Friday, December 30, 2005

Innovation for the poor

I realized today that I should take note of other worthy ideas in addition to my existing causes.

There are some technologies out there that could be helpful to the world but which aren't getting enough attention. For example, apparently water distillation isn't that hard: a product called watercone appears to be dead simple. So simple that I immediately saw how it worked upon seeing a picture of it--but I couldn't believe it, because if it was that simple (thought I), why hasn't anyone thought of it before? (and if it has been invented before, what exactly do they have a patent on?) It's pretty expensive for poor people ("under 100 euros"--they pretend it's a good price), but surely, I would think, there is a way to manufacture these cheaply.

Certain regions of the world, of course, have permanent serious shortages of clean water, and a cheap solar-powered distillation method could do wonders for the people there.

Then there are housing technologies. One I saw today, micro dwellings, may be able to offer durable, expandable, permanent housing at low cost... although (only having glanced at the idea, mind you) it doesn't look like a very ergonomic place to live. Anyway, the site makes a good point about high housing costs:
Current house building techniques in the western world have to a large extent failed to incorporate knowledge of geometry that enables lightweight and durable constructions which can be produced at a fraction of the cost of conventional houses. The lack of innovation in this field can be ascribed to the enormous economic interests that are tied to real estate. Challenging habitual conceptions in this area is seen as a risk not worth undertaking. However, the present situation creates considerable inequalities, where people with even average incomes cant afford buying or renting a place to live in major cities and their suburbs. As a result, monoculture prevails and people with lower incomes are forced into the margins or into finding alternative solutions.
This reminded me of another building style, domes, which my Dad was recently excited about. If I remember correctly (IIRC), Large dome houses can be built for the similar prices to regular houses, but are more energy-efficient (they insulate well) and are very durable (an excellent choice for hurricane-prone regions.) Smaller-sized domes can be build by and for the people of poorer lands--with cost savings and durability over conventional housing, presumably.

Now, I'm not sure whether or not these technologies are truly breakthroughs, but I hope that more research and development will go into developing and providing these technologies to those who would benefit.

Oh, and I almost forgot the One Laptop Per Child project. Potentially--although I suppose we won't know until a few million children grow up--this could be a major boon for the people of poor nations that are nevertheless rich enough to afford the $100 laptops. I might love to get personally involved in this project.

P.S. Sorry to my readers about not following up on my previous entry...that's sorry to both of you. Final exams came up, and a big school project... plus I discovered the Ruby programming language, and some old video games. Not good enough excuses? Well, I'm also feeling ill-equipped to develop a solid strategy for implementation of a free intellectual property regime, due to my minimal education in economics. I suspect that economics is vastly more important to the world's operation than I had noticed before. Anyway, I still plan to write a follow-up soon.

Saturday, November 26, 2005

Let's Free Everything

The phrase intellectual property does not appear in the U.S. Constitution, and for very good reason. The phrase is a lie. It turns ideas into land, and allows corporations who own the vast majority of patents and copyrights to control anyone who doesn't serve them. - Dana Blankenhorn
Recently the big content companies have been pushing harder than ever to strengthen Intellectual Property laws. They've already won 95-year copyright terms, the ability to get trivial patents on software and business methods (in the U.S.), multiple distressing provisions in the DMCA, and a worldwide IP regime thanks to the tireless efforts of WIPO. But they still aren't satisfied, of course. Broadcasters want copy protection on TV and radio, and the U.S. Attorney General wants stiffer penalties for copyright infringement. If Open Source is socialism, then we could call IP law fascism.

But as I've said, copyright infringement isn't stealing: the only reason stealing is wrong is that the victim loses something, but a person whose stuff is copied loses nothing. The fact that the theif gains something is irrelevant. Perhaps a more appropriate word would be "cheating": you're cheating the law, and more importantly, you're cheating the copyright holder out of money (s)he would've received otherwise.

However, we should ask ourselves whether this is necessary. Why is it, if I copy something, that the copyright holder is cheated out of his income? What if there were a way for the author, singer, songwriter, programmer, or cast to get paid, without obsessively trying to deter, obstruct or prosecute every citizen who wants to make a copy?

And what is the fundamental purpose of copyright law, anyway? According to the US Constitution, it is "To promote the Progress of Science and useful Arts". I would further submit that the reason we want to promote science and the arts is to optimize the health of society and happiness of everyone, to the extent that such a thing is possible.

But how can constricting the otherwise free flow of information, as copyright does in the Internet Age, promote Progress? How does it benefit society? Who would disagree with me when I say that it doesn't?

Practically speaking, the way we promote the sciences and the arts is by paying money to scientists and artists. And programmers like me, by the way. Right now, the same copyright law that inhibits information flow, encourages secret source code, and encourages the RIAA to sue teenagers, also provides a way for artists and programmers to make money. At least some of the time. It also pays for
  • Enormous amounts of marketing and advertising, which is economic deadweight;
  • Lawyers to write EULAs, DRM, and other forms of copy protection--more economic deadweight;
  • Lots of litigation;
  • Duplication of effort by software developers, medical researchers, educators, and others; and
  • Lobbyists and campaign funding to help make IP laws stronger.
Meanwhile, it does a fairly poor job of
  • Paying programmers: if you worked on Microsoft Windows, Bill Gates probably got a bigger share of the profits than you did. If you write open-source software, then you probably get paid almost nothing. There are some people who are paid to make free software, but copyright law doesn't deserve the credit for that.
  • Distributing the wealth: am I the only one that thinks there's something wrong with a few people making millions or billions with the help of copyright law, while so many authors make very little money? I suppose that this is considered acceptable due to a "lottery effect"--a tendency people have to glorify winners and not worry about losers, even if they themselves are among them. If it were only the authors of crappy junk that faced difficulty, I wouldn't mind, but I'm sure that my dear readers can think of some examples where quality work went unrewarded.
  • Producing works efficiently: for most books, movies and music, it only takes a few people to produce a work, and once it is made, there is no need to make modifications. However, in more intellectual fields, such as software and medical science, new works are virtually always based on work that has already been done. Copyrights and patents put walls between researchers and between closed-source software developers, so that the work of one person is often not available to others. Sometimes, as when a programmer switches to a different company, even the work he did himself is off-limits to re-use. This results in pointless duplication of effort on an immesurable (but certainly big) scale. (To be fair, it should be noted that a lot of duplication would happen anyway: comparable open-source projects often fail to share code. Heck, I often fail to re-use my own old code, having forgotten about it. I know, this should be a footnote, but blogspot doesn't have 'em.)
  • Your bullet point here.
Until very recently, I supported copyright law in general, because I didn't see an obvious alternative.

But what if we could pay authors, yet allow free copying, as well as the freedom to create derivative works? I saw a proposal recently for such a system. It seemed to me that the provisions of the proposal were too arbitrary, but it got me thinking about the problem.

The proposal suggests creating a kind of "public domain bubble" for open-source software development. I call it a bubble because it would be largely separated from the regular IP system; it would be tax-funded, and "it would probably be necessary to require that anyone receiving funding through this system be ineligible for IPR protection for any of their work for a substantial period of time." I'm not sure this is necessary or a good idea, although I haven't dreamt up an alternative yet. The proposal also includes
  • a group of experts in the software field who would make funding decisions related to the more esoteric software in computer system;
  • a $100 million prize fund to reward important software breakthroughs; and
  • an "Artistic Freedom Voucher", a coupon with a certain dollar value that would allow individuals to direct tax money to any specific artists or groups they desire.
I plan to update this article soon with some ideas of my own. Until then, :P.

After reading the proposal, I realized that there's no need to limit ourselves to software. I realized for the first time that all information could be free: movies, TV shows, music, books, articles, academic papers, computer software, video games, medicinal formulas, the whole shebang. I also realized that the economy could be efficient at IP production, provided that important characteristics of capitalism (such as mass decision making) are preserved.

Friday, November 25, 2005

Digg's blurbs need improvement., like Slashdot before it, is known for cool tech news items and crappy descriptions of them.

Whenever there's an interesting story with an incorrect, unhelpful, or otherwise sucky description, it would sure sooth my nerves if I could click on "Problem?" and select "Bad blurb! Bad!!"

But here's another idea. Diggers should be able to submit alternative descriptions (optionally, with a new headline), and then other users should be able to digg the new description, in much the same way as they digg the story itself (although you shouldn't have to actually digg the story in order to digg a new description).

These blurb proposals could appear in the comments section, inline with regular comments, except with a "vote for this blurb" button. Once a certain number of votes is obtained, the blurb would be promoted to replace the original blurb, and the original blurb would be demoted to become the first comment of the story (where users could vote for it to be reinstated, if they want). The number of votes required for promotion is something the administrators would have to play with, I suppose. If multiple suggestions have passed the threshold, then the one with the most votes at any given instant should be the main blurb. Users should be able to vote for more than one description, if they wish, or cancel a vote if they decide that another blurb is more worthy.

Also, sometimes the link is not very good. For example, sometimes you'll see a story about a specific blog post, but it links to the blog itself, instead of to that particular story. Or, you might see a story about a cool new program, but instead of linking to the home page of the program, there is a link to the download page. Perhaps there should be a way to propose better links.

If you have other ideas, feel free to leave a comment.

P.S. Might Digg benefit from a moderation system?

Wednesday, November 23, 2005

UDMA just made my day a little brighter!

The average consumer doesn't know this, but the biggest factor in your computer's performance is the speed of the hard drive. My laptop is an Averatec 3150H, a very likeable machine except for its abysmal hard drive performance. I was amused and annoyed recently to see a review of my laptop that said its "slow processor" was a disadvantage of the machine, but said notihing about the hard drive.

Folks, this laptop has an AMD Mobile Athlon 1600+ running at over 1 GHz, but I also have a 800Mhz desktop computer. When it comes to video encoding (a processor-intensive process), my laptop does indeed run almost twice as fast as the desktop computer. But for just about any other task, the 800MHz machine is always much faster.

For example, consider the time it takes for a program to start for the first time (the delay between when you click on a program icon, and when the program appears.) The time required depends almost entirely on your hard drive. Whether your processor is 300 Mhz or 3 GHz makes almost no difference in that delay.

As I began to use my laptop one day more than a year ago, I had the distinct feeling it had become slower. It was slow to begin with, but it had become slower still. Using my geek intuition, I could tell that something was wrong with the hard drive, but I'm a coder geek, not a hardware geek, so I couldn't figure out what was the matter.

After putting up with it for hundreds of hours, I discovered that the hard drive was in "PIO mode", a slow access mode left over from the 80's, instead of using "DMA", the fast and modern way of doing things. but I couldn't fix it because Windows provided no means to do so. People on some online forums said that it could be caused by a loose connection between the hard drive and the motherboard, a poor-quality cable, or a bad BIOS setting. Unfortunately, I couldn't figure out any way to physically reach the hard drive, and there none of the settings in the BIOS screen were related to the problem.

Eventually I decided to search for info again, and this time I hit paydirt. Apparently there's a design flaw in Windows, which causes it to revert to PIO mode permanently after 6 disk errors of a certain type occur. If there is one error per month, for example, Windows will switch to PIO mode after six months. This article explains how to fix the problem. (in one sentence: delete the attribute MasterIdDataChecksum and/or SlaveIdDataChecksum in the key 0001 and/or 0002 in the registry under HKEY_LOCAL_MACHINE\SYSTEM\CurrentControlSet\Control\Class\{4D36E96A-E325-11CE-BFC1-08002BE10318}, and then restart your computer.)

Now I only have to wait 50 seconds for OpenOffice to start, instead of 75. Splendid!

Update: also, see here.

Saturday, November 19, 2005

Ownership of Ideas is Wrong

After reading a certain article a little while ago, I realized something that I never saw clearly before: that all creative content should be available free of charge. Videos, music, books, articles, academic papers, computer software, video games, medicinal formulas--you name it: the world would be a better place if all of this were free. I might have known that intuitively before, but I didn't see the solution to the problem of putting food in the mouths of people who write software, write books, direct movies or compose music.

Now I do, and I plan to write about it if I can find the time and the energy.

In the meantime, The Guardian has an article about the trouble with intellectual property, especially with patents. It's a good overview.

Saturday, November 12, 2005

Hollywood's most ambitious bill yet?

For the most part, TV & movie bigwigs have been concentrating on acquiring copy-protection laws that apply to digital equipment, but now they're getting really bold with this new 13-page bill that proposes draconian restrictions on analog-to-digital and digital-to-analog technology. Basically, they want to ensure that copy-protection and the broadcast flag are detected, translated (to digital equivalents) and respected by all conversion equipment. I didn't know this, but there is already an analog broadcast flag standard called CGMS-A and a watermarking system called VEIL (I haven't found much information on the latter), and these are the copy-denial systems that the bill requires equipment manufacturers to respect.

The bill is a bit hard to understand on its own (I might not have described it perfectly myself), so busy people will want to read the EFF's article.

Thursday, October 27, 2005

The Cheap Media Revolution?

Piracy isn't the only thing that the MPAA and RIAA have to deal with. They would like people to think so, but in fact they have another problem coming, and as technology continues to get cheaper, it will only get worse.

In the past, the music and television industries have been mostly controlled by a few large companies. And as with most large companies, one gets the distinct impression that over the years they have become fat and slow. They are fighting new technology rather than embracing it because they do not know how to deal with it, but in addition, the distinct possibility exists that it will make them largely obsolete.

Big productions require big capital. In the past, all TV shows, movies, and even music recordings required very expensive equipment to record, and large, expensive distribution networks. So in the past, all TV shows, movies and recorded music could only be made and distributed by big companies. Thus artists and directors were always under the thumb of these companies; but this is changing.

The fact is, any person who is driven enough can already record their own songs, shoot their own movies, and distribute them too. It can certainly be expensive for one person, or a small group, but it is within reach, and wasn't before. As Glenn Reynolds explains in an article:
My wife is a filmmaker. Her latest film, which cost about $25,000 to produce, would have cost close to $1 million two decades ago. She shot it with inexpensive digital cameras, edited it with Apple's Final Cut Pro, and released it on the Web, where it has sold quite well. Her movie has been screened in theaters, and excerpts have run on network television. And it was made with gear most anyone can afford.
And check out "Star Wreck: In The Pirkinning", a comedy based on Star Trek and Babylon 5. It's a full-length amateur movie with fantastic visual effects, and it's being offered online for free (Note: it is a Finnish-language film with English subtitles.)

The MPAA and RIAA are middlemen. They bridge the gap between artists' ideas and the realizations thereof; and between artists' creations and consumers. But as these changes continue, the middlemen will be less and less necessary. That's not to say they will disappear entirely, but there is an assload of fat to be trimmed.

Boo hoo, the pirates are killing us, say the media empires. But who are the pirates? One might as well ask, who aren't the pirates? Who has internet and hasn't downloaded any songs illegally? The downloading of TV and movies is increasing, too, and might be as common as music downloading if it weren't for the substandard broadband found in much of the U.S.

The RIAA and its members probably have the most to lose in the near term. While piracy eats into their profits on one end, artists will bite the other. I've often seen claims by certain artists that feel they've been ripped off by the music industry, or are unhappy with the way they are treated. Here's a rant by an independent filmmaker, but usually these rumblings come from music artists; here are some articles Googling gave me: [1] [2].

Big media may suffer greatly in the coming years, although they may be able to reduce their suffering with more protectionist legislation. But the internet is a powerful democratic force, and the people have spoken: they don't like the status quo.

It's not simply that consumers want something for nothing. Yes, we may download songs without paying for them from time to time--sometimes legally, sometimes not; quite a few artists are offering their music for free downloads. But have you noticed how people are buying bottled water these days? Why buy bottled water, when you can get a whole tapful for free? Simple: "free" can be improved upon. Bottled water is portable, more pure (we hope), and tastes better (depending). The music industry could easily improve upon the free music we get from P2P services. Consider the disadvantages of pirate networks:
  • Quality is never guaranteed and may be difficult to ascertain; some files are low-quality, yet encoded at high bitrates.
  • Some popular P2P software is bundled with adware or spyware, and a lot of screen space is used for advertisements.
  • Many songs don't exist on the network, or are transient.
  • File naming conventions and ID3 tags are inconsistent.
  • Search criteria is limited.
  • No social networking features.
  • Downloading is slow sometimes.
  • The RIAA has been known to poison the networks with fake files, and sue file sharers.
Besides, as I mentioned before, it seems as though the RIAA has missed something very important about music: we have to hear music before we decide to buy it. It's not like bottled water, where we can know what we're getting before opening the bottle. Some people will buy albums on faith, but I, for one, will not. Thus, many people download music just to find out what they like, which explains why pirates buy more music.

The RIAA could offer assured quality (even master quality), could provide a product with no ads, adware, or spyware, could provide complete content libraries, fast download speeds, free previews, and it could use algorithms to suggest to users what they might like. Unfortunately, their obsession with piracy has caused them to offer a services that are worse than free. In particular, they insist on using DRM and proprietary formats, which generally prevent consumers from transferring the files between devices they own. I have two computers, an MP3 flash drive and an MP3 CD player (MP3 CDs can hold 5 to 12 times as much music as ordinary CDs). As I said in a previous entry, I want to be able to transfer my music among all these devices with no hassles, and I refuse to pay for any service that prevents me from doing so.*

There is another factors that the RIAA and MPAA could rely on: people's sense of morality and fairness.

You know, I could easily shoplift. It would be so easy to slip a little thing here and there into my pocket, wouldn't it? But I don't. It's not just fear of getting caught; it's also the fact that it's stealing: I'd be taking something from someone else.

Now, Big Media does propagandize the "stealing" idea. But there's a problem: downloading is not stealing. Well, some people think it is, but many do not. There are similarities, certainly; both stealing and downloading can result in someone else (or a group of people) ending up with less money or possessions.

But there is a fundamental difference between stealing and downloading, because stealing is not defined in terms of what the thief gains, but what the victim loses. If a priceless painting is stolen and the thief is unable to sell it, is the crime any less heinous? If he breaks into someone's home and steals some cheap jewellry with immense sentimental value to the owner, should the thief be liable only for its monetary value? On the other hand, what if a thief steals something that the owner was about to throw away? Evil as his intentions may have been, wouldn't the owner be less affected by this crime?

So we cannot say that the downloader "stole" music, any more than you are "stealing" this article by downloading it from my blog. You can download as much as you like and the record companies (and my blog) lose nothing. So the issue is not stealing, but rather, it is the possibility that you have deprived the music vendor of money that you would have paid if you hadn't pirated.

Now legally, copyright infringement is considered worse than stealing, but morally, it is a different matter altogether. First of all, I hope it is clear that if you pirate something that you would not have been willing to pay for, or could not pay for, it is not morally wrong. Poor people, for instance, who are too concerned with their next meal to buy entertainment, deserve little blame for piracy. In days past they might have mooched CDs from friends, and watched movies at their houses; if, today, it is replaced by some downloading, what's the harm?

For those of us above the poverty line, the issue gets murkier. You have to figure out, for yourself, what you would pay for if piracy was not an option.

There are other issues to consider, as well. Capitalist marketplaces are normally democratic. People vote with their feet--they can choose from whom to buy, and if they don't like the way one company does things, they can boycott the company and buy from another. But in the entertainment business, a given work is normally offered by one company only. That is the basis of copyright: a temporary monopoly to encourage the creation of works. Thus, without piracy or mooching off friends, if a consumer wants to avoid buying from a certain company or group of companies, the consumer cannot view the work at all.

In fact, it isn't only consumers who are limited by the system, but artists and directors too. It's standard practice that record companies, not artists, own the rights to their music, and studios own the rights to TV shows and movies, not the directors or writers, and certainly not actors. Not only do studios own the actual shows, but the "franchises" too. MGM, for instance, owns the rights to Stargate SG-1, which means that if the producers, writers or directors wanted to go independent, they would be legally prohibited from doing so.

In this light, piracy can be seen as a tool for empowerment. By choosing to spend money on companies that are not evil (or by donating money directly to artists), consumers can vote with their feet without actually giving up anything.

I would caution all you pirates out there, however, that whatever you do, you should try to ensure that you are doing it for the right reasons. If you pirate, make sure it is not so that you can spend less money. I would encourage you to figure out how much you would spend if downloading was not an option, and make sure you spend that same amount anyway. Donate money outright, if you have to, but donate to something worthwhile in the entertainment industry. Music pirates tend to spend more on music. If you're a pirate, you should bolster that statistic.

As for me, I'm a hypocrite. I have quite a bit of music I haven't paid for, but I haven't figured out how much I would have spent otherwise, and I haven't figured out how I should spend it. If it makes the RIAA feel any better, I've heard so little new music on the radio lately that I haven't added a single new song to my collection in two months. As for TV shows... well, that's another story.

* I would make an exception for "all-you-can-eat" subscription services, which allow you to listen to an unlimited quantity of music, but only as long as you pay the subscription fee. Without DRM or other technological restrictions, people could pay for one month of service, download 10,000 songs, and keep them all indefinitely.

See also: The long tail. Did you hear the latest? MPAA sues grandfather because grandson downloaded 4 movies, 3 of which were already owned by the family.

Tuesday, October 18, 2005

Free American broadband! has an article about why broadband in the U.S. is expensive and slow, and why geographic coverage is sometimes poor. To sum it up in three words: bad government policy (including capitulation to the corporate desire for monopoly). I couldn't have explained the issue better myself, so I highly recommend it, despite the ad which non-subscribers must tolerate.
...across the nation, the cable and telecom companies, armed with powerful lobbyists and coin-operated "experts" are quietly working the halls of state legislatures and Congress in a concerted effort to kill off Community Internet. Over the past several years, 14 states enacted laws that ban or place limits on municipalities from building Community Internet projects. - Salon article
The situation is better in Canada, although increased competition or community internet might be beneficial here, too.

Monday, October 17, 2005

New international charter from the good guys

Big business has long had an international IP interest group, WIPO, as well as national groups such as the (obviously misnamed) Progress & Freedom Foundation. In defense of the public interest on IP matters, we have the Electronic Frontier Foundation, but while their efforts often have positive global effects, their main focus is in the U.S. I'm not aware of any significant group protecting the IP public interest internationally, but at least now we've got a charter.

From Slashdot:
The Adelphi Charter, an international blueprint for how intellectual property should be made, [is made] by Britain's Royal Society for the Encouragement of Arts, Manufacture and Commerce. The Economist says “The Adelphi group are a varied crew ranging from Gilberto Gil, the Brazilian culture minister (and pop star) to Sir John Sulston, a Nobel-winning scientist who helped decode the human genome, and James Boyle, a law professor at Duke University. They believe that the intellectual-property system is starting to lean so far in favor of private enrichment that it no longer serves the public interest.” The charter calls for evidence-based policy, and a balance between rights protection and the public domain. It also condemns business method and software patents."
Hopefully, this charter can serve as a rallying point for people who want to combat the torrent of bad IP law, and the organizations that lobby for it.

I would like to make a comment on a criticism in The Economist's article:
The charter declares that software, business processes, and medical therapies should not be patented, nor copyright extended to things like databases that are simply compilations of open facts. But the Adelphites have not submitted these ideas to the same kind of rigorous economic analysis that they demand from their foes.
First of all, I do believe that the backers of the charter have done a lot of analysis; I've read a bunch of articles from one of them, James Boyle, and while I don't know if what I've read would qualify as rigorous analysis according to The Economist, it's a lot more rigorous than I could muster. Many of the backers are lawyers, professors or leaders of academic societies, and as such they've collectively done a vast amount of analysis.

Secondly, if you agree with the premise of the charter--an automatic presumption against expanding rights--then it's not necessary to prove that these various IP rights are unnecessary; rather, it's necessary to prove that they are. But from the point of view of the charter authors, and of most geeks, none of the rights in question have proven their value to society, or even to the tradespeople who should supposedly benefit. For instance, I've been programming since I was 10, but I've always been against software patents (well, not since I was 10, but since I learned about them.)

Saturday, October 15, 2005

Micropayments & free software

The internet has always been full of free stuff, but people offering free stuff have always had a problem: it's hard to make money! There are a lot of people offering software and media files (movies, music) for free online, but there have always been few viable ways to make money. Advertisements on web pages can help sometimes, but
  • they annoy visitors, and
  • so few people click on them that for most individuals, it is hardly worth the effort of putting them on their web page.
There are several reasons it is hard to convince people to pay for things online. Here are a few:
  1. In the first place, you generally need a credit card. But some people don't have one! In particular, this requirement is a non-starter for kids and most teenagers. Before I had a credit card, I was willing to pay for some things online, but couldn't.
  2. Most things that people get online, such as desktop wallpaper, individual music tracks, and small programs, just aren't worth very much, and due to the reasons below, people won't pay small amounts with a credit card. Many things are worth well under $1 to the average web surfer, but more than 1¢.
  3. Many things online have value that is only apparent after the user has tried them out. For example, you have to hear a song before you can decide whether it is worth the price, and you have to try a computer program to see if you like it.
  4. Using a credit card is a bother. You have to type in the credit card number, the expiration date and, often, the full name of the cardholder. Also, you usually have to "register" at a site (giving them your e-mail address) before you can pay. Also, you have to pay the credit card bill separately. People don't want to go to so much trouble unless they are spending a sumstantial amount of money. Personally, I prefer debit, and find credit cards to be an all-around nuisance.
  5. Trust is a big problem, especially for small business. No one wants to give their credit card number to an "unknown" web site, because such a site might
    • Have security leaks which could allow fraudsters to steal credit card information from the site after you give it to them.
    • Be selling such a terrible product or such bad service that you want your money back.
    • Be fraudulent itself, and could attempt to steal from you.
A micro-payment system, with which consumers can spend one cent or ten cents on something with a couple of clicks, could solve most of these problems. The technical challenges in implementing such a system would be great, but I think it is entirely feasible. Elsewhere on the web people have talked about how it could be done; I want to focus on the benefits of a micropayment system that attains universal use.

Here's how a micropayment system could address the above problems:
  1. Kids & teens: if users' ISPs take on the money-management task, then parents could register micropayment credit or debit accounts with the ISP, giving a separate account to each child. Parents would be able to set limits on spending per-day or per-week, and, much like a credit card bill, would be able to see the web site addresses at which their children spend money.
  2. Low-value items are the whole point of a micropayment system: to allow websites to make money offering online commodities such as very cheap software, music, individual e-book chapters, and so forth. It would create new business models and markets, and it would reward "small potatoes" content creators like myself.
  3. Items whose value becomes apparent after download: a micropayment system would allow users to easily donate small- and medium-sized amounts to free software projects, to register cheap shareware products, and pay for higher-quality versions of music, videos and other media. For example, online music could be offered at 1¢ for a sample version; when the user decides they like it, they could pay 50¢ to $2.00 for versions of higher quality, alternate mixes, and so on.
  4. Amount of effort required from the buyer: various "one-click" payment methods are possible, which I won't address in this article.
  5. Trust: it is important to ensure that if a web site is charging for something, that the user must confirm every transaction before it happens. It must be technically infeasible for a web site (or fraudsters) to make a charge without the user's confirmation.

    Of course, if a website is charging one-tenth of a cent to view every little thing, then it shouldn't require the user to confirm every one of those tiny amounts. Instead, the web site could silently tally up the amounts and make a charge when it reaches some larger total, e.g. 10 cents. At that point the user could refuse to pay, in which case the web site would deny further access.

    Given the above guarantees, chargebacks seem unnecessary in a micropayment system. Users should have little reason to contest a charge of ten cents or even $1 that they confirmed. For large amounts, of course, chargebacks might be justified, but consumers should be expected to "swallow" small losses. If users could make unlimited chargebacks on small amounts, then vendors would have a big trust problem of their own. Also, if chargebacks were allowed, then the resultant overhead costs and legal wrangling might make a micropayment system infeasible.
As an open source developer, I wrote a program called MilliKeys for the Palm Pilot. I had been using PayPal for donations, and over the lifetime of the program, a total of 11 people donated $135, even though several thousand people downloaded it. (Donations are handled through PayPal, and I recommend a minimum donation of $5, since PayPal charges $0.75 per transaction IIRC.) What if, I wonder, I had asked for donations of 50 cents? Or even 10 cents? It's not hard to imagine that half the downloaders would have been willing to donate 10 cents, with many people willing to give 50 cents or (gasp!) a dollar. It's impossible to know how many users there are, but let's estimate 2,000 (out of 8,342 downloads.) Supposing 40% would donate 10 cents, and 10% giving 60 cents on average, that would net me $200. So even without any big donations, I could easily get more from a "dime" donation system. Note that convenience is of the utmost importance when it comes to little donations like this; preferably, whether they donate or not, the user should have to click the same number of times.

Now imagine that I could put my "free" software under a mandatory 5-cent download charge. How could I justify calling it "free", then? Well, free software is really about freedom, not just about cost. You see, my software is licenced under the GNU GPL, which means that after downloading my 5-cent software, anyone is allowed to redistribute and/or modify my software. So, someone would be fully within his rights to put up MilliKeys on another web page and offer it for free--or even charge for it, making money for himself! But since I'm charging only five cents, I would hope that most users would be willing to take me up on the offer.

If they did, then all 8,000 downloads could make five cents for me. Well, not quite. For one thing, I'd probably be willing to offer free upgrades, so that people who are re-downloading a new version get it free. That might mean 3,000 fewer payments. And, if a few hundred people (let's say 1,000 downloads worth) aren't willing to spend even five cents on my software, they could either not download it at all, or they could search the 'net for a free copy. In fact, if this micropayment system for OSS and freeware were to become ubiquitous, I fully expect that sites would appear offering zero-cost downloads. But the hope I have is that these mirror sites would not be as popular as the original source of the software. Now, will 4,000 moneymaking downloads, I'd make $200. This isn't much for the hundreds of hours of work I put into the program, but it's still more than I actually got. Anyway, I could ask for donations of $1 separately, and perhaps a large number of people would be willing to pay it, once they have tried the software and like it. If there are 200 takers, I would be up to $400 total.

Now, consider what would happen if someone wants to try to make money from my software. With a micropayment system in place, they could charge 25 cents per copy. I hypothesize that someone would not be able to charge much more than that, because otherwise users would search for a cheaper or free version. But 25 cents is still not a lot, and if some guy really wants to make money, he would have to put some effort in promoting the software--he would have to try harder than I did myself (I didn't use any advertisements). To promote it, he could
  • Place paid ads on Palm-related websites, or take advantage of Google adwords.
  • Spam. For example, he could post positive messages about it on Palm-related websites, or use old-fashioned e-mail spam. In the latter case, he's more likely to get hatemail than money, but I digress.
In all cases, the ads would bring you to his MilliKeys website, so that he can make money.

He might make money from this venture, but I wouldn't mind at all: it would be free promotion for my software, and more users makes me almost as happy as money... almost. In the end, it could bring more visitors to my website, provided that people can find my website more easily than they can find his. To this end, I could tweaking the terms of my licence agreement to ensure that no one is allowed to simply repackage my program as their own. In this way, I could ensure that the program he sells still has my web address in it (and mentions that the download price is 5 cents.) Then, when friends tell other friends about it, they are likely to send the true home page address to one another.

If free software developers were to move en-masse to a micropayment system, it would finally provide a good way for us to make money. Many free software and shareware projects enjoy millions of downloads. If these projects were to charge 5¢ per download, I think most people would pay it without thinking twice. Consumers might not even mind paying 10¢ or 15¢. The free Mozilla Firefox, which I use and recommend, has enjoyed 90 million downloads. At a mere 5¢ per download, they would make $4.5 million, which I would guess is enough to cover the cost of development.

A huge number of useful free programs don't reach a mainstream audience because the no one is willing to do the work required to increase their quality to "mainstream level"; and the reason no one is willing is because there is no way to make money. Thus, there are endless thousands of useful programs that people only work on in their spare time, since they must devote most of their time to full-time jobs. A micropayment system would finally allow many free software developers to do what they love, and buy food at the same time.

Wednesday, October 12, 2005

Bread is dangerous!

Personally, I make a conscious effort to figure out what statistics mean and avoid being duped by them, but even so I'm surprised sometimes when I read one statistic, make a quick conclusion from it and later see another statistic that proves I misinterpreted the implications of the first.

Plus, some statistics are wrong.

Anyway, here's a page that pokes fun at statistics and is way funnier than me.

Tuesday, October 11, 2005

Stop the Broadcast Flag!

The big media companies tried before, when VCRs came along, to try to prevent consumers from recording TV shows. They tried it again a couple years ago, when they convinced the FCC to mandate that all new digital TV receivers must refuse to record any signal that had a "broadcast flag" set (or to output the signal in its original, high-quality compressed form). Happily, several organizations challenged the regulation in court, and weeks before the deadline for this "feature", the court found that the FCC was acting outside its authority by trying to regulate receivers in this manner.

Yup, heaven forbid we record stuff from TV or radio. Why, we might play it back later and skip the commercials! Or watch it twice! Or take a high-quality screen shot and post it on our blog! Or worst of all, put the whole darn show on the Internet, where any shmuck can watch it at any time of day. Heck, on the internet a guy can download an entire season of a cancelled classic and watch it in two days flat, instead of watching the new crappy shows the networks have lined up for us.

Yes, these are all very real possibilities. Big Media is shaking in their boots, I'm sure. But I dare anyone to cry any tears for big media. Every time a new technology comes along they cry "pirates", and indeed they exist, and always have. Heck, there are probably even more of them now. But so what? When have you ever seen one of these companies truly hurt by people recording stuff on their TiVos or sharing tapes (DVD-Rs, now) with their friends? Fact is, there are people sharing videos online all the time now, yet Big Media hardly seems hurt at all. Quite clearly, the network still have enough cash to cancel many good shows, pay to pilot dozens of new shows every year, and play episodes of new shows only once, as though to guarantee, it seems to me, that much of their potential audience will never watch the show. And the movie studios can still afford to make dozens of crappy movies per year, including the occasional huge-budget action movie with a brain-dead plot and cardboard characters.

Well, maybe those poor, poor Big Media Companies really do need protection from the Godless Masses. Maybe piracy will increase to the point where a Big Media executive will have to buy one fewer new car next year.

But hey, wouldn't it be better to wait and see? I think so. There's are many several serious problems with lawmaking the world over, one of which is doing things without evidence of necessity. Lawmakers seem to think more laws are always better, and always enact many more than they repeal. Big Media says it needs a new law to combat piracy, and lawmakers are eager to capitulate. They seem not to give a second thought about the value of actually letting ordinary citizens record stuff on TV or the radio, or about the value of delaying the law to see whether the hyped negative effects of not passing the law ever materialize.

In fact, I think our strong copyright laws, insomuch as regular people actually follow them, markedly prevent any innovation by Big Media. They want to do business as they always have. As long as these companies can live in their comfort zone, they will keep doing what they are doing: keeping prices high, funding political campaigns, and forcing people to buy "old media" such as CDs, DVDs, and cable service, when the technology for on-demand online media is already here. Protecting their comfort zone is the reason they wish to pass ever-more restrictions on digital technology.

But hold on, some might say: we don't own the copyright; why should we have any right to record anything?

Well, first, I'd remind you that we are still supposed to have something called a "fair use" right, a right whose existence is solely responsible for the fact that you can buy a VCR.

But I'd like to go deeper, and remind you that copyright is a legal system of monopoly. Copy"right" is a misnomer; copying is something we can already do without any help from the government, and the ability to copy is inherent in all digital technology. Copying stuff is a trivial operation that, at a low level in a computer, can happen a billions times per second if need be. Everything that you see on the internet is a copy, because the original is often thousands of miles away. Copyright, in fact, is about preventing others from copying stuff. It's about power and control. Most of all, t's about money.

That's not to say I'm against copyright; far from it. Authors and filmmakers and singers and programmers like me ought to have some means to make money from their craft, and to that end, it is hard to think of an alternative to copyright. But in 1790 in the U.S., copyright usually lasted 14 years, with an optional 14-year extension that could be had for a small fee. I doubt the penalty for copyright infringement was excessive then. But today, after four retroactive extensions, copyrights held by organizations and corporations last 95 years from the date of publication, attempting to circumvent any copy protection is illegal (even to exercise fair use rights) and the penalty for copyright infringement is up to $150,000 "per work" [reference]. We call it copyright, but more than anything it is the right to litigate.

Somehow, lawmakers always agree with the content owners, granting, over and over again, more and more "rights". Rights extensions have happened a couple of times historically in the U.S., but in the past 30 years there have been several large extensions to intellectual property law, including 39 years of retroactive copyright extension, the extension of patents to cover software, the DMCA, and coming soon: the broadcast flag, incarnation #2.

It's hard to understand why lawmakers take so little interest in the public interest or the public domain, and so much interest in padding the pockets of rich people and big companies. But in the case of IP law, I take heart in the words of James Boyle:
The first thing to realize is that many decisions are driven by honest delusion, not corporate corruption. The delusion is maximalism: the more intellectual property rights we create, the more innovation. This is clearly wrong; rights raise the cost of innovation inputs (lines of code, gene sequences, data.) Do their monopolistic and anti-competitive effects outweigh their incentive effects? That’s the central question, but many of our decision makers seem never to have thought of it.
This suggests we can actually make a difference if we yell loudly and longly enough to our lawmakers about this issue, in large enough numbers. They've only been hearing one side of the story--that of the big business lobbyists. Let's remind them that the end goal of copyright is to benefit society. Not just big corporations, the rich, and the lucky.

Finally, I'd like to point out that the broadcast goes against the philosophy of open-source programmers, to which I generally subscribe, as well as anyone who believes in open systems. As Wikipedia mentions,
Particularly troubling to open source developers are the Demodulator Robustness Requirements. Devices must be "robust" against user access or modifications so that someone could not easily alter it to ignore the broadcast flags that permit access to the full digital stream. Since open-source device drivers are by design user-modifiable, a PC TV tuner card with open-source drivers would not be "robust".
So if you live in the U.S.--admittedly, I don't--contact your congressman. Let him know what you think of this proposal to outlaw digital TV recordings.

P.S. Note that not all recordings are outlawed. At issue is HDTV, whose picture quality is often much higher than "regular" TV. I believe the original proposal will still allow analog output, so old VCRs would be able to record HDTV shows at "regular TV" quality; as for the new bill, the details are not available yet. Of course, HDTV recordings will still be allowed if the broadcaster turns off the flag, but it's reasonable to fear that all major broadcasters will turn it on as a matter of course. Besides preventing all recordings, the broadcast flag will probably provide for lesser restrictions such as
  • To allow a single recording for time-shifting purposes, provided that there is no way to extract the recording from the recording device except to watch it. The law could also include a time limit after which the device is required to delete the recording. A rule such as this might prevent all computer recordings, because computers are easier for their owners to crack (i.e. hack). Presumably, the law would place limitations of computer software and/or hardware to account for this.
  • To allow digital recordings at "regular TV" quality only.

Saturday, October 08, 2005


Here's a tool that will let you find interesting websites with no effort at all. After you download this toolbar (which supports Firefox on Windows, Linux and MacOS, as well as Internet Explorer), and select topics of interest for you, you just click "Stumble!" to get a random interesting web site. By clicking "I like it!" on web pages you like, you refine StumbleUpon's understanding of your interests, while also recommending the site to others. See their about page for more information.

Wednesday, September 28, 2005

The World Needs a Common Language

I'm adding this blog post so that people can comment on the corresponding article if they wish.

Tuesday, September 27, 2005

The U of C Sucks

The only thing that interferes with my learning is my education. - Albert Einstein
I've only ever gone to one university, but I find it hard to believe all the other universities are this bad. If you've gone to another university, please comment: how much better is yours?

In high school, grade 12 was a peak for me in terms of my grades (94%) and what I learned (although, admittedly, I've forgotten the majority of it.) Then came the University of Calgary, and it was quite a shock.

Here's why the U of C sucks:
  1. The number of students per class is huge. Whereas in high school, classes had up to 30 students, some university classes have over 100 students. In first year, class sizes seem to range from about 45 to over 100; in fourth year, classes have 20 to about 70 students, averaging, say, 45. (Disclaimer: I never actually counted, but gee there's a lot.)

  2. In most classes, nothing but lecturing is used as a teaching method, and student-teacher communication is kept to a minimum. This makes it very difficult to learn things in class. It's worth noting that I almost never had to take notes in high school. In fact, it was very rare that I studied outside class time. Instead, I was able to learn by listening to the teacher, asking questions and by doing assignments, quizes and so forth. But in university, this is impossible for several reasons. In some classes, I spend so much time copying stuff from the chalkboard that I miss everything the instructor says (I can't write and listen at the same time.) Then, outside class time, I have to try to figure out what my notes actually mean.

  3. The school year is too short. In high school we got 10 months of class time at up to 6 hours per day. If you take 5 courses per semester at the U of C, you get only 8 months of classes at 5 hours per day, including labs, at which the professor is rarely present. Instead, we get "T.A.s", which are even worse at teaching than the professors, and often have worse English skills. Some T.A.s are indistinguishable from students, and thus hard-to-find in the lab room. They don't wear name tags or anything.

  4. Most university professors are poor teachers. (and even the good ones can't do their job properly, due to lack of class time.)

  5. The majority of the professors (in Engineering, anyway) have a strong foreign accent, which can be difficult to understand. 1st-year students are the hardest hit; out of my 11 first-year classes, only one or two professors sounded like native English speakers.

  6. In the Computer and Software Engineering programs (and, I suspect, also the Computer Science program), the curriculum teaches too little real-world knowledge; for example, the entire university offers only one web programming course, SENG 513, and less than 25 students are taking it right now (because it is only part of one program, Software Engineering). As far as I can tell, there are also no courses that teach the following important programming languages: Python, PHP, Perl, C#, or Lisp. In Engineering, they have an attitude that all programming languages are equivalent, so it doesn't matter which one is taught. This is false. Some courses even expect students to learn a language on their own! What in the world are we paying them for? That reminds me:

  7. If you want to get credit for a course without taking it (except for the exam), you have to pay full price. $500 for one exam? Gee, I wonder what the profit margins are!

  8. Assignments are too few and too difficult. In high school we were given many small assignments, which tested every aspect of our knowledge, and gave us enough practise to become confident in our knowledge and skills. In University, we are given a small number of very difficult assignments. These assignments usually don't cover the entire curriculum, and most of our knowledge and skills are not tested more than once. Instead, most of the work we put into assignments goes into pointless endeavors. For example, in an analog engineering class, we spend most of our time doing complex algebra, and punching long numbers into our calculators, when we should be learning the principles behind the math, and the formulas we are using. In courses that involve programming, we spend copious amounts of time on code-writing that is minimally related to the course material. Also, many professors create incredibly unclear assignments. Often assignments are self-contradicting and/or very vague and/or contain many spelling and grammar errors. One particularly aweful professor in this regard is Dr. Smith, who not only writes gibberish, but refuses to tell you what it means, or doesn't understand your questions--I never quite figured out which. He should be banned from making lab assignments.

  9. Mid-term and final exams usually don't cover all the course material; sometimes they cover just a small part of it. Often they are poorly planned, badly written and/or full of errors. Frequently students are asked to make corrections on an exam right before it starts, or in the middle, when some student is the first one to point out an error.

  10. Students are not normally informed of their final exam grade, and must pay $4 for a mere photocopy of their own exam. That adds up to $40 for 10 courses. Perhaps the university wants to discourage students from contesting the way their exams were graded?

  11. The university makes no effort to ensure that we retain the knowledge we've gained. I find that I've forgotten almost everything from the past three years. I think refresher courses ought to be mandatory, provided that a certain standard of quality is met. Which is not likely, of course.

  12. In many rooms, especially in the Engineering building, the chairs are small and uncomfortable, with tiny "desks" that are smaller than a single sheet of paper. The desk surfaces in SA 104 and 106 are tiny to the point of absurdity, at about half the size of a sheet of paper. If anything we need more desk space in university, not less.

  13. The grading systems are not standardized, and the university does not inform students how their grades were computed. As far as I know, there is no way to find out. Also, the U of C uses a stupid letter-based grading system. So the number grade computed by the professor is quantized to a letter, and then converted back to a number, the GPA. There are only 11 distinct passing grades: A, A-, B+, B, B-, C+, C, C-. A lot of resolution is lost in this system, for no reason.

  14. Students have to deal directly with the bureaucracy. The departments themselves don't seem to communicate with each other, so you often have to go running around the university to different departments to get your questions answered. Also, many departments have limited business hours. For example, the Engineering Undergraduate office is only four days a week, 9AM to 4PM.

  15. Course descriptions are very poor; typically, only a couple of sentences are provided to describe each course. This makes it difficult to select electives (options). Shouldn't we be allowed access to complete syllabus information?

  16. The organization of the University's web sites are piss-poor. I say "sites", because every faculty (and some departments) has an entirely separate web site, with different visual appearance and different organization. The web sites I visit are the main web site (observe the "mystery meat" navigation), the engineering site and the Computer Science site. All of them are ripe for criticism, but the Engineering site is maintained particularly badly. Here's a challenge for you: find the course requirements to obtain a Bachelor's Degree in Computer Engineering. If you succeed, you did better than me. The only way I could find it was through Google, by inputting the a few names of courses in that program which I had already taken. Even Google can't be used to find some pages, because there are pages that are not linked to from anywhere else and thus missed by webcrawlers. I believe the 2005 course websites for CPSC 349 and ENCM 503 are examples of this. To be fair, the university does offers a one-stop-shop for the most crucial non-faculty-specific information: the infonet. On the other hand, much of that system goes down every night, and during busy periods you may be put on a waiting list. Update: I just discovered a service called "myUofC" which offers "single signon" for many different services. So that's good.

  17. A lot of information that ought to be on the web sites, isn't. For instance, there is no listing of the locations and phone numbers of staffs' offices.

  18. "Blackboard", a lame password-protected information store for students. The University is encouraging professors to use this system, which requires students input their username and passwords in order to access information such as course outlines, schedules and assignments. I presume this system is intended to protect the university's Intelectual Property--heaven forbid that a non-student should obtain educational materials online!--but it is inconvenient for students, who must always enter a password, and who cannot bookmark pages on the system.

  19. Communication between the university and students is poor and haphazard. Although the registrar's office keeps email addresses on file, for instance, some departments (e.g. Engineering Internship) will ask for e-mail addresses separately. Also, some important financial correspondence, it seems, only comes by email. For instance, during my Engineering internship, the university charges about $1,200 for the priveledge of being in the internship program. But it charges the student in installments, once per semester. I forgot that the university has two semesters during the summer, not just one. Thus, I didn't realize I'd been charged at the beginning of the second summer semester, and I didn't pay the bill. Because my payment was late, I was charged a $60 late fee. The university sent a reminder, but only by e-mail, to an account that I rarely looked at. Thus I got dinged $60 for a semester I barely knew existed. On an unrelated note, many emails are targetted poorly; 4th year students will receive some email pertaining to 1st-year courses and vice versa.

  20. Hey, what's with that $60 late fee anyway? I bet they'd charge you $60 even if your outstanding balance was only $60. Or $1.
By the way: this article explains that bad engineering education abounds in the U.S., too.

I want to also make a few comments about The Money.

Tuition is high. I expect this trait is common to most universities, but at the U of C, recent increases have been particularly bad: tuition is four times as high as it was in 1990. My living expenses are about equal to my tuition; foreign students must pay twice as much as me. But I've always said that I'd be willing to pay this much if the quality of education were proportionately high. It is not. I marvel how much money is going to the university, considering how little value students get for it.

I've had trouble finding numbers. Two numbers I want to focus on is the amount of government spending on "education" per full-time student (normalized to consider only students taking a normal full course load, which is 5 courses at the U of C), and tuition per full-time student (again, with 5 course per semester). I can get the second number from my own tuition bill, but unfortunately, the first number is hard to find. Here seems to say that students pay only 26% of the cost of their education, but that seems wrong. I recall seeing a figure of about 33% in a graph in high school, although that was six years ago.

Assuming philanthopic donations are neglegible, the sum of these numbers indicates how much money the university should be spending on education for students. I emphasize "should", because I'm very skeptical that the university is really spending that much on education; I think the university is diverting a lot of funds from "education" to things like "research", which it considers more important. And it wouldn't surprise me if the executives could afford a new car every year.

Let's assume, for sake of argument, that tuition makes up 30% of total education-targetted funding. Based on my own tuition, a full yearly course load of 10 courses (over 8 months and 2 semesters) costs $5,220. That means the government is paying $12,810, for a total budget of $17,400 per year. This doesn't include textbooks, which can cost up to $1000 per year (though much of that can be reclaimed by re-selling the books.)

At this rate, the funding for just two students per class should be enough to pay the salaries of professors ($34,800 for 8 months' work, which extrapolates to $52,200 for a full years' work.) A couple more students would pay for the T.A.s. How, then, can one explain the enormous class sizes?

This is much greater than the funding to high schools. Again, I wasn't able to find a number, but here I find that grade 1-9 students get $4,453 per student from the government, and parents pay a couple hundred bucks on top of that. Certainly, I would expect that government funding per high-school student is well under $10,000. How can this huge cost difference be explained, considering that university education is worse?

I'm in my fourth year now, and you might wonder, if I hate the U of C so much, why I don't switch to another? I certainly would have liked to, but there are a couple of reasons I didn't.
  • For the first couple of years, I didn't know how to figure out what universities are good. It would sure suck to transfer somewhere else, only to find out it was just as bad! After two years I found out that Maclean's magazine does university rankings across Canada; Calgary is located in the "Medical Doctoral" section and ranks 14th out of 15. Rightfully so.
  • As far as I know, every university has a slightly different curriculum, and a different way in which topics are arranged into courses. I therefore expected that a significant portion of my credits could not be transferred to a new university.
  • I figured that universities would give less scholarships to out-of-towners.
  • Laziness. Moving across the country would be a lot of work, and considering how difficult it was to figure things out in the U of C's hopelessly disorganized bureaucracy, I didn't want to figure it all out again at another university.
Whew. I finally let it all out. Thanks for listening.

Saturday, September 17, 2005

A new kind of trigonometry

Those of you who hate math: sorry if I'm alienating you.

I was pleasantly amazed to find that somebody had designed a new model of trigonometry, one that is more fundamental, and in many ways simpler, than traditional trigonometry. This "new trig", called Rational Trigonometry, involves no angles, no sin(), cos() or tan(), and shuns circles. Instead, calculations are done with ordinary algebra and involve "spreads" instead of "angles" and, rather than distance, "quadrance" (the square of distance) is emphasized. With R. Trig, many answers can be found by hand that require a calculator in traditional trig. I quite like this new trig, and I'm inclined to think it should be taught in high schools instead of traditional trig. The first chapter of a textbook about it is available on the web.

It's astounding, given how far math has come, that something so fundamental has taken this long to be developed. Basically, it seems like it just never occurred to anyone before. I certainly would never have thought of it, and I got 95% in grade 12 math. I guess it's a mindset you get into, when you believe it's a "solved problem": when you believe that, there's no chance you'll go looking for any other solution.

Incidentally, this form of trigonometry looks like it would be very useful for computer algorithms, particularly on portable hardware. Fast cosines (and other trig functions) normally require a floating-point unit, which PDAs, cell phones and portable game consoles often do not have. Rational Trigonometry replaces those trig functions with multiplication, division and the occasional square root, which less powerful hardware can handle much more easily.

Friday, September 16, 2005

Global Priorities

The media has a serious problem with presenting information in a useless format, with no context, no background information, and no way to understand numbers on a human level. "The deficit is now X billion dollars." "City infastructure spending will be increased X million dollars." "The U.S. Congress approved X billion more dollars for the Iraq war." No doubt some people scarcely notice the difference between "million" and "billion".

Ordinary mortals cannot take the isolated numbers scattered throughout thousands of news "stories" and put them together into a complete quantitative picture of the world. What do these numbers mean on a level humans can actually understand (e.g. per capita)? How do they relate to other statistics? And the most pressing question in my mind is, why doesn't the media put their numbers in a meaningful context?

The following is the sort of thing I'm talking about -- the sort of thing I never expect to see on the 6 o'clock news:

Global Spending Priorities: in $US billions:
Basic education for everyone in the world 6
Cosmetics in the United States 8
Water and sanitation for everyone in the world 9
Ice cream in Europe 11
Reproductive health for all women in the world 12
Perfumes in Europe and the United States 12
Basic health and nutrition for everyone in the world 13
Pet foods in Europe and the United States 17
Business entertainment in Japan 35
Cigarettes in Europe 50
Alcoholic drinks in Europe 105
Narcotics drugs in the world 400
Military spending in the world 780
(Source) To the above I would add: U.S. spending on Iraq War, $78 billion per year ($195 billion / 2.5 years)

The topic of global priorities has been weighing on my mind recently, because I know they are all messed up, yet no one seems to notice. Everybody--reporters, politicians, and every kind of activist--likes to quote big scary numbers, without saying how they compare to all the other big scary numbers. Hunger activists know that enormous numbers of people are dying of malnutrition every day, and how much must be spent to put a dent in that problem. Water activists know how many people are getting sick from unsanitary water and how much might need to be spent to make a difference in that area. And Cancer activists know how many people are dying of cancer, though probably having no idea how much it will cost to find a cure. And Iraq debators on both sides know how much the U.S. spend on the war, and how many U.S. soldiers are dying (although the body count of 'liberated' civilians seems rather less well-known.)

Anyway, for some reason, these activists never get together and figure out what issues are in most dire need of solving. There are lots of people looking at a big picture, but very few looking at the biggest picture: the global priorities, the global proportions, the global disparities and this global disaster that we live in, but are largely unaware of.

I would like to see more global-scale comparisons between different issues. I hope you would, too.

P.S. Another problem with numbers in the media is that sources are often omitted. Sometimes I wonder how trustworthy the stated number are. Even knowing the source, reliability is difficult for an individual to determine. However, I have no solution to propose for that problem.

Thursday, September 15, 2005

Shouldn't U.S. Soldiers Stay in Iraq?

I've been against the Iraq war from the beginning. And I'm not at all happy with the lies told by the administration, or how they've changed their story repeatedly: first Iraq is supposedly linked to Al-Qaeda, then it's got Weapons of Mass Destruction, and once it was publicly clear that it was all baloney, they switched to the story that they had invaded Iraq to "liberate" it.

I may not understand Bush's war-mongering, or why so many Americans buy into his story, but I'm also puzzled by the other side that wants to recall all American troops. From where I sit, that looks like a very bad idea. The U.S. invasion put Iraq in such a bad state that the U.S. troops might be the only thing between daily suicide bombings and all-out civil war. How can the troops leave when Iraq is not ready to stand up on it own? How can they leave before cleaning up the mess they made? I know, it isn't the soldiers' fault that they created this situation; the blame belongs with Bush & pals, and perhaps those in congress who voted for it. But that doesn't change the fact that far more people might die if they leave than if they stay.

If someone can explain to me why Iraq wouldn't devolve further if the troops left, please leave a comment. Otherwise, the U.S.--and by implication, its soldiers--has a moral responsibility to finish what it started. To carry through on its promise to create a free and prosperous Iraq. To ensure that Iraq is better off with the help of America than with the tyrrany of Saddam Hussein.

Saturday, September 10, 2005

Limit Copyrights

Sept. 10: I've made several updates to this post in the past 2 days.
Consider this. Only 4% of all works continue to collect royalties after 20 years of copyright. Only 2% of all works continue to collect royalties after 56 years. If a work manages to collect revenue steadily for 95 years, then the present-time economic value of that revenue to the original author is equal to 99.8% of a perpetual term, assuming an interest rate of 7%. The 20 years of the 1998 extension make up 0.4% of that. A perpetual term would be unconstitutional. - Facts not challenged by the court in Eldred v. Ashcroft.

I said this in 1971, in the very first week of PG, that by the end of my lifetime you would be able to carry every word in the Library of Congress in one hand - but they will pass a law against it. I realized they would never let us have that much access to so much information. I never heard that they passed the copyright extension 5 years later. It was pretty much a secret, just as is the current one, unless the Supreme Court strikes it down. Only then will it make the news. - Michael Hart, founder of Project Gutenberg

But this is a rich and complex stupidity, like a fine Margaux. I can only review a few flavours. - James Boyle
I've been troubled recently by copyright law, principally by the length of copyright terms. I know that copyright terms are too long--much too long. They are too long everywhere in the world, partially thanks to WIPO, the IP front group for IP businesses; but the U.S. in particular stands out an example of disturbing copyright policy, despite a constitutional clause that was intended to prevent this kind of abuse.

"Too long" doesn't even begin to describe it. Individual authors are granted copyright for their entire lives plus an entire extra lifetime of 70 years. More importantly, corporations get a similarly absurd term of 95 years (from the date of publication).

It seems inconceivable to me that this would have happened without big business lobbying for retroactive copyright protection. The original copyright law offered 14 years of protection, and only if the publisher officially registered the work. It also allowed a 14-year extension, but for most works, that extension was not used. Copyright has been extended at least four times since then. Although I don't recalling hearing specifically that all the various copyright extensions were applied retroactively, I just felt in my gut that it had to be the case. Why else would copyright be extended, but for lobbying by big business? And why would big business lobby, but for the sake of this year's bottom line? What business is concerned with its bottom line 95, 70, 50, 30, or even 20 years from now? For many or most businesses, I find it hard to believe that the fate of their intellectual property even 10 years after today holds a lot of interest.

Nevertheless, for the sake of this article, I've endevoured to find confirmation that copyright extensions have generally been retroactive, and have confirmed that all four copyright extensions (1831 through 1998) were retroactive. The last two copyright extensions (1976 and 1998) were the most extreme, together adding 39 years to the terms of commercial works published between 1923 and 1976. Notice this chilling effect: a frozen public domain. No more works will lapse into the public domain until the thaw begins on January 1, 2019. Project Gutenberg, the non-profit digitization project, won't get much new business for quite some time.

This Cnet article states that the Supreme Court voted 7-2 against Larry Lessig's constitutional challenge to Orrin Hatch's copyright extension act of 1998. This bill is also known as the "Mickey Mouse" bill because its lobbyists/funders included Disney, whose copyright on the very first mickey mouse cartoon (1928) was to expire in 5 years. And it passed without much fanfare. For the sake of a very, very few works that were still making royalties, works from 1923 onward were suddenly locked up for 20 more years. And if I live a normal lifespan, this blog entry will be legally copy-protected until the year 2130, unless I take steps to prevent it.

The court's decision is sad, because the challenge is quite valid. The intention of the constitution seems clear enough:
Section 8 (powers of congress), Clause 8: To promote the Progress of Science and useful Arts, by securing for limited Times to Authors and Inventors the exclusive Right to their respective Writings and Discoveries;
Now, most people focus on the "limited times" part: of course, 95 years is technically a "limited time". So is a thousand years, or a million. Where do we draw the line? Most people think 95 years is too long; I think it's rediculously long. But congress obviously thinks 95 or more years is "limited". Still, I prefer to focus on the "promote the Progress of Science and Useful arts" part. Legally, it seems that this is held to mean, "to promote the creation of new inventions and creative works". But how can anyone argue that retroactive copyright extension can promote the creation of new works? It's absurd! If a company is still making money from the predecessors of the predecessors of the predecessors of its current employees, would that not reduce, not increase, the financial pressure to create new works? And if the Beatles were still around, and were still making a living from their first songs, why would they feel a financial need to write new songs?

Common sense says no. How about scientific evidence? Is there even any anecdotal evidence? I'd bet good money that all the copyright extensions that have been made were done without any solid studies or other evidence to justify them.

More to the point: does a retroactive extension affect the author's original decision to create the work? Is congress somehow sending an encouragement for more creativity into the past? Of course not. The fact is, retroactive extension does nothing to encourage creation of works, past or present.

Well, actually, I can think of one single argument. Consider what happens if you reduce the cost of canned soup in the store. Can this affect sales of carrots? The short answer is yes, because increased soup sales can result in decrease sales of all other foods, insofar as consumers don't eat more. If copyright was 15 years--which I think is sufficient--then as of now, all works from 1989 backward could be made freely (or at low cost) available on the internet, and reprints of books could be made available at lower costs. These would indeed compete with new works for people's attention, and maybe, just maybe, people would choose to watch more old movies, listen to more old music and read more old books. Hence decreasing the demand for new ones, hence, maybe, reducing the rate of creation.

Constitutionally, this could be a valid, if disgusting, argument: that we should encourage the creation of new works by suppressing the old ones.

Still, I find it hard to believe that works that are, say, 40 years old or more could have a serious impact on demand for new works: stuff that old is mainly of historical interest, and among the public, history is a small niche compared to the new and glitzy. The "threat" posed by works even 20 years old does not seem excessive. Clearly, the industry that lobbied for all these copyright extensions doesn't place a lot of value on old works: only 4% of all copyrighted (commercial) works are commercially available after 20 years. (according to James Boyle.)

But if the the demand for new works were to decrease, who made the decision? If that happened, it would be the result of the people, rediscovering millions of books and songs, and thousands of movies, that today are mostly ignored, either because these works are not available at all (except used copies), or becase their commercial prices are too high to compete effectively with new commercial works. The people would vote with their feet. And if the people indeed choose to do this, why should Congress--and the other legislatures of the world--stop them? If the people did this, it would clearly be what they want. Why should a legislature go against the will of the people in this matter? Remember: 4% after 20 years. If the content producers were willing to release the remaining 96% into the public domain, I would be a lot happier. But almost universally, this has not happened. Some companies have been known to defend their copyrights long after they have stopped caring about them. And so, old content remains locked up. For nearly a century.

The 5 supreme court justices, by the way, did not focus on the above argument. Regarding the sheer length of copyright terms, they basically decided it wasn't the court's business to decide upon any particular time limit. Regarding the issue of retroactivity, a key argument in favor seemed to be that because all previous extensions were retroactive, and given that retroactivity had never had a court challenge before, it was a tradition, and this traditional-ness somehow makes it constitutional. And somehow, the court was almost entirely blind to the issue of the public interest, which I'm sure the framers of the constitution had in mind. Langvardt & Langvardt make the case that the court's worries about practical effects of striking down the law (effects on existing contracts based on the law, and on possible future challenges to the prior 1976 extension act) overwhelmed all other considerations and precluded them from performing a thorough analysis of the issues. I wonder also whether they were afraid to appear to be performing "judicial activism". As Justice Ginsberg stated, “[t]he wisdom of Congress’s action . . . is not within our province to second guess.” Still, the dissenting opinions gave me some hope that there is some reason left in the court. Both Justices Breyer and Stevens provided strong rebukes to the majority, and the two had interestingly different approaches in their arguments--proving that there's more than one way to skin this cat.

In summary, while I believe U.S. copyright terms exceeding about 40 or 50 years should be considered unconstitutional--and all retroactive extensions are unconstitutional--I believe copyright terms beyond about 30 years are unreasonable, because they are contrary to the will of the people--or at least, would be, if the people gave serious thought to such matters, or better yet, if they got the chance to see what life would be life without onerous copyright laws. Imagine, for instance, if you could use Google to search and view all the books ever published that are more than 20 years old. Google's trying to do something like that, but what it provides is severely limited by copyright. Or, imagine if you could purchase the book collection on DVD-ROM (or Blu-Ray DVD, if there is not enough storage space on the former.)

Update: Google's limited use of copyrighted books has drawn the ire (in the form of a lawsuit) of the Author's Guild, which, as publisher Tim O'Reilly says, is unfortunate.

Many countries have no constitutionally implied limits on copyright, but the limits dictated by reason and morality--yes, I believe it's a moral issue--remain.

Unfortunately, copyright, and other IP laws, have been ignored far and wide by the public. And, sadly, the modern world has never had the chance to see the effects of a short copyright term. But I hope that, in some small way, I can raise awareness of the issue.

P.S.: I am not a lawyer, so, while the recent copyright extensions are clearly against the spirit of section 8.8, I must admit, I see a possible loophole in the matter. It looks like Section 8's purpose is to lay down the powers of the Federal government, as opposed to the State governments, such that any powers not granted to the federal government are granted to state governments. Thus, for example, a state government could (or should be able to) institute an infinite-length copyright law. The constitution does not actually say that all "securing" laws must be limited in time, nor that they must promote the progress of science or useful arts; no, it merely delineates the federal government's power. So in my mind this raises the question of whether the federal government is allowed to enact a law that is beyond its section 8 powers, if such a law is not opposed by any of the states; indeed, so far as I know, no IP law has been challenged by a state government. The purpose of the section is apparently to give all unspecified powers to the states; but if no state ever challenges a power the federal government has claimed, then why should any court even consider its constitutionality? Indeed, why shouldn't Federal laws to have force in any matter wherein a given state government has made no decision? After all, as far as I can see, the constitution does not say that the Federal Government cannot make laws outside the domains delineated in section 8. Anyway, I don't know the answer--that's why I'm asking.

Update: the tenth amendment states
The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people.
Note that it does not say "to the States exclusively", but that's probably how it is interpreted.

P.P.S. The constitution mentions authors/writings and inventors/discoveries, but not audio or video or fonts or databases. Of course, it could not be expected to, given the time it was written. But I wonder just how it happened that the constitution came to apply to all of these things implicitly.

P.P.P.S. Actually, I'm inclined to think the constitution was written a bit carelessly--didn't the framers realise that lawyerswould be its principal examiners, and that arbitrary court decisions would set almost permanent precedents in place? Well, never mind. Rant over.

Miscellaneous bonus links: I hereby declare that this article shall revert to the public domain after ten years (January 1, 2016). The copyright of derived works shall also revert after ten years. Again, without the preceding declaration, my copyright would be expected to last until 2130. Please note that it is extremely rare for any author to declare a copyright term limitation, including myself. I mean, adding terms to everything is just tedius.
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