Friday, August 30, 2002

But the mug says "World's Greatest Dad". That's not official?

Last night we watched part of the MTV Video Music Awards. I didn't expect to enjoy it, and I wasn't disappointed.
Today, however, I found out that there was something to enjoy--I just didn't notice it when it happened.

In presenting Michael Jackson with a cake and trophy for his 44th birthday, Britney Spears glowingly referred to Jackson as the "artist of the millenium". The birthday boy thought he was getting an award by that name, and proceeded to give a heartfelt thank-you speech. I was too busy watching his nose ("He's more machine now, than man. Twisted and evil."), and didn't realize what was happening at the time. Alas.

Wednesday, August 14, 2002

Sit and listen.

I make it a rule not to commit Slashdot link propagation without additional commentary, but I can't help it here.
Lawrence Lessig's
OSCON speech
is by far the clearest, most coherent summary of information freedom issues I've ever heard.

Public Domain == Pervert Domain?

Oral argument in the Supreme Court for href="">Eldred v. Ashcroft is scheduled for
October 9. For those who have forgotten,
Eldred v. Ashcroft is the case that seeks to overturn the href="">Sonny Bono
Copyright Extension Act. Since the href="">last time I
checked, several more href="">amicus briefs have
been filed for both sides, so I spent part of last night reading through

The primary argument of the Petitioners--those against the copyright
extension--has been that the Constitution's Copyright Clause defines a
specific goal ("to promote the progress of science and the useful
arts") and a specific limitation ("for limited Times"), and that the
copyright extension violates the limitation while also failing to promote
the goal. These failures are most obvious in the Act's retroactive
term extension, which (Petitioners argue) can't possibly promote the
creation of new works, since it applies to works which already exist.

Opponents (those in favor of the term extension--Congress, Disney, and friends) claim that retroactive extensions can promote creation of new works, because Congress's tendency to extend copyrights may itself be incentive for creators. That's a bit of a circular argument, and questionable besides: would the prospect of a longer term, fifty or seventy years from now, affect your decision to create content today? Of course not.

Unfortunately, it's hard to prove that, and it's
hard to know just how limited "limited Times" should be. Opponents know
this, and so their arguments attempt to muddle the issue with definitional
quibbles and suggestions that previous term extensions provide sufficient
precedent for the current one. ("We got away with it before, why
shouldn't we now?" is an underlying theme in Opponents' arguments.)

The thing that bugs me most about Opponents' arguments, though, is that
they don't spend much effort trying to justify the Act on the basis of its merits; instead,
they justify it on the basis of Congress's authority to have passed
it. In other words, they don't offer compelling reasons why the
the term extension is a good thing, they just argue that it's
within Congress's power to pass. (It's obvious why they're doing
this: the only real benefit of the Act is its value to the wealthy
copyright holders who lobbied for it in the first place. Opponents
understandably downplay this aspect, since it suggests corruption on
their part.)

Last night, though, I read an argument in favor of retroactive extensions that actually seems, on the face of it, compelling. That argument came in an href="">amicus
brief filed by the estates of Dr. Seuss, E.B. White, and Ludwig
Bemelmans--all authors of famous childrens' books. Their brief provides several concrete examples of works that (they claim) would not have been created if it weren't for long copyright terms. They cite movies, plays, multimedia CD-Roms, and other works which they (the copyright holders) have adapted from their own earlier works. (Think Jim Carrey as The Grinch or Michael J. Fox as Stuart Little.) These works have artistic, technical, and educational merit (in theory), and so they justify continued copyright protection as incentive for their creation.

It's hard not to sympathize with their claim,
particularly when you have fond memories of the works in question. Their arguments are misleading, though. Original authors aren't the only ones capable of creating worthy adapatations--Disney didn't originally create Snow White and Cinderella, after all. Further, there's reason to believe that
the exclusivity of copyright promotes regurgitation rather than adaptation. (Another re-release of Pinocchio? How many times can they re-release the same movie?)

Seuss and friends want us to believe that adaptation should be the permanent exclusive right of original authors. To convince us, they point out that some authors use public domain
characters "to glorify drugs or create pornography". They mention this as part of their argument against the importance of the public domain, apparently trying to portray the public domain as a realm of debauchery--as opposed to the basis of our heritage and the primary source of our creative inspiration that it is.

It's ridiculous that these companies have exploited the public domain that existed prior to their works, but (now that they're established) want the public
domain after their works to be suppressed. It's even more depressing that Congress doesn't seem to understand (or chooses to ignore) that hypocrisy.

To underscore the lack of perspective that characterizes the Opposition, consider a quote from Sonny Bono's widow (who finished his term when he died, and who originally presented the bill):

Actually, Sonny wanted copyright to last forever.
I am informed by staff that such a change would violate
the Constitution. I invite all of you to work with me
to strengthen our copyright laws in all ways available to
us. As you know, there is also Jack Valenti's proposal
to last forever less one day. Perhaps the committee may
look at that next Congress.

Ah, yes. Good trick. Infinity minus one. Clever.

Tell me what to think, Oh Anchorperson.

I'm home sick today, and so have been watching a lot of news. This experience reminds me how silly the Fox News Channel is.
Right now, they're covering a chemical leak in Missouri. The chemical was initially reported to be ammonia, which the Fox News anchorman keeps calling "pneumonia."

It's not quite as entertaining as their coverage of the
Pledge of Allegiance controversy in June. After covering the story, in their inter-story banter, the anchorpeople criticized the Ninth Circuit Court's decision as "obviously a bad thing."
"Let's hope it's overturned, right?" one of them said to the other.

They then cut to commercial, and in the process recited the Fox News Channel slogan, which involves how balanced and fair their news coverage is.

Thursday, August 8, 2002

Is that a <i>real</i> baby? Wake it up so I can confirm that.

In April, a mother passing through heightened security at JFK was forced to drink from bottles of her own breast milk to demonstrate that the bottles were not dangerous. Apparently this demand conformed to federal guidelines at the time.

Priceless quote from a civil rights attorney in the article:

The number of middle-aged, lactating white women who passed through al-Qaida training is probably negligible.

Wednesday, August 7, 2002

Damn! He could be anywhere!

[Posted by Noah:]

If you're a determined assassin of celebrities with a high-powered rifle, you may already be familiar with Ibis Tek's Instantaneous Personal Protection System, a set of bulletproof barriers that pop up within 40ms when an incoming bullet is detected. Luckily, they tell you how close you'll need to get to defeat their system (500ft) right on their web site.

The same company sells a variety of other products and services like military training -- and SUVs with a pop-up turret bearing a .50 caliber machine gun.

Tuesday, August 6, 2002

It's not about popularity--it's about principle.

Bruce Sterling's OSCON speech (mentioned on Slashdot) is a good read, though it's mostly cute metaphor and a lot of whining. The basic message (corporations are evil and Open Source is hard to use) is true enough, but hardly news. It's also not the problem, as far as I'm concerned.

Too much emphasis is put on how accessible the Open Source world is to the average user. But Open Source isn't about being accessible, or being successful, or taking over the world. It's about freedom to do what you want with your data. And while it's important for the average user to have that freedom, it's even more critical that we--the developers, the researchers, the innovators--have that freedom.

Of course, freedom is relative. For example, I don't feel that it's my God-given right to access the source of all the software I use. If you want to offer me software without the source, go ahead. If I don't need the source for that particular product, then maybe I'll give you my money. If I do need the source, I'll go somewhere else.

Hell, if you want to licence your software to me instead of selling it, then go for it. I'll read the terms, do my best to understand them, and decide if I can live with your restrictions. If they're reasonble, then maybe I'll give you my money. If they're too draconian, then I'll go somewhere else.

It is unfortunate that most users don't understand the rights they're forfeiting when they click "I Agree", but hey: they're the ones clicking. It's sleazy that some companies attach license
revisions to security updates, but hey: caveat emptor. Under U.S. contract law, it doesn't matter what rights the consumer thinks he has--it only matters what the contract says. So as long as customers put up with your ridiculous terms (or are too lazy to read them), I say "exploit away!"

We still, today, live in a country where consumers have a choice. If ubiquity and polish are more important to you than flexibility, then use Windows or OS X. If freedom is more important to you than convenience, then use Linux or FreeBSD. You get to choose.

The problem is not that Linux hasn't captivated the nation's grandmothers. The problem is that we--the people who care about freedom, the people who refuse to give up our rights in exchange for convenience--may soon lose our ability to choose at all.

The CBDTPA--being considered in the U.S. Congress now--will make it illegal to develop hardware or software that doesn't make provisions for copy protection. This doesn't just mean that their hardware and software will behave the way they want. This means that if your hardware and software don't behave the way they want, you will go to jail. Even if your hardware never touches their data. Even if all you ever use it for is to manage your own data, that you create in your own home.

This is a very real threat, not just to the success of Open Source, but to the existence of Open Source. It's hard to imagine how the Open Source world could incorporate such measures. And even if it's possible, there's no reason to believe that the proponents of this bill will choose a version which could be compatible with Open Source. After all, they're not pushing this stuff because they think it's right--they're pushing it because they think it will protect their profits.

If you use Windows or OS X, then the fate of Open Source might not seem very relevant to you. But surely you've noticed how your rights are dwindling, with every new release and security patch. Licence agreements are becoming more restrictive, not less. Their programs are getting more powerful, but your freedom in how you use them is weakening. Perhaps you can sleep at night thinking "These terms are bad, but they're not unbearable. I can still live with them, and if they ever get really bad, then I'll look for an alternative."

Well, any minute now, there may be no alternative.

Monday, August 5, 2002

The altruism of profit.

I still only sort of understand what .NET is. When I first started hearing about it, it was portrayed as a way to phase out software licensing in favor of pay-per-use web services. This sounded sufficiently evil and ill-concieved that I stopped paying attention. (I do that a lot with Microsoft technologies. I still understand ActiveX mainly as a feature that I should disable if I want to keep my computer safe.)

The current Microsoft spin on .NET says nothing about pay-per-use. It's all about "services" and "experiences" and "interoperability". I'm curious, now: was the pay-per-use aspect of .NET ever emphasized by Microsoft, or was that just ruckus raised
by Microsoft detractors?

Investigating this issue, I ran across a priceless quote in one of many Microsoft hype articles:

.NET matters for two reasons, one "selfish," one tied to the profit motive.

Uh. How are those two different reasons?

Friday, August 2, 2002

Setting myself up for painful disappointment.

points out a new version of Hot or Not for blogs. Unable to resist, I've registered MonkeySpeak.

Thursday, August 1, 2002

Didn't the prophesy say the Antichrist would have this problem?

I bought some new bud earphones
to go with my mp3 player (which came with larger, less portable headphones). The earpiece labeled "L" feels more comfortable in my right ear, and the one labeled "R" feels more comfortable in my left ear. I'm worried by what this means about me.

Yes, OJ Simpson jokes would be in poor taste.

As I drove to work this morning, the marquee-light-board sign on the side of the road (which sometimes mentions accidents or road work) said




LICENSE xxxxxxxx

My first thought was that "amber" referred to a terrorism Threat Condition, which was unsettling. When I got to work, though, I googled "amber alert" and it appears to be a kidnapping response system. Yikes.

After I saw the sign, I couldn't help noticing (and checking) every white SUV I saw. I wonder if accident rates go up while alerts are in progress, because of all the people craning their necks around, reading each others' license plates.