a litigant who approaches that court, which would in turn need to ascertain the preliminary question of its continued jurisdiction.”

— Kluwer Patent Blog: ‘Unitary Patent system is an arbitrary and ailing hybrid monster mix’ , Interview of Pr Jaeger http://patentblog.kluweriplaw.com/2021/12/09/unitary-patent-system-is-an-arbitrary-and-ailing-hybrid-monster-mix/

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