Archive for the 'Culture' category

Does your vote count?

Nov 06 2012 Published by under Culture, Politics, Rant

This being election day, you're seeing a lot of people telling you to get out and vote, saying that if you think your vote doesn't count you're abdicating democracy, reminding you how many people who died so that you could vote, etc.

I have to admit I find these exhortations both facile and manipulative. If we're talking about the presidential election, sure, you can make an argument that "every vote counts". That argument is not really practical, however, because of the electoral college. Every vote for president counts only in a small number of battleground states. I used to live in California; everybody knows that California is going to go to Obama. The Obama and Romney campaigns certainly know it; how much time and effort did they spend trying to sway California voters? Now, strictly speaking, if everybody who would vote for Obama figured it didn't matter and as a result didn't vote, then, yes, Romney could pull out a surprise win. But, while that's a theoretical possibility, let's be realistic here about how likely that is. It's not going to happen. As a result, if you tell somebody in California that their vote for the president really matters, you come across looking either naive, or manipulative.

So should you vote anyway? Yes. Two reasons.

First, to stay in practice. The USA's current system of elections is horribly corrupt. Jimmy Carter has spent a lot of time overseeing elections in other countries, and he says that about our elections. Also, check out rootstrikers.org, a website related to Lawrence Lessig's book Republic Lost. It's easy to become cynical, to realize that everybody running for any office is dancing to the tune of large campaign donors, and to give up and not bother voting. However, you must vote, both because there are differences between candidates, and because you need to stay in practice, and we need to keep voting as "a thing" that we do in the USA, in hopes that we do manage to fix the corrupt system.

The second reason is: there are elections other than president. If you live in California, no, it doesn't matter who you vote for for president; Obama's going to get your electoral college votes, whether you like it or not. However, there are congressional districts whose representatives are not a foregone conclusion. And, in many states, the Senate seats may well not be a foregone conclusion. Congress matters. You need to vote there. Additionally, there are going to be state and local elections that matter. You need to vote there. With all of these other things, there isn't an electoral college making your votes irrelevant; in these other races, every vote does matter.

So, yes, get out and vote. But, please, let's stop pretending that every individual vote for president matters, because that's simply not the reality of the situation.

2 responses so far

Value Freedom of Speech? Donate to Wikipedia

Just in case you haven't been on the Internet in the last month, SOPA and PIPA are two laws that were working their way through the US legislature that would have brought sweeping powers to pretty much anybody to block sites on the Internet that they asserted were guilty of copyright infringement. These laws would have made the US into an Internet censorship regime that— even according to the backers of the law!— would be on par with Syria or China. You can read more about SOPA and PIPA here at the EFF and here at Wikipedia. They are now on hold (but, sadly, not dead), and the lion's share of the credit for that belongs to Wikipedia. If you care about this (and as somebody currently reading something on the Internet not produced under the aegis of a large media company, you really should!), you should consider donating to Wikipedia. Some may credit Google with part of getting this message across to Congress, and doubtless Google deserves some credit. However, it was Wikipedia that went fully dark, and it was immediately after that event on Jan. 18 that Congress stepped back. What's more, Google is doing just fine; they have a gigantic revenue from their advertising business. Wikipedia is much more dependent on donations. After you're done donating to Wikipedia, also consider donating to The Electronic Frontier Foundation.

I just donated $100 myself. That's not very much. Indeed, I'm sure that I have received a lot more than $100 worth of value out of Wikipedia in the last decade. But, every little bit counts.

Defenders of SOPA and PIPA say that fears of the law have been overblown. However, if misinformation about the law has been spread, it's by the backers themselves. Their claims of "lost American jobs" have not been supported, and there is evidence that they overestimate the "lost revenue" to piracy by at least an order of magnitude. What's more, while the backers disingenuously state that the laws are directed against "rogue foreign websites" and not against legitimate US users of the Internet, already we see copyright laws routinely abused to take down legitimate content on the web— if not through the full mechanism of the law, through the threat of legal action. See the repository of information at chillingeffects.org for huge numbers of stories about this. It would be absurd to believe that tools like SOPA and PIPA, which would make this kind of squelching of the expression of soembody you don't like that much easier, would not only be abused more. For those who argue that intellectual property needs stronger protections: right now there is indeed an imbalance between laws that allow for copyright enforcement and freedom of expression, and that imbalance does not favor freedom of expression!

People like me were howling (well, tweeting, with the occasional signed petition or letter to a legislator) in rage about SOPA and PIPA at the end of last year, but Congress was by and large ignoring it. They had their Hollywood lobbyists telling them that it was all necessary... whether that was necessary for the "survival of American competitiveness", or whether it was just necessary for the re-election of legislators is not clear. Certainly the latter; in public they said the former, but my cynicism grows every day. (Indeed, very recently the head of the MPAA more or less admitted in public that he expects lawmakers to provide him with legislation he demands in exchange for his organization's campaign donations.) Indeed, Congress celebrated their ignorance about the Internet and completely refused to pay any attention to Internet experts telling them about the technical and security problems that SOPA and PIPA would bring. (Never mind fundamental issues of freedom of expression... which somehow doesn't seem to be a legitimate thing to bring up in the face of concerns about "jobs", "the economy", or "terrorism" any more.) I believe that the perception in Congress was that most of the public weren't really all that aware of copyright issues, and didn't care that much; indeed, they said that it was a "vocal minority" arguing against it. They evidently believed that just giving Big Media the laws that they wanted was a great way to secure a source of campaign funding without doing something that might torque off the general public. ("Oops!")

It was only after great public outcry, spurred on by the Wikipedia blackout (and several other sites) on January 18, that Congress woke up and changed its tune. It's ironic that the MPAA has accused Wikipedia of "abusing its power". Evidently Wikipedia is supposed to purchase legislation directly, the way that the MPAA does. Informing the public of what's going on so that they will realize that if they care at all about freedom, they need to make their voice heard, is somehow an abuse of power. If that's not an indication that large congressional campaign donors have completely warped the standard process of how laws are made in the USA, I don't know what is. (To read more about how bad the routine corruption in the USA is as a result of large campaign contributors having primary access to lawmakers, and the pipeline of legislators and their staffers getting cushy lobbying jobs after helping organizations get the laws they want, check out the Rootstrikers website. Also, although I have not read this yet myself, it's probably worth reading Lawrence Lessig's book Republic, Lost.)

Donate to Wikipedia. Better, remember that SOPA and PIPA have just slowed down, not stopped. It's going to take vigilance to prevent them from passing later. It's likely that next time Congress and Big Content try to get them through, they'll do it in a more stealthy manner. It may well be attached to a routine appropriations bill, much as the reprehensible "infinite detention" clause was recently attached to a routine defense appropriations bill (passed by Congress and signed by the President). The fight is far from over, even if we came out ahead in the latest skirmish.

Indeed, next time you're about to buy a big-studio Hollywood DVD or go to a big-studio Hollywood movie, pause and think. Realize that the myopic leadership of the MPAA (the same group that decades ago fought tooth and nail against the VCR, fighting against their own interests as they would profit greatly from the new market that home video players would bring) is going to keep trying to push draconian laws limiting freedom of speech on the Internet in the name of "protecting intellectual property". Ask yourself if the value you will get out of that DVD or watching that movie really is worth more than the value you get out of Wikipedia. Ask yourself if you want to indirectly support an organization that is fighting to maintain a 20th century model where broadcast expression was practically subject to a small number of gatekeepers (only then it was practically, and now it would be legally), or if you would rather directly support an organization that has made an amazing (if imperfect) crowd-sourced knowledge repository available to the world for fully free access (in every sense of the word "free"). Then, consider not buying the DVD or going to the movie, and instead donating the money to Wikipedia.

One response so far

Off to VCON36

This weekend (Sep 30 - Oct 2) I'm heading off to VCON 36, a science fiction convention in Vancouver, BC. I'm going to be sitting on several panels (including one on digital art, one on podcasting, one on games, and one on "messy science"), and I'll be giving two talks:

  • "The Science Behind Larry Niven's Neutron Star". Larry Niven is the guest of honor, so I figured that this would be a good topic. I'll talk about what neutron stars are, and also about tidal forces (oops, I just spoiled the story for you... it's still worth reading!). This short story is one I discovered in a used bookstore back in the early years of grad school (early 1990's), and it started me on a kick of reading all of Niven's "Known Space" stories.
  • "Constructing a Space Combat Game Consistent with Newton's Laws". Last year I talked about Newton's Laws in science fiction movies and TV. This year, it's with a miniatures boardgame.

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SpotOn3D a bigger menace to virtual worlds than we realized

Not much of a surprise, given that their CEO is a patent attorney, but SpotOn3D is actively pissing all over the virtual world space, trying to claim proprietary rights on lots of ideas for doing things in virtual worlds. As I mentioned in a previous post, software patents are bullshit, and are also a threat. They stifle innovation, because ideas— often broad ideas that are obvious extensions of what already exists— are given government monopolies. Even if the patent would be overturned in court, the mere threat of patent litigation is enough to deter small companies or individuals, who can't afford to defend themselves, from doing things. At best, they pay protection money to the patent bully defending it; at worst, competitors can be stopped from competing (as Apple is often trying to do with Android-based phones).

It turns out that SpotOn3D has applied for five patents already, and intends to apply for many more.

That makes SpotOn3D at the moment one of the greatest threats to the future development of an interoperable future metaverse. Yes, Tessa Kinny-Johnson may get all teary about being attacked and think that she's not being appreciated for the development that her company is doing, but make no mistake. Software patents, in a business and software ecosystem dominated by Linden Lab (hardly a corporate behemoth themselves), are a greater danger than they are anywhere else— and they get in the way of innovation everywhere. As such, it doesn't matter how emotional she gets, she needs to understand that her company is being actively destructive to the development of virtual worlds. More importantly, the community as a whole needs to understand that SpotOn3D is destructive, and Kinny-Johnson and others there need to realize the community understands that.

If they're going to be patent trolls, if they're effectively going to try to play the roll of SCO to Linux (who, thankfully, didn't do much, but then again Linux was already a juggernaut when they showed up), then we're going to have to call them out in the open as the bad actors that they are. We cannot allow them to hide behind claims of innovation and development, when what they're really doing is trying to acquire solitary rights of refusal and taxation on innovation and development in the virtual world domain.

I call on all users to boycott SpotOn3D. Don't give that grid an audience so that it's worth it for people to buy regions there. I call on all people with regions to move their regions to other grids; look for a grid that provides service, or a grid that's not supporting a company that's trying to grab rights of refusal for future virtual world development. And, I call on the developers and other non-lawyer employees of SpotOn3D to go get a job with an ethical company. The OpenSim community cannot afford to allow the patent minefield to grow. That, however, is what SpotOn3D is actively doing. The degree to which they are a menace cannot be over-emphasized. They need to be rejected by the community. We need them to go out of business as soon as possible before they can apply for more patents that we'll be forced to deal with for the next two decades. What's more, other companies who might be considering the same sort of "build our investment portfolio" kind of behavior must see that our community will not tolerate this behavior from companies. SpotOn3D must be seen to suffer, and soon, so that other virtual world companies will hesitate before joining the patent fracas.

31 responses so far

Virtual World enthusiasts should boycott SpotOn3D

There was some buzz in the OpenSim arena recently because SpotOn3D released a browser plugin client for their customized OpenSim-based virtual world.

Why is this significant? Truthfully, the reason it's significant is because people have very messed-up perceptions about computer software. For years, I've heard people say that Second Life and other virtual worlds would be easier to use if you could "just run it inside a browser" rather than having to download a whole separate client program. The problem with this is that browsers don't support the entire client rendering engine and protocol layer that Second Life or OpenSim needs. That means that you do in fact have to download a plugin, and the plugin that you download has to do basically everything that the software package you would have downloaded will do. In other words, you're just doing exactly the same thing, downloading a fairly substantial piece of software. The only difference is perception; people seem to perceive, somehow, that if it's inside their browser, it's easier to use than if it's a separate program. (And, from my point of view, just like everything else that's run "inside a browser", it will tend not to be as smooth or as good as when you have a dedicated program for it. That's changing, as browsers are converging towards operating systems, but they're not there yet.)

Ah well. The truth is, though, that browsers have plugin managers that make it marginally easier to download and run plugins than it is to download a separate software package... and for many users, that margin of difference matters. (For people like me, it's a negative; browser plugin installation, because it's designed to be easy, is opaque. I like to know where software being installed on my system is going!) What's more, plugin download lets you do an end-run around institutional IT molasses, where you can't get software regularly installed and updated on systems you need. This matters in particular for education, where IT is used to installing things before a semester or a school year... but virtual worlds, being alpha in nature, have necessary updates on a much shorter timescale. Plugins, however, often get installed in your own user account (which from my point of view is horribly inefficient), and so you can install them without having to wait for IT to approve and do it. So, perhaps browser plugins are important.

The real problem with SpotOn3D, though, isn't that they've created a browser plugin. Indeed, although I think it's more smoke and mirrors than real innovation, they would deserve some approval for doing this. No, what we should boycott them for is patenting the idea of a browser plugin. (Edit: the patent isn't approved, however; they've just applied for it. It's possible the patent will get turned down, although the USPTO has granted a lot of patents that should have been turned down. Nonetheless, SpotOn3D has already done the foul deed by applying for the patent.)

Software patents are bullshit. Indeed, increasingly, patents in general are. If you read the US constitution, nominally they are there to foster progress in the useful sciences and arts. In practice, today, however, they hamper innovation. One person or company pisses all over a general area of doing something with software, and now nobody else can do anything with it for two decades unless they pay protection money. Supposedly, this is to protect people from having their inventions stolen. But, again, in practice, the vast majority of software patents aren't a surprising new innovation; they're things that many programmers can (and have) come up with, things that developers have already come up with, or an obvious extension. Patents are supposed to be a way of making surprising new innovations public so that everybody can benefit from them; they are there to provide an incentive to make things public. However, they way they're working in today's economy, especially with regard to software and "business methods", is that they turn first-to-market (or "first to claim to want to get to market") with a straightforward idea into a government-protected monopoly that lasts two decades. And, indeed, there exist parasite companies out there that do nothing but acquire patents and sue other companies and people for violating those patents. In other words, they exist only to stop people from doing things. That's completely absurd.

And, even if the patent is bullshit and would eventually be overturned if somebody fought it, just going to court to fight it is expensive, often prohbitively so. The result is that a lot of people settle for patents they shouldn't have. It's bullies on the school yard. If you actually went to the teacher and told them the bullies were trying to take your lunch money, you wouldn't lose your lunch money. But on many school yards, the cost of doing that is frightening enough that you just give in to the bullies. This is not fostering innovation.

A company that gets patents in good faith— for instance, only to use defensively against other patent assaults (which doesn't work against trolls, by the way)— is marginally better. But only marginally. Unless that company is huge enough that we can count on it not going away, like PanAm or Borders, there's always the possibility that a few years (or even a decade) down the line they (or their assets) will be bought by another company who has no qualms against using "defensive" patents to get undeserved income from other people who are actually doing anything.

Open Source is particularly vulnerable to patents. The nature of open source is that you distribute what you've done and let other people use it. However, if your code is patent encumbered, it may not matter that you've open sourced it; anybody else who wants to use it may face the threat of attacks from patent trolls. So, it's particularly galling that SpotOn3D, which is built on top of open source— the OpenSim server code and the Second Life client code— would enter the software patent arena.

So, amidst all this excitement about SpotOn3D providing a browser plugin, we need to remember that they are acting in extremely bad faith, and that they are participating in a legal activity that can only harm virtual worlds, and is especially a threat to the open source virtual world effort. For this reason, I strongly urge any virtual world enthusiast to boycott SpotOn3D. Do not reward companies that behave in such bad faith.

19 responses so far

White Guys In Space

May 05 2011 Published by under Culture, Random & Gratuitous

Perhaps I've been oversensitized, but that was my thought upon seeing this (admittedly very cool and fun riff on the Star Trek poster) mission poster for the last Endeavour shuttle mission from NASA:

Click to go to the NASA site where you can get a full-resolution version

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How not to promote science, American Physical Society style

The mission statement of the American Physical Society includes in their mission statement, among other things, the intention to be "an authoritative source of physics information for the advancement of physics and the benefit of humanity".

To this end, they seem to have locked papers from Physical Review from 1948 behind a paywall, for subscribers only, or for those who are ready to pay $25 for access. Thank you, APS. Yes, I know you have expenses, but I also know that I pay more than $100 a year to be a member of your society. Is this really advancing physics and benefiting humanity?

We seem to be locked into our notion that scientific journals belong to the same closed, proprietary publishing model as grocery-store checkout-line magazines. Our blindness to how this utterly contradicts the nature of the scientific endeavor is very similar to what I was just reading in commentary by Eddington from 1920 about how the astronomical community seemed to be clinging to the gravitational contraction model for powering stars, despite the fact that it no longer made sense across a wide range of science.

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Wikimedia Commons Pictures of the Year

m51.jpg

Wikimedia Commons is one of those web resources everybody should be aware of. It's an archive of sounds, animations, and images that are available for your reuse under some sort of Creative Commons licencing (or are public domain). Among other things, you find the images embedded in Wikipedia here.

A link from Boing Boing led me to the 2008 Wikimedia Commons picture of the year. There are quite a number of pictures selected out on that page. To be sure the highest voted pictures are great, but my two favorites were not the top two images.

One was the one I've included here— but, of course, it's an image I'm already familiar with, and one that could be described by the title of this blog! It's the famous Whirlpool Galaxy, known to amateur astronomers as M51 and to professional astronomers by any number of catalog names (although usually as M51). The galaxy has very strong, very well-defined spiral arms, making it a classic "grand design" spiral. The fact that the spiral arms are so well-defiend is probably as a result of the interaction with the smaller galaxy that's off to the right in the image. A self-gravitating, rotating disk naturally rings in a spiral density wave pattern when you disturb it, just like the smooth surface of water "rings" in concentric circular waves to a point disturbance (e.g. throwing a rock into the water), or in parallel ripple waves to a plane disturbance (e.g. a steady wind blowing across the water). (You're probably more familiar with the term "ringing" when applied to the vibrations that occur in a bell when it is disturbed.) The gravitational interaction with the companion galaxy is almost certainly the disturbance causing such a well-defined spiral pattern in the primary galaxy. This particular image of M51 was taken with the Hubble Space Telescope.

I think my favorite image of the set, though, is Reflection in a soap bubble. It's a beautiful photograph, and it has a sort of Escheresque quality to it. (Exploring the geometry of these sorts of reflections was the sort of thing Escher loved to do.)  This is a photograph by Mila Zinkova, and is available under the GNU Free Documentation License.  (I don't believe that I need to make this post available under the GNU FDL simply by including the image, but I could be wrong.)

soapbubble.jpg

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A bunch of mindless jerks who were the first against the wall when the revolution came

Dec 30 2007 Published by under Free Culture, Politics, Rant

I refer, of course, to the executives, lawyers, and so-called thinkers behind and among the RIAA. They've been making noises about this for a while, but finally they've gotten around to trying to hold somebody legally liable for making a copy of a CD for their own personal use (that is, not even to distribute, but just for convenience of listening). I mean, heck, I've done this myself, and despite my ideological concerns, I've gone out of my way to avoid violating even some too-extreme interpretations of copyright law. How many of us haven't? And if you think about it, it is impossible to make any use whatsoever of the music on a CD without making at least a transient copy of it, be it just in the soundwaves in the air between the speaker and your ear, or in the nerve impulses in your brain. Where does this extreme overreaching self-righteous behavior come from? Well, from fear, obviously. Amidst all their talks about educating kids about the morality of "stealing" and "protecting artists," somewhere they recognize that large music publishing companies are fundamentally obsolete given modern technology, and like any frightened and unintelligent animal whose cornered, they're lashing out viciously in any direction they think they can hit.

The mistake many of the rest of us make is by taking them seriously enough to allow them to hurt us rather than just dying off along with the dinosaurs and buggy whip manufacturers and piano roll sellers.

The world has moved on. Technology is no longer such that for musicians to communicate their music to the world at large, they require the resources of a large music publishing company. Alas, the publishing companies do not want to give up the power that yesterday's technology granted them. Rather than trying to figure out how to best fit into the modern world, they are trying to criminalize modern technology.

I know a lot of musicians (and writers, and such) get huffy when people make arguments like the one I make, saying that I'm just "rationalizing stealing." My response is this: we are asking the wrong question. The question we should be asking is not how do we protect intellectual property? Rather, we should be asking how can we insure that musicians and authors and artists are able to be paid and make a living producing the creations we value? The rhetoric, lawsuits, and luddism that we are seeing today in those who support the music industry's utterly crazy crusade are results of limitations on thinking provided by asking the first question. The first question presupposes an answer to the second question that made sense in an earlier era, but that does not made sense in the modern digital era.

Rather than adapt, the RIAA seems to be going ever further into rectal defilade, ever further down the path of trying to outlaw the flexibility and individual empowerment provided by digital technology in favor of granting their member companies stifling control over anything anybody does with music.

I am sad that our government puts up with this. I am sad that so many creative people think that somehow the crusade of the RIAA is really doing them any good in the long run. I am sad that there are people out there who seem to think that it's at all a reasonable opinion that there is justification in what the RIAA is doing.

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Protecting celebreties? Or just more creeping censorship?

Oct 11 2007 Published by under Intellectual Property

An hour or so ago I heard a story on NPR about California's new "Dead Celebrities" law. In a nutshell, it allows the heirs of a celebrity to control the use of that celebrity's image after said celebrity's death... even if at the time of the celebrity's death, the right to bequeath this power didn't exist.

I always find these sorts of stories depressing, because there is an important perspective that is lost. In the story, we hear that one side of the legal thinks it boils down to one simple question:

"How can a celebrity's legacy be protected, and who can do that?"

But he's wrong. There is another simple question we could be asking here:

Are we such a celebrity-obsessed culture that we will give celebrities the power to limit our freedom of expression even from beyond the grave?

To often, in stories about expansion of what is called "intellectual property rights" (i.e. exclusive copyrights, patents, and trademarks), we hear about how it's "property," and how violation of these things is theft. Very, very, rarely do we hear the fact that these things are also limitations on freedom of expression.. Indeed, the conflict this NPR story focuses on is entitled "Whose Property?", and the other side of the lawsuit is a guy who wants to continue to profit by selling licensing rights to his father's photographs:

"It's against the Constitution to take away someone's property," Greene said. "Somebody can't come in and take away your property. You own it. Your father, let's say, composed a piece of music. Now, all of a sudden, someone else is going to come in and say, 'We're going to take over your rights.' I beg your pardon?"

Here, the side against this expression-squelching law has completely accepted the notion that "intellectual property" is just like other forms of property.

I'm not saying that we shouldn't have copyrights or trademarks at all. I am saying, however, that the very terms of the debate stilt the debate towards copyright maximalism, and ever expanding copyright restrictions and terms... and that we have lost sight of the fact that copyright is a sacrifice of our freedom of expression, and its benefits need to be evaluated against that sacrifice.

Let us suppose this California law becomes the standard, a federal law or widely adopted amongst all the states. Now suppose that 50 years from now somebody writes an article entitled "Where It All Went Wrong" about early 21st century American presidential politics, and wanted to include the following image (which I grabbed from the US Dept. of State website):

president-cheney-rice3.jpg

To do so, the article's author would have to get permission from four estates: the estate of G. W. Bush, the estate of D. Cheney, the estate of C. Rice, and the estate of the photographer.

Does this sound to you like the legal landscape of a society that values freedom of expression?

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