Thursday, June 25, 2009

What to expect for the remaining century

Web censorship by police agencies, terrorism of the music industry against ordinary people and other scaring stories indicate that society changes dramatically these days. These changes are in my opinion hopelessly underestimated by most. But what exactly is happening? I'll try to explain it with some examples from history.

Technological developments are triggers for social changes
It has been always like this: If a new technology appears, it offers both chances and challenges. Chances to solve some problems of mankind come always along with the challenge to use it responsibly. If you look back in history, you'll find many examples, where inventions resulted in revolutionary changes of society.

6000 BC
One of the earliest known examples for this phenomenon is the invention of irrigation around 6000 BC in Mesopotamia. It triggered the following chain reaction:
  • Farmland became more efficient allowing a higher population density
  • Higher population density results either in self-extinction, mass exodus or a better organization. The Mesopotamians were smart enough to choose the latter.
  • Suddenly there was some essential infrastructure (the irrigation channels), which had to be maintained. People who maintain irrigation channels cannot work on the fields at the same time, so the division of labor had to be invented
  • If you have division of labor, you need trade
  • If you have trade, you need money
  • If you have money, you need mathematics
  • Money and trade hardly work if you don't invent some alphabet
What looks like an amazingly fast transition from an archaic rural society to an urban civilization is, in my opinion, simply a result of some smart farmers no longer wanting to wait for rain.

20th century
The beginning of the 20th century was characterized by by lots of revolutionary advances especially in electronic communication (radio and TV), transportation (cars and airplanes) and manufacturing (mass production). Some of the results follow:
  • Ordinary people could more easily stay informed about political affairs. Without a well informed population modern democracy is impossible.
  • What we call a global society today, became possible through electronic communication.
  • Many cultural genres, e.g. music styles, are no longer local (or national) phenomena but global ones.
  • In years where the weather sucks (from the farmers points of view) people no longer have to be afraid of famines (today's famines always have political reasons). This feeling of safety has a large impact on human mind and society.
As you might see, the technological revolution at the beginning of the 20th century was an important trigger for the development of the so called Western Civilization we are so proud of today.

Irresponsible uses of 20th century technology were European dictatorships (which utilized the then new electronic mass media for propaganda) resulting in 2 World Wars (made possible by the newly invented cars and planes).

The biggest challenge of the 20th century was not to start a nuclear war. Before, all weapons ever developed were eventually used. The atomic bomb was never used in a war by any nation except one.

Beginning of the 21st century
The beginning of the 21st century was characterized by masses of ordinary people beginning to use the internet. Many argue, that the internet is just another means of communication like the ones we had before. This is completely wrong imo. All mass media we had before were unidirectional (few content producers serve many consumers). The internet is multidirectional (every content consumer can also be a producer). This is a completely different topology of information flow with possibilities far beyond everything we had before. Just look at some examples of what was achieved by now:
  • People write an encyclopedia, which is larger, more up-to-date but not more incorrect than any paper-encyclopedia you could buy before.
  • 1000s of computer nerds spending their nights in front of their PCs wrote one of the world's best OSes.
  • In times of war or unrest, gagging orders no longer work
  • No matter what absurd theories you believe, you'll always find like-minded people.
  • Some internet movies become more popular than some commercial Hollywood productions.
Future developments
Some things I see coming:
  • Internet communities can make big achievements even though they are mostly self organized. Politicians are afraid of self organizing structures because they fear to become superfluous.
  • People, who work voluntarily on self-organized projects, will no longer feel the need to be ruled by politicians.
  • Big record companies will die out, because they terrorized their customers and ripped off musicians. Even Paul McCartney let Starbucks merchandise an album already. Also they still follow the obsolete model of few producers serving many consumers. Only small manufacturers of vinyl disks will survive (at least as long as there are DJs who know how to use them).
  • Traditional newspapers will become superfluous because they cost money and the 12 hour delay due to the printing time will be unacceptable for most people.
  • Traditional radio and TV-stations will die out because people don't want to read programming schedules anymore. They want to see and hear what they want when they want.
  • With no unidirectional mass media left, controlling the information flow will become impossible. As a result, Dictators and conspirators will have a hard time.
We see, that today's elites have enough reasons to try to control the internet. Actually there are 2 possible outcomes:

1. They learn that their undertaking is doomed to failure and try to arrange with the new conditions before it's too late.
2. They will continue trying and the WWW will move from today's client-server model to strongly encrypted p2p technologies like freenet.

I personally would prefer option 1, but in either case they'll lose.

As said before, new technologies also bring new challenges:
  • Computer expertise becomes more and more important for ordinary people. In the last century, learning to read and write was already a good start of the career. Today, knowing to use a computer mouse is at least as important.
  • The fact that in the internet everyone can be content provider naturally results in a large percentage of bullshit. The preselection of information, which was done by editorial offices of the traditional mass media, must now be done by the consumer. The advantage of unfiltered information comes along with the task to decide yourself.
Even if you don't agree with my theories explained above, you know at least where the title of my blog comes from :)

If you agree with what I said, you'll like this movie.

Friday, June 19, 2009

Being ruled by morons

17. June 2009: German parliament commemorates the uprising in Eastern Germany of 1953. The uprising was called the start of a fight for freedom, which was successful in the end (resulting in the German reunification in 1990). Before 1990, the 17. of June was the national holiday in Western Germany.

18. June 2009: German parliament passes a law, which allows the federal German police agency to put together a blacklist of domains, which must be blocked by ISPs. This law violates many fundamental principles of German constitution like separation of powers, federalism, freedom of information and the prohibition of censorship.

Below you'll find some preliminary success stories regarding the latest developments:
  • As explained before, the actual target group of this law (producers and consumers of child pornography) can be more relaxed than before, because it comes pretty handy for them. You'll see none of them demonstrating against this.
  • Conspiracy theorists said from the beginning, that the fight against child pornography is just a bogus argument for installing a censorship infrastructure. Fortunately, some politicians were even stupid enough to admit this in public.
  • Before this madness started, there was no noticeable digital civil rights movement in Germany. This changed dramatically during the last months. Now they are many and perfectly organized. On Saturday, there will be coordinated demonstrations in at least 11 German cities.
  • An official online petition got signed by 134014 people, an all-time record in the history of online-petitions.
  • The German Social Democratic Party is one big step further in making itself superfluous. I predict that some of the last bright minds will leave the party before the next parliamentary elections in September.
  • Rulers of China and Iran no longer have to fear bothering remarks regarding their censorship policies from German politicians. Improved bilateral relations are good for German economy, which is highly dependent on foreign sales markets and energy resources.
  • Almost unknown a year ago, the German Pirate Party got 0.9% in the European parliamentary elections, with constantly rising popularity.
This is the start of a fight for freedom, which will be successful in the end.

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

gmerlin video thumbnailer

The project
The goal of this 2-day project was to write a gmerlin based video thumbnailer, which fails for fewer files than the gstreamer based thumbnailer shipped with Ubuntu. The result is a small (less than 350 lines) program, which takes a video file as argument and produces a small png preview. All required functionality was already available in gmerlin and gavl.

How to try
If you want, you can check out and install the latest gmerlin CVS. Make sure that gmerlin is compiled with libpng support. The program is called gmerlin-video-thumbnailer. To enable gmerlin thumbnails in nautilus, open gconf-editor and go to /desktop/gnome/thumbnailers. For each mimetype, you have a directory. In each directory, you have a key called command. For each mimetype you want to be thumbnailed by gmerlin, simply change the command to

/usr/local/bin/gmerlin-video-thumbnailer -s %s %i %o

Of course you must change /usr/local to the prefix where you installed gmerlin.

Bugs fixed
The thumbnailer quickly exposed some bugs in gmerlin-avdecoder and gavl. Looking at a nautilus window full of thumbnails is faster than playing 100s of movie files. 3 major bugs were fixed, one minor bug will get fixed before the next release.

The thumbnail standard, which seems to be used by gnome, is here. How thumbnailers are installed in gnome, is described here.