Is the people's car a good idea?

The Indian Tata corporation have presented their new car the Tata Nano at a car show in New Delhi. The car is being described as as a people’s car due to it’s low price (100,000 rupees or $2,500). It will go on sale later this year. The main market for the car is to provide cheap motor transportation to developing countries. The Nano is a four-door five-seater car with no extras (no air conditioning, electric windows or power steering) and has a 33bhp, 624cc, engine at the rear.


Simply looking at the specs above make me concerned. I would not like to be among the five people in this car when it gets hit by a truck.

Is producing a cheap people’s car really a good idea? While I am pretty sure that Tata Motors will sell lots of cars I did not mean this question as a risk analysis in a business venture.

Considering the experiences of all highly motorized countries the car has caused plenty of trouble. The implementation of a personalised transport technology means that it will become a natural part of the infrastructure. It will be used and the costs to the environment in the forms of pollution and overcrowding will be felt.

In addition to this the personal car has also changed the way in which we organize ourselves socially. Were we choose to work, live and socialize depends very much upon the transportation possibilities around us.
But is it fair for someone living in a motorized community to preach the environment and social change? Sure these are the downsides to adding to the amount of cars on the roads. But what about the needs of the people to travel in countries where cars are today an un-affordable luxury? Should the motorized societies be allowed to preach to the non-motorized from the driver seats of our SUV’s?

(via BBC online)

Trashing the OLPC

The Economist trashes the One Laptop Per Child (OLPC) in a recent column. The tone is negative from the start with the title One Clunky Laptop Per Child the reader quickly gets the idea. The main argument is however strange. The criticism is not about the idea but is focused squarely on the technology that has been produced. The Economist goes so far as to call the idea brilliant.

The problem with this approach is that with its focus on the technology the field is left open to the idea that the project would have worked if the computer had been better. This approach ignores the problem that simply chucking technology at people will automatically solve problems.

Laptops are not really what is needed to help children in developing nations. What they need is schools, tables, chairs, paper, books, teachers, pencils and the infrastructure to attend a school. Laptops, even cheap ones, are a luxury.

The OLPC has been criticized before read more on Wikipedia.

Never mention the technology

A few posts back I talked about travel and was stupid enough to mention the vulnerability of technology while traveling. I could do this because fundamentally I am not a superstitious person and I was speaking about the risk of forgetting a vital part of technology like a cable. Naturally things like this do not go unpunished and I was (almost) instantly struck by lightening.

The keyboard and pad to my macbook pro just stopped working. Using an external mouse and keyboard worked fine – basically a hardware error. But I was far away from rescue disks, backup systems, external hardware, support and any kind of help. Basically I was screwed.

So I spent my days traveling with dead technology, wishing it to work but to no avail. Fortunately I was back at home base (Göteborg) on Monday. Major backups, handing in the laptop to the repairman and then attempting to get my old laptop into some kind of working order. My old one is very unstable and insecure no matter what I do to it.

Getting a computer into shape takes time. All the minor adjustments that turns it from a mass market product into a comfortable work environment is a slow process. Eventually I managed to get to sleep only to wake up two hours later for no reason. Returning to sleep never worked. After tossing and turning I succumbed to the temptation and went back to adjusting my laptop.

Sometime during the night I began to think about an idea of my former professor, Bo Dahlbom. He used to claim that we were becoming a nomadic society. Naturally he was referring to a segment of society and generalizing. Even though it’s mostly by train I am beginning to feel like a nomadic tribesman. But there is a problem with the nomad analogy.

The nomads are a self-reliant group, their technology is durable, lightweight and basic. If they cannot carry it, service it or fix it then they will not use it. The same cannot be said of the tecchie nomads who need a well functioning infrastructure around them to be able to carry out the semblance of what they (we?) would call a normal life.

On the train platform I saw my first iPhone – sweet!

Talismans, Amulets, Mojos & Cell phones

Many of the The Beatles song lyrics are surreal or at least they seem so to the uninitiated. Attempting to decipher them seems to require a mix of pop culture, exotica and a broadminded approach to drug culture. One example is the great song Come Together from the album Abbey Road (1969). The tag-line Come together right now over me is really well known and appreciated but the rest is almost impenetrable.

He roller-coaster he got early warning
He got muddy water he one mojo filter
He say “One and one and one is three”
Got to be good-looking ’cause he’s so hard to see
Come together right now over me

Besides all possible, and impossible, interpretations one of the main themes in the song is the West African magic in particular the references to things like juju & mojo.

The mojo is a recurrent theme in music, in particular, blues music (Wikipedia has a list of references) its a magic charm carried under the clothes. Looking on the mojo as an outsider there is often a lack of understanding for the role it plays. Indeed often those relying on the mojo are seen as being superstitious.

Even in cultures where this occurs the talisman or amulet is commonplace. It is very difficult to precisely define what the talismans may, or may not, be as they can be different things to different peoples at different times. The main idea is that the talisman is there to protect the bearer. Again, to the non-believer this is simply superstition. However, many of those who argue this are prepared to wear a cross or other religious artifact every day.

In the secular society there is a tendency to look upon even religious symbols as being part of a superstitious infrastructure – they are more than unnecessary they actually limit the believing bearer from developing into an independent figure.

Whether you believe this or not is unimportant but I do find it interesting to see the way in which people behave when they are deprived of the technology. I don’t mean only the fact that they cannot use the technology I mean the way in which they behave when they have (inadvertently) misplaced or forgotten their technological artifacts.

If we ignore the functionality. How different is the insecurity and nervousness of a person deprived of his mojo to the feelings of a man deprived of his mobile phone? Does this mean that mass market technology has taken the place served by the good luck charms of our ancestors? Does a Nokia ward of evil spirits? Is male sexuality somehow connected to the contents of ones laptop?

Free Software Conference

On the 7-8 December Göteborg will be hosting the first Free Software Conference Scandinavia (FSCONS). The event, which is already promising to become an important event on the Free Software calendar, is a good mix of techies and freedom folks.

While the techies will be able to enjoy talks on squid, gtk, GnuTLS and OpenMoko (among others) the non-techies (like myself) will be talking about digital rights, consumer rights, free software licensing & women in IT.

I am looking forward to speaking on the topic of Digital Rights

In an Internet-based participatory democracy we are particularly dependent upon our technological infrastructure. The qualities of digital communication and interaction create a situation where the user is often incapable ensuring the integrity and security of the communications infrastructure. Therefore we are becoming increasingly dependent upon experts to ensure the openness, accessibility and freedom of the infrastructure of our democracy. This session will address the threats and opportunities faced by users in a digital participatory democracy and the steps we need to ensure the openness of digital democracy.

But I am particularly looking forward to listening to (and discussing with) people like Shane Coughlan, Anne Østergaard and Fernanda Weiden. It’s nice to see that events such as this (and the Stallman lecture) are being arranged in my hometown.

Great Work by the tireless Henrik!

Microsoft Spyware Patent

Rejås writes that Microsoft has applied for a patent for a Spyware application. Spyware is a program, system or infrastructure that monitors the activities of computer users. Most Spyware is used to build up profiles in order to create efficient direct marketing. Similar systems have been patented earlier by Claria (formerly Gator).

For more information about the ills of Spyware you can read Spyware – the ethics of covert software, an article I wrote a few years ago. There is lots of good stuff written about Spyware so this is more a place to start.

The Revolution is Now

The current edition of CTWatch Quarterly (August 2007) is themed The Coming Revolution in Scholarly Communications & Cyberinfrastructure.

My only problem is when does a revolution stop being coming, approaching and imminent and actually appear to be here. The Open Access movement should not be discribed as a coming event. It is here and it is spreading. But never mind my splitting of terminological hairs just read the journal. Its table of contents includes an interesting array of articles and authors. It’s available both in html and in pdf.


The Shape of the Scientific Article in The Developing Cyberinfrastructure Clifford Lynch, Coalition for Networked Information (CNI)
Next-Generation Implications of Open Access Paul Ginsparg, Cornell University
Web 2.0 in Science Timo Hannay, Nature Publishing
Reinventing Scholarly Communication for the Electronic Age J. Lynn Fink, University of California, San Diego
Philip E. Bourne, University of California, San Diego
Interoperability for the Discovery, Use, and Re-Use of Units of Scholarly Communication Herbert Van de Sompel, Los Alamos National Laboratory Carl Lagoze, Cornell University
Incentivizing the Open Access Research Web Tim Brody, University of Southampton, UK Les Carr, University of Southampton, UK Yves Gingras, Université du Québec à Montréal (UQAM) Chawki Hajjem, Université du Québec à Montréal (UQAM) Stevan Harnad, University of Southampton, UK; Université du Québec à Montréal (UQAM) Alma Swan, University of Southampton, UK; Key Perspectives
The Law as Cyberinfrastructure Brian Fitzgerald, Queensland University of Technology, Australia Kylie Pappalardo, Queensland University of Technology, Australia
Cyberinfrastructure For Knowledge Sharing John Wilbanks, Scientific Commons
Trends Favoring Open Access Peter Suber, Earlham College

Open Library

Boing Boing reports about a cool Open Library project:

The Internet Archive has launched a demo of the Open Library, a project that seeks to gather all the information about all the world’s books and make it publicly available as a giant books wiki.

While many books are making their way online for free access, most still are restricted or cost money to touch. The Open Library combines links to open resources with information on in-copyright works and enables you and me to review, annotate, correct and convene.

I think this project (which right now seems to point to almost half a million books) is very cool — it’s going to be a major addition to the world’s open cultural infrastructure. I have a hunch that it’s going to be the primary way many if not most people access books, and I see it becoming an always-open window on the desk of every librarian.

Aaron Swartz led this project, which was conceived by Brewster Kahle — please send them support, critiques and book databases!

Lets hope the project grows!

Six questions about open standards

The question of open standards is a challenging and important one. Unfortunately most people tend to lose interest very quickly when standards are being discussed.

The FSFE has presented six questions which national standardisation bodies should ask before adopting the ECMA/MS-OOXML format as an IEC/ISO standard. Unless a national standardisation body has conclusive and affirmative answers to all of them, it should vote no in IEC/ISO and request that Microsoft incorporate its work on MS-OOXML into ISO/IEC 26300:2006 (Open Document Format).

1. Application independence?

No standard should ever depend on a certain operating system, environment or application. Application and implementation independence is one of the most important properties of all standards.

Is the MS-OOXML specification free from any references to particular products of any vendor and their specific behaviour?

2. Supporting pre-existing Open Standards?

Whenever applicable and possible, standards should build upon previous standardisation efforts and not depend on proprietary, vendor-specific technologies.

MS-OOXML neglects various standards, such as MathML and SVG, which are recommendations by the W3C, and uses its own vendor-specific formats instead. This puts a substantial burden on all vendors to follow Microsoft in its proprietary infrastructure built over the past 20 years in order to fully implement MS-OOXML. It seems questionable how any third party could ever implement them equally well.

What is the benefit of accepting usage of such vendor-specific formats at the expense of standardisation in these areas? Where will other vendors get competitive, compatible and complete implementations for all platforms to avoid prohibitively large investments?

3. Backward compatibility for all vendors?

One of the alledged main advantages of MS-OOXML is its ability to allow for backward compatibility, as also referenced in the ECMA International press release.

For any standard it is essential that it is implementable by any third party without necessity of cooperation by another company, additional restricted information or legal agreements or indemnifications. It is also essential to not require the cooperation of any competitor to achieve full and comparable interoperability.

On the grounds of the existing MS-OOXML specification, can any third party regardless of business model, without access to additional information and without the cooperation of Microsoft implement full backward compatibility and conversion of such legacy documents into MS-OOXML comparable to what Microsoft can offer?

4. Proprietary extensions?

Proprietary, application-specific extensions are a known technique employed in particular by Microsoft to abuse and leverage its desktop monopoly into neighboring markets. It is a technique at the heart of the abusive behaviour that was at the core of the decision against Microsoft by the European Commission in 2004 and Microsoft is until today continuing its refusal to release the necessary interoperability information.

For this reason, it is common understanding that Open Standards should not allow such proprietary extensions, and that such market-distorting techniques should not be possible on the grounds of an Open Standard.
Does MS-OOXML allow proprietary extensions? Is Microsoft’s implementation of MS-OOXML faithful, i.e. without undocumented extensions? Are there safeguards against such abusive behaviour?

5. Dual standards?

The goal of all standardisation is always to come to one single standard, as multiple standards always provide an impediment to competition. Seeming competition on the standard is truly a strategic measure to gain control over certain segments of a market, as various examples in the past have demonstrated.

There is an existing Open Standard for office documents, namely the Open Document Format (ODF) (ISO/IEC 26300:2006). Both MS-OOXML and ODF are built upon XML technology, so employ the same base technology and thus ultimately have the same theoretical capabilities. Microsoft itself is a member of OASIS, the organisation in which the ODF standard was developed and is being maintained. It was aware of the process and invited to participate.

Why did and does Microsoft refuse to participate in the existing standardisation effort? Why does it not submit its technological proposals to OASIS for inclusion into ODF?

6. Legally safe?

Granting all competitors freedom from legal prosecution for implementation of a standard is essential. Such a grant needs to be clear, reliable and wide enough to cover all activities necessary to achieve full interoperability and allow a level playing field for true competition on the merits.

MS-OOXML is accompanied by an unusually complex and narrow “covenant not to sue” instead of the typical patent grant. Because of its complexity, it does not seem clear how much protection from prosecution for compatibility it will truly provide.

Cursory legal study implies that the covenant does not cover all optional features and proprietary formats mandatory for complete implementation of MS-OOXML. So freedom of implementation by all competitors is not guaranteed for the entire width of the proposed MS-OOXML format, and questionable even for the core components.

Does your national standardisation body have its own, independent legal analysis about the exact nature of the grant to certify whether it truly covers the full spectrum of all possible MS-OOXML implementations?

All these questions should have answers that should be provided by the national standardisation bodies through independent counsel and experts, and in particular not by Microsoft or its business partners, which have a direct conflict of interest on this issue. If there is no good answer to any one of them, a national body should vote no in ISO/IEC.

Democracy Day

Sitting on the train back from Stockholm. Today has been a long hard, but fruitful, day. The theme for today was democracy and the trip started with an early train to Stockholm. First an internal meeting for a book I have a short chapter in and then the public games began.

The first session consisted of presentations by Peter Dahlgren and Tobias Olsson and was completed with a panel discussion. Their theme was on the topic of young peoples use of technology for democracy. This was followed by a session on global democracy. This began with the chair Erik Amnå presenting and was followed by positions being taken by Gustav Fridolin, Jerker Thorsell and Silakhdar Krikeb on the topic of the world citizen. Interesting stuff on a topic which is hard to position and pin down.

The final session was centered around the topic of technology and democracy. Here the speakers were (besides me), Karin Rebas and Erika Augustinsson. This was a difficult topic to focus but we had discussions on the importance of blogs in political communication and the growth of collaborative information production (such as wikis) and their relation to democracy. My focus was on the importance of remembering that Internet infrastructure is a socio/technical/economic infrastructure in the hands of private companies and should not be seen as a public good.

The whole day was full of interesting people – both on and off the scene. But now it’s after nine pm and I still have two hours on the train before reaching Göteborg.