A tale of two decades

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way — in short, the period was so far like the present period, that some of its noisiest authorities insisted on its being received, for good or for evil, in the superlative degree of comparison only.

–Charles Dickens, A Tale of Two Cities

We’re approaching the tenth anniversary of two pivotal events in the early 21st century. One is perhaps the darkest day America has faced since, at least, World War II. The other was the seemingly inauspicious debut of an electronic device that would soon herald an era of unprecedented advancement in consumer technology.

That I should even place the World Trade Center attacks and the introduction of the iPod into the same blog post, much less the same sentence, is surely offensive to some and perhaps befuddling to most of the rest. But I think it cannot be denied that, while September 11, 2001 ushered in one of the darkest political times in American history, at least the darkest in my lifetime, October 23, 2001 — the day Steve Jobs introduced the first iPod — was perhaps the day that we formally entered “the future” as I (and many others like me) envisioned it in childhood: dazzling technological devices that we can carry around in our pockets and, increasingly, seem capable of doing just about anything.

As New York solemnly builds a monument to the tragic loss of over 3,000 lives on that Tuesday morning, an event that will surely be commemorated in countless ways by millions of Americans next month, we technophiles are learning about more sad news, with the resignation of Steve Jobs as CEO of Apple. Though he’s intensely private about his personal life, it is well known that Steve Jobs underwent surgery for pancreatic cancer in 2004, had a liver transplant in 2009, and has had limited involvement with Apple’s day-to-day operations since he took medical leave this past January. His resignation yesterday may mean his health has suffered further declines, but that is not for us to dwell on. Leave Steve alone to enjoy his life as best he can, for as much as he has left of it.

Personal concerns aside, the departure of Steve Jobs marks the end of an era. It would be little exaggeration to declare the past decade “The Decade of Apple” in terms of technology. Apple didn’t invent every technology it sells; like any modern company it relies upon the past developments of others, just as it outsources its manufacturing to companies like Foxconn in China. But the thing that Apple has done, largely due to Steve Jobs and his visionary leadership, is invent ways to turn these technologies into compelling, “magical,” transformative devices. And along the way he has transformed Apple into a finely tuned machine itself, capable of creating these products of unparalleled originality and unlimited usefulness, at highly competitive (sometimes unmatchable) prices, with such efficiency that the company has gone from “90 days away from bankruptcy” (as it was so famously described just before Jobs’ return at the end of 1996) to vying with Exxon to be the most valuable publicly traded company in the world.

I’ve read plenty of gloom-and-doom speculation about the future of Apple without Steve Jobs, especially in the last 15 hours or so since the announcement of his resignation. Most of it is utterly ludicrous. New CEO Tim Cook and the rest of his executive team are more than capable of carrying on producing great products without Steve Jobs (or with him in a far more limited role as Chairman of the Board). Whether, over the longer term, they’ll be able to continue inventing new products as transformative as the iPod, iPhone and iPad (and whether they’ll all have to have names starting with “iP”), only time will tell. But now is clearly not the time to sell Apple stock, if you own any. (And if you don’t, maybe you should buy some… which is what I should probably be doing right now instead of writing this.)

A tale of two decades. While the September 11 attacks, and the wars, economic turmoil and political polarization that followed them, have made the last decade one of the most difficult in our nation’s history, Steve Jobs and his work at Apple have led the way for the past decade to become one of the most exciting and transformative we’ve ever seen in terms of technological advancement and, in particular, what technology can do to improve people’s everyday lives.

So, thank you, Steve Jobs, for providing a counterpoint to what was otherwise a dark decade of foolishness, incredulity and despair. Thank you for bringing to the world your wisdom, belief and hope. I spend much of every day relying on Apple devices, from using the C25K app on my iPhone during my morning run, to building websites in BBEdit on my MacBook Air, to relaxing in the evening watching “Mad Men” on Netflix with my Apple TV.

There are plenty of things going on in the world right now that are cause for sadness, frustration, anger, confusion, and despair. But the simple joy and unprecedented utility of these devices that Steve Jobs and the rest of the minds at Apple have created give me hope. If people can produce things so well-designed, so incredibly useful, so delightful, then perhaps, someday, we can get all of the rest right too.

“Fake Steve Jobs” on the true cost of Chinese manufacturing

I often complain about how just about everything is made in China these days. It’s about the exploitation of workers for the sake of cheaper goods. Well, in case you didn’t hear about it, a worker at the Chinese factory that makes iPhones committed suicide recently because he lost a prototype fourth-generation iPhone. And why did he commit suicide over this? Because he was apparently being tortured by his employers (Foxconn) over it. Presumably because this is the kind of mistake that might cost Foxconn their lucrative contract with Apple.

What was that factory worker’s life worth? Less than Foxconn’s iPhone manufacturing contract? Less than Apple’s potentially stolen trade secrets?

“Fake Steve Jobs” has posted a blog entry on the matter. If you’ve never read his blog before, the tone may be a bit shocking to you, but cut through the parody and there are a couple of paragraphs here that are probably the best critique ever of our reliance on cheap Chinese labor to manufacture the high-tech, low-cost devices we consume so voraciously:

Well, this is the world we are living in. These are the people we are dealing with. This is how we have to deal with them. We can’t make these products in the United States. Nobody could afford to buy them if we did. And, frankly, the quality would be about half what we get out of China. But these guys play rough. They really do. They are not nice people. And, though we talk a good game about how we insist on workers being treated with dignity, blah blah blah, well, I mean, come on. Have you ever been to China? We have. We’ve been to China. We know what goes on there. We know how they open your mail, and listen to your phone calls, and let their factories pollute like crazy and exploit workers, all in the name of progress. And we turn a blind eye to it. We let them know when we’re coming to visit, and they give us a tour and put on a little show of how great things are, and how wonderful the dorm life is, and afterward we pretend to keep an eye on them — but it’s all theater. It is. We know it. What’s more, you know it. Everyone knows it.

We all know that there’s no fucking way in the world we should have microwave ovens and refrigerators and TV sets and everything else at the prices we’re paying for them. There’s no way we get all this stuff and everything is done fair and square and everyone gets treated right. No way. And don’t be confused — what we’re talking about here is our way of life. Our standard of living. You want to “fix things in China,” well, it’s gonna cost you. Because everything you own, it’s all done on the backs of millions of poor people whose lives are so awful you can’t even begin to imagine them, people who will do anything to get a life that is a tiny bit better than the shitty one they were born into, people who get exploited and treated like shit and, in the worst of all cases, pay with their lives.

I’ve read plenty about the conditions in Chinese factories, enough to make me want to never buy anything that says “Made in China” on the label. But, honestly, that’s getting nearly impossible these days. It’s not just about being too cheap to buy the more expensive version of the product made somewhere else with better labor laws; it’s that in many cases there is no other option that wasn’t also made in China.

Apple products present the biggest dilemma for me personally. I’ve been a Mac-o-phile for over 15 years. I’ve staked my livelihood around work that depends integrally on things Apple makes, and they’re all made in China. And Apple’s not alone — as far as I know, all of the major computer companies contract out their manufacturing to Chinese firms. I suppose I could build my own PCs and switch to Linux, but even then, it would be hard to find all of the necessary components that go into a computer, with a “nothing-made-in-China” restriction.

So, for me, in many cases, boycotting Chinese-made goods is simply impossible. But I do what I can. If there’s another option, I’ll take it. I’m willing to pay more if I have to. And even though I’m writing this on an Apple computer that was manufactured in one of these same Chinese factories, perhaps speaking out on the matter is some small penance for my complicity in what’s going on.

There’s more on the story from Gizmodo and, as usual, I learned about it all from Daring Fireball.

Forget red state/blue state: it’s really red browser/blue browser

Sean Tevis browser statsAnyone who’s read this blog for any period of time knows my political leanings pretty well. I’m about as liberal as they come in this country (which means I’m probably middle-of-the-road anywhere else). And the same reader(s) probably also know(s) how I feel about Internet Explorer 6.

Well it’s interesting to see that there seems to be a correlation between political viewpoint and web browser usage. As (almost) always, this comes from Daring Fireball. We’re looking at the decidedly non-traditional campaign blog of Kansas Democrat Sean Tevis. His campaign did a survey that, among other things, discovered that users of outdated browsers like Internet Explorer 6, AOL, “Don’t Know” and “No Internet” preferred, strongly, his Republican opponent, while users of Firefox, Chrome, Opera and Safari preferred Tevis. Interestingly, IE 7/8 users slightly favored Tevis.

It would be interesting to see the raw numbers, rather than just percent deviation, to get a sense of the relative proportions of the electorate who fell into each category, especially considering that Tevis apparently lost, by a small margin.

It’s also interesting to look at the strength of each group’s leanings. Those who most strongly favored the Republican candidate were the AOL users and non-Internet users, a.k.a. the Luddites. Chrome users (all on Windows) were the strongest Tevis supporters, followed by Safari (presumably all or nearly all Mac) users. Firefox users were slightly weaker supporters of Tevis. This makes sense to me in that I suspect there’s a high correlation between “average” Mac users (who almost all use Safari, just like most “average” Windows users run IE) and Democratic leanings, whereas users of Firefox (and of open source software in general) are as likely (or moreso) to be libertarian as liberal. Opera… well… I don’t know. Contrarians?

That IE 7/8 users slightly favored Tevis is most interesting to me. IE 7/8 represent by far the largest percentage of the Internet-using population. And the country as a whole moved slightly in the Democrats’ direction in the 2008 election. But Kansas is far more conservative than the US populace as a whole; combine that with the “No Internet” crowd, and a small margin of victory in favor of the Republican candidate makes sense.

P.S. Sean Tevis for President 2016.

Unless you’re a web geek, you probably don’t know what this means…

whitehouse.gov…but it’s a good thing.

From kottke.org: The country’s new robots.txt file.

Well, it’s probably easy to read too much into this. But the short story of it is that President Obama’s new whitehouse.gov website is blocking a lot less content from search engine “spiders” than that of Ex-President Bush (oh, that has a sweet ring to it).

Now there are plenty of reasons for putting things into your robots.txt file, and most of them have nothing to do with trying to withhold information from the public.

It’s rather odd, though, the set of directories Bush’s site was blocking from the spiders. I find expectmore and help especially amusing. The others aren’t quite so funny. What exactly about omb (Office of Management and Budget) did they need to hide? And… uh… well… 911 kind of goes without saying.

Why block these pages from being indexed by search engines? Good question. And here, I think, is the answer: to make it harder for the average citizen to keep track of changes that have been made to those pages by accessing Google’s cached versions (or, perhaps even more damning, the indefinitely-archived snapshots on the Wayback Machine).

But, it’s a new day. President Obama has promised a much more open and transparent White House, and if the visible underbelly of its website is any indication, he intends to keep his promise.

Also of interest: Here’s a comparison of the old and new whitehouse.gov sites.

Barack Obama: the open-source candidate?

Now we’re speaking close to my heart. Granted, I’m a freeloader in the open source world. I have yet to contribute a single line of code to an open source project. (OK, I guess that’s not entirely true: I did write a WordPress plugin. Sweet. I’m in the club! Sort of.) But I have wholly embraced open source software in my work. PHP FTW, baby! (Uh yeah… whatever.)

These days the only thing I’m a more enthusiastic and outspoken proponent of than open source software is Barack Obama. So I’m surprised it took me so long to research what he’s running his website on.

Linux PWS/1.3.28

*Whew* Glad to see it’s Linux. But what the heck is PWS? I was at a loss. Then I found this blog talking about the very same issue. And suddenly it made sense why I didn’t recognize the acronym. I never would have considered Microsoft’s Personal Web Server to be the web server of choice running on a Linux server. I am still scratching my head at it. The whole VM thing seems the only logical explanation, except that there’s no logic to explain it. At least it’s not so transparently ass-backwards as John McCain’s configuration:

Linux Microsoft-IIS/6.0

And the inexplicable:

Linux ECAcc (lhr)

Interestingly, though, a Google search for “ECAcc (lhr)” reveals a link to a Digg post entitled John McCain Owns VoteForTheMILF.com. Stay classy, San Diego.

Let’s be clear: I think the idea of running a web site under Windows in a virtual machine on a Linux box is the most incomprehensible, mind-bogglingly stupid arrangement you’d ever bother with. I’d have to guess that the sites were developed to run in a Windows environment, but when it came time to deal with practical server and network capacity issues, load balancing and whatnot, some sysadmin made the (probably prudent) decision to load balance on Linux boxes instead of Windows, but since the site was tied to some feeble Windows technology, they couldn’t just move it over to Linux wholesale.

But let’s take this a step further. Back in late spring I received an email from Barack Obama’s IT director soliciting applicants for web developer positions with the campaign. Even though the job was in Boston, I figured it would be insane not to apply, so I submitted my resume. (I never heard back, for what it’s worth.) And it’s from this that I happen to know that the campaign was specifically seeking PHP developers. Rock on.

With that in mind, the whole Windows-on-Linux-through-VM arrangement made even less sense. Why would they develop the site in PHP, run it on a Windows server (definitely not the optimal arrangement for a PHP-based app, though it certainly will work), and then VM that Windows environment on a Linux box, instead of just gearing the PHP app for a Linux server in the first place? And that’s when I remembered that just earlier in the day I had been looking at taxcut.barackobama.com. Of course! Separate third-level domains are all over Obama’s site. Let’s check the configuration on that domain. Now that’s much better:

Linux Apache/1.3.34 (Debian) mod_gzip/1.3.26.1a AuthMySQL/4.3.9-2 PHP/5.2.0-8+etch10

And I think it explains a lot. Campaigns start off small. Obama had to register barackobama.com and put something up there ages ago, long before he was the Democratic nominee and the hugely successful fundraiser he became along the way. So that original site, www.barackobama.com, was probably developed on a Windows box in someone’s proverbial basement, probably when was running for the U.S. Senate or maybe even the Illinois Senate. But as the campaign has grown, its websites (plural) have grown as well, and in a decidedly open-source direction. There’s some good stuff in there. Debian (which could mean Ubuntu, too… I haven’t checked the signature on Ubuntu’s Apache package to see if it’s split from its Debian roots), PHP (and a reasonably up-to-date version at that), MySQL, etc.

It’s kind of fun to do this kind of research, as long as you don’t mind being distracted along the way, because there are plenty of weird sources of distraction.

Aside from the aforementioned MILF site (classy), and the somewhat interesting fact that searching on “PWS/1.3.28” brings back as its first result a reference to Obama’s hosting, I discovered that for some reason the page title on John McCain’s official store is “Independent Online Stores.” OK. No one looks at title bars. And even fewer web developers look at <title> tags. I know that from experience. But of course that’s just a transitional landing page, announcing that McCain wares are not actually sold by the campaign, but by independent, for-profit companies, and buying these items doesn’t translate into money going back into the campaign. Huh. I can’t quite wrap my brain around that, but I’m a lifelong, union-loving Democrat, so I guess I wasn’t meant to. The only thing that comes to mind is that maybe it has to be that way, legally, now that he’s accepted public campaign financing. Anyway, the first McCain store link I found, which as they state is apparently an independent operation not affiliated with the campaign, is, not surprisingly, running:

Windows Server 2008 Microsoft-IIS/7.0

I also found that the company that hosts some of Obama’s pages also hosts a site for the American Model Yachting Association. Really? Model yachting? That exists?