As AI absorbs your life’s data, how do you feel?

Humanity has started down a new road in its history and those of us alive today get to watch it unfold. Companies like Microsoft, Google, Facebook, Amazon and to some degree Apple are now beginning to train their artificial intelligence systems on your data. Data from real people, available for the first time in the vast amounts that are useful to AI programmers.

First attempts might be clumsy. Cortana might direct you to a Thai massage parlor that smells of smegma from ten meters away, when all you wanted was some Thai-Italian fusion food. But as you complain about bad results, Cortana learns and improves, her data size increases, the next results will be better.

Free comes without freedom

Have you wondered how Google can afford to give you unlimited storage for all your photos in original resolution for free? Storage costs money, data centers suck up huge amounts of electricity and some person or robot has to change failing hard drives and monitor the hardware and services. This might be offered for free to you, but it’s not free for Google. So what do they gain? Pictures taken by real people, plus GPS data about where the picture was taken, and thanks to the high-accuracy sensors in their new phone, Google knows the pitch, tilt and yaw of your phone when you took the picture. It gets placed into a sort of 3D collage of the world, owned by them, not you.

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How the Netflix model rescued creativity, and why it needs to drop DRM

If you’re an 80s kid and haven’t heard of Stranger Things, you owe it to yourself to have a look. Now in a recent interview on NPR, Stranger Things creators the Duffer brothers said a few interesting things:

  • They approached Winona Ryder without expecting anything, they weren’t sure she would accept the role. She did, and they adapted the character to her. Complete creative license from Netflix.
  • Netflix didn’t expect any specific success. They appear to be funding several shows, and it’s enough if one or two of them is successful. Stranger Things is wildly successful, and this was unexpected even to the Duffer brothers themselves.
  • Netflix doesn’t need to create any hype. They release the shows whenever they’re released, usually without fanfare. Subscribers need to be subscribers to watch anyway, so Netflix doesn’t care if 100 people watch on the first night of a new show or 1 million.

This is interesting for several reasons:

  • Netflix doesn’t need to suck the cocks and lick the clits of advertisers. Doesn’t need to censor shows when those pesky writers wrote something an advertiser might not agree with.
  • Netflix can give full creative reign to its creators, and whether things flop or become a great success isn’t so important. This probably creates a wonderful atmosphere for  labors of love.

I think this is all no small part of the reason why they manage to hammer out several very highly acclaimed shows every year. Whether it’s completely new stuff like Bo-Jack Horseman or Stranger Things, whether it runs under license like Daredevil or whether it’s a spin-off from a series that came from traditional TV like Better Call Saul doesn’t seem to matter. Success has been had in several categories.

This must be wonderful for creators, and I believe it shows in their work. Meanwhile over at Amazon Video, Philip K. Dick’s Man in the High Castle finally gets a series treatment, and it’s quite a good one as well. Amazon might have a strategy similar to Netflix’.

But! There are a few nasty, nasty buts about these services:

  • They promote the use of DRM on the web and the DRMification of content.
    • This fucks customers in the ass and other orifices.
    • It also gives them muscle to cut exclusive deals with the likes of Microsoft that unfairly put other operating systems at a disadvantage without any technical reason.
  • The streaming video you get is just streaming video. You don’t get to keep anything. No backups. No discs. If the service provider drops your favorite show, you won’t be able to watch any old episodes anymore even if you’re a subscriber.

For the moment, I think the benefits outweigh the cost, but only slightly. I hope the industry will one day realize that DRM is a crutch and that the only thing it reliably does is annoy people and put them at a disadvantage. It doesn’t prevent piracy, it never has.

I’m paying my Netflix tax, I’m very happy with the kind of series this produces, but I also reserve the right to download backups of whatever I want. This is still legal in Switzerland, and I hope it stays that way until the streaming services offer some form of downloadable copies. They could come a year after a show has aired, for example. They could charge a small fee for each download. That way, subscribers can have everything first, and when the show becomes old and perhaps a burden for Netflix to host, customers can take storage and backup into their own hands. And they’d even pay Netflix for the privilege. Both sides would win.

Here’s hoping.

Dear Microsoft, help me like you

The years after Ballmer’s exit from Microsoft brought big changes, and many of them.

  • .NET’s core became open source under a widely known permissive license. Previous FOSS efforts from Microsoft didn’t do so well in picking licenses. But now it’s all on GitHub, not on some marginal platform, but on everybody’s darling.
  • MS absorbed Xamarin, perhaps making mobile .NET development less of a pain. I don’t know if it had been painful at all, I hear Xamarin’s tools were pretty good on their own, but with Microsoft’s gloved and lubed hand deep inside the monkey, Xamarin may extract more joy from it.
  • Docker now (or soon) runs on Windows, natively using Hyper-V.
  • Node.js runs on Windows, natively.
  • Chakra (the JavaScript engine) has become open source and cross-platform. It will soon be available inside Node.js.
  • ASP.NET is open source.
  • F# is open source.
  • TypeScript is open source.
  • PowerShell is quite probably going open source.
  • Visual Studio Code came out, and is open source.
  • Canonical has ported their Ubuntu userland to the Win32 API.
  • Microsoft is going into containers and small footprint servers with Nano Server.
  • Microsoft absorbed Mojang and thus Minecraft. Perhaps to lure the younger generation towards Microsoft products, perhaps also because they can make cool toys like Hololens and stack them on something that already has an established community.
  • MS dropped XNA instead of open sourcing it, but Monogame came to the rescue, and now that we’re all part of the touchy-feely FOSS crowd, we’ll forgive them that move.

But there have been some dark chapters as well:

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Microsoft’s Cortana spies on everyone except school children

It appears that Microsoft decided that its voice-controlled assistant can no longer be disabled in Windows 10 after the upcoming Anniversary Update. So is listening in on everything someone says in a household something perhaps slightly immoral? From this action, you’d think that Microsoft doesn’t think so. But then you discover that Microsoft also decided that school children will not be spied on (that would be immoral?) so the Education Edition of Windows 10 will not contain Cortana at all.

Maybe physically removing the microphones from your computer will prevent being spied on, because just disabling the devices via software is not guaranteed to switch them off, since you don’t have the source code to the drivers or the kernel.

Microsoft is not alone in wanting to listen in on you having clumsy sex, Google also sneakily placed a recording system on all computers running an up-to-date version of Chrome. They even managed to infiltrate the free software base of Chrome, Chromium. So do Chrome users on Windows 10 now have two spies in their bedroom?

US English language in Debian with proper weekdays and numbers

Our friends over there in the US like to have their own measurement systems, and they don’t stop there. They also like to start the week on Sundays. I hear this has religious reasons.

This leads to problems when you generally want to set up your Debian systems with plain old English (US) locales but need proper measurement units in your programs. One of the solutions here is the magical file /etc/default/locale. Here’s a screenshot of what amazing feats this can accomplish:

Screenshot_2016-07-15_12-39-44.png

My weeks start on Monday (as they should!) and I get European paper formats, Swiss date and time formats, but still have my precious English error messages. No one wants German nerdspeak, it’s gibberish! “Sendewarteschlangenlänge”? What does that even mean?

The beauty of the locale system is that you can mix and match any of these. You can have Portuguese weekdays with English error messages, Swedish currency and US paper formats.

First you have to generate all the locales you’d like to use (as root):

dpkg-reconfigure locales

Then just put whatever combination you like in /etc/default/locales and log out and back in again. Here’s an example:

LANG=en_US.UTF-8
LC_NUMERIC=de_CH.UTF-8
LC_TIME=de_CH.UTF-8
LC_COLLATE=de_CH.UTF-8
LC_MONETARY=de_CH.UTF-8
LC_PAPER=de_CH.UTF-8
LC_MEASUREMENT=de_CH.UTF-8
LC_ADDRESS=de_CH.UTF-8
LANGUAGE="en_US:en"

The system gets US English spelling and language, but the rest is in German (Switzerland). So we Swiss Franc as currency, ‘ as a thousands separator, etc. And this works both in pure console sessions and in most desktop environments.

Be careful, though. Some desktop environments (like Plasma) allow you to override these settings in your desktop session.

Ungoogling has reached the mainstream

I’m very happy that ungoogling (removing all your data from Google services and hosting it yourself, using services that respect your privacy) has now reached the mainstream. I did my ungoogling some years ago and it’s been great, even though Google still has its fist up my anus since I use Android.

There is one project that explictly lists ungoogling as its goal, Cozy. They raised over €5 million in the last few months and it looks like they’re well on their way of reaching their goals. I didn’t look at the architecture in detail so I don’t know if they have some security innovations, but if it’s innovative security you’re looking for in addition to easy hosting, there is already Sandstorm.

Both also offer (free) hosting if you don’t want to host yourself. For some, this could be the right choice, for others it might defeat the purpose.

There are of course other hurdles to overcome in the future. It would be nice if every human could have their own little box of storage connected at home, always reachable, making their own data available securely and only to those humans that this human authorizes. We’re still some distance from that goal, but people are working on it.

There will be a time when it’s you who is in control of your data. Not some corporation.

The end of the Microsoft era

The way I see it, Microsoft are struggling hard to remain relevant these days and the next five years or so will decide whether they’ll still be in a power position ten years from now.

No longer fancy-cool

If anecdotal evidence counts, Apple has won the consumer computing war of the 2010s. The younger people (under 20 year olds) around me are buying Macs, not Windows machines, and sadly not GNU/Linux. This is a generation of people who only has to touch Windows at work, if at all. Windows gets the stigma of the boring work thing, not the exciting spare time thing.

If they branch into software development in their spare time, they usually do that using Atom or XCode on OS X, writing stuff in JavaScript for Node.js or in Swift if they want to go native. Some dabble with PHP, but on the frontend it’s all JavaScript-template-engine-of-the-month or perhaps React or Meteor.

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