About a year ago I put myself on a no-caffeine, no-Chomsky diet. I know there are a lot of people out there who read Chomsky's political writings and get all upset because they think it's nothing but a pack of lies. I'm not one of those people. By the time I finish reading Chomsky I'm upset because I believe most of what he writes, and what he writes is depressing as all get-out. Chomsky has this way of saying something outlandish like "we should not forget that the U.S. itself is a leading terrorist state." He then goes on for pages citing relevant newspaper articles, U.N. Resolutions, Senate testimony and U.S. policy documents to back up his claims. Being a linguist, he also doesn't have the decency to bend the meaning of words so things like "terrorism" can apply when the bad guys do it but not when we do it.
After I went on my diet I became much calmer and happier. In my mind, the word chomsky became an adjective that described a whole class of media, not just those written by Chomsky himself. I started using the word to mean anything that lays out rational arguments that lead to depressing conclusions about the world. My media diet became stricter as I cut out Fairness and Accuracy In Reporting, The Daily Howler, The Center for Media & Democracy and sometimes even The Economist. (While chomsky can be of any political leaning, I don't include people like Ann Coulter, Rush Limbaugh, Bill O'Reilly or Michael Moore because they're more about appeals to emotion than rational argument — that's a different class I call world wrestling federation.)
Now Al Franken has released a new book, Lies And The Lying Liars Who Tell Them: A Fair and Balanced Look at the Right. The title alone reeks of chomsky, and so my natural instinct was to curl up with my latest copy of IEEE Spectrum Magazine until it went away. But then Fox News sued Franken for using the words "Fair and Balanced" in his title. Their lawsuit, which was quickly thrown out, accused Franken as an "unstable" and "shrill" "C-level commentator" who is "not a well-respected voice in American politics." With an endorsement like that, how could I resist?
The first thing I note is that professional comics like Franken are much funnier than linguists. (He's also a lot lighter on the endnotes: this is beach reading, not an academic journal.) Some of the gags are gentle ribbing, like this passage from his section on the environment:
Perhaps there is someone reading this who is saying, "Give me a break, Al. I don't care about the environment." To you, I have this to say: You were not legitimately elected president, sir. But I respect the office you hold, and I'm honored that you're reading my book.
Other jokes are much more barbed, and will no doubt cause much consternation among the more thin-skinned conservatives. Especially harsh are "The Gospel of Supply Side Jesus" comic, drawn in the style of Chick Bible Tracts, and "Operation Chickenhawk," a short story with right-wing draft-dodgers like Bush, Cheney and Limbaugh fighting in an Apocalypse Now setting. Franken can be quite venomous when he wants to be, but he seems to have an unwritten rule that he'll only dish out as much venom as the victim deserves. Ann Coulter and Bill O'Reilly, venom-slingers in their own right, get both barrels. But in the chapter on how he toured Bob Jones University on false pretenses, Franken is actually apologetic and, in retrospect, ashamed of fooling "people who were welcoming, friendly, and extremely nice." He also has compliments for right-wingers that he feels are honest and worthy of respect, several of whom he considers friends.
Underneath the humor, the book is still pure chomsky. He starts by taking on Ann Coulter, an easy task by any measure. Coulter's misquotes and downright lies are well documented, and Franken does a quick job of it. (Quoting a friend of his: "I've never shot fish in a barrel. But I could imagine that after a while it could get boring.") He then moves on to Bernie Goldberg (author of Bias), the 2000 election, Fox News, and the Bush Administration, as well as a very touching chapter on the Paul Wellstone memorial. Treatment ranges from point-by-point dissection of specific right-wing lies to anecdotes of the times he's met with (and often baited) the celebrities of right-wing politics.
Through the book, Franken tries to explain the way the liars operate, and perhaps help us understand why. This is where it gets depressing. Start with slander, false quotes, out-of-context clips, and misleading figures and data. Throw in dirty tricks like push-polling. Finish with a cadre of talk-show hosts, journalists and media personalities ready and able to do your dirty work, and a mainstream press all too willing to go with the juicy, the sensational, and the easy. As for why, just look around you today. Bush has the White House, a firm grip on both houses of Congress, and has a stated priority to stack the Judicial branch. Republicans who disagree with the president's policies have been marginalized. The Democrats are in disarray, and the White House Press Corp is intimidated.
It all makes me furious, which is why I went on the no-caffeine, no-chomsky diet in the first place. I keep hoping that if I just stick to real issues these sleaze-balls will go away. But of course they won't, and they're too powerful to ignore. A healthy society needs vigorous, passionate debate. What we have now is the opposite: a guerilla warfare of ideas, where rational discussion gets shot down by snipers in the trees. On its own, Franken's book is no grand call to arms, but it joins an increasing number of chomsky that are shouting out from all sides of the political aisle. Together, they are a call to defend our democracy from corruption. To quote Franken's closing message:
We have to fight back. But we can't fight like they do. The Right's entertainment value comes from their willingness to lie and distort. Ours will have to come from being funny and attractive. And passionate. And idealistic. But also smart. And not milquetoast-y. We've got to be willing to throw their lies in their face.
I don't think I can just pick up my IEEE Spectrum Magazine and forget it all again.
This month's Wired Magazine cover story, "The New Diamond Age" is quite a read, merging Wired's standard breathless technology-is-changing-everything fare with James Bond-style meetings and secret labs complete with Russian scientists. At the root of the story are two labs that make synthetic diamonds. These aren't simulated gemstones like Cubic Zirconia (CZ) but real diamond gemstones that have been created in the laboratory rather than mined from the Earth. Gemesis, based in Florida, uses high pressure and temperature chambers that mimic how diamonds are created in the Earth. Apollo Diamond, based near Boston, uses chemical vapor deposition to grow diamonds. These labs, Wired hints, might just bankrupt the diamond industry.
To those within the jewelry industry, however, synthetic diamonds are business-as-usual. Gemesis and now synthetic gemstone-maker Chatham have been producing synthetic diamonds for several years, and the process was even the subject of a Nova back in 2000. Apollo's technique has produced some recent advances, but to hear Jeweler's Circular Keystone report it this is all just steady technological progress. It would seem the only important point to jewelers is whether gemologists can scientifically distinguish synthetics from natural gemstones, not whether the synthetics are "as good as" diamonds in any other way. And according to the Gemological Institute of America (GIA), it is fairly straightforward to identify even the new Apollo diamonds. They also note that Apollo is working with the GIA "to ensure that these CVD laboratory-grown diamonds are correctly identified before being introduced into the market."
The key is that the price of diamonds, and gemstones in general, are governed by the laws of fashion rather than some objective standard. Certainly diamonds are pretty, but then so is Cubic Zirconia. There are two things that keep diamonds in high demand over substitutes like CZ. First, the De Beers cartel goes to great lengths to remind us that the only way for a man to prove his love to a woman is by giving her diamonds, and you can bet that De Beers won't let synthetics in on that little bit of spin. As Jef Van Royen, a senior scientist at the Diamond High Council put it to Wired: "If people really love each other, then they give each other the real stone. It is not a symbol of eternal love if it is something that was created last week." The second reason reaches the heart of fashion: diamonds and natural gemstones are expensive. This is why people will still buy natural emeralds, even though they are some 300 times more expensive than synthetic emeralds. Or more accurately, they buy natural emeralds because they are 300 times more expensive than synthetics. Like luxury cars and designer-brand clothing, the point is not the product itself so much as the ability to say "I can afford this and you can't." As long as people can still say "happy birthday, Honey — it's a natural diamond" I don't see synthetics destroying the diamond market anytime soon.
Greg Dyke, director general of the BBC, has a vision. In a speech he gave this Sunday at the Edinburgh International TV Festival he described his plans for how to leverage the huge BBC media library — give it away.
Looking ahead, let me give you one example of the kind of thing the BBC will be able to do in the future.
The BBC probably has the best television library in the world.
For many years we have had an obligation to make our archive available to the public, it was even in the terms of the last charter.
But what have we done about it?
Well, you all know the problem.
Up until now, this huge resource has remained locked up, inaccessible to the public because there hasn't been an effective mechanism for distribution.
But the digital revolution and broadband are changing all that.
For the first time, there is an easy and affordable way of making this treasure trove of BBC content available to all.
Let me explain with an easy example.
Just imagine your child comes home from school with homework to make a presentation to the class on lions, or dinosaurs, or Argentina or on the industrial revolution.
He or she goes to the nearest broadband connection - in the library, the school or even at home - and logs onto the BBC library.
They search for real moving pictures which would turn their project into an exciting multi-media presentation.
They download them and, hey presto, they are able to use the BBC material in their presentation for free.
Now that is a dream which we will soon be able to turn into reality.
We intend to allow parts of our programmes, where we own the rights, to be available to anyone in the UK to download so long as they don't use them for commercial purposes.
Under a simple licensing system, we will allow users to adapt BBC content for their own use.
We are calling this the BBC Creative Archive.
When complete, the BBC will have taken a massive step forward in opening our content to all - be they young or old, rich or poor.
But then it's not really our content - the people of Britain have paid for it and our role should be to help them use it.
The vision and even the project name sounds like a cross between the Creative Commons project, chaired by Lawrence Lessig, and the Internet Archive founded by Brewster Kahle. No surprise then that Slate reports the BBC talked to both Lessig and Kahle before making their plans. In a blog comment, Kahle also acknowledged the visit: "Yes, the BBC crew was brought to the Archive by Larry Lessig and we showed how inexpensive it can be and how we have dealt with the ego's and restrictions issues that always come up. I dont know what role we played, but their decision is fantastic and hopefully trendsetting... thank you bbc."
There are a lot of details that haven't been announced yet. For example, it's not clear how much of the BBC library the BBC owns free and clear, or at least freely enough that they can redistribute under a new kind of license. Then there's the inevitable argument from commercial interests that the BBC shouldn't be allowed to compete with their own online distribution. This kind of argument will probably hold less sway in the U.K. than it would here in the U.S., however, as the British are already comfortable with the idea of a strong government-sponsored media.
There are lots of reasons this is a great move on the part of the BBC. First and most important, the Internet has brought down distribution costs to the point that, as far as gifts to humanity go, this has a lot of bang for the buck. Second, BBC shows are paid for by fees charged to UK television owners, so there's a good argument that the library is already owned by the British TV-watching public. These are reason enough, but I like to think there's even an argument that it is in the BBC's self-interest to share with free-loading yanks like myself. As Dyke says in his speech, Britain's television reflects its culture, tastes and values. That kind of export can have far-reaching secondary benefits for a nation, from increased tourism to more desire for British goods. Just think of what a great marketing tool Hollywood has been for Levis Jeans. By making BBC News, BBC documentaries or even Absolutely Fabulous easily available to the world at large the British culture may find real economic returns. As The Guardian put it, "if the BBC doesn't get its media out to as many people as possible, it's failing its charter requirements."
Sidenote: It took me a few days to blog about this, and yet it still hasn't hit the U.S. press. Aside from the Slate article, Google News is turning up almost no coverage outside of the UK press and the blogs. I try to stay away from conspiracy theories (really, I do) but I can't help but wonder if the silence has anything to do with the battle being raged between the BBC and Rupert Murdoch, or the fact that Murdoch's media empire stands to lose the most if things like this start to catch on? Why is this a non-story on this side of the pond?
The California Supreme Court ruled today that trade secret laws can trump first amendment protections, overturning a previous Court of Appeals ruling. The case involves an injunction against Andrew Bunner, a San Francisco man who posted the DeCSS DVD encryption-crack code on his Web site. The injunction, which required Bunner to remove the code, was thrown out by the Court of Appeals on First Amendment grounds. The decision is quite narrow, essentially saying "the First Amendment does not categorically prohibit preliminary injunctions to enjoin the publication of trade secrets" and sends the case back to the Court of Appeals to re-examine the facts of the case.
I've read the decision, but rather than subject you to my legal ignorance I'll defer to people in the know. First, Eugene Volokh blogs some legal concerns about the decision, saying that the court failed to explain how it determines that some speech is a matter of "private concern" (which gets less protection than something of public concern) and why it's proper for the court to make this decision. He also questions their application of case law, especially as it relates to whether there were alternative channels to express the same speech (Justice Moreno makes a similar point in his concurring opinion).
I've had a note from a lawyer involved in the case, Tom Moore of Tomlinson Zisko in Palo Alto. He makes some interesting points. Here's what he says:
I'm one of Andrew Bunner's lawyers. While today's Mercury News Internet article is true as far as it goes, it misses the fun part entirely.
The decision is a triumph of politics over logic. When you read the decision, you can follow the logic: (1) Software implicates the First Amendment; (2) trade secrets law implicates the First Amendment; (3) the proper level of scrutiny is intermediate First Amendment scrutiny; and (4) assuming that everything in the trial court's order is supported factually, the order survives that level of scrutiny. Then you see where politics comes into play: The next logical step should have been for the Cal. Supreme Court to review the record independently. Instead, the Court sent the case back to the Court of Appeals to review the record to see if the facts were there. It's not as if the Court could not review the record. Justice Moreno did it and concluded: "the DVD Copy Control Association's... trade secret claim against Bunner is patently without merit."
So, the Court did the politically safe thing by dodging the actual facts.
Those of us who work on Mr. Bunner's behalf are more entertained than disappointed. The Court has given us a lot to work with. Indeed, the more significant decision in this case was the Cal. Supreme Court's earlier decision, Pavlovich v. Superior Court. In that decision, the Court held that the injunction does not extend into Texas. That means that CSS and DeCSS is a secret in California only. Eventually, the public nature of DeCSS will come to the fore.
The precedents set in this case may be important, but as far as DeCSS is concerned this is all shutting the barn door after the horses have already bolted, caught a steamer and are enjoying their vacation in Tahiti. And I have the t-shirt to prove it.
I haven't blogged about the SCO vs. IBM case since it's been so widely discussed elsewhere. The ever-so-brief summary is that SCO sued IBM, claiming that they own IP rights to some code IBM gave to Linux. The open source community rallied. IBM countersued. Red Hat Software sued. Novell indicated that their records show SCO doesn't own many of the IP rights they think they do. And Eric Raymond, President of the Open Source Initiative, wrote a rather scathing position paper describing how incredibly bogus SCO's claims are.
Now SCO's CEO is charging that IBM is secretly stage managing all these attacks. Eric Raymond has responded with an open letter, calling the charge a "brain-boggling disconnect between SCO and reality." The letter is a fun read, but the key part that struck me was here:
Yes, one of the parties I talk with is, in fact, IBM. And you know what? They're smarter than you. One of the many things they understand that you do not is that in the kind of confrontation SCO and IBM are having, independent but willing allies are far better value than lackeys and sock puppets. Allies, you see, have initiative and flexibility. The time it takes a lackey to check with HQ for orders is time an ally can spend thinking up ways to make your life complicated that HQ would be too nervous to use. Go on, try to imagine an IBM lawyer approving this letter.
The very best kind of ally is one who comes to one's side for powerful reasons of his or her own. For principle. For his or her friends and people. For the future. IBM has a lot of allies of that kind now. It's an alliance you drove together with your arrogance, your overreaching, your insults, and your threats.
That's a nice description of the loose-knit "smart mob" organizations that are a rising force in this century. Be they open source developers, Howard Dean supporters or "terrorists linked to Al Qaeda," these communities continue to surprise traditional top-down organizations with their ability to be robust, to adapt, and most surprisingly to be efficient and productive without a strong chain of command.
Back in July, a group of 68 economists, scientists, industry representatives, academics, open-source advocates, consumer advocates and librarians proposed that the World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO) host a meeting on the use of open collaborative development models. Examples described in the proposal include IETF standards, open-source software such as Apache and Apple's Darwin OS, the Human Genome Project and open academic journals, among others. The WIPO's initial response was quite favorable. Dr. Francis Gurry, WIPO Assistant Director and Legal Counsel, was quoted by Nature Magazine as saying "The use of open and collaborative development models for research and innovation is a very important and interesting development... The director-general looks forward with enthusiasm to taking up the invitation to organize a conference to explore the scope and application of these models."
Needless to say, business interests like Microsoft saw such high-profile acceptance of open source as a threat, and immediately lobbied to have the idea squashed. The Washington Post and National Journal's Technology Daily report that Lois Boland, the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office Acting Director of International Relations, dismissed the meeting as out of the WIPO's area, saying the organization is "clearly limited to the protection of intellectual property." "To have a meeting whose primary objective is to waive or remove those protections seems to go against the mission," Boland told National Journal. She argued specifically against the discussion of open-source models, claiming that open-source software is not protected under copyright law but only contract law, which is not in the domain of WIPO. She also protested the manner in which the meeting was organized, saying WIPO's agenda should be driven by member nations and the idea came from outside the organization. Under increasing pressure, WIPO canceled the meeting, saying the polarized political debate made the possibility of international policy discussion "increasingly remote."
Lawrence Lessig's blog blasts Boland, saying "If Lois Boland said this, then she should be asked to resign. The level of ignorance built into that statement is astonishing, and the idea that a government official of her level would be so ignorant is an embarrassment." Personally I think Lessig is missing the broader picture here, or perhaps he is just not cynical enough. Rather than ignorance, Boland is simply showing unusual candor in her statements. Her position is that WIPO should promote international IP laws that support the current content industry, regardless of how that affects new upstart industries, national productivity, the economy or other important concerns. In the words of The Economist, she is being pro-business, but not pro-market. I agree with Lessig that this is abhorrent, but given how the U.S. continues to force brand-new IP protections down the world's collective throat it seems to be a fair description of current U.S. policy.
The issues described in the proposal to the WIPO are not going to go away, and will eventually need to be addressed with or without the involvement of WIPO. As Ed Black, president of the Computer and Communications Industry Association, said on hearing the meeting was canceled: "Does this indicate that WIPO is abdicating authority and responsibility for these issues, including open source for the future? If so, we will all live by that, but then so must they. They should step up the plate or step aside. ... It is inexplicable that they would shut the door on what are clearly important issues."
Tampa Police have decided to scrap their much-criticized face-recognition system, admitting that during a two-year trial the system did not correctly identify a single suspect. Similar face-recognition systems are still in use in Pinellas County, Florida, and Virginia Beach, Virginia, though neither of these systems have ever resulted in an arrest either.
Face-recognition technology evokes images of automatic cameras scanning bustling crowds, automatically picking out terrorists from the millions of faces that pass by. One day the technology may be able to deliver on this, but currently it is still necessary for a human controller to zoom in on individual faces using a joystick. A 2001 St. Petersburg Times article describes a Tampa police officer scanning the weekend crowd in Ybor City, checking 457 faces out of the some 125,000 tourists and revelers in an evening.
Let's do some quick math. The police are only scanning 457 out of 125,000 people on a given night, or 0.3%. That means even if ten known bad guys from the watch-list are in the crowd, there's still only a 4% chance any one of them will be looked at by the system. That number drops to 0.4% if there's only one bad guy in the crowd that night.
Then there's the chance that the face recognition system doesn't sound an alarm. A recently published evaluation of the Identix system used in Tampa gives a base hit rate of 77% (that is, 77% of people on a watch-list were correctly identified). However, that was with a watch-list of only 25 faces. The hit rate goes down as watch-list size goes up, down to 56% with a watch-list of 3000 faces. According to the Associated Press, the Tampa database had over 24,000 mug shots on its watch-list. Then there's the problem that mug shots were taken indoors and the surveillance cameras were outdoors. According to the evaluation, mixing indoors and outdoors can reduce hit rates by around 40%. (The 40% reduction was seen on identity verification tasks; the watch-list task is actually more difficult.) Finally, these results all assume a 1% false-positive rate, which would result in five false alarms per night. Given all these (well-known) problems, it's amazing anyone ever thought this was a good idea.
There're several reasons I hope this failure dissuades similar attempts by other law-enforcement communities. First, as a 2001 ACLU report on the Tampa system points out, our resources could be better spent, and face recognition can give us a false sense of security. Second, a face-recognition systems in a public space gives the impression that everyone is a suspect, regardless of whether the system actually works. And finally, face recognition technology continues to improve. It won't happen in the next few years, but at some point the technology is going to reach the point where recognition is completely automated, high accuracy, and robust. When that happens, it will be possible to track large numbers of people as they go about their daily lives, and even track people retroactively from recorded video. Hopefully by this time our society will be so inoculated against such privacy violations that such uses will be inconceivable.
Science fiction author Larry Niven once described a world where people would instantly teleport to places where something interesting was happening, causing what he called "Flash Crowds." Now the LA Times reports that movie makers are seeing the opposite problem: instant communication means that if the audience doesn't like your movie on opening-night Friday, by Saturday you'll have yourself a flash void:
"Today, there is just no hope of recovering your marketing costs if the film doesn't connect with the audience, because the reaction is so quick — you are dead immediately," said Bob Berney, head of Newmarket Films, which distributed "Whale Rider," a well-received, low-budget New Zealand picture that grossed $12.8 million and has endured through the summer. "Conversely, if the film is there, then the business is there."
Two things are going on here. The first is just that word-of-mouth is getting faster, which we already knew. That means that the old strategy of hyping a bad movie so everyone sees it before the reviews come out won't work much longer. The more important point, though, is that movie companies are seeing their carefully crafted ad campaigns overwhelmed by the buzz created by everyone's texting, emailing and blogging. The shift in power cuts both ways: audience-pleasers like Bend It Like Beckham thrive on almost buzz alone, while The Hulk was killed by buzz based partially on pirated pre-release copies, in spite of a huge marketing campaign.
Studios (and producers in general) will learn one of two lessons from this trend. Either they'll decide they need to manipulate buzz by wooing mavens and carefully controlling how information is released, or, just possibly, they'll follow the advice of Oren Aviv, Disney's marketing chief: "Make a good movie and you win. Make a crappy movie and you lose."
Many AI researchers believe that the biggest barrier to creating human-like intelligence is that humans know millions of simple everyday facts. This ordinary knowledge ranges from knowing what a horse looks like to a simple fact like "people buy food in restaurants." In the past, AI researchers would spend years painstakingly entering such information into huge databases, but now a new crop of researchers are leveraging the millions of Netizens who have nothing better to do than answer stupid questions all day to build these databases quickly and for free. One such site is the OpenMind Initiative (hosted by my own Ricoh Innovations), which is primarily being used by the MIT Media Lab to collect Common Sense Knowledge.
The latest foray into this space is the ESP Game. When you log into the game you are paired randomly with another player on the Net. Both you and your partner are shown the same 15 random images from the Web, one at a time. Your job is to type in as many words to describe the image as possible, with the goal of matching a word your partner has entered. When you agree on a word, you both get points and move on to the next image. Usually I don't care for Web-based games, but I have to admit the game is compelling.
The real goal of the system is to generate a huge database of human-quality keywords for all the images on the Net. The task is huge: Google's Image Search has already indexed over 425 Million images by using the text that surrounds the image's hyperlink. But numbers are on Ahn's side: if only 5000 people were to play the game throughout the day, all 425 Million images would receive at least one label in a single month. Given that many game sites get over 10,000 players in a day, a few months is probably all Ahn needs to fill out the whole database.
I'm probably the last on the block to have heard about this, but Scott McCloud, the author of Understanding Comics, has finally come out with an online comic available for a micropayment of 25 cents. Or rather, he came out with it over a month ago, but I just found out about it today. As you might expect from Scott, he's put the new medium (Macromedia Flash in this case) to good use without losing the fundamental comic-book feel. It was a quarter well-spent, especially since I could download the content to my computer and feel like I actually got something I can call "my copy."
Payments are made through BitPass, a new startup out of Stanford that allows you to open an account with as little as three dollars and a credit card or PayPal account. The whole process was quick and painless, as is the payment process itself. There's not too much content you can purchase through BitPass yet, but it looks like they're building up a solid content base as they go through their beta-testing. Content providers seem to still be figuring out how the market will play out for different kinds of media: models range from the donation cups that are already common with PayPal, to purchase-and-download, to a "30 reads in 90 days" pay-per-view kind of model.
And now just in case I wasn't quite the last person on the Internet to have heard about this, you know too.
Here are a few free Mac programs I've recently come across that make it easy to exercise your rights to fair use. Which is to say, these are programs that allow you to backup, timeshift, spaceshift, or quote digital media that you have bought and paid for but that the Content Cartel would rather you not be able to manipulate. Windows users will have to find their own equivalents (they're bound to be out there) or just break down and buy a Mac.
(Happy Fair and Balanced Friday everyone!)
A few days ago I blogged about the economics of hydrogen cars. As a follow-up, I've recently come across a report from the Rocky Mountain Institute on hydrogen power: Twenty Hydrogen Myths. A summary of the report's conclusions can be found here.
The gist of the RMI report is that hydrogen fuel is extremely efficient; a hydrogen fuel-cell car is 2-3 times more efficient than a gasoline car and 1.5 times more efficient than a hybrid gas-electric car (page 11). However, hydrogen is also difficult to transport because of its low energy-to-volume ratio, so their transition strategy (page 13, published in detail here) is to distribute energy in a different form, most likely natural gas, and then generate hydrogen local to where it's needed. Building complexes would all have their own natural-gas-to-hydrogen converters, and the hydrogen would then be used to run fuel-cells to generate electricity. Excess hydrogen would be used to refuel hydrogen-powered cars during off-peak hours. These cars would initially be in company fleets, but as the infrastructure develops RMI sees the model expanding to sell fuel to cars in the neighborhood. Ultimately, natural gas will be supplanted by renewable energies such as wind and solar as these technologies become more cost-effective.
I don't have the expertise to judge the arguments made in the report, but on their face they sound compelling. Most of all I'm pleased with RMI's overall message: you don't need to choose between environmentally friendly business practices and the bottom line. Rather than argue that corporate fat-cats need to give up their profits so we can have cleaner air, RMI is creating road maps that show how businesses can improve the environment by acting in their own economic self-interest. Assuming these road maps stand the test of the market, that sounds a lot more effective (and valuable to society) than raging against the machine or trying to pass ham-handed government regulation, especially in today's political environment.
There are some interesting rumors floating around about Kaltix, a stealth start-up out of the Stanford WebBase Project. This is the same group that created the PageRank algorithm that was later spun out as a little start-up called Google. As you might expect with a company in stealth mode we're still long on speculation and short on facts, but it looks like their main technology is a faster way to compute PageRank, the algorithm used by Google to rank hits from a search based on the Web's link structure.
This is interesting because it would allow Google (or any other search engine) to quickly recalculate personalized indexes for each and every user. After seeding a personal index with my bookmarks file, Google would know that when I for "Jaguar" I'm probably interested in the latest version of Apple's OS, not the car or the cat. The CNET article has a good overview, but Jeffrey Heer's blog has a nice perspective as a researcher who happens to be housemates with one of the Kaltix founders.
There are a lot of question-marks still, and I'm not yet convinced that Kaltix's technology is the crown jewels that Heer or the CNET article claim it is. Speedy indexing is necessary for large-scale personalized search, but you still need to create a profile from something. The real question will be whether a search engine can generate a personal profile that helps disambiguate the searches people make in actual use. Add to this the need to keep personal information like browser history from being transmitted to outside companies and you have a tall order. I'm not saying these problems can't be solved, but as far as I know they haven't been solved yet. I expect Kaltix will get bought by one of the big search companies, but it will still be several years before we see personalized search running on any large (non-intranet) scale.
A couple stories have come up the last two days that highlight how the way the law and business determines identity isn't keeping up with technology. One story is about identity theft and the other about computer security violations, but both have a common thread: technology has made it so our common-sense assumptions about how to tell someone's identity no longer work.
The first is a lengthy Washington Post article about identity theft. The driving story is about Michael Berry, whose identity was stolen by an ex-con who proceeded to rack up debt and eventually commit murder all while living under Berry's name. Around this driving story the article gives a good analysis of just how incredibly easy and common this kind of identity theft is today.
It used to be that identifying someone was a long-term and high-touch operation. You'd get paychecks from a local business, deposit checks at the local bank branch, and write checks to the local grocery store. Over time all these entities would get to know you and your identity would become firmly entrenched in the system. Now that society is more mobile that system doesn't work, and we're finding that the replacement system of asking for social security numbers or mother's maiden name doesn't work too well either. Currently banks have to eat any monetary losses that come from identity-theft fraud, but do not currently have to take responsibility for damage caused to a person's credit rating or reputation (as a recently upheld by the South Carolina Supreme Court). That means that, as the law stands now, the economic incentives encourage more convenience and less security than would be the case if banks had to take the total cost of identity theft into account.
The second story is from yesterday's New York Times, who reported that a British man was exonerated of child pornography charges after his computer was found to have been infected by nearly a dozen Trojan-horse programs. Mr. Green, who has lost custody of his daughter and spent nine days in prison and three months in a "bail hostel" due to charges, has all along claimed that his computer was infected and that it even dialed into the Internet when no one was home.
In this case the question is whether Green is responsible for the material on his own computer. Not long ago if a crime was committed in a particular house then the perpetrator could only be one of a handful of people. For these data crimes, the person actually downloading porn onto Green's computer could have been literally anyone in the world. Similar arguments have been made about open Wi-Fi access points and "zombie" computers that are used as launching pads for attacks on other sites on the Net. As the Times article points out, there are two issues here. One is that bad guys could use such security problems as a defense, the other is that it really is a valid defense:
"The scary thing is not that the defense might work," said Mark Rasch, a former federal computer crime prosecutor. "The scary thing is that the defense might be right," and that hijacked computers could be turned to an evil purpose without an owner's knowledge or consent.
The general problem is that our old common sense ideas of identity no longer hold, or can't be applied in our hyper-convenient and mobile society. I'm not necessarily in control of my own networked computer. I'm not the only person who knows the last four digits of my SSN. And the person handling my application has almost certainly never seen me before, and that's no cause for alarm. Perhaps technology will come to the rescue in the form of biometrics that can prevent identity theft while still preventing governmental abuses. Perhaps regulation will come to the rescue in terms of systems to challenge faulty information, and by insuring that those who are responsible for security have the incentive to maintain it. Probably a combination of these will be required, but in the mean time I expect the problem to get worse before it gets better.
Guided voting already exists in basic form. I'm knowledgeable about a few political issues, but when it comes to local candidates or ballot initiatives outside my area of expertise I rely on party affiliation or endorsements from friends or organizations I trust to "tell" me how to vote.
Prof. Volokh's point is that, like it or not, Internet voting will lead to a much greater role for guided voting. Today's ballots have a candidate's party affiliation printed on the ballot, but if I want to know how, say, the National Organization of Women feels about a candidate I need to do my homework in advance and bring a cheat sheet. Volokh paints a future where I could go to a trusted third-party site, say suggestedvote.com, and check off the organizations I would like to guide my vote. The website would then produce a suggested ballot that aggregates all the recommendations of the organizations I picked, possibly weighing organizations differently in case they conflict on a particular issue. Then with a single keystroke my suggested ballot could be filed. The advantage of such a system, so the argument goes, is that the influence currently held by our two main political parties would be diluted and the political process would become more diverse.
While I like the idea in principle, I think there are two improvements that could be made to Prof. Volokh's scenario:
First, there is no reason to have a third-party gatekeeper such as suggestedvote.com. More general and egalitarian would be for election boards to publish a standard XML ballot and then any interested party could publish their own itemized recommendations. I would be able to subscribe to recommendations from now.org, aclu.org, or even volokh.com just like I currently subscribe to RSS feeds to read several blogs at once. Of course, a site like suggestedvote.com could still offer to host RSS or similar recommendation feeds for anyone who doesn't have their own website.
Second, I am quite frightened by the concept of one-click voting. Behavioral psychologists have repeatedly shown that people will tend to do what an interface makes easy to do (see The Adaptive Decision Maker for a nice analysis). This is why there are heated debates about things like motor-voter registration and whether voting booths should allow a single lever to cast all votes for a single party, policies that would be no-brainers if changing the convenience of voting didn't also change who votes and for what. Given that any change we make will affect how people act, I want the system to encourage thoughtful individual contributions to our democracy, not a constituency of sheep.
This is not to say there should be no voting guides at all, but rather that people should still be forced to actually see and touch every ballot measure, even if it is only to find and check the their favorite party nominee. Each ballot measure and candidate would be accompanied by labels representing endorsements by each guide the voter has chosen, possibly with links from the endorsement to a short argument explaining the group's reasoning. Rather than follow an automatically aggregated recommendation, voters would judge for themselves who to follow on each individual issue. Voters might even choose guides from organizations with whom they explicitly disagree, either to vote against their measures or to see opposing viewpoints. This system would not be that much more inconvenient than the one-click voting Prof. Volokh suggests, but would insure individual voter involvement while still giving the main advantages of voting guides.
(a DocBug.com exclusive)
Sacramento — Today political luminaries such as Arnold Schwarzenegger, Gary Coleman and Larry Flint have been joined by none other than Mad Magazine's Alfred E. Newman. Declaring his candidacy at an afternoon taping of the Jerry Springer show, Newman blasted Governor Gray Davis and "all those other guys who have experience in politics." Newman said he would be running as an Independent. "None of the parties wanted me," Newman explained to reporters. "Even the Greens wouldn't take me, in spite of being just as electable as Nader was."
Considered one of the darkest horses in an election overrun by dark-horse candidates, Newman feels he still has one major advantage over his opposition. "I'm especially appealing to stupid people," Newman explained. "Stupid people like me because I can't speak good English. That and I have a kinda boyish smile that puts people at ease." Given that Lyndon LaRouche is already tied up in his presidential race, political analysts agree Newman is a shoe-in for the stupid vote.
Even so, Newman's campaign will have an up-hill battle against the huge name-recognition of many of the opposing candidates, a group that includes movie stars, washed-up TV celebrities and professional publicity hounds looking for some cheap exposure. But Newman shrugs off suggestions that his chances are slim. "Only a small percentage of Californians bother to vote, and those that do will be spread out over about 200 candidates. So I'm figuringing I'll only need two or three votes to win, tops. And I've already got two votes lined up!" Newman declined to reveal the name of his second supporter.
In spite of his shortcomings, Newman's politics do appeal with voters on several core issues. In particular, Newman is a proponent of what he calls a "radical pro-choice" position. "I believe that life begins at 40," Newman stated during a recent fund-raiser. Campaign strategists are quick to point out that this position endears Newman to both the pro-choice and pro-death-penalty camps, both powerful interests in California. "I like it — it's like compassionate conservatism with a California twist!" commented one San Francisco resident.
On other issues Newman is less forthcoming, but he did hint that if he is elected we would see a return to traditional California methods for handling the state's woes. When asked to comment on how he would handle California's unprecedented deficit, much of which will need to be handled in next year's budget, Newman simply flashed his trademark grin and said "What, me worry?"
Mark Glaser at Online Journalism Review has an interesting look at Howard Dean's Blog For America campaign blog. Glaser's main point: Dean's blog is building support and a sense of connection to his campaign, even though almost all the entries are from his campaign staff rather than Dean himself. As Dan Gillmor puts it, the official Dean blog is a campaign document, not a candidate document.
The article raises the question of how blogs (and by extension, the Web) is best used in political campaign. For Dean, blogforamerica.com is a tool for organizing grassroots support. It lets supporters know what they can do to help, and more importantly it keeps them informed about the bigger picture of how the campaign is moving. Dick Morris even goes so far as to declare grass-roots Internet organization as the new replacement for television ads. But as Glaser points out, you don't get the feeling of being in Dean's head like you would if he were writing his own daily entries. In fact, you get a better sense of Dean's thought process from the posts he made as a guest blogger at Lawrence Lessig's site than from his own blog.
Certainly there's nothing wrong with how Dean is using his blog, and his success so far has shown (yet again) just how powerful the Net can be for grass-roots organization. But I can also see why people would wish for more personal contact through his blog as well. Like email, blogs are an informal and even intimate medium, better suited to throwing out ideas that are from the heart, or at least from the hip, than to well-rehearsed campaign speeches. It gives everyday voters a seat on the campaign bus, where they can discuss the issues in detail and watch as positions become fully formed. One of the problems with politics, especially around campaign season, is that everything is so well crafted that you can never hear the doubts and alternatives that had to be considered in crafting the final message. This was brought home to me after 9/11 when, for a period of about three months, it seemed like the curtains had been lifted and politicians were all thinking out loud.
The next question in my mind is how this sort of medium can be used once a candidate is elected. Dean has commented that he might have a White House blog if he's elected, and of course already the White House publishes Press Secretary briefings on the Net. Perhaps the White House blog could become the 21st century's fireside chat?
I expect the idea seemed simple in the RIAA's boardroom. First, declare jihad against music sharers everywhere. Then make it known that you would be sending out subpoenas and filing lawsuits against anyone and everyone who copies. "It doesn't matter who they are" said Cary Sherman, president of the RIAA. No doubt, they must have thought, the 60 million Americans out there who currently share music will get the message and the rest of the country will thank the record companies for getting tough on crime.
Only now the spin-doctoring is getting away from them. First, the Associated Press used information in the subpoenas to locate and interview some of the targets before even the RIAA had received their names. Far from being the poster-children for underworld crime the RIAA would have trotted before the cameras, those interviewed were college students, parents of file-sharers, and even a grandfather who uses file-sharing networks to download hard-to-find recordings of European artists.
Now comes a new hard lesson for the RIAA about life in the Internet age: these hapless individuals are starting to use the Net to organize. First was subpoenadefense.org, a site started in April by the Electronic Frontier Foundation, US Internet Industry Association and other organizations to offer resources to those who wish to defend themselves against the recent torrent of subpoenas. They also host a service where you can enter the handle you use on peer-to-peer networks and see if you might soon be the target for a subpoena. And now a new site called CopyWrongs.org is offering every subpoena recipient their own blog, either signed or anonymous, through which they can let their own story come out. The site, started by volunteers that include MIT Media Lab researchers and programmers who previously worked on the FreeSkylyarov.org site, is bound to give us the exact perspective the RIAA doesn't want us to see: just how much those 28% of Americans who share music online look just like the other 72% of us.
The July 18th issue of Science Magazine has an interesting article that gives a critical eye to the idea that hydrogen-powered automobiles is the best way to attack our environmental problems. (The article is also currently cached here for those without a subscription to Science.) The article makes two main points:
Fuel Cell Today suggests that some of their numbers may be exagerated, especially when it comes to the cost of they hydrogen-fuel infrastructure needed for fuelcell-powered cars. In particular, they point out that the huge financial commitment auto makers have made to fuelcell technology is a good indication that they believe it will be economically viable. They also note that many of the alternatives raised in the Science article, while perhaps better targets from an energy-efficiency standpoint, are not possible in the current political climate.
Even given this criticism, the general point seems to be well-taken. As Marianne Mintz, author of one of the reports cited in the Science article, says to Fuel Cell Today, "They're basically trying to make the point that there are other options that deserve a fair share of attention in the near term. I don't think that anybody would argue with that."
The Village Voice has a nice summary of the Transvision 2003 USA Conference, sponsored by the World Transhumanist Association. Founded in 1998, the organization anticipates the day when technology will have the ability to halt aging and alter "limitations on human and artificial intelligence, unchosen psychology, suffering, and our confinement to the planet earth." As the name implies, they look forward to the day when technology allows us to move beyond what we now consider "human," becoming first transitional humans and finally "posthuman." They also anticipate several bumps in the road, both in terms of real dangers from the technology itself and a backlash against what some might see as an unnatural or downright immoral use of technology to "play God." Thus this conference, which brings together Transhumanists, professional bioethicists, anti-technology activists, and critical social theorists of science and technology.
I think these guys are pointing in the right direction, but they're pointing way, way far out down the road. For example, here is their view on what a posthuman can become:
As a posthuman you would be as intellectually superior to any current human genius as we are to other primates. Your body would be resistant to disease and immune to aging, giving you unlimited youth and vigor. You would have control over your own desires, moods, and mental states, giving you the option of never feeling tired, bored, or irritated about petty things; you could instead choose to experience intense pleasure, love, artistic appreciation, focused serenity, or some other state of consciousness that currently human brains may not even be able to access.
Posthumans could be completely synthetic artificial intelligences, or they could be enhanced uploads [see "What is uploading?"], or they could be the result of making many partial but cumulatively profound augmentations to a biological human. The latter alternative would probably require either the redesign of the human organism using advanced nanotechnology or its radical enhancement using some combination of technologies such as genetic engineering, mood drugs, anti-aging therapies, neural interfaces, advanced information management tools, memory enhancing drugs, wearable computers, and cognitive techniques.
I tend to be a techno-optimist when it comes to my own fields of intelligence augmentation and wearable computing, as well as those I know less about such as genetic engineering and psychoactive drugs. Many years from now (sadly, probably a generation or two after I am already dead) I expect some of the things the Transhumanists predict will come to pass. However, there are a few fundamental issues that we will have to face along this road before we ever get to the point on the horizon that they look towards.
First, we will hit a crisis of values. Biology can make us stronger, healthier and longer-lived. Artificial intelligence can make us better able to solve problems and reach goals we set for ourselves. Psychology and psychiatry can help us better understand and change of our moods, emotions and motivations. But none of these sciences can tell us whether being long-lived is good or bad, whether the goals we choose to achieve are the "right" goals, or whether the (presumably happy and contented) moods we choose to feel are in any way more appropriate than how we feel today. These questions can only be answered by liberal arts such as religion, ethics and philosophy, not science, not logic, not pure reason. (Being rationalists, I suspect the Transhumanists would be upset by that assertion, but no matter. Others with a different set of philosophical tools will come to answer these issues.)
Second, long before technology brings us the first transhuman it will by necessity bring us a deeper understanding of what it means to be human. These findings will likely have wide-reaching repercussions in how society operates. For example, we may discover that our personality, intelligence, and our very choices are determined solely by the chemistry of our brain, leaving no room for an atomic, immutable soul or indeed any identity that continues throughout time. Such issues are already being taken on by philosophers such as Daniel Dennett. They are also seeping into practical questions over the use of Prozac, the acceptability of the insanity defense plea, the regulation of and treatment for addictive drugs, and the concept of justice and "reform" of criminals. If the Transhumanists are right, these battles will be nothing compared to the turmoil over issues of identity, free will and responsibility that are yet to come.
Finally, we will have to accept that transhumans may be very unlike humans now, not only in ability but in morals and values. The Transhumanists believe "progress is when more people become more able to deliberately shape themselves, their lives, and the ways they relate to others, in accordance with their own deepest values." What happens when I change myself so much that my deepest values themselves change? And what if, in my new transhuman state, I decide that intelligence isn't all it's cracked up to be and the true purpose of life is to sit around doped-up on happy drugs all day? Would you, inferior normal human that you are, decide that perhaps given my choices I'm not so superior after all? The question of value is paramount in deciding what even qualifies as transhuman or posthuman. It is, I suspect, something of a Göedel statement for the Transhumanist philosophy.
The reasonable man adapts himself to the world; the unreasonable one persists in trying to adapt the world to himself. Therefore all progress depends on the unreasonable man.
— George Bernard Shaw
The RIAA has been feeling their oats after their victory against Verizon back in April, where the ISP was forced to reveal the names of customers who had been engaging in illegal file-swapping. Since then the RIAA has issued at least 911 subpoenas and expect to file at least several hundred lawsuits in the next few weeks in what can only be described as a "shock and awe" fight for the mindeshare of the average American.
However, more recent demands for user information have been rebuked. Last week MIT and Boston College both challenged subpoenas for user identification on their networks on two points. First, the demands that come under the DMCA are in conflict with the Family Education Rights and Privacy Act, which prohibits colleges from giving personal information without first informing the student. Second, they charge that the RIAA should have filed its subpoenas in Massachusetts instead of Washington, DC. And now Pacific Bell Internet Services is challenging more than 200 subpoenas on the same grounds: that they violate their user's privacy and that they should have been filed in California, not Washington, DC.
The RIAA is correct in claiming that these challenges are only on procedural grounds, though already the RIAA's shotgun approach has drawn the ire of Senator Norm Coleman, R-Minn., who chairs the Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations. Another point I haven't seen brought up in the news is that this "procedural challenge" could force the RIAA to change the venue in which its subpoenas are filed away from the court where their original Verizon case was won. (I'll leave the analysis about whether that matters to someone with the necessary legal knowledge.)
Of course, the real battle is still for the hearts and minds of the American public. The RIAA could care less about the hundreds of college students and little-old-ladies they're trying to sue for millions of dollars each, what's important is the millions of Americans who think that sharing music is OK. And on that front they have more bad news: a recent survey from the Pew Internet & American Life Project reports that 67 percent of Internet users who download music say they don't care about whether the music is copyrighted. If you accept the Ipsos/Reid finding that one quarter of Americans have downloaded music, that comes down to about 40 million Americans who have downloaded music and don't care. And that, my friends, is a lot of subpoenas.