Youth, the Dumpster of Culture

Risking to sound far older and grumpier than I am, I’d say that culture today is something that’s completely wasted on our youth. I base this statement on a number of facts that I’ve been observing for quite some time now, but what encouraged me to write a little blurb about it was this conversation I heard on the train today. Picture two girls, perhaps 15, talking about their German exams. They appear to be reading Kafka right now. Keep in mind that we’re in German-speaking territory, so Kafka is certainly an ordinary read in school at that age.

We’re joining our pair as they are discussing probable exam topics:

Girl 1: “Well, with Kafka I would get a good grade! He doesn’t use so many foreign words!”

Girl 2: “Oh yeah! Hell, I know! That other guy uses lots of them! It’s so shitty, you don’t understand shit!”

Girl 1: “But people now keep telling me that I have to learn foreign words too. But then I think maybe I would get used to them, and I don’t want to, because then I’d start using them myself! And nobody would understand me anymore because you just don’t understand foreign words!”

German, if spoken even with the slightest hint of eloquence beyond the requirements for being a McDonald’s burger flipper, is chock full of foreign words. I’m quite sure that I cannot relay the shock I’m feeling about the above conversation into English properly.

All of this is not just an isolated incident, I think it might be a symptom of something deeper. One of Switzerland’s largest newspapers, the NZZ (Neue Zürcher Zeitung) has a writing style roughly comparable to that of the International Herald Tribune of the US. Several people my age have complained to me that they are not capable of understanding the NZZ’s articles, and that the NZZ therefore is “stupid”.

With that, I rest my case.

Sun's Seamless ODF Converter for MS Office is Finished

As Heise reports, Sun Microsystems has released their seamless ODF plug-in for Microsoft Office. That means that users of MS Office are now also able to use the ISO-standard format for office documents, which should lead to easy file exchange with users of standards-compliant office program suites such as OpenOffice.org.

Sun’s solution integrates into the file save/open dialogs of MS Office, thereby making importing or exporting uneccessary. This is a different approach than the one taken by Microsoft and Novell in their so-called “OpenXML/ODF Translator Add-in for Office”. Additionally, Sun Microsystems is the first to release a stable method of conversion, while Microsoft and Novell’s implementation currently lags behind in terms of features and stability.

Bergtagung 2007: Call for Entries and Invitation

Ever gave a talk while standing on a juicy, grassy meadow, in the middle of the forest, in the middle of the night? Everything around you pitch black, ants crawling on your flipchart, a flashlight the only source of illumination? And all that in the Swiss Alps?

How about speaking in your own little classroom, talking about that FreeBSD-based fruit juicer you’ve invented, with your audience of geeks sitting on small wooden chairs made for six year olds?

Well, I guess now you can have that.

        ........ Introducing the BERGTAGUNG              ..
        ...... A Meeting of Free Spirits and Open Minds ...

        ..... Somewhere in the Swiss Alps             .....
        ...  Involving Beer    (and probably cows)   ......

                                     --[ bergtagung.org ]--

We’re so bloody open that you can dump the abstract of your talk in our wiki yourself.

Submit your talk to: bergtagung.org/wiki/Talks

Invitation

If your mind is reasonably open and your software predominantly free, you’re the perfect participant. If that does not sound like you, don’t worry. We have decent mind-stretching equipment and there will surely be some nerds around to fix you up with a liberated operating system of your choice.

Whatever you do, don’t stay at home!

Bergtagung 2007
(First Annual!)
July 20 – 22

Siat, Switzerland

Coming? Register at: bergtagung.org/wiki/Participants

Moo!

Japan Adopting Free Software, Norway Declaring ODF and PDF Mandatory

Japan and Norway are the latest countries to realize the benefits of open standards and Free Software. They are moving away from closed, proprietary and single-vendor solutions (with vendor lock-in), towards truly free, interchangeable systems.

This will strengthen both government’s sovereignty, in the sense reducing their reliance on e.g. foreign operating systems and productivity software.

Don't Ban Video Games — Start Using the Age Ratings

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It happens once in a while. In fact, it recently did, and the probability that it will happen again is rather high. Someone goes postal, kills or injures people, and in the aftermath the media start to look for scapegoats. Oh, the police say he always played Counter Strike! Oh, his friends say he liked GTA! He must have been a truly deranged individual, so let’s blame video games (that we don’t understand) for perverting our youth. Our poor children! Your evil games turn them into gun fanatics, drug addicts and antisocial Satan-worshippers!

At this point in the story, someone usually demands tough legislation to take care of the “problem”. Ban violent games. Heck, ban games altogether. But I want to tell you something: the games are not the problem. The problem is you, the parents.

Let me illustrate this with a true tale, as witnessed in one of Switzerland’s largest electronics stores a few years ago. Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas had just been released to much fanfare. As I walk down an aisle lined with stacks of CD-R spindles and backup tapes, my eyes meet the hand of a middle-aged lady, and it’s clutching something that looks like a game box. Sure enough, she’s carrying a copy of GTA: SA. Just as I finish wondering whether she plans to play that herself (and age is irrelevant for a gamer), I hear someone call from the other aisle. A boy perhaps eleven years old walks over, and the lady asks him “Here! Is it this one you want?”. She points at GTA. “Yes, mom, that’s the one!” replies a voice that is clearly pre-puberty. “Good then, let’s pay and go home.”

GTA: San Andreas is rated 18+. It’s not a game for children. It’s violent. It has bad language. Perhaps it is worth pointing out: you shouldn’t be buying your eleven year old child a game that is clearly marked as unsuitable for minors.

This is certainly not an isolated case. My officemate’s children were 12 and 15, respectively. What did they get as present from their father? GTA: Vice City. Can you guess? The game is rated 18+!

Now, how do you know that a game is not suitable for children? Obviously, many or most current parents grew up without video games, or in an era where the most violent scene on screen was an overweight Italian man jumping onto mean-tempered ambulatory fungi. But they don’t need to understand or play the games in order to judge them, because there are organizations that pre-judge every single title for them!

Especially PEGI, the Pan European Game Information system, makes it ludicrously easy to decide. Every game has an age rating right on the very front of the packaging, clearly visible in a rather self-conscious font. On the back, the rating is repeated along with symbols representing actual game content parents might find unsuitable for their kids. It’s split into “bad language”, “discrimination”, “drugs”, “fear”, “gambling”, “sex” and “violence”. Quite a sensible selection. The convenient scapegoat you’re always using (hint: violence) also makes an appearance and thus can be avoided conveniently and completely. I have used the official PEGI symbols to illustrate this article. I hope you agree that they’re easy enough to understand. If not, check out the PEGI website, the URL of which is also printed on every single game box.

The PEGI system is voluntary, yet I haven’t seen any games without PEGI symbols in almost four years — and PEGI was only established in 2003 to begin with. The ESRB system is also voluntary, yet I haven’t seen any North American titles without ratings in years. The game industry is doing more than enough. There is no need for yet more expensive legislation, there is no need to place the burden of parenting on the state instead of into your own hands where it belongs.

Parents, don’t cry out for someone to protect your children. The tools for that are already here, and they are free. But it is you who has to use them. Stop pointing fingers and face your responsibilities.


Digg!

Links

Update 1, 2007-02-16

First of all, thank you for the very valuable comments here and on Digg. I hope to go through them soon and pick out a few opinions that didn’t have space in the original article.

In this update, however, I would like to point out a very creepy thing. Only two days after this article went up, GameStop has purchased a full-page advertisement in USA Today entitled “Respect the Ratings”, essentially saying the same thing we say, just with the spooky waxlike head of Steve Morgan tacked in the lower left corner. Their wording is more politically correct, of course, the important bit being “We share your responsibility.”

Next to GameStop’s campaign, the ESRB are providing a new website at RespectTheRatings.com. Essentially, this is a rewrite of content that has been available for years at esrb.com, but the new site has a simplified layout and is targeted specifically at parents. The site prominently says “Making the Right Choice Means Looking on the Box” — I greatly enjoy the fact that all of us seem to agree on where the problem is.

As several commenters have pointed out, GameStop has introduced very strict measures to make sure the responsibility lies with the parents alone. Similar reports from other stores are trickling in as well. The industry is regulating itself, and it makes sure to let you know. I think this might be even better than legislation. The law might “only” be able to fine someone or send them to jail if they sell the wrong stuff to a minor without a parent’s consent, but the minutiae of your work contract can be a wholly more painful weapon. Like a morning star, or a flail, perhaps.

PEGI symbols are © PEGI, used with permission.

Tradefarm – Trade games for Animals, and Animals for games

Several years ago, I had the idea for a web-based game trading platform. Like most of my ideas, it was caged somewhere in the back of my brain and never managed to get out.

The good news is, also like most of my ideas, someone else had the same inspiration but actually followed through. There is now Tradefarm, a community of game traders based on a meta-currency called Animals. As your Animals account fills up, you can look for games you’d like and purchase them with the meta-currency, so what you are really trading is games for games.

Tradefarm has a rather slick interface that allows you to put your games up for trade by just searching for the title in the database, then adding them with one click. You don’t have to dig for pictures, age ratings, nothing. All of that is supplied by Amazon through Amazon’s API (there is also an Amazon buy link with every game), and I’m not yet sure whether that is good or bad. The point so far is that it works, and very quickly. It’s much easier to put your games into Tradefarm and let them wait for a buyer there than it is to enter them into an auction site.

It’s currently a free service and limited to Switzerland, but if this pans out, let’s hope they go international.

Update: I’ve just traded three of my old titles for a rather highly acclaimed new one (Wario Ware: Smooth Moves for Wii). Better ratio than e.g. Gamestop, where I would have had to bring three old games and pay CHF 29.90 (around EUR 20) in cash. Whee 🙂

I've repurchased my childhood

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Because curiosity is the slaughterer of felines, I couldn’t keep my hands off the Wii Virtual Console over Christmas. I rather painlessly bought 3000 Wii Points, pointed at Legend of Zelda and a few minutes later I was twenty years younger.

Super Mario Bros., Zelda, Metroid and Kid Icarus are the first games I have truly vivid memories of. But Zelda will always be a special case even among those jewels of the 80s. Perhaps because of the save function (no other NES game had that at the time), perhaps because of its then monumental size and variety, perhaps because of all the secrets to discover or the surprisingly fresh arcade/adventure hybrid gameplay. Maybe it’s the combination that does it, but even after twenty years, Zelda can still make me grin (and whistle the theme song, but that’s a detail you don’t want to know).

If you show the game to kids nowadays, I’m sure you’ll reap yawns and/or blank stares. It’s not even easy to figure out where to go in the beginning, unless you have the map and booklet that were included with the original. Something your EUR 5 can’t buy you on Virtual Console. Although Nintendo do offer a digital manual booklet with every VC release, the rest of the new game experience can’t be replaced. Where’s the smell of new plastic? Where’s the feeling of despair as you discover cocoa stains on your lovingly sticky-tape-armored map of Hyrule? Sniffing Game Cube game boxes and printing pixel-perfect screenshot maps from the Web just isn’t the same.

One question remains, of course. Why is playing Zelda on VC better than playing Zelda on your NES emulator of choice? I don’t think I can make up an answer to this one. For me the most important point is that VC plays the games exactly like they were on the original consoles, down to the actual video signal. If I still had the TV I used in 1987, I probably wouldn’t see any difference at all. PAL territories even have the same ugly black borders, wrong aspect ratio and slowdown they were already treated to in the 80s.

Is this worth paying EUR 5 for? I doubt it. But as it does so often, nostalgia easily fogs the mind, poisons the spirit and makes you buy things at unreasonable prices. Your non-gamer friends will never understand why you’ve paid actual money to battle spitting octopuses as a pointy-eared green-clad elf child. Only your heart will.

And by the way, there’s only one proper way to play these games.

Image © Nintendo

Fart a lot? You might be lactose intolerant

Do you feel bloated often, especially after a creamy dessert? Do you spend your days silently placing innocent little farts into your office chair, your sofa, your car seat? And do you like to eat milk products, drink milk or eat chocolate? Don’t be embarrassed, then. You might just have lactose intolerance.

Lactose intolerance is a condition where your intestine no longer produces lactase, the enzyme needed to digest lactose (milk sugar). Instead, you just get gas. A lot of it. In bad cases, and if you don’t stop consuming milk, you get diarrhea and an inflamed intestine.

Actually, you as a human being should not be able to digest milk as an adult in the first place! But in their rather colorful past, northern Europeans and subsequently Americans have developed a genetic mutation that allows them to drink milk even as adults. By far most of the world’s population, however, is lactose intolerant. Entire peoples are. The Chinese, most nations of Africa, the entire country of Thailand and a whopping 75% of African Americans are just a few examples.

What makes things worse is that lactose is used in many non-dairy products, such as sausages or spice mixes, or as a taste amplifier. Lactose intolerant people should be extra careful when shopping. Examine those labels!

Next time you feel uneasy after that chocolate pudding, don’t run to the pill closet and try to battle the symptoms like a fool. Instead, take a break from products containing lactose for two weeks:

  • Stop drinking milk
  • No more cream in your coffee
  • No chocolate
  • No cheese (sufficiently aged hard cheeses are an exception)
  • Stop using cream for cooking or desserts
  • No more candy bars, no Mars, no Twix, no Snickers (real black chocolate is okay, but check label)
  • No sausages (Kosher products labeled “pareve” are okay)
  • No dried meat (same as above)
  • No frozen dishes, TV dinners etc. (check packaging, some contain lactose, some don’t)

If you feel a lot better and more relaxed, if you have less problems with diarrhea and no longer suffer from wave after wave of odorless flatulence: Welcome aboard, you might be lactose intolerant. Perhaps in a later article, I can give you some shopping and cooking hints.

Do check with your doctor to be sure. I take no responsibility for your actions.

Thin client handover at the Polytechnic, Malawi, Africa

alex antener thin client handoverAlex Antener yesterday managed to wrap up this year’s stage of his Free Software project in Malawi, Africa with the official handover of the two complete thin client networks donated by the University of Applied Sciences and Arts, Zürich (my dear employer).

In the picture you see Martin Thawani, librarian of the Polytechnic Library, accepting the symbolical gift “Free as in Freedom“. That book “interweaves biographical snapshots of GNU project founder Richard Stallman with the political, social and economic history of the free software movement”. The GNU project is what makes GNU/Linux and the GNU tools possible in the way we know them today.

Alex Antener’s approach to helping the African nation cross the digital divide is different than that of many other organizations and individuals. Instead of dumping northern computer trash on poor schools that certainly won’t ask for something better, he flew across the continents with 70 kilograms of the latest geek toys in his hand baggage. Highly modern servers based on the Intel Core 2 Duo CPU as well as state of the art thin clients by Fujitsu-Siemens — machines newer than what is used in most European organizations! That’s what we use here, why should we cover Malawi in our outdated tech trash? That’s just a convenient way for northern nations to lighten their consciousness and their recycling budget.

Instead, Alex set up the thin client network based entirely on Free Software, then made it transparent how the whole thing works, how it’s maintained, what the nuts and bolts are and where to find help to help yourself. These things would be impossible or severely limited had he used proprietary software. Additionally, the servers he installed make sure that the Polytechnic gets the most out of its prohibitively expensive Internet connection. Firstly they offer proxy caching services, meaning that things downloaded from the Internet are downloaded only once, later the locally stored copy is served and the Internet connection is not taxed anymore. Secondly, the machines are immune to viruses, spyware, trojans and other malware, so the plague of bandwidth-swallowing infected machines is over.

I also took part in the project with some consulting, because I believe the way large western and northern corporations treat African nations of Malawi’s rank is appalling. Africa is often merely abused by private institutions and NGOs to siphon development aid money out of their own (or foreign) governments. Then there is the cultural pollution that comes from large companies like Microsoft and Cisco. They try to impose their proprietary technology, then teach their proprietary thoughts. It’s apparently easy to take a network engineering course in Malawi, but try to learn any other technology than Cisco’s and you will soon run full-speed into a concrete wall. Africa is not supposed to learn about its possibilities. Africa should be thankful! Thankful that we lower ourselves to its ridiculous level and teach it about our wonderful American products. Only Cisco routers shall they know, only Microsoft operating systems shall they use. Operating systems that African companies can gladly buy from us. Oh, don’t worry about payment, my friend, development aid has you covered.

Alex has demonstrated that there are other ways to bridge the gap, to give access to knowledge that is useful in any context, not just inside one single company’s little sandbox. Free Software was nothing new at the time. GNU/Linux and open standards like the ISO standard OpenDocument format were nothing new either. But the average Malawian computer user does not know about these things, even though it’s a Linux distribution by an African man’s company that is the most popular in the world at this moment.

The Polytechnic now has all this information, and it stands as an inspiring example of what is possible. A few hundred people have learned about their possibilities in these last two months, and thousands and ten thousands more still have the opportunity in the coming years.

Photo © 2006 Nathalie Bissig