Open and Closed


Today, Facebook announced some major updates to their messaging system. There was a lot of speculation over the weekend that they were going to be launching an email client, perhaps in an effort to compete with Google and Gmail. And while email is definitely a part of this new messaging system, it isn't strictly email - it's a new way of handling messages altogether.

The service is currently opt-in (which means Facebook is learning about how to roll out features), so until I get a chance to give it a try for myself, I'll hold off commenting about it. If you want to learn more, you can read their blog post I linked to above, or watch a recording of their announcement. You can also catch Gizmodo's wrap-up of it, or read arguments for and against, courtesy of Lifehacker.

This announcement, however, has inspired me to write on something that I've been giving a good amount of thought to lately - open and closed systems.

At the risk of oversimplifying, let's define the two as follows:

An "open system" is one in which the system user, more or less, controls what they can do in it. A key component of an open system is the ability of a user to break from the intended use.

A "closed system", by contrast, is one where the system designers dictate what can be done within it. It is, by design, difficult to break from the intended use or funtionality.

These definitions are geared somewhat more toward technical/computer systems, but the general ideas can be applied to many things:

A game of solitare, played with physical cards, is an open system - you can break from the rules if you so desire. The same game, on a computer, is a closed system - breaking from the rules is, by design, impossible (unless you hack it somehow).

Driving a car is, relatively speaking, an open system - you control what you bring in it, how fast you drive, where you drive, when you leave, where you park, etc. Riding a bus is a more closed system - you lose some of this control. Even less open would be air travel (as new TSA regulations are clearly demonstrating).

In the tech realm, we have high-profile clashes between Microsoft and Apple for operating systems. Windows is more open, which has the effect of making it more vulnerable to viruses. Apple controls their system more strictly, which affords users more protections, at the expense of some flexibility in what they can do with it.

This mentality extends to mobile phones, where Apple's iPhone is fairly well locked down - they tightly regulate what apps you can download. Google's Android system is more open; one of their ads proudly proclaims that "when there's no limit to what Droid gets, there's no limit to what Droid does".

And, speaking of Google, they're battling Facebook over online identities. Facebook very tightly controls your information, and has only just started allowing users to pull their information back out. Facebook is notoriously difficult to leave (there's no simple "cancel account" feature - only a "deactivate" feature). And you can really see the difference in their approaches by looking at Facebook versus Buzz.

Facebook doesn't play nice with other services, though they DO make it fairly easy to connect OTHER sites to Facebook. They pull data one-way, into their closed system.

Google Buzz, on the other hand, is fairly minimal in features of its own. Instead, they allow you to integrate other services of your choice to Buzz, without locking down the data. By comparison, Buzz is pretty open.

The way Facebook and Google, two GIANT aggregators of personal data, treat this data is a wonderful example of differing philosophies. Facebook, by nature of trying to "map your social network", MUST tie your data to you. There's no other way for it to work. Facebook wants to aggregate your personal data, and use it to map how you connect with other people. And, in (presumably) an effort to keep you on the Facebook system, they close this system, making it hard to export the data it has collected.

Google also collects data from its many users, and there's no way for a user to really "delete" the data Google has collected about search habits, program use, etc. The difference, however, is that Google's information is more or less anonymous. They don't need to tie your search data to you in particular - just that SOME user has made that search.

When I was watching Facebook's live stream (that I linked to above) earlier today, they talked at one point about the differences between how Facebook and "other services" (really, Google, and Gmail in particular) serve ads. Google determines the ads to serve based on the content of the messages; when I open an email from Toshiba, I'm served ads about laptop computers. Facebook, by contrast, serves ads based on the information you've given them. In my case, I often get ads for games, despite what content I'm viewing. This difference gives an illustration of how the data they collect is used.

Now, none of this is meant to push one style of system over another, in general or in specific circumstances. Both have benefits, depending on the situation. As a general rule, I prefer open systems (so if my tone in describing closed systems above is slightly more negative, you know why). I think power and control should belong to the user, not the designer - good design, in my opinion, should GRANT users freedom, not take it away.

But I know not everybody agrees. There are tons of people who prefer the "just works" mentality of Macs, even if a more appropriate claim is "just works - but only in the way we intend". And that's fine - consumers certainly have the choice to use whatever system they prefer. The most important thing, really, is to understand the limitations and rules of the system you choose to interact with.

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Wheel of Fortune Ad


There's a giant billboard on Olympic and Barrington advertising Wheel of Fortune. It shows the following partially completed puzzle:

H _ T   T _ E
J _ C K P _ T

Now, obviously, the answer is HIT THE JACKPOT. But this board CAN'T POSSIBLY EXIST! If somebody had guessed the letter 'H' (as evidenced by it existing in 'HIT'), then it would have to have been present in 'THE'!

How you make an ad for your puzzle game, and fail that miserably, is beyond me.

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During the past week, my good friend Courtney was attacked by a couple of men in Mozambique, where she's stationed with the Peace Corps. A few days later, her sister was attacked by some random girl in San Francisco. These two events, besides being what I can only imagine was a very scary few days for their family, serve as an unfortunate reminder that the world we live in isn't always a nice place. Fortunately, they're both ok.

When I was teaching Taekwondo during my senior year of high school, the instructor I taught for had a lot of experience with attacker profiling. When we would do self-defense work, our sessions always included talks about how best to protect ourselves from being attacked in the first place. After all, the best way to take a punch is to be somewhere else when it lands. In light of these two events, I want to share some of this info here.

Note that what follows is general advice. There are a million and one scenarios that you can dream up, all requiring their own response and advice (even though me writing this post is a response to what happened to my friends, some of this doesn't even apply to their scenarios). And obviously take it all with a grain of salt, as I'm not a professional in any of this. That all said...

Most crimes are ones of opportunity and/or passion*
Courtney's attackers were two guys she passed on her way to meet up with friends. She didn't know them, and their attack wasn't premeditated - she described them as "two bored young men who thought I might have had money". Her sister's attacker was a random girl in the street, who flipped out for some reason. People don't (generally) break into cars at random - they pick ones where they can see an exposed iPod, cell phone, GPS system, etc; anything to make it WORTH trying to break in. They're also more likely to look for one they can easily get into (i.e., an unlocked one).

So you can rest more easily knowing that there's very little chance somebody is out there, actively plotting how they're going to attack you in the future. Which means, there are things you can do to lower your chances of getting attacked, independent of the potential attackers.

*Note that one crime in particular does NOT follow this trend - according to the Rape, Abuse, & Incest National Network, approximately 73% of rape victims know their assailants. Of course, some of these attacks are ALSO crimes of passion/opportunity, and the general strategies to follow are also applicable (though the specifics vary).

Criminals are COWARDS
Put yourself in the shoes of an attacker for a moment. If you're trying to steal somebody's phone/camera/purse/etc., who are you going to try to take from? A guy built like an NFL player, or a girl built like a ballerina? And are you going to go it alone, or would you like a partner? Instances like Courtney's illustrate this perfectly - she was attacked by two tall guys around the age of 20. Two on one is the ultimate cowardly move, but it doesn't matter - they wanted to take her money, so they went after somebody they had a size and numbers advantage over. They're aiming for minimal risk, maximum reward.

So one of the best ways to protect yourself is to make yourself an "unattractive" target, both before and, if necessary, during a potential attack. Unfortunately, there are some characteristics that make you more susceptible, that are just beyond your control: namely, gender and body type. Females are more likely to be targeted, simply because of their gender. I hate that this is true, but it is. Same with smaller people (so somebody like me, who isn't particularly tall or buff, is at a higher risk than other guys).

But, there are a lot of things you CAN do to help. When possible, travel with somebody else. Doesn't even need to be a guy (if you're a girl) - a group of two people is FAR less likely to be bothered. And of course, traveling with more people is even better.

Be alert. Know your surroundings. Walk confidently, with your head up. Avoid using headphones, playing with your phone, or other noticeable distractions if you're somewhere a little more remote. This has the added bonus of not broadcasting that you're carrying an expensive piece of technology. Some people advocate talking on the phone with somebody, so that it's obvious to anybody around that you're in contact with somebody. I can see the benefits of this, and it might help prevent being attacked, but might encourage somebody to just snatch your phone and take off. So that's something to consider too.

Try to travel in well-lit, populated areas. More people, and more visibility, means more witnesses and people who could intervene, which means you're a less attractive target. If you think you're being followed, get to some place like this. Or, head towards a police station/car/officer.

If you are attacked
There are a lot of ways to react to various attacks/grabs/etc., but there's no way I could possibly explain them in a text format. And to be able to do them effectively, you need to practice them, at full (or near-full) speed. So if you have the opportunity to take a self-defense class (maybe one offered by the local police dept.), I'd recommend doing that. But there are some general things you can keep in mind:

First and foremost, USE YOUR VOICE (if possible). Yell, scream, do anything to attract attention. Again, they're cowards - attention is the LAST thing the attacker wants. Also, it's disorienting to the attacker.

If you're going to kick, keep them low. You DON'T want your leg grabbed - that's a good way to suffer an injury and/or go to the ground. Honestly, you'll probably be better off using your knees to aim for the groin/inner thigh.

Don't be afraid to scratch/claw, especially at the face (and the EYES). Bite if you need to (as gross as this is going to sound, if you bite an attacker, do so with the intention of ripping out a chunk of flesh). Despite what boxers and Hollywood might make you think, punching to the jaw is probably not going to help much - but you can mess somebody up pretty bad by slamming the bottom of your fist into the side of the neck, or on the collarbone (which is a fairly weak bone).

Of course, you aren't likely going to have time to aim very well, so do whatever feels most natural. You want to get the person off you, try to stay off the ground, and as soon as possible, RUN AWAY.

My instructor used to say you have 30 seconds to thwart them, or to get away. After 30 seconds, you start becoming much more trouble than it's worth. Don't be fooled - 30 seconds is a LONG time to fight somebody off, so don't take that lightly.

Here's a (slightly edited) excerpt from Courtney's account, which I think illustrates all of this perfectly:

"I started flailing and kicking and managed to pry dude #1’s arm off of my throat and kicked dude #2 somewhere around his head, and then tuck and rolled just in time to hit dude #1 with an elbow. This was much less badass than it sounds.... But I don’t think they expected me to fight so after a little while (it felt like ages) I was able to jump up and they let me go. I pulled off my sandals and ran..."

Note that the advice for avoiding conflict doesn't help so much in her sister's case, where she was attacked out of the blue, due to some kind of aggression, as opposed to an attempted theft. But the fighting aspects DO help. Some other general notes to consider:

You are stronger than you think
When I was teaching Taekwondo, one of the most interesting things was when we started teaching board breaking technique. We had a variety of plastic boards that snapped together with "teeth" of varying length (like these). Longer teeth were tougher to break. They ranged from fairly weak ones that could break apart just by hitting the ground at the right speed/spot, to ones that were the equivalent of two inches of pine wood.

Our high school-aged (and older) students, both men and women, were routinely able to break this 2" board with just a little bit of practice - provided they didn't realize which board it was they were trying to break! If they knew they were going after that strong, their mind would get in the way, and they would struggle.

Granted, you need the right technique and good aim to hit the board just right, but the point is that even 16-year old girls were capable of hitting with enough force to break TWO INCHES of pine. Your body can hit plenty hard, so don't hold back if you find yourself in a dangerous situation. Imagine what a strike with that much force would do if you hit an attacker in the side of the head.

Get support
Courtney mentioned this in her post, but it bears repeating: if you, or somebody you know, is attacked like this, find support from friends, family, or even get professional counseling if it's a particularly scary situation. Something like this can really change your perspective on your every day life, whether you are the victim, or just happen to know the victim. Heck, me writing this 1600+ word post is my way of dealing with the fact that one of my best friends was attacked, 13,000 miles away from me. It's scary.

This has been a really, really long post, but I hope people find it helpful. But more than that, I hope you never, ever need find yourself in a situation like this. This advice applies mainly random attacks similar to Courtney's, and I know there are a lot of potential situations that can arise that this may not necessarily apply to. Again, I'm not an expert, but if anybody reading this wants my take on these other situations (how to deal with somebody who is armed, who demands you to hand over your purse/wallet, rather than just attacking, etc.), drop them in the comments, and I can make another post for them.

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