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Free software and Politics and Technology29 May 2014 at 9:35 by Jean-Marc Liotier

I stumbled upon a cute potted guide to open source history and found this paragraph interesting:

Software writers in the 1980s liked to talk about how object technology would be the silver bullet that allowed re-use and composition of software systems, moving programming from a cottage industry where everyone makes everything from scratch to a production-line enterprise where standard parts fit together to provide a base for valuable products. It wasn’t; the sharing-required software license was.

I feel that the author is using object oriented software modeling as a strawman, but his point still stands: the critical enabler of modern software is not technical, it is political.

I would go even further and argue that the critical enabler of modern technology is not technical, it is political – intellectual property law is but one egregious example of how political trumps technical in terms of impact… Technical is essential, but though it may subvert a system, it does not overcome oppression on its own.

So political apathy as shown by staggering voter abstention in the latest European elections has immediate technological impact. Political involvement is not futile – it is actually required for technological progress… Get political  !

Technology28 May 2014 at 10:55 by Jean-Marc Liotier

This passage from “Beacons, marketing and the neoliberal logic of space, or: The Engelbart overshoot” eloquently captures the displacement of pioneer ideals from media attention, replaced by the cult of the gold rushers:

There was a powerful dream that sustained (and not incidentally, justified) half a century’s inquiry into the possibilities of information technology, from Vannevar Bush to Doug Engelbart straight through to Mark Weiser. This was the dream of augmenting the individual human being with instantaneous access to all knowledge, from wherever in the world he or she happened to be standing at any given moment. As toweringly, preposterously ambitious as that goal seems when stated so baldly, it’s hard to conclude anything but that we actually did achieve that dream some time ago, at least as a robust technical proof of concept.

We achieved that dream, and immediately set about betraying it. We betrayed it by shrouding the knowledge it was founded on in bullshit IP law, and by insisting that every interaction with it be pushed through some set of mostly invidious business logic. We betrayed it by building our otherwise astoundingly liberatory propositions around walled gardens and proprietary standards, by putting the prerogatives of rent-seeking ahead of any move to fertilize and renew the commons, and by tolerating the infestation of our informational ecology with vile, value-destroying parasites. These days technical innovators seem more likely to be lauded for devising new ways to harness and exploit people’s life energy for private gain than for the inverse.

In fact, you and I now draw breath in a post-utopian world — a world where the tide of technical idealism has long receded from its high-water mark.

Design and Knowledge management and Politics and Security and Technology26 May 2014 at 14:07 by Jean-Marc Liotier

Skimming an entirely unrelated article, I stumbled upon this gem:

Recently, a number of schools have started using a program called CourseSmart, which uses e-book analytics to alert teachers if their students are studying the night before tests, rather than taking a long-haul approach to learning. In addition to test scores, the CourseSmart algorithm assigns each student an “engagement index” which can determine not just if a student is studying, but also if they’re studying properly. In theory, a person could receive a “satisfactory” C grade in a particular class, only to fail on “engagement

This immediately reminded me of Neal Stephenson’s 1992 novel, Snow Crash where a government employee’s reading behavior has been thoroughly warped into simulacrum by a lifetime of overbearing surveillance:

Y.T.’s mom pulls up the new memo, checks the time, and starts reading it. The estimated reading time is 15.62 minutes. Later, when Marietta does her end-of-day statistical roundup, sitting in her private office at 9:00 P.M., she will see the name of each employee and next to it, the amount of time spent reading this memo, and her reaction, based on the time spent, will go something like this:
- Less than 10 min.: Time for an employee conference and possible attitude counseling.
- 10-14 min.: Keep an eye on this employee; may be developing slipshod attitude.
- 14-15.61 min.: Employee is an efficient worker, may sometimes miss important details.
- Exactly 15.62 min.: Smartass. Needs attitude counseling.
- 15.63-16 min.: Asswipe. Not to be trusted.
- 16-18 min.: Employee is a methodical worker, may sometimes get hung up on minor details.
- More than 18 min.: Check the security videotape, see just what this employee was up to (e.g., possible unauthorized restroom break).

Y.T.’s mom decides to spend between fourteen and fifteen minutes reading the memo. It’s better for younger workers to spend too long, to show that they’re careful, not cocky. It’s better for older workers to go a little fast, to show good management potential. She’s pushing forty. She scans through the memo, hitting the Page Down button at reasonably regular intervals, occasionally paging back up to pretend to reread some earlier section. The computer is going to notice all this. It approves of rereading. It’s a small thing, but over a decade or so this stuff really shows up on your work-habits summary.

Dystopian panoptical horrors were supposed to be cautionary tales – not specifications for new projects…

As one Hacker News commenter put it : in the future, you don’t read books; books read you !

Post-scriptum… Isn’t it funny that users don’t mind being spied upon by apps and pages but get outraged when e-books do ? It may be because in their minds, e-books are still books… But shouldn’t all documents and all communicated information be as respectful of their reader as books are ?

Politics and Technology28 May 2013 at 10:52 by Jean-Marc Liotier

Reading about Anne Lauvergeon’s current work at a recently set-up government innovation think tank, I stumbled upon this quote of hers:

«  Je pense que la grande révolution que l’on vit en ce moment, c’est celle des “data”. [..]  Prenons le cas de l’assurance : le décryptage de l’ADN pour 100 euros fait que, dans quinze ans, vous serez peut- être assurés en fonction de vos risques génétiques. »

Let’s translate that in English :

«  I think that “data” is the great revolution we are currently living. [..] Take the case of insurance : ADN decoding for € 100 means that, in fifteen years, your insurance will be tailored to your genetic risks. »

If this makes your stomach churn, you are not alone – upon reading it I was aghast : not only because an opinion leader entertains such unethical thoughts, but also because someone in charge of recommending a national industrial policy shows ignorance of how illegal genetic discrimination already is.

For an overview of how legislation protects the European citizens against genetic discrimination, you may take a look at “Genetic Testing – Patients’ rights, insurance and employment A survey of regulations in the European Union” - research published by the European Commission. Here is the “Genetics and Insurance” section of the chapter describing the situation in France :

In 1994, the Law n. 94-653 on respect for the human body introduced new provisions on genetic testing and DNA identification into the French Civil Code. According to article 16-10, the genetic study of the characteristics of a person may be undertaken only for medical purposes or for scientific research.

The Code of Public Health affirms this principle but adds that genetic tests can only be realized “in the patient’s interest”(Art L. 145-15-1). This necessarily excludes every genetic test contrary to the patient’s interest. Consequently genetic testing for the purpose of the conclusion of an insurance contract is prohibited.

Article 25 of Chapter III on the identification of persons and their genetic characteristics by genetic examination reads as follows: it is not allowed to carry out genetic examinations on the characteristics of persons other than for reasons of medical or scientific research or in cases provided by law. The consent of the person involved is needed before examinations are carried out, except in case of medical necessity.

The use of information about an individual which has been obtained by studying his genetic characteristics other than for medical purposes for scientific research is punishable with one year’s imprisonment and a fine of 15.000 Euro (article 226-26 Penal Code).

French bioethics legislation specifically prohibits access by any third party, notably employers and insurance companies, to information held in databanks and makes it illegal for them to ask individuals to provide such information.

While this seems to prohibit insurers from using genetic tests for underwriting purposes, it does not prevent insurers from obtaining genetic-test information from medical files. Under public pressure, however, in 1994 the French Federation of Insurers imposed a moratorium on its members. This moratorium implies that insurers may not take the results of genetic characteristics (unfavourable or favourable test results) of a candidate insured into account even if the candidate insured offered the information by himself. Initially the moratorium was adopted for five years, which coincides with the 5-year period upon expiry of which the law n. 94-653 of July 29, 1994 was to revised. In 1999 the insurers have extended the moratorium for another five years, i.e. until the year 2004. The underlying idea of the moratorium is that the experimental character of the genetic information prohibits to use it for purposes such as insurance contracts. This implies that insurers may not ask questions related to genetic tests and their results in risk questionnaires. Moreover, insurers may not ask the candidate insured to undergo genetic tests or to give them the results of previous tests.

The Universal Sickness Cover Act (CMU) ( Loi n°99-641 du 27 Juillet 1999 portant création d’une couverture maladie universelle. Lois et Décrets 99, 28 Juillet 1999.) in particular Section 5 entitled “Social and health modernization” states that any use of genetic testing by complementary insurance and health insurance bodies is prohibited. According to article 62 of the Act, such bodies “may not take account of the results of a genetic study of the characteristics of a person requesting the benefit of supplementary health cover, even if those results are provided by himself or herself. Moreover they may not ask any question relating to genetic tests and the results thereof, nor ask for anyone to undergo genetic testing prior to arranging a contract providing supplementary health cover and for the entire duration thereof”.

The paper I got this information from is ten years old – but no fundamental legislative change has occurred since then. Unless something really terrible happens in French politics, genetic discrimination in insurance will still be illegal in fifteen years – and if I have any say, it will be even more illegal.

Remember “Liberté – Egalité – Fraternité” – the “Fraternité” bit implies a degree of solidarity that won’t allow genetic discrimination. We will remain watchful.

Somebody please tell Anne Lauvergeon !

Technology04 Mar 2013 at 11:28 by Jean-Marc Liotier

Let’s not hastily accuse John Broder of dishonesty – he might just be biased toward usage patterns unfamiliar to users of other car brands. Here is the clue…

This morning, Stéphane declared his puzzlement at a “CALIBRATING: DRIVE IN CIRCLES” display on the dashboard of the Chevrolet he was driving :

Yes, you may also frown at his use of electronic distractions while driving.

Anyway, this new feature in American cars explains why John Broder drove his test-drive Tesla in circles for a while in that parking lot

I wonder why this has not been mentioned before.

Brain dump and Technology and The media26 Jun 2012 at 13:42 by Jean-Marc Liotier

/set rant_mode on

A digit is a numeral from 0 to 9 – so the French translation is “un chiffre”. Surprisingly, I find myself having to add that the French translation of “a digit” is not “un doigt” – you may use your fingers for counting, but in the end it is all about numbers not body parts.

Therefore the proper translation of “digital” in French is “numérique” – the French word “digital” describes something related to fingers. A digital device may be finger operated, but its digital nature is related to binary processing… The presence of a keyboard is accessory.

Increasingly, I find my compatriots using “digital” to qualify anything run by computing devices without having to mention them by name – because computers, data processing, electronics and such drab technicalities are uncool compared to the glittering glitz of mass-marketable trinkets. I resent this lamentable technophobic trend but, if you want to indulge in such decadence, please at least use the proper French word.

From now on you’ll know that any French person caught saying “digital” instead of “numérique” spectacularly exposes his ignorance – you know who they are and you are welcome to anonymously report them in this article’s comments (with links to incriminating tweets for bonus ignominy).

I obviously don’t mind people using English. I don’t even mind loan words – they are part of how a language evolves. But I do object to mindless namespace pollution: using loan words does not exempt from semantic coherence.

Call me pedant if you want, but if you attempt to degrade our essential communication tools you’ll find me on your path and I’ll be angry !

Arts and Books and Technology12 Aug 2011 at 13:12 by Jean-Marc Liotier

Paolo Bacigalupi‘s The Windup Girl provides a satisfyingly complex immersion into a bleak Gibsonesque dystopian world of corporate bio-terrorism in the aftermath of an horrible global crash, with enough gritty detail for suspension of disbelief and a large helping of corruption, extortion, riots and murder. I was pleasantly surprised that this book is not about following a hero on some predictable quest… The cast is rather full of anti-heroes and great villains – which I find very refreshing. It is rare enough to be noted that there are enough intermingled competing conspiracies and characters with colliding trajectories that I could not guess where the plot was headed while all this was floating on the tide of political events. This book injected a large volume of of fresh air in its genre !

Free software and Mobile computing and Systems administration and Technology and Unix09 Aug 2011 at 11:17 by Jean-Marc Liotier

Oh noes – I’m writing about a Google product, again. The omnipresence of the big G in my daily environment is becoming a bit excessive, so I’m stepping up my vigilance about not getting dependent on their services – though I don’t mind them knowing everything about me. In that light, acquiring another Android communicator may not seem logical, but I’m afraid that it is currently the choice of reason : I would have paid pretty much any price for a halfway decent Meego device, but Nokia’s open rejection of its own offspring is just too disgusting to collude with. The Openmoko GTA04 is tempting, but it is not yet available and I need a device right now.

Android does not quite mean I have to remain attached to the Google tit : thanks to CyanogenMod there is now an Android distribution free of Google applications  – and it also offers a variety features and enhancements… Free software is so sweet !

As a bonus, CyanogenMod is also free of the hardware manufacturer’s pseudo-improvements or the carrier’s dubious customizations – those people just can’t keep themselves from mucking with software… Please keep to manufacturing hardware and providing connectivity – it is hard enough to do right that you don’t have to meddle and push software that no one wants !

So when I went shopping for a new Android device after my one year old daughter disappeared my three year-old HTC Magic, I made sure that the one I bought was compatible with CyanogenMod. I chose the Motorola Defy because it is water-resistant, somewhat rugged and quite cheap too. By the way, I bought it free from access provider SIM lock – more expensive upfront, but the era of subsidized devices is drawing to an end and I’m going to enjoy the cheaper subscriptions.

On powering-on the Defy, the first hurdle is to get past the mandatory Motoblur account creation – not only does Motorola insist on foisting its fat supplements on you, but it won’t let you access your device until you give it an email address… In case I was not already convinced that I wanted to get rid of this piece of trash, that was a nice reminder.

This Defy was saddled with some Android 2.2.2 firmware – I don’t remember the exact version. I first attempted to root it using Z4root, but found no success with that method. Then I tried with SuperOneClick and it worked, after some fooling around to find that USB debugging must not be enabled until after the Android device is connected to the PC – RTFM !  There are many Android rooting methods – try them until you find the one that works for you : there is much variety in the Android ecosystem, so your mileage may vary.

Now that I have gained control over a piece of hardware that I bought and whose usage  should therefore never have been restricted by its manufacturer in the first place, the next step is to put CyanogenMod on it. Long story short : I fumbled with transfers and Android boot loader functionalities that I don’t yet fully understand, so I failed and bricked my device. In the next installment of this adventure, I’m sure I’ll have a nice tale of success to tell you about – meanwhile this one will be a tale of recovery.

This brick situation is a Motorola Defy with blank screen and a lit white diode on its front. The normal combination of the power and volume keys won’t bring up the boot loader’s menu on start. But thanks to Motorola’s hardware restrictions designed to keep the user from modifying the software, the user is also kept from shooting himself in the foot and the Defy is only semi-bricked and therefore recoverable. Saved by Motorola’s hardware restrictions… Every cloud has a silver lining. But had the device been completely open and friendly to alien software, I would not have had to hack at it in the first place, I would not had bricked it and there would have been no need for saving the day – so down with user-hostile hardware anyway !

With the Motorola Defy USB drivers installed since the SuperOneClick rooting, I launched RSD lite 4.9 which is the Motorola utility for flashing Motorola Android devices. Here is the method for using RSD lite correctly. RSD lite immediately recognized the device connected across the USB cord. The trick was finding a suitable firmware in .sbf format. After a few unsuccessful attempts with French Android versions, I found that JRDNEM_U3_3.4.2_117-002_BLUR_SIGN_SIGNED
_USAJRDNEMARAB1B8RTGB035.0R_USAJRDNFRYORTGB_P003_A002_HWp3_Service1FF
worked fine and promptly booted me back to some factory default – seeing the dreaded Motoblur signup screen was actually a relief, who would have thought ?

After re-flashing with RSD Lite, I found that there is a Linux utility for flashing Motorola Android devices :  sbf_flash – that would have saved me from borrowing my girlfriend’s Windows laptop… But I would have needed it for SuperOneClick though – isn’t it strange that support tools for Android are Windows-dependent ?

With CyanogenMod in place, my goal will be to make my personal information management system as autonomous as possible – for example I’ll replace Google Contacts synchronization with Funambol. CyanogenMod is just the starting point of trying to make the Android system somewhat bearable – it is still the strange and very un-Unixy world of Android, but is a pragmatic candidate for mobile software freedom with opportunities wide open.

But first I have to successfully transfer it to my Android device’s flash memory… And that will be for another day.

If you need further information about hacking Android devices, great places are Droid Forums and the XDA-Developpers forum – if you don’t go directly, the results of your searches will send you there anyway.

Identity management and Knowledge management and Social networking and Technology and The Web09 Jul 2011 at 2:21 by Jean-Marc Liotier

I have not read any reviews of Google Plus, so you’ll get my raw impressions starting after fifteen minutes of use – I guess that whatever they are worth, they bring more value than risking paraphrasing other people’s impressions after having been influenced by their prose.

First, a minor annoyance : stop asking me to join the chat. I don’t join messaging silos – if it is not open, I’m not participating. You asked, I declined – now you insist after every login and I find that impolite.

First task I set upon : set up information streams in and out of Google Plus. A few moments later it appears that this one will remain on the todo list for a while : there is not even an RSS feed with the public items… Hello ? Is that nostalgia for the nineties ? What good is an information processing tool that won’t let me aggregate, curate, remix and share ? Is this AOL envy ?

Then I move on toward some contacts management. I find the Circles interface is pretty bad. For starters, selecting multiple contacts and editing their Circles memberships wholesale is not possible – the pattern of editing the properties of multiple items is simple enough to be present and appreciated in most decent file managers (for editing permissions)… Sure it can be added later as it is not a structural feature, but still : for now much tedium ensues. Likewise, much time would be saved by letting users copy and paste contacts between circles. But all that is minor ergonomic nitpicking compared to other problems…

No hashtags, no groups… How am I supposed to discover people ? Where is the serendipity ? Instead of “Google Circles” this should be named “Google Cliques”. In its haste to satisfy the privacy obsessed, it seems that Google has forgotten that the first function of social networking software is to enable social behaviour… It seems that the features are focused on the anti-social instead. I can understand the absence of hashtags – spam is a major unresolved issue… But groups ? See Friendfeed to understand how powerful they can be – and they are in no way incompatible with the Circles model. It seems that selective sharing is what Google Plus is mostly about – public interaction and collaboration feels like an afterthought. This will please the reclusive, but it does not fit my needs.

Worse, the Circles feature only segments the population – it does nothing to organize shared interests : I may carefully select cyclists to put into my ‘cyclists’ Circle, but when I read the stream for that circle I’ll see pictures of their pets too. This does not help knowledge management in any way – it is merely about people management.

Finally Google is still stuck with Facebook, Twitter & al. in the silo era – the spirits of well known dinosaurs still haunt those lands. Why don’t they get on with the times and let users syndicate streams across service boundaries using open protocols such as Ostatus which an increasing number of social networking tools use to interoperate ? Google may be part of the technological vanguard of information services at massive scales, but cloning the worst features of competing services is the acme of backwardness.

Of course, this is a first release – not even fully open to subscription yet, so many features will be added and refined. But rough edges are not the reason of my dissatisfaction with Google Plus : what irks me most is the silo mentality and the very concept of Circles as the fundamental object for interaction management – no amount of polish will change the nature of a service built on those precepts.

I’ll keep an account on Google Plus for monitoring purposes, but for now and until major changes happen, that’s clearly not where I’ll be seeking intelligent life.

Knowledge management and Politics and Technology28 Jun 2011 at 22:51 by Jean-Marc Liotier

Open data is the idea that certain data should be freely available to everyone to use and republish as they wish, without restrictions from copyright, patents or other mechanisms of control. Share, remix, reuse - just do it for fun, for profit and for the public good… Once the data is liberated, good things will follow ! Alas, some Cassandra beg to differ.

Can the output of a process based entirely on publicly available data be considered unfit for public availability ? As Marek Mahut explains in “The danger of transparency: A lesson from Slovakia“, the answer is ‘yes’ according to a court in Bratislava who ordered immediate censorship of some information produced by an application whose input is entirely composed of publicly available data.

As a French citizen, I’m not surprised – for more than thirty years, our law has recognized how the merging of data sources is a danger to privacy.

I was prepared to translate the relevant section of the original French text of “Act N°78-17 of 6 January 1978 on data processing, data files and individual liberties” for you… But in its great benevolence, my government has kindly provided an official translation – so I’ll use that… Here is the relevant extract :

Chapter IV, Section 2 : Authorisation
Article 25
I. – The following may be carried out after authorisation by the “Commission nationale de l’informatique et des libertés” , with the exception of those mentioned in Articles 26 (State security and criminal offences processing) and 27 (public processing NIR, i.e. social security number – State biometrics –census – e-government online services):
[..]
5° automatic processing whose purpose is:
- the combination of files of one or several legal entities who manage a public service and whose purposes relate to different public interests;
- the combination of other entities’ files of which the main purposes are different.

Short version : if you want to join data from two isolated sources, you need to ask and receive authorization first, on a case-by-case basis.

That law only applies to personal data, which it defines (Chapter I, Article 2) as ‘any information relating to a natural person who is or can be identified, directly or indirectly’. That last word opens a big can of worms : data de-anonymization techniques have shown that with sufficient detail, anonymous data can be linked to individuals. With that knowledge, one may consider that the whole Open Data movement falls in the shadow of that law.

To my knowledge this question has not yet been brought before a court, so there is therefore no case law to guide us… But it is only a matter of time – watch this space !

Politics and Technology and The media23 Dec 2010 at 12:56 by Jean-Marc Liotier

Bruce Sterling just wrote a wonderful melancholic essay on cypherpunks, Wikileaks, Julian Assange and the human society that forms their milieu. It may be the best piece so far to capture the character of Julian Assange.

Glancing over the comments, I stopped on this one – here is an extract:

[..] the people that run the governments of the world don’t get it at all. As the old guard “nationalists” die off there will be less and less reaction to this kind of thing to the point where it’s happening so much most things are just lost in the noise. I’m younger than Bruce, but not by much, however I know this much that he doesn’t seem to, in a world where the population has grown up with Facebook/MySpace/etc there is not even the expectation of privacy or secrets. Get over it. People will again have to start actually being polite to one another, or they’ll be exposed for all to see.

Personally, I do not believe that information which is solely classified because it’s embarrassing to a government should be. I also believe that people that work for the government should be honor bound to report when crimes are being committed, and that supersedes ALL other directives. Until we reach that state we will not have grown into adults as a society. Right now governments behave as children without adults behave. Read Lord of the Flies.

I disagree with him about expectations of privacy from the Facebook generation, but the rest rings true to me. But what hit me as I read it is his remark that “Ppople will again have to start actually being polite to one another, or they’ll be exposed for all to see” : this immediately reminded me of this Heinlein quote:

“An armed society is a polite society. Manners are good when one may have to back up his acts with his life” – Robert A. Heinlein

One may not agree with Heinlein about whether citizens bearing arms is a good idea, but the fact is that the balance of power that was previously wholly on the side of the governments has just been slightly tipped back toward the citizens.

Will that make governments more polite toward their citizens ?

Brain dump and Knowledge management and Networking & telecommunications and Technology16 Dec 2010 at 13:19 by Jean-Marc Liotier

Piled Higher & Deeper and Savage Chickens nailed it (thanks redditors for digging them up) : we spend most of our waking hours in front of a computer display – and they are not even mentioning all the screens of devices other than a desktop computer.

According to a disturbing number of my parent’s generation, sitting in from of a computer makes me a computer scientist and what I’m doing there is “computing”. They couldn’t be further from the truth : as Edsger Dijkstra stated, “computer science is no more about computers than astronomy is about telescopes”.

The optical metaphor doesn’t stop there – the computer is indeed transparent: it is only a windows to the world. I wear my glasses all day, and that is barely worth mentioning – why would using a computer all day be more newsworthy ?

I’m myopic – without my glasses I feel lost. Out of my bed, am I really myself if my glasses are not connected to my face ?

Nowadays, my interaction with the noosphere is essentially computer-mediated. Am I really myself without a network-attached computer display handy ? Mind uploading still belongs to fantasy realms, but we are already on the way toward it. We are already partly uploaded creatures, not quite whole when out of touch with the technosphere, like Manfred Macx without his augmented reality gear ? I’m far not the only one to have been struck by that illustration – as this Accelerando writeup attests :

“At one point, Manfred Macx loses his glasses, which function as external computer support, and he can barely function. Doubtless this would happen if we became dependent on implants – but does anyone else, right now, find their mind functioning differently, perhaps even failing at certain tasks, because these cool things called “computers” can access so readily the answers to most factual questions ? How much of our brain function is affected by a palm pilot ? Or, for that matter, by the ability to write things down on a piece of paper ?”

This is not a new line of thought – this paper by Andy Clark and David Chalmers is a good example of reflections in that field. Here is the introduction :

“Where does the mind stop and the rest of the world begin? The question invites two standard replies. Some accept the demarcations of skin and skull, and say that what is outside the body is outside the mind. Others are impressed by arguments suggesting that the meaning of our words “just ain’t in the head”, and hold that this externalism about meaning carries over into an externalism about mind. We propose to pursue a third position. We advocate a very different sort of externalism: an active externalism, based on the active role of the environment in driving cognitive processes”.

There is certainly a “the medium is the message” angle on that – but it goes further with the author and the medium no longer being discrete entities but part of a continuum.

We are already uploading – but most of us have not noticed yet. As William Gibson puts it: the future is already here – it’s just not very evenly distributed.

Design and Mobile computing and Networking & telecommunications and Systems and Technology19 Nov 2010 at 16:32 by Jean-Marc Liotier

In France, at least two mobile networks operators out of three (I won’t tell you which ones) have relied on Cell ID alone to identify cells… A mistake because contrary to what the “Cell ID” moniker suggests, it can’t identify a cell on its own.

A cell is only fully identified by combining with the Location Area Identity (LAI). The LAI is an aggregation of Mobile Country Code (MCC), Mobile Network Code (MNC – which identifies the PLMN in that country) and the Location Area Code (LAC – which identifies Location Area within the PLMN). The whole aggregate is called Cell Global Identification (CGI) – a rarely encountered term, but this GNU Radio GSM architecture document mentions it with details.

Since operators run their networks in their own context, they can consider that MCC and MNC are superfluous. And since the GSM and 3G specifications defines the Cell ID as a 16 bit identifier, the operators have believed that they had plenty for all the cells they could imagine, even taking multiple sectors into account – but that was many years ago. Even nowadays there are not that many cells in a French GSM network, but the growth in the number of bearer channels was not foreseen and each of them requires a different CellID – which multiplies the number of cells by their number.

So all  those who in the beginnings of GSM and in the prehistory of 3GPP decided that 65536 identifiers ought to be enough for everyone are now fixing their information systems in a hurry as they run out of available identifiers – not something anyone likes to do on a large critical production infrastructure.

Manufacturers and operators are together responsible for that, but alas this is just one occurrence of common shortsightedness in information systems design. Choosing unique identifiers is a basic modeling task that happens early in the life of a design – but it is a critical one. Here is what Wikipedia says about unique identifiers :

“With reference to a given (possibly implicit) set of objects, a unique identifier (UID) is any identifier which is guaranteed to be unique among all identifiers used for those objects and for a specific purpose.”

The “specific purpose” clause could be interpreted as exonerating the culprits from responsibility : given their knowledge at the time, the use of Cell ID alone was reasonable for their specific purpose. But they sinned by not making the unique identifier as unique as it possibly could. And even worst, they sinned by not following the full extent of the specification.

But I won’t be the one casting the first stone – hindsight is 20/20 and I doubt that any of us would have done better.

But still… Remember kids : make unique identifiers as unique as possible and follow the specifications !

Brain dump and Politics and Technology08 Nov 2010 at 1:42 by Jean-Marc Liotier

Evil implies that corporations can be judged as humans, but they are not : corporations are just soulless. They knows neither right nor wrong. By definition, a corporation exists merely as a maximization function toward the goals of its shareholders. That is why, in spite of having legal personality, corporations cannot exist in the political sphere that holds control and oversight in the name of the public good – though the extent to which the financial resources of corporations are employed to influence political campaigns shows how poorly that separation of power is applied.

Charles Stross’ Accelerando is heavily loaded with buzzwords – though it is a fun read and a great reflection on post-humanity. Among the interesting concepts that pepper the story, I found the “Turing-complete company constitution” – if you have legal personality, then why not Turing completeness ? And then why not go all the way to human-equivalent sentience and cognitive abilities or better ? You may, but it won’t matter because whatever their sophistication, corporations have a mandate inscribed in their lowest level code that merely makes them paperclip maximizers.

Whether you consider them anthropomorphic artificial intelligences or just really powerful optimization processes, corporations don’t care about you anyway. To paraphrase Eliezer Yudkowsky : they don’t hate you, nor do they love you – you just happen to be resources that they can use for something else.

Technology20 Oct 2010 at 15:15 by Jean-Marc Liotier

Dear offshore development team, we appreciate the effort you put into communicating with us, but alas your apparent use of machine translation between English and French can sometimes be more hilarious than efficient. We did laugh but, after more than a year of collaboration, finding that you don’t understand the meaning of a generic French acronym that represents one of the major project milestones did cause some sadness at the same time.

Unsupervised machine translation by generic public services is not yet very good at tuning itself to context, especially when attempting to expand corporate jargon back and forth across languages. Thanks for trying but for comprehension’s sake we will gladly keep using English until further advances in machine translation.

Names and examples withheld to protect the innocent. And anyway, the humor would have been lost in translation…

Free software and Technology and Unix05 Oct 2010 at 10:58 by Jean-Marc Liotier

I stumbled upon Peter Hutterer’s “thoughts on Linux multitouch” which gives a good overview of the challenges facing X.org & al. in developing multitouch over Linux. Among other things he explains why, in spite of end-user expectations to the contrary shaped by competitive offerings, Linux multitouch is not yet available:

“Why is it taking us so long when there’s plenty of multitouch offerings out there already ? The simple answer is: we are not working on the same problem.

If we look at commercial products that provide multitouch, Apple’s iPhones and iPads are often the first ones that come to mind. These provide multitouch but in a very restrictive setting: one multi-touch aware application running in full-screen. Doing this is suprisingly easy from a technical point of view, all you need is a new API that you write all new applications against. It is of course still hard to make it a good API and design good user interfaces for the new applications, but that is not a purely technical problem anymore. Apple’s products also provide multitouch in a new setting, an evironment that’s closer to an appliance than a traditional desktop. They have a defined set of features, different form factors, and many of the user expectations we have on the traditional desktop do not exist. For example, hardly anyone expects Word or OpenOffice to run as-is on an iPhone.

The main problems we face with integrating multitouch support into the X server is the need for the traditional desktop. Multitouch must work across multiple windowed application windows, with some pointer emulation to be able to use legacy applications on a screen. I have yet to see a commercial solution that provides this, even the Microsoft Surface applications I’ve played with so far only emulate this within very restrictive settings”.

In summary, the reason why Linux multitouch lags behind some of its competitors is that it is a significantly more ambitious project with bigger challenges to overcome.

Among the links from that document, I particularly appreciated ‘s Bill Buxton’s “Multi-touch systems that I have known and loved” that provides a great deal of material to frame the debate over multitouch functionality – I feel less clueless about multitouch now…

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