Friday, October 29, 2010

Proposition 19: either legalise cannabis or ban alcohol

2 November 2010 California votes on a proposition to legalise marijuana en make various activities linked to the growing and selling of marijuana a legal, controllable and taxable undertaking.

As usual, anything to do with drugs becomes a controversial subject, especially in the US. Proposition 19 is no exception. The nay sayers think it will be the end of civilised society when proposition 19 is approved. Ay sayers think it will pull the rug from under a lot of illegal activities.

I live in the Netherlands, where marijuana is, if not exactly legal under all circumstances, tolerated by the authorities and it can be legally purchased for personal use. So my view on this whole thing is rather liberal. As a matter of fact I see no difference between alcohol or cannabis. One of the arguments of the nay sayers is: "What if your doctor or nurse is high?" Yes, well, what if he or she is drunk? Another argument against prop 19 is that it would lead inevitably to addiction to hard drugs. This is nonsense. Marijuana is less addictive than alcohol. The only reason people who smoke marijuana can become addicted to hard drugs is that the only place they can get marijuana now also happens to be the place that sells the hard stuff because it is both illegal. Pulling marijuana out of the illegal circuit may lead to less addictions to hard drugs in the long run.

In the Netherlands both alcohol and cannabis are freely available, although you need to find a specialist shop for the latter while alcohol is available in practically every food store. Do I see stoners lining the pavement? No. Do our doctors and nurses walk around with their heads in the clouds? No. Do we have substantially more people addicted to hard drugs here than in the U.S.? No. In other words, I think the arguments of the nay sayers are ludicrous. They also deny that the population of California are responsible adults who can think for themselves. Like alcohol, the usage of cannabis is down to a person's own responsibility. Drink driving kills people. Alcohol addiction wrecks families. Yet, the vast majority of people who drink alcohol do so in a responsible manner and know their limits. It will be the same with the use of cannabis when it becomes legal.

There is no valid reason to ban cannabis while at the same time allowing alcohol. Ban them both or don't ban either. And we all know what happens when you ban alcohol...

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

History and the war in Afghanistan: when will we learn

According to U.S. military and intelligence officials, drawing from the latest assessment of the war in Afghanistan, the military campaign to dislodge the Taliban has failed. This comes as no surprise: When was a war against guerilla's ever won?

Take a look at history, both recent and ancient. It is rife with examples of guerilla's outlasting the martial efforts of superpowers. So rife in fact that winning such a war has become statistically impossible. It seems that the US military are finally admitting that, again, the statistics are bolstered with a win for the home team.

Last week I read that schools in the UK are considering dropping history from the school syllabus. Way to go to prevent young people to learn from mistakes made in the past. Mistakes like trying to fight against those that are defending their homes and who know the lie of the land better than anyone and above all: feel they have nothing to lose. Way to go to waste more young lives in future wars that are doomed to have no other outcome than a withdrawal and leave a shattered people to pick up the pieces, both at home and abroad. A war like this leaves only losers.

When will military advisors, who brief powerful leaders, ever learn to read a bit of history before beating the drums of war? You can fly in as many bombs as you like, you can throw as many soldiers against the mountains or the jungles or the deserts as you like, the guerilla is going to charge, run and hide until you are blue in the face and when you run out of steam, they will still be at it. It's like mosquitos in summer, no matter how many you swat, every night that buzzing whine in your ear will return.

History is more than just knowing names and dates. History can be used to teach us something. We can take advantage of it to better ourselves. We learn as children that if we touch a burning stove it hurts. It seems however that as soon as we become part of a powerful nation's elite, we forget the ability to learn from past mistakes. Politics begin to dictate military decisions and we rush headlong into a situation where there is no escape from other than with a severely bloody nose. And we do it time and time again.

When will we ever learn not to squander young lives in hopeless wars? We send people into space and we set up Large Hadron Colliders for God's sake! We are smarter than that! The ultimate question is: When will we learn to use our brains to find other solutions to our problems than fighting wars?

The supreme art of war is to subdue the enemy without fighting. 
  - Sun Tzu

Friday, October 22, 2010

To watch Simon Cowell or not to watch Simon Cowell

Photo courtesy of
Rodolfo Belloli 

Google TV, Apple TV, Boxee and others are offering a way to watch Internet content on our living room TV's. I jumped on this bandwagon early on and cancelled my cable subscription some 3 years ago. But that may be a little radical for most people. No more live sports, no more reality TV and no more Idols-alikes. One person's boon is another person's bad dream.

For now, Internet-TV will be complementary to normal TV instead of a replacement for the majority of people. This may change as soon as the major players in the main stream TV world start dumping their - in my view - trash on the Internet. And that will happen. How could Simon Cowell resist being part of the largest network humanity has ever seen?

And yet, could it be that the mixing of the waters could bring forth a wondrous elixir? Could it be that due to the freedom which is - still - inherently part of the make up of the Internet, there is going to be room for content that caters to more than just the lowest common denominator?

Already there are shows that are commercially viable which buck the commercial trend. Look at the shows on Leo Laporte's network. They cater to a niche audience and they are commonly one and half or two hours long. Shows like that would never survive on regular commercial networks (indeed TechTV did not). Yet the shows make enough money for Leo Laporte to build a company on them.

The one important factor in all this is freedom. As long as the Internet remains free from government interference, as long as the large media companies do not take hold of the Internet wholesale, there will be a chance for 'traditional' and 'quirky' to live together.

I do not see overall Internet governance happen any time soon. If only because of the vast amount of hackers that will find loop holes in any regulatory technology governing bodies may throw into the fray. I foresee a bright future where Simon Cowell may be available on my living room TV but where I have enough alternatives to not have to watch his vitriolic, public scamming, mainstream bilge.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Android or Apple: open or not open, that's the question

(Photo by Milan6)
Steve Jobs and Andy Rubin (Android creator) have a bit of a tiff. The crux of the tiff is the openness of Android and the closedness of Apple's Os's. The mud is flying both ways. Steve Jobs pointed out that Android is so fragmented that in effect it is as much a closed system as Apple's OS's are. Meaning that only technically proficient users can make use of the open aspects of Android. Many Twitter voices said much the same when Rubin responded with a tweet that contained a line of cryptic install code. Most users will read that tweet with the words "Say what?" on their lips.

Steve Job's argument seems a little far fetched though even if it is effectively true. Android is in effect a closed system to all but die hard code monkeys but that is a side effect of its distribution strategy: everyone can and more importantly may add to it, distribute it and use it if they have the skill. In Apple's case the OS being closed is part of its basic underlying philosophy. The OS is closed to protect users from fiddling with the innards and messing up the works. No one is allowed to touch it apart from the hallowed hands of the Apple coders. Result: a stable and homogenous system. However to attack one another over this seems a little pointless. Customers are better informed than ever thanks to the Internet so in most cases potential buyers know what they let themselves in for. And in any case: both platforms offer enough functionality out of the box to please most customers, no fiddling required.

The big question is: do we want our platforms to be open? The iPod, iPad and iPhone are locked into the tightly controlled world of Apple apps. However there are a couple of hundred thousand apps to choose from. There is an app for most functions you might want to use an apple device for. In practice there are only a limited amount of apps one really uses. The fact that the platform is closed is not relevant to the user. My washing machine isn't an open platform but it performs its duty perfectly.

Android is an open platform. Anyone can program for it, anyone can put it on his or her hardware and any program can be written and changed by anyone and finally the apps can be distributed through any website the distributer wishes to use. The result is a platform that is indeed open but Steve Jobs does have a point: it has become so fragmented that it is almost impossible to talk about a platform anymore. Android runs the risk of becoming one of those platforms where certain programs only run on certain iterations of Android. Like its Linux forebears the text terminal and cryptic code typing to get things working are never far away. Yet it has the huge advantage of welcoming everyone with a little programming skill to try and code for it. Through democratic filtering by users the easily usable and most functional apps will float to the top and become standard elements of the Android OS.

In both cases the bottom line is: does a device perform the function its user wants it to perform. And for both platforms there are a lot of users who will feel right at home, whether the front door is wide open or whether it needs a key. So bury your hatchets guys, the world is big enough for both of you.

Friday, October 15, 2010

Desktop, laptop, handheld: a liberating tech evolution

I am old enough to call a Sinclair ZX81 my first computer. It was a small, flat, black slab of plastic with a membrane keyboard and a weird piggybacked block sticking out of its rear. This block was the memory extension that gave the 8bit computer a whopping memory capacity of 16Kb.

How things have changed. And they are about to change again: we're moving into the handheld age. Computers are becoming truly pocket-portable while remaining fully functional. Add screen agnostic connectivity and the work and play computing device can be carried in our pocket anywhere we go. The one remaining issue would be the input device. It is hard to keep a device truly portable and make it so that typing a 1500 word piece on it can be done comfortably. But I have no doubt that out of the box thinkers are already working on that. Input systems like Swype are an indication of that.

Processor speed is also lagging a little still. But remember the early laptops? They were hardly more than a pocket calculator in a barely portable box with a screen the size of a postage stamp and a whopping big battery. Not anymore, they are sleek and run as fast and as smoothly as all but the fastest desktop monsters. Monsters that only 1% of the population really needs anyway. Already 1GHz snapdragon processors are the norm in smart phones. Multi cores are coming and so are GHz bumps. Count on it: within 5 years a handheld computer is as fast as the average laptop is now.

What will this enable us to do? Will it change our world?

You bet it will. Where laptops and desktop computers are still something of a special item which the average person has to switch on with a degree of conscious choice, the handheld device, i.e. mobile phone, is switched on and used almost without thinking about it. It is much more an extension of our body.

Also: for the average person buying a desktop or laptop computer is a once in a couple of years occurrence. Again a much more conscious decision. Mobile phones are replaced much more often and easier, especially when contracts are involved. This is going to become even more noticeable when the cheaper strata of the mobile phone market becomes populated with smart phone like devices. Something that is already happening. The 'trow away' or 'burner' phone will become powerful enough to do much more than just call and SMS.

The phone is with us at all times and it has penetrated every demographic layer of the populace. These devices becoming more powerful will have a much greater impact than making the desktop or laptop computer more powerful.

Mobile phones, excuse me, handheld super-computers, will detach us from wires attached to walls, wires that keep us in our seats all day. Where the smart phone is still an 'also have' device the handheld computer will become the only computing device we need, freeing us from our desks at the same time.

My latest book!

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

The global warming debate hotting up again but it's moot

'Harold Lewis, Emeritus Professor of Physics at the University of California, has resigned from the American Physical Society. His reason for resigning his long standing membership of this scientific club is the fact that they adhere to the global warming theory without giving doubters the chance to remonstrate. "Global warming is the greatest and most successful pseudoscientific fraud I have seen in my long life," he writes in his resignation letter.

Reading the comments underneath the article on the site which reports on this, nicely illustrates the division of opinion on this subject. Is the earth's warming caused by us humans or is it just part of the natural cycle it has been going through for billions of years? Is the earth warming up? Is it linked to the sun's activity? If so, why is it warming up while the sun seems less active? Do money matters influence the results of research into this issue? Is there a big global warming conspiracy going on? The comments go every which way but agreement is not to be found.

It may be a waste of energy to find answers to the questions and resolving the controversies. If the earth is warming up because we pump out too much CO2 in our quest for a comfortable living, then we are in a heap of trouble because there is no way we are going to change the lifestyles of billions of people overnight - and 'in the long run' is too late if the global warming theories are correct. And if the earth is warming up because it is part of its natural cycle of climatic change we are equally in a heap of trouble but there may not be much we can do about it. 

Conclusive proof either way is still a long way away. But why wait until our esteemed scientific collective settles its bickering and arrives at a consensus? Fossil fuels are running out - or at least the exploitation of them is becoming less economically viable by the minute. Demand for energy is rising with new economies adding massive amounts of people wanting to spend their new found wealth on electrical-power-hungry gadgets. And the production of energy is far from being a clean industry anyway, quite apart from belching out CO2, the gas that gets the blame for causing global warming.

So the whole global warming discussion is moot. We need to change our ways no matter what. We need to find methods of clean energy production, we need to cut our energy needs and we need to harness our population growth. The earth - warm or cold - can only sustain a certain amount of us and our waste and we as a species are putting demands on her she can't sustain even if you take CO2 production out of the equation. "The times they are a-changin'," Bob Dylan sang. They are, they must!

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Friday, October 8, 2010

Why Windows Phone 7 may have a chance

Let's begin with a little perspective. The mobile phone OS market is ruled by Nokia's Symbian with 41% of the market. Next comes RIM (Blackberry) with 18% followed by Android, 17% and Apple's iOS at 14%. Microsoft (5%) is just one of the rest that can be found in the last 10 or so percent. So they are not a big player at the moment. (Source: business insider.)

Microsoft's phone OS's have historically been plagued by bugs and hang-ups so their track record of producing a reliable phone OS is not great. The debacle with their Kin devices does not help to induce a happy glint in the eyes of prospective phone buyers.

So it is pretty easy for analysts to predict Windows Phone 7 will flounder. Yet I think Microsoft may have a chance. They will not become the market leader overnight, that is certainly true. But they do have a very striking OS if the pre-release video's and screen shots are anything to go by. And striking is good in a market that is slowly congealing into a standard way of doing things. There are always those among us who want to distinguish themselves and Microsoft may just offer the OS to do that.

Apart from the look and feel of the OS there is another factor that may help Microsoft. Although Nokia is the world leader with their Symbian OS, they will not remain that for long I think. Their new version of the Symbian OS is clunky and not very slick. As a matter of fact it looks like Symbian is going the way of the old Microsoft Mobile OS's. Building a patchwork of features on a once successful OS without looking around you what is happening in the marketplace. The stubborn adherence to their own OS instead of adopting Android for at least some of their smart phones is going to become the death knell for Nokia.

Although both Android and iOS are a long way from Symbian in terms of market share they are miles ahead when it comes to OS quality and ease of use. And this will filter down to the buying public's consciousness sooner rather then later and things can change awfully quickly in a market where every couple of months new devices are presented, and more importantly, bought!

With the possible demise of Nokia - regarding smart phone market share, I don't predict Nokia as a company to go out of business any time soon - there will be a vacuum in the market that needs filling. The obvious beneficiaries will of course be RIM, Android and iOS but the freshly made over kid on the block may have a good chance of muscling in on the action.

Fresh looks and a shift in the market may be the reason why Windows Phone 7 has a chance in a fiercely competitive market. The one thing that will determine how Microsoft will fare in the market share stakes by this time next year is how well the OS performs. It will be put under the microscope, be dismantled layer by layer and squeezed and prodded by almost every tech blogger out there and if it turns out that the pretty face is hiding a monster, Microsoft will remain an also ran. My thoughts go out to Steve Ballmer, who's bonus was already cut due to the poor performance of the mobile OS department of Microsoft. He must have some pretty sleepless nights in the run up to his new OS's release. It would be a sad sight to see him putting his archetypal presenting skills to use selling match sticks in the street if Windows Phone 7 fails.

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Bill Gates at TED and how got it wrong

Scanning Google news my eyes fell on a remarkable headline: "Bill Gates says vaccines can help reduce world population." I clicked the link and it brought me to the site and I read the piece.

It left me astounded! That a link on Google news could lead me to such utter nonsense. What deducted from Bill Gates' speech at TED was that he and the world's health organisations are planning to cull 10 to 15 % of the world's population to get the CO2 emissions down. I could not believe that Bill Gates, one of the greatest philanthropists in human history has an evil plan like that up his sleeve. So I decided to watch the TED talk by Bill Gates. And this proved that may have a brain behind it but they forgot to switch it on in this instance. based their conspiracy theory on one element of Gates' speech. Bill Gates showed an equation which described CO2 output. The equation is: CO2=P x S x E x C wherein P is people, S is services per person, E is energy used to create and power these services and C is the amount of CO2 produced per unit of energy.

Bill Gates went on to state that to get the CO2 to zero, which is the target for us to be able to survive, one of the factors needs to go to zero. He spent a short time per factor to explain what they were and where these factors were heading, ending on a long talk about the last factor, CO2 which was the main hub of his talk.

Obviously the factor 'people' is going up. We're at 6.6 billion and heading towards 9 point something billion. What Bill Gates then said is what got in a twisted knickers situation and I paraphrase: healthcare and vaccines may get the world population growth down to 8 point something billion. From which deducted that Bill Gates and health care organisations are planning to cull 10 to 15 % of the population on earth. But that is not at all what he is saying. What he is saying is that people in poor areas where child mortality is high tend to have large families (something professor Jeffrey Sachs explained). So improve the living conditions and general health of people and the population reduces on a voluntary basis.

The problem is that a headline like the one NaturalNews chose, in which it is inferred that there is a large conspiracy to cull human beings, catches the eye and tickles the imagination. Further thought is drowned in the fear mongering of publications like this. While what is really the case is that hyper intelligent people like Bill Gates and many others (just watch some TED talks to become convinced) are becoming more and more aware that humanity needs to change its ways, that humanity can change its ways and that humanity is willing to change its ways. These thinkers are the leaders to follow, not the nincompoops at publications like Shame on them!

Friday, October 1, 2010

Ashamed to be Dutch

Coat of Arms of The Netherlands
(Source: Hans-Ulrich Herzog, Flaggen und Wappen,
Leipzig: VEB Bibliographisches Institut, 1982.)
Today a months long deadlock in forming a new Dutch government has been broken. An agreement between coalition parties seems to have been reached. And the two centre-right parties VVD (liberals) and CDA (Christian Democrats) have bowed deeply for the far right wishes of the PVV (Freedom Party). This has made the country I was born in - but no longer feel anything but loathing for - a right wing, a-social country. This government will do nothing but make me feel deeply ashamed to be Dutch.

Quotes like "We want to give the country back to the working Dutch citizen." are a clear indication that social outcasts, people who have had a tough time and those that just don't fit the mould will face impossible living conditions. This also means that artists, writers, intellectuals, people who enrich society but may not be classed in the 9 to 5 category will have to move elsewhere. I am one of them. A country where I already do not feel at home anymore will now actively make my life impossible.

Geert Wilders, PVV party leader, showed his intentions when during a speech by the three party leaders he confidently took the stage and took all his time to speak. This while he is not a full member of the coalition, he has a back seat role. His party has been added as a "support party" to make up the numbers in an otherwise minority government. His confidence shows he feels himself to be much more important than he should be, he is a dangerous man: his party's manifesto declares that the first article of our constitution should be changed. It should no longer read as an article of equality and granting basic human rights to anyone regardless of race, color, religion, sex or national origin. It should instead read that The Netherlands has a society based upon Christian, Jewish and Humanist principles. A man who wants to change our constitution into a limiting fundamental law that excludes people on the basis of race and religion has just been made part of our government.

The Netherlands had just entered a period that carries strong echoes of 1930's Germany. I hang my head in shame for being Dutch.