All posts by subir

Grassroots peace: Israeli settlers and Palestinian villagers talk it out

Haaretz published a piece on West Bank settlers and Palestinian villagers reaching out to each other for dialog. To quote one of the leaders, Shaul Judelman:

Our goal here is empowering moderate voices on both sides to be able to stand with their communities and look beyond the other side as a pure enemy and see that our destiny here in some way is together.

and one of his Palestinian partners:

We want to show the children another side of the enemy. At the end of the day, they are the ones who pay the price for the conflict. They are not responsible for what the grown-ups are doing. They are just the victims of the grown-ups and their lack of responsibility. We want to encourage them to have hope for the future.

There are many more who think like this and will be able to look past the fear fomented by politicians on both sides. It’s the reason a single state solution can work and may be the best option in the long-run. Do your small bit and sign the White House petition asking Obama to make it a policy option.

Absent a move towards equal rights for all, Israel-Palestine is likely to descend into a version of Jim Crow on the Jordan. You already have two sets of laws. One for Israelis, one for Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza. They’re not enforced equally. This will lead to further calls of Apartheid, Boycotts, Divestment and Sanctions.

The settlers quoted in the article recognize this, and they see clearly what this is doing to their own communities:

…it’s also an awareness that we’re not getting here from equal places at all and there’s a lot of work to do within both of our communities for that vision to come alive, and we both have a lot of responsibility to make a lot of change.

The settlers have become one of the most ostracized bad words in Israel. Nobody talks to us. The more our communities feel vilified, we play the role. I really see that happening.

If you truly respect the rights of Israeli Jews to settle in what they consider their ancestral homeland, you should also respect the equal-rights for Palestinians including their right to return to Jaffa or Haifa if they’re from there. That’s why the one-state solution is the only just option.

Sadly, extremism on both sides is undermining hopes for peace of any kind. Here in the US we hear a lot about Hamas terrorism, rocket attacks, kidnappings and hate. But the same sort of forces are gathering on the Israeli side as well, and you see hate crimes, mobs attacking Palestinians, arrests of anti-war protesters and callousness towards the deaths of hundreds of Palestinian children.

But that is not the whole story, and not what we should focus on if we want to see peace. These settlers recognize that as well and don’t like what it’s doing to their children:

Our children need to know that to hit an Arab because they are an Arab is the same as to hit a Jew because they are a Jew.

Part of this is because of how segregated the two populations have become. To quote one of the settlers:

I said I never thought I’d talk to a Palestinian. He said he never thought he would talk to a settler. He described to me how my kippa to his children is a symbol to be feared. I described to him how for me his village was a place you go and don’t come back. He tells me how afraid the Palestinians are of the settlers. I say: You’re afraid of me? I thought I was afraid of you.

Moderate voices who want to live in peace together deserve our support.

I’ve spent the last four years meeting Palestinians, hearing their side and learning how they see us. I realize, of course, that they hate us. They don’t believe that Israel is connected to the Jewish people. They think Israel is a colonial entity from the outside with no connection to this land. They construct a narrative of us just like we construct a narrative of them. For me it’s very important to bring people who are connected to this land to tell the story of what it means to be in the area of Bethlehem to Hebron for us. It has to be part of a dialogue.

We believe the Jewish people have a connection to the land. We believe in some sense that it’s right and proper that we’re here. But at the same time we know, or we’re coming to realize, that other people are here also, and we have to balance those conflicting truths. When you only live among your own and only know your own narrative, you are naturally very suspicious of the other who is just an intruder and just a thorn in your side and something that doesn’t belong there. But when you open up your heart and you see the other, you begin to see the truth is complex – that my truth is true, but it’s a partial truth and there’s another truth that’s also partial and I have to learn to put them together and make the larger truth. I believe we can do that.

I say amen to that. Or ameen if you prefer.

Why Doesn’t the US Support Equal Rights For All People In Israel/Palestine?

Israel_Palestine_Flag

I suspect it’s due to widespread mis-understandings and lobbying. I’ve created a White House petition, please sign it, it reads:

 

Support a single, secular state in Israel-Palestine with equal rights for all.

The Israel-Palestine “peace process” has been underway for over 40 years. Two generations of Palestinians and Israelis have come of age amid violence, occupation and still-born “peace summits”.

End this charade.

The ancient Mediterranean culture of Palestine and the followers of Judaism must find a way to inhabit the country they hold dear through dialogue as equals.

Palestinians and Israelis deserve equal rights in their native land. They deserve security, the right to live where they choose and freedom from fear.

This will come when they live together in peace and heal their wounds. When occupation, unequal laws, violence against civilians and political imprisonment ends.

As a secular, multi-cultural nation, the USA should not support any plan of partition along religious lines.

 

If you’re not convinced this is a good idea or necessary, do read and listen to the following writers. They convey the need and urgency for a single state solution more eloquently than I’ll ever be able to:

If you still want to know what I think…

The fact is that Israel-Palestine today is one state and has been for 47 years. It has one army and one government.  It is a state where fully half the population is disenfranchised and has limited or no rights.

The “two-state peace process” does not serve the interests, or secure a positive future for Israelis and Palestinians. All it does is fuel the careers of the consultants who are in the “peace process industry”. They’ve been milking this rich cow for almost 50 years, and would be happy to milk it for another 50.

Partition of Palestine was never a good idea. How did it make sense to give over half the country of Palestine to the Jewish population when they were less than a quarter of the population? What right did the Allied Powers, the UN have to do this? They took away the people’s right to determine their own future. This is why a Palestinian Muslim or Christian who was born in Haifa or Jaffa cannot return. It is an injustice.

Today, Palestinians within Israel number almost 6 million, they’re half the population. The two state “solutions” being discussed would leave them with less than 20% of the country. And that number is falling every day since Israeli state has been illegally building settlements in the West Bank for 50 years.

I have some experience with partitions. In 1947, the country I was born in (India) was partitioned (by an Allied power). My father is from Punjab, a state that had a roughly equal Muslim, Sikh and Hindu population. Each half of Punjab was ethnically cleansed and a culture centuries old torn apart.  Incidentally, the Roma/Gypsies are from this part of India and look remarkably like my family, so there’s the Holocaust connection.

The same thing happened in Israel-Palestine, though the Palestinians bore the brunt of the suffering there and still are.

India is a secular democracy with many, many minorities. They are linguistic, religious, caste based, regional. You name it, we have a minority for it (including 150 million Muslims)[1].  Pakistan was meant to be a refuge for united India’s muslims.

Of course, once you’ve asked whether everyone’ Muslim, the next question is whether everyone is the right kind of Muslim. So today, in Pakistan, which was meant to protect India’s Muslim minority, Sunnis are murdering Shia and blowing up Sufi shrines.

The same thing eventually happens to any country built along religious lines. So a “Jewish State” of Israel can look forward to divisions between Ashkenazi and Mizrahi, between Orthodox and Reform, between North African Jews and Arabian peninsula Jews. That is just human nature.

This is why the country I chose as my home (USA) and thankfully, the country I was born in (India) are secular democracies. This is why it is critical to separate church from state to ensure the rights and primacy of the individual.

The only right position to have is that faith is a personal matter. The state has no role to play in it. The moment you deviate, both your religion and your state will be captured by power-hungry charlatans who want to use these powerful tools for their own ends.

In the end, I support a one state solution because I want everyone to live in a country like the USA, where all people equal under the law (though we too are still perfecting the union).

  • 1. India also had a small (in Indian terms) number of Jews who had lived in peace for centuries in India but whose ranks have been decimated by emigration. The city I grew up in, Bombay, has numerous structures named after Baghdadi Jews who migrated there. India also took in a number of Holocaust refugees.

What happened to Ben-Gurion’s Oasis in the Desert?

After reading Mark Levine’s response to Jon Voigt’s open letter, I had to write about why many people like think as Jon Voigt does, and how political trends in Israel make his views rather quaint.

Sunset in the Negev
Sunset in the Negev

A desert in bloom

There is a lot to admire in the words, and many of the deeds, of Israeli leaders in the early years. Mapai/Labor were in charge and the kibbutz movement was ascendant. Ben-Gurion’s oft-quoted dream of making the “Negev desert bloom” is what people are thinking of when they see Israel as a project to create an oasis in the desert. The residual goodwill from that period are part of the reason an earlier generation sees the whole period with rose colored glasses and that is where Voigt is coming from (and Woody Allen as well).

Ben-Gurion’s powerful image of the desert oasis suggested a barren, sparsely populated land. This is part of the reason so many people still believe that all of Palestine was populated by nomadic tribes prior to 1948. This may have been true about the Negev Bedouin, but even they alone were over a 100,000 in 1948. In comparison, the entire Jewish population in then Palestine was around 600,000.

Of course, the West Bank is not the Negev, and neither was much of the coast with its heavily populated Palestinian villages and towns. They were both parts of a thriving Mediterranean culture that had traded with and influenced the entire area for millenia. In Palestine, there was a mixed community of Muslims and Christians, along with some Jews who had lived side by side for centuries. In 1948, that community was torn asunder in what they call the Nakba. Some 700,000 Palestinians were expelled from their homes by the Jewish militia, or fled in fear. Many of their villages were razed to the ground. It was this that moved Golda Meir to say, after a visit to Arab Haifa in 1948:

It is a dreadful thing to see the dead city. Next to the port I found children, women, the old, waiting for a way to leave. I entered the houses, there were houses where the coffee and pita bread were left on the table, and I could not avoid [thinking] that this, indeed, had been the picture in many Jewish towns [i.e., in Europe, during World War II]‘.

To come back to the desert though. The Negev Bedouin had a way of life which deserves respect. They had lived and survived on that unforgiving land for centuries. After 1948, they were forced into settlements, and thousands expelled into Jordan or Egypt. This has diminished their culture (not to mention dispossessed them of their lands). So even that ostensibly inoffensive project is more questionable than many claim. In some ways, the treatment of the Bedouin parallels our own country’s treatment of the Native American tribes living on the Great Plains.

“I have heard you intend to settle us on a reservation near the mountains. I don’t want to settle. I love to roam over the prairies. There I feel free and happy, but when we settle down we grow pale and die. A long time ago this land belonged to our fathers, but when I go up to the river I see camps of soldiers on its banks. These soldiers cut down my timber, they kill my buffalo and when I see that, my heart feels like bursting.” — Satanta, Kiowa Chief 

Continue reading What happened to Ben-Gurion’s Oasis in the Desert?

A Person’s A Person, No Matter How Small.

A Person’s A Person, No Matter How Small.

How Dr. Seuss taught me everything I need to know about Ferguson, Syria, Iraq and Gaza.

 

Tonight, I was putting my daughter to bed and reading her a book. I happened to pick up Horton Hears a Who! and it fit the news I’ve been thinking about for the past week or two. The shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, the persecution and murder of minorities in Iraq and Syria, and the bombing of homes and towns in Gaza that caused the deaths of four hundred and thirty children and at least a thousand adult civilians.

There’s no way to improve his words, so I’ll just turn it over to Dr. Seuss.

“I’ve never heard tell

Of a small speck of dust that is able to yell.

So you know what I think?… Why I think that there must

Be someone on top of that small speck of dust!

Some sort of a creature of very small size,

Too small to be seen by an elephant’s eye

some poor little person who’s shaking with fear

That he’ll blow in the pool! He has no way to steer!

I’ll just have to save him. Because, after all,

A person’s a person, no matter how small.”

 

I can’t let my very small persons get drowned!

I’ve got to protect them. I’m bigger than they.

“Should I put this speck down?…” Horton though with alarm.

“If I do, these small persons may come to great harm.

I can’t put it down. And I won’t! After all

A person’s a person. No matter how small.”

 

“… a family, for all that we know!

A family with children just starting to grow.

So, please,” Horton said, “as a favor to me,

Try not to disturb them. Just please let them be.”

 

All that late afternoon and far into the night

That black-bottomed bird flapped his wings in fast flight,

While Horton chased after, with groans, over stones

That tattered his toenails and battered his bones,

And begged, “Please don’t harm all my little folks, who

Have as much right to live as us bigger folks do!”

 

They beat him! They mauled him! They started to haul

Him into the cage! But he managed to call

To the mayor: “Don’t give up! I believe in you all!

A person’s a person, no matter how small!

And you very small persons will not have to die

If you make yourselves heard! So come on, now and TRY!”

 

And that Yopp…

That one small, extra Yopp put it over!

Finally at last! From that speck on that clover

Their voices were heard! They rang out clear and clean.

And the elephant smiled. “Do you see what I mean? …

They proved they ARE persons, no matter how small.

And their whole world was saved by the Smallest of All!”

 

Theodor Seuss Geisel wrote Horton Hears a Who! after a visit to post-war Japan that changed his mind on how the US should treat Japanese reconstruction.

I wish all our kids aspire to be Hortons when they get big and the lad who said Yopp while they are little.

Henk Zanoli 91, helped save a 12 year old child from the Nazis

Yad Vashem and the Israeli government gave him a “Righteous among the Nations” medal. And then Israeli forces went ahead and killed six members of his extended family in Gaza by bombing their home.

So he gave the medal back along with this heart-breaking letter explaining his reasons. He concludes by saying:

If your state would be willing and able to transform itself along the lines of that set out above and there would still be an interest at that time in granting an honor to my family for the actions of my mother during the second world war, be sure to contact me or my descendants.

For most, this would be the appropriate moment to reflect on whether Netanyahu and Likud are alienating Israel’s best friends. But that must be because you don’t have the mindset of our friends on the right and you’re not with us on everything, so you must be against us.

This is how various newspapers are covering the story:

The Economist does a really good job of summarizing the story:

HENK ZANOLI (pictured) is a 91-year-old retired Dutch lawyer whose personal history encapsulates the reasons why the Netherlands and Israel have had such friendly relations since the foundation of the Jewish state in the wake of the second world war. Mr Zanoli’s family was, as the Dutch put it, “right in the war”—i.e. members of the resistance. In 1943, Mr Zanoli escorted an 11-year-old Jewish boy from Amsterdam, Elchanan Pinto, back to the family home in the village of Eemnes, where he and his mother Johanna hid him for the rest of the war. (His father, Henk Senior, had already been sent to a concentration camp for his resistance activities; he would die at Mauthausen.) Mr Pinto subsequently emigrated to Israel. Three years ago, the Israeli Holocaust memorial Yad Vashem awarded its “Righteous Among the Nations” medal, given to non-Jews who rescued Jews from the Nazis, to Mr Zanoli and (posthumously) his mother.

On August 11th, Haaretz’s Amira Hass reports, Mr Zanoli sent Yad Vashem its medal back. Mr Zanoli’s great-niece, Angelique Eijpe, is a Dutch diplomat, deputy head of the country’s mission in Oman, and her husband, Ismail Zi’adah, is a Palestinian economist who was born in Gaza’s al-Bureij refugee camp. On July 20, the Zi’adah family house in al-Bureij was hit by an Israeli bomb, killing six members of the extended family, including the family matriarch, three of her sons, and a 12-year-old grandson. In an elegant and sorrowful letter to Israel’s ambassador in The Hague, Mr Zanoli explained that he could not in good conscience keep the Israeli medal.

Continue reading Henk Zanoli 91, helped save a 12 year old child from the Nazis

A tale of two boys shot: St. Louis and Hebron

Michael Brown , 18 was killed Saturday, in St. Louis, apparently shot by a bullet from a police officer’s gun. The FBI will investigate this as a possible civil rights violation. It is front-page news across the country.

A few hours later, Khalil Al-Anati was killed in Hebron, apparently shot by a bullet from an Israeli soldier’s gun who may have been shooting into a crowd of protesters throwing stones. The Israeli military police is investigating. The story is buried in the inner pages of the newspapers that bother to cover it.

The human rights organization B’Tselem requested inquiries for over 300 killings of Palestinians by Israeli forces between 2000 and 2011. This has resulted in 9 indictments. The vast majority of military inquiries are closed years later with no action taken and no comment on why they were closed.

Thousands of children as young as 9 have been arrested and harshly interrogated, often for no reason other than a relative of theirs is wanted.

In St. Louis there have been vigils and protests, and the entire country is riveted. Everyone is wondering whether Michael’s only mistake was being born black.

In the West Bank, hundreds attended the funeral, but there is no major protest. Perhaps because this is the 17th shooting of an unarmed civilian in the West Bank this month. This month has been particularly difficult. On average Israeli soldiers kill only one or two unarmed civilians in the West Bank. A pace has been steady for years except for the years where protests are thick. Some are killed because they stray too close to a fence, around a settlement or border with Israel. Some are killed because young Israeli soldiers in armored Hum-vees panic and shoot into or around a crowd of Palestinian teenagers throwing stones.

Maybe the Palestinians have run out of rage, because four hundred and thirty children have been killed in Gaza over the past four weeks.

Khalil Al-Anati was 12 years old. His mistake was playing outside his house while an Israeli military convoy drove past and someone else threw stones at them. Just another “human shield” meant to be smashed to smithereens.

Perhaps his real mistake was being born Palestinian.

Why Do I Criticize The Israeli Government? My Response to Sam Harris

Bombardment of Gaza

Sam Harris has a transcript of a podcast on his website titled “Why Don’t I Criticize Israel“. It’s thought-provoking and cogent, but in the end unpersuasive.

You should read or listen to Harris’s podcast in it’s entirety. What I’m going to do here is evaluate and examine many of Sam’s arguments and others you may have heard. Sam makes as good a case as you can possibly make for the Israeli government while hewing as close as possible to a secular, humanist point of view. I’ll quote liberally, but the podcast must be heard in it’s entirety for it’s full effect.

A note on philosophical inclinations towards justice. If you’re a utilitarian, the case is quite clear.  Israeli action has caused the deaths of close to 2,000 people in this latest attack on Gaza in summer 2014.  Most sources agree that 65-80% of these are civilians (the Israeli government claims over half were not civilians).  Over 400 children have been killed.  At the other end, Hamas has managed to kill over 60 Israeli soldiers, two Israeli civilian and one Thai civilian in addition to damaging some buildings and setting off sirens all across Israel generally disrupting everyone’s day. Israeli forces have destroyed key infrastructure in Gaza, leaving most of the population without water or power and around 500,000 without access to their homes, a great number of which have been destroyed.  In utilitarian terms, the case is clear, the democratically elected government of Israel is by far the worse offender and it’s actions are disproportionate. Even in terms of rocket strikes, the numbers are disproportionate.  Hamas has launched a little over 2,900 rockets, the IDF has struck over 3,800 targets, often multiple times.  In some ways, it feels like heavily armed US cavalry running down entire Native American villages because they’ve attacked a white settlement.

But I am not a utilitarian in the strict sense of the word, as I suspect few of us are. In my view, for an action to be above reproach, you must utilize just means to achieve just ends. It is impossible to argue the Israeli government’s means are completely just (in this instance or in past actions), and I would say the ends are not either. Kant’s categorical imperative is that you cannot use rational beings as a means to an end. So you cannot kill 25 civilians to assassinate a single Hamas leader. Even if your goal of assassination is just.  [This in itself is questionable. Israel’s government feels differently about assassinations when its own officials are targeted. Begin started the ’82 Lebanese war over an assassination attempt (by a rogue faction of the PLO which was not in Lebanon).]

As Americans we understand all this is true, and we actually live these principles in some instances.  Bill Clinton recently said about Osama Bin Laden “I nearly got him. And I could have killed him, but I would have to destroy a little town called Kandahar in Afghanistan and kill 300 innocent women and children, and then I would have been no better than him. And so I didn’t do it.”  When Barack Obama finally had an opportunity to take out Osama Bin Laden, he sent 24 US commandos and support staff 200 miles from their base to do the job. They did not kill his two wives, who were shielding Osama Bin Laden when he was found.

In stark contrast, Israelis forces in the past month alone have bombed numerous homes over the past few weeks, killing hundreds of people, whole families and over a hundred children. In one instance, 17 civilian members of the Hamas police chief’s extended family were killed by a bomb targeting his aunt’s home while he was visiting it.  The demolition of homes, via bomb or bulldozer have been part of Israel’s strategy to bring “quiet” for quite some time.

A final note. This is written for an American audience. Here in the US, we get a rather bland view of Israel-Palestine relations, heavily tilted in favor of the Israeli right-wing (which has been in power for about 20 years now). If you’re reading this in Europe, you should probably stop, the pendulum has likely swung the other way in your media. If you’re in France, you should probably try to get your elected representatives to do their best to stop the mobs that are threatening Jews and destroying their property.

Continue reading Why Do I Criticize The Israeli Government? My Response to Sam Harris

Quoting Golda Meir

There’s a quote of Golda Meir’s doing the rounds in many discussions of the Israeli government’s war on Gaza.  It is regularly misquoted as:

we will perhaps in time be able to forgive the Arabs for killing our children, but it will be harder for us to forgive them for having forced us to kill their children.

Bob Schieffer used this in a ridiculous closing segment on Face the Nation, after allowing Benjamin Netanyahu to make a number of un-challenged statements about fact and motive.  Perhaps Bob Schieffer wanted to join the  rush (check any internet discussion board) to use it as a sanctimonious  justification for the many children killed in the bombing of Gaza or to validate the Israeli government’s assertion that it’s all actually Hamas’ fault (or even that of the Palestinians). It is of course, the Israeli Defense Forces who are dropping the bombs and shells on Gaza.

Of course, Bob Schieffer had the Golda Meir quote wrong. The correct quote is easy to find.  It’s on the last page of her autobiography and it’s right there on Wikiquote.  It goes like this:

When peace comes, we will perhaps in time be able to forgive the Arabs for killing our sons, but it will be harder for us to forgive them for having forced us to kill their sons.

— Golda Meir at a Press conference in London (1969)

Sounds completely different doesn’t it?

This was said two years after Israel attacked Egypt, Jordan and Syria  in what’s known as the Six-Day war.  The Six-Day war was itself 10 years after a coordinated attack by Israel, Britian and France to take the Suez canal from Egypt (known as the Suez crisis). The Suez Crisis itself happened 10 years after the Nakba, when Israeli forces frightened perhaps two or three hundred thousand Palestinians enough that they fled their homes, sometimes at gunpoint. The Israeli state then passed laws to limit their ability to return. The Nakba happened shortly after the Second World War in which 6 million Jews and possibly 10 million other civilians were systematically murdered by the Nazis and their henchmen in addition to many millions more being dispossessed of their homes and property. Since the 1880s, Jews had been migrating to Palestine to escape European pogroms, growing anti-semitism and the Nazis. So that’s some of the context.

To come back to Golda Meir and whether or not it is right to use this quote in the current conflict.  She was not talking about bombing the homes of Palestinians who oppose Israeli occupation from F-16s flying high above them.  She was not talking about killing whole families with young children.  She was not talking about children. She was talking about sons recruited for Arab armies.  She was lamenting a dreadful waste of young men sent by older men to die for their glory and tribute.

Golda Meir was an astute politician, and she lived in a time when people did not talk about killing children.  Or make up sanctimonious justifications for it.

Continue reading Quoting Golda Meir

The fourth dimension isn’t time: Reality, iOS 7 and Google Glass

Most of us using computing devices have seen three interfaces to interact with computers:

  • Command Line Instructions: often cryptic, requiring expertise, prior knowledge of the task and perhaps even some programming experience.  Extremely efficient for many tasks, providing a useful shorthand.  In certain applications, a menu of commands might have been available.
  • Mouse-driven desktop: which gave us the still-familiar desktop computer with windows, object icons, pull-down menus and buttons. This is what many people still imagine when they think of computers.  It is an attempt to create a virtual world that mimics the real office environment. A 1970s office since the ubiquity of computers has long since relegated actual filing cabinets,files, folders, and indeed desktops to the junk yard.
  • Multi-touch: which is now ubiquitous on our phones and tablets, along with it’s own peculiar sensibility of swipes, pinches, apps and haptic feedback.

Some would say voice-driven commands are the fourth interface, but I would argue they are a throw-back to command line instructions and not an new revolutionary interface.

What strikes me is that all three of these interface revolutions were first successfully developed for the consumer marketplace by one company; Apple.  The Times today has a fascinating memoir about the development of the first iPhone prototypes and the initial demo. The fourth interface revolution is upon us, and much as the first three were, its early iterations have been mocked and derided.

By now you’ve gathered why the sub-title mentions Google Glass.  Augmented reality is indeed the fourth interface revolution for consumer computing devices. The ability to add context to the real world without requiring direction from the user is almost here. The building blocks have been with us for some time.  GPS enabled devices providing fine-grained location information, gyroscopes to provide direction and velocity, and object recognition algorithms to interpret visual context have been combined to tell a computer where and what you’re looking at.  Mobile data communication and access to the global internet in our pockets let us retrieve contextual information on where we are and what we’re looking for.  Lightweight, highly mobile displays and voice feedback allow information can be presented to us at the appropriate level of obtrusiveness.  Motion sensors (think Microsoft Kinect) let us interact with the machine.

Google Glass is a very early iteration of augmented reality. Google is probably best positioned to deliver high-quality contextual data to an augmented reality system. It’s right in line with their mission to organize the world’s data.  But they aren’t the best at designing interfaces, and that’s what will make or break augmented reality. They’ve mad ea product that excites first-adopters and leaves the average person cold. Google has built the Newton, not the Palm.

You’re probably all wondering what iOS7 has to do with this discussion. Well, there is a chance that Apple has one more trick up its sleeve.  Apple has learned something about mapping and contextualizing the physical world during the development of Apple maps, even if the product is less than perfect. Purely as conjecture, let’s say you were designing an augmented reality system, perhaps it takes the form of a visual display as in Robocop, or perhaps it’s a transparent tablet like the ones carried around by the scientists on Avatar.  You would want all the augmented information and objects to stand out from reality, in fact you would want the interface to look as machine-like as possible so as not to be confused with real objects.  This would require backing away from any skeumorphism and adopting a flat feel with unnatural colors.  Icons and controls would have to stand-out when the background is a real scene, for instance using a heads-up display.  iOS7 has this translucent feel, much as you would imagine an augmented reality interface to have. If Apple does have a augmented reality display in the works, perhaps one that relies on the iPhone to drive it, iOS 7’s design would be a good way to introduce users to the new feel this interface will have.

Whoever puts together a successful augmented reality product will open up an enormous market.  The industrial and military applications are obvious, what will be more valuable in the long run is the ability to give users information on places, people, products and services as they engage with them in the real world. Vendors can expect price comparing shoppers to become far more common. Restauranteurs can expect consumer reviews to pop up on heads-up displays as pedestrians walk past. Some things, like pulling up someone’s Facebook page inconspicuously on your heads-up display when you first meet them in a bar will be creepy at first, and then completely commonplace. The internet in your pocket is about to enter your peripheral vision, and stay there.

Turning our pockets into nodes on the global network

In an engaging review of the dramatic changes in the mobile telecommunications industry over the past decade (“Europe holds a losing hand in the high-stakes mobile game”, September 5), John Gapper identifies Linux as an also-ran in the mobile platform wars. This cannot be the case as Google’s Android is based on Linux and released under a similar open source licence.

Open-source, standards-based Unix operating systems (Apple’s iOS shares many of these traits) are the native environment for internet applications. The web is largely built on these efficient systems composed of building blocks that can be adapted for different purposes. From an engineer’s perspective, they were the path of least resistance for handsets when mobile networks were opened to internet connectivity, turning our pockets into nodes on the global network.

There is an even larger story here. The internet is based on open standards and protocols, and by its very nature it levels the playing field for systems built in collaborative environments outside of closed, commercial environments. Like Linux (which shares Nokia’s Finnish roots), many core internet development tools (Apache, Perl, PHP, Ruby, WordPress and so on) are developed by teams distributed all over the world. Network externalities, cost effectiveness and a generation of developers who have come of age in this environment propel the trend. This global collaboration makes it almost futile to evaluate trends in terms of national or continental champions.

Silicon Valley had become the destination of choice for much of this activity because it is the closest analogue in the physical world. California is a relatively new land of immigrants within a nation of immigrants. It is open, adaptable and welcoming of change, somewhat like the technology it creates. This is perhaps why companies housed there have best understood how to create value in this new environment for software tools and services.

Originally published as a Letter to the FT editor.