Pre-ordered the Geeksphone Peak+ with Firefox OS

A few weeks ago I pre-ordered the Geeksphone Peak+ with Firefox OS. This will be my first smartphone, I waited for so long because I think all other smartphone operating systems are inadequate. Why, you might ask? Because Firefox OS is the only smartphone operating system which respects my freedom and privacy.

Freedom versus vendor lock-in

If you buy an iPhone or iPad, you can only download apps from Apple’s App Store. Apple decides which apps get approved, but their policy is enforced inconsistently at best. I don’t care about their hypocritical policy however, but about principles. I despise Apple for it’s paternalistic behavior, I demand to have the freedom to decide which apps I want and where I get them.

Microsoft, the third player on the smartphone market after Apple and Google, doesn’t allow competing app stores either. Regular readers of this blog know that I hate Microsoft for it’s unethical business practices anyway and that I’d never buy anything from them.

The issues with Google’s Android

Google’s Android on the other hand does allow competing app stores. Android is also open source, so third parties other than Google can produce derivatives such as CyanogenMod. So far so good, but there are also two crucial issues for me.

Would I trust Google with my privacy? Certainly not, even though I don’t think Apple or Microsoft are any better. Yes, you can still use an Android phone without a Google account, but it’s not as convenient. My smartphone shouldn’t spy on me by default. And yes, I do use Google’s search engine and I’m not so naive to think that my privacy is still immaculate. But that’s not a reason to further the breakdown of my privacy with an Android smartphone.

What’s a more serious issue for me is that Microsoft is extorting producers of Android smartphones. It coerces them to pay royalties for its patents at the threat of lawsuits. This practice has been more profitable for Microsoft than its own Windows Phone OS, with HTC and Samsung paying $10 or more to Microsoft for every Android device they sell. Microsoft defends itself as follows:

Much of the current litigation in the so called “smartphone patent wars” could be avoided if companies were willing to recognize the value of others’ creations in a way that is fair. At Microsoft, experience has taught us that respect for intellectual property rights is a two-way street, and we have always been prepared to respect the rights of others just as we seek respect for our rights. This is why we have paid others more than $4 billion over the last decade to secure intellectual property rights for the products we provide our customers.

They seem reasonable, but in reality Microsoft’s intellectual property amounts to trivial patents. Microsoft is nothing more than a patent troll (see here for the long version of the story). Because I don’t want Microsoft to profit when I buy a smartphone, buying a smartphone with Android is out of the question for me. The situation might change for me when Google grows a spine and sues Microsoft to hell.

The joys of Firefox OS

Firefox OS doesn’t suffer from these disadvantages. I trust its developer, Mozilla, doesn’t spy on me. At least I don’t need an account of some kind to make optimal use of my phone. As far as I know Geeksphone hasn’t signed a patent license agreement with Microsoft and doesn’t pay royalties. It’s not mandatory to use Mozilla’s app store. And Firefox OS has an important innovation: all the apps are web apps.

So there is no need for “native code” anymore which is only suited to a specific smartphone OS, like Android or Apple’s iOS. This makes life much easier for developers, who can easily make their web apps available for Firefox OS or any other platform which is built on web technology. Finally, this attempt to breaki the Android/iOS duopoly is good thing. Especially Google is getting too powerful for my taste.

The Peak+ will ship in late September, hopefully it will arrive before I depart on holiday. More about that later.

Cuts on public servants in the Netherlands?

On Wednesday 28 August the free Dutch newspaper Metro ran an article on the austerity measures of the Dutch government. Two Dutch economists were asked to comment on the government’s policy and to give their own suggestions. One of them, prof. dr. Sylvester Eijffinger, considers the high number of public servants in the Netherlands as a barrier to economic growth. Accordingly he suggested that we cut the number of public servants.

But are there really so much public servants in our country? During my studies for a master’s degree in Public Administration at Leiden University I attended the lectures of prof. dr. Frits van der Meer. He emphasized in his lectures that the alleged large numbers of public servants in the Netherlands are a myth. Interestingly, he and a colleague have published research to prove their claim. See this Dutch publication and take a look at the table on page 21.

The first column includes public servants in health care and education, the second column does not. This data shows that the number of public servants relative to the total population in the Netherlands is far below the average of several other developed nations. Surprising to see that Germany and the Netherlands have a smaller body of public servants than the USA, is it not? Remember this when you intend to make those jokes about public servants at parties.

Mr. Eijffinger doesn’t mention any sources, which is logical considering the short length of the newspaper article. I sent him an e-mail last week to inform him of prof. dr. Van der Meer’s research and asked him if he might have different evidence which supports his claim. Unfortunately I haven’t heard from him yet.

A dubious recipient of the Presidential Medal of Freedom

Obama has given the Presidential Medal of Freedom to Bill Clinton. To cite the website of the White House:

The Presidential Medal of Freedom is the Nation’s highest civilian honor, presented to individuals who have made especially meritorious contributions to the security or national interests of the United States, to world peace, or to cultural or other significant public or private endeavors.

While Bill Clinton’s efforts for humanitarian aid and other charity work are certainly laudable, I think his actions during his presidency disqualify him for a medal. He is responsible for the Lewinsky scandal: he cheated on his wife and lied under oath. Is this the kind of person who should serve as an example to other Americans and be rewarded with such a prestigious medal?

Oprah Winfrey also received the medal for her philanthropic activities. But what kind of philanthropist wants to buy a handbag for $38.000? So much for humility. A true philanthropist would show more solidarity and make some concessions to their own welfare in order to better the lives of other people. If I would be helping destitute people on one day but reserve my money to buy such expensive luxury goods on the other day, I’d be ashamed of myself.

Public servants versus political appointees

On 1 May Coen Teulings ended his seven year term as the director of the Dutch Bureau for Economic Policy Analysis (Centraal Planbureau in Dutch, abbreviated as CPB). During his tenure he faced criticism for his affiliations with the Dutch Labor Party, which was alleged to have influenced his role as a policy adviser for the government. At his departure he was evaluated positively in the media, which noted that the Labor Party had frequently been critical of the policy advice given by the CPB.

This reminded me of a paper I had written for a course I followed during my master’s programme at Leiden University, Politics of Bureacracy. For my argument I summarily investigated political appointees in the USA. American federal executive officials are nominated by the president and confirmed by the senate.

Political appointees in the USA

When Leon Panetta (Democrat) was appointed as the Director of the Central Intelligence Agency under Obama (Democrat), the appointment raised questions if Obama was trying to politicize the CIA; Panetta had no experience in intelligence work. Allegations of partisanship are not new, as even stronger criticism was aimed at the appointment of Porter Goss (Republican), the Director of Central Intelligence under George Bush (Republican).

Lewis (2009) argues (use this link for a PDF behind a paywall but with decent layout) that these political appointments are made for two reasons. They allow the president to control the bureaucracy, with appointees being more responsive to the wishes of the political leaders than public servants. They are also made for patronage, i.e. to reward the members of the president’s party with lucrative positions. He goes on to explain that too many appointees ultimately hurt the performance and control of federal agencies.

Appointees lack the experience of career public servants and stay for short tenures, impeding long term planning. Lower performance in turn makes the agencies harder to control for the president, for example because they are more likely to make mistakes. On the other hand, as outsiders appointees can also give new energy to agencies. It’s a matter of balancing the ratio of appointees to public servants to get optimal agency performance. The USA evidently has far too many appointees, more than 3.500, as opposed to a number between 100 and 200 for other developed countries.

The situation in the netherlands

While I don’t have exact numbers, I assume the Netherlands is in the latter category too. Our General Intelligence and Security Service (Algemene Inlichtingen en Veiligheidsdienst in Dutch) is led by a career public servant. The CPB would even have a serious credibility problem if it would be led by a political appointee, it is imperative that it is an apolitical organization.

I think the difference between the USA and the Netherlands might partially be explained by our different political culture. We have coalition governments instead of the Democrat-Republican duopoly. Even the Balkenende-III cabinet in which the Labor Party didn’t participate had no problem with appointing a vocal economist with Labor Party sympathies like Coen Teulings as head of the CPB.

What I see as a notable exception to the non-political nature of appointments in the Netherlands is the appointment of Piet Hein Donner (Christian Democrats) as vice-president of the Council of State (Raad van State). The cabinet insisted that the procedure was open, but many opposition figures thought it was a farce and Donner’s appointment was predetermined.

The man surely is an expert in law and seems capable for the job, but the appointment had a semblance of politicization to me as well. Just like the CPB advises on economic policy, the Council of State has an important advisory role on law towards the government. All the more reason to make it just as apolitical as the CPB.

Obama and partisanship

What caught my attention regarding the politics of the USA is the appointment of the Republican Secretaries of Defense Robert Gates and now Chuck Hagel by Obama. This is different from this discussion of the relationship between the public service and politics because a Secretary of State is always a politician, but related to the partisanship issue. Why not reward a Democrat with position? Obama assures us he chose Hagel because all he cares about is having the right person for the job. Some journalists think it really is a clever plan to screw the Republican Party.

Why I don’t want to use LinkedIn

Over the last months I’ve been receiving invites to join LinkedIn from people I know. It’s certainly a useful professional social network for finding a job. People have told me I should use it too so I can find a job more easily. They’re probably right and for practical reasons I would certainly use it, but for principal reasons I refuse. My reasons are similar to those for not using Facebook.

What if Google decided that you can only send e-mails to other users of GMail and not to users of other e-mail providers? There would be outrage over Google’s anti-competitive move and GMail users would switch to other e-mail providers. Yet this is exactly what LinkedIn is doing: it’s impossible to communicate with users of other professional social networks, such as XING and Viadeo.The key difference between GMail and LinkedIn is that LinkedIn has a very dominant position in the Netherlands, almost 3,8 million members as of November 2012. That’s probably why we tolerate this “lock-in” from LinkedIn.

I don’t like monopolies, dominant market positions or anti-competitive practices. If I would create a LinkedIn account myself I would reward LinkedIn for its behavior and strengthen its dominance on the Dutch market. I’m desperately looking for job, but not desperate enough yet to part from my principles. LinkedIn and its competitors should meet and devise an open standard so I can communicate with users of competing social networks. until then, I want none of it.

The Dell XPS 13 is now available with Ubuntu

After almost a year since it was announced, the Dell XPS 13 ultrabook is finally available with Ubuntu in the Netherlands. Including VAT, it would cost € 1330. On my job at an ICT service desk I’ve had the opportunity to use both the XPS 13 and the comparable Samsung NP900X3C. The A05NL version of the Samsung starts at € 1000 at the moment. Both are very nice laptops indeed.

But how does that compare to other laptops, in particular my Acer TravelMate TimeLine 8371 which still serves me nicely? In the end of 2009 I paid € 532 for the Acer, minus € 70 for the Windows Vista Business license refund and plus the € 187 for the Intel X25-M 80 GB SSD it set me back € 649 total. Obviously there is a large difference in price, but what’s the justification for the much higher cost of of the Dell and Samsung?

Notebookcheck reviewed both the Acer, the Dell and the Samsung, albeit in slightly different configurations than I’ve seen. The key differences for me are that the Dell and Samsung have much higher resolutions: 1920 by 1080 pixels and 1600 by 900 pixels respectively. The Acer has 1366 by 768 pixels, and all three have a 13.3 inch monitor. The lower resolution of the Acer is by no means annoying to me, but I’d appreciate more. Another key difference is the weight: 1.73, 1.4 and 1.19 kilo for the Acer, Dell and Samsung respectively. If you take a laptop with you on holiday in a backpack filled with clothes like me, the difference in weight is notable. Both the Dell and the Samsung also have more durable enclosures than the Acer.

The Dell and Samsung have much faster CPU’s, more RAM, larger SSD’s. The only downside is that the Dell has no ethernet port at all and the Samsung requires an adapter, because both laptops are too thin for a full port. The Dell has DisplayPort and the Samsung has a VGA connector requiring an adapter which is not included. The Acer does have a normal VGA connector and only the Samsung and the Acer have a card reader.

I think I like the Samsung most. Even though the limited connectivity is a downside – Samsung should include a DisplayPort connector too and include adapters for VGA and HDMI – I don’t think it’s a big problem. However, the Samsung shoves Windows 8 down my throat, and I’m not so eager to go through all the trouble to get a refund for the Windows license. Choices, choices! For now I think I’ll keep using my Acer until it’s spent, by that time there will be better hardware in the form of Intel’s “Shark Bay” platform.

I also wouldn’t mind less powerful CPU’s so the price could be lowered. All I want is a laptop which is portable, with a monitor size between 11 and 13.3 inch, a keyboard (no tablets for me), a long battery life and a low price. That might happen in the form of Intel’s “Bay Trail” platform for its Atom architecture. Of course, some competition from AMD would be much appreciated.

Make Open Access publishing mandatory

When I’m writing content for Wikipedia I often use articles from scientific journals as a source. But most of the time these journal articles are not free. For example, if you wish to download an article from the Journal of Public Administration Research and Theory for example, you’ll have to pay $25 to read it for one day. For academics this is not an issue because their university library has subscriptions to those journals, allowing them free access. Many ordinary people however do not.

It frustrates me that in practice they can’t check the scientific sources of statements made on Wikipedia or in other media unless they have deep pockets. Especially if you live in a third world country, scientific knowledge is only available to the rich. This is strange, because the scientists who contribute to and edit for scientific journals don’t get paid for their work by the publishers of those journals. The universities where the scientists are employed are funded by the taxpayer. We pay twice, first for scientists who produce scientific knowledge and then to the publishers to acquire that knowledge.

Why scientific journals charge (high) fees

A detailed explanation can be read here, but I’ll summarize. In the past publication of scientific journals was done by scientist-driven organizations and it was rarely a profitable activity. This changed when the Science Citation Index was started in 1960, which measured how many times journal articles were cited to determine the influence of articles and their authors. This in turn gave rise to the impact factor, the average number of citations of all articles in a journal to determine the influence of that journal. As a consequence scientists started to prefer publishing in the most prestigious journals.

At this point of the story the commercial publishers make their appearance. They saw profit, gradually acquired more and more journals and started charging disproportionate prices for the prestigious journals. The prices for subscriptions increased with 215% from 1986 to 2003, while the inflation rose with merely 68%. In the same period digital distribution became popular, which should have led to a reduction of distribution costs according to common sense. Scientists have agitated against high journal prices, especially those owned by the publisher Elsevier.

Open Access publishing as an alternative

But then the concept of Open Access arose to fight this evil, enabled by the Internet. Open Access publication of scientific articles means that they are freely available and carry no restrictions on their use. It has been estimated that 7,7% of all articles published in peer-reviewed journals were Open Access in 2009. And that rate is still growing. The best example for this is the Public Library of Science (primarily natural sciences).

Open Access has found appeal in the Netherlands too: my own university (Leiden University) and several other organizations collaborate on the Journal of Archaeology in the Low Countries. A professor of Psychology at Leiden University also recognizes the importance of Open Access publishing. In fact, all Dutch universities committed to Open Access when they signed the Berlin Declaration.

But 7,7% still means that the vast majority of scientific knowledge is locked away behind the paywalls of the publishers. Also, the adoption of Open Access publishing in the Netherlands has been stagnating since 2007. One solution which has been proposed to elevate Open Access publishing is to make it mandatory, just like Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology have done.

My stance in this

If research is funded by the taxpayer the taxpayer should have the right to access that research freely, anything else is an injustice. If Dutch universities don’t take action by themselves the government should. But since there is no indication that is going to happen anytime soon, the more important question is what I can do.

Right now I’m at the verge of pursuing a scientific career. I’m soliciting for a PhD position at Leiden University and job as a researcher at Erasmus University Rotterdam, both in the field of public administration. It seems like I’m already getting off on the wrong foot, because I submitted an article for review to the aforementioned Journal of Public Administration Research and Theory just a week ago! This is my master thesis, which I’ve rewritten in the form of a shorter, publishable article.

I keep telling myself this is justified because I’m at the beginning of my career and can afford to be picky in where I’ll publish, but I feel like a hypocrite. I don’t really have an excuse, because there are Open Access journals in the field of public administration. They’re not prestigious and I’m not sure what to do with my article – let’s see if it’s accepted for publication first – but if I do land at a job at either university Open Access publishing will be my first priority.

Veteran Wikipedia editor now

I’ve been looking for a job since early January now and haven’t been invited for a job interview even once, so I had to find something to keep myself occupied. Editing Wikipedia proved to be a productive use of my free time and has even become slightly addictive. I’ve been editing since 30 January 2009 (I wrote about it before here and here) but I spent the most time on it during this month and the last because I have so much free time now. Take a look at my user page to see my activity.

What I’ve done

It started when I decided to look up the article for the e-mail client I use daily, Evolution. The version I encountered before I started working on it was quite outdated, so I’ve improved it considerably to a state which is more or less finished.

As a Classical Antiquity nerd I’m quite interested in ancient Greek and Roman cities, so I ended up reading the article on Sybaris. This article had serious issues, because like many other articles on ancient cities its content was copied from a 19th century dictionary. That dictionary didn’t mention the city was excavated in the 20th century of course. After finding sources about its excavation and figuring out what the obscure abbreviations for references to ancient works meant, I give the article a rigorous update.

But as you can see it’s not finished yet because good photos are still missing. Note that three partially overlapping cities were built on the site and that it’s difficult to be certain which remains are on the photos. I only managed to add one which was sent to me by an Italian scientist I contacted, but the quality isn’t great. I’m playing with the thought of getting a ticket to Bari for € 28 with Ryanair, a second hand Nikon D5100 and the 35mm prime lens to make some pictures of this site and others for use on Wikipedia myself.

There are many more articles of ancient cities and other archaeological sites which need a lot of work. Apart from the Mediterranean world, there are also many articles about cities in Mesopotamia and South Asia. Unless I find a way to clone myself it’s simply too much, so I try to focus on a few articles and make minor improvements to the rest. This includes things such as adding the the geobox river and infobox ancient site templates to articles.

Why I do it and you should help

But why are you doing this, you might ask? Not only is Wikipedia’s mission to spread knowledge freely totally cool, it’s exciting that thousands of people read what you write. You become an authority to them to some degree, you feel like you have some power over them. If you get killed by a lightning strike tomorrow, the information you contributed to Wikipedia will still live on.

Even though I mostly edit the more obscure articles – popular articles don’t have much room for improvement – an article like Sybaris gets 5.000 visitors a month. Babylon on the other hand, to which I’ve made a minor contribution, gets 170.000 a month.

To give a motivation which is less self-serving and based on illusions of grandeur, the desire to contribute is reciprocal for me. I benefit from good Wikipedia articles written by others, so I wish to return the favor. And because I’m slightly perfectionist, it is simply frustrating for me that some articles are so inadequate. Also, contributing to Wikipedia allows me to compensate for having lost the opportunity to do volunteer work in India to some degree.

The Lenovo ThinkPad L530 laptop

Recently my brother was looking to buy a new laptop. He moved out of my parent’s house recently and wanted to replace his PC with a laptop to use both privately and for his job. He wanted a 15 inch laptop because his work involved some traveling, so a larger desktop replacement was not desirable. But he didn’t want a smaller laptop either because he wanted a large screen. The only game he plays is League of Legends, which can be handled adequately by the integrated graphics chip in recent processors.

Considerations

Nowadays you can get 15 inch laptops for little more than € 300, but if you buy cheaply, you pay dearly. Most of those cheap laptops have relatively low display resolutions (with 1366 by 768 pixels being most common) and because they’re meant for consumers they almost always have glossy displays. Build quality often isn’t good either.

That’s why it’s smart to buy more expensive laptops which are more sturdy, often the models intended for business customers. These also have matte displays, which don’t turn into a mirror if there’s a lot of sunlight. But most importantly, if you’re willing to pay a premium, you can get a high-resolution display of 1600 by 900 pixels or even more. Quite a difference in screen real estate.

The choice for the L530

A few weeks ago, one of the cheapest 15 inch laptops available in the Netherlands with a 1600 by 900 pixels display resolution was the Lenovo ThinkPad L530 for € 752. Even though this is “budget” in terms of ThinkPads and this model has an ordinary plastic case, the reputation these laptops have for good build quality still stands. And it has a matte screen. As an added bonus it also came with Windows 7 instead of the disaster that is Windows 8. My brother was discouraged by the high price compared to the usual low-end consumer notebooks, but I managed to convince him.

I won’t review the laptop in detail because that has already been done by NotebookCheck. Like they say, you shouldn’t expect it to be as sturdy as the premium ThinkPads with its plastic case, but it’s certainly a good deal for € 752. After buying and unboxing the L530 however, we were surprised to find out that the touchpad had a problem: the mouse cursor moved like a person stuck in quicksand.

When my brother read the review on NotebookCheck again, he noticed they had also experienced a “major problem with the touchpad’s responsiveness”. They assumed this problem was restricted to their test laptop. Curiously, I couldn’t find anyone else experiencing the same problem on the Internet. It was time to contact Lenovo and get them to fix the laptop.

Lenovo technical support

The first impression wasn’t so positive. We had to sign a form to give them permission to re-install Windows 7 if necessary and some other trivial matters, but this form had many Dutch grammar and spelling errors. I still remember my ordeal with Acer’s helpdesk, but expected Lenovo to do better. Apart from the form though, Lenovo did its job properly: when the laptop was returned the touchpad worked fine.

Only the reparation report raises some eyebrows. It claims they replaced the display and the “kbd (keyboard?) bezel”. I have no idea what those have to do with the touchpad.

Using Steam on Fedora 18 64-bit

Since it was announced nine months ago I’m now running Steam on Linux and playing Counter-Strike: Source. and Team Fortress 2. Both work very nicely, the only thing I’m still missing is that the Linux port can’t use my 5.1 speaker set. On the other hand Serious Sam 3 gives me a disastrous frame rate and crashes, but that will hopefully be fixed. Getting Steam up and running was no easy feat. At the moment it is still in beta and they only support Ubuntu. You have to pull some tricks to get it working on Fedora. Because it isn’t easy to figure out how to do it, I’ll share some advice.

Steam has been packaged for Fedora too (albeit not by Valve) so the most convenient way is to add the repository for it as instructed here. Because these instructions for Fedora 17 are slightly outdated I stopped following them after the yum install steam command. The more recent Steam package from the repository pulled in all of the dependencies needed to get Steam itself running. But while Steam itself might run, the games did not run for me without some more effort.

Some more dependencies are needed. The problem is that Steam is 32-bit, so if you’re on the 64-bit version of Fedora you need to download a lot of 32-bit packages of which the 64-bit equivalent is already present on your system. The first step is to install the 32-bit version of your display driver libraries, which I did with yum install xorg-x11-drv-catalyst-libs.i686 (the i686 suffix tells yum to get the 32-bit version). That’s for people who have AMD video cards, those with NVIDIA video cards should use the yum install xorg-x11-drv-nvidia-libs.i686 command.

After doing this my games would start, but I didn’t have sound. To get that fixed I simply installed the 32-bit versions of all packages which I thought to be audio-related. From this topic I came up with the command yum install pulseaudio-libs-glib2.i686 libao.i686 esound-libs.i686 alsa-oss-libs.i686 alsa-plugins-oss.i686 alsa-plugins-pulseaudio.i686 audiofile.i686 which fixed the problem for me. But before entering this command I had downloaded some other packages I don’t remember anymore. Not sure what’s exactly needed, for me it was a matter of a few Google search queries and trial and error.

Hopefully someone else can clear this up or the package could be made to pull in all the necessary dependencies. Preferably Valve will support Fedora 18 officially soon and make a 64-bit version. Valve is totally awesome for porting Steam to Linux. Maybe I can even remove my Windows 7 partition completely in the near future, since the games are the only reason Windows 7 is still on my hard disk drive.