The light still shines in me…

A couple nights ago, Mika and I were listening to a tracked called In My Eyes by Milk Inc. The lyrics to the songs begin:

In my eyes you’ll see,
The way it used to be.
Take a look and see,
The light still shines in me.

Mika misheard the lyrics. It’s interesting how replacing "eyes" with another English vowel+s/z piece of anatomy can change a song about personal strength and perseverance to a song about colonoscopy.

Vice Versa

I took a subway a few days that I thought was sending an interesting message. On one side of the car was nothing but advertisements for an anti-smoking campaign. On the other was nothing but advertisements for (somewhat less public-service oriented) pro-beer-drinking campaign.

“Thou Art of a Truth a Treacherous and Unsavoury River”

One of my favorite moments in history comes from the story of Xerxes trying to cross the Hellespont. Here’s the relevant passages from The History of Herodotus in the translation by George Rawlinson:

Towards this tongue of land then, the men to whom the business was assigned carried out a double bridge from Abydos; and while the Phoenicians constructed one line with cables of white flax, the Egyptians in the other used ropes made of papyrus. Now it is seven furlongs across from Abydos to the opposite coast. When, therefore, the channel had been bridged successfully, it happened that a great storm arising broke the whole work to pieces, and destroyed all that had been done.

So when Xerxes heard of it he was full of wrath, and straightway gave orders that the Hellespont should receive three hundred lashes, and that a pair of fetters should be cast into it. Nay, I have even heard it said, that he bade the branders take their irons and therewith brand the Hellespont. It is certain that he commanded those who scourged the waters to utter, as they lashed them, these barbarian and wicked words: "Thou bitter water, thy lord lays on thee this punishment because thou hast wronged him without a cause, having suffered no evil at his hands. Verily King Xerxes will cross thee, whether thou wilt or no. Well dost thou deserve that no man should honour thee with sacrifice; for thou art of a truth a treacherous and unsavoury river." While the sea was thus punished by his orders, he likewise commanded that the overseers of the work should lose their heads.

Bad weather can get us all down but I feel like whipping, branding, and insulting bits of geography is quite over the top — which was the point of course. When I first read this passage, I thought of this as the archetypical example of frustration taken to an illogical and implausible extreme.

Over time though, I’ve found that there are certain moments of intense frustration where branding the ground and insulting the ocean might actually make me feel better in a way that other sort of release might not.

“Laughing Malady Puzzle in Africa”

I’m finishing up a great book called Laughter: A Scientific Investigation that I’ll review more fully in the near future. Before I get there though, there was one nugget in there that I think deserves the spotlight to itself.

We all have experienced the way that laughing in contagious. We all remember laughing in a group for no good reason until the whole situation just got out of control. Well evidently, in 1962, this happened on an epidemic level in what is now Tanzania and it was so bad that it kept some schools closed for over 6 months.

I went back and dug up the original New York Times article and transcribed it here. It’s an interesting read but there are a few things that have become clear with time that weren’t clear at the time that the article was written:

  • The epidemic was not because of environmental causes, food poisoning, or a virus or bacteria as researchers at the time suspected. It was a simple, but extreme, example of contagious laughter and was purely a social (or neurological) phenomenon. It started with girls giggling in primary schools and moved through connected communities — primarily affecting women. The chance of someone "catching" the laughter from someone else correlated heavily with the closeness of the relationship between the two. It basically swept through sisters, to mothers, to good friends and on. It was a multi-year, debilitating, regional giggle fest!
  • Kuru, the diseases described in the end is not at all related. It’s also not, as the article suggests, hereditary. It turns out to be a product of cannibalism and is a prion-based variant of a spongiform encephalopathy much like Creutzfeldt-Jacob Disease and or BSE (more commonly known "mad cows disease"). I read on book this one too once.

If a similar giggle fest broke out today, I would be strongly tempted to just drop everything and go see it for myself — and maybe add a few good guffaws of my own into the mix.

DRM, Pop-ups and Rise of Free Software

A few months ago, I went to pick up a computer for a friend at the Apple store and had to wait for 45 minutes while memory was installed. While I waited, I listened to conversations of people coming in to ask technical support questions at the "Genius Desk."

In the 45 minutes I was there, every question asked was about getting around iTunes’ Digital Rights Management (DRM) for legitimate and legal reasons. Every answer was a "sorry" and a shrug.

Here’s an example: "I have a desktop computer, a laptop computer, and an iPod. My laptop broke and you guys just gave me a new one. Now I can’t copy my music over to the new computer." That iTunes users has every legal right to copy the song onto their new computer but the DRM won’t let them do it. What are the chances of someone that spends $200 on iTunes music files and gets locked out from their own legally purchased files by DRM goes back to buy more songs or re-download the ones they lost? Very low. They’ll buy a CD or just go download those songs on a P2P network they know is secure or unmonitored.

In response to this, iTunes’ DRM has become more permissive but it’s not enough — nor can it be. Ultimately, iTunes is competing with P2P systems and ad-hoc systems of swapping amongst friends. The RIAA is wrong in their characterization of the fundamental difference between these systems: the difference is not one of price — the price can (and will) get cheap enough that very few people will care. The core issue is one of software failing to respect its users by privileging the desires of outside interests (in this case the RIAA and its member companies) over its users’. The users get screwed and they won’t come back.

Here’s another example. The last three times I’ve introduced the concept of Free Software to folks, they’ve asked if Mozilla, which they use, is Free Software. Mozilla has taken off in the non-Free Software crowd in large part because of its ability to do pop-up blocking and some related features. Mozilla is doing something that Internet Explorer doesn’t and they’re sick of IE.

Nothing is stopping Microsoft from adding this functionality to IE. In the absence of patents, Free Software shouldn’t assume it can "out innovate" well-funded proprietary software (which seems to be one claim of the Open Source camp); functionality can and will be copied. The reason Internet Explorer can’t compete with Mozilla is that Microsoft places the desires of some (their executives, their executives’ friends, their shareholders, advertisers, pop-up-makers, Hotmail users, the RIAA and the MPAA) over the desires of their users. Microsoft chooses to not incorporate functionality that their users want.

The mistake that both the RIAA in demanding DRM and Microsoft in designing web browsers that don’t block pop ups are making is that they’re taking their de facto monopoly for granted. Their software is annoying — or worse — and as long as viable alternative exist, a growing number of people will turn to them. At some point, things will tip. As people become aware that there are alternatives, these monopolies will be eroded. Ultimately, they will be dismantled. The incumbents, chained down by deals and alliances and promises made to advertisers, recording industry executives, shareholders and their ilk, will find themselves unable to react in an appropriate or timely manner. Free Software is already poised to capitalize on this.

Royalties and Reality

In my entry yesterday, I mentioned that would contact the maker of Pol Pot’s Birthday to inquire about digital distribution. It turns out that Talmage Cooley, the filmmaker, would love uninhibited digital distribution of the film — but can’t afford it. It turns out that Cooley can scrape together the cash for the inexpensive royalties necessary to show the film in festivals but cannot afford the much higher fees that must be paid in order to webcast.

The recording companies continue to claim that if those distributing, performing, or reusing their work in other ways do not pay royalties, musicians will not be able to produce as much, or as good, music. This is fiction designed to sell both consumers and artists on an unjust, exploitative and inefficient system. Cooley’s experience is the reality of a expansive, pay-per-use, highly controlled and highly centralized system of permission and royalty-based access to ideas. It’s a reality where the vast majority of voices are systematically silenced by simple economics.

Independent artists and producers can’t pay expensive royalties for wide distribution of their work because they work is not commercially viable in the way that Hollywood and the RIAA member company’s products are. Their only available alternatives are degrees of silence.

It’s true that if Pol Pot’s birthday was distributed online and paid no royalties, the recording industry would get nothing. But it’s also true that the alternative — the more likely alternative and the one we have now — is for the film it to not be distributed at all; the music industry still get nothing.

In the latter case, the losers here are the independent filmmakers, whose work has its wings clipped systemically, and the consumers, who don’t get to see great independent film. This is a happy enough arrangement for big media of course. At worst, they break even. At best, consumers with lack of alternatives spend their time and their dollars on media that they can get access to. It is a fortunate coincidence that the remaining available films are produced by the large, established movie studios who are jointly owned, or in bed, with the large established recording companies. This is not a conspiracy: it’s a system optimized for the production of some sorts of content (the highly profitable kind) by disadvantaging and silencing available alternatives.

Pol Pot’s Birthday

I tend not to watch films very often but since short film seems better suited to my attention span, I’ve made an effort to go to Seattle’s One Reel Short Film Festival each year. The best film I saw there this year was Pol Pot’s Birthday made by Talmage Cooley.

The film was exactly what it title implies.

Birthday parties are supposed to be fun, right? Pol Pot is about the least fun person you can imagine (to say the least) and his party was not fun. It began with his lieutenants attempting to "surprise" him without giving him reason for alarm and continued through a very tense cake cutting and tasting scene and a brilliant gift giving moment (what do you get Pol Pot for his birthday?) — someone gave him a "Don’t Ask Me, I Just Work Here" desk icon.

Short films like this tend to be hard to get a hold of but you should keep an eye out for it. It’s well done and very funny. There is a writeup at the Brooklyn Film Festival website and an interview with the director elsewhere.

If I might squeeze an rant in here… I really can’t understand why filmmakers don’t distribute these sorts of short films online. There aren’t even the normal Hollywood-esque dubious reasons to not do it. If bandwidth is the concern, there’s always archive.org. And yes, I just emailed to the filmmaker.

Desserts I Can’t Resist

Ben and Jerry’s serves a flavor of ice cream called "Giant Chocolate Chip" in their ice cream shops. When I go there, I can’t resist ordering a "small giant chocolate chip" cone or cup. The problem with this is that I don’t particularly like Giant Chocolate Chip.

I’ve found it’s easiest just to not go to Ben and Jerry’s.

Ubuntu and Custom Debian Distributions

[ For the record, I am speaking for myself and not for Ubuntu, Debian-NP, Debian, or anyone else. ]

I have a vision for Debian; rather, I have a number of (sometimes contradictory) visions. One idea that I’ve fussed a lot about over the last couple years is Custom Debian Distributions. I have helped make a few things happen in one little corner of the CDD world (Debian-Nonprofit) but haven’t been as active as I’d like in the general CDD framework yet except through advocacy.

The idea behind a Custom Debian Distribution is, to borrow Enrico Zini’s terminology, to be global and local at the same time: to create an OS and set of applications that is targeted to a specific group of people and to contribute and collaborate within a larger community in a way that lets people without interest in that niche group benefit and for you to benefit from the work of people without interest in that niche. This is basically what Bdale Garbee talked about when he was talking about flavors in his 2003 DPL platform. I suspect people are hanging on to their one-flavor-fits-all model because they haven’t seen a compelling implementation of an alternative. I think that its the job of those of us that are sold on the idea to give them one (Thanks to everyone that has and continues to work on this in the CDD community).

Now as a few people know, I’m complicit in this whole Ubuntu Conspiracy. When Mark Shuttleworth first approached me about the project, the first thing I thought about was Custom Debian Distributions. I wasn’t, and am still, not exactly sure how those things relate exactly.

I was (and continue to be) tempted to think of a spectrum of "Debianness" with officially blessed Debian releases at the center, testing and unstable slightly outside of that, CDDs farther outside but just within the circle of what’s "officially" Debian, Ubuntu beyond that trying its best to hug the line, LinEx y sus hermanas in there somewhere, and Lindows almost on the periphery of our vision denying — to some but not all — that its on the spectrum at all.

But it’s not that simple.

From a technical perspective, it’s manageable. Ignoring project affiliation and institutional relationships, we might say that CDDs are about creating and maintaining a derived version of Debian over time and in way that offers all changes back to the pool of Debian (Debian won’t take all). Forking in the traditional sense is one thing — and it’s relatively easy; going out of your way to share and collaborate within the Debian community is one way to define a CDD.

So it’s simple if we, for the moment, think of Debian as a single monolithic blob — forget subprojects and CDDs. We can break the goals of a any Debian derivation down into three basic types of customization:

  • Package selection: Which software in Debian does the deriver want to include?
  • Package configuration: What configuration changes does a deriver want to include (anything you can do with debconf/cfengine)?
  • Package replacement (for lack of a better term): What packages does a derivative want to ship that has diverged from the package in Debian in terms of code (bug fixes, features, whatever)?

The problem (for my simplified model for explaining Debian derivatives — I don’t think it’s a problem in general) is that some people are working within this framework in ways that are visibly connected to the Debian community and some people are not and don’t want to be. Basically, Debian is whole lot more complex than just a ball of code.

In Jeff Licquia’s blog, he mentioned that Ubuntu is a fork. In a way he’s correct and in a way he’s not. I think part of the problem is that "Debian" refers to a long list of things. Just to start we’ve got:

  • Debian: the group of volunteers;
  • Debian: the "project" with a Constitution, leader, and decision making structure;
  • Debian: the ball of code (But which ball of code? Stuff on Alioth? Stuff in contrib? Stuff in the Debian-NP archive?);
  • Debian: the infrastructure that runs the code together;
  • Debian: the shared goals and the action of sharing (you share within the Debian community — you are part of Debian);

This creates problems and uncertainty that we in the CDD community has been grappling with for a long time: Is Debian-Nonprofit Debian? Can any CDD really be Debian?

Of course, coming from the Debian community, the CDD community began with the answer ("yes") and then went about trying to create and argue a justification. We’ve even defined the technology based on what would or would not allow us to honestly call ourselves "Debian" and have attempted to grasp onto definitions of "Debian" that make that possible. Debian-NP and every CDD is still trying to figure out what it means to be Debian and Debian-NP at the same time — how does one strike that balance?

Ubuntu starts out with an answer as well. Ubuntu is not Debian and I suspect this is what Jeff was referring to. Ubuntu wants to do things that Debian can’t, won’t, or just isn’t all that good at and thare is great room for synthesis here.

My concern is that the political side of things — the "who is Debian and who is not" — risks driving a wedge between the technologies being used by those customizing Debian from the inside and from the outside. People don’t work together because they are "not part of the same project" when they have every technical and strategic reason to collaborate.

Basically, I think we should let Debian stand for something political: an organization. When it comes to code, I think we should forget about this and find creative ways to work together.

I want to see Ubuntu, Progeny and the other Debian derivers work closely with the Debian derivers within Debian. I want this work to lead to systems of common infrastructure that makes applying the the different types of customization something resembling a standard. That’s only going to happen if we all try. That doesn’t mean there will be One True Way — there won’t. It does means that everyone is going to have to be flexible. I think ultimately, it will be worth it.

Oh Say, Can You See This Rorschach Test?

I think it would be nice to do a psychoanalysis of different nations based on the musical nature of their national anthem.

I don’t have a fixed set of results in mind but I’m pretty sure sure that Canada would come off pretty well. The US national anthem seems like a sure sign of a dysfunction.

Scott Rice’s “Son of ‘It Was a Dark and Stormy Night'”

New York City, land of the $1 used books on the street, has been good to me so far. Last week, I picked up Son of "It was a Dark and Stormy Night" which is compiled by Scott Rice from entries to the Bulwer-Lytton Contest. For those that have missed the annual mentions in newspapers and on radio programs, the Bulwer-Lytton contest is named after Edward Bulwer-Lytton, the Victorian novelist who opened his novel Paul Clifford with what has become the ultimate cliche opening: "It was a dark and storm night." The competition is a yearly one that challenges authors to come up with the worst opening line to a potential novel.

I enjoy reading the finalists each year as they make it into the press. You might think that too much of a so-good-it’s-bad thing is bad. I am pleased to report that while the pieces are bad, too much of this so-good-it’s bad thing is so good.

This book was published in 1986 so it includes some of the early gems that got the contest off and running. To set the tone, here is the winner from 1985:

The countdown had stalled at T minus 69 seconds when DesirĂ©e, the female ape to go up in space, winked at me slyly and pouted her thick, rubbery lips unmistakeably — the first of many such advances during would prove to be the longest, and most memorable, space voyage of my career.

—Martha Simpson, Glastonbury, Connecticut

What I’ve found hearing the winners each year is that a certain type of bad opening line tends to win every year. They tend to be long, convoluted, and slightly bizarre without being totally outlandish and confusing. They tend to use extremely bad, but not completely puzzling metaphors. What I like about this book is that it highlights a greater range of the types of bad writing submitting to the Bulwer-Lytton contest. Here is one that I enjoyed particularly:

Her breasts lept like lizards from high cliffs as fear welled up from her chest and danced a rhumba in her throat.

—Lucinda Ryan, Alameda, California

I also enjoyed this one:

The rather well-nourished buxomly matron waddled through the pulsating pedestrian traffic of Hong Kong, pensively meditating on the problems of being a big-breasted, broad-butted, broad broad abroad.

—Michael A. O’Neill, Rohnert Park, California

I think this one is my personal favorite:

With a curvaceous figure that Venus would have envied, a tanned unblemished oval face framed with lustrous thick brown hair, deep azure-blue eyes fringed with long black lashes, perfect teeth that vied for competition, and a small straight nose, Marilee had a beauty that defied description.

—Alice A. Hall, Fort Wayne, Indiana

There are many more that I would love to list but that for reasons of space cannot. According to the BL website, there are the following collections published by Penguin:

  • It Was a Dark and Stormy Night
  • Son of "It Was a Dark and Stormy Night"
  • Bride of Dark and Stormy
  • It Was a Dark and Stormy Night: The Final Conflict
  • Dark and Stormy Rules Again

Unfortunately, all of these are out of print so Bookfinder or AddALL are the most reasonable choices if your local used book stores don’t have a copy. The other good news is that there is apparently another book ready but, the author(s) are having trouble finding someone to publish it. Check out the Bulwer-Lytton homepage for information.

I’m working on my own entry for next years contest. I think if I put my mind to it, I have a chance.