Sunday, April 18, 2010

The User’s Manifesto: in defense of hacking, modding, and jailbreaking

First off, if you follow me on Buzz, I'm sorry you are seeing this again, but not everyone who reads my blog follows me on Buzz. And I buzzed it first because I couldn't get Google Reader to push it to my blog until just now.

As I said on Buzz, my primary comment to this is "AMEN! Preach It!" like I'm sure was heard in many locations around the U.S. today.

The User’s Manifesto: in defense of hacking, modding, and jailbreaking: "

There’s a trend that’s been disturbing me lately. When the topic of modding or jailbreaking comes up — say, in the wake of the iPad announcement, or Sony’s restrictive PS3 update — there is an outcry. Who am I to tell Apple what’s best for their devices? How can I in good conscience urge others to void their warranties or break license agreements? And why should anyone care when only a small proportion of people hack or jailbreak their devices?

These questions are natural, because a few years ago they wouldn’t even be possible. What reason would you have for breaking open an first-generation iPod, or hacking an original Playstation? The question of “unauthorized software” on System 9 and Windows XP was plainly moot. But as the capabilities of the PC, console, and phone have expanded, so have their magisteria. And as their power grew, so did their chains. These chains were so light before that we didn’t notice them, but now that they are not only visible but are beginning to truly encumber our devices, we must consider whether we are right to throw them off. The answer, to me at least, seems obvious: no company or person has the right to tell you that you may not do what you like with your own property.

It really is as simple as that. But let me restate it so no one thinks I was just being deliberately dramatic or provocative. As long as what you are doing is restricted to the privacy of your home or person, no company, no individual, no designer or engineer, no manager, no CEO, can tell you what you may or may not do with a device which you have purchased legally. How could it be otherwise? It’s yours.

In other words, you may use your iPhone, PS3, Wii, iPad, TiVo, PC, and any other device you can think of as anything from home server to killer robot control core. Interestingly, it is for some reason far more controversial to oppose Apple’s wishes than, say, Microsoft’s or Sony’s, even when the nature of the opposition is identical (custom software running on a device, for instance). For that reason I’ll be using Apple as my primary example.

Now, this isn’t a license to do whatever you want, to whomever you want, at all times. There are several things that limit your freedom, and it is your responsibility to be aware of them: You may have signed a legally binding contract; the effects of your use may extend beyond what you can reasonably expect to be called your own home or person; there are laws governing certain kinds of use. Essentially, know that your device does not exist in a connective vacuum, and you do not live in a social or legal vacuum.

Let us say that you bought a hammer. The hammer is clearly designed for hitting nails, and it is sold at a hardware store, next to nails. Are you really restricted to using it for hitting nails? Do you need to buy a special license to photograph it, or use it to tenderize meat? Of course not. But if you stand outside hitting a bell with it all day, your neighbors may rightfully complain. And you can’t go around beating people with it, because that’s assault. I really don’t see why a more complicated device, more versatile, sure, but still a piece of hardware bought at a store, should be subject to fundamentally more stringent restrictions. Your use of the tool or device that you bought is limited only by law and your discretion. Acme Hammer company doesn’t get a say in what you do — and for that reason, they are not liable if you do decide to start hammering people.

That said, you may have signed (perhaps without noticing it) a legally binding contract. If you did so, read it. EULAs are meant to be not read, of course, because they are legal language presented to an end user, and the degree to which they are binding is probably going to be a topic for debate for years. Better to be safe: if you can’t read it, research it online and see what the gist is, or call support and ask. If you find that you have a reasonable chance of actually breaking a law and having that illegal act pursued by the company, reflect on that.

But also reflect on the fact that nobody thinks twice about crossing a street at 3AM when there are no cars, because jaywalking laws have no authority when the conditions they are meant to govern are not present. Can we say the same thing of license agreements? We can leave aside the complex philosophical debate that goes along with Law, Justice, and so on — we’re talking about simple cases here. Are you the kind of person who will wait at a “Don’t Walk” sign on an empty street? Then you probably live in Seattle. Also, you’re probably not the jailbreaking type and you’re likely infuriated by what I’ve written so far. At any rate, the most extreme consequence for modding is usually a broken warranty and discontinued support. Oh no!

To illustrate this, here’s the relevant portion of the iPad license agreement:

You may not and you agree not to, or to enable others to, copy (except as expressly permitted by this License), decompile, reverse engineer, disassemble, attempt to derive the source code of, decrypt, modify, or create derivative works of the iPad Software or any services provided by the iPad Software, or any part thereof…

…This License is effective until terminated. Your rights under this License will terminate automatically or otherwise cease to be effective without notice from Apple if you fail to comply with any term(s) of this License. Upon the termination of this License, you shall cease all use of the iPad Software

Some will say that because of these you do not “own” the device you bought. In fact, there is no way for you to buy just the Apple hardware — you are prohibited from doing so, in fact, and are told told to please return the device for a full refund if you do not agree to the EULA for the software. Fortunately, such a flippantly restrictive license is as easy to ignore as it is to create. Make no mistake — such an act is surely “a violation of the rights of Apple.” A violation they will never know about, because there is no way they could ever know. They have as much effective jurisdiction over your home and person as they do over the dark side of the moon. Many EULAs (Sony’s, for example) establish similar unlimited control, which one may (and often will, without knowing) also ignore with impunity as long as the license-granter or other users are not materially effected in any way. It is telling that the punishment for violating the license is effectively voluntary.

Although I just recommended a casual disregard for certain laws, you must remember that there are laws you ought to respect. Texting and driving comes to mind. That’s not “doing what you want with your device.” That’s putting the people and things around you in immediate danger. Likewise, it seems obvious that modders should refrain from behavior that strays beyond the bounds of their device or home. Have you broken your Xbox 360 to pieces, installed custom software, and are currently using it as a home media server? Great! Have you modded your PS3 so that it pulls extra packets in online games and causes everyone’s pings to rise? Not so great! Use discretion, and don’t be surprised if, when your practices affect more than just you and yours, you get taken to task for it.

Furthermore, don’t begrudge the companies their efforts to lock you out. It’s to their benefit, of course, to limit the use of their device to things they know work and which make them money. Apple’s a great example of this. Jobs has created a brilliant ecosystem of Apple-based services and devices which work best when working with each other. And by “work best,” I mean “work best for Apple.” If they also work best for you that way, great! You’re happy, Apple’s happy. But don’t tell me that I need to be the same way. And just because Apple works doggedly against people using their hardware non-Apple-approved purposes doesn’t mean that it’s actually wrong or illegal to do so. Amusingly, many seem to think this is actually the case, for example the Apple store manager who called the cops when a customer showed him a jailbroken iPhone. It’d be funnier if this wasn’t such a popular delusion.

Finally, if you decide to hack or mod your device, you are essentially cutting ties with the company that makes and supports it. If that’s a problem for you, don’t do it. And if you do it, don’t complain. Your complaints will be ignored, as they should be. I hacked my PS2, and when it broke (I had resorted to using a SweeTart to keep one component at the right angle) I didn’t try to return it to Sony. I had made my bed, and I lay right down in it. You’ll have to do the same, even if you brick a brand new iPad while trying to flash its BIOS and install a second OS.

The reasoning and explanation above can basically be boiled down to a few basic laws. It seems to me that as long as you stay within these bounds, you should be free from prosecution and criticism.

Do no harm

Hacking your device should not affect anybody else’s user experience. If you break any laws, you should be the only potential victim.

Be informed

The risks you take are your own, and you should thoroughly research anything you’re thinking of doing. Don’t pretend cracking open your 360 or jailbreaking your iPhone is a trivial act.

Accept the consequences

You’re giving up your warranty and all the benefits that come with it. You may also be committing a crime.

But if you’re okay with all that…

Do what thou wilt

No one can tell you what to do with your property in the comfort of your home or on your person.

We’re on the frontier, here, which is why this debate is happening. It’s just a bit weird that people who were alarmed by Amazon sucking content off of Kindles are okay with Apple, Sony, and others dictating what you can do with a device you bought. It was only natural that they would try to extend their power to your living room once that was possible, but you can still shut the door in their face. Note that this discussion is not about content or piracy, although there are parallels. This is about the right to use a device as you will. Some of the same arguments apply, and just as information wants to be free, hardware is always at its best unfettered as well. But while there is legitimate dispute about the rights surrounding digital media, I don’t see any real objections to the hacks and modifications possible for your hardware and devices.

A popular objection is that one doesn’t have to buy the devices that happen to be wrapped up in restrictive systems or deliberately limited. Vote with your wallet, right? Sure, and even when you jailbreak or mod, you are doing just that. You bought the device most suited to your needs. With the iPad it’s the nicest tablet hardware out there and it has a big user base, which will prompt lots of interesting projects to develop — not all approved by Apple. And while the Apple-imposed limitations on the iPhone were less visible because of the highly-limited competition it leapfrogged, the iPad wears its chains on its sleeve with its lack of extra storage, single proprietary interface, and so on. The numbers of the curious and the dissatisfied will swell as the chains begin to weigh on them.

There are greater principles at stake here as well, but I think the simple utility of hacking our devices and the total lack of consequences for anyone involved are the only arguments necessary at this stage. I’ll leave the questions of property, privacy, and other rights to discussion by abler thinkers.

Lastly, I would like to humbly thank Apple, Sony, Microsoft, and all the others, for creating wonderful devices which I plan to enjoy to the fullest extent. But I humbly ask them, and everyone else, not to tell me what I can and can’t do with it once my purchase is complete. You should do the same.

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Growing Family, Shrinking Time

Well, isn’t life interesting.

I tried to update my blog yesterday (in fact, I thought I had updated my blog yesterday) from my netbook using Windows Live Writer (which is what I’m using right now, by the way), but I guess it didn’t take. And, of course, as usual, I didn’t save what I wrote, because “hey, it’s on my blog, why do I need a local copy, right?”. Anyway, it’s been an interesting past few weeks.

Since my last actual “personal” post, I’ve become a grandfather for the second time, my youngest daughter (the mother of my new granddaughter) is in the hospital living an episode of House MD, and my oldest (the mother of my grandson) has come home from Japan, not necessarily in that order.

Much of the last week of March is a blur to me. So many things happened at the same time, or so close together, that I couldn’t keep up and my mind just couldn’t track everything.

First, at 3:26 AM or so on Monday March 29th, we got a call that our youngest daughter, who had been in the hospital with flu-like symptoms (minus the fever) was being taken in for an emergency cesarean-section. The baby was 9 weeks premature, but the odds would be in her favor, and every time my youngest would get sick, the baby’s heart rate would drop, so they figured it would be safer.

My wife and I spent the next few hours (after we knew both mother and baby were OK) finding airline tickets to get her to Shreveport Louisiana. Not a cheep location to fly in to. But we found same-day tickets for about $300 flying out of Charlottesville Virginia, of all places. Charlottesville is about the same distance from our house as Baltimore Washington Thurgood Marshall International Airport (always called BWI because it’s WAY shorter), and it’s a MUCH nicer drive!

My oldest came home from Japan on Easter morning, in fact, it was about 12:07 AM when the plane landed at BWI. I shouldn’t complain about how long my day was, because she and my grandson got up at 5:00 AM on Saturday Japan time to get on the flight. I think it was 4 planes and 7 airports and a 38 hour vs. 24 hour day later, they landed at BWI. I made sure to take that Monday off to recover!

Do you have any idea how long it takes a 3 1/2 year old to recover from jet-lag and a 13 hour time change? About 5 days. Monday morning, he was up at 2:30 AM. Tuesday was about 4:30 or 5:00. Wednesday was around 5:30 to 6:00, Thursday was around 6:30 to 7:00, and Friday was around 7:30 or so. He’s still not completely adjusted; he fights going to bed, and fights getting up; but he is still only 3 1/2, so that’s to be expected.

The last fun thing has been that my youngest has been in and out of the hospital since her daughter (who is still in NICU, but progressing better than expected) was born. It seems that the vomiting for three days before the C-section continued for a few days after, as well. All that vomiting caused damage to the lower half of her esophagus (the doctor called it esophageal ulceritus), and she couldn’t eat or drink without being in extreme pain. While the doctors were trying to figure out what was causing the pain, they decided she had sludge in her gallbladder. I guess that would be better than gallstones, but not by too much, evidently. To shorten the story, they now have her on IV protonix to reduce the acid in her stomach and maybe lower the pain. Another doctor has decided that her gallbladder may in fact be bad enough to remove, so they may do that tomorrow (Monday).

I’m not really happy with some of the things I’ve heard about my youngest daughter’s treatment during her stay at Willis-Knighton South in Shreveport. I will say that I’m very impressed with what I hear about the NICU staff and the people that first took care of my youngest did a great job. But this late this past week they moved my daughter from the “Step-down unit” (basically Intermediate Care) to a normal ward, and the staff on that ward must either be over worked or just plain neglectful, because medications were missed or incorrectly charted, or both, doctors made assumptions based on statistics rather than patient history, and some of the nurses have no idea that they shouldn’t wear strong scents that could cause respiratory problems with asthmatics.

So, with my wife out of town since the end of March, I’ve been spending my time driving the taxi, playing with my grandson, working in the office, and trying to decide what I want to do when I grow up (maybe more on that one in a few weeks). I’m considering getting back on World of Warcraft, just because the church guild (yes, the church I go to has it’s own WoW guild, we’re just THAT cool) doesn’t have enough high-level players to raid. I could do one of two things, or both; start a deathknight, or transfer my level 77 hunter to the server the church guild is on. I haven’t decided yet, but I’m close to a decision. Also, I haven’t made it to the “over 30” D&D night at the church every Thursday (I told you we’re just THAT cool) because of one thing or another. This week for sure (unless something happens, of course).

I do really plan to update this with tech news on a more regular basis, but given that the only techie thing I’ve done lately is replace my Windows Home Server box that I build from scratch with an Acer WHS box, there’s not much to tell. I haven’t even taken the time to root my droid yet! But, that’s coming soon, believe me!

Thursday, April 15, 2010

Video – Skydiver Stunt

Well, it's no real secret that I really don't like flying; it's a control thing. But I like changing planes even less. On my way back from Seattle last month I had to "run" from gate to gate at JFK in New York because my first plane was delayed by an hour.

This guy takes changing planes to a new level. Not this little gray duck; I'm not afraid of heights, I'm afraid of the sudden stop at the end of the fall!

Video – Skydiver Stunt: "

Skydiver hops from one glider to another while in flight. Quite impressive.