Wednesday, November 9, 2011

On Stealing Ideas

I like art and literature, and therefore I also like remixes and adaptation. I've been hearing a lot of Picasso's T.S. Eliot's "good artists borrow, great artists steal" maxim. Also, I've been teaching Milton, who in Paradise Lost not only adapted Genesis but also blatantly stole from Ariosto.

The problem with that quote is that "borrow" seems good, and "steal" seems bad. The quote makes it sound as if the True Geniuses of Mankind are all jerks, and that only by being jerks can they exert their Geniusness.

That's missing the point entirely. Stealing ideas is better than borrowing ideas. If I borrow a book, I have to give it back. If I steal a book, it's mine. However, like Cory Doctorow on "buying" licenses to DRM'd digital works vs stealing those digital works—the one you steal will never get arbitrarily deleted if the DRM company goes bankrupt—borrowing and stealing ideas is different. Contrary to public opinion, there is no shortage on ideas. There is no idea deficit. Ideas come out of the ether, they sublime from books and movies and human interactions. They just pop in your head and you can't control them. That's ideas for you. If I use your idea, you aren't suddenly without it any more. No, now we both have it. Ideas are not zero-sum.

So how do "borrow" and "steal" even apply? OK, here we go. If I "borrow" an idea, just like when I borrow a book, I know in every waking moment that it's not mine. It's not a part of me, and I'll be very careful around it because I see it chained to someone else. Whenever I talk about that idea, I'll reference someone else not simply to preserve attribution and good faith and all that, but because I'm uneasy around that idea. It's not mine, in the same way that to me a given funny story will never be mine, but always my father's. If I tell my daughter, though, she'll assume it's mine unless I tell her where it came from. I do that now, with my students. I tell them where I get a lot of stuff, because I'm uncomfortable claiming any (fleeting, transitory, meaningless) honor of "I came up with that."

When I get beyond that, if I get beyond that—when I realize that ideas and apothegms and proverbs and metaphors are just floating around, I can get it and use it. That's not your book, that's my book—I borrowed it years ago, but I've possessed it ten times as long as you did, and it has my notes in it and it's been a major part of my life, not yours. Those creases in the spine are mine, not yours. If you want it back, my duty is not to return it but to buy you another copy.

This works not only horizontally across friendship, but vertically, across generations. I have some books that are mine that used to be my dad's. They're mine in a way they never were his. He gave me ideas that live in my head, ideas that he tossed off one day that will stick with me forever. In a sense, I've stolen myself from him. I was his son, and now I'm my own man. In a non-zero-sum world, relationships don't change, information doesn't abandon its source—it just finds a new place. If I steal it, I make that place a home.

Friday, June 17, 2011

Why I'm Excited about OSX Lion

I’ve been excited about Lion for a while, partially just because I like new OS versions, but when I talked about my excitement with one of my friends last week, he said that the whole thing seemed unimpressive. Let’s face it: this is not the same as the shift from DOS to Windows, Pre-Ubuntu-Linux to Ubuntu, or System 9 to OS X[1]. I was and am really excited about Lion, and couldn’t imagine a person who wasn’t. Of course, as a contrarian, I’m excited for subtle reasons[2]: I’m not excited about all of Apple’s big bullet points, but that doesn’t mean there’s nothing to be excited about.

I’m excited in four basic areas:

  1. Apple tried to make it look pretty

  2. Apple tried to make it like iOS

  3. Apple tried to make it unbreakable

  4. Apple tried to extend its awesomeness

1. Looking Pretty

Here’s what looks better in Lion:

  • Textedit: the icons more integrated with titlebar. Since I hardly ever ⌘Q this application, this is big for me.

  • iCal and Address Book are skeuomorphic. Since I like actual things (as opposed to virtual things), this is nice. If you don’t like skeuomorphism, I understand, but I think it looks pretty.

  • Full screen apps everywhere. While I don’t always like this (right now I’ve got Notational Velocity opened in a window and TextEdit in another), I can’t deny the appeal of the ability to run an app full-screen at some point. Running Preview, iCal, Mail, Terminal, and TextEdit full-screen (with a system-wide API and keyboard shortcut) seems like an obvious good thing. I love the full-screen mode in the latest iPhoto

  • iCal Heat Map: There’s a new year view (!), and iCal will show via colorized heat map which days and weeks are most and least busy. Instant information, at a glance. BusyCal, plz reproplicate.

2. Just Like iOS

Here’s what’s (wonderfully) iOS-like in Lion:

  • The scrollbars. Hail iOS-like scrollbars. In a year we’ll all wonder what we did without them. “How can I tell how far I am in a document? That doesn’t matter as much as being constantly forcefully reminded how far you are in a document. I’m in TextEdit now and even though I haven’t finished a full page, I see a greyed-out space for a scroll bar. Honestly, this should have come years ago.

  • Menubar notification for location services. Hear me out on this one. I know we all have too many icons in our menubars already, but this one just pops up every now and then. Now, Google or Facebook or whatever can request our physical location from a browser. Like most of us, the first time it happened I clicked “OK and stop bugging me.” Now I have no idea when it happens, and honestly I don’t want a giant pop-up each time. A transitory menubar icon seems right, and after using iOS a lot, the little purple ➤ jumps out at me.

  • Color (!) Emoji font system-wide. I can’t wait to start using this with Typinator, even if it’s just for personal usage. I expect it to be standard on Windows 8 (or maybe Win8 SP1) after Apple takes the lead. Potentially annoying, yes, but must-need for mobile/desktop compatibility.

  • Character-picker: Hold down a key and instead of getting “nooooooooooooo” you get “n+[oóòôøõö].” If this does not seem cool to you, then either A) you type “nooooooooooo” too much, B), you only ever type in English, or A+B.

  • Auto-correction: If the word is misspelled (or potentially misspelled), you’ll get a pop-up with a little X next to hit. Click X to keep the current spelling. If this also works with doublespace → period-space, I’ll be in love.

3. More Unbreakable

I don’t want my anything to break, but I know it will eventually. Here’s what mitigates that:

  • Time Machine works on the go, away from a backup drive. Blink, take a drink of water, go for a walk. Blink. Scream as loud as you can. Yeah, it’s like that.

  • If you have to restart your system (admittedly rare in Mac compared to Windows already), you don’t have to close your apps. As far as I can tell, even the ones with unsaved files. They’ll be there after you restart—same window positions, same highlighting, same cursor and mouse position. Again, feel free to scream a bit.
  • Auto-save and Versions: “Microsoft Word already auto-saves. Time Machine already stores backup versions.” This is true. But this adds A) system-wide APIs for auto-save that every application can use, and B) non having to go through Time Machine to get to the previous version of just one file. Have you ever used Time Machine to go eight directories deep to check on one odd file? Either you haven’t and you’re confused or you have and you’re excited about Lion.

4. Extra Awesome on Top

I think Mac OS X 10.5 & 10.6 are the best operating systems ever, for the same reason I think the SNES controller is the best ever. Think of slider bars that feature “functionality,” “beauty,” and “ease”—every time you adjust one, the others move two. 10.5 and 10.6 have those bars pushed up farther than I knew they could go after 10 years of Windows experience and 4 years of Linux experience. There are tradeoffs, but they’re small. 10.7 Lion only adds to the awesome:

  • Preview is the best Mac app, and it’s now even better:

    • Add signature to PDF documents. Hold some paper with your signature up to the iSight/Facetime camera, and Preview captures it and puts it on a PDF. Boom.

    • Preview supports iWork and Office. Concerning system resources, Office » iWork » Preview—that is, iWork for me starts twice (or more) as fast as Office, and Preview feels like I’m on an SSD. Unless I want to edit a file, I’m going to want everything to open in Preview from now on.

  • Quick Look, my 2nd favorite part of Mac, after Preview. As much as I talked about Preview, I think I’ll be living even more in Quick Look, although I almost include them as the same app. Here’s what’s new:

    • Now it’ll support addresses (through Google Maps), Address Book contacts, and more.

    • In Finder, less-focused on popovers, but now actual windows. “Open in…” buttons.

    • Everywhere else (Spotlight, Mail, and other places you don’t want full windows) using popovers. Definitions included. Wikipedia included.

    • 3-finger double-tap to look up a word in Dictionary/Thesaurus/Wikipedia, just like the ⌃⌘D of 10.5-10.6.

Bottom Line

Okay, that’s a lot of stuff. Mind-blowing? It’s not as cool as a new iTunes that allows you to read your iBooks on a Mac would be. It’s not as cool as AirPlay to the Mac would be. It’s not as cool as the revolutionary 10.5 Leopard (Time Machine, Spaces, Boot Camp, Preview, prettification), or even 10.4 Tiger (Spotlight, Automator), but it has a few distinct benefits:

  • Cost: It’s $30. Yes, this is obvious—Paying over $150 for Leopard is one thing, but isn’t ⅕ the price worth these things? I’ve covered 18 things, which comes out to $1⅔ each. Just buying single-use apps to do that stuff would cost at least twice as much, and I haven’t even covered AirDrop, FaceTime, gesture customization, iChat unification, Launchpad, Mail Conversations, Mission Control (each desktop can have its own wallpaper!), QuickTime can rotate video or export audio only, Drag-and-drop from Spotlight, system-wide vertical text support, or being able to play albums from the iTunes album art-tile screensaver. $30. $30. $30.

  • Access: It’s not just $30, but $30 no matter how many machines you run. My wife and I have two laptops using the same iTunes Apple ID, but Snow Leopard cost us $50 for the multi-user pack. For us, to upgrade two computers, Lion will essentially cost us $15 each.

  1. The relative importance of all of these shifts, and others I haven’t mentioned, are arguments all to themselves—arguments I’m not going to address right now.

  2. Everything from the main Lion features page here

Thursday, May 5, 2011

Section 31, Osama Bin Laden, and Christ

I’ve been watching a lot of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine with my wife. It’s pretty awesome, I’ll tell you. It’s all that I like about Star Trek—Klingons, Vulcans, Romulans, character studies, diplomacy—infused with dire seriousness. Characters fall in love, get married, and die. People change. Religion matters. And at its center is a war that actually threatens the Federation, the eternal goody-two-shoes of the galaxy. And here, in the last season, is Section 31, an off-the-books Federation Intelligence agency, acting with the tacit non-disapproval of Federation authority, assassinating leaders and leaving potential friends to suffer to help conceal Section 31’s double-agents. Introduced in a sixth-season episode, Section 31 comes in and darkens the show considerably.

Many Star Trek fans since the sixties hate Section 31, because the original idea of the Federation was an organization of peace and tranquility. Gene Roddenberry created the show at the height of the Cold War to show humans from different ethnic and regional backgrounds working together, black and white, American and Russian. The idea that the Federation leaders were more or less okay with covert assassinations of foreign political leaders—of erstwhile allies, no less—struck many as being to its very core anti-Federation. And it is. I love DS9, and part of what I love is not the concept that the ends justify the means, but that we should think about whether the ends justify the means. We should meditate. We should argue. We should lose sleep at night. We should pray. We should worry. Regardless of whatever decision is reached, we should know that it’s a hard decision and a decision we didn’t want to make in the first place. We know that even if we have to make the decision again in the future—again, whichever way we decide—it will never free us from the burden of torturing ourselves about it.

I write this as Osama Bin Laden is dead. Our President, the leader of the free world, and his military, have caused it to happen. Bin Laden, who chose to murder thousands of Americans and would have murdered even more given the chance, is dead. His chapter in history is over, and now we can officially start arguing over the minutiae. The very first issue under discussion is proof. A week after Obama finally caved and gave the nation his long-form birth certificate (ignoring, of course, that even if he were born in Moscow he would be an American by virtue of his mother’s citizenship), many are calling on him to release evidence showing that Bin Laden really really really was the one shot. I get it—some people don’t like Obama and therefore don’t trust him (or the other way around—your choice). But to demand the release of photographs that show a human being’s head exploded is something else entirely.

Obama has thought it over and decided to not release the photos. Of course they’ll pop up in a FOIA request years from now, but I’m glad they’re not being released now. Partially, I agree with the President on his first point: the photos may be “an incitement to additional violence…a propaganda tool.” But I wholeheartedly agree with him on his second point: “That’s not who we are. You know, we don’t trot out this stuff as trophies.”

Sarah Palin disagrees. That’s no surprise. If Obama said he loved vanilla ice cream, Palin would campaign on a pro-chocolate ticket. She wants us to “Show [the] photo as [a] warning to others seeking America’s destruction.” Palin argues that although it may incite violence or serve as an anti-American propaganda tool, it’s most effective as a head on a pike, a horrible, bloody “Look what we did. Don’t mess with us.” I think it would work. I think that Guantanamo Bay may lead some to dislike America, but it has probably also lead many more to fear us. In the pale moonlight, we may be safer because of doing scary things—or even being suspected of doing scary things. If we show the pictures to the world, many will rally against us. But many more will certainly see that we are scary and will choose not to mess with us.

But that is exactly what I don’t want America to be. If we aren’t that yet, I don’t want us to become that. If we are that already, I want us to back off from it. I don’t want us to be feared around the world. I don’t want our enemies cowed into submission. Honestly, and I know this is naïve, I want people to love us. We have problems, yes, but our founding document, before we got serious and hammered out a code of laws, was a simple Declaration:
We hold these Truths to be self-evident, that all Men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness.
This does not apply exclusively to Americans. This applies to human beings. If we ever discover aliens with bumpy foreheads or pointy ears, it’ll apply to them, too. The Constitution and Bill of Rights merely say, “Although all that stuff in the Declaration is true, we can only legally guarantee it for American citizens.” That certainly doesn’t mean that we should give up entirely, or that we should ever allow this, our guiding light, to dim. We are a city set on a hill, and like Jesus meant it, we should do everything in our power to help each other. We Americans should do everything to help everyone else in the world, not out of guilt or fear but out of love. As Jesus came to seek and eternally save the lost we as Americans must hope to preach our gospel of temporal human rights to the world. It’s a very different gospel, yes, but it’s a gospel nonetheless, and if we no longer preach it, we no longer deserve to call the Declaration of Independence our own. I don’t want other nations to fear us. I don’t want other people to fear us. Anybody who says “it is better to be feared than loved” is both accurate and a jerk. It may be safer. It may be healthier. It may be stronger. But that’s not the person I want to be to my friends or my students or my wife or my daughter. It’s not who I want to be to strangers. It’s not who I want to be to the people who already call me an enemy. It’s not who I want to be to people who haven’t made up their minds.

I’ll share something with you. I’ve only shared this with two human beings before now, an ex-girlfriend and my wife. I know how it may sound, but it’s personal, and it’s true. On September 11th, 2001, I prayed to God that he would spare the life of whoever was responsible for the attacks. First, I wanted to give whoever it was a chance to repent, to ask for forgiveness, and if at all costs, to change his life. As a Christian, if the perpetrator of even such an attack would come to Christ, I would accept him. It would not be easy, I admit, but Christ demands that I try. Second, I did not want what happened to Mussolini to happen to him. In Wikipedia’s words, “After being shot, kicked, and spat upon, the bodies [Mussolini and his compatriots] were hung upside down on meathooks from the roof of an Esso gas station. The bodies were then stoned by civilians from below.” I prayed that day, raw and shaking, that Mussolini’s fate would not befall whoever orchestrated those attacks. No human deserves that, whether or not his soul has left his body. Again, yes, I am naïve. But I think that’s part of being an American, and I certainly think that’s part of being a Christian. We’re not supposed to be stupid or foolish, but we’re supposed to be guileless, innocent, optimistic. We should not rejoice in the suffering of others. We should pray for our enemies. We should be people of peace, people of love. God gave Osama Bin Laden a soul, and Jesus died for him, and if he was my brother, I would not want his body displayed to the world. I see no reason, no matter how feasible, no matter how practically-minded, no matter how effective, that we should do it. I’m going to wrestle with this, much as for the past five years I’ve wrestles with what I prayed that day. I’m going to wrestle with the fact that God answered my prayer, that Bin Laden’s death, although not peaceful, seems to have been quick. I will continue to worry over every political decision I make, every vote I cast or opinion I voice. I will be—we will be—never free from the burden of torturing ourselves about it.

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