A fifteen year-old lesson from New York

Reading Gloria Steinem’s My Life on the Road gave me many treasured lessons. Many are relevant on election years. One is especially relevant on the heels of the 15th anniversary of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, and particularly during an election year where fear and Islamophobia are on the ballot.
As a large portion of Americans react to fear of terrorism and religious-inspired radicalism with Islamophobia and an anti-immigrant mentality, I remember this.

Steinem recalls a conversation with a cab driver in New York city “only ten days after the 9/11 terrorist attacks”. “Downtown streets were covered with surrealistic gray ash and debris,” she says, “and gutters were filled with the bodies of birds that had been incinerated in flight.”
But then she rides in this man’s cab.

My driver was a quiet young white guy with a gravity that I sensed as soon as I got into his cab. We drove past construction fences covered with photos and notices posted by people who were still searching for missing relatives or friends or coworkers. There were also anonymous graffiti that had appeared as if by contagion all over New York with the same message: Our grief is not a cry of war.

“That’s how New Yorkers feel,” the driver said. “They know what bombing looks like, and they know the hell it is. But outside New York, people will feel guilty because they weren’t here. They’ll be yelling for revenge out of guilt and ignorance. Sure, we all want to catch the criminals, but only people who weren’t in New York will want to bomb another country and repeat what happened here.”

“He was right,” she says, “Even before it was clear that Iraq and Saddam Hussein had nothing to do with 9/11 […] 75 percent of New Yorkers opposed the U.S. bombing of Iraq. But a national majority supported it.”

Former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani made a (widely misreported) claim that no major terror attack struck the U.S. after the passage of the PATRIOT Act. Giuliani is making the implication that the empowerment of the surveillance state, especially on Muslims, was related to a failure of major terror attacks to take place after 9/11 on U.S. soil. Perhaps it was related (there is mixed evidence on whether the PATRIOT act worked). Also related, perhaps, is George W. Bush’s refusal to empower Islamophobic rhetoric, Instead stating, less than a week after 9/11, “Islam is Peace.” Perhaps, I add, that a compassionate, understanding state is more equipped to handle terror threats, to empower communities to self-monitor and self-report, to empower communities to teach, affirm, and re-affirm peace, when it refuses to paint these communities with a broad brush.

Excerpts in this post are taken from Gloria Steinem’s My Life on the Road, pp. 72–3, Chapter III. The chapter is entitled “Why I Don’t Drive”. It describes insightful and perspective-changing experiences Steinem had by talking to cab drivers and public transit passengers over years of traveling around the world.

The Subscription Model is the Future of Software—and for good reason

Microsoft recently announced the launch of Office for iPad. Many people took note about the pricing model behind Office for iPad: the apps are free to download, and the user can open and view documents, spreadsheets, and presentations for free, but must pay for an Office 365 subscription to edit these files. Many have taken notice.

At Microsoft, the move to a subscription-based model has been going on for some time. Office 365 was launched in 2011. With Office 2013, the move towards the subscription model has been consummated: a user with an Office 365 subscription can use click-to-run to stream any Office app on any machine, and has access to the latest bits of the software at all times.

Many in the tech community and elsewhere have met this move with caution or concern. At the heart of these concerns are two ideas:

  1. a subscription model to use the software, instead of being able to purchase it, means that we never really own the software we pay for, and
  2. a subscription model also seems like a way to bleed money out users, especially infrequent users.

These are legitimate concerns, but I will argue that out understanding of software ownership is outdated and harmful. Further, the financial concerns about software subscriptions can be mitigated.

It seems that it is fair to—and often, acceptable—to charge for a service on a continuous basis as it is being provided, but neither fair nor acceptable to charge a continuous fee for the use of goods, where one is expected to “own” such good. The renting of goods will come up as an obvious counterexample, but I suppose renting is an exception rather than the rule.

Software is seen as a good, and to pay a subscription for software exactly as an attempt to rent it out. Many will object to the business model of “renting out” software licenses because the use of software by one user does not exclude others. It therefore seems that renting out software is a greedy attempt at amassing profit, rather than a legitimate business practice.

But in this day and age, the use of software carries many hidden costs. A company must offer supports to users of software, including users who own older versions, or interoperate with other users who own older versions. A user could be complaining about a bug fixed several years ago, but if the user is having this problem, as a company, it is also your problem. A company could also choose to have strict terms of service and choose not to support some of these areas, but here we see another cost of having your old software out in the wild: its reputation.

Here, I hope an example from Microsoft software will be illuminating.

Case: Windows XP

Windows XP was released in 2001 and still commands a usage share of some 30% of traditional PCs today. Support for Windows XP has been extended multiple times since it was first slated to expire, but in April 2014, support for Windows XP will finally expire. This is good news for everyone in the tech world: a 13-year old operating system has no place in 2014.

30% of traditional PC users are currently using an operating system that is more susceptible to attack. Some team of programmers in Microsoft is writing software fixing bugs and closing holes in a piece of software written in 2001, when many of these bugs have been made irrelevant by new security models, access controls, and sandboxing techniques that their colleagues have developed years ago for Windows Vista, 7, and 8. Developers throughout the world need to make sure that their websites are compatible with IE6, 7, and 8, even though IE9 has been released in 2011 and support open web standards more properly than previous versions.

Windows XP costs everyone today. Microsoft especially sees issues: the reputation of IE has declined, many developers no longer support or attempt to use modern versions of IE because they have a negative impression of the browser. Customers compare a Windows XP netbook circa 2004 with a 2011 iPad and decide not to bother with Windows.

There is one “cost” that I have not mentioned yet, because I do not think it is a legitimate part of this debate. That “cost” is the cost of modern Windows licenses that could be sold to these PC owners. It is true that the biggest competition for a new version of Windows is the previous version of Windows. I will not concern myself with this idea as a justification for subscriptions; as users, it is not our job to accommodate our lifestyles to optimize a company’s profitability.

Therefore, I am building an argument that is quite straightforward: the continuous use of Windows XP costs Microsoft in real, meaningful ways, not only in opportunity costs of missed sales.

Many developers are horrified at the idea of anyone using Windows XP. Developers of course don’t care if those Windows XP users update their operating system to a newer version of Windows or a competing product.

These users, however, have purchased and therefore ‘own‘ the operating system. Imagine a washing machine maker going to your home and demand that you buy a new one: “It doesn’t need to be from us,” a representative would tell you, “you can buy any new washing machine, as long as it’s modern. This one is much too old and we can’t have you keep it.”

Enterprise users have more of a reason to continue using XP. The 30% usage figure, however, contains many home users of the operating system.

If we cling on to our conception of software ownership, then we really can’t demand anything out of these users. Maybe we should.

The Solution

The real solution to this problem is to rid ourselves of this conception of software ownership. It seems arbitrary at best to distinguish between software downloaded and running locally (“a good”) and software hosted on the web (“a service”), if the continuous use of both of them carries a similar cost.

A subscription means that you have access to the latest bits of the software you intend to use at all times. Third-party developers can count on the majority of their users using newer versions. The software maker will see a reduced need to support legacy formats, instead moving closer to (n) ↔ (n-1) compatibility guarantees. A subscription therefore means that development is more tractable, that users witness faster rates of improvement, and that software is generally more reliable.

Case: SimCity

Subscription-based models will also help speed up the advent of cloud-assisted and cloud-enabled software. When a user purchases a game or program, the user often feels entitled to the right of using this software offline. Developers who wish to be on the cutting edge are offering online-only options that are often being met with anger.

EA asked users to purchase SimCity, a game that required a continuous internet connection to be played. Users objected on for the following bases:

  1. the always-online requirement seems to be arbitrary and offer no real advantages that cannot be implemented in an offline-only version, and
  2. locking users into EA servers means that legitimate owners of the game will be left in the dark if EA decides to top supporting the game or close their servers.

I will not argue against the first point, other than to point out that other games could exist which legitimately take advantage of the cloud to offer superior online-only experiences. The real issue, however, is that users did not want to pay to own a game that they will not be able to use at some point.

The Big Picture: “Free” Software and Piracy

I am using “free” in quotation marks to refer to software that is “free (as in beer)” as opposed to “free (as in freedom)”.

My opinion on the EA and SimCity debacle is simple: EA should have offered SimCity for ‘free’, not purchase, and instead charged users a subscriptions to play the game. If EA ever shuts down its servers (as it often does), these subscriptions are terminated. The users got what they paid for (the use of the game for a given period) and we move on to the next innovation.

I will be the first to admit that this assessment is incomplete. It would be much preferable if EA opened up SimCity to allow other servers to spur up (at least if they choose to shut down the official servers). Whether EA owes this to the users, or whether it is simply a better alternative will be left as an exercise to the reader, and is definitely the next part of this debate on “free” software openness.

We are now looking at the big picture: in today’s world, buying, selling, and owning software are outdated concepts. Privacy advocates have long argued that the marginal cost of copying software is practically 0, and only potentially impacts software makers in terms of opportunity cost. Software is information and should be copied freely, they argue.

The subscription model ends the privacy debate. Companies should not be charging for copies of software, but the service of use and support.

What piracy advocates have noticed years ago is that software makers are charging for software illegitimately at the wrong stage of the development-distribution-use process. The subscription model admits this mistake and recognizes that the true cost of software—other than its development—is proportional not to the number of users using it, but instead the amount of user-hours the software is being used.

Does a future of subscription-based software mean it is more expensive for the user? I don’t think so. Companies should instead be expected to offer flexible options, such as day or week passes that should accommodate very infrequent users. We should demand that software makers provide affordable options: the cost of a one-year license to use a product should be significantly lower than the cost software makers currently charge to purchase a license indefinitely.

Simply put, charging users for a copy of an application is not the way forward for software. All (or perhaps most) software is a service that involves patches, updates, support, and more. A subscription-based model puts an end to many current-day arguments in favor of software piracy, allows software makers to innovate at a higher rate, and gives users access to the latest bits at all times.

Some thoughts on the Anonymous/Hacktivist response to the Aaron Swartz tragedy

On Twitter, @AnonymousIRC claims to have been responsible for bringing the *.mit.edu network down for a few hours last night in protest of MIT’s legal “back-and-forth” with Aaron Swartz. Later on they went on to ‘hack’ two sub-domains in the MIT network (the “Cogeneration Project” and an RLE site, seemingly they just picked two random ones easy to break) posting a message about Aaron. Here are some of my thoughts about attacking the MIT network following this tragedy:

MIT has more than 10,000 students, researchers, and professors working on areas ranging from cancer research, renewable energy, and urban planning to free software (FSF), open internet (W3C), and the future of computing in general (CSAIL). In many ways, what MIT, as a community, stands for is more representative of the Swartz and Anon cause than the Anonymous themselves.

To think that bringing e-mail or a network down sent shivers down the spines of the MIT Corporation, General Counsel, or Administration is nonsense– all it did is harassed the student body and researchers. Those who are working on the same causes other groups are supposed to be working on.

Second, Hal Abelson is a fine man, co-founder of Creative Commons, close ally of Swartz, and an activist and champion for an open internet. Those who are cynical about his investigation know nothing about the man or the dynamics of this institution. Larry Lesisg himself, a great man (and co-founder of Creative Commons with Abelson, friend and mentor of Swartz), who yesterday called MIT’s interactions with Swartz “shameful” recognizes the fact that MIT’s response right now is a positive development, not a negative.

Third, no– bringing sites down is not a form of protest. Especially not when the collateral is the cause you are arguing for itself.

When will the hacker community mature to realize that they can harness their skills to achieve much better activism that does not hurt the people who are working on their same causes? The immaturity we initially saw in the likes of LulzSec has plagued anonymous for years now. Get it together.

Let Me Speak My Mind: a Trend of Political Bigotry in Jordan?

I have not written anything in this blog in a long time. I have tried to start writing many times, but I never could finish. I have been, for the past few months, increasingly frustrated with the stiuation in Jordan; while the government is doing some right moves, politically, I became largely frustrated with the wave of bigotry that has swept our society off its feet. Bigotry in politics is almost deeply enthralled in the hearts and minds of many Jordanians, across classes, political views, roles, and perspectives.

Pro-Government protesters are bigoted against Pro-Reform protesters, considering them unthankful, unpatriotic “scum”.

Pro-Reform protesters are themselves bigoted against Pro-Government protesters, thinking they are government-funded thugs who want ot beat them.

Pro-Government media is bigoted agaisnt many political movements, consdiering them outside-fundedp lots against our security.

Anti-Government media is even more bigoted: against the government, police, and their supporters. Every policy is an evil plot, every anti-Government journalist is a hero, every incident is an attack, every violence is targetting thme, and every politician is corrupt.

Events are blown out of proportion at times, and are silenced at others. Every Jordanian reads the news they agree with, and stop: never the opposite perspectives. Our opponents’ political view does not exist. Our opponents’ perspectives are always unfounded. Our rivals are always bigoted, nonsensical, idiots, and fools–never us.

We need a national dialogue, yet all we do is push each other around. Videos of our protests are sad scenes of people yelling at people, fighting with others, and never listening. Never mind that some are reporters and other are policemen, neverm ind that some are politicians and others are activists, all act the same: Like the stereotypical impulsive man, violent, angry, bigoted, and never listens.

I try to go both ways, sometimes criticize the government, and at others support it, depending on what I think (though recently I admit I am doing more support than criticize, but I’m convinced I’m still rational about it). Yet, whenever I criticize, or express the need for a reform, I am called naive by some, and anti-Jordanian by others. And when I express that I don’t think the government was wrong in X, or that the government is doing the right thing in Y, I am either uneducated or have some sort of interest.

After debates with some, I often hear that people are surprised how there is someone smart who thinks differently. So let me be very clear:

People subscribe to all sorts of thoughts, beliefs, and views. Some views might be better than others, but all are debatable. Nothing is obviously true, and very little is obviously false. Most of those who subscribe to views possess a well-thought, legitimate reason, and many philosophical arguments, that lead them to possess a view. No view, belief, or side is exclusively more intelligent or just. My view can still be better than yours, and I will continue to defend it with confidence, but never condescension.

Political reform is essential, but the society must also rise up. We need a new atmosphere where one is not ridiculed for speaking his mind.

Journalism and Editorialism are Still Lacking…

A comment on a recent article by Basil Rafai’a that appeared on Ammonnews here:

مقالة ركيكة بعيدة عن المنطق، مع الأسف.

لا نستطيع أن نوصف الموقف بالمثير للشبهة إذا قال ناطق “ما حدث” بدل “زعرنة”، فعلى الناطق الرسمي للأمن العام أن يتكلم بحيادية وقد قام بذلك. لا يجب علينا أن نطالب ناطق باسم الأمن العام بأن يستخدم مصطلحات منحازة كمصطلحاتنا.

وعلى كل حال، توجد صور، ولكن الصور غير كافية. المرتكبون “مجهولين” حتى تعرف اسماؤهم ومواقعهم ويتم القبض عليهم.

أرجو أن يقوم رئيس التحرير بتدقيق أكثر جودة في المرات القادمة.

Yazan Al Rousan in Autostrad

imageRising Jordanian singer Yazan al Rousan along with a few others have recently launched a new project: a band called Autostrad that aims to somehow ‘revolutionize’ current-day Arab music by incorporating various elements of Rock, Jazz, and even a hint of electronic music in the predominantly “mono-styled” Arab music world.

While I’m a fan of conventional Arab music, I think we should see some more variety in there. I mean, when looking at English (English language) music, we’d see classical, gospel, rock, jazz, blues, rap, hip-hop, etc. but for Arab music there’s just a single genre. Granted, it has some innovative variation within the “Arab genre”, I have not seen any notable Arab musician that represents an actual departure from that Arab genre.

Anyways, with Yazan al Rousan and the newly-formed Autostrad, I think we’ll have a chance to see some of that.

The album is unconventional to say the least, and probably ‘weird to hear’ for many. It’ll confuse you at times and shock you at others, but listen to the whole thing with an open mind and ear, and you’ll be impressed.

Refreshing is all I can say.

Here is some relevant information:

And here’s the track list (along with a short commentary):

  1. Safer (سافر), probably my favorite song in the album. Adopting a highly melodious and enjoyable rhythm, and sung with a traditional bedoin accent, Safer succeeds in portraying a melancholic voice and perhaps imposing a similar mood on the listener.
  2. Mirsal (مرسال), This is a remake of a song of the same name. While I still must say I prefer the original, this again is an excellent track.
  3. Kil Shi Jutabel (كل شي جوتابل) is a typical example of the band’s “interesting” music style. Nothing exceptional in the song as a musical composition, but why did I find myself listening to it 4 times in a row trying to extract some meaning out of it? Such hard-to-understand yet seemingly enlightening lyrics style seems to spread across the album.
  4. Fikrak (فكرك)
  5. Asmar (أسمر)
  6. Habseh w Lamseh (حبسة ولمسة) perhaps one of the most energetic and enjoyable songs by Autostrad. Excuse the ‘references’ throughout the song though!
  7. Kanabaye (كنباي), an indeed humorous song recorded live to capture the response of the audience (who, at times, laughed their a**es off). Seemingly nonsensical and comic, I’m told the song has some meaning… I’m yet to find any though!
  8. Mafi Ishi Nsawi (مافي إشي نساوي)
  9. Alf Tahiyyeh (ألف تحية), the only thing I can say for this song is that it’s heart warming!
  10. Ya Salam (يا سلام), Yazan al Rousan (and now Autostrad)’s perhaps more popular song. Very active, high spirited, and unusually happy, the song presents the idea that one must live his/her life regardless of whatever else they might face. I like.

If you’re a Jordanian, you can go grab the Album. Some information should appear on the Facebook page linked above.

For others, you can check samples from their debut album as well as other songs on that very same facebook page.

And for anyone who doesn’t believe in Facebook… there you go <_< .

So who am I really?

Before I can start blogging heavily (which I plan to), I think I need to talk a bit about myself, to sort-of formally introduce myself to everyone.

My name is Eyas Sharaiha and I’m a Jordanian Year 12 IB student, software and web developer, online magazine editor, and tech enthusiast. I’m interested in technology, software development, politics (especially affairs of the region), physics, standup comedy, and music.

During the past several years or so, I’ve had a wide range of intended careers and perceived futures, ranging between a lawyer, educator, inventor, king, physicist, president (yes I can), and finally the most recent: Computer Engineer!

2008 was my nerve-wrecking college application year, and 2009 is my even-more-nerve-wrecking college decisions year.. so, I might have chosen a rather critical time to start (actively) blogging, but I believe this will make things more interesting 🙂 .

Over the coming weeks, I’ll be going into most of my interests, in an effort to introduce myself in a more complete manner and share my opinions on some recent events.

Adieu for now, you’ll be seeing me soon!