Month: November 2009

Addicted to the Harmless

Posted by – November 19, 2009

Talking to people online. Reading, keeping current, increasing your knowledge. Working on hobby projects. Enjoying a good book. Writing for your blog. Tweeting and (more often) reading others’ tweets.

These things are harmless; they’re good, healthy activities; but they do not a full life make, and they are all addictive. The Internet is a great connection machine; there are always more people to talk to and more things to read. You could spend your entire life on the Internet and never reach the bottom. Some days, I want to; wrapped up in reading (for example) articles about Cocoa, it’s very easy to forget the homework that’s due tomorrow. These harmless and positive activities then become as detrimental as any imbalance-creating addiction.

That said, the wonderful thing about addiction to the harmless is that you don’t have to give it up to get better. Once moderated, these addictions become an important and wholesome contribution to a healthy and balanced life. If I can do it, and I can, then you can, too.

Third World Think Tank

Posted by – November 14, 2009

This is a story about a shirt.

When I was 19, I served a mission for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints to Nicaragua. This is a country with few natural resources, a literacy rate of 68%, a government steeped in nigh inescapable corruption, and an economy that has yet to recover from the regime of the Sandinistas (to say nothing of the earthquake that leveled the capital 30-odd years ago). Poverty doesn’t begin to describe it—if one who lives as well as I still lives beneath the poverty threshold, then a new word must be found to describe how the poorest live in Nicaragua.

In Nicaragua, I met a woman who studied industrial engineering in Russia. There was no work for her; she sold tomatoes in the market. I’ve heard that most college graduates do not work in their field of study, but, really, tomatoes?

By complete random chance, the shirts that I bought (in Provo, UT) for my mission were made in Nicaragua. By a chance somewhat less random, I spent six months of that mission in Tipitapa, where those shirts were made. I taught a woman who worked in the factory that made the shirts; when I told her they were made in Nicaragua, she peered at them for a moment, nodded her head, and said that she remembered those shirts.

Hours in the factory are long; 12- to 16-hour days are the norm. A factory worker cannot choose her shift; rather, her hours are dictated to her. If the factory has a deadline to meet, well, it works overtime, whatever the wishes of its workers. Fortunately, the pay is good; it starts at $80/month, with the most skilled and dedicated making $150/month or more.

Some may read a degree of sarcasm in that last sentence; I assure you, I mean it precisely as written. If you can manage to earn $80/month in Nicaragua, you are above the average GDP per capita. At $80/month, you can even afford certain luxuries, like sending your kids to school.

Nicaragua is a country in which one may subsist with very little. Electricity is nice, but hardly needed; the temperature never drops below 80 ºF in most of the country, and nearly everyone cooks over wood fires. If you can’t pay for running water, you can dig a well (though only the truly destitute take this route). Food is cheaper—a small family can subsist on less than a dollar a day. And if you don’t own the land on which you reside, well, nobody cares enough to kick you off.

You think they have poor factory workers in China? At least one of those clothes factories was owned by a man from China.

I don’t feel guilty (well, not very guilty, anyway) that most of what I own was made in a third world country. I can honestly say, from what I witnessed with my own eyes, that those who work at that particular lousy, exploitative sweatshop are the fortunate ones. Because businesses in the developed world realized that a third-world living wage amounts to a comparative pittance, and because the world is flat, literally thousands of Nicaraguans have secure jobs at a competitive wage.

That said, my hope is that our first world free ride will not last forever. My hope is that circumstances in Nicaragua will one day improve to the point where no one would stoop to work for a mere $80/month. Surely the poverty of the developing world cannot last forever; in a flat world, even the Nicas can participate in the same global economic machine that turned America into a nation where poverty is a joke.

It may mean paying more for my shirts, but it would also mean less chance of my job going to India, or China, or Russia. And, you know, it would be pretty great for the people in third world countries, too.

The Cathedral is Still Prettier than the Bazaar

Posted by – November 10, 2009

The open source software model—Eric Steven Raymond’s “Bazaar“—may tend to produce technically solid, stable software systems; it may, as Raymond says, offer many efficiencies over the proprietary software model (the “Cathedral”); it may even be the best way to write certain types of applications. Be that as it may, and with notable exceptions, most FOSS user interfaces are ugly, convoluted, barely-usable dreck. There does not seem to be much market pressure in the Bazaar to make the stall pretty, and in the critical but oft-neglected area of User Experience, the Cathedral continues to dominate.

An Open Letter to Big Content

Posted by – November 5, 2009

Dear music, movie, TV, publishing, and whatever other content industries there may be,

I do not need you. Your wares are not so addictive that you can extort anything from me that you wish, secure in the knowledge that I cannot live without you. Fear me, for I am a nerd, and I will write your future with the technologies I create. Embrace my change, and you will enjoy ever grander success. Fight my change, and you will fade into a distant memory that most are eager to forget.

With love, Ryan

Experiments in Musical Idiots

Posted by – November 3, 2009

“Emily Howell” is a computer program that composes high-quality music. That notwithstanding, Emily is not an intelligent being; she’s just a program that’s backed by a database. That database must be created by a human, and the data provided shapes the music that results. Though rather unlike any other tool for composition, it is nevertheless a tool to be used by humans.

So, of course, there is controversy. Composers reject “her” compositions because they feel music is innately human; performers can’t play it for fear of tarnishing their reputation. Frankly, I don’t understand how these brilliant composers could sound so very much like idiots. I, for one, welcome our new robot overlords.