Jaron Lanier and the Fall of Opensource

Jaron Lanier, one of the pioneers of opensource movement and virtual reality, thinks the opensource movement had been a total failure. He does point out the opensource movement and the web culture are two different things and agrees the latter had been a phenomenal success in demonstrating the capacity of the unknown, average individuals out there to create beautiful, useful, and interesting things.

I don’t agree with everything he said, but I think he has some important points we should pay attention to.

1.Opensource movement is boring. Seriously, sitting down and writing Wikipedia entries (of often questionable accuracy), worrying about how to format texts? Sure, it’s something you and I might do in our spare time, but we are geeks. Opensource is about serving all of humanity, but as it stands opensource just serves the narrow interests of a very small portion of the population: Geeks and nerds. As long as grandma and primary schools kids next door can’t use opensource products/projects/frameworks simply because it’s fun, the whole culture is just another outlet for elitism and fascism most hackers are supposed to hate so much. Ever said something on the lines of ‘I hate being the tech support for the whole family’? That means the people who wrote those programs and services suck, not the users.

2.Major opensource products are built upon nostalgia of the ‘better times’, the golden age of the hackerdom during the 60’s~80’s. Linux, gcc the vast majority of the main opensource projects are built upon, vim vs. emacs war, and etc etc. Linux distros had been making some good strides in this department but we still need to face facts. To anyone who didn’t string together shell scripts when he/she was in high school, major opensource projects and the tools they are based upon look downright archaic. It isn’t because they have bad user interface design (they do). It’s because they really are old and deprecated. I am continuously amazed by how many people tell fresh young minds entering hackerdom to go learn C. Kindergartners don’t start learning English language by starting with Latin. Why is the whole darn culture based on a fast-but-bad programming language designed before many of us were born? Let’s be honest here, most people who recommend C to beginners started with BASIC. When a whole culture based on ideals of innovation and sharing begins to look outdated and conservative next to hulking multi-billion/trillion-dollar corporate entities, they are in trouble.

3.This is a repeat of above statement, but it bears some reiteration. There isn’t enough innovation in the opensource community. Again, large corporate entities that takes three days to ship an empty box innovates a whole lot more than most of the opensource communities out there. Sure, there had been some interesting developments that’s making the world a better place, like Ruby and Python. The same Ruby and Python people praise for finally getting around to implementing great ideas of programming languages like Smalltalk and Lisp. Smalltalk and Lisp was invented back when the idea of a cheap personal computer was the stuff of science fiction. Linux is playing catch up in terms of features and architecture with commercial operating systems and in critical applications UNIX is king (guess how old it is).  Meanwhile Microsoft is making strides with .NET framework and Google/Apple is on the cusp of next era of personal computing. Based on real world progress, opensource community as a whole lack clear vision of what the future should be.

4.There is an inherent elitism within a lot of the opensource communities. Personally I have no issue with elitism on personal level. It’s when such attitude permeates within entire communities that they begin to do real harm. Common sense dictates that any software targeted at Jane Doe should be easy enough for J.D. to use. Not so in a lot of opensource communities. If Jane Doe has hard time using an obscure text editor with more commands than the usual operating system it’s her fault for being so lazy and/or dumb. If a kid who can barely type can’t learn C and work with pointers the kid must be stupid. If it’s too difficult for artists to use computer systems to create beautiful things without pre-packaged software it’s because artsy types aren’t supposed to be good at computers. These problems are being addressed by a new wave of hackers and hacker-minded people but they are still tragically present in many of the present communities, even when they don’t specifically come out and say those things.

There are other interesting traits about opensource and opensource oriented communities Jaron Lanier pointed out as well, like how most of them are structured to shout down any voice of dissent based on fear of isolation, and how there is a culture of complacency among its leading members, but those things apply to almost any large group of people, so I felt no need to single out and discuss them.

I’m an optimist. I think there are movements within the opensource community that are trying to address this problem. I think the prevalence of web platforms, popularity of light weight scripting languages, and web/user interface designs are all in some form a reaction to the perceived stagnation of opensource community. People are increasingly becoming aware of what a stupid idea it is to teach C in middle schools, and how even stupider it is to begin computer education in a middle school instead of much, much earlier. I might go out on a limb and say that some people are beginning to realize that programming as an activity is not difficult at all, and that it is the teachers who don’t know what they are doing, not the students.

Yet I am still worried about the culture of opensource. Opensource as in framework of idea, not of computing. How can we apply the ideas of opensource and innovation to the fields outside computing, like CNC based personal manufacturing, scientific research and DIYbio when it’s running into such problems on what should be the culture’s home ground? Are those open-manufacturers/scientists/biohobbyists/etc about to run into unforeseen trouble inherent in existing idea of opensource itself? Are we already in trouble?

edit: maybe I should say that the woe of current opensource community (as a whole. There are many brilliant people and groups out there, can’t stress that enough) is that they don’t hack as much as smaller groups?

Edit: Aug 28
Some people wrote me some valid (“you don’t seem to understand opensource in the post”), and some vitriolic (“what’s wrong with being a nerd?!” but with lots of swearing in it), rebuttals to this post. I refrained from replying to those responses individually and getting into arguments since I think this post is terrible myself (like how I used opensource and web2.0 interchangeably throughout some of the parts). I must stress that I’m a student of all things Free software and what I say or write here should never be taken as something it isn’t.

I personally like to consider myself as someone with geek tendencies. I love emacs, and I love the idea of emacs. I think GCC is a huge thing that changed the course of humanity as much as development of steam engine changed the face of humanity forever. And yet I think all of those tools are old, based on older ideas and inaccessible to anyone who doesn’t subscribe to the lifestyles of people like you and me, the people who wouldn’t mind staring at a screen for hours on end.

I’ve had a chance to talk to some ex-programmers turned artists at the ITP exhibition last year. There was a particularly interesting exhibit with a type of evolving display system. He did all of the graphic generation within the exhibition by hand, by putting together a library of hand-drawn images. It was rather obvious he could simply do some coding in the Processing language and get it done faster and more efficiently, so I asked him why he bothered with the manual labor… And he told me that he simply doesn’t like to program. I’m not sure how I can portray the eye-opening effect it had on me at the time. The artist was fine with studying algorithms and working them out on paper, using it to generate obviously computational results. He was a very logical guy with mathematical proficiency to spare, certainly more than what I can say about myself. It’s only that he just couldn’t stand the whirring of the computer fans, the monitors, the endless clacking of keyboards and always worrying about battery life of one device or another. And I get a feeling that he is not alone in this. Maybe there are some people who are allergic to certain type of things used universally in building computers. Maybe there are some kids who just can’t handle the physical environment that comes with using a computer as we know it due to some psychological trauma. Such cases aren’t unheard-of in education circles and there can be hundreds of thousands of reasons why someone would shy away from programming activities while possessing logical acuity and vision that would normally lead to the act of programming.
I subscribe to the Alan Kay notion of describing computer-use: every interaction with a computer is an act of programming, but programming activity isn’t exclusive to usage of computer devices. And that’s why I agree with his frequent statement that the computer revolution never really happened. Computer revolution was supposed to be the revolution of the mind-ware. It was supposed to be this awesome tool of abstraction that would elevate (for lack of a better term) all of humanity to a state of freedom through better understanding of subjects that were distant and foreign to them… It was supposed to make science easier, a goal that is near and dear to people like me interested in DIYbiology. Easier not as in being lazy but being accessible, like how calculus was once considered the pinnacle of human knowledge but is now being taught even in some of the worst educational curriculums in the world as something every human being should know regardless of their intellectual rigor.
The original post was how I tried to address the inconsistency between the ideals that I believe should be applied to opensource community and the reality of the tools deployed. It’s called open-source, purists call it Free-software. Despite some differences between the two they really are about openness and freedom, but as long as its users and contributors subscribe to a certain type of lifestyle. Is there any way to change that? Can Free software be so free as to be no longer confined to the silicon and copper frameworks and languages of C and (gasp) Fortran?

I know this is all sounds like a pie-in-the-sky talk right now but I feel it’s a goal worth pursuing for those in the opensource community.

Advertisements

Ebook future

I just came across an article in the Wired(link) stating that Amazon will almost certainly unveil a new ebook reader with larger screen size. While the article goes on to talk about possible tablet device from Apple as being a heavy competiton on the ebook market compared to the text-centric ebook devices, my attention span more or less stopped with the mention of the new ebook device on the horizon. It’s not just a new ebook device that’s about to come out. It’s a larger screen ebook device specifically targeted at the academic textbook market. Apparently Amazon want a share of the 9.8 billion textbook market(link) (and that’s just U.S.), and I say it’s about time. I can still feel the phantom pain imposed on my back by years of carrying around textbooks that are heavy enough to be used as a decent weapon (and accroding to this picture many people agre with me:pic of someone hitting other with a book:game?). It would be great to be able to finally carry a bookbag that weighs less than the standard combat gear of most armed forces around the world.
I’ve been an avid ebook user ever since I learned about existence of those wonderful devices and the myriad of texts available on the web for free use, like the extensive collections in wikipedia(link), various blogs(link boingboing), and the project gutenberg(link). I had my first encounter with ebook devices a long time ago before Kindle made it cool to carry around ebook devices. In fact, as far as I know the ebook reader I use, the Sony Reader PRS-500 (wiki-link) might be the first dedicated ebook reader in North America that uses e-ink display. This device is certainly the oldest dedicated ebook reader device with e-ink display in North America (redundant) and it’s been a trust mobile library by my side for the past two or three years. Even before purchaing this dedicated ebook reader, however, I was using old discarded palm pilot devices (so old that they stil had this ‘volatile memory.’ It was a memory scheme used in palm devices before the advent of all-too-familiar flash memory. If the device ever ran out of power all the data stored on the device would be lost, thus the term ‘volatile memory’) to read ebooks on the go, most of them reformatted webages I made using a handy Palm utility program called ‘plucker’ that had a capability to turn any webpage/archive format into a palm-ready ebook. Later on I’ve also used my Nintendo DS as a dedicted ebook reader (instead of playing games like a good kid) burning multitude of memory cards with whole repository of text and HTML formatted ebooks I found through my sojourns on the net.
I love my paper books as much as anyone, of course. And even now, with my extensive ebook collection (most of them surprisingly DRM free) I always make a point of buying paper books now and then. Some people stock up on weapons and emergency supplies for the inevitable zombie apocalyse. I stock up on paper books for that one day when I won’t be able to recharge my digital book-reading devices anymore, and my vast library is lost within the magnetic patterns etched upon my external hard drives. However, there is an unavoidable allure to being able to carry around twenty to thirty books of my choosing in a slim and light package that weighs as much as my hard drive ipod. The fact that I’m a rather fast reader only adds to the attraction of ebooks and ebook readers. Before I came across ebooks how my luggage would be filled with books whenever I traveled far away from home, and I happen to travel often. It really made for quite a workout, carrying those bags all over the place. With ebooks, I just need to carry the little device and its charger for my casual reading needs, with a hardcover or two just for those tight spots when I’d need to study instead of read. Many people still debate the need for having a dedicated device for reading digitally formatted books, and they are right. having an ebook reader will not change your life if you don’t read in the first place. In that light dedicated ebook readers are certainly niche devices, intended for use by the relatively smaller portion of the population would would buy books through digital distribution channel and who would be willing to pay for a device that goes into the hundreds of dollars just to be able to read more. The two things I’ve just mentioned might sound insignificant hurdles to most people who consider themselves to be internet savvy, but when we think of the reading population as a whole whose members come from various walks of life and are at various stages of life, those are some significant barriers for entry to the ebook world. Yet Amazon’s Kindle demonstrated clearly what a few dedicated gadget community members knew all along. People actually read, and many of them are willing to pay to support their habbit, as the multi-billion dollar publishing industry would attest (and this is just in U.S., and quite frankly, this isn’t the most reading-intensive country in the world).
Reading the article from the Wired, and listening to conversations related to ebooks on and off the net, the ebook question seem to be moving from ‘will people bother to read on machines’ to ‘will people bother to purchase dedicated readng machines.’ This is a good sign I think. The market’s beginning to awknowledge that people are willing to take time to read things and even (gasp) pay for them, which means larger selection of stuff to read and things to read that stuff on in the future. However, the answer to the question of whether we need to have an ebook reader instead of making people read on their cellphones is a thorny one. It’s a question of how far people are willing to go to support their reading lifestyle. How many people are willing to cough up close to $400 for a dedicated ebook reader that you will later have to pay more to load content onto it? When we simply look at the Kindle as the only ebook reader of choice, the answer is obvious. Not so much. I’m a self-confessed ebook enthusiast who regularly dig through the net for that obscure script to traslate microsoft proprietary LIT format to Sony proprietary BBeB format. But even I am not willing (or rather, able) to pay more than a month’s living expense on student budget to buy an ebook device. So are dedicated ebook platforms doomed? Not quite. We must remember that there are still myriad of companies out there that manufactures cheaper ebook devices, some of them more hgih profile then others (Sony isn’t a low profile company). Add to them the quirky yet ambitious enterpreneurs of the East, who seem to be jumping into any and all kinds of electronics market with vigor and goods of varying qualities. I got my own Sony PRS-500 for about $50 dollars in a promotional offer. I get most of my reading materials purchased through limited DRM free channels or through public domain, and they usually don’t cost much, certainly not as much as their printed cousins. Unlike what people think, ebook reading devices themselves aren’t really that expensive. Dedicated ebook device is basically an electronic device with two features. E-ink display capable of displaying basic HTML-like formatting along with a few more conventional formats like PDF, and a cable to connect it to a computer so the end user can load content into it. Simply put, it’s a glorified USB thumbdrive with big E-ink screen along with some buttons. While Amazon’s Kindle is a notch or two above the rest with its fancy whispernet technology and over the air delivery system, those things are not absolutely necessary to an ebook device. I mean, these devices are capable of holding 20~30 ebooks each going a few thousand pages. You probably don’t have to constantly buy new content before you go home from wherever you are at the moment (besides, if you can chug through that much content before you get to a computer with internet and USB connection you deserve to buy yourself a $400 reading device). The real issue that will either make or break the future of ebooks is not with introducing newer devices with more features (though I would certainly like to see existing feature set get better), but with software. The DRMS and ebook formats. I can manage quite a different number of file formats and DRMed formats on my single PRS-500 device only because of the collective action of the volunteer ebook community, some of whom managed to code indispensable piece of cross-format software like libre(link). Many people can’t. DRM leads to limited distribution, since investing in DRM of a specific platform or corporation means that you trust that platform or corporation to exist ten or twenty years from the date of your book purchse. Which is prepsetrous to anyone with a working mind. Average lifetime of a corporation in America is about ten or fifteen years (cite:link), and that’s assuming they are successful, and that they will continue to maintain and support whatever the DRM scheme they came up with up until the very last moment. You can browse through your old books ten and twenty years from now on, and your children and children’s children will be able to read or sell those books send hand, ensuring certain degree of propagation of the written content. With DRMed books, it’s highly unlikely for your own children to be able to access your book, and whether you yourself will be able to read your favorite passage years from now will be decided by a boardroom composed of people who don’t know you and quite possibly don’t care whether you want to read or not. Even when we don’t consider faraway scenario like this, the dangers posed by DRM on the general propagation ebook into larger market is obvious, owing to the simple fact that DRMed ebooks will impose limits upon its own market and distribution. The first thing most people encounter whenever they browse to an ebook store that is’t Amazon is this: Name of the book:LIT, PDF, BBeB, MOBI and etc etc… When users somehow manages to find the book they want to purchase (despite the severely limited selection in most of those stores) they are faced with multitude of options as to the format of the book, most of them incompatible with each other. From what I know of people who are not familiar with ebook formats, this is the step when most of them will just give up and go buy a paper book in local bookstore for only slightly more, or maybe even less than the DRMed digital copy if the user knows how to shop around on ebay. Even larger scale distributor like the Amazon, with its almighty capacity to push their own content into their own platforms, is basically playing in an uneven field. the reality is that people will inevitably ask questions about the future of their books and all Amazon can do is to cross their fingers and wish that doesn’t happen anytime soon. Limiting their own source of income and praying for only good things to happen in the future is not a valid business strategy.
The valid business strategy in near future would be to get rid of the DRM scheme entirely. For everyone. Even giant like Amazon is hedging for uncertain bet with DRM restriction in their ebooks. Smaller distributors like Sony ebook store doesn’t stand a chance. Just sell ebooks like you sell books. Let the market grow and let more people get hooked on using ebooks on ebook reader devices. There are cellphones and laptops, sure. But the reality is that they don’t comapre to dedicated ebook readers in terms of providing a valid reading experience. Cellphones are supposed to make calls and laptops are for computing, and no one will burn out their batteries on those devices and risk their bill-paying work just to read more books. Once the quantity and quality of DRM free ebooks reach a critical mass there will be cheaper ebook readers on the market. That’s the time for Amazon to introduce their new and improved Kindlets. Why go for generic, cheap ebook reader when you can get the same content on far better machine with awesome battery with life-saving features and innovative interface? Only way to achieve this end with DRM still in the picture would be to either open Amazon DRM specifications to other manufacturers which defeats the purpose of having a DRM in the first place, or having a unified standard DRM for all publishers/distributors that’s compatible across variety of devices. That would require deal making and engineering of ungodly devotion, and I doubt even Amazon will be able to pull it off on their own, especially considering that there are markets outside of U.S. as well, especially when it comes to reading materials both traditional books and ebooks.

I just came across an article in the Wired stating that Amazon will almost certainly unveil a new ebook reader with larger screen size. While the article goes on to talk about possible tablet device from Apple as being a heavy competition on the ebook market compared to the text-centric ebook devices, my attention span more or less stopped with the mention of the new ebook device on the horizon. It’s not just a new ebook device that’s about to come out. It’s a larger screen ebook device specifically targeted at the academic textbook market. Apparently Amazon want a share of the 9.8 billion textbook market (and that’s just U.S.), and I say it’s about time. I can still feel the phantom pain imposed on my back by years of carrying around textbooks that are heavy enough to be used as a decent weapon. It would be great to be able to finally carry a book-bag that weighs a lot less than the standard combat gear.

I’ve been an avid ebook user ever since I learned about existence of those wonderful devices and the myriad of texts available on the web for free use, like the extensive collections in wikipedia, various blogs, and the project gutenberg. I had my first encounter with ebook devices a long time ago before Kindle made it cool to carry around ebook devices. In fact, as far as I know the ebook reader I use, the Sony Reader PRS-500 might be the first dedicated ebook reader in North America that uses e-ink display. This ebook reader  had been a trusted mobile library by my side for the past two or three years. Even before purchaing this dedicated ebook reader, however, I was using old discarded palm pilot devices (so old that they stil had this ‘volatile memory.’ It was a memory scheme used in palm devices before the advent of all-too-familiar flash memory. If the device ever ran out of power all the data stored on the device would be lost, thus the term ‘volatile memory’) to read ebooks on the go, most of them reformatted webages I made using a handy Palm utility program called ‘plucker’ with ability to turn any webpage/archive format into a palm-ready ebook. Later on I’ve also used my Nintendo DS as a dedicated ebook reader (instead of playing games like a good kid) burning multitude of memory cards with whole repository of text and HTML formatted ebooks I found through my sojourns on the net.

I love my paper books as much as anyone, of course. And even now, with my extensive ebook collection (most of them surprisingly DRM free) I always make a point of buying paper books now and then. Some people stock up on weapons and emergency supplies for the inevitable zombie apocalypse. I stock up on paper books for that one day when I won’t be able to recharge my digital book-reading devices anymore, and my vast library is lost within the magnetic patterns etched upon my external hard drives. However, there is an unavoidable allure to being able to carry around twenty to thirty books of my choosing in a slim and light package that weighs as much as my hard drive ipod. The fact that I’m a rather fast reader only adds to the attraction of ebooks and ebook readers. Before I came across ebooks how my luggage would be filled with books whenever I traveled far away from home, and I happen to travel often. It really made for quite a workout, carrying those bags all over the place. With ebooks, I just need to carry the little device and its charger for my casual reading needs, with a hardcover or two just for those tight spots when I’d need to study instead of read. Many people still debate the need for having a dedicated device for reading digitally formatted books, and they are right. having an ebook reader will not change your life if you don’t read in the first place. In that light dedicated ebook readers are certainly niche devices, intended for use by the relatively smaller portion of the population would would buy books through digital distribution channel and who would be willing to pay for a device that goes into the hundreds of dollars just to be able to read more. The two things I’ve just mentioned might sound insignificant hurdles to most people who consider themselves to be internet savvy, but when we think of the reading population as a whole whose members come from various walks of life and are at various stages of life, those are some significant barriers for entry to the ebook world. Yet Amazon’s Kindle demonstrated clearly what dedicated gadget community members knew all along. People actually read, and many of them are willing to pay to support their habit, as the multi-billion dollar publishing industry would attest (and this is just in U.S., and quite frankly, we aren’t the most reading-intensive country in the world).

Reading the article from the Wired, and listening to conversations related to ebooks on and off the net, the ebook question seem to be moving from ‘will people bother to read on machines’ to ‘will people bother to purchase dedicated reading machines.’ This is a good sign I think. The market’s beginning to acknowledge that people are willing to take time to read things and even (gasp) pay for them, which means larger selection of stuff to read and things to read that stuff on in the future. However, the answer to the question of whether we need to have an ebook reader instead of making people read on their cellphones is a thorny one. It’s a question of how far people are willing to go to support their reading lifestyle. How many people are willing to cough up close to $400 for a dedicated ebook reader that you will later have to pay more to load content onto it? When we simply look at the Kindle as the only ebook reader of choice, the answer is obvious: not so much. I’m a self-confessed ebook enthusiast who regularly dig through the net for that obscure script to translate Microsoft proprietary LIT format to Sony proprietary BBeB format. Yet even I am not willing (or rather, able) to pay more than a month’s living expense on student budget to buy an ebook device. So are dedicated ebook platforms doomed? Not quite. We must remember that there are still myriad of companies out there that manufactures cheaper ebook devices, some of them more hgih profile then others (Sony isn’t a low profile company). Add to them the quirky yet ambitious enterpreneurs of the East, who seem to be jumping into any and all kinds of electronics market with vigor and goods of varying qualities. I got my own Sony PRS-500 for about $50 dollars in a promotional offer. I get most of my reading materials purchased through limited DRM free channels or through public domain, and they usually don’t cost much, certainly not as much as their printed cousins. Unlike what people think, ebook reading devices themselves aren’t really that expensive. Dedicated ebook device is basically an electronic device with two features. E-ink display capable of displaying basic HTML-like formatting along with a few more conventional formats like PDF, and a cable to connect it to a computer so the end user can load content into it. Simply put, it’s a glorified USB thumbdrive with big E-ink screen along with some buttons. While Amazon’s Kindle is a notch or two above the rest with its fancy whispernet technology and over the air delivery system, those things are not absolutely necessary to an ebook device. I mean, these devices are capable of holding 20~30 ebooks each going a few thousand pages. You probably don’t have to constantly buy new content before you go home from wherever you are at the moment (besides, if you can chug through that much content before you get to a computer with internet and USB connection you deserve to buy yourself a $400 reading device). The real issue that will either make or break the future of ebooks is not with introducing newer devices with more features (though I would certainly like to see existing feature set get better), but with software- the DRMS and ebook formats. I can manage quite a different number of file formats and DRMed formats on my single PRS-500 device only because of the collective action of the volunteer ebook community, some of whom managed to code indispensable piece of cross-format software like calibre. Many people can’t. DRM leads to limited distribution, since investing in DRM of a specific platform or corporation means that you trust that platform or corporation to exist ten or twenty years from the date of your book purchase. That is preposterous to anyone with working mind. Average lifetime of a corporation in America is about ten or fifteen years, and that’s assuming they will continue to maintain and support whatever the DRM scheme they came up with up until the very last moment. You can browse through your old books ten and twenty years from now on, and your children and children’s children will be able to read or sell those books send hand, ensuring certain degree of propagation of the written content. With DRMed books, it’s highly unlikely for your own children to be able to access your book, and whether you yourself will be able to read your favorite passage years from now will be decided by a boardroom composed of people who don’t know you and quite possibly don’t care whether you want to read or not. Even when we don’t consider faraway scenario like this, the dangers posed by DRM on the general propagation ebook into larger market is obvious, owing to the simple fact that DRMed ebooks will impose limits upon its own market and distribution. The first thing most people encounter whenever they browse to an ebook store that isn’t Amazon is this: Name of the book:LIT, PDF, BBeB, MOBI and etc etc… When users somehow manages to find the book they want to purchase (despite the severely limited selection in most of those stores) they are faced with multitude of options as to the format of the book, most of them incompatible with each other. From what I know of people who are not familiar with ebook formats, this is the step when most of them will just give up and go buy a paper book in local bookstore for only slightly more, or maybe even less than the DRMed digital copy if the user knows how to shop around on eBay. Even larger scale distributor like the Amazon, with its almighty capacity to push their own content into their own platforms, is basically playing in an uneven field. the reality is that people will inevitably ask questions about the future of their books and all Amazon can do is to cross their fingers and wish that doesn’t happen anytime soon. Limiting their own source of income and praying for only good things to happen in the future is not a valid business strategy.

The valid business strategy in near future would be to get rid of the DRM scheme entirely. For everyone. Even giant like Amazon is hedging for uncertain bet with DRM restriction in their ebooks. Smaller distributors like Sony ebook store doesn’t stand a chance. Just sell ebooks like you sell books. Let the market grow and let more people get hooked on using ebooks on ebook reader devices. There are cellphones and laptops, sure. But the reality is that they don’t compare to dedicated ebook readers in terms of providing a valid reading experience. Cellphones are supposed to make calls and laptops are for computing, and no one will burn out their batteries on those devices and risk their bill-paying work just to read more books. Once the quantity and quality of DRM free ebooks reach a critical mass there will be cheaper ebook readers on the market. That’s the time for Amazon to introduce their new and improved Kindlets. Why go for generic, cheap ebook reader when you can get the same content on far better machine with awesome battery with life-saving features and innovative interface? Only way to achieve this end with DRM still in the picture would be to either open Amazon DRM specifications to other manufacturers which defeats the purpose of having a DRM in the first place, or having a unified standard DRM for all publishers/distributors that’s compatible across variety of devices. That would require deal making and engineering of ungodly devotion, and I doubt even Amazon will be able to pull it off on their own, especially considering that there are markets outside of U.S. as well, especially when it comes to reading materials both traditional books and ebooks. The market is moving on, and publishers should move along with it instead of trying to hold back the tide.

Openeverything-NYC April 18th

I spent all of 18th in the openeverything conference at the UNICEF headquarters. This was the first barcamp style meeting I’ve ever been to in my life, so I thought I might as well jot down some notes.

For those of you who don’t know about what barcamp is, it’s like an emergent conference. You get bunch of people together in a building, and everyone who wants to talk about something just post their topic card (or whatever the equivalent you are using) on the main board. When the time comes you either present something or have a discussion on that topic with people who were interested enough to show up at your session. It sounds a little chaotic, and it really is sometimes, but on the whole the system works very nicely. Even the people who aren’t as talkative as others get to talk in such settings, and there is no barrier dividing the audience with the speaker so you can actually get work done with people who share the same interests as you without sitting there waiting for some guy/gal to finish talking. If you wanted to talk or listen to something but there’s no one talking about it you can always walk up to the schedule board and write up your topic, and voila, you have people showing up trying to figure out what to do with your chosen topic (I actually tried it and it worked, surprisingly enough).

As far as traditional barcamps go this wasn’t really the most ideal of the camps, since of the 220 or 250 people who said they were going to show up only about half (maybe even less) arrived. Even so, the diversity of interests and objectives were electrifying to me to say the least. Being hosted by the UNICEF most of the topics revolved around programming or infrastructure projects that can benefit the causes of UN, like the rapid SMS which is a computer based SMS system that interface with cell-phones to create different kind of low-cost wide area logistic coverage. The system is completely open-source and scalable, and it’s been used in the field for various UN related activities like education and keeping logistic tracts of 65 million insect nets that were set to be distributed across some parts of Africa. Other interesting topics included a brief discussion on the nature of AI (though none of the people in that particular session seemed to have a very good idea of artificial intelligence), cheap open-source aerospace programs, and computerized education systems/web 2.0 services that might be used to keep track of education and qualification of individual members in form of a flow chart. Using such a system a kid might be able to copy and follow the skill/education set of, say, an astronaut if he/she’s interested in pursuing such a future. I do realize that while education goes above and beyond simple skill set qualifications the idea itself is sound, and I would love to see it implemented in a real web system someday.

I was hoping for some people to do a tract on diybio/open-source biology and open science in general, but for some reason no one really set up a topic that relates to those interests. So in true spirit of a barcamp I decided to set up a topic myself, which was a little overwhelming at first, this being the first barcamp-style con I’ve ever been to. It didn’t help that I’m usually not the one to speak in public venues. It was something of an adventure, and I decided to take the plunge. I was helped by some of the onlookers who pointed out the processes of barcamp that makes it work as a sort of emergent conference with emphasis on ‘burst activity’ and getting stuff done.

Well to be frank, the talk I gave was a mess. It wasn’t prepared and I was really wiped with other talks by the time I got to my session. Having people who knew even less than me in regards to biology didn’t really help either, since I was constantly double checking my facts so that I wouldn’t give any twisted impression of diybio to people who are new to the idea. I more or less wandered around the topic of diybio and synthetic biology, and though I did stress that synthetic biology is not diybio, I’m not too sure if other people got that message clearly enough. It’s my fear that a lot of people who showed up at my session went away with inflated and unfounded hope on the current state of diybio and synthetic biology… I did learn a lot from the experience though. Maybe as I get more experienced with this stuff someday I can give a compelling talk on diybio that would lead people into participating in this very exciting intellectual movement.

I did receive a lot of interesting input from various people regarding the state of licensing and what it really means to creative open-source content (it was ‘openeverything’ conference after all. Lot of license-related people). I always thought I knew a thing or two regarding the basic ideas of CC license and GNU/open-source license terms (which btw, Richard Stallman insists is separate from each other). It turns out that I didn’t know squat. Penetrating the thin veil of ignorance: that’s what I call an education!

I should have a post on diybio-nyc‘s recent GFP E.Coli session sometime this week. Stay tuned!

DIYbio NYC meeting: Apr. 15th

Okay, here we are, the fourth meeting of the diybio nyc group. As you can see the meeting was on the April 15th, almost a week ago, so I’m a little late in writing this post. The week had been a little crazy (I’ve been saying this a lot lately), so I really didn’t have the time to get around to it… It didn’t help that I had a bunch of class works that were already overdue and I had to spend the whole of Saturday and Sunday with bunch of UN/Google/open-source people related to the openeverything conference/bar-camp, which I will have to write about soon.

The April 15th meeting was a discussion meeting wit no lab session involved. It was held in a restaurant downtown called Veselka, an Eastern European restaurant serving some good pierogi (never had one before). While the food was good, the atmosphere wasn’t the most ideal to have a complex discussion though. It’s more of a family place, with lot of people coming and going, everyone talking at rather loud volume and etc. It was a refreshing change of pace from sometimes pretentious NYC food world… But I’m not really about to write a review on the restaurant am I?

The situation worsened due to the fact that a reporter from the New York Times Magazine was planning to show up. Some people in the group had experience with journalists (one of them is a published journalist actually), so we were afraid that something we say might be used out of context. There’s a lot of scaremongering out there in regards to the possible dangers of diybio, and it’s something we really have to avoid at all costs. And then the new members showed up. Total of three. All of them came from very unusual and interesting backgrounds but the venue and the circumstances weren’t very ideal for personal introduction between the old and the new members, especially owing to the fact that the ambient noise was to such an extent that we could not hear people from across the table. I would have loved to talk to them a bit more but didn’t really get much of a chance in between trying to hear what other people were talking about and trying to get actual work done in regards to the mission statement, identity and direction of the diybio nyc as a whole. One of them came from biotech background and I’ve been keeping in touch with him for a while now, through IM and twitter. The other person came from art background, working with a type of bio-art club/collective called the Grafting Parlour, which is kind of like the SymbioticA, pursuing the techniques of biotechnology for artistic pursuits. The last person to show up was from computer sciences background with interest in film making, who seemed a little surprised that she’s the only one with computer sciences background in the whole diybio nyc group (quite frankly that surprises me as well, considering that the whole concept of biohacking came along with the advent of computer sciences and biology’s increased dependence on variety of computerized techniques). I’m afraid that some of us (including myself) might have seemed a little distant to the new members of the group. I will have to try to remedy that somehow later on. DIYbio is about the spirit of openness in science and it would contradict the implicit founding spirit of the group to make new members feel out of place. I’m especially looking forward to talking more about the activities and purposes of the bio-art movement. I believe the whole concept of bio-art itself is replete with incredible possibilities that only art can dare to explore, though the group would have to find a compromise between ethical and scientific constraints and the spirit of exploratory arts… Even finding that fine line between arts and sciences sounds intriguing to me, to be honest.

The basic agenda of the meeting was on drafting the mission statement, establishing the main short term and long term objectives of the group, and finding a way to realize those goal within realistic budget and time constraints. Whenever we talk about doing some sort of project one problem gets in our way. Any biological project of even moderate complexity requires a dedicated lab space that’s not located within residential address. We might be able to pull it off within private residential setting like those people trying to build a bio-lab within their closet, but it won’t do for any long term experiments or groups, since there are just too many legal hoops and hurdles we’d need to workaround. And the last thing diybio as a whole needs in this age of terror-related scare-mongering is questionable legality and dubious safety measures. A member of our group experienced in operation of biotech laboratories is strongly pushing for strong safety protocols comparable to those applied to commercial labs, and I agree with her point. It might sound a little bothersome right now but it will go a long way toward the group being a fully pledged biological lab space.

The problem in obtaining a real lab-worthy space in the city is that it’s just too expensive. We would need a way to raise some funds, by ourselves or with cooperation with other educational institutions in the area like one of our members suggested. We can do a lot of those things if we decide to keep things hush hush and work under the table, but again the risks are just too great. In the nightmare scenario what we do wrong might effect the diybio movement as a whole, pushing the public opinion toward opposition. It’s the group’s implicit agreement that we can’t take that kind of risk at this very crucial time. Compared to finding the space, obtaining real lab equipment is a child’s play, and we’ve already made a lot of progress in that area thanks to one of our member’s generous input.

We need to find a path that would work toward to solving the space issue, and at the moment that happens to be working toward obtaining a legal status for the diybio nyc. It’s our collective belief that having an actual legal identity will help us toward raising funds, cooperating with existing lab spaces, and establishing supply relations with bio-companies we would need to contact in order to get perishable experiment resources. The ideal legal status for a group like diybio nyc would be a registered non-profit, whose tax-exempt status would afford the group with some negotiable leverage when it comes to financial negotiation and support. Drafting mission statement and by-laws for the group would be first step in establishing legal and ideological identity of the group.

All this sounds like a lot of financial and legal talks for a group supposedly dedicated to bringing science to the open. Experiments cost money and requires space, so it can’t really be helped for the moment. At least we do have an actual wet-lab session coming up this Tuesday. It’ll be an experiment to introduce GFP plasmid vector into K12 E.Coli chassis (the E.Coli chassis in this case is completely harmless to human beings. You can actually drink it and it’ll pose no threat to you. It’s a special, non-toxic strain of the E.Coli we all know and fear, that’s been used in laboratories for about a century, as well as variety of high school biology classes). It’ll be a first experiment that would actually allow us to observe and experience the process of introducing plasmid into a bacterial chassis with visible results, so saying that I’m excited about the prospect would be an understatement.

There’s been a lot of trials and tribulations for the group, and I’m sure that there will be more to come. But we are going somewhere with this, and it’s really good to see so many people interested in learning more about the techniques and science of biology outside the traditional medium.

cheap microfluidics

Just a quick note before I go off to fire up a new report. (Cross posted from my tumblr feed)

Original article from the Wired.

Ok, here’s my take on it.
There seem to be a way to build a cheap microfluidic array using household materials costing around three cents. The materials involved are standard double sided tapes and paper (which acts as the pump for the liquid), etched using off-the-shelf laser cutter, a process usually relegated to multimillion dollar semiconductor fabricator.

Provided that mTAS chip systems utilizing chemical fluids follow a law similar to the one that seem to govern standard silicon chips, we might be living in an age signaling the beginning of largest medical sciences revolution in human history. Cheap and effective medical testing and possibly production solutions that can be distributed all over the globe for practically anyone to build on. If such technology can be combined with the openscience movements like the science commons, well the humanitarian and commercial potentials will be endless.

I did think of doing a io9 madscience entry (on science-fictional applications of synthetic biology) on synthetic biology-utilizing mTAS chip that can be used to manufacture minuscule amount of specified chemicals that can be used for periodic medications or for recovering out-house patients, but I scrapped it in favor of epigenetic production using extracellular matrices. This will be a promising development well-worth following up on.

Science commons

[blip.tv ?posts_id=1326014&dest=-1]

Just a quick post before going to sleep (it’s 2:45 in the morning and I have class at 10:00 ugh).

This is one of the coolest things I’ve seen on the net today. 120 second introduction to what science commons is.

I can think of lot of things that can explain why the idea of ‘opensourced’ science or science commons must be one of the coolest and most revolutionary ideas of the generation, but my brain is turning into a jello right now, so detailed post will have to wait.

Just one thing though. Library of Alexandria. 

Just think about it. Why was library of Alexandria so important? Was it because it housed a lot of books? No, it isn’t. If anyone believes that the significance of the library of Alexandria was about stacks of books he/she lacks the understanding of the origin of modern civilization. Books or any individual units of information pop into existence all the time. Libraries are meaningful because they centralize and organize those individual information clusters. Centralize and organize, meaning giving accessibility to. 

Greatest threat to any knowledge is not in its misuse or incomprehension. It is in obscurity (as Cory Doctorow pointed out as he released his works under CC license). Libraries made human civilization by providing accessibility to knowledge that would have been forgotten otherwise by centralizing them in one geographic location and organizing them according to a system. From that location new ideas were born since people no longer had to spend their lifetime re-learning what someone else figured out half a century ago.

Science in general, lacks accessibility. Which is very weird when you think about it. Science is about accurate description of this universe, this universe every single member of the Homo sapiens sapiens share. Yet science lacks accessibility, both to the nonspecialists and specialists alike. It’s like having limited access to one of your eyes or limbs or organs.

Accessibility is catalyzing and empowering. When economic systems become accessible we get flourishing finances and trades system, with all the subsequent benefits of arts and culture. When human opinions become accessible we get one of the biggest human community ever, with subsequent benefits of policies and philanthropy. The first time academies and libraries became accessible we began a march toward a new civilization. What will we be able to accomplish once the sciences are truly open and known to every willing member of the humanity?