Monday, 30-Jun-08 19:48
Ubicomp, and why I think it's broken

A discussion (well, more of a rant) in Teemu's blog warrants repeat here - why I think the traditional vision of ubicomp, that is, the Internet of Things and the Smart Spaces is broken.

You see, I think that intelligence is relative. You feel stupid when you're with people who're smarter than you, but you could rule the land if you were the only person in a village of idiots. Kinda like social status or wealth - you don't have to be rich: it's enough to have more money than your neighbour.

The thing is, that when you make the space around you smarter, you make the people more stupid. And most people just don't like that. For example, I sometimes like to stay late in the office ('cos it's nice and quiet). The automatic system does not see me moving around, so it shuts off the lights and air conditioning. So you have to go an push a button or run around the corridor and wave your hands, hoping that the system will pick it up. And I just hate that.

People want to feel smarter, and in control. When you are overwhelmed with choice, you feel stupid. When you have five options, you can weigh them in your mind, and make a choice which you feel happy about - you feel both smart and in control. Apple gets this - the reason why iPhone is so cool is because it makes you feel powerful and in control as an user: you understand the options (no geekery involved), you can use it with ease, and you get to go wherever you want. Granted, your array of choice is limited, but that only exists so that you can feel smarter.

Mobile phones are an extension of you these days. Jan Chipchase notes that most people are very Maslowian: they carry means to a shelter (their keys); means to purchase food (money or credit cards); and means to connect to their circle of people (their cell phone). They give you power over bad weather, hunger or loneliness.

So I believe that the logical extension of putting smartness are the things that you carry with you. The idea of "googling for your keys" is alluring, but that does not warrant a full-scale smartification of the entire world. It's much easier to make the keys smarter so that they can talk to you and let you know where they are - not Google.

Same goes with money: it's increasingly becoming smarter. The chip cards are essentially small microcomputers of roughly the same scale as a Commodore 64 (though about 20 times faster).

One of the things about Near Field Communication that really fascinates me is how it takes the money and keys and puts them into your mobile phone. So it's real convergence of the most important things that most people carry. But more importantly, it's something which does not require the environment to become smarter. It makes you smarter because you have the power to use the mobile phone in any way you want.

The second big reason why the ubicomp vision is broken is cost.

Building infrastructure costs money. Maintaining infrastructure costs money. Making your environment smarter means that it needs to have maintenance. Yes, it can be smart and call a repairmain to come by - but as long as it's not a legal citizen, it can't pay for the repairs. So who's going swipe the cards?

Is it really ubiquitous, if it works only in very selected patches of the world where people can afford it?

However, consider your personal electronics - like the mobile phone. You get a new one every two years. The carriers will essentially force one down your throat. It's got more power than a turn-of-the-century PC. It's already with you. It's connected almost everywhere (third world countries and USA notwithstanding ;-). You get immediate, concrete, even life-saving benefit from carrying one around. The infra is already laid down, there is no need to bootstrap. Corporations are making loads of money from the infrastructure - but would they make money out of googling for your keys?

Personally, I think the iPhones and Androids and Limos and Nokias of the world have a lot more claim to the ubiquitous computing vision than the internet-of-things folks. They're already connected, and they're everywhere.

The third thing that I find broken in the whole thing is how the human factor has been cut from the equation. Yes, it is said to transform our lives, but I've yet to hear one good reason what exactly would make two home appliances want to talk to each other? And note - I am specifically saying want. Because at the moment, they don't want anything. They do as they are told, without any personality or desires. We need to figure out what a toaster wants (and not ask the one in Red Dwarf) to understand why they would need to network - and if they do, why aren't they talking to me instead of each other?

Yeah, I know that sounds weird. But consider this: we already speak of cars like "it has a tendency to understeer" or "why won't it go?" We are attaching emotions to things which don't have them - and does that not create them? Does it matter if they have any, if we treat them like they had?

Because in the end, it's my life, and all this stuff should be out there to make my life easier, more bearable, and in general nicer. And of course, all my fellow human beings.

(Ha, the lights went out while I was writing this. Damn you, smart environment! I am still here!)

P.S. Yes, I understand the desire behind the ubiquitous computing. I'm just saying that I think it's just mostly harmless tinkering, until either of the two things happen:

  1. the Singularity arrives, or
  2. someone figures out a really good business case for it and can solve all of the logistics issues around it.

My cynical self says to bet for option 1. Until then, I think it's just better to help you become smarter, which in turn makes the environment dumber.

Monday, 30-Jun-08 16:54
OFFSystem gives lawyers and law-makers new headaches

The problem with geeks and law is that geeks are way better and faster in interpreting reality than lawyers are in interpreting laws. Here's a good example - the Owner-Free Filing system.

The OFFSystem is a distributed file system (essentially creating a huge disk drive where you can put whatever content you want, and everyone else using the same system can see that content, too) - but what is interesting is that it is really stabbing at the heart of copyright as defined.

You see, it does not store encrypted data. It stores numbers, and it uses the same numbers to store many different kinds of data. So the question is - whether the store in itself is copyrighted or not? Yes, the act of fetching a file from the store may be illegal in some jurisdictions, since that may end up in a copyrighted work for which you do not have legal permission to use, but the store itself contains only numbers, from which it is impossible to figure out what the content actually is. So, in a way, while no actual copying of copyrighted content ever takes place, you could still be infringing someone's copyright. Just another example why the word "copy" in copyright means nothing in the digital age.

The legal system has been wrestling with the concept of whether offering .torrent -files is illegal, since they don't contain any copyrighted content - but they might point to copyrighted content - and if Pirate Bay is illegal, why isn't Google? (Since really the easiest way to find stuff these days is to go and type "xxx-movie torrent" in Google.)

OFFSystem and its likes (like Tahoe) are going to cause way more interpretation problems that Bittorrent ever did. And, while the courts are chewing on that, there's four-five years of time to invent something completely new.

Copyright is badly broken, out of touch with reality, and needs to be fixed.

Picture the song as this, but much longer.

24332984303829732498…398724

Now there are two other numbers that may be of interest, depending upon how you interpret them. Consider the following big numbers:

11230243302314110327…264211
and
12102741001515622171…134513

Then consider adding them together.

Are these numbers copyrighted? Can I store them on two separate computers? Would that break the law? What if they were never added together? Would their existence still break the law?

What if I give you two other numbers? Again, and again.

There are two consistent ways to answer the above questions. One leads to the conclusion that “All numbers are copyrighted.” The other leads to the conclusion that, “There exists encodings of copyrighted number that are NOT copyrighted.”

If the first conclusion is true, digital copyright is pointless. If the second is true digital copyright is meaningless.

(Via Slashdot)

(By the way - using the OFFSystem technology, you could make every song to be a copy of Never gonna give you up - all you would need to supply the mathematical difference between a song and the Rick Astley piece. So if you're a copyright lawyer, I suggest you grab your maths book or hire your friendly neighbourhood geek to explain all this.)

Edit: Also read this wonderful piece about the Colour of bits, and why the colour matters.

Wednesday, 25-Jun-08 10:12
EU wants to regulate bloggers to stifle "unfair competition"

Whooooooo boy. Pissing off several tens of millions of people is really smart, Ms. Mikko.

This report (English, Finnish version here) drafted by Estonian MEP Marianne Mikko details how bloggers, those pesky creatures, are unfairly providing free content to consumers, thus stifling competition with the real media providers and how blogs could be used for evil, which why they should be regulated. Witness the following, highly enlightening quotes:

M. whereas commercial publications are increasingly utilising user-generated content, especially audiovisual content for a nominal fee, raising questions of unfair competition among media professionals,"

...

N. whereasthe increased use and reliance on user generated content may adversely affect the privacy of citizens and public figures by creating conditions of permanent surveillance,

...

O. whereas weblogs are an increasingly common medium for self-expression by media professionals as well as private persons, the status of their authors and publishers, including their legal status, is neither determined nor made clear to the readers of the weblogs, causing uncertainties regarding impartiality, reliability, source protection, applicability of ethical codes and the assignment of liability in the event of lawsuits,

...

P. whereas the Member States have widescope for interpreting the remit of the public service media and its financing and whereas the commercial media has expressed concerns over unfair competition,

...

9. Suggests clarifying the status, legal or otherwise, of weblogs and encourages their voluntary labelling according to the professional and financial responsibilities and interests of their authors and publishers;

...

In this context the report points out that the undetermined and unindicated status of authors and publishers of weblogs causes uncertainties regarding impartiality, reliability, source protection, applicability of ethical codes and the assignment of liability in the event of lawsuits.
It recommends clarification of the legal status of different categories of weblog authors and publishers as well as disclosure of interests and voluntary labelling of weblogs. The report acknowledges the spreading use for a nominal fee of user-generated content by the commercial publications and the privacy and competition issues this generates. It recommends compensating non-professionals commensurately to the commercial value they generate and using ethical codes to protect the privacy of citizens and public figures.

Well, boo-hoo. Finland has this wonderful saying of "the responsibility is entirely on the listener's side". Simple maths should show you that this is a completely inane idea: there are tens of millions of blogs in Europe. Most of them are pseudonymous. Most of them are written by people who write to their friends. Do you actually think they would care at all about what EU says?

While I do sort of understand the concern that some media outlets are using user-generated content without any regard to copyright (which should be addressed), I am entirely happy to share my content for free (you just need to observe the SA bit of the CC license). If that disrupts your business model, you might want to think of a new one instead of going to your MEP to cry and demand that it is unfair competition. Heck, I'm not competing with you. I am ignoring you.

Ms. Mikko seems to have bought the "citizenship journalism" -line with the hook and sinker, too. While some bloggers could be considered journalists, most of them simply aren't. So treating all weblogs like they were should be pretty much a non-starter. And considering that the definition of a weblog is so vague, there is no choice except to make sure that all content online would be regulated in the same way.

Which, while I am sure it would be the wet dream of any pencil-pushing bureucrat, will not happen. Even China can't do it.

I guess what really pisses me off about this memo is the idea behind it - that the media is so important we can't leave it to amateurs, since they might produce crap and we couldn't know who paid them to do so!

Yeah, the last point seems to also be quite important: the EU is worried of bloggers whose agenda is "not known". So what if people are not just saying their personal opinions? Of course it's unethical if they don't tell people, but hey - everybody lies. Should we have legislation on telling lies in the pub as well - that telling a pretty lady you're really an engineer even though you claim you're a fighter pilot?

The motives of a blogger don't matter much, because bandwidth is unlimited. Yes, the motives of the main TV news channel do matter, because TV is a controlled, restricted, serial medium. The internet isn't. Anybody can say anything (barring copyright, NDAs and libel), so if you're speaking bullshit, and you matter, you will have ten blogs shooting you down. But nobody is going to give you airtime on the telly if you oppose the channel policy.

As to the urging to increase media literacy in EU - that's the smartest suggestion I've seen in the entire paper. I suggest Ms. Mikko takes the first course, so she can see what the difference between an unknown pseudonym blogging about her dog, a media blogger, and a newspaper is.

(I'll leave the privacy issue untouched - running out of time to rant...)

(Thanks to Piraattiliitto.)

Tuesday, 24-Jun-08 14:43
Another restaurant fails clue roll

The Internets and the fact that consumers have power these days still seems to escape some business owners. Mikko Eerola tested a local Latin American eatery called "Nuevo Latino", and wrote a review to eat.fi as well as to Jaiku. Unlike the other reviewers, he didn't much like the experience; just stated that he felt the food was good though overpriced and that the waiters were rude. So nothing very unusual in Helsinki. Could've been a bad day in the restaurant, too.

The story gets interesting when the restaurant owner sent an angry email (English) to Mr. Eerola, claiming that his bad review "sounded like defamation", and that his emails "will be reported as fraud" that they "will be in the obligation to take legal actions should this behaviour continue." Also, the restaurant contacted the Peruvian embassy, which in turn contacted Mr. Eerola's wife (who's from Peru and has nothing to do with the whole thing) "who should know better".

Fail.

Of course, he blogged about the letter (Finnish), and now the whole thing is blowing over the top. Newspapers are writing about it, bloggers are writing about it, and most people just simply condemn the behaviour of the restaurant, and consider them to be a bit silly and self-destructive.

Others, well... Suffice to say that at least one anonymous moron is now at Mikko Eerola's blog comment section spouting things that could very well be construed as death threats.

Obviously, I'm not going to go to that restaurant; and neither will I take any relatives, friends, or business associates to it. Bad food and service I can forgive. Threating people (with lawsuits or violence) who just simply voice their opinion I can't.

Update: Looks like the situation is resolved peacefully, the restaurant has apologized, blaming the individual efforts of two staff members.

Sunday, 22-Jun-08 23:29
Guy sells his life on eBay

I know this is old news, but the auction is on right now!

Just to refresh your memory: Ian Usher in Perth, Australia decided to sell his entire life. Yes, including friends and the job. He says:

"On the day it is all sold and settled I intend to walk out of my front door with my wallet in one pocket and my passport in the other, nothing else at all, and get on the train, with no idea where I am going or what the future holds for me."

The house looks decent, the place is pretty spectacular (with the Aussie lifestyle, too). No wonder the current bid is already - less than 24 hours of starting - at 2.2 Million AUD (~1.3 M€).

Perth is pretty much far, far away from everywhere, though.

Thursday, 19-Jun-08 23:53
The universal edit button

A few guys got together and built a "universal edit button" - essentially a small Firefox plugin that lets you know that you can change the content of a web page.

It's a good idea, and I hope it becomes so commonplace you don't really need a browser plugin anymore. Just like the RSS logo you see if you're browsing this site with any relatively modern browser.

JSPWiki will support this in version 2.8, out "soon". You can already test it at the JSPWiki sandbox. Other small wikis are following suite, like, oh, Wikipedia. Adding it to your JSPWiki installation is easy; just put the following in your templates/default/commonheader.jsp:

<%-- Support for the universal edit button (www.universaleditbutton.org) --%>
<wiki:CheckRequestContext context='view|info|diff|upload'>
  <wiki:Permission permission="edit">
    <wiki:PageType type="page">
    <link rel="alternate" type="application/x-wiki" 
          href="<wiki:EditLink format='url' />"
          title="<fmt:message key='actions.edit.title'/>" />
    </wiki:PageType>
  </wiki:Permission>
</wiki:CheckRequestContext>

More at readwriteweb.

Wednesday, 18-Jun-08 07:38
Tip: Firefox 3 download

In case you're trying to download Firefox 3, and are finding (among everyone else) that the mozilla.com servers are completely unresponsive due to the load, you can go directly to the distribution repository at http://releases.mozilla.org/pub/mozilla.org/firefox/releases/3.0/, and choose your operating system first, and then the language.

Saturday, 14-Jun-08 21:38
Siika

(Warning, obscure Finnish humor follows.)

So, these guys managed to get a whitefish of respectable size while icefishing last winter, and put the experience on Youtube. It simmers there for a while, just watched by friends. The unbridled joy of getting a whitefish of almost two kilograms is shared by few.

Aaand then someone makes a remix of that experience with a soundtrack.

And then a Muumi remake follows.

And then there was radioplay.

And, if my magic 8-ball is right, all signs point to yes, there will be more.

Thursday, 12-Jun-08 09:42
Phoenix landing

For some reason, this video makes me very happy every time I watch it. It's always nice to see hair-raising tension get relieved in joy and laughter.

(The video is a HD quality log of the seven minutes it takes for a Mars-bound spacecraft to decelerate from interplanetary speeds to zero. So many things could go wrong with it.)

Monday, 09-Jun-08 17:11
Back to civilization

Ha! With the new job, comes relocation. Out of the engineering pits of Pitäjänmäki into the civilized Ruoholahti I go, and whistle as I walk.

The fact that I will save an hour of commute every day is going to make wonders to my mental health.

Lunch, anyone?

Sunday, 08-Jun-08 22:51
Some nice TED talks

I find that TED talks is probably the most interesting video podcast out there. Here are a couple of my latest favourites:


Private comments? Drop me an email. Or complain in a nearby pub - that'll help.



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