This isn’t a sharing economy

Technollama has written a piece critiquing the sharing economy The sharing economy is anything but where he points out that sharing isn’t really what is happening in most cases. We are trading goods for cash and a middleman is taking a cut. Also the great profitability often comes from the dismantling of protections which have been put into place in order to protect either the consumer, the industry or wider social interests.

He closes his post with

A true decentralised model would connect users and providers without an intermediary, probably by the existence of nodes and connectors, much in the way in which truly decentralised services operate. Couchsurfing is closer to the ideal sharing economy, where people offer a space for free., while BeWelcome is a true Airbnb alternative that is peer-to-peer and open, without nodes and using open source software. I find all of these services much more interesting than the headlines, because their disruption is not a libertarian ruse to bypass regulation, but it is a true sign of decentralisation and openness.

This isn’t a pipe

Aside from ignoring regulations (often put in place to ensure a common good) many of these services are circumventing sales taxes, income taxes and licensing laws. Some are creating unfair advantages and harming legitimate businesses which pay taxes and employ people. So we should be more careful when praising this new thing and also more vigilant in observing the true costs to individuals, organizations and society.

The costs of other people “sharing” will be carried by us all, it will make the middlemen wealthy and probably not really be all that great for those who “work” in this industry.

Atheism is not a religion

As an atheist, every now and then I am confronted with the suggestion (often presented as fact) that atheism is like religion. It’s a system of beliefs filled with bias and intolerance. An example of this is the article Why Richard Dawkins’ humanists remind me of a religion in today’s Guardian.

This position totally blows my mind.

The whole idea of atheism is that there is no proof of God. And we want proof of this higher power before we let his self-chosen representatives to decide over our lives.

The whole idea of science is that it is a method. The scientific fact is not important. So if we believe in one concept today and are presented with proof tomorrow – then science will immediately change its position. Its the method not the result. Religion however is all about absolute truths. Even if there is no evidence. Faced with proof that there is no god religion will still believe in god.

Not long after reading the article in the Guardian I was reminded about Alexander Aan. He was imprisoned for posting atheistic images on Facebook. Imagine that! God needs protection from our disbelief. Sure it’s not god that’s being protected but his faithful servants.

When was the last time you heard of someone being put in prison because they didn’t believe in science?


a NO handicap

Are you an over or under committer? I really did not need to read Matt Swanson’s Engineering – Over/Under: I’m a Serial Over Committer to know that I am an over committer.

My co-workers have recognized – but not taken advantage of – the fact that I have a NO handicap. Put basically this is an inability to say NO when people start talking about their projects, ideas or desire to hear me lecture. So I have always been like this and no matter how much extra work it places on me – I keep agreeing to more stuff.

In part this is out of flattery: You really want ME to talk, be a part of a project, write an article… But it’s also out of pure enthusiasm. When someone talks about an idea they have I immediately get into gear and starting thinking and sharing my thoughts. I quite regularly talk myself into volunteering work without even realizing it myself. I am that stupid. The problem is that the are too many projects. Some of them end up as dead ends – or even worse – as corpses along the road of my ever present guilty conscience.

There was more than a pang of recognition & amusement in the line Matt wrote:

“But you never finish anything!” is a meme that co-workers jokingly needle me with.

But fundamentally I disagree with it. The problem is not that things don’t get finished – its more that the ratio of finished/unfinished is extremely unbalanced. Of course there are 100s of projects I have never finished. If you ask my guilty conscience there are millions – I am basically an unfinished project that will never be completed.

The trick is, for me, to look at the problem in a different light. It’s not about what I do not finish but about looking about the number, impact and success of the projects I do finish. When I look at these I can smile and think: Not too shabby. At least until the phone rings and someone asks if I could…

Powerpoint and kittens

Not for the first time during a conference I sit thinking about Edward Tuft. He was a critic of slideshow presentations and it is easy to understand why. Most of the time you find intelligent people failing to interact with their audience – not because the audience lacks the ability to comprehend but the technology used acts as a inhibitor rather than an enabler: The short version from Wikipedia

In his essay “The Cognitive Style of PowerPoint”, Tufte criticizes many properties and uses of the software:

  • It is used to guide and to reassure a presenter, rather than to enlighten the audience;
  • It has unhelpfully simplistic tables and charts, resulting from the low resolution of early computer displays;
  • The outliner causes ideas to be arranged in an unnecessarily deep hierarchy, itself subverted by the need to restate the hierarchy on each slide;
  • Enforcement of the audience’s linear progression through that hierarchy (whereas with handouts, readers could browse and relate items at their leisure);
  • Poor typography and chart layout, from presenters who are poor designers and who use poorly designed templates and default settings (in particular, difficulty in using scientific notation);
  • Simplistic thinking, from ideas being squashed into bulleted lists, and stories with beginning, middle, and end being turned into a collection of disparate, loosely disguised points. This may present an image of objectivity and neutrality that people associate with science, technology, and “bullet points”.

It is also easy to remember Edward Tufte from this wonderful illustration by Mark Goetz:

I have many kittens on my conscious – did Dante have a level for powerpoint abusers?

Has Facebook peaked?

All things come to an end. Those who do not believe this probably just have very short memories or lack history skills. There have been big social network sites prior to and parallel to Facebook.

The problem of the Internet is contained in its greatest strength engineers rather than ordinary people. The problem with the Internet law is that we believe contracts trump rights. Put these two things together and we have the area where social networking sites work and play.

And Facebook has crushed opposition. Facebook has grown despite its lack of care of users interests (If you are not paying for it, you’re not the customer; you’re the product being sold.). Oddly enough Facebook has managed to grown without much legal obstruction from states attempting to enforce privacy regulation (or other areas). Facebook has survived earlier attempts from users to quit. While the law is slowly (criminal neglect slow) beginning to look at what’s happening on social network sites I dont think it will be the law that has any real effect here.

But allow me to be a prophet of doom: The biggest threats to Facebook are size and apathy. Facebook is big and it is its size that will be its downfall. Even if users seem to be content with services offered I do think people are more bored with the standardized approach to social networking that Facebook offers.

But I do not expect an exodus. Nobody should expect this. What we see is not quitting out of indignation but rather out of apathy. We will keep our accounts but update them less often – or even worse connect our accounts to other services (like blog updates 🙂 and the updates will be irrelevant.

What to expect? Not much really. The same as with any other market where the customers are bored and under stimulated. The moment an alternative pops up the customers will flock to it in droves. Media will rave about this new cool cool thing. The giant will be weakened and then the law, the competitors, the investors and the general crazies will attack from all quarters.

Facebook will try to become the new MySpace: wounded but surviving as a niche product. And here it will struggle to survive since it will be a niche product without a niche. A generalist in a world of specialists.


Is snitching a social good?

In 1984 one of the basic premises of state control was to be found in the dictum “He who controls the past, controls the future”. This can be seen as a version of the popular quote from the Spanish philosopher George Santayana: “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it“.

One of the themes in George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four the way in which the repressive society encourages friends, neighbors and family to spy on one another. The informer was seen as a hero by the state. In particular Orwell writes that parents lived in fear of their children.

The family could not actually be abolished, and, indeed, people were encouraged to be fond of their children, in almost the old-fashioned way. The children, on the other hand, were systematically turned against their parents and taught to spy on them and report their deviations. The family had become in effect an extension of the Thought Police. It was a device by means of which everyone could be surrounded night and day by informers who knew him intimately.

This is based on the story of Pavlik Morozov, a child who denounced his father to the soviet state and became part of soviet mythology and naturally part of the the fear of the soviet state.

Now we could dismiss the whole thing as a fiction set in a far away place, in a far away time but this is not what Orwell wants. The same year Nineteen Eighty-Four was published he wrote in a letter*

My recent novel [Nineteen Eighty-Four] is NOT intended as an attack on Socialism or on the British Labour Party (of which I am a supporter), but as a show-up of the perversions . . . which have already been partly realized in Communism and Fascism. . . . The scene of the book is laid in Britain in order to emphasize that the English-speaking races are not innately better than anyone else, and that totalitarianism, if not fought against, could triumph anywhere.

Today we are again and again being actively encouraged to destroy not family but society. We are supposed to discover and report “suspicious behavior” for the good of us all – in the name of terrorism. The most reason slick version of the state asking us to denounce anything different comes (via BoingBoing: What to do if you smell a terrorist). It’s about a video released by the LA police department in a campaign called IwatchLA.

The video is slick, sleek and personal. It encourages people to denounce anything unusual – even an unusual smell – and let the authorities decide if its terrorism. This is what Orwell feared. The goal of terrorism prevention is a praiseworthy goal but the destruction of social trust by creating universal suspicion is not the way to go.

* The Collected Essays, Journalism and Letters of George Orwell Volume 4 – In Front of Your Nose 1945–1950 p.546 (Penguin)

Robots attack in hostile media

In 2007, a man in Sweden was injured by a industrial robot used for lifting heavy stones. The accident occurred when the man thought that the power was cut off and went inside the security area. The man received head injuries and broken ribs. Now that the matter has been investigated by the Swedish Work Environment Authority and the police, the prosecutor has chosen not to prosecute but to issue a fine of 25 000 kronor.

The exciting thing is the language with which the media chose to present what happened. If the machine had been a drill or a washing machine or a tractor, which caused the damage media would have used a completely different language – if it even had made it into the media.

Since this is Swedish media they are all in Swedish but here are the sources for this post: Dagens Nyheter, Dagens Industri, Norran, Piteå Tidningen, Gefle Dagblad, Sveriges Radio, Ny Teknik & Metro.

But because it is a robot the mainstream media have all chosen to write about the killer robot that attacks with the intention of causing harm. Certain media have even insinuated that such attacks may be coordinated! In the media the machine is given a being, a consciousness and a soul. Which is then developed into a being with the evil intentions rather than a product of design and programming. Like a modern Frankenstein, it is we create beyond our control.

Although industrial robots have long been among us, we want to still see them as exotic. We like to mix them together with the robots that we see in films where they quite often develop thoughts, ideas and feelings in order to finally figure out that we are superfluous and dangerous to their existence. This justifies the use of pre-emtive self-defense. In the world of film we are usually saved by a violent, technology hostile man (almost a luddite, except with guns) who shows that scientists do not understand the meaning of what is being created (see, eg, I, Robot or Terminator Trilogy). It is a paradox that in a technological world the hero that saves us all is an opponent to technology.

Films and media, in these cases, play on dark fears barely hidden in our subconscious. These fears are that we live in a world that we do not control, and a suspicion that those who claim to have control do not really have any control either. In a way this approach to technology and science is similar to our primitive need for religion to explain what we do not know. The difference is that today everybody can find out how things really work. But it’s too much hard work to read and discover the truth – much more fun to attack the robots.

The Quality of Code, Law and Journalism

In the IT newspaper Computer Sweden a Swedish IT/IP lawyer (Malin Forsman) is quoted as saying that proprietary software is of “better quality” than Free or Open Source software (my translation):

She recommends against Swedish software providers from going ‘open souce’. According to her using licensing costs is a much better method.
– You need a carrot to exert yourself properly. If the large source of income is dependent upon the quality of the code then I believe that you will try harder.

My first problem is with the journalism and the article itself. Like many other short newspaper articles it does not seem to have a point. What is the newsworthiness of this article? That an individual has an opinion? So what? We all have opinions but this does not make them newsworthy. Mind you if this had been my only complaint it would not have been worth blogging about.

My second problem is with journalistic integrity. By simply blogging the lawyer we arrive at the law firm where she works and her brief bio, where under Memberships we see that she is a member of: Board member of the IT group of the Stockholm Chamber of Commerce, Board Member of the Association for IT and Law, Member of the Swedish Copyright Association and Member of the International Technology Law Association. Her main legal experience outside law firms was working for Microsoft Corporation. Shouldn’t this maybe have been indicated in the article? If the journalist is presenting an opinion as news then shouldn’t some sort of critical analysis be added? I know that journalists are supposed to be objective but this article is hardly reporting the news as it is.

The next problem is with the lawyer herself. I have no doubt that she is a qualified lawyer and an expert in the IT/IP field but what is wrong with her statements? Unless of course this is simply a case of journalistic misquote she is a legal expert speaking of the quality of code. She does not attempt to define quality even if such a definition was at all possible. By her logic an Open Source project that makes it’s code proprietary immediately improves its code and a proprietary software project that releases its code under an Open Source license immediately deteriorates the quality of its code. Obviously these are ridiculous statements. But when the IT/IP legal expert says them we are supposed to nod our heads in agreement.

So who would be the right person to make such a statement? Well that person would need to have a vast experience of code not law. This imaginary person would need to have a vast experience of both open and proprietary projects and be able to define the concept of quality in a way that will enable these projects to be measurable and comparable. In addition to this the person would need to be free from suspicions of bias. I doubt whether such a super person exists.

But what may be said about quality? Here are two quotes:

Peter Drucker: (Innovation and entrepreneurship, 1985) “Quality in a product or service is not what the supplier puts in. It is what the customer gets out and is willing to pay for. “ISO 9000: “Degree to which a set of inherent characteristic fulfills requirements.”

Now lets complicate the issue even more:

While both these definitions are relatively common neither takes into full account the nature of software quality. The problem arises from the fact that software is a mix of product and service. The actual code is not what customers buy – they buy a function. Who cares what the software of a word processor looks like? It’s function is what the customer believes he/she has bought. If this is true then the customer has also bought an expectation of support in the case of software failure.

This was just meant as an illustration of the complexity of software quality and why neither a journalist nor a lawyer can deal with such a question in the space of a 350 word article. What they are really doing is pure advertising in the form of journalism. Advertising a personal, political and business stance on software while puffing up their own egos.

Run Fatboy Run

This post was almost called Run Forrest Run but the comedy Run Fatboy Run (it is a must see!) is more appropriate for several reasons – which will become obvious if you read on.

As a writer I am always slightly surprised and very flattered when someone says that they have read something I have written, it makes no difference whether the text is my blog or my PhD. When someone comments on my writing or responds to it the text becomes alive and an exchange of ideas begins. This is fun.

A few people seem to read my blog as a way of keeping track of me and what I am doing. To be fair this group mainly consists of my mother who likes to know where I am in the world (and occasionally why I am there) – Hello Mum!

With the dawn of social networking sites and microblogging more people are subjected to my shorter bursts of everyday information. Updating my status via means that the trivial status line in facebook becomes a part of an ongoing background chatter. My friends can see what I am doing and some of them will comment on my actions. My comments on their comments will turn the whole thing into micro-conversations of massive trivia. Something is happening here – not sure what it all means… Yet.

Anyway this all came about when one of my work collegaues (and FB friends) dropped by my office and commented on the fact that many of my status updates on FB involved my running. She asked why this was. Suddenly all the little micro-comments had been harvested and analysed – in the nonchalant way in which the mind works and formulated into a question.

So it’s time to officially announce the fact that I am officially training for a specific goal. My running became vaguely serious in September last year when I succumbed to temptation and bought real running gear. I discussed this online too in a post called Slippery Slope to Spandex. Since then I have been running for fun and exercise.

Then a couple of weeks ago in a fit of misguided hubris I registered for my first ever race. And I mean EVER. I never even did sports as a kid. So now on the 16 May I shall be running a local half-marathon called Göteborgsvarvet. I will not be alone in this there are already over 36 000 runners registered.

So why write all this here? Well to paraphrase an aweful song which I haven’t been able to lose since my teenage years: it’s my blog and I’ll write if I want to. But in reality I want to write it down to increase the pressure, to make sure that I will go through with the whole affair. By placing this text online I am bringing to bear the tools of reputation and public shaming to make sure I will go through with this impluse decision.

Photo: Running man by Tleilaxus (CC BY-NC-SA)

All I can say is: run fatboy run…

The concept of property (whose bike is it anyway?)

Property is not an absolute concept. The concept of what property means changes both in time and culture. Different groups and sub-groups value their own property and the property of others. Naturally this makes the definition of property difficult. Roman (Justinian) Law defined property as the right to use and abuse a thing, within the limits of the law (ius utendi et abutendi re sua, quatenus iuris ratio patitur).

That is a formalistic definition since it requires limitations to be set within the law. But if we replace the law with the limits set by society then the definition is more fluid but harder to limit.

In recent time the discussion of property has been discussed in relation to the legal, ethical and economic discussions on file sharing. A fundamental part of this discussion has been on the basic idea of digital property and whether copying digital products should be a wrongful act – this is not resolved yet with different subgroups still arguing their standpoints using law and technology to prove their point.

All this is good and well but today I got a more practical lesson in the meaning of property within different social sub-groups.

While browsing in a clothes shop my friends locked bike was stolen just outside the store. My less attractive unlocked bike was left behind. Fortunately we searched the area and found the bike. The thief had lifted the bike and hid it in a nearby ally – apparently planning to come back later to remove the lock.

Part of the experience of living in Göteborg is getting your bike stolen. Most of us have lost more than one. Some people argue that they have lost so many bikes that they actually deserve to “borrow” (a.k.a. steal) a bike when they need one. This means that there is an erosion of the concept of property in relation to bikes.

I know that this is a silly argument but the bike thing really pissed me off.