Pictures of the Iranian uprising remind me of images which escaped Tiananmen. I’m not sure if this is because I lack reference points or because the twentieth anniversary has recently passed, but my thoughts have been on the past as I watch the present unfold. Certainly there are some parallels: both involve people demanding more democratic freedoms; both involve brutal and violent suppression; both have the government scrambling to prevent pictorial evidence from reaching the outside world.

Earlier in the week Nicholas D. Kristoff wrote a quick blurb about Bing, a new search engine and all-around lifestyle centerpiece courtesy of Microsoft. Searches conducted on Bing in simplified Chinese yielded censored results for politically sensitive topics. If this was the case only in China that would make sense– it’s the cost of doing business– but searches in Chinese from any country would only reveal carefully restricted information. Critics immediately attacked Bing’s search results and Microsoft claimed this was nothing more than a bug.

Regardless of whether Microsoft had intended the apparent censorship or not is immaterial– they’re dancing with the devil. Is it really worse for a company to agree to regulate search results in a language instead of just one country? As western companies clamber to capitalize on the Chinese middle class we’re going to see more questionable ethics and poor rationalizations, such as Google’s decision to set up shop. They claim it’s better to offer what services are allowed than no service at all, but they’ll accept every penny of ad revenue entitled to them. Censorship be damned. Falun Gong be damned. Tibet be damned. Environment be damned. Sweatshops be damned. (more…)

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Hometown hero Gavin Newsom officially announced his candidacy for Governor of California on April 21st, flaunting his technical savvy by simultaneously championing his cause on Twitter, Facebook and Youtube. Not being as cybernetic as most of my peers I was forced to enjoy the video spectacle and was once again struck by how embarrassing it is when our supposed leaders pander to the people by utilizing shitty resolution for the sake of networking. Show a little class and stream your own videos.

There’s nothing particularly striking about his pep talk, aside from my being struck with uncontrollable laughter as soon as his well manicured mug appears. San Francisco is hailed as the nation’s leader in universal health care, ecological innovation and retaining teachers amidst grievous budget cuts. He repeatedly uses the term “we” instead of the political assertion of “I”, which has become something of a hallmark in all of his communiques. He is not running for governor so much as we are all being invited to run for governor. I guess this means I’ve been traveling the state with an SFPD escort all this time. The message is that San Francisco is doing better than California and the allusion is that it’s because we’ve had Gavin Newsom at the helm, single-handedly steering us into calmer waters as the rest of the world drowns in a fiscal tempest. The “green economy” is our guiding light, as evidenced by happy laborers installing solar paneling. Voters and the Board of Supervisors, advocates and PACs are not invited to share in the glory of our solar panels.

The elections won’t take place for another year but this never prevents pollsters from harassing the recluses and bored housewives who generate public opinion. If Jerry Brown and Los Angeles mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, who are both assumed to be entering the race, run then Newsom places third. If Senator Dianne Feinstein throws her hat into the ring he drops to fourth, but he has commented that if she does he will bow out– as long as she announces her candidacy early enough. In an effort to court less slick Democrats Newsom has been spotted meeting with under-enlightened prospective voters in traditional hicktowns San Diego and Stockton where he plans to replace their images of gay marriage with his successful chain of yuppie eateries and wine bars.

So will the San Francisco model work the length and breadth of a state as large and diverse as California, and more importantly can Newsom convince skeptics he can handle the responsibilities given his track record? Are solar panels the key to economic solvency and can his experience managing lifestyle businesses trump the fact that China owns our collective asses? Perhaps we should examine a little bit of recent history wherein out intrepid leader laid down and allowed a foreign government full reign of policing the streets of San Francisco. (more…)

In the semi-rural outskirts of Beijing’s Tongzhou district (itself on the outskirts of Beijing) Wu Yulu has amassed a collection of simple robotic machines through sacrifice and the power of obsession. His journey into the world of invention began as a kid and his curiosity has continued despite his fifth-grade education and mounting debts; an electrical fire burned his family out of their home. By day he repairs electronics and appliances, then trolls scrapyards and metal recycling plants for his creations.

Over the years he has filled his house and yard with a ragtag collection of mechanical rickshaw drivers and eight-legged carts, headless walkers and assorted clunkers; he’s J.F. Sebastian without the corporate funding, hidden away in the dusty backstreets with his robot children. I think it’s awesome that he’s been able to figure out how to construct a working robot without any education but it’s also depressing in a way. Across the sea Japan is the world leader in slick and sophisticated robot maids and dogs, each new model unveiled in the world spotlight and discussed on daytime talk shows. Wu Yulu’s inventions are pieced together with whatever was laying around, no consultations with design firms, no microchips. Although Yulu’s work has garnered significant attention over the years from technology enthusiasts his attempts to capitalize on his talents by selling robot rides at local festivals have resulted in failure. I’m a little torn between his single-minded dedication and the selfishness which causes his wife and two children to suffer. In a just world he would be given a decent place to live and the backing needed to work on his robots full-time but for now it’s the front yard, late hours, scavenged materials and creditors.

Props to io9 for a pleasant Sunday morning viewing.


Creative Recycling— Not a Plug

Cockroaches are nothing if not thorough and they have absolutely destroyed my old laptop. It’s easy to be upset but on the grand stage of life this crisis cannot be compared to any you’ll see on the news. It was an old computer and served me well, never asking anything in return. It was also free.

So I find myself in a unique situation. I’ve recently purchased a G4 Powerbook from a reliable refurbisher/reseller operating out of San Jose through eBay. However I used my work account because we had a coupon that saved me fifty bucks and I’ve written a check to my job that hasn’t been cashed yet. The computer is either in San Jose getting packed up or is in between being roughly handled by someone with a secure job and little to lose. My old laptop is with my boss who had his boyfriend pry it apart in an effort to rescue my harddrive (no luck) and I’m operating a loaned IBM ThinkPad (thanks, Keith) after discovering that my old G3 Desktop can barely handle Gmail.

The fact that a computer from the 90’s still works isn’t surprising and I would have no problems with my old reserve except that it has been outpaced by development. In many ways the old desktop is a superior computer– it frequently runs faster than either of the laptops in my life and it never has problems with different programs interfering with one another; the problem is that everything operates on new programs that don’t run on the older computer. I could hook it up to an office network and use printers, type up reports and run spreadsheets as efficiently as anyone with a computer half its age.

When I was twenty I worked on the internet, specifically for a company called NextMonet which sold “contemporary fine art” online. The business model was horrible but very en vogue at the time– get investment capital and spend all of it on things you don’t need. There was the programmer corner, the writer’s room and the main room was split between various functions; everyone had their own work station and new computer and everyone spent a lot of their time using about 10% of what had been issued them to do their jobs. The writers honestly could have used typewriters but they demanded special lighting and chairs to write little sonnets describing the crap for sale. Shockingly the upside-down pyramid financial plan ended in tears for everyone and layoffs eliminated the writing staff, then half of the main office. I dismantled all of the IKEA office furniture I had assembled and moved around, then was laid off after NextMonet was absorbed by another company.

It was obviously a poor way to run a company but what lingers most in my mind is how much technology is wasted. Subsequently I worked for a large corporate law firm that was similarly stocked with top of the line computers for everyone, staffed by a crew of legal aides who had no idea how to use them and who essentially wasted an entire computer to check their e-mail when they left their Blackberry at home. This was a major company, a well respected (in the business world) firm, but there was no need for every employee to have fancy computers. However the firm had to update their systems frequently because as new software was developed new computers needed to be able to process the applications. The development of technology was driven by an understandable enthusiasm but the result was lost, and continues to be lost, on most people. (more…)

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Word is slowly leaking out about a cholera outbreak on the southern island province of Hainan, China. Students at the Hainan University were locked on campus after students began exhibiting signs of the disease. A couple of the cafeterias were shut down and no one could enter or exit the campus which stranded people in dorm rooms while government employees ran rampant through the school disinfecting walls and administering anti-cholera medicine. Students have suggested that the cafeterias were unhygienic and theorize that this may have allowed cholera to spread there.

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What’s amazing about this is that officials in this tightly controlled country didn’t sever the internet, although they did threaten to at one point. This unprecedented move allowed one student to document days of quarantine which have been translated and made available by EastSouthWestNorth, including pictures. The depictions by the unnamed female student capture an intensely apocalyptic scene of chaos and confusion. The government’s response was confused, school administrators had no idea what to do and the trapped students were led from one senseless routine to the next without getting any information from the authorities. In fact, it is claimed, no one knew why they were on lock-down until their parents began to call them. Threats of the water being turned off, signing paperwork and taking medicine while their classmates were disappeared by doctors make for a pretty dramatic tale and I would encourage you to read the short entries.

While those of us in the states were voting the situation at Hainan University was a little more hectic:

I did not think about going down to the cafeteria at all. Perhaps I was scared off by what I saw when I walked past the cafeterias after class. There were crowds out the entrance and the university workers were yelling: “Do not enter. Please do not push. It is already full inside. Even if you get in, you won’t get any food.” There were many students dressed in camouflage uniforms trying to maintain order. They chased waves and waves of students back out. Even the temporary stands outside the cafeteria for instant noodles were mobbed. There was a notice which said that the cafeteria which re-opened yesterday is closed today because of water stoppage. The workers watched the people from the second floor. As I walked past this cafeteria, I heard a male student yell from the second floor: “I want to eat food, I want to drink water.”

When I got back to the dormitory, there were more notices downstairs. Two notices were new: water was stopped and the Internet will be down tomorrow. Everybody howled in collective agony again. I don’t think cholera is scary. But the lack of supply of the various essential things in daily life is the true terror.

I just learned that the water has been turned back on. I can make noodles.

Chinese officials have declared that the outbreak has been contained but there’s no word yet when students will be allowed to leave campus or when their families might be allowed access to see them.

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Pictures and quote are all from our mystery reporter currently quarantined in Hainan University– hope she’s okay. Thanks to io9 for the head’s up.