Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Drafts and a lack of posts

I just thought I'd write a quick post explaining why there haven't been any posts...

Baillie's computer died on her and she's been busy - DIY hell. She's actually got the start of a few posts... they just haven't eventuated yet.

And as for me? I'm..... sorting some things out. I've got a few draft posts as well .... soon... something will happen soon.

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Consuming Media

No this isn't a post on Jeremy Wells. Rather, it's once again, sort of, about the copyright bill passed by parliament. I've been ranting and raving about it for a little while.
A friend asked why we don't just make our own media. And it occurs to me, we've been doing this for years.

Back in the good old days I'd get together with friends around a table. We'd eat, but more importantly, we'd play out scenarios. Not in a "get up and act it out" sort of a way, but more in a "what if" sort of way. Much like watching the comedians on 7 days. We teach our kids to do the same sort of thing. It doesn't always lead to mental images of fat Elvis in a spandex jump suit scoffing down deep fried peanut butter burgers.... but it could.
For some strange reason, we grow up, we get involved with work and at some point consuming media becomes this really expensive antisocial sort of activity where you're sitting together in a cinema in the dark not talking to each other.
Personally I don't find myself going to the cinema a lot these days. That's mainly to do with the fact that I find more value in the coffee/dinner before/after the movie with friends. Otherwise, I can wait for the DVD. And given that people simply don't have time any more (I love it when people say they don't have time. They've got just as much time as they've ever had. It's just that they chose to make time for certain things and not so much for others), it's hard finding someone to go to the movies with.
Just last year a friend and I would have a couple of drinks and then sit there thinking about t-shirt ideas. I always liked the idea of something crude but subtle. So something that could be mistaken for just a really cool design until it was given a little bit of context.
After that it was the passing around of multiple bits of paper. Everyone would write a bit of a story and it'd be strung together. It was sort of a literary kind of theatre sports as bits would be taken out of context or bad puns suddenly turned into the funniest joke ever. You would never take the resulting "story" and base a play around it as it was always about the process rather than the end result.
Remembering that laughter is a very social thing. The way we laugh in private is usually quite different to how we laugh individually. I don't enjoy some comedies on my own. The more silly ones. They're very much a social thing to me. The question then becomes, are we really enjoying the media we are consuming? If laughter is social, but sitting down and watching a movie together isn't so much, then have we, in some way, gotten this all wrong?
In which case, is the power that we've essentially given rights holders misplaced?
How many of us want to be a little more creative? What if, instead of consuming media, we did, as that friend suggested, and made our own? I'm not talking about making great pieces of art and sharing it with the world - though the technology's there. What I'm talking about is doing something for yourself, or for friends. Writing something. Taking the time to pick up a pencil and draw something. How about making some music? Can't play an instrument? How about learning? Or singing? This is hardly a new concept.
"Be Kind, Rewind" is a film about this sort of thing. A couple of video store attendants erasing a bunch of video tapes (every tape in the store) and, in order to avoid being found out, replace them with movies they shoot themselves. At the end of the movie they're being closed down due to infringing copyright. The interesting thing though - their last film, they make it themselves. It's a kind of mockumentary which the whole neighbourhood gets involved in.

It's a feel good movie. You leave it thinking about how nice it is that a whole community made something. What is really interesting though is that none of us seem to take what's probably a really good lesson from it. The creation, rather than the consumption, of media is so much more valuable. Perhaps not in monetary terms, but think about the social aspect of it. And hell, when you're working on something, the sense of accomplishment.

With that in mind, I decided to have a play and came up with this - not yet complete. I know it's not fantastic but there is a certain sense of accomplishment to it. I've chucked in the original image (below). The funny bit though - I'm quite likely infringing copyright. It's a derivative work. Bummer.
Let this blatant copyright infringement to be a commentary on the ridiculous powers we've given them.

Oh - and just a little special thanks to Zarek who got me thinking about perhaps doing something kind of arty again.

Sunday, May 8, 2011

Missing The Point

There was some interesting buzz about this great little project. Basically a really small, really cheap computer.

It seems though, people are missing the point of this project. It's not replace the XO's of the OLPC project. In fact, it quite specifically says in the article linked that the project is a reaction to there not being enough technology education around computers and instead, skills such as word processing are taught.

But the buzz I keep hearing from people is that the costs would soon mount up once you start adding in a monitor and the cost of a keyboard and usb hub etc. And how is it supposed to help people of developing nations?

It's all a matter of scope. That's not the market they're targeting. Let's put this into context. The project assumes users will have a TV or computer monitor with HDMI input. That users will have a ready power supply.  It would be a bit like trying to use a spoon as a fork. It's not designed as a replacement to the XO and sure, potentially it could be used with a bit of hacking, but then, how many people see a spoon and figure out how they can turn it into a fork? And once they do, is it a horribly compromised fork? i.e. a spork. It still isn't really built for purpose...

I do have to wonder if it's scope is all that realistic. The number of people actually interested in getting to the guts of their computers is fairly minimal. It's a bit like offering an electronics class. If you only end up with 7 students out of 500, is that really a good use of a school's resources? If the goal is to encourage the uptake of things like programming, then a really simple to use flowchart application, along the same lines as Freemind would probably do more.

I know loads of people disagree with me about the best way to learn programming. Personally, I think it should be taken away from the computer/any particular language. Learn the logic first. Here's a flowchart for the logic. Now I want to use this same bit all over the place. Suddenly you have functions. While we're at it, why don't we learn what binary is? Getting people into a line either standing or sitting to represent different values. I know there was a guy at... kiwifoo? I was told... who was advocating this very same sort of thing.

Is the scope for this computer completely wrong? I think it misses the point of the stated aim and is quite probably going to be a very cool niche device for computer enthusiasts everywhere. As for it's educational value? I'm just not really seeing it.

And then you have to wonder about things like QR codes.

Data contained within this QR code: "This data could be made
human readable but for some strange reason we want to create
this odd barrier to entry by putting information into a strange
non-human readable format."
I can't see a suitable scope for them. They create this really odd barrier to entry. Rather than just being able to read the information, users must have the technology in order to take a picture and decode it. Is this a reinforcement of a class system?

The question is, what is the scope of this technology? Does it have any real practical application or is this one of those "if we create it, people will figure out what to do with it" sort of things? The wikipedia article on QR codes claim that uptake is fairly strong in Korea and Japan.

Meanwhile, I can't help but think that this is contrary to current trends in computing. We tend to store a lot of data in a human readable format called XML.I'm sure there's a joke in there somewhere. Something along the lines of take XML and define how to decode QR codes and then encrypt it in a QR code.

Could it be that the technology was only really supposed to expand the humble Bar Code? Rather than having a number which is then linked to an entry in a database (UPC's, the bar codes you find on consumer goods, have a standard format. A certain number of digits for the manufacturer for example)? In which case, is it's use for encoding URL's or text completely unintentional and taken by those who don't quite understand what the technology is for?

It's this sort of thing that's a serious danger to just about every programming effort out there. At one stage I was programming a time sheet. But then, the time sheets were then being printed out and the information typed back into the computer. So I had to make something to put the information into the format the "system" wanted. Except that the system was the boss's mum. And at some stage, that same information, after vetting from the bosses mum, then got input somewhere else - again, printed and put in manually. A 3 month job turned into a 18 month job.

No one was happy. I wasn't happy as I had quoted horribly cheap rates given that it was just a little project to fill in some time - 3 months rather than what turned out to be 18 months on the same sort of wages you would expect to pay someone at MacDonalds. The client wasn't happy - the system still wasn't working brilliantly. The main factor here being that all of this was being built on top of MS Excel. They weren't willing to go to through the expense of having a database application built. I'm seen as a bit of a prat because it's not working great (I still have to go in occasionally to maintain it). But then, the scope was never fully explored and rather than a development path being chosen on what was sustainable, the development path was chosen solely on what they were already using.

During our efforts in getting a Creative Space in Auckland started, one of our members kept going on about VOIP. Rather than getting the space up and running this one member's emphasis was all on getting a website and a bunch of wizz banginess set up. Never mind the fact that at that stage there wasn't actually a space. There is the fact that member is still involved where as I pulled away from Tangleball a long time ago.

This sort of thing could be seen sort of like a rot for projects. Asking the right questions at the beginning of a project - things like "What are we trying to achieve?", "How can we achieve it?", "Are we creating barriers with the way we're trying to approach things?", "Is this sustainable?", "Are we trying to shoehorn the new into the old and what is the risk/benefits or doing so?", and "Does the cost outweigh the benefit?" - is absolutely essential. And it wouldn't hurt to go through these questions several times over the life of a project.

You see this rot on just about every project and it's really hard trying to warn people about it. It's one of those things that's hard to define.  Either people are so entrenched in their positions, or are involved with someone who is entrenched (think legacy providers), that they refuse to see a problem at all or the issue hasn't reared it's ugly head and the full cost hasn't yet been realised.

In terms of cost, that should be seen as a cost to time, monetary, morale of those involved in the project etc. While it might not have a huge effect at the top of a project, the people in the trenches may be struggling. All because the scope is either shifting or just hasn't been defined.

Sunday, May 1, 2011


I find myself wondering what ever happened to the system of government in New Zealand. While there's no clear definition (none that satisfies me as a political system at least) of the term "Democracy", it seems to be that we vote (or should vote) for those who we think best represents us and our interests.

In times gone by, there was just Labour and National and it wasn't until the 1970's that people wanted change. So in 1996 the first MMP election was held. It only took 20 odd years to get some change...

MMP promised us better representation of smaller parties in government.

MMP allows us to vote for the party we think best represents us and, independently, a person in our area who we think best represents our interests. So we go out in droves and vote. Only - the people we vote to represent us don't actually represent us. Their votes for laws and the like are their party's line. It's not necessarily the opinion or values of that particular member.

And the party vote? As soon as the election is over, there's a mad scramble to form two coalitions.

Whoa there! That's not what we voted for is it? We voted for that party to represent us and our interests. Not to get to parliament, trade away those same values that they were voted in on, so that they can represent a coalition partner.

This is a hypocrisy like the whole "Leader of the Free World" thing.

If America is the leader of the free world and the U.S. president usually gets that title slapped on them. But then, if the U.S. President was the leader of the free world, by it's very definition, the U.S. sees itself as "The Free World" as others around the world who consider themselves members of the free world don't get a vote. This does need to be acknowledged. American's may worry about America when electing their President. The rest of the world worries about the rest of the world when the American elections are being held. This means America's electoral system needs to become a whole lot better.

So somewhere in between us voting and those voted representatives getting to parliament, something happens. They represent their party and then that party represents a coalition. I remember my frustration in 1996 watching the news about all of scrambling around forming coalitions. Isn't the whole point of MMP to allow those smaller parties to get into parliament and represent those issues that are important to those who voted them in?

After the last election I went looking for oaths that members of parliament swear to. I was convinced that there must be something about representing those who voted them in or the people of New Zealand. There is no such oath. The only oath seems to be to the Queen.

So members of parliament don't actually have to represent us but we vote for them as if they're going to represent us and in reality they represent their party which ultimately represents a coalition. This is suddenly sounding like First Past the Post. A system whereby the dominance of a bi-party system is reinforced. Take a step back, change the word "coalition" to "party" and all you have is a two party system again.

Is it time to start kicking up a fuss? If we start now, in 20 odd years time we might see some change.

And what should that change look like? I think the government needs a party that represents New Zealanders.

Rather than trusting that the elected member of parliament has any clue about what the people in New Zealand want or need, those voted members vote only after the New Zealand public are allowed some discussion.

Why do we have elected officials to make decisions on our behalf? Because if you had to get the opinion of every stakeholder (the people of New Zealand) you'd never make any changes. If only we had the technology to do a highly parallel collection of votes and discussion medium where the data could be collected in one point and have it all happen within a matter of days...

Yes - I'm proposing we use technology to let our voices be heard. Those who are interested can read up and lodge a vote. I've been asked what about those without computers? I have to ask - how much does a computer cost? Hone Harawira's by-election is going to cost $500,000 which could be saved if he chose to wait 6 months. With $500,000, how many computers do you think could be brought and powered for a year? Would we really object to computers being put all over New Zealand if it meant the people of New Zealand could have their voices heard?

And that's a fraction of the price! Hone Harawira is framing his decision to hold a by-election as the cost for democracy - again... 6 months. And that's the cost of democracy for the Maori electorate of Te Tai Tokerau - 1 of 7 Maori electorates in New Zealand. I can't seem to find any figures on how big the Maori electoral roll is but in 2008, only 55% of those registered on this roll voted. It would be my guess that the figure would be quite a small fraction of our 4.4 million (rounded figure from an estimate on wikipedia) people.

I don't think we'd achieve anything at this stage by trying to replace all of government with an online system, but a voted in party which declared itself independent and only represented collected opinions and votes would open the door for people getting involved in politics. In fact, if the party split itself as best it could based on the figures of their votes, then that party's representation in parliament would be a balanced one.