Thursday, June 28, 2012

Are Our Brains Leaking?

Vincent van Gogh: In der Provence,Public domain (lost by fire)

I experience a moment of frightening clarity in those moments when nature is so beautiful. 

-Vincent Van Gogh

Editor's note: I posted this in the wee AM through sleepy eyes and like all things done at those hours, I was worried later that maybe I had done or said the wrong thing. What delight to find a confirmation of sorts posted on ComputerWorld this morning: Silicon Valley's Top Threat Is China

First response: "Orly?" Of course SV is at China's mercy. Is this news? This is exactly why ZaReason is now open to investors. We snagged out first one last week and will be open to investors on an open scale through Kickstart soon.

Per the ComputerWorld article, I don't believe the center of innovation will shift quickly. It is next to impossible to recreate the vibe of Silicon Valley, such a complex, multi-faceted buzz, but SV is very much at China's mercy and it's too proud to recognise that blaringly loud weakness.

Analogy: If you don't grow any food yourselves, you depend on the grocery store. China is nearly the only grocery store in town.

Looks like ComputerWorld had a moment of clarity.


NZ could be, would be, should be a land of intense technological innovation due to two colliding factors:
Clarity + Creativity

1. The fresh open air, pure food chain, respect for a person's need for rest and a strong get-out-in-the-fresh-air culture all combine for clear thought. Take it from someone who has not lived in NZ -- when you pump your body full of steroid-laden meat, toxin-packed energy drinks, and food dyes that are bizarrely unnatural, it does hurt your brain's ability to think clearly.

2. Being separated from other countries often makes it harder to get supplies. In Come On Shore and We Will Kill and Eat You All, a Boston professor tells about her Maori husband's integration into US culture. When they needed a doorbell, he made one out of wire, sticks, and other random objects, things he found on the ground. Common sense. Ingenuity. Creativity: using the earth as your source code.

Clarity + creativity is the elixir of the Gods. So why am I not seeing god-level technology here?

Instead I'm seeing

New Zealand Brain Drain Worst in World

Brain Drain Claims Third of New Zealand's PhDs

If I was a Computer Science professor at a NZ university I would be rightfully ticked off, with an attitude of, "After all I've invested educating these students, they just high-tail it out of here as soon as we give them a degree?" The professors I have met so far have been far more gracious.

Creative Commons, Jorge Royan, on Wikimedia
Perhaps one of ZaReason's best advocates will be CS professors? Who knows. The professors I contacted at Victoria University have bowled me over with the depth and breadth of their experience with GNU/Linux. It bodes well.

Wondering: Is academia motivated to retain graduates in country, to benefit NZ? Likely. Is the Ministry of Economic Development interested in building a tech reputation for NZ? I hope so. Did I hear some of you laugh at the thought of NZ being a tech leader? Pfft.

Yes, NZ gets new technology -- iTunes, movies, TV shows -- last, but that's actually a +1 in the Clarity and Creativity departments. On the surface, being "behind" in technology may prove to be NZ's saving grace.

Could it be that the real brain drain is occurring outside NZ where these technologies are plentiful? 

I don't have enough to support this theory, but it has been dancing around the edges of thought as I look at how various countries are handling IP and their overall infrastructure. The greatest minds tend to go where they are free to think and express and build the end product of their thoughts. The drain is channelled by how we handle the off-flow of our brains, the end product such as a really cool device that was the end result of intensely brilliant thinking on all levels: engineering, industrial design, people who get the product to market, etc.

The latest ad for Massey university expresses the success of their graduates including one who worked on the iPhone team. It is the same approach as Stanford University in California: "Look at the success of our graduates." Stanford touts that it educated the founders of Google, HP, Nike, Sun Microsystems, Paypal, Yahoo, and Time Warner. Note these are all big corporations: big but not necessarily good.

During the last two months as I established ZaReason in NZ, talking with the various organisations that regulate business along with fellow business owners, I am 100% convinced that NZ has managed to create, possibly by accident, a business environment that fosters "good" in its many forms. It is an effortless good. It just is. There is competition without greed; success without dominance; striving without strain. NZ may have problems, but it's hidden gem is that it has a intangible, unregulated, nearly indescribable "good business" culture at its core.

Setting up a computer company in Silicon Valley wasn't too terribly innovative, but it made sense as Step #1. Setting up a computer company in a small, isolated, often forgotten little country, building it to support Australasia is an honest coupe. Australian techies, help prove this point? Let's show that the Little Guy can succeed in a better, kinder, and even more practical way than what corporations are currently doing globally. We don't need to squash, compete, kill each other. We can just make cool products.

As Mike Forbes said this morning: @mikeforbes, "What a f***ing wonderful day out there. Go make stuff and be excellent to each other."


That's frighteningly beautiful clarity.

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Rockin' the Earthquake -- The Lockdown at OEM Level -- And Za in NZ Reason #4

If the previous reasons weren't bizarre enough for you, here's one that may throw you for a loop: One of the reasons we chose NZ as the next country for ZaReason is because of NZ's persistent earthquakes.

Background: When I was a little girl, Mount St. Helens in Washington state, US erupted. One of the boys in my class, a sweet red-headed kid with an ear-to-ear grin, was killed when his dad took him and his brother hunting the weekend the volcano blew. (photo: public domain, US Geological Survey)

See, for weeks the news had been warning that "an earthquake is imminent". The roads to St. Helens all had barriers in place to keep people from going up the mountain. The mountain had been evacuated but after a few too many warnings, people stopped believing it would blow. People simply went around the barriers. None of the forest rangers were stupid enough to go up the mountain to save people who were earning Darwin Awards (awards given to people who remove themselves from the gene pool in unusual ways).

The day St. Helens blew I stood on the back porch of my home watching the big fluffy plume, dancing in the warm light gray flakes as they fell. I didn't understand what was happening, but revelled in Mother Nature's power.

My school friend wasn't in school on Monday. The teacher announced, "Andy's dead..." then fell into a listless depression.

My brother told me that Andy's body had been burned alive in the volcano's heat, "Some of the ashes you've been stepping in are probably bits of his body." Imagine my little-girl-freak-out when I imagined that the warm light gray snow I had danced in was burned up parts of my friend's body.

I learned something from that volcano.

Don't get lazy with predictions.

People have been predicting the potential loss of end user rights and endangered FLOSS freedoms for ages, predicting the lockdown of computers at an OEM level and guess what? We all have been lazy, wiping computers and installing a favorite distro -- going around the barriers -- instead of finding a way to build hardware specifically for GNU/Linux.

It's a tough situation, I know.


This post has been sitting in my Drafts, complete but not Published for months. It was only when Cory Doctorow used the words, "This is a tremor before an earthquake..."

that I realized that it's worth the risk of offending people who prefer their wiped-and-loaded machines to GNU/Linux-specific machines. Though I disagree with Doctorow on several points, we do agree on the earthquake bit. I'm finally ok with doing a very unladylike thing, shouting, "It's 'sploding!" I am asking people to take a closer look at their computers, even the small details such as that Start key / Home key. Take a closer look at the machine that runs the code you helped write.

"It's 'sploading" means "Please recognize how important it is that we build and support GNU/Linux-specific hardware, the physical, tangible safehouse for FLOSS."

I've been saying it quietly for years: Sooner or later (when the volcano blows) people may recognize that we needed to build GNU/Linux hardware support much sooner. Maybe we will find out we needed to be able to build our own components, our own motherboards even. It's fully possible to do so, but it needs muscle. And time.

This post is me putting up a single little barrier on the mountain, a simple warning that it might not be a good idea to go for the thrill of wiping & loading, er, hunting this upcoming weekend, er, next few years.

Saturday, June 2, 2012

GNU/Linux and the Average User

Previously when someone said to me, "Oh, Linux isn't popular because it's not user friendly enough," my eyes would naturally widen in surprise and I would babble something about, "Well, if that was the case, don't you think a GNU/Linux-specific computer vendor such as my company, ZaReason, would notice that?" along with several other (usually ineffective) comments.

But I'm at my limit. If I hear one more person say, "Oh, Linux isn't popular because it's not user friendly enough," my eyes will pop out, roll down the sidewalk, and never come back.
Ubuntu, Mint, and many others are more than friendly enough for the average user. It's even friendly enough for little kids (see The Unscary Screwdriver) and for seniors (see my keynote at Ohio LinuxFest starting at 2:47 you hear two examples of the philanthropic of aspects of FLOSS for seniors in particular, sorry for the low quality of video). If it wasn't easy enough then ZaReason would be having problems shipping computers to newbies. But that "problem" just isn't on our radar. We're shipping out computers to people who call us to ask, "I've never used Linux before but I've heard it can do ___." Really. It's finally stable enough.
(photo by Porchcorpter, Creative Commons)

The second (bizarre, frustrating, nonsensical) reason is because of security. I have never effectively answered this one because it simply makes no sense. Note that I'm referring to how both sides use the word "security". Their definitions do not necessary match up.

People using Linux for the first time:
"I'm getting a Linux desktop for my ___ (family or friend) because s/he gets viruses all the time and I'm tired of cleaning up the mess.... need a computer with the security built in."

Devs, FLOSS advocates, GNU/Linux supporters:
"Average people can't use Linux because it's too open. It needs to be more secure so the average user can't access things by mistake that they shouldn't access."

Newbs want the security but experienced people say newbs shouldn't have access because they would break it.

I once heard a well-known person -- who shall not be named -- say this and he has devoted his life to building FLOSS. My response was an eloquent, "Wha?"

I understand what this looks like from his point of view. He sees things that he could do to help people avoid problems. And assuming the average user is going to do stupid things on a regular basis, this is a good idea. It makes sense.

Isn't that the reasoning people gave for not letting peasants learn to read? They won't know what to do with the information, so don't let them see the source code?

Furthermore, it's dangerous. They will break the world if they access this valuable precious information that they couldn't possibly know how to use.

But that's how literacy is built. By making mistakes, making messes.

In the early days of ZaReason Len at All About Ubuntu interviewed me (here), asking:

Len: How would you describe your customer base?

Cathy: Intelligent people.

And I'd like to keep it that way. It's ok if those soon-to-be intelligent people make a few mistakes along the way. So what. We'll deal with it.
(photo by Ryan Franklin, Creative Commons)

At the end of the day you have to choose:

1. Do you want a messy kid who knows how to make his own peanut butter sandwich or

2. Do you want a neat, clean kid who is incapable of getting his own food?

Give me the messy kid any day.

Isn't that the purpose of freedom?