Monthly Archives: March 2012

¡Huelga!

Today is the general strike in Madrid … but I’ve managed to make it back to the US. Actually, it was a piece of cake.

The hardest part was waking up at 7 AM … after getting to bed at 3 AM, the appropriate bedtime both for a proper Madrileño schedule and for Boston time in Europe. To get to the airport I rode the Metro, which was operating through the strike on a negotiated “minimum service agreement” theoretically representing 30% of nominal operational cadence. The result was a public transit system that was merely markedly faster, smoother, and cleaner than the MBTA, rather than dramatically so as on an average day.

The airport seemed slightly screwy, but I chalk this up largely to non-strike-related design flaws, like security screening tables (with the plastic bins) that are not contiguous to the X-ray scanners, forcing you to carry 5 bins of accoutrements in stocking feet.

Apart from the pervasive confetti of flyers, the only direct impact of the strike was on the airplane meal, as the caterers seemed to be the only striking workers in the airport. The airline had anticipated this development, though, and shipped a double load of food and drinks at the plane’s previous departure. The crew apologized profusely in advance for the unusual meal, a most effective implementation of “underpromise and overdeliver”.

Now I’m killing time on the layover in Dulles, and trying to convince myself that it’s really 4 in the afternoon. Next stop Boston!

EKO

Today, while I’m in Spain, the Free Software Foundation’s big annual conference, LibrePlanet, is happening back in Boston. I was sad to miss it, so I started looking for free software-related organizations in the Madrid area. Sure enough, there are more than a few organizations in the area with a mission that somehow overlaps with free software and free culture. I found one in particular, EKO ESLA, that was throwing an event today, and sent an e-mail to ask if I would be welcome … even if I could barely decipher the mission of the event. They replied in warmly welcoming fashion, so today I made it a point to go.

The place, once I found it, was not what I had envisioned. If Langton Labs was a minimally converted warehouse, then EKO is more like a raw industrial building whose conversion is still in process. That’s no surprise, really; it just opened in January. What was surprising was the sheer chaos of it all. EKO’s doors were open, and there were people milling around having loud conversations, some folks on one end of the main room screening a sort of trailer for their protest movement, and very loud noises echoing up from the basement. I walked right in through the crowd, and no one noticed me at all. (My Adidas windbreaker and shoes turn out to be excellent camouflage here, and even the baseball cap is not wholly out of the ordinary.)

The event was supposed to include some sort of “popular food” and round-table discussion, but I seem to have missed both, if they happened at all. You see, it turns out (again unsurprisingly) that EKO are anarchists, in the long Spanish anarchist tradition. Anarchists’ events are never very well organized; it would defeat the purpose. The anarchy of this particular event was especially enhanced by the presence of children, running, hiding, screaming, riding bicycles indoors, etc..

At some point the loud noises in the basement (a concrete garage “converted” only to the limited extent of the murals (clearly influenced by Picasso and Dali) and stage) began to turn into music, and so I went down to give it a listen. It was a very talented middle-aged guitarist, backed up by a couple of singing girls and some dude playing drummer by banging on the wood box he was sitting on. Somebody had a mic but no stand, so they made do with an upturned metal patio table and duct tape. (An hour later someone showed up with a proper stand, which greatly improved the sound.)

Together they played, sang, and clapped (in the most extraordinary rhythms) in classic Spanish guitar style. The songs, on the rare occasion that I could decipher any words at all, were mostly protest songs (including some explicitly on behalf of the Indignados), but a few were love songs too. The group played for an audience that I gathered to be mostly their neighbors, with a uniform distribution over all ages, from infants in prams, to the toddlers chasing each other around the group during the songs, to the grandparents sitting in the audience (there were few chairs, so they had first priority). It started at about 80 people, and grew to at least 100 by the time I left.

I managed to get a rough outline of this event’s ethos from the texts taped to the walls of the main floor of EKO, and the short film they produced to explain it. The core issue, it seems, is one that is totally familiar to Americans. The Spanish housing bubble, much like the US one, had the bizarre result that unoccupied housing stock and homelessness hit an all time high, simultaneously. I’m not sure what they are for doing to resolve the problem, but at least I can sort of see what they’re against.

Protest poster that says "El 29 no va a trabajar ni Peter"

Protest poster spotted on the walls of El EKO

Landed

It’s 4:41 AM Boston time, so I’m probably just about at jet lag’s woozy peak. Apart from that, though, the trip was smooth and uneventful. I took the Metro from the airport to the hotel, and while it may have required more connections than in Boston, the trains and stations are sparklingly clean and new, and the trains run every 5 minutes at most. The hotel is plenty nice, and right in the middle of Madrid’s government district, a glorious hodgepodge of architectural revivals in the early morning quiet.

Maybe it’s time to go out and have another look.

Dell Fail: Round 3

When I got back from my 11 mile walk around San Francisco” I was only a little surprised to find that my laptop wouldn’t turn on. I knew the “hard disk not found” symptom immediately; I had seen it several times before. When I got back to Boston I called up Dell and asked for the replacement part, number DDWP3 for Latitude 13 and Vostro V13, that I’d used to fix the problem twice before.

They didn’t have it. They said they’d e-mail me when they were no longer out of stock (so far, radio silence). This isn’t really surprising, for a laptop almost two years old … especially given that the replacement part earns about 0% as much profit as making people send in the whole machine for repair.

So I set to Googling, as one does, and found that one mysterious “Conurus” had posted a solution, already confirmed by another anonymous poster. The solution is to buy DigiKey part number HFF-30U-04-ND, an exactly matching replacement ribbon cable. Conorus cautions that “the generic flex cable does not have the same kind of shielding that the OEM part had” … but mine actually felt significantly sturdier than Dell’s option anyway.

So far it’s working perfectly … and I bought two just in case.

Jetlag

In 6 days, I will be giving presentations, getting interviewed, and generally trying to come across as a competent highly functional human being … in Spain. Spain is 6 time zones away, so by the usual rule of thumb, if I want to have recovered in time, I should start preadjusting now, absorbing some of the jetlag penalty early so my circadian clock is already in Iceland or the Azores by the time I arrive.

One small catch: my flight on Friday (3 nights away) arrives in Madrid at 6 AM local time … which is midnight Eastern, or about 8 hours off my present schedule. So I can either try to slew 8 hours in 3 days … or I can hope that biochemical oscillator has high enough Q to keep ringing through the hiccup.

So for the next 3 days I’m on a 23 hr/day schedule … which I means I need to hit the hay right now!

On Vat Meat

This post starts with the world’s simplest recipe.
Vegan Sloppy Joe

  • 1 small (15.5oz) can of Manwich Thick & Chunky sloppy joe sauce. ($1, mostly HFCS and salt)
  • 1.5 cups dry Textured Vegetable Protein (TVP). ($2.70/lb. at Harvest Coop, closer to $0.80/lb. in bulk)

Mix ingredients thoroughly. Let stand overnight. Slap on a bun.

Makes about 5-6 big joes … for maybe $1.50, total.

This recipe came up when I was invited to a vegan potluck dinner about two months ago. I made it in part to play with the letter of the law … these products are certainly vegan, but I wouldn’t call them healthy, environmentally sound, local, organic, or any other positive attribute associated with vegan thought. In fact, their names are trademarks, respectively, of ConAgra Foods and Archer Daniels Midland. (TVP, by the way, is a protein flake product derived from soy, not too far from dried tofu chips.)

Nonetheless, they went down reasonably well. I won’t claim a culinary masterpiece, but I managed to sell about 4.5 joes. Perhaps more importantly, eaters were distinctly dubious that the concoction was meat-free. As an academic, I say: good enough for proof of concept.

That concept, specifically, is that there are perfectly serviceable meat substitutes available today at absurdly low cost. They are tasty enough (I’m slowly becoming obsessed with TVP, like in a sort of chili for dinner tonight) and available in absolutely massive population-feeding quantities.

There’s been a lot of buzz recently about “vat meat”, a utopian vision of meat made in factories without the need for animals, to feed the world at the lowest possible cost. After this experiment I think it’s pretty ridiculous. Feeding plants to cells, and then eating the cells, is never going to be as efficient as just eating the plants yourself. Especially if it’s delicious, and even if some mechanical processing is required.

The only exception I can imagine is if it takes an input that would otherwise be waste (cellulose) or low-value (starch + nitrates) and converts it into something of higher value (ethanol, protein) … but those conversions are even less efficient, and there’s still no reason to use mammalian-derived cell lines for the processing. Better to use something like yeast: just ask any brewer or baker. (Myself, I prefer Vegemite.)

Ethics in an unethical world: Ethics Offsets

The recent hubbub regarding the (admirably public) debate within Mozilla about codec support has set me thinking about how to deal with untenable situations. After rightly railing against H.264 on the web for several years, and pushing free codecs with the full thrust of the organization, Mozilla may now be approaching consensus that they cannot win, and that continued refusal to capitulate to the cartel is tantamount to organizational suicide.

So what can you do, when you find yourself compelled to do something that goes against your ethics? To make a choice that you feel is wrong on its own because it benefits you in other ways, a choice you would like to make only when really necessary and never otherwise? Any thinking person will have this problem, to greater and lesser degrees, throughout their lives. We are not martyrs, so we do what we have to do to survive and try to keep in mind our need to escape from the trap.

Organizations cannot simply keep something in mind, but they can adopt structures that remind their members of their values even when those values are compromised. A common structure of this type is the sin tax, a tax designed (in a democracy) by members of a state to help them break or prevent their own bad habits. Sin taxes work by countering the locally perceived benefit of some action that’s harmful in a larger way, by reminding us of less visible but still important negative considerations. Some of their effect is straightforwardly economic, but some is psychological, to help us remember the bigger picture.

Sin taxes are more or less involuntary, but when the government does not impose these reminders, we often choose to remind ourselves. One currently popular implementation of this concept is the Carbon offset, a payment typically made when burning fuel to counter the effect of global warming. Organizations that buy carbon offsets for their fuel consumption do so to send a message, both internally and externally, that they place real value on minimizing carbon emissions. They may send this message both explicitly (by publicizing the purchase) and implicitly (by its effect on internal and external economic incentives).

Carbon offsets may be in fashion this decade, but there are many older forms of this concept. Maybe the most quotidian is the Curse Jar*, traditionally a place in a home or small office where individuals may make a small payment when using discouraged vocabulary. The Curse Jar provides a disincentive to coarse language despite being strictly voluntary, and despite not purchasing any effect on the linguistic environment (although the coffee fund may help for some). The Curse Jar works simply by reminding group members which behaviors are accepted and which are not.

For Mozilla, the difficulty is not emissions, verbal or vaporous, but ethical behavior. How can Mozilla publicly commit to a standard of behavior while violating it? I humbly submit that the answer is to balance its karmic books, by introducing an Ethics Offset**. When Mozilla finds itself cornered, it may take the necessary unfortunate action … and introduce a proportionate positive action as a reminder about its real values.

In the case at hand, a reasonable Ethics Offset might look like an internal “tax” on all uses of patented codecs. For example, for every Boot2Gecko device that is sold, Mozilla could commit to an offset equal to double the amount spent on patent licenses for the device. The offset could be donated to relevant worthy causes, like organizations that oppose software patents or contribute to the development of patent-free multimedia … but the actual recipient matters much less than the commitment. By accumulating and periodically (and publicly) “losing” this money, Mozilla would remind us all about its commitment to freedom in the multimedia realm. A similar scheme may be appropriate for Firefox Mobile if it is also configured for H.264 support.

Without a reminder of this kind, Mozilla risks becoming dangerously complacent and complicit to the cartel-controlled multimedia monopolies. As long as H.264 support appears to serve Mozilla’s other goals, Mozilla’s commitment to multimedia freedom will remain uncomfortable, inconvenient, and tempting to forget. Greater organizations have slid down off their ethical peaks, on paths paved all along with good intentions.

Most companies would not even consider a public and persistent admission of compromise, but Mozilla is not most companies. Neither are the companies that produce free operating systems, and many other components of the free software ecosystem. None of them should be ashamed to admit when they are forced to compromise their values and support enterprises that, on ethical grounds, they despise … but they should make their position clear, by committing to an Ethics Offset until they can escape from the compromise entirely.

*: Why is there no Wikipedia entry for “Curse Jar”!?
**: Let’s not call it an indulgence.

Madrid

Two weeks from Friday I’ll be heading off for a few days in Madrid on business. I did manage to schedule myself an extra day on each end, though, so please send me your favorite places (and people!) to see in the city. Bonus points for recommendations that will keep me awake, and that I will be capable of comprehending, when I haven’t slept in 30 hours due to a choice of flights that seems distinctly questionable in retrospect.

I discovered this morning during my usual stroll to the bus stop that there is a free Spanish-language daily called El Planeta in a newspaper box along the way, perfectly placed for brushing up on my Spanish during my commute. Word of the day: “bondad“.

Strategy

My new strategy for avoiding distraction during crunch time: don’t even take my laptop out of my bag. That way I have no means for procrastination at night when I should be heading to sleep, nor in the morning before leaving for work.

One small flaw: my phone is sufficiently powerful to enable distractions such as writing a note about distraction mitigation strategy when one should really be heading to sleep.

Chocolate Cake City

Last night I attended a show by Emerson College’s Chocolate Cake City, a curiously named sketch comedy troupe featuring a mixture of live sketches, projected videos, and honest to goodness supremely rich chocolate cake, complete with 2% milk. Attempting to maintain objectivity despite the free cake, it might still have been the best college comedy show I’ve ever seen — no surprise given Emerson’s eminence in performing arts. (Credit is also due to the extraordinary Footlights of Cambridge and a dimly remembered but glorious Beatles parody.)

The troupe has an interesting perspective on originality; they unabashedly re-perform (or simply press play on) their own previous works. For a first-time viewer like myself this is great; the refinement of many years’ work, combined with Sturgeon’s Law, made for a great show, all of which was new to me.

Well, almost all. It turns out that they are the original creators, and still rightly proud, of Brokeback to the Future.