The Latest Mass Killing

The Economist: The Latest American Mass Killing

The massacre, then (like those in Sandy Hook, Isla Vista, Aurora, and many others), will almost surely be blamed on the actions of a lone madman, who is now in the custody of police. This might, as with the Sandy Hook massacre, lead to support for legislation to make the public mental-health system more proactive (and more coercive). But that legislation is controversial among mental-health practitioners, and has been bogged down in Congress. In any case, while better mental health is a good thing in itself, it is unlikely to have a reliable impact in finding and stopping the small number of people who commit mass killings. The gunman’s access to firearms was obviously a prerequisite for the killings. But it has become clear since Sandy Hook that meaningful gun control is politically impossible in America. While certain forms of restrictions on gun ownership are popular, the power of lobbying organisations such as the National Rifle Association and the lock-step opposition of Republicans in Congress have blocked all moves towards legislation.

This was written two years ago, after the Charleston, SC church shooting. So little has changed, it feels it could have been written instead two weeks ago.

Advertisements

Ellen Pao On Entrenched Sexism

The Cut: This Is How Sexism Works in Silicon Valley

In my own interview, when I mentioned that my colleagues had talked about a porn star when we were on a plane together, the investigator asked if it was Sasha Grey. I said no. He pressed the point, saying that Sasha Grey was crossing over into legitimate acting. At another point, the investigator asked, in a ­“gotcha” tone, “Well, if they look down on women so much, if they block you from opportunities, they don’t include you at their events, why do they even keep you around in the first place?”

I hadn’t thought about it before. I replied slowly as the answer crystallized in my mind: If you had the opportunity to have workers who were overeducated, underpaid, and highly experienced, whom you could dump all the menial tasks you didn’t want to do on, whom you could get to clean up all the problems, and whom you could create a second class out of, wouldn’t you want them to stay?

I noticed he didn’t write that down in his notebook. Among the other things the investigator did not write down: that there was no sexual-harassment training, not even a line in the hiring paperwork saying: Hey, be appropriate. Don’t do things that make people feel uncomfortable. Don’t touch people. Kleiner’s managing partners flouted hiring rules, too, asking inappropriate questions in interviews like: Are you married? Do you have kids? How old are you? Are you thinking about having kids? What does your husband do? What did your ex-husband do? It was noted at some point that such questions created a giant legal risk, and the response was, effectively, Well, who’s going to sue us?

Ubuntu 16.04 Impressions

I have to rediscover my Bluetooth mouse on a regular basis.

I love the idea of Open Source software. I just wish it loved me back as much. Outside of the excellent MuseScore, I consistently find myself frustrated or disappointed by my time with open alternatives to commercial software. OpenOffice and LibreOffice have great features, but they aren’t the easiest on my eyes. SongBird was a nice idea, but I found the actual implementation to be clunky. I love Firefox‘s privacy settings, but it integrates poorly into macOS. The SWORD Project has a great mission, but it can be very confusing to actually use. And the same is true of Ubuntu. I love the idea. I just don’t love using it. Case in point: it can’t remember my mouse.

At first I thought the issue might be with my Bluetooth adapter, so I booted back into Windows to check how the mice behaves there. Windows 10 has no problem reliably reconnected to the mouse between uses. Ubuntu, however, loses the mouse constantly — every time the computer goes to sleep and every time I shut down. The only reliable solution is to go into my Bluetooth settings, remove the mouse, and then re-add it. It may seem a small thing, but it illustrates my entire experience with the operating system.

A Quick History Lesson

A screenshot from an older version of Ubuntu
Ubuntu 6.06, the first version I used. GPL, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=935008

Ubuntu is a Linux operating system that Canonical launched back in 2004, and it has become the most popular Linux distribution (distro). It is built around security and ease-of-use, and it’s billed as a truly user-friendly flavor of Linux. Over the years, Ubuntu has gained more capabilities and has continued to refine the user experience. 2010 saw one of the biggest pushes in this direction with the adoption of a windowing system called Unity, which brought a new look-and-feel to the Ubuntu desktop environment while also being more space-efficient on smaller screens.

I’ve used various versions of Ubuntu off and on for years, but I’ve always returned to macOS as my primary operating system. Right now, that’s not a choice in the short term, so I’ve been more motivated than I have in the past to make Ubuntu my primary environment. While I can say it’s come a long way, I’m still not convinced it’s the best non-Mac solution for people who just want something that will work and require little attention or maintenance.

Look and Feel

a screenshot of the Ubuntu desktop showing off the file manager

Ubuntu looks great on the surface. This is, in itself, a nice surprise. Many open source applications struggle from a visual design perspective. In many ways it does feel a little dated with its use of heavy gradients for illusory depth, gloss on folders, and the rather basic transparency/blur filters, but those details feel more charming than antiquated. I’d say Elementary OS has a small advantage over Ubuntu in terms of pure aesthetics, but it’s still one of the better-looking Linux distros. From the boot screen to the shut down dialogue, you can see the care put into the overall visual design.

Ubuntu also gets credit for some daring color choices. Where Windows and macOS make safe choices with grays, blues, whites, and blacks through most of their interfaces, Ubuntu bravely sports shades of purple and orange. It gives the system a unique look, and even from a distance or over the shoulder, it’s certainly recognizable to those familiar with the system. I wasn’t a fan when older versions of Ubuntu relied heavily on browns and golds, but the purple and orange scheme is quite striking.

Firefox on Ubuntu
Mozilla Firefox

The Unity windowing system also gets credit for improving some third-party offerings. I usually have a hard time swallowing LibreOffice’s heavy toolbar gradients, but Unity smooths them out entirely. Even Firefox looks downright respectable in Unity. If you want the prettiest Linux distro available, check out Elementary OS. But Ubuntu holds a close second in my book, and it gets better with each subsequent release.

Usability and Features

Ubuntu’s biggest draw has historically been its ease-of-use compared to other Linux-based operating systems. For the most part, it succeeds well in this mission. However, its shortcomings are pretty glaring when they happen, and they demonstrate how hard it is for any Linux distro to move away from the challenges faced by those that have come before. For example, there’s no easy way to change the brightness of your screen, and it’s been that way for years. To anyone used to working with macOS, you know a couple of the function keys (or Touch Bar buttons) accomplish this in no time. Ubuntu and its relatives are yet to address this simple convenience.

Ubuntu Dash showing numerous applications

Ubuntu Dash is impressive and overwhelming. Last time I used Ubuntu, this area was more of an application launcher. Over the years, however, it’s gained more functionality, to the point where it is more comparable to Spotlight on macOS than any basic app launcher. The beauty of Spotlight is that it doesn’t begin to give you results until you begin searching. In contrast, Dash shows a ton of items the moment you launch it, and it can be a bit overwhelming.

Take the Application tab in Dash as an example; if you expand the list of installed applications, be prepared. Where something like LaunchPad on macOS selectively determines what applications are user-facing, Dash shows everything. It’s to the point where things like Reboot and individual preferences are displayed in the list alongside some downright obscurely-named things like QJackCtl. All of that said, though, the search function of Dash works really well. The only drawback is that it doesn’t search the contents of documents the way Spotlight will. I have numerous old sermons archived by nothing more than the date they were delivered. Being able to search the contents of those documents through Spotlight was a life saver on my Mac.

Ubunu preferences

Then there are the times I’m trying to do something simple like highlighting a paragraph I want to copy when suddenly Ubuntu misinterprets what I’m doing with the trackpad and begins rapid-switching between applications. This wouldn’t be a big deal if there was an easily accessible location to customize trackpad gestures, but there isn’t. Sure, there might be some command line magic I can do to fix this, but that undermines the entire point of Ubuntu. (I also should point out here that I can adjust trackpad sensitivity but not mouse sensitivity. Odd.) It stops being user-friendly when I can’t simply adjust such a major piece of functionality.

Ecosystem

screenshot of the Ubuntu app software center

I’m not going to mince words here. If you rely heavily on Apple-specific or Microsoft-specific applications, you’re going to be disappointed. Yes, there are some equivalents. There’s LibreOffice in place of Microsoft Office or iWork. There’s Inkscape in place of Adobe Illustrator. There’s Gweled instead of Bejeweled. Minecraft is available, however, if you don’t mind jumping through some hoops.

An application called Ubuntu Software serves as a sort of app store for Ubuntu. If you fins something you are interested in here, you can download it and Ubuntu Software will handle the installation process. Installing applications from external sources can be somewhat dicier. It involves downloading a software package. If the system recognizes this package for what it is, it will try to let Ubuntu Software handle installation. This is an bit of a mixed bag. I never did successfully install the Vivaldi web browser.

Performance

Ubuntu is a clear winner in terms of performance on modest specs. Before installing Ubuntu, I spent a few days in Windows 10, and then Elementary OS was the first Linux distro I tried. Ubuntu runs more smoothly than either. Elementary OS performed acceptably with the exception of the application launcher. There was a noticeable lag between clicking the icon and the launcher opening — enough of a lag that I would often click it twice, only to have it suddenly open and immediately close.

Windows 10 is perhaps the roughest experience from a performance perspective. It’s obvious Windows 10 is more resource-hungry than either Elementary OS or Ubuntu. Running Windows 10, I can often type faster than the computer will render. Ubuntu runs fairly smoothly in everyday tasks. Editing images in GIMP and complex web apps like Microsoft PowerPoint 365 slow things down considerably, but that’s as much the hardware as anything. The side effect of all this is that Ubuntu consistently got better battery life as well, about an hour more per charge than Windows 10.

Unfortunately, performance is more than raw speed. It’s also reliability and predictability, and that’s where my experience with Ubuntu starts to break down. It intermittently forgets my trusted WiFi networks, or it won’t see them at all. As mentioned before, it constantly loses my Bluetooth mouse. These issues were the deal-breaker for me; on top of some software unpredictability and unreliable updates, having to constantly restart my computer to do something like connect to my home WiFi met my frustration threshold.

Under the Hood

The managed live kernel is a fantastic idea. I love the idea of OS updates without having to always reboot the system. The fact that my system has yet to successfully run an update may be evidence why commercial operating systems like Windows and macOS are yet to adopt such a feature. It’s certainly an exciting goal, and it should change the world of computing. Already, I was to the point where I never restarted my Mac except for system-level updates. Live kernel could potentially eliminate that need as well.

Unfortunately, software updates have completely stopped working for me. I consistently get an error message that the package manager is broken. It gives me a command to run in the Terminal, which then returns nothing. This is especially problematic when it comes to system security as the security updates are simply not installing. And no amount of rebooting or Terminal fiddling has overcome the problem. If the connectivity problems had not already been a deal-breaker, this would have.

Conclusion

At the end of the day, I’ll be removing my Ubuntu partition pretty soon and settling for Windows 10 until I can return to the Apple fold. While I have reservations about Windows 10 — most notably around general performance and security — I’d rather deal with slow but predictable any day. Ubuntu may be snappier, but my experience has been far less predictable. Every major operating system comes with its own sets of concessions and frustrations, even macOS, but Ubuntu’s added up to too much for my tastes.

Overall, Ubuntu is on a good track. It’s come a long way since the first time I ran a live CD. It still has a long way to go, and it’s just not where I want it to be for my own daily use. Some more mindfulness in how the Dash presents its information, some rethinking how software installation goes, smoothing out the wireless experience, and being thoughtful about user input settings — these could go a long way into making Ubuntu a more welcoming and user-friendly experience. It might well be the most user-friendly version of Linux to date, but that’s still an unfortunately low bar to clear.

Quick Recommendations

Despite my rough experiences, if you want to give Ubuntu a try for yourself to see just how wrong I am, here are some recommendations for applications:

* I’d probably recommend Vivaldi based on my experiences with it on other platforms, but I could never successfully install it on Ubuntu.

The Politics of The Dark Knight

Much has been said about the political undertones both in The Dark Knight and in The Dark Knight Rises. Some on the Right have decried the movies for portraying conservative views toward crime and torture as being overly brutal, self-serving, and ultimately ineffective. A few on the Left have called the movies pro-fascist and have criticized their glorification of violent response to crime while creating a paranoid dream of what the Occupy movement could become. Even Rush Limbaugh has waded in with the rather ridiculous opinion that the character of Bane is a liberal conspiracy aimed at vilifying Mitt Romney due to the name being a homonym with Bain (as in the investment firm at the center of a small controversy right now).

So what is it? Is Christopher Nolan’s Gotham a violent, objectivist, conservative wasteland only Ayn Rand could love, or is Batman a secret liberal because he refuses to kill criminals and condemns those who would? Or are we missing the point trying to pin partisan values on a figure either side of the political aisle would be hesitant to embrace were he real?

The character of Batman has always been a delicate one when the topic of politics gets inserted into the world of comics. On the one hand, he is the epitome of the successful capitalist, but how he uses his wealth (outside his wonderful toys) is up for debate. Also, Batman is capable of brutalizing his victims as capably as any professional torturer, but he will not kill – nor does he believe any individual has the right to proclaim themselves judge, jury, and executioner.

The simple fact is, though, that comic book characters are more a commentary on the time period in which they are residing than they are consistently partisan. Pick out a period in which Batman or any other hero is portrayed, and you’ll find the popular values of the day reflected. Take the Cold War undertones in the later Christopher Reeves Superman movies for example. Is Superman political? He is (or was) for Truth, Justice, and the American Way, but he also strives for world peace with the single-mindedness of an activist. Those movies of the eighties portrayed both the heady optimism of Reagan conservatism alongside the fears that we were putting too much faith in militarization. More recently, what do we make of Green Lantern’s coming out of the closet? Is it a sign that DC has picked sides in the “culture wars,” or is it just a reflection of our times?

Yes, comic books and their varied media adaptations sometimes do promote certain societal and political values, but those same characters may be on the opposite side of those same issues a decade later. If we can then strip our political preconceptions from Nolan’s Gotham (especially in light of his statements that he had no intention of promoting political values), then perhaps we can see a more valuable lesson in the Dark Knight trilogy, one of the dangers of extremism and escalation.

I should point out that there are minor spoilers beyond this point.

  • In Batman Begins, Bruce Wayne turns to a group of extremists, the League of Shadows, to help him fight the rising crime in Gotham City. Their solution is one of destruction, which Wayne rejects. His solution is instead to escalate the war on crime in a way the police cannot. He hopes to inspire hope, which he does, but he also inspires the criminal element to escalate in kind, as Jim Gordon points out in the conclusion of the film.
  • The Dark Knight displays the result of the arms race between criminals and Batman, and the result is a completely unhinged psychopath named Joker. Joker becomes to the underworld what Batman is to the law. He is the one willing to go beyond normal means to stop a threat, and the battle between the two reaches a fevered climax that ultimately destroys Batman’s reputation and nearly plunges Gotham into irreparable despair.
  • The Dark Knight Rises brings escalation to a new level with the Dent Act, a law that gives the district attorney’s office and the police force unprecedented power and authority, a law that is creating an air of civil unrest in Gotham, and a law that is predicated on everyone believing a lie. Bane offers an extreme solution to the authoritarian state Gotham has found itself in. No longer is the war between vigilante and psychopath; it has grown to the point of tearing Gotham apart.

Yes, shadows of the Occupy Movement exist in Bane’s revolutionary rhetiric. Yes, there are shadows of the Patriot Act in Batman’s surveillance system in The Dark Knight and in the Dent Act of the sequel. None of this is the point, though. They are merely reflections of the time in which these movies were made, and those reflections will lose their power with time. How many people still understand the fear of nuclear war during the 80s that underscores the plot of  Superman IV: The Quest for Peace? No, the bigger message is not one of partisan values. It’s not about vilifying or glorifying one set of political ideals over another. If there are any political messages in Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy, it’s this: extremism begets extremism, and we should always be wary of using escalation as a means to an end.

Blogging Considerately

In the fallout of the misconduct documented on and affecting the primary author of Creating Passionate Users, conversation has started on the merits of promoting a “Blogger’s Code of Conduct” spearheaded by tech-blogger Tim O’Reilly who is also a friend of Kathy Sierra. (A working draft of the code can be viewed here.)

In his initial post, O’Relly writes:

A culture is a set of shared agreements that allows us to live together. Let’s make sure that the culture we create with our blogs is one that we are proud of.

I agree with this whole-heartedly, and I think the best blogs around create a very good culture by setting a positive example when they write. Robert Scoble, Garr Reynolds, Kathy Sierra, and Guy Kawasaki are all great examples of this tack. As a result, by and large, the people who participate in the micro-community developed around these blogs tend to follow the given example.

The New York Times has an overview of the potential code, and the concept has seen support and adaptation from some like David Weinberger and BlogHer (whose guidelines actually served as inspiration) while gaining some thoughtful criticism from others like Jeff Jarvis and Robert Scoble.

David Weinberger writes:

We’ve always been responsible for comments: There’s always been a line we wouldn’t allow commenters to cross, or if there’s been no line, we’ve been responsible for that as well. But we need to be OK with setting out explicit guidelines.

On the other hand, Jeff Jarvis counters:

You either trust me and respect me based on what I say here or you do not, and there are plenty in the latter camp. Transparency and publicness are what drive that. Not some silly code and badge.

The way I see it is that Matthew 7:12 states it plainly: “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” Confucius said, “What you do not wish upon yourself, extend not to others,” and  the Mahābhārata states, “This is the sum of duty; do naught unto others what you would not have them do unto you.” I could really go on and on here. What we refer to as the Golden Rule has seen incarnations in several religions and cultures in varying points of history. If we try to live by this principle offline, then we should also do so online.

I don’t enable comments on this site. (I don’t have the time to read and respond to them at my current point in life.) My readership is more than welcome to send me a message at the email address on the About Robert page. However, even if I do enable comments in the future, I still don’t think I’ll adopt the O’Reilly code verbatim. There is value in anonymity as well as danger. I don’t feel I own your words. However, I do expect you to engage me the way I would engage you in conversation – fairly and respectfully.

Quick Links:

PS – I resent the New York Times article title. It does a little too much to equate “nasty” with “blogs” in the public mind. Also, those web badges on the O’Reilly draft are not pretty.

Continued RIAA Villainy

The record labels just never seem to give up. Time and again, they have thrown their weight around to suck as much money out of their customers as they can, completely disregarding anything that resembles decency and ethics.

RIAA’s Earned Reputation

I can think of no other industry that holds its consumers in such general contempt as the recording industry (except, perhaps, the oil industry whose executives hold our very planet in contempt).

In fact, let’s take a stroll down memory lane:

This is but a small sampling of the RIAA and music labels stepping on others’ feet, and all but one of these links is from this year! Again, the only explanation is that they hold their customers in absolute contempt.

The Latest Offense

Now, record executives aren’t just being disrespectful to their source of income (read: you and me). They are now claiming too much profit is making its way to the hands of recording artists trough new avenues of distribution such as iTunes, the Zune Marketplace, and cell phone ring-tones.

The IGN article states it well:

“At best the RIAA is kicking artists when they’re down via this action, and at worst has fully revealed that despite repeated claims that artists need to be protected from piracy, the organization is very much the tool of the major labels and publishers who have famously never really cared about the artists in the first place.”

Growing Irrelevancy

Middlemen – that is all the record labels are. They are to music what Dunder Mifflin is to paper. They take stuff others created, package it up, overcharge for it, and then take the lion’s share of profit for themselves. Again, except for the oil industry, can you think of another industry so willing to alienate all around them for the sake of profits?

Unfortunately, the record labels are slowly becoming irrelevant, and they know it. However, instead of evolving with the times and redefining their roles in the marketplace, the big labels are merely throwing their collective weight around, trying to cash in on as much as they can before the axe falls.

What would be great is if major online music retailers like Yahoo! Music, iTunes, Urge, and Zune Marketplace would allow artists to submit tracks and albums directly, bypassing the publishers entirely. The problem with this, of course, is that the artists still rely on the music labels to provide studios and equipment to record with. Also, the studios often own the copyright to an artists work rather than the artist him-/herself, and there may be no quick solution for these issue.

Regardless, the RIAA has become a dinosaur that has become both carnivorous and cannibalistic in its attempts to maintain a stranglehold on its profits. These executive don’t care about the artists they represent, nor do they care about the consumers that purchase their product. If the record labels and the RIAA continue their reign of terror, it won’t be long until artists and consumers start looking for ways to eliminate them from the equation entirely.

So Much To Say

“Open up my head and let me out.” Do I have that song quote right? I’m a bit to sleepy at the moment to go look it up. Quite a bit has been going on lately, and I haven’t had much time to post about any of it.

One of the more interesting tidbits lately has been some quotes attributed to Edgar Bronfman, Jr. of Warner Music Group where he attacks Apple’s fixed pricing structure in the iTunes Music Store, and he claims right to a chunk of Apple’s profit margins on the iPod because people buy the iPod to carry music they distribute. Interesting thoughts – however, I think this guy is only managing to confirm Steve Jobs comments about “greedy” record executives.

First, let’s look at the pricing structure controversy. I agree with Mr. Bronfman completely on this. Charging $0.99 for every song is unfair. Prices should cap at $0.99/song for premium songs, and perhaps we can set a basement price of $0.49 for less popular material with prices in between the two limits for various material. That sound fair, right? Oh, you want to charge more for the popular tunes, even in 128 kbps encoding. Yeah, that’s just greedy.

(By the way, I know Apple is responsible for the encoding quality of the songs downloaded from the iTunes Music Store, but I do think is should still be a factor in the price. If they start supporting 256 kbps or more, then we’ll talk.)

Now let’s examine the second point: The record labels deserve a cut of iPod sales. If we follow this reasoning, every publisher or developer that creates titles for the Macintosh deserve a percentage of every computer Apple sells. The same goes for Miscrosoft and Windows software. After all, who would buy a computer that runs no software? Every network and production studio should get a cut of every television sold. Every radio station should get a cut of every stereo sold. Every web site should get kickback from internet subscriptions.

I’m sorry, record labels are not special and do not deserve special treatment. They deserve no cut of the iPod pie any more than I deserve a cut of AOL’s profits. Verdict: Greed.

I love music. I love listening to a wide variety of music from Bach to Bob Dylan, the Beatles to Dave Matthews to Philip Glass. However, it’s sad to see the powers over such a worthwhile medium are so much more concerned with lining their pockets thatn they are the fair treatment of the consumers that support them. Then again, that really is one of the biggest weaknesses of the United States in general: “My money before your welfare.”

I know Apple has its own agenda, and it may be playing cards that just make the record labels take the bad PR when iTunes Music Store prices rise, but I hope Steve Jobs rakes people like Mr. Bronfram across as many coals as he can before relenting. There, end soap box rant.

Wow, I actually started this post feeling all calm and serene, and now I’m all in a huff. That means I don’t even want to start addressing these other comments from our (edit: sorry, Finland’s) beloved record industry! ; )