Up in the cloud

Recently, I've been thinking about the changing nature of computing. This was occasioned by an email that showed up in my inbox informing me that there was a new version of NeoOfficeavailable (NeoOffice is a Mac port of the OpenOffice.orgproject). I've been a big fan of OpenOffice and its derivatives over the years; when I was in college at UCSB, I used it in preference to Microsoft Word, which had a nasty habit of crashing on my G3 iBook, and used it in Linux when I wrote my proseminar paper, which was effectively my senior thesis. Overall, I found it more stable, more customizable, and just plain more to my taste than the Microsoft product. I've kept current versions of it on all our computers, given it away to friends, and its free and open-source nature means I can do so legally without taking out a loan to pay for it. It opens corrupted Word files more reliably than Word does, reads old Word formats that the current version of Word doesn't want to know about, and its native format is the Open Document Format, which has been recognized as an ISO standard.

It's not perfect; until recent versions of NeoOffice, its user interface made it look like a Windows 98 app, early versions took forever to start up, and it's a bloody huge download. But overall I've been so happy with it that I haven't really considered other options--until now.

What's changed my mind is, as you might guess, Google Docs. I'd tried early versions of it, which had limited functionality, and had gone back to NeoOffice. Then I decided to move my email hosting. I signed up for Google Apps For Your Domain, which also gives you a variety of other services including Google Docs. I tried it again, and...I liked it. A lot. I liked it so much, in fact, that it's now my default word processor.

It does have its limitations. If you need mail merge and footnotes and adjustable letter spacing, you won't be happy. But if you want to write a letter, or a to-do list, or any other basic word processing function, it's in there--and your document is stored on Google's servers, securely, available to you anywhere you have an internet connection. This might be problematic if you don't have reliable Web access, but even there Google's engineers have figured out a solution--Google Gears, which gives you offline access. It can handle PDF files, and will import and export files in several formats. And it isn't just a word processor--Google Docs also does spreadsheets and presentations.

So now you have a free office suite, running in your browser, with documents accessible anywhere. Suddenly, a desktop application--particularly an expensive one--doesn't make as much sense as it did before. To be sure, there are lots of good ones out there--Word, WordPerfect, AbiWord, Mellel, OpenOffice, Pages, etc.--but increasingly, the question you have to ask is, _"why bother?"_

Indeed, that is becoming a question in many areas of computing. As it stands, you can do word processing, spreadsheets, presentations, file backup, and a host of other things using web apps and web services. I'm a good example of what can be done--my email is hosted by Google, my photos are on Flickr, backed up to Amazon S3via JungleDisk, my check register is a Google spreadsheet, and my documents are mostly Google Docs (downloaded to my computer as ODF files and backed up to Amazon S3, just in case).

The upshot of all this is that you need less computer with which to do your everyday tasks. Why bother with a huge optical drive if almost everything you do is web-based? Thus, something like the Asus eeePC(on the low end) or the MacBook Air(on the high end) starts to look like a reasonable solution. Operating systems aren't even all that important anymore, since the web is cross-platform, so you have real choice there as well.

And the best part is, you never have to download and update an application ever again.

Polygamy, the next frontier

As we all know, same-sex marriages commenced in California this week. I've been struggling to come up with a blog posting about the subject that isn't the length of a magazine article, because there are so many aspects that are worth talking about. My personal feeling is that this is just the beginning of a major shift, and that we will eventually see normative marriage redefined to include polygamy. I believe this to be true not only because in many cases there are issues of religious freedom involved, but because some of the same arguments that are used in favor of gay marriage can be used in favor of plural marriage--which, for what it's worth, has more historical precedent behind it than gay marriage does.

This morning, I was listening to the podcast of Bill Handel's KFI morning show from yesterday, and he got frustrated with someone who suggested that polygamy was next. Dismissing the notion as ridiculous, he said, "that's simply where we draw the line."

Sorry, Bill, but you're going to have to do better than that. For all of the recorded history of western civilization, the acceptable definition of marriage has been limited to one man and one woman. That's simply where we drew the line. Now, the line has shifted, and having shifted once, there is no reason why it cannot shift again.

In fact, it may be shifting already. Prosecutors in Utah and Arizona have, for the most part, stopped prosecuting polygamy cases except where issues of child abuse exist, a tacit recognition that polygamy (at least the religiously-based variety) cannot be stamped out by legal means. Public reaction in the wake of the 1953 Short Creek raid sent a clear message that there was no support for heavy-handed police action against polygamists, and permitted polygamy to flourish for decades in the area of Short Creek, which was renamed Colorado City. The aftermath of the raids on the FLDS compound in Texas seem to confirm this lack of public will to confront the issue; the children of sect members have been returned to their parents, and there are no polygamy prosecutions forthcoming. The church's spokesman has stated that they will discontinue the practice of underage marriage, which seems to have satisfied the authorities for now.

This, of course, stops well short of legalizing the practice of plural marriage, but it is unquestionably a step towards toleration. So when can we expect it to be taken to its logical conclusion?

That's easy. Homosexual marriage became thinkable to society at large when gays and lesbians began to be seen not as bizarre creatures of unnatural habits, but as normal people who loved each other and wanted the same benefits as other couples. When the face of polygamy ceases to be the strange women with unibrows and homemade prairie dresses who inhabit isolated compounds in remote areas, and begins to be jeans-wearing, Tahoe-driving soccer moms in extra-large houses in suburban Salt Lake City (and yes, they do exist), then legalized polygamy will surely not be far off.

Welcome

This was originally the first post on my old Blogger site.

Welcome to my blog. Things are a bit sparse at the moment, so please bear with me as I get the furniture in place and spruce it up a bit.

I'm not going to drone on about what this blog will be. Right now, it's a blank slate, and it remains to be seen whether or not I'll keep up my good intentions and write something on a regular basis.

Meanwhile, have a look around, and check in from time to time, or subscribe to my RSS feed. I'll try to keep the pipeline filled with stuff to read.

The Power of Incumbency

Baquia, over at Baha'i Rants, has posted some very insightful comments on the recent election of officers to the National Spiritual Assembly of the Baha'is of the United States, as well to the Canadian NSA. For those of you who aren't aware of the nature of Baha'i elections, the demotion of Robert C. Henderson to the status of mere mortal--I mean, regular NSA member--from his previously exalted position of Secretary-General has the air of a palace coup.

Incumbents are rarely voted out of office in Baha'i elections, unless it's to get kicked upstairs, and while the esteemed Dr. Henderson didn't get voted off the NSA, it's noteworthy that he didn't get automatically returned to the Sec-Gen's position, as would normally be the case. There's been some speculation about a possible split on the NSA, with some members ready to admit that things haven't been working out so well lately, while others are dutifully lining up behind the banner of Ruhi. We'll probably never know the full story, such is the secrecy behind which so much in the Baha'i administration is hidden. It may, however, signal coming changes to the way the Baha'i Faith in America is run.

The really interesting thing is that this shakeup follows a visit to the Baha'i National Convention by Dr. Penelope Walker, a member of the International Teaching Centre. The ITC has become the training ground for the Universal House of Justice, the international Baha'i governing body. Dr. Walker isn't eligible for the all-male UHJ, but it's fairly clear she was sent there to reinforce the party line, which is generally "redouble your efforts, have faith, work harder, and give sacrificially to the Fund." If the NSA has voted out Henderson despite that show of force, things in the American Baha'i community may get very interesting indeed--and not a moment too soon.

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