Archive

Politics

For a conscientious consumer seeking a powerful smart-phone, there seem to be two options: Fairphone and and Samsung’s Galaxy S4. I will first assess the ethicality and sustainability of these devices then compare their technical specifications.

Samsung Galaxy S4 Versus Fairphone

Sustainability and Ethics

Last year, a number of articles were written comparing these two phones for sustainable and ethics, as the Galaxy was awarded TCO certification and Fairphone’s raison d’etre is ethicality. While Samsung need no introduction, Fairphone is a crowd-funded initiative to produce a recyclable smartphone manufactured in fair and safe condition, from ethically sourced (and ultimately completely recycled) materials.

One such article, on Triple Pundit went into some depth, comparing the two phones based on three major categories: Conflict minerals and working conditions, hazardous materials and disposal and e-waste.

Conflict minerals are precious metal ores such as gold, tin, tungsten and tantalum, originally purchased from violent and oppressive armed groups in places such as the resource-rich Democratic Republic of Congo. They are exported, smelted and used in many consumer electronics products. The war in the DRC as killed over 5 million people since 1998 and seen whole communities fractured by systematic rape and violence. For a brief history of this conflict and a first-hand account of the corruption and criminality, see this article by journalist Jeffrey Gettleman. Gettleman also tells of improvements in recent years, due to international pressure, which led the Congolese government to seize and regulate a number of mines. These changes may account for the certified conflict-free tin and tantalum used by Fairphone, who are still attempting to secure a conflict free supply of gold and tungsten; this may prove especially difficult as Congolese gold mines are still predominately controlled by armed groups.

The TCO offers no guarantee that certified products are free of conflict minerals. Additionally, The Triple Pundit review relies on TCO guidelines to assess the effort taken by Samsung to ensure the ethicality of their supply chains. This is problematic because there has since been some controversy regarding TCO’s certification. However, the TCO’s analysis found that the deficiencies in provision for workplace illness and accidents cited by critics, were based on evidence gathered before the certificate came into effect. Further, the analysis claims that the accusation of workers’ lack of rights to free association and collective bargaining (i.e unionisation) were unfounded. While the certification stills stands, it brings to light the fact that Samsung have historically failed, and in their supply chains and manufacturing processes for other products, may still fail to adhere to the TCO’s rules. Fairphone claims to promote the International Labor Organization’s requirements for working conditions and had its factory and China reviewed by a third party social assessment organisation. Assuming that both Smartphone’s manufacturers ensure adequate working conditions, Fairphone’s main advantage is the fact that they have never profited form doing otherwise.

In terms of hazardous materials, while Fairphone follows guidelines set out in European law, the TCO’s policies are in some areas more stringent, completely banning the use of mercury and phthalates. Both Samsung and Fairphone implement take-back programs to facilitate the proper disposal and recycling of their products. However, Fairphone goes further in both partnering with Closing the Loop who buy up mobile phone scrap from developing companies and ensure that is properly processed and setting aside 3 euros per unit sold for e-waste management projects in countries where these facilities don’t exist.

Fairphone has a clean rap sheet regarding past and contemporary unethical supply chains and manufacturing conditions. While Samsung markets the S4 as a ‘life companion’ and places much of their branding is aspirational and based on an idealised Western lifestyle, Fairphone’s entire presentation relates to their ethical goals. Samsung’s greater progress in terms of hazardous chemicals (in this case) may sway those of you who prioritise workers’ exposure to such chemicals over further curtailing the violence and exploitation that have ravaged the DRC.

Specs

Operating system

Both phones ship with Android 4.2.2 (Jelly bean) installed, though the look and feel of these operating system will be very different as both companies will install additional software. Fairphone are working with Kwamecorp to develop a clear an uncluttered user interface. Here is a video of someone unboxing one of previous (2013) batch of Fairphones.  The fact that the Fairophone user interface software will be open source scores a lot of points with me. While it comes with it’s own unique swiping functionality and menus, which may or may not be to your taste, you may appreciate the relative lack of pre-installed bloatwear, that I had to root my existing Samsung Galaxy S2 to remove, and complete absence of Google software to begin with.

Even this 9/10 review of the Galaxy S4 the author says the phone is more intuitive to use without Samsung’s TouchWiz swipe functionality.

All of this aside, with a little research, a few software downloads and some effort, both phones can be rooted and their software heavily customized, though Samsung don’t encourage this while Fairphone do.

Processor

All Faiphones come with a 1.2ghz quad core CPU. The various versions of the Galaxy S4 come with a range of quad core CPUs clocked at between 1.2 and 2.3Ghz. A more expensive S4 will get you more processing power. However, four cores clocked to 1.2Ghz should handle playing music and videos, web browsing, social networking and casual gaming, even simultaneously, without a stutter. The lower clock speed will likely also mean lower power consumption.

Memory and Storage

The Galaxy S4 comes with 2GB of RAM (random access memory) and between 16 and 64GB of internal storage augmentable using the microSDXC card slot that can take up to 64GB. While the Fairphone only comes with 1GB of RAM 16GB internal storage, some of which will be used for the operating system, it also has a microSFXC card slot, meaning that those seeking to store a greater volume of data can do so.

Display and GPU

With a 1920×1080 Super AMOLED display measuring 5 inches across, the S4 has a considerable advantage over the Faiphone’s 4.3 inch 960x540px TFT screen, both in terms of pixel density and image vibrancy.

Mobile device GPUs aren’t aren’t as heavily documented and compared as laptop and desktop graphics cards. However, I can tell you that the Fairphone comes with a PowerVR SGX544 clocked at 158 MHz. The S4 GT-i9500 features the same GPU, clocked at 533 MHz. Why the massive difference in clock speed? The S4 GPU has to process four times as many pixels. Later versions of the S4 come with the Adreno 430, which clocks at 450/578Mhz. Because of the smaller screen resolution, the Faiphone performed surprisingly well at outputting a visually complex 3D game.

Camera

Based on image resolution alone, the S4’s 13 megapixels trumps the Fairphone’s 8. However, it’s worth noting that while a higher resolution will lead to larger and possibly more detailed image files, the optics of a small mobile phone lens may not produce images worthy of such a high resolution. Not to mention the fact that the data from the CMOS sensor is interpolated to produce more pixel values than are technically sensed.

As far as video recording goes goes, the Fairphone can encode 1080p@30fps video using H.263 and 720p@30fps using the higher quality H.264 codec. Again, the S4 wins with 1080p @ 30fps encoded using  H.264. It also has support for the the new HEVC or H.265 codec, but I don’t know if this extends to recording.

As I cannot find an objective comparison of the image quality, I’ll say that the S4 has a superior camera due to the higher resolution sensor.

Networks

Both phones can connect to 2G and 3G networks. In some cases, the S4 cna also connect to 4G (LTE). Both support wireless 802.11 while the S4 has a greater range of features. Conveniently, the Fairphone has two SI card slots, the first 2G and the second 3G.

Conclusion

The Faiphone boasts dual SIM capabilities, which may cut the costs buying an maintaining a second phone if for some reason one needed to have two numbers. In my view, at least, the minimalistic open-source software that comes with the Fairphone is also superior. Out of the box, my old Galaxy SII was filled with bloatwear that would run in the background without my consent; it was so obtrusive that it felt like it was hard-coded, requiring a warranty-voiding rooting process to remove it. At least Faiphone seem to understand that software is one area where a great deal of freedom is possible.

The build-quality of the S4 has been criticised. People have said it looks and feels cheap. The front of the Fairphone is almost all glass and most of the back is metal. Personally, I prefer design of the Fairphone over the generously curved corners and lightly textured plastic of the S4.

The Fairphone is surpassed in all other major technical areas. As a general purpose camera, gaming and media playing/streaming device the S4 is far more feature rich.

Economic Convenience

Due to Fairphne’s lack of reliance on venture capital, one can only purchase by pre-ordering for the next production batch at approximately £254.91 . This can mean long waits and a lack of convenience and choice.

With the S4 there are is a plethora of contracts (Cheapest: £357.12 for 34 months) and pay as you go deals to choose from, as well as SIM free deals from £309.99.

The fairphone should work out cheaper, though as the S4 is superseded by the S5, the gap could close.

Last Word

Buying a Fairphone is more of a political act. The pragmatist in me may choose the powerful, convenient and reasonably ethical S4  but the idealist would like to support a start-up company that aims to raise awareness about consumer electronic manufacturing processes and supply chains, taking small steps toward changing them for the better.

Advertisements

When the US diplomatic cables were published in 2010, Julina Assange emerged as something of a figurehead and was represented positivity in the left-wing press. Naively, I saw him as something of a hero, a man whose fame was derived from his intellect, technical ability and principles.

After reading Andrew O’Hagen’s account of the months he spent attempting to ghost-write an autobiography for Assange, which exceed 25,000 words, I cannot deny that his personality is flawed. He displays a lack of empathy, manners and a sense of responsibility. He treats those he collaborates with with a general disregard and rails against them furiously when they turn against him. He favours large scale simultaneous dumping of hundred of thousands of documents, each one with its own complex set of circumstances. According to O’Hagen, he was partly motivated by the shock and awe of such an explosive leak of information, the spectacle of it. He is reported to have voiced conflicting opinions on the importance of redacting people’s names from these documents in the interest of their safety; his attitude seems ambivalent. It was up to The Guardian, The New York Time, Le Monde and Der Spiegel to ethically edit the information. The former two organization, Assange has come to view as enemies.

This is not the first time his personality and private life have been dissected, especially after his relationship with the organisation who published the cables broke down. There have been many allegation in the press and I’ve heard different opinions on his character voiced since. One friend compared him to Hitler, in his single-minded and uncaring pursuit of his goals. Others have focussed on the arguably positive aspects: The blows struck to the authority of powerful institutions as their private data was leaked. However, It’s worth noting that Assange is not necessarily an essential actor in these events. One wonders whether they would have occurred without him…

Although Assange rather arbitrarily dubs himself the 3rd best hacker in the world (and Edward Snowden as the 9th) I question whether someone with more self-doubt and empathy would have served just as well as a figurehead and founder of Wikileaks. There are many people with an extensive knowledge of networks, cryptology and cryptanalysis, some of whom might have possessed the integrity to apply the same principals of transparency to their own organization as those whose secure information they were publishing. They may not have vehemently insisted that recordings and manuscript were kept private. They may not have exhibited such a profound paranoia about spying and betrayal.

This is pure speculation, of course. Perhaps the grandness of Assange’s vision and his skill set are a very rare combination indeed, with some rather unfortunate side effects. Perhaps he is the only one whose idealism egoism and telecommunications/computing nous would have spawned Wikileaks, or similar.

Regrettably, I suppose this post only serves to add to the enormous amount of attention this man has garnered. Most of the credit goes to the whistle-blowers themselves and the people who sifted through all of the leaked information, attempting to make it meaningful to the general public.

It is almost unthinkable that multinational software corporations like Adobe and Autodesk are not aware of all the keygens, cracks and other means of illegally licensing and using their software available online. They probably have the resources and technically skilled staff needed to effectively combat software piracy, but what would they gain from this investment?

Assuming they were successful (the pirates are always on step ahead): You might think that they would gain tighter control of their various software markets. What would hobbyists and early career artists/technicians do if software used by sizeable animation, visual effects, architecture and engineering firms was completely unavailable to them?

  • They might buy cheaper alternatives, and help give big corporations’ competitors a fighting chance.
  • They might look into free and open source alternatives like GIMP (raster graphics), Inkscape (Vector graphics) and Blender (3D modelling and animation.) In my experience, Blender seldom, if ever crashes; the same can’t be said for Maya.

Neither of these possible consequences help the big corporations. Without software piracy, there would be a smaller pool of unemployed (or employed in different industries) workers skilled in their software.

If you really want a career as a CAD technician, photo retoucher, graphic designer or 3d artist, the chances are, you’ll do better if you continue to pirate industry standard software sold by giant corporations.  As a university student, you could even get Autodesk software free on an educational licence.

However, if you’re a hobbyist or someone looking to set up a firm who do things a little differently, consider this:

  • You could learn your craft in a way that doesn’t strengthen the monopoly of companies who profit from the software they’ve bought up from multiple developers.
  • You could do so without the constant fear of litigation.
  • You could eventually contribute to the open source projects you’ve benefited from.
  • You won’t feel like a powerless wage labourer, so grateful for a chance to work for someone who can afford the means of production, or to be that someone.

A teenage me might have though it clever and  naughty to use pirate software, but in my twenties, I’m starting to see the bigger picture.

England’s present Prime Minister who heads a liberal-conservative government is a man of many contradictions. I am going to take a brief look at one of them: Namely the ideological contradiction engendered by his criticism of state multiculturalism voiced in Munich on the 5th of February, 2011 and his ongoing espousal of ‘The Big Society’ – An idea which I believe can be linked to a decades-old discourse of communitarianism.

Communitarianism

Put briefly: Communitarianism is a political discourse which emerged in 1970s Anglo-American academia. It is driven by a critique of a perceived tendency amongst liberals to privilege the universal over the particular: Firstly, in the sense that proponents of liberalism can claim that theirs is the best, or even the only viable political system available. Secondly, a claim can be made that liberal states have become more centralised, top-down and bureaucratic; denying ordinary individuals and communities the self determination which is supposed to be so central to liberalism. For a more detailed summary, please consult this essay.

I will be focusing on the the latter point as I feel that a criticism of a bloated, monolithic state bureaucracy ties in well with Cameron’s notion of a ‘Big Society’. As he said during his speech on the 15th of February, 2011: ‘we have got to devolve more power to local government, and beyond local government, so people can actually do more and take more power[…] we have got to open up public services, make them less monolithic. (source) This rhetoric is highly communitarian. In an article for the Guardian he writes: ‘the Conservative programme for government is founded on such a radical revolt against the statist approach of the Big Government that always knows best. (source) Cameron, it seems, has created his a new binary opposition with the Big Society privileged over the Big government – Mirroring that of the particular over the universal.

As a man with PR experience, Cameron has the nous to re-brand a potentially intimidating ‘big word’. It is also a good move in that the new label is fairly vague and is not loaded with meaning to begin with, making its meaning easier to dictate as it entered widespread use. Perhaps his decision not to drag the word ‘communitarianism’ into the current political forum is that it has, in some cases been used to refer to theories which, according to the following, excerpt were critical of free market capitalism:

‘Libertarian solutions favoured by the political right have contributed even more directly to the erosion of social responsibilities and valued forms of communal life, particularly in the UK and the US. Far from producing beneficial communal consequences, the invisible hand of unregulated free-market capitalism undermines the family (e.g., few corporations provide enough leave to parents of newborn children), disrupts local communities (e.g., following plant closings or the shifting of corporate headquarters), and corrupts the political process (e.g., US politicians are often dependent on economic interest groups for their political survival, with the consequence that they no longer represent the community at large). Moreover, the valorization of greed in the Thatcher/Reagan era justified the extension of instrumental considerations governing relationships in the marketplace into spheres previously informed by a sense of uncalculated reciprocity and civil obligation. This trend has been reinforced by increasing globalization, which pressures states into conforming to the dictates of the international marketplace.’ (source)

If he had simply appropriated the term, he would have had to deal with the cultural baggage which it had accumulated. He is, in my view at least, attempting to construct an ideology which suits his purpose as a proponent of privatization and marketization; while borrowing from other ideologies and glossing over any contradictions that this bastardised new ideology might contain.

‘Muscular Liberalism’

I now will analyse a transcript of the speech Cameron gave in Munich on the 5th of February, 2011.

Midway through this speech, Cameron says: ‘Under the doctrine of state multiculturalism, we have encouraged different cultures to live separate lives, apart from each other and apart from the mainstream. We’ve failed to provide a vision of society to which they feel they want to belong. We’ve even tolerated these segregated communities behaving in ways that run completely counter to our values.’ Here, he is clearly espousing a universalistic view of liberalism, where all cultures must conform to a ‘mainstream’; in other words: a monolithic culture. In recent article for the Guardian, we can observe his familiar privileging of the particular over the universal: ‘[I]f neighbours want to take over the running of a post office, park or playground, we will help them. If a charity or a faith group want to set up a great new school in the state sector, we’ll let them. And if someone wants to help out with children, we will sweep away the criminal record checks and health and safety laws that stop them[.]‘ (source) While he opposes us living ‘separate lives, apart from each other and apart from the mainstream’, he is abundantly permissive when it comes to faith groups setting up public schools.

Conclusion

It seems that in terms of general English culture, he is willing to privilege universalism. But when it comes to the distribution of public funds and services, he’s all for particularism. Why not? It’s the cheapest and easiest position to hold. New labour can arguably be said to have held the opposite but equally contradictory position of privileging the universal when it came to the public sector and the particular, or plural in more general cultural matters. In this day an age, what is the harm of ideological contradiction? Personally, I think there are more pressing matters at hand, such as this government’s preferential treatment of larger banks and corporations, some of whom are to blame for the recession over the young and the poor, who had little to do with it.

Finally, and on a more personal note, I’d like to express my anxieties over one potential outcome of the Big Society: Neighbourhood watch organisations taking on the roles of fully fledged police. Policing is one area where I want public servants to be as impartial as possible – the idea of being policed my my neighbour scares me frankly. It’s not just that, I have moved around a lot over the course of my life and feel no particular connection to where I live. I don’t feel locally driven services would benefit me at all, and I don’t feel I have much to offer my community.