The Anti-iPad

I’m not going to beat around the bush: I despise Apple in many ways, but the most damning has to be their insistence on making all new products a closed system, in which Apple has the ultimate control over what you buy, watch, read, listen to, and consume in general. If consumption is the lowest form of choice, then Apple has put further restrictions on that already crippled platform.

My words shouldn’t be the definitive take, though. Jack Shafer, Jim Stodgill, and Cory Doctorow basically say everything I’d like to. From Stodgill’s “The iPad Isn’t a Computer, It’s a Distribution Channel”:

In this context the iPad isn’t a computing device at all. Jobs is using his knack for design and user experience to build, not a better computer, but a better distribution channel. One that is controlled, constrained, and can re-take distribution as the point of monetization. You aren’t buying a computer when you buy an iPad, you are buying a 16GB Walmart store shelf that fits on your lap – complete with all the supplier beat downs, slotting fees, and exclusive deals that go with it – and Apple got you to pay for the building.

These are just some of the philosophical issues I have with the iPad – I won’t go into my more biased dislike of OSX (or its stripped-down variants).

I was pleased to come across this device, though:

Sporting XP Home and a full physical keyboard, the Asus EeeKeyboard is probably the most effective rebuttal to the iPad I’ve seen. And the best part is that it’s just as open a system as anything else running Windows is. Do with it what you want.

I’ve gotten into adopting the Doctorow mantra: close the back with screws not glue. Let us in.

Making and Doing

For anyone currently in London (and by currently, I mean in early May), Cory Doctorow is giving a free talk at Nettlefold Hall in West Norwood on May 8. RSVPs are required, though – send an email to

Along similar Doctorovian lines, I read a post in The Art of Manliness, of all places, bemoaning the “modern immaturity” of men, and encouraging us to “create more, consume less.” Consumerism is, after all, a passive activity that reduces all willpower to an illusory choice – “the weakening of man’s free agency.” It’s an indictment both of consumerism and of any kind of forward thinking:

The problem with consumerism is that it heavily emphasizes choice, to the complete exclusion of the idea of living with that choice. Choose, choose, choose. But what happens after your make that choice?

Definitely worth reading and considering in all contexts – be it manliness, resilience, or otherwise.

An Unpronounceable Volcano as Black Swan?

Taken 10 km east of Hvolsvollur Iceland on April 18th, 2010. Lightning flashes and glowing lava illuminate parts of Eyjafjallajokull's massive ash plume in this 30-second exposure.

Way back in 2004, John Robb wrote a piece on scale-free networks:

Scale-free networks are everywhere. The can be seen in airline traffic routes, connections between actors in Hollywood, weblog links, sexual relationships, and terrorist networks. So what exactly is a scale-free network? A scale-free network is one that obeys a power law distribution in the number of connections between nodes on the network [emphasis mine].

Obviously, considering the plight of the airlines right now in the midst of an apocalyptic (yet curiously invisible) ash cloud is particularly fascinating to do in the context of Robb’s networks. In characterizing the nature of scale-free ones, he comes up with a positive and a negative:

  • Scale-free networks are extremely tolerant of random failures. In a random network, a small number of random failures can collapse the network. A scale-free network can absorb random failures up to 80% of its nodes before it collapses. The reason for this is the inhomogeneity of the nodes on the network — failures are much more likely to occur on relatively small nodes.
  • Scale-free networks are extremely vulnerable to intentional attacks on their hubs. Attacks that simultaneously eliminate as few as 5-15% of a scale-free network’s hubs can collapse the network. Simultaneity of an attack on hubs is important. Scale-free networks can heal themselves rapidly if an insufficient number of hubs necessary for a systemic collapse are removed.

Examining the fallout from Eyjafjallajokullin in this light does present an interesting dichotomy. If we consider the entire globe as one big air traffic system, then it definitely is showing resilient capabilities. Flights are diverted around the affected nodes and redistributed to areas unaffected by the ash cloud. It’s as if Europe was a tumor that has been surgically removed from the rest of the airborne world.

Thus, of course most everyone can continue to fly whether or not Europe’s airports are open. The global network is continuing to function.

And in fact, it’s hard to conceptualize European airspace as an isolated network. At this point all air traffic to and from the continent is inextricably bound to the rest of world, and so it’s hard to imagine an inverse scenario in which the rest of the world ceases to fly while Europe muddles on.

However, this picture changes slightly if we consider the voluntary closure of most European airspace as an intentional attack. Robb gives the threshold as 5-15% of a system’s capability. Of the 30 busiest airports in the world in 2009, seven are in Europe, those seven with total passenger traffic of 268 million people a year. If 1.5 billion people travel by plane every year, that’s roughly 18% of world capacity (and that’s before taking into account all the other European airports that didn’t crack the top 30). For the rest of the world, it’s a relatively stable – if infuriating – situation. I suppose the real determining factor is that while the initial closures were shocks to the system, they didn’t begin on a Europe-wide scale, and by the time those in the east started closing, it was no longer a surprise.

Either way, the system is voluntarily taking at least a fifth of itself offline, which gives rise to an interesting third possibility that Robb doesn’t mention: how much of a system can turn itself off before collapse?

“Dead Space” Comes Alive

A perfect example of urban infill, courtesy of the Wall Street Journal: seeks pockets of “dead space” around cities and converts them into short-term rental property.

In Tokyo, where every sliver of land is at a premium, a few feet of unused private property near the front entrance of an apartment building can be used to sell muffins. A patch of storefront space transforms into an ad hoc vegetable stand for a farmer or a consulting space for a fortune-teller.

Those spaces can be reserved at Nokisaki for short periods of time—starting from three hours—and for as little as $15 total.

This is the exact approach that metropolitan areas need to take, and a great boon to small entrepreneurs and other makers. It certainly cuts through the red tape of zoning laws and the like.

Even in the urban context, these microrentals are not an instance of packing in more people like sardines (whether this would work outside of the hypercrowded Tokyo is up for debate), but rather matching supplies of valuable land with those who need it. Just for a little while.


On Decapitation

Warsaw skyline, Saturday, April 3, 2010.

Sunday’s plane crash that wiped out much of the upper echelon of the Polish government was truly tragic, indeed. I hesitated to write this just because of the proximity of the accident, but I don’t think anyone will be too offended (and if you are, my apologies in advance).

The crash was a prime example of a decapitation strike. While those who perished are not exactly comparable to “Barack and Michelle Obama, Joe Biden, Hillary Clinton, Olympia Snowe, Christopher Dodd, Rahm Emanuel, [and] the Joint Chiefs of Staff,” it’s awfully close (and that probably understates the breadth of the victims).

A better example might be Barack and Michelle Obama, Rahm Emanuel, James Jones, Ben Bernanke, Dick Durbin, Steny Hoyer, Admiral Mullen and the other Joint Chiefs, Tim Kaine, Jacob Lew, David Ferriero,  plus an incredible number of dignitaries, cultural icons, and legendary figures. I don’t think the United States has public citizens comparable to the epic Ryszard Kaczorowski or Anna Walentynowicz.

But the moral of the story is that essentially, the casualty list didn’t matter. The government continues to function; the Polish government’s continuity has continued unbroken. Luckily, that order is fairly simple. The Speaker of the lower House, Bronislow Konorowski, is acting president and must call elections, which will be held by the end of June. So far, everything is proceeding as it is supposed to.

This doesn’t mean that it would necessarily be such a smooth process if say, the Tu-154 had crashed due to Russian sabotage or terrorism. But with crazy accusations of Russian culpability being hurled around (thankfully, not by anyone in a position of power) and Poland still continuing to function like a normal country, it seems to point at a rational, calm transition of power even if a future accident was caused by something more sinister.

The continuity in the Polish government makes an article linked to from Abu Muqawama, Jenna Jordan’s “When Heads Roll: Assessing the Effectiveness of Leadership Decapitation” (pdf) even more relevant. Her conclusion?

Decapitation is not ineffective merely against religious, old, or large groups, it is actually counterproductive for many of the terrorist groups currently being targeted. In many cases, targeting a group’s leadership actually lowers its rate of decline. Compared to a baseline rate of decline for certain terrorist groups, the marginal value of decapitation is negative. Moreover, going after the leader may strengthen a group’s resolve, result in retaliatory attacks, increase public sympathy for the organization, or produce more lethal attacks.

I feel like the system most vulnerable to a decapitation strike is the particularly complex one of the United States, but perhaps the fact that it cannot really be planned for (or at least isn’t planned for) in any sort of detailed sense explains our current strategy: ensure the survival of the system.

So it probably wouldn’t work in the United States, either. It won’t work on sub-state actors.It won’t work on non-state actors. It won’t work on state actors. Isn’t it time to call decapitation strategy faulty and scrap it for something more productive?

Russian Resilience

Andrei Loshak has an article out on the endemic corruption in Russia. IKEA’s attempts to open new stores there are met with sheer absurdity, the currency of the realm. The absurd is everywhere in a nation of circular logic and Catch-22s, where power is shut off to a store on the verge of opening for no reason at all. “Reason has limited possibilities, whereas the absurd knows no limits.” According to Loshak, society may have reached a breaking point:

When the absurd transmogrified into the lunatic, the system activated the command to self-destruct. The Castle, impregnable from outside, starts collapsing from inside. Two eagle heads tear into each other, only feathers fly. But, strangely enough, the stronger the entropy in the state, the faster everything disintegrates and the easier it becomes to breathe. As if there’s more air. I think that society has lost its fear: the people perceive the government’s inability to keep control of itself as a sign of weakness. Such a state cannot have enough strength for repression. The animal nips of the enraged system have woken people from their hypnosis. Fear and apathy have been replaced by rage.

The Russian state is trying to do too much where it can, and can’t do enough where it matters (see the recent Metro bombings). Between corruption, incompetence,  and contempt, Moscow has managed to alienate vast swathes of its citizens. Overreach – and for no apparent reason other than the power to do so – could end up a catalyst for decentralizing the Russian state.

The further a person is away from power, the better he is. I have seen this for myself in far away Ural villages built by lumberjacks before the Revolution. These villages’ link with civilisation was the only one-track railway in the country. Five years ago the authorities decided to tear down the villages and pull up the one-track railway. People who had been born and grown up in the forests were offered a flat in a high-rise block on the outskirts of the regional centre.

The government’s attempts to ouster the good citizens of the small village went from gentle cajoling to scorched-earth, smoke-’em-out tactics. But people may be starting to fight back. The state’s attempt to overmanage in the Urals is met by a particularly resilient community.

First the trains stopped going there, so food and pensions were not able to get through. There were people in the villages who hadn’t seen money for several years. They baked their bread, fed their cattle, shot game in the hunting season and wanted only one thing: for the state to leave them in peace.  When their electricity was turned off, they used locally improvised materials to build their own hydroelectric station on the river…

As a rule the spectacle of total degradation is depressing, but the people who lived in these autonomous forest villages were completely different. The men were strong – their children had grown up and they were determined to die in the place where they were born. In spite of the hard living conditions, their wives had somehow managed to remain neat and womanly.  Doors were not locked here, as there had been no thieving in these forests for many years.  People moved from one village to another in railcars, a cross between Minsk motorcycles and wagons, on a narrow gauge railway, a construction that was as exotic as it was dangerous.  I was told confidentially that one of the men was on probation. Representatives of the regional administration had come to take up the railway and he had fired a warning shot and then one at their feet … These people were full of dignity. You don’t often see people like that in the cities.

Unfortunately, you don’t see a lot of people like that anywhere. I’m not trying to call for revolution or mass uprising, nor do I even want to approach the Teabagger argument that the guvmint is a’comin’ to take away our guns and liberties and force us all into abortions and gay marriages. But nevertheless, something’s on the horizon, and as my new mantra goes: the future is coming, for better or for worse.

“The Dropout Economy”

Great article in TIME by Reihan Salam. It’s short, but provides a pretty good indicator of the future to come, particularly for my generation:

But what if the millions of so-called dropouts are onto something? As conventional high schools and colleges prepare the next generation for jobs that won’t exist, we’re on the cusp of a dropout revolution, one that will spark an era of experimentation in new ways to learn and new ways to live.

It’s important to keep in mind that behavior that seems irrational from a middle-class perspective is perfectly rational in the face of straitened circumstances. People who feel obsolete in today’s information economy will be joined by millions more in the emerging post-information economy, in which routine professional work and even some high-end services will be more cheaply performed overseas or by machines. This doesn’t mean that work will vanish. It does mean, however, that it will take a new and unfamiliar form.

Look at the projections of fiscal doom emanating from the federal government, and consider the possibility that things could prove both worse and better. Worse because the jobless recovery we all expect could be severe enough to starve the New Deal social programs on which we base our life plans. Better because the millennial generation could prove to be more resilient and creative than its predecessors, abandoning old, familiar and broken institutions in favor of new, strange and flourishing ones.

Only thing missing is the increasing incidence of a five-year plan (or even more) to graduate. Spreading out the experience isn’t necessarily a bad idea.

And at least this means we’ll be good at something. The alternative, of course, being to cryogenically freeze ourselves until the economy improves.

More analysis from Shlok Vaidya here and John Robb here.

Just Do It Yourself

Rapidly spreading around the internet right now is Chris Anderson’s article in Wired, “Atoms Are the New Bits.” Anderson talks about the spread of small-scale garage manufacturing, thanks to the advent, miniaturization, and drastically falling prices of 3D printers and the like. Works on the level of resilience, decentralization, sustainability… a win-win for everyone.

It’s definitely got me excited for the coming microindustrial revolution (or is it an industrial microrevolution?). I may very well need to invest in a MakerBot.

A garage renaissance is spilling over into such phenomena as the booming Maker Faires and local “hackerspaces.” Peer production, open source, crowdsourcing, user-generated content — all these digital trends have begun to play out in the world of atoms, too. The Web was just the proof of concept. Now the revolution hits the real world.

In short, atoms are the new bits.

Not everyone is quite so excited. But Joel Johnson might be the only naysayer. He does have a slight point – outsourcing some manufacturing to China is nothing new. Shlok Vaidya likes it except for the emphasis on China, and has further reading for you. John Robb loves it, of course (and is even more concerned with the business implications). Bostonist is proud of local Local Motors.

I know what I want for Christmas.