I’m very excited to have two talks at CCC at the end of the month. The bulk of accepted talks can be seen and voted on at the CCC “halfnarp”.
The first talk is on the Internet in Cuba. It expands upon the recent talk I presented at IMC last month, to provide additional color on what Internet access is really like in Cuba, and what the community there is doing to create LANs and other alternatives to the official but expensive ETECSA service.
The second talk looks again at technology in Pyongyang. Since 2014, there have been a number of talks about the totally closed off tech ecosystem there, but as it ramps up we continue to only get a few glimpses into what’s going on, and it’s getting only harder as the broader tensions ramp up. My goal is to propose a path for getting more rather than less transparency into the picture, because it is a really fascinating place.
The talks should both be recorded, and might even be streamed. If you’re one of the (I hear it could be up 16,000) participants, I hope to see you in Leipzig!
I had the chance to visit China last week and tag along with the tail-end of a longer trip organized around various Makerspaces around the region. This is the first time in several years that I’ve spent a prolonged amount of time in the dense population areas of Beijing and Shanghai, and it was fascinating to watch the evolution that continues in this majority of Chinese life.
The most noticeable change from my perspective is that Beijing and Shanghai are effectively almost cashless. The use of Alipay and wechat pay are ubiquitous, to the point that you feel that you are creating an imposition to shop keepers by paying with cash. While funding your account on either of these services requires a chinese bank account (which itself requires a mainland cellphone number), the process can be short-circuited by making an unofficial exchange with someone willing to send you a personal transfer within the systems. It remains easy enough to find people at hostels, (as well as localbitcoins, I hear) who are willing to trade.
The systems themselves are fascinating to use. Payment to a merchant will automatically cause you to follow the merchants account, typically leading to messages about member cards and discounts. These messages seemed to only be pushed directly in response to a purchase, and weren’t overly intrusive. It seems to be the realization of the business-to-consumer engagement systems facebook and google have been struggling and so far failing to build in the US. Smaller vendors often operate directly as individuals – you type in how much money the bill is, and send it as a direct transfer to an account specified by the waiter or merchant.
This payment structure has resulted in a secondary industry of android-based devices dedicated to sales and scanning QR codes for these systems, as well as receipt printers that turn app orders into printed requests for food or similar.
Apart from the payment evolution, it is really interesting to watch China modernize. Life there now is much more comfortable from a western perspective than it has been in the past, with both a larger presence of foreigners visible and more english available to help navigate. Some distinctive characteristics remain, including a self-interested approach to queuing and different expectations of personal space. Prices in Shanghai have reached parity with those in the west, although cheaper options remain if you look for them.
In terms of Internet connectivity, I was surprised to find that connectivity remained quite similar to what I had experienced in the past. An SSH tunnel to a foreign server was sufficient to maintain email access while I was there, and disruptions I experienced seemed to be much more a function of over-loaded local networks than of more restrictions for international traffic. I talked with a couple different people who mentioned that Astrill continues to not be blocked, and seemed surprised that something so well known continues to operate without disruption.
The Pyongyang University of Science and Technology (PUST) has shown up in a recent New York Times article, and I’m mentioned at the end.
A couple notes on the article:
- While the school may have 250 acres if the affiliated cooperative farms are included, the actual campus is much smaller, with ~10 buildings built around two sports fields.
- The supposition of leverage is, I feel, more nuanced than expressed in the article. Detentions of Americans have and continue to occur across the different engagements. While PUST got unlucky this time, it provides no more benefit to the regime in that regard than the tourism or other ongoing aid projects, which have also experienced similar actions in the past.
- PUST is not even close to the largest foreign community in the country, as stated, that honor goes to the Chinese
Projects like PUST are an opportunity to put a human face on Americans in the minds of the next generation of educators and empowered thinkers in Pyongyang. It’s hard to overstate the value of that engagement.
I wanted to try to put into words part of what I appreciate about community, through a description of one of the more unique communities I’ve visited: Slab City.
I’m getting back this week after spending most of the last month Bicycling from Pakistan to China on the Karakoram highway. It was a great trip, full of friendly people, breathtaking mountains, and delicious food.
Excited to see Satellite chosen as best student paper this year at USENIX ATC. Slides and audio from the talk should be online shortly.
The CS department, as always, is on top of its news releases.
I was fortunate enough to graduate from the University of Washington’s Computer Science and Engineering PhD program this spring. It has been an amazing five years, due in large part to an amazing group of colleagues.
Last spring after visiting Turkey I spent a week on vacation in Cyprus. I’ve written up some thoughts on the politics at play and the experience of visiting that border. Really a fascinating place.
I returned to PUST this fall just in time for ICOPUST3, a bi-annual conference hosted by the university and one of the few instances of international academic engagement performed by the university.
A bit of background: I spoke on my research at ICOPUST2, the previous instance of this conference held two years ago, and my first time visiting the university. The conference by design is a multi-track affair covering the full breadth of academics (from computer science to agriculture) taught at the university.
This year, I acted as the session chair for the computer science track of the conference, which proved to be quite rewarding. I’m encouraged by the continued academic engagement present at the conference and occurring at the university as a whole.
Having spent the last few days at CCCamp, I am incredibly jealous of the community that exists in Germany. cbase, the physical center of the community, has existed for 20 years, and has created a really powerful movement. One of the aspects of the berlin free software community is the tight connection between technologists and artists that exists there. From this event my take away is that tech can and does create culture, and that one of the most important things we can do is foster that community and make it ours.