America clamps down on online anonymity, the last refuge of Mexico’s free press
The last time I went to Mexico I was mugged at gunpoint on the same day that the country’s anti-drug czar was found to be a paid informant for its cartels. Since then, things have become so much worse that they now approach the surreal: in August, seventy-two migrants were massacred for refusing to become cartel assassins; in September, the prosecutors assigned to the crime were murdered as well. The cartels slaughter police and politicians with impunity; they have built roadblocks to wall off highways and entire downtowns. Meanwhile, corruption is beyond rampant — one of the major cartels, Los Zetas, is led by former Mexican Army Special Forces soldiers.
And those are just the stories we know. The Mexican press regularly censors itself, and who can blame it, when reporters and photographers are murdered every month? El Diario, the newspaper in Cuidad Juarez, bloodiest city of all, recently ran an editorial that begged the local drug lords to “explain to us… what you would like us to publish or stop publishing… because the last thing we want is for another one of our colleagues to fall victim to your gunshots.” (more…)
The view from Burning Man: in the Black Rock Desert, it is better to be awesome than rich
I’m just back from Burning Man, the surreal festival of 50,000 artists, anarchists, hippies, ravers, engineers, and gawkers who gather annually in Nevada’s Black Rock Desert to build a temporary city, throw the world’s biggest party, and show off their latest artistic creations. Whatever you may have heard about the bacchanal is probably true… but there’s more to it than that.
The event’s ephemeral metropolis, Black Rock City — one of Nevada’s five largest urban areas, during the week that it exists — defies all rational economic analysis. Even its least-involved citizens spend about $300 for an entrance ticket, and much more to carry their own food, water, and shelter to and from one of Earth’s most barren pieces of real estate. Those who construct their own art, technology, and/or theme camps — playgrounds for passersby, essentially — collectively put in many thousands of hours of hard labour, and millions of dollars more in materials.
Why? Not for money: commerce is strictly forbidden in Black Rock City, aside from a few essential services provided by the Burning Man organization itself. Instead the city runs on a gift economy. Its many bars, for instance, are hosted by groups who buy carloads of booze, drive it into the desert, construct some kind of (frequently extremely elaborate) structure, and spend many hours pouring drinks for endless crowds of random strangers, while expecting nothing in return. Art created for or during Burning Man is rarely if ever sold afterwards — in fact, much of it is burned — and I’m not aware of any startups seeded with technology originally built for the playa. (more…)
Last week I saw Restrepo, the Sebastian Junger/Tim Hetherington fly-on-the-wall documentary about a US infantry unit stationed in Afghanistan’s Korengal Valley, a.k.a. “the most dangerous place on Earth.” Junger and Hetherington follow the troops as they exchange fire with and call in airstrikes on the omnipresent Taliban, try to justify civilian deaths (a.k.a. collateral damage) to the locals, and suffer tragic deaths themselves.
Desperate for any claim to accomplishment, the unit’s commanding officer talks proudly about OP Restrepo, the new outpost his men built on high ground less than a kilometre away from their main base, as a strategic masterstroke that changed the whole dynamic of the war in the valley. I almost believed him, too — until the punch line subtitle at the very end: The US Army withdrew from the Korengal Valley in April 2010.
Meanwhile, a shadowy and fascinating organization called Wikileaks, about which little is known other than that it is headed by a shadowy and fascinating Australian hacker named Julian Assange, has ignited a political firestorm by releasing more than 90,000 secret military documents from Afghanistan which reveal that, according to the Guardian, “coalition forces have killed hundreds of civilians in reported incidents, Taliban attacks have soared, and NATO commanders fear neighbouring Pakistan and Iran are fuelling the insurgency.” (more…)
Three years ago, when the Amazon Kindle was little more than a gleam in Jeff Bezos’s eye, I wrote an article for The Walrus called “Apocalypse Soon: The future of reading.” In it, I lamented how my book publishers had prevented me from releasing my debut novel online, and predicted an e-book revolution, the rise of e-readers, widespread e-piracy, the demise of many publishers and booksellers, and, ultimately, a world in which readers would decide whether to pay for books after reading them.
Now seems like a good time to follow up. Not least because my predictions appear to be coming true. E-readers like the Kindle, the Nook, and the iPad (with its associated iBooks app) are spreading everywhere; the market share of e-books has already eclipsed audiobooks, and continues to grow like bamboo; local bookstores are vanishing by the hundred, Amazon has gone to war against publishers over e-book prices, and Borders is teetering on the brink of bankruptcy. Meanwhile, the publishing industry has been sufficiently shaken that hardly a day goes by without one of its dinosaurs penning another tedious navel-gazing essay about this terrifying brave new world. (Most such claim that piracy won’t be a significant factor, from which I conclude that the essayists in question are either smoking crack or in deep denial.)
But the important question isn’t What does this all mean for the book business? What matters is What does it mean for books? (Though authors, and aspiring authors — a group which, so far as I can tell, includes approximately half the human population — tend to also tack on What does it mean for us?) Answers are hard to come by. My friend Jo Walton recently wrote a blog post about her personal experience with online publication entitled “Some actual information about ebooks”; it ends with, “I’m posting this because it’s not handwaving or airy speculation, it’s actual data, of which there seems to be something of a shortage.”
She’s quite right. And so, in a similar vein, I’d like to tell you about my squirrel. (more…)
Last week a computerized voice at TD Canada Trust called to inform me that my ATM card’s security had been compromised, and I had to come get a new one; meanwhile, my old card had been deactivated. This irritated me, not least because it was the second such call in three weeks. So I did what any right-thinking modern man does when faced with a petty annoyance. I groused about it on Twitter.
Minutes later my friend J. responded that the same thing had happened to him and his wife twice in two weeks. They’d been told it was a local skimming scam in Toronto’s Beaches — but I hadn’t been out thataway in over a month. I quickly drew two conclusions:
• TDCT’s recent security problems were more widespread than they admitted to their customers.
• Twitter is more interesting than I thought.
Twitter’s long-term strategy is to be “the pulse of the planet.” At first that sounded ridiculous to me — but you know what, maybe it’s half-right. Maybe its fire hose of data can be filtered, collated, and used to draw connections that would have otherwise gone unseen.
Corporations have been quick to realize this. Another online friend of mine recently went to the U.S. with her iPhone, and was charged $300 even though she had turned data roaming off. She called Rogers; they said it was her fault for not turning off 3G. So she complained on Twitter — and Rogers noticed, and contacted her, and refunded the charge in full.
Why? Because companies don’t care if individual customers are upset, but if they tell enough people about it in writing, on a public forum where complaints can easily be retweeted across the Twittersphere — well, that’s different. I still don’t know about pulse of the planet; but Twitter as the world’s complaint department? Now that I can buy.
Here in the First World, we complain about First World problems: inactive ATM cards, excessive data charges. It’s mostly no big deal. But in the developing world, there are real complaints. In particular, endemic corruption. I have long argued that the human leeches (i.e., government leaders) who steal money from their own people are the single biggest problem the Third World faces.
A few years ago, a Very Large Corporation called for ideas on how to use technology to help sub-Saharan Africa; I suggested a corruption-reporting service to name and shame those parasites. The company liked the idea, but it didn’t go forward. (See my latest Maisonneuve column for more about why.)
But now I realize that there’s no need for anybody to implement such a system. It already exists. It’s called Twitter. And in a few years, the developing world will have ubiquitous access to it via both the internet and cell-phone SMS, the medium for which Twitter was originally designed.
The cephalopod of corruption has long festered in the shadows, and held the poor world back with its bloodsucking tentacles. Call me an optimist, but I can easily imagine the monster finally dragged into light by a few Twitter hashtags, some judicious data mining, and the unquenchable human urge to complain. Paging Transparency International. Perhaps your Holy Grail is here.
Hear me, O my rapturous children, and I will tell you the saga of page thirty-eight.
By which I mean: the lettered page proofs for my forthcoming graphic novel The Executor arrived last week. They’ve been a long time coming. I first started talking to Vertigo Comics about writing something for them in 2004, and finished the script in 2007. Worth the wait, though. Absolutely gorgeous art by Andrea Mutti. Another year yet before it hits bookstore shelves, as part of the new Vertigo Crime line; but in the interim, here’s a backstage tour of how and where the magic happens. Buckle up, keep your arms and legs inside the vehicle at all times … and whatever may occur, please do not feed the artists. (more…)
Your humble narrator has been doing some actual engineering lately, for the first time in years. Specifically, I’m writing an application for Google’s Android phones, the first models of which will be available in Canada next week.1 Why Android, you might wonder, instead of Apple’s wildly popular iPhone? Well, I have various motivations, and I may yet pen an iPhone version, but my main reason is very simple: most of the phones of the future will be Androids, not Apples.
Twenty-five years ago, Apple could have licensed its superior operating system to computer manufacturers, killed Microsoft, and conquered the world. Instead they insisted on building their own hardware, keeping their systems hermetically sealed, and maintaining high prices – and found themselves with a whopping 10% of a market they should have dominated. Today they are repeating exactly the same mistake. Android, like Windows, is an operating system, not hardware. Any manufacturer can build an Android phone, customized for any market; and in most of the world, those phones will ultimately supplant the iPhone, just as Windows defeated Macintosh. (more…)
Long have I hated Microsoft. Back when I was but a larval software engineer, they were the Great Satan of the tech world, universally feared and reviled. It wasn’t just that they were the world-eating Galactus of the industry; it was that their own products were so relentlessly mediocre. If there’s one thing hackers love above all else, it’s elegance. Apple is elegant. Firefox is elegant. Linux is elegant. Microsoft products are about as elegant as an arthritic three-legged elephant trying to ice dance.
Worse yet, their evil empire was built on intellectual theft. Windows? A ripoff of Apple’s user interface. Internet Explorer? Copied first from Netscape Navigator and then from Firefox. Word and Excel? Built on the ashes of WordPerfect and Lotus. Even Microsoft’s first big break – the MS-DOS operating system they provided for the IBM PC in 1980 – was built on somebody else’s product (QDOS) which in turn was a clone of somebody else’s (CP/M). Sure, the courts have decreed that legally speaking none of these were theft…but us techies knew better. All Microsoft did was market crappy copies of other people’s ideas with the serial numbers filed off. How we hated and feared them, and how we despised Bill Gates.
And how times change. Nowadays the industry’s fear of Microsoft has been replaced by a general uneasiness about Google, and Bill Gates, though I hate to admit it, is slowly moving towards a place in my personal pantheon of heroes. (more…)
In January 2005, at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, Nicholas Negroponte announced the One Laptop Per Child project, with the stated goal of giving every poor child in the world a “rugged, low-cost, low-power, connected laptop with content and software designed for collaborative, joyful, self-empowered learning.”
Last week OLPC laid off half of its staff. Sales of its XO Laptop to developing nations are far, far below initial projections in the millions; in the third quarter of 2008 it shipped a mere 130,000 units, a trivial 2.3% of the world’s low-cost, small-screen “netbook” laptops. Meanwhile, the income from their 2008 “Give One Get One Free” drive dropped 93% from 2007. What went wrong? Any number of things, including bad timing, production delays, poor management, and superior competition. But if you ask me – and I feel bad writing this, given all the hard work and good intentions that went into One Laptop Per Child – its fundamental problems are twofold:
Crime is a big problem in the developing world. Take it from me: just last week I got mugged at gunpoint in Mexico City’s almost comically crime-ridden district of Tepito, infamous for its huge flea market full of incredibly cheap goods of incredibly dubious provenance. (I was there to research a novel. Honest.) According to Tepito’s Wikipedia entry, “popular stories tell of people buying these products and being robbed some streets later by the sellers themselves.” Now that’s a business model!
I’d like to show you some pictures of the market, but the muggers stole my camera, so here’s a Mexican security vehicle instead:
How do you patent indigenous knowledge? Most pharmaceutical companies have stopped trying.
It’s easy to think of indigenous tribes as backwards and ignorant, but they know a lot of amazing things that we don’t. Instead of English Lit or Poli Sci, they get fast-tracked into a far more challenging major: How To Thrive In The World’s Most Savage Environments. The producers of Survivor ought to add a local to the next series — they’d win every immunity challenge, clean the Westerners’ collective clocks, and probably still gain some weight while they were at it.
In my travels I’ve seen an Australian aborigine, a Peruvian Amazon guide, and a Ugandan translator casually demonstrate that where I saw blank and forbidding jungle, they saw a hardware store, arsenal, pantry and pharmacy. Need some soap, or disinfectant, or poison, or polish, or a snack? Mother Nature can and will provide.
So: on one side of the rich-poor divide, you have a small and diminishing group of tribes who happen to be the last repository of thousands of years of collective botanical research. Meanwhile, pharmaceutical companies around the world are on a relentless hunt for biologically active compounds they can turn into lucrative drugs. Should be a match made in heaven, right? I wish. (more…)
I am always suspicious of megaprojects, which tend to be mostly about national pride, political legacies, and trickle-down corruption. (This is true back home, too: witness Montreal’s crumbling Big Owe stadium, and the useless white mastodon that is Mirabel airport.) Well, projects don’t get much more mega than the Panama Canal. My favourite statistic from the Canal’s museum is that its excavation required 60 million pounds of dynamite. Whole wars have been fought with less.
I admit it’s hard to argue with the general usefulness of halving the seafaring distance between New York and San Francisco, but this Eighth Wonder of the World is not without its controversies. Its history provides useful illustrations for a checklist of megaproject dos and don’ts:
Don’t: Kill tens of thousands of people and then fail through stubborn incompetence. Really, this should be Rule One for any project, but nobody told the French, who in 1880 decided they would dig a sea-level canal across the isthmus, rather than building one with locks. 22,000 workers died, mostly from malaria and dengue fever. No canal was dug. The French tend not to talk about this episode much when itemizing the triumphs of their glorious history. (more…)