letter from tom mulcair

Nice letter from Thomas Mulcair, leader of the Official Opposition and the NDP. It is with regards to this. After having my loyalty questioned in the House of Commons last week, I am glad somebody in Ottawa appreciates what we did.

Canada, privacy and surveillance

Letter from Tom Mulcair

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A photo of pollution in Wuhan
movies, politics, review

China’s Inconvenient Truth

Photo: Residential buildings in Wuhan, Hubei Province. Darley Shen/Reuters.

In late February, Under the Dome, a documentary by former television news anchor and investigative journalist Chai Jing, was released criticizing China’s environmental record. Her quiet, understated approach is charismatic. Armed with statistics, footage and interviews from a number of impressive sources, she flexed her investigative journalist muscles. The film went viral in China.

Within a week, the Party shut it down. The film was “spirited away by gremlins.”

Of course, it still exists online outside of China, and I recommend you watch it. The entire film is on YouTube, the translation of which was apparently coordinated by a grade 12 student from Mainland China via GitHub.

(I watched via this playlist by a different translator, which I had discovered before finding the project above.)

Even if you are not a China watcher, the presentation is very engaging — a master class in presentation skills. Many have compared it to Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth.

Chai examines the impact of China’s energy mix, criticizing coal, diesel, oil, as well as the lax enforcement of the various ministries responsible and the corporations that control them. She closes with a number of suggestions including market competition and people power. I don’t know if opening up the market is the right answer, but surely the stricter enforcement that she calls for is necessary whether or not China reforms its energy sector. She promotes apps made with the Institute of Public and Environmental Affairs that allow the public to see and report businesses with excessive emissions to environmental watchdogs and publicly on Weibo.

Harnessing China’s powerful netizens to work with environmental NPOs might seem like a risky move. But just this year the government introduced new new environmental protection provisions that encourages “naming and shaming” of illegal polluters. Last year, President Xi himself declared war on pollution. This is an interesting use of open data, and can only be executed by having the right legal infrastructure in place (ie. buy-in by the government) and an engaged citizenry (ie. buy-in by the people).

Chai points out that this is a chance for Chinese citizens to test the fortitude of these laws and their government. The government is asking for transparency and public involvement in solving to pollution crisis in China. But as the pulling of this documentary demonstrates, they don’t want transparency and public involvement in pointing out how the government has failed thus far.

That criticism aside, awareness of how bad things are in China (and soon to be in India) is an important step, especially since they offer tools for the public to get involved. In Canada, emergency environmental reporting is devolved to the provincial and sometimes city level. This isn’t as convenient as China’s hotline number “12369” (which I can already recall by memory, just from watching the film), but just knowing that such infrastructure for reporting exists in the first place should be made common knowledge.

Documentaries like Under the Dome promote conversation around these issues (even though sometimes the politics involved can be … ahem … toxic). China is attempting to shut down the conversation in its own country, but that doesn’t mean we have to ignore the problem here. And if Canada wants to grow that $20B in trade we do with China, we can make sure that our government does so in a responsible way, leveraging the laws that the Chinese government has already put in place.

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Uncategorized

More than computers — A recap of LinuxFest Northwest 2015

For me, this year’s LinuxFest Northwest 2015 was learning more about the politics of the Free Software movement. This track featured some excellent and eminent speakers, and I enjoyed it very much. Here is a short recap of each session:

1.

Deb Nicholson, the Director of Community Outreach at the Open Invention Network gave an entertaining talk called Patents and Copyright and Trademarks: A Primer for Developers. Using plain language and funny pictures, she delineated trademarks (how it looks), copyright (the content), and patents (how it works) in a simple way. I enjoyed her examples of “trademark collision” and where things get fuzzy with regard to patenting software.

2.

screen cap of slide

Bradley Kuhn, former director of the Free Software Foundation brought the controversy in his talk Considering the Future of Copyleft: How Will The Next Generation Perceive GPL?. You can see a previous version of the talk on YouTube. Basically he advocated the enforcement of licenses, the abandonment of weak copyleft, and bringing the principles of copyleft to a new generation of coders. Javascript and Android are the new fronts for free software in this age, and the young devs coming up are used to wiring together frameworks and APIs without much knowledge or background about licensing. This is a long-term problem for the free software movement. As I summed up in my tweet from the event:

3.

Every year at LFNW there is an ACLU/EFF Panel Discussion. This year Seth Schoen from the EFF partnered with ACLU Washington state’s Technology and Liberty Director Jared Friend. Seth was great as always, and I was really impressed with Jared. As usual the crowd got pretty riled up. The discussion included stingrays, the terrible DMCA exemptions process, and fighting 215. The EFF must make a chunk in donations on LFNW weekends, but I feel like we in the crowd want to do more, but can’t, and feel helpless.

4.

The final talk I took in was an intro to The Free Software Foundation Licensing & Compliance Lab; We Fight for the User by Donald Robertson who is a Copyright and Licensing Associate with the FSF. This was a more informational session, but I came away with a much better understanding of the FSF and its activities.

Other interactions

With 1800 attendees and a bunch of exhibitors, you can bet you are going to meet some interesting people at LFNW.

Late Saturday, on the way to our traditional drinking spot Uisce, we stopped by The Foundry, Bellingham’s Makerspace. They had a really nice setup with electronics, sewing, woodworking corners in addition to the “traditional” 3D printers, laser cutters and the like. Check out my album on Flickr to see their amazing PAPER 3D printer. This thing blew my mind. (They have better pics on their gallery page). We capped off the visit by playing a 3D printed guitar and 3D scanning my head. Good times.

screen cap of Chad's 3d scanned head

On Sunday I wandered the exhibitor’s floor rather than going to sessions.

I spoke with the executive director of Geeks Without Bounds, and we had a good discussion about balancing fervor for technological solutionism and the realities of delivering aid through established frameworks. I am confident that GWOB isn’t simply about air-dropping mobile phones across the developing world and telling them to simply apt-get install democracy.

There was another deep discussion with Aaron Wolf from Snowdrift.coop, which is a platform for coordinating donations to F/OSS projects to make a bigger impact on development (those are my words). Rather than tons of disparate small donations going to disparate projects, getting everyone to put there money in the same place can push a project forward in a meaningful way. The vision of the project, and the idea to convince proprietary projects to go open once a sustainable ecosystem is developed is intriguing and worthy, even if extremely challenging. Check them out.

In conclusion

LFNW is about more than computers. There is a rich background of history and culture to the Free Software movement and the Free Culture movement. Learning about the ways these organizations fight for every user’s rights through legislative, legal and technical means is empowering. It is not all about the tech, but about the politics and social norms that underly every human endeavor. This recap should demonstrate that you do not have to be a Linux geek to enjoy LinuxFest. There are tons of learning and networking opportunities for developers and users of all kinds.

I did not touch a command line all weekend. Which suits me, since I only have a Mac and wouldn’t want to be scorned by all the true neckbeards there. ;-)

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dev, design, usability

Resources for Web and Mobile accessibility

Derek Wilson, a Career Development Practitioner with the Neil Squire Society, visited the Okanagan Developer’s Group yesterday to discuss with local devs accessibility online and on mobile. He gave us a demonstration of various assistive technologies such as VoiceOver and the Rotor on iPhone, and JAWS a popular (and expensive) screen reader application.

It was very enlightening to the designers and developers in the room, most who have never seen a visually impaired person use a computer, nevermind a touchscreen device.

I think it was enlightening for Derek as well. He got some insight into how real developers work, and was surprised that only one person in the room was a formally trained programmer (and his background was still unconventional, with much of his training in mathematical programming).

The fact that the web can work without knowing anything about standards is a boon to permissionless innovation, but a bane to users that require adherence to standards.

Below is a list of resources that Derek shared with the audience at OKDG to help them be more inclusive in their work. Follow him on Twitter @culturemate for more resources.

WAI Specs diagram

Standards

Other Resources

Tools

Articles

Videos and Audio

Screen Readers and the Web (YouTube)

See Web Accessibility Training Day, put on by The National Federation of the Blind Center of Excellence and the Maryland Technology Assistance Program. Below is a selection recommended by Derek. All links to the MP3 files are on the NFB site.

  • Accessibility: The Natural Outcome of Innovative and Inclusive Business, Eve Hill (Department of Justice)
  • Panel on Enterprise Implementation of Accessibility, Tony Olivero (Humana), Peter Wallack (Oracle), Steve Sawczyn (Deque)
  • Panel on Education Implementation of Accessibility, Kara Zirkle (George Mason University), Janna Cameron (Desire2Learn), Cheryl Pruitt, Susan Cullen (California State University)
  • The Trusted Tester Program, Bill Peterson (Department of Homeland Security)
  • PDF Accessibility in an Enterprise Setting, Shannon Kelly (Actuate)
  • HTML5 Accessible Design, Paul Bohman, Preety Kumar (Deque Systems)
  • Google MOOC Introduction to Web Accessibility, Louis Cheng (Google)
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Canada, privacy and surveillance

Undermining C-51

OpenMedia.ca organized an open letter about how C-51 will undermine Canada’s business climate:

The challenge of being Canadian today is to uphold our values of openness, tolerance, and trust of others, while maintaining a very real understanding of the dangers of terrorism and the government’s need to protect us. But sometimes this balance is not struck correctly and we, as business people and entrepreneurs, are convinced that Bill C-51 is not balanced the way we as Canadians would want.

Why rush this legislation when there are so many reasons to rethink the approach? Why not establish effective Parliamentary oversight on par with our global counterparts? Why not establish a Royal Commission into the general state of digital privacy protection in Canada and get this right? Our values are too important to rush such an important decision.

The letter was signed by 59 technology and business leaders… and me.

Learn more and sign the petition at StopC51.ca

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android, apple, tech

The long and the short of mobile messaging incompatibility

15 years ago in Japan, I thought it was pretty cool that I could send short messages via text to my friends. That wasn’t a thing yet in North America. I was living in the future!

But it was complicated. There was “short mail” and “long mail.” Short mail could be sent at a steep discount to other mobiles on the same carrier. Long mail was for mobiles on other carriers. In other words, SMS was not cross-carrier at the time. Long mail was actually an email dedicated to your phone. In fact, typically it was just your phone number @carrier.co.jp. later you could customize it. Many people had a “PC mail” address separate from their “mobile mail,” some used their mobile mail for their primary email.

Thus, we were ever asking new contacts:

  1. What carrier are you on? (AUですか?J-Phone?やっぱりDocoMo…)
  2. What is your mobile mail address? (メールアドはなんですか?)
  3. And if they had a separate PC mail. (パソコンメールは?)

15 years later, in the present future where we all have smartphones, things are even more complex. There are a plethora of messaging platforms, and none of them universal. Messaging apps are very personal. Like Todo list apps, we each have particular workflows we want our apps to conform too. Though, more likely we are influenced by the network effect. Different regions and cultures tend to have a dominant platform, say WeChat in China or WhatsApp in India.

“If only there was one app that was universal” has been the lament of the consumer for the past few years (UPDATE: h/t to @chrisfosterelli). And even earlier, by the little history lesson I opened this post with.

Benedict Evans said in a recent podcast that the notifications panel is the actual unifying app for messaging. We just have to get used to having a dozen different messaging apps on our devices, and use Notifications as our universal interface. Kind of like using a mail client with all your different email accounts.

Ah, email. Email is another old scourge of messaging. The ultimate fallback that everyone is trying to kill. On mobile, more often than not, that role is played by SMS.

This chart from The Economist has been going around to show the imminent death of SMS.

Whatsapp overtakes worldwide SMS delivery and keeps rocketing up

But it also shows how much SMS is still used in the world. The forecast is still 20 billion per day. I still txt a number of people, friends and family, even with my $500 smartphone and $80 a month data plan. Most are on iPhone or Android. One is on Blackberry. None are on feature phones. OMG RIP TXT, WTF!?

Looking at this recent chart by Comscore will show you why iMessage isn’t viable:

In Canada, iPhone has 38% of the 81% of smartphones

Well, I say not viable, but the truth is iPhone users don’t care. They use the same app either way, and if you aren’t on an iPhone, then you deserve Green Bubble Disgust. The rest of us are relegated to SMS. iPhone users are like the drunk salaryman on the train who is stepping on your foot the whole time, and if you say something he glares at you like its your fault.

My wife is one of those drunken salarymen. She txts like crazy. We pay an extra $7 a month for an unlimited txting plan for her. Since she is txting in Japanese I know she is not messaging people on feature phones. OMG RIP TEXT, WTF!?

My officemates and I use Slack. My gaming group uses Hangouts. Everyone else uses SMS.

As one the more tech oriented in my family, I have the power to convince people to adopt a platform. But what am I going to push? The options out there are terrible. Take a look at a slide from a recent presentation where I measure apps on a scale of tinfoil hats:

On a scale of 1 to 5 tinfoil hats, EVERYTHING is terrible

As I’ve said before, any universal platform must be:

  • cross platform (Android, iOS, BB… WinPhone I guess…)
  • cross device (Mac, Windows, Linux)
  • have native clients (no browser plugins please!)
  • have end to end encryption

This is otherwise known as my Inverse Pentagram of IM. Since nobody is willing to make it, we might just have to summon it from an alternate dimension.

Chad expounding on The Inverse Pentagram of IM

So, the long and the short of it is: People will use what they are used to, and what everyone around them is using, even if the alternatives are better. Unfortunately, SMS still rules the roost in my region. We might have to wait until everyone dies and the new generation takes over the earth before we see a change in messaging platform. Either that or my dream platform is finally released and I can go on an IM adoption crusade. Until then, just as 15 years ago, send me a txt.

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Canada, privacy and surveillance

Bell rejiggers RAP, but will delete user data

The victories just keep piling up (see previous victory here). The Office of the Privacy Commissioner of Canada ruled against Bell and it’s collection of personal data for targeted advertising under the Relevant Ads Program (RAP). The question then became: what is Bell’s next move? Well, there was a little back and forth here, so I shall recap:

Apparently Bell withdrew the RAP at the urging of the Privacy Commissioner. They then said they would re-introduce it as “opt-in” only, as per advised by the PrivCom. However, there was remained the outstanding question of what to do with the existing data? During the last victory I had questions about what exactly was being deleted (I am still waiting on my request for clarification from Bell’s privacy officer). PrivCom wants Bell to delete everything. Time passed, but today, PrivCom says that Bell promised to delete the data.

Great! That is excellent news. Does this mean the whole saga is over? No! PrivCom may close there case, but the CRTC case is still ongoing, as far as I know, and there is a laundry list of other issues that need to be addressed. Stay tuned.

Thanks to PIAC and all the others who have done such great work in moving the ball forward. We still have a way to go, but the positive momentum is building up.

If you are a Bell customer, and still in doubt, opt-out of the RAP here.

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books, movies, review

Quarterly review: FY15Q1

Each quarter I do a quick roundup of the book and film reviews that I do on Goodreads and Letterboxd. These reviews are too short and too off-the-cuff to be included with the more in depth reviews I do on this site. Below are the highlights of the quarter.

Books

I am keeping 4 books ahead of my 2015 Goodreads challenge so far, so that is good. I spend a lot of time reading The New Yorker, The Atlantic and The Literary Review of Canada while I am at home so I am glad audiobooks help me keep pace. I would have finished 1 or 2 more, but I abandoned a couple of books this year. That is something I normally wouldn’t do… but life is short right? And there is too much worthy out there to read.

Here are the longer reviews from this quarter:

Probably the number one book of this quarter – and potentially of this year – is Piketty’s Capital. A very challenging book. I am aware of the criticism, but it has certainly affected the way I think about economic policy.

★★★★☆ The Once and Future King

★★★☆☆ The Big Disconnect: Why the Internet Hasn’t Transformed Politics

★★★☆☆ The Republic of Thieves

★★★★½ Station Eleven

★★★☆☆ Ha’penny

★★★★★ Capital in the Twenty-First Century

★★★★☆ Pay Any Price: Greed, Power, and Endless War

★★★★☆ Half a Crown

Film

Out of the 10 films I saw this quarter (the highlight being The Grand Budapest Hotel) I only deigned to write a little something for the following:

★★★½☆ Like Father, Like Son

★★★☆☆ Attack the Block

★★☆☆☆ Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles

Not a lot of insight there…

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philosophy, politics, tech

Technology is a symptom

As “software eats the world,” further intertwining with our daily lives, more and more discussions that are ostensibly about tech are at heart political discussions. What looks like technology criticism is actually political critique, and therefore cannot be countered by arguments resting entirely within the niche of technology.

That is why I do not look for critical thinking about tech in tech publications. I am often disappointed by full-length books that are billed as deep, meaningful and thoughtful takes on society and technology.

In my heavily annotated copy of Douglas Coupland’s Kitten Clone (see review), there are a number of Post-it notes labelled with the admittedly dismissive tag: “old man problems.” Coupland’s tech-criticism-as-nostalgia is not satisfying to me by any means, and I am sure is completely dismissed by the Kool-Aid drinking techies in Silicon Valley. This type of “critical thinking” is of no help to anyone.
Continue reading

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Japan, politics

War in the East China Sea… or lack thereof

Foreign Affairs is being unnecessarily alarmist on China-Japan relations in the East China Sea. Take these quotes:

A military conflict between China and Japan would have catastrophic consequences and would almost certainly involve the U.S. military.

And:

The cost of any military conflict between China and Japan would be immense, and neither side wants a war.

Yet:

It isn’t as if China and Japan want to go to war over a few islands.

And:

While neither side wants a conflict…

But there is always a risk:

… in this volatile reality of increasingly crowded waters and airspace, the risk that a miscalculation or accident could escalate into a major crisis is far too high for comfort.

However small:

Yet even if the probability of any single encounter resulting in an incident remains low…

We insist, there is still risk!

… the frequency of plane and ship traffic in the region increases the likelihood of an incident that could escalate to a military crisis if not managed rapidly and effectively by both sides.

Here they are referring to these MOFA stats:

vessels in senkaku by year

Despite the article repeatedly stating that this is a “war” nobody wants, FA is willing to bang the drums. This article is simply a neorealist solution looking for a problem. (Here I refer you to my master’s thesis on this exact topic). Undoubtedly, China-Japan relations are a delicate topic and a better framework in East Asia is necessary. Nevertheless, banging the war drums is not the way to bring these parties to the peace table.

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