Monday, December 18, 2006

Idiot instructors

I've had some great instructors at the University of Calgary, but they're certainly in the minority.

When I wrote that The U of C Sucks, I really thought I was going to school at a particularly bad university. Yet on the internet I've been seeing a lot of discontent about the quality of post-secondary education throughout North America. Here's one example:
On the first day of class, she struggled for a full five minutes trying to turn on the computer...

...despite repeated help and instruction from others in the class, Gabrielle just couldn't get it right. She started ever page with a BODY tag instead of the proper HTML tag, and insisted that it made more sense that way because HTML was "the language" and not a part of "the code." Her "proof" of this was that, thanks to Internet Explorer's forgiving nature, the pages rendered just fine.

Gabrielle's grasp of "documents" versus "programs" was just as painfully embarrassing. After editing an HTML document, she'd always say, "OK, I'm now saving my HTML program and will run it in Internet Explorer." I won't even get into how much Gabrielle struggled with doing actual web development in PHP.

Now I suppose this story is one that can describe just about every struggling Computer Science student that will eventually change their major to Communications. There's only one difference: Gabrielle was not a student in the Web Development course. She taught it.
Now, perhaps the story itself is a fabrication. Or not. But what's interesting is the high degree to which those in the forum identified with the story. It's believable because it rings true. Some of the responses:

"Honestly, this sounds about par for the course for a Community College / Junior College instructor. I had a couple of real boneheads in the comp sci department -- and this was at a *silicon valley* JC -- supposedly one of the best in the country, at that."

"That's like every 4th CS teacher I've had."

"The year I was appointed to the faculty, I taught a 4th year, or maybe it was graduate level, independent study course on X programming because the prof (my boss) was over-extended. I was all of 18 or 19 at the time, had never programmed in X and wasn't the greatest C programmer in the world. He knew I'd figure it out (and I did), but it could have gone horribly wrong, too. And this was at a good school. I can easily imagine a lesser school having someone like Gabrielle teach a web class."

"I used to work as both a lecturer and as tech support at a pretty decent CS university, and honestly there were some staff there who made two short planks look like a computer (...). Typically they start our as students who cheat their way through an undergrad degree (...) and get hooked on the lazy academic lifestyle. [...] they come back for a postgrad degree, take a decade to get through a PhD and wind up with a vague understanding of one very narrow field of CS and absolutely no idea about any others. The universities themselves don't help because they are all about bringing in money from research, and that's the direction they push the staff. Teaching undergraduates is generally treated as an annoyance they have to do to satisfy government requirements to keep all the lurks and perks associated with being a university..."

"For my OS Theory class, they couldn't find anyone to teach it. So the first night, the CS Chair came in and explained that to us. The second night, we got our professor..."

Well, you can imagine where that last one is going. Yup, something's rotten in the state of our schools.

Why Qwerty, and What's Better?

If you're curious about where our standard keyboard layout came from, have a look at my paper about its history and what's better. I wrote it for a class, but I promise it's better than typical classwork.

Here is a mirror at Geocities. I wonder if it's time to start paying for web space...

Wednesday, December 06, 2006

Stealing Fair Use, Selling It Back to you

EFF sums up how Hollywood is using the U.S.'s crappy DMCA to prevent consumers from doing what would otherwise be legal:
"Apparently, Hollywood believes that you should have to re-purchase all your DVD movies a second time if you want to watch them on your iPod." That's what we said last week, commenting on the Paramount v. Load-N-Go lawsuit, in which Hollywood studios claimed that it is illegal to rip a DVD to put on a personal video player (PVP), even if you own the DVD.

Well, this week the other shoe dropped. According to an article in the New York Times:

"Customers who buy the physical DVD of Warner Brothers' 'Superman Returns' in a Wal-Mart store will have the option of downloading a digital copy of the film to their portable devices for $1.97, personal computer for $2.97, or both for $3.97."

So you buy the DVD, and if you want a copy on your PVP or computer, you have to pay a second time. Despite the fact that you bought the DVD, and you have a DVD drive in your computer that is perfectly capable of making a personal-use copy. Imagine if the record labels offered you this "deal" for every CD you bought -- pay us a few dollars extra, and you can have a copy for your iPod. And a few more dollars, if you want a copy on your computer, too! As LA Times reporter Jon Healey puts it in his blog: "So from the perspective of the studios and federal officials, consumers have to pay for the privilege of doing the sorts of things with DVDs that they're accustomed to doing with CDs (and LPs and cassettes)."

This latest bitter fruit from Hollywood is brought to you by the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA), which treats "protected" content (like the encrypted video on DVDs), differently from "unprotected" content (like every audio and video media format introduced before 1996). Thanks to the DMCA, Hollywood believes fair use personal-use copies simply do not exist when it comes to DVDs.

Let's hope Congressman Rick Boucher is listening and will reintroduce his DMCA reform bill first thing next year.

Friday, November 17, 2006

Asset vs. Colemak

So the designer of the Colemak keyboard layout and I have been going back and forth, him criticising my Asset layout and me improving it. I think I'm nearly at the point where I can improve it no more, and it looks like this:
I could get a small improvement by moving L and Y in order to get Y in a more comfortable spot, and to remove the same-finger contention for the common digraphs LO, OL and MY. In order not to cause new problems, I'd have to shuffle Y, L, U, J, P, and K. However, this would make only 11 letters match Qwerty, which in turn means it is less different from Colemak, which keeps 10 letters. Actually, I'm kind-of considering switching P and U, which would make 13 letters match Qwerty, but my digraph data indicates that same-finger typing would increase by 0.52%. On second thought, the tradeoff is insufficiently compelling; I'll leave things how they are.

In the choice between Asset and Colemak, I guess what it comes down to is how much Qwerty similarity is desired. Asset keeps 12 letters while Colemak keeps 10; and in total, my Nov. 13 redesign also keeps 20/26 letters on the same finger, whereas Colemak only keeps 15/26. Unfortunately, how important it is to keep keys on the same finger is purely a matter of opinion, because it would probably take a quite expensive study to tell for sure.

Now, Colemak and Asset have many similarities, the only major differences I can see being that (1) Asset is more similar to Qwerty, (2) Asset's Y key could be better placed, and (3) Asset has higher same-finger typing.

Colemak's designer, Shai Colemak says that "Asset has 100% more same-finger ratio compared Colemak." That could be true (evidence?), but I tried a corpus of several books at http://colemak.com/Compare and found that Colemak usually has under 2% same-finger typing, which implies under 4% for Asset. Now, if we assume digraphs typed with the same finger take twice as long to type as digraphs on different fingers (actually I think it's less than twice), then we would conclude that a Colemak typist could potentially type about 2% faster than an Asset typist.

So that's the trade-off. More similarity to Qwerty or 2% more speed. I guess we'll let the community decide. Mind you, Colemak has more followers so the conclusion is probably foregone. Anyway, I guess I should resubmit the new Asset…

It would be kind of nice if Shai and I could come to a compromise. For example, on Colemak's home row you see ARST:

If he switched R and S then S would be back in its Qwerty position, and the Ctrl+S (Save) shortcut would be preserved. My digraph data indicates that if R and S were switched, the amount of same-finger typing would increase by 0.22% (e.g. 1.92% instead of 1.70%), so one might expect typists that are 0.2% slower—no big deal, IMO. I guess he wouldn't think it worthwhile, since he has declared the layout "stable", but as I said on the forum… if he switches them, I'll drop out of the competition and replace my Asset page with a page that praises Colemak :)

Saturday, November 11, 2006

The Asset Keyboard

A while ago I designed an improved keyboard layout called Asset, which attempted to maximize similarity to Qwerty. Now I'm studying the history of keyboards for a school project, and I decided to update my design based on some advice from a guy named Scott. Scott informed me some time ago that he'd been using his own personal layout since 1992, which had a nearly identical home row to Asset. I took his advice and made a couple more tweaks too.

After making the new Asset keyboard I found out about a layout called Colemak, which led me to the "Million Dollar Keyboard" competition. In fact, it's nothing of the sort--the prize is sitting at around $250. Anyway, if anybody's reading this and likes the keyboard, and if I understand the poorly-designed rules correctly, then if you join Wikidot, you can vote for my design on 2006/12/28.

Firstly, they decided to use 2-round first-past-the-post runoff voting, which probably means they know very little about voting systems. The system they chose will not accurately measure the opinions of the voters. I would've probably recommended Range Voting, although if I were designing a system myself I'd probably use something a little more elaborate than standard systems. Secondly, leaving the polls open for only one day will exclude voters who either had something else to do that day, or were forgetful. Finally, now that many submissions have been made, it is clear that the submissions come in very different flavors:
  1. Designs that change the key layout from Qwerty to something else
  2. Designs that keep Qwerty, but rearrange extended keys or add new features
  3. Ergonomic keyboard designs
It doesn't really make sense to have only one winner out of all three categories, because for the most part, the designs in different categories could be combined (although categories 2 & 3 tend to conflict or overlap). For example, one could easily imagine an Asset Editor's Keyboard in the style of the Microsoft Natural Keyboard.

Monday, October 09, 2006

RIAA bullying: worse than I thought

I already knew that the RIAA routinely sues individual file sharers, P2P network companies, and any company that could be construed as aiding copyright infringement. But to my horror, they have also used very mafia-style tactics to "teach a lesson" to the entire technology industry. Lawrence Lessig explains in Free Culture (p.188-192):
[...I]nnovators who want to innovate in this space can safely innovate only if they have the sign-off from last generation's dominant industries. That lesson has been taught through a series of cases that were designed and executed to teach venture capitalists a lesson. That lesson—what former Napster CEO Hank Barry calls a “nuclear pall” that has fallen over the Valley—has been learned.

Consider one example to make the point [....]

In 1997, Michael Roberts launched a company called MP3.com. MP3.com was keen to remake the music business. Their goal was not just to facilitate new ways to get access to content. Their goal was also to facilitate new ways to create content. Unlike the major labels, MP3.com offered creators a venue to distribute their creativity, without demanding an exclusive engagement from the creators.

To make this system work, however, MP3.com needed a reliable way to recommend music to its users. The idea behind this alternative was to leverage the revealed preferences of music listeners to recommend new artists. If you like Lyle Lovett, you're likely to enjoy Bonnie Raitt. And so on.

This idea required a simple way to gather data about user preferences. MP3.com came up with an extraordinarily clever way to gather this preference data. In January 2000, the company launched a service called my.mp3.com. Using software provided by MP3.com, a user would sign into an account and then insert into her computer a CD. The software would identify the CD, and then give the user access to that content. So, for example, if you inserted a CD by Jill Sobule, then wherever you were—at work or at home—you could get access to that music once you signed into your account. The system was therefore a kind of music-lockbox.

No doubt some could use this system to illegally copy content. But that opportunity existed with or without MP3.com. The aim of the my.mp3.com service was to give users access to their own content, and as a by-product, by seeing the content they already owned, to discover the kind of content the users liked.

To make this system function, however, MP3.com needed to copy 50,000 CDs to a server. (In principle, it could have been the user who uploaded the music, but that would have taken a great deal of time, and would have produced a product of questionable quality.) It therefore purchased 50,000 CDs from a store, and started the process of making copies of those CDs. Again, it would not serve the content from those copies to anyone except those who authenticated that they had a copy of the CD they wanted to access. So while this was 50,000 copies, it was 50,000 copies directed at giving customers something they had already bought.

Nine days after MP3.com launched its service, the five major labels, headed by the RIAA, brought a lawsuit against MP3.com. MP3.com settled with four of the five. Nine months later, a federal judge found MP3.com to have been guilty of willful infringement with respect to the fifth. Applying the law as it is, the judge imposed a fine against MP3.com of $118 million. MP3.com then settled with the remaining plaintiff, Vivendi Universal, paying over $54 million. Vivendi purchased MP3.com just about a year later.

That part of the story I have told before. Now consider its conclusion. After Vivendi purchased MP3.com, Vivendi turned around and filed a malpractice lawsuit against the lawyers who had advised [mp3.com] that they had a good faith claim that the service they wanted to offer would be considered legal under copyright law. This lawsuit alleged that it should have been obvious that the courts would find this behavior illegal; therefore, this lawsuit sought to punish any lawyer who had dared to suggest that the law was less restrictive than the labels demanded.

The clear purpose of this lawsuit (which was settled for an unspecified amount shortly after the story was no longer covered in the press) was to send an unequivocal message to lawyers advising clients in this space: It is not just your clients who might suffer if the content industry directs its guns against them. It is also you. So those of you who believe the law should be less restrictive should realize that such a view of the law will cost you and your firm dearly.

This strategy is not just limited to the lawyers. In April 2003, Universal and EMI brought a lawsuit against Hummer Winblad, the venture capital firm (VC) that had funded Napster at a certain stage of its development, its cofounder ( John Hummer), and general partner (Hank Barry). The claim here, as well, was that the VC should have recognized the right of the content industry to control how the industry should develop. They should be held personally liable for funding a company whose business turned out to be beyond the law. Here again, the aim of the lawsuit is transparent: Any VC now recognizes that if you fund a company whose business is not approved of by the dinosaurs, you are at risk not just in the marketplace, but in the courtroom as well. Your investment buys you not only a company, it also buys you a lawsuit. So extreme has the environment become that even car manufacturers are afraid of technologies that touch content. In an article in Business 2.0, Rafe Needleman describes a discussion with BMW:

"I asked why, with all the storage capacity and computer power in the car, there was no way to play MP3 files. I was told that BMW engineers in Germany had rigged a new vehicle to play MP3s via the car's built-in sound system, but that the company's marketing and legal departments weren't comfortable with pushing this forward for release stateside. Even today, no new cars are sold in the United States with bona fide MP3 players. . . ."

This is the world of the mafia—filled with “your money or your life" offers, governed in the end not by courts but by the threats that the law empowers copyright holders to exercise. It is a system that will obviously and necessarily stifle new innovation. It is hard enough to start a company. It is impossibly hard if that company is constantly threatened by litigation.

The point is not that businesses should have a right to start illegal enterprises. The point is the definition of “illegal.” The law is a mess of uncertainty. We have no good way to know how it should apply to new technologies. Yet by reversing our tradition of judicial deference, and by embracing the astonishingly high penalties that copyright law imposes, that uncertainty now yields a reality which is far more conservative than is right. If the law imposed the death penalty for parking tickets, we'd not only have fewer parking tickets, we'd also have much less driving. The same principle applies to innovation. If innovation is constantly checked by this uncertain and unlimited liability, we will have much less vibrant innovation and much less creativity.

Interestingly, Lessig doesn't directly point a finger of blame at the RIAA in his book. Of course, it is our dysfunctional copyright laws that enable the RIAA's behavior, and this is his focus. Whereas the maximum fine for a doctor that amputates the wrong leg in an operation is $250,000, the maximum fine for each and every song you download illegally is $150,000. And so he continues:

[...] This wildly punitive system of regulation will systematically stifle creativity and innovation. It will protect some industries and some creators, but it will harm industry and creativity generally. Free market and free culture depend upon vibrant competition. Yet the effect of the law today is to stifle just this kind of competition. The effect is to produce an overregulated culture, just as the effect of too much control in the market is to produce an overregulated- regulated market.

The building of a permission culture, rather than a free culture, is the first important way in which the changes I have described will burden innovation. A permission culture means a lawyer's culture—a culture in which the ability to create requires a call to your lawyer. Again, I am not antilawyer, at least when they're kept in their proper place. I am certainly not antilaw. But our profession has lost the sense of its limits. And leaders in our profession have lost an appreciation of the high costs that our profession imposes upon others. The inefficiency of the law is an embarrassment to our tradition. And while I believe our profession should therefore do everything it can to make the law more efficient, it should at least do everything it can to limit the reach of the law where the law is not doing any good. The transaction costs buried within a permission culture are enough to bury a wide range of creativity. Someone needs to do a lot of justifying to justify that result.

While of course I agree fully that the law is out of whack, I also think it is wrong for companies to do evil, even if the law allows it. Just as there's something wrong with Nike using sweatshop labor, and something wrong with companies dumping toxic waste into a river, it is wrong, even evil, for RIAA to use the law as a weapon to punish grandmothers, 13-year-olds, mp3.com, venture capitalists, lawyers who don't share its interpretation of the law, and Jesse Jordan. For it is apparent that legality and morality are sometimes at odds in the modern world--especially when the RIAA itself has a hand in writing many of today's bills.

Oh, about Jesse Jordan. Lessig tells his story in Chapter 3:

In the fall of 2002, Jesse Jordan of Oceanside, New York, enrolled as a freshman at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, in Troy, New York. His major at RPI was information technology. Though he is not a programmer, in October Jesse decided to begin to tinker with search engine technology that was available on the RPI network.

[...]

RPI's computer network links students, faculty, and administration to one another. It also links RPI to the Internet. Not everything available on the RPI network is available on the Internet. [...] The idea of “intranet” search engines, search engines that search within the network of a particular institution, is to provide users of that institution with better access to material from that institution. Businesses do this all the time, enabling employees to have access to material that people outside the business can't get. Universities do it as well.

These engines are enabled by the network technology itself. Microsoft, for example, has a network file system that makes it very easy for search engines tuned to that network to query the system for information about the publicly (within that network) available content.

Jesse's search engine was built to take advantage of this technology. It used Microsoft's network file system to build an index of all the files available within the RPI network.

Jesse's wasn't the first search engine built for the RPI network. Indeed, his engine was a simple modification of engines that others had built. His single most important improvement over those engines was to fix a bug within the Microsoft file-sharing system that could cause a user's computer to crash. With the engines that existed before, if you tried to access a file through a Windows browser that was on a computer that was off-line, your computer could crash. Jesse modified the system a bit to fix that problem, by adding a button that a user could click to see if the machine holding the file was still on-line.

Jesse's engine went on-line in late October. Over the following six months, he continued to tweak it to improve its functionality. By March, the system was functioning quite well. Jesse had more than one million files in his directory, including every type of content that might be on users' computers.

Thus the index his search engine produced included pictures, which students could use to put on their own Web sites; copies of notes or research; copies of information pamphlets; movie clips that students might have created; university brochures—basically anything that users of the RPI network made available in a public folder of their computer.

But the index also included music files. In fact, one quarter of the files that Jesse's search engine listed were music files. But that means, of course, that three quarters were not, and—so that this point is absolutely clear—Jesse did nothing to induce people to put music files in their public folders. He did nothing to target the search engine to these files. He was a kid tinkering with a Google-like technology at a university where he was studying information science, and hence, tinkering was the aim. Unlike Google, or Microsoft, for that matter, he made no money from this tinkering; he was not connected to any business that would make any money from this experiment. He was a kid tinkering with technology in an environment where tinkering with technology was precisely what he was supposed to do.

On April 3, 2003, Jesse was contacted by the dean of students at RPI. The dean informed Jesse that the Recording Industry Association of America, the RIAA, would be filing a lawsuit against him and three other students whom he didn't even know, two of them at other universities. A few hours later, Jesse was served with papers from the suit. As he read these papers and watched the news reports about them, he was increasingly astonished.

“It was absurd,” he told me. “I don't think I did anything wrong. . . .

I don't think there's anything wrong with the search engine that I ran or . . . what I had done to it. I mean, I hadn't modified it in any way that promoted or enhanced the work of pirates. I just modified the search engine in a way that would make it easier to use”—again, a search engine, which Jesse had not himself built, using the Windows file- sharing system, which Jesse had not himself built, to enable members of the RPI community to get access to content, which Jesse had not himself created or posted, and the vast majority of which had nothing to do with music.

But the RIAA branded Jesse a pirate. They claimed he operated a network and had therefore “willfully” violated copyright laws. They demanded that he pay them the damages for his wrong. For cases of “willful infringement,” the Copyright Act specifies something lawyers call “statutory damages.” These damages permit a copyright owner to claim $150,000 per infringement. As the RIAA alleged more than one hundred specific copyright infringements, they therefore demanded that Jesse pay them at least $15,000,000.

Similar lawsuits were brought against three other students: one other student at RPI, one at Michigan Technical University, and one at Princeton. Their situations were similar to Jesse's. Though each case was different in detail, the bottom line in each was exactly the same: huge demands for “damages” that the RIAA claimed it was entitled to. If you added up the claims, these four lawsuits were asking courts in the United States to award the plaintiffs close to $100 billion—six times the total profit of the film industry in 2001.

Jesse called his parents. They were supportive but a bit frightened. An uncle was a lawyer. He began negotiations with the RIAA. They demanded to know how much money Jesse had. Jesse had saved $12,000 from summer jobs and other employment. They demanded $12,000 to dismiss the case.

The RIAA wanted Jesse to admit to doing something wrong. He refused. They wanted him to agree to an injunction that would essentially make it impossible for him to work in many fields of technology for the rest of his life. He refused. They made him understand that this process of being sued was not going to be pleasant. (As Jesse's father recounted to me, the chief lawyer on the case, Matt Oppenheimer, told Jesse, “You don't want to pay another visit to a dentist like me.”) And throughout, the RIAA insisted it would not settle the case until it took every penny Jesse had saved.

Jesse's family was outraged at these claims. They wanted to fight. But Jesse's uncle worked to educate the family about the nature of the American legal system. Jesse could fight the RIAA. He might even win. But the cost of fighting a lawsuit like this, Jesse was told, would be at least $250,000. If he won, he would not recover that money. If he won, he would have a piece of paper saying he had won, and a piece of paper saying he and his family were bankrupt.

So Jesse faced a mafia-like choice: $250,000 and a chance at winning, or $12,000 and a settlement.

The recording industry insists this is a matter of law and morality.

Let's put the law aside for a moment and think about the morality. Where is the morality in a lawsuit like this? What is the virtue in scapegoatism? The RIAA is an extraordinarily powerful lobby. The president of the RIAA is reported to make more than $1 million a year. Artists, on the other hand, are not well paid. The average recording artist makes $45,900. There are plenty of ways for the RIAA to affect and direct policy. So where is the morality in taking money from a student for running a search engine?

On June 23, Jesse wired his savings to the lawyer working for the RIAA. The case against him was then dismissed. And with this, this kid who had tinkered a computer into a $15 million lawsuit became an activist:

"I was definitely not an activist [before]. I never really meant to be an activist. . . . [But] I've been pushed into this. In no way did I ever foresee anything like this, but I think it's just completely absurd what the RIAA has done."

Jesse's parents betray a certain pride in their reluctant activist. As his father told me, Jesse “considers himself very conservative, and so do I. . . . He's not a tree hugger. . . . I think it's bizarre that they would pick on him. But he wants to let people know that they're sending the wrong message. And he wants to correct the record.”

We're glad to help you out, Jesse.

Just so this story has a happy ending, it is worth mentioning that the RIAA doesn't win every lawsuit. In 1998 they sued Diamond Multimedia for selling a portable MP3 player. The RIAA lost, allowing us to enjoy the iPod and other music players. Can you imagine how the world would look if they got everything they wanted? Or perhaps there is a more interesting question: what sorts of new technologies and businesses would exist if the law didn't side so eagerly with them? Until the law is changed, I suppose we'll never know.

P.S. While you can read Free Culture for free online, I highly recommend a paper copy.

Wednesday, October 04, 2006

The Usual Bush

Would it be too blunt to simply say that George Bush is a bad man? His political tactics are as disgusting as his contempt for freedom, fairness, privacy, the Geneva conventions and the constitution. I don't talk about Bush much on my blog, but maybe I should.

What amazes me is that so many Americans still don't mind. It seems like he can do anything at all and as long as he claims it will help "the war on terror", people will still support him. Now, I like to think that Bush's victory in 2004 was caused by the lousiness of the alternative, John Kerry. That's why I advocate electoral reform, so we can have more than two "real" choices. But when I see that 41% of voters "approve" of Bush's perfomance (or maybe 44%), my hope dwindles a little. Even though 55% disapprove (45% strongly), I wonder why the rest of the people don't see what he's up to.

And what is he up to know? Well, there's a bill (here's a data sheet) that has just passed that will kill Habeas Corpus for some detainees. Forget the flowery description on Bush's web site; as Human Rights Watch explained before the bill's passing:
In its immediate practical impact, the most damaging of the bill’s provisions is clearly its “court-stripping” provision, which would bar detainees in U.S. custody anywhere around the world from challenging the legality of their detention or their treatment via habeas corpus actions, even if they have been subjected to torture. Innocent people could be locked up forever, without ever having the facts of their case reviewed by an independent court.

If held to be constitutional, the court-stripping provision would result in more than 200 pending cases being ejected from the courts, including the case that resulted in the Supreme Court’s landmark detainee ruling in June.

...

The bill has other dangerous provisions as well. The latest version of the legislation includes an extremely dangerous expansion in the bill’s definition of “unlawful enemy combatant” – a phrase used by the administration to justify holding a combatant outside of the usual protections given to combatants by the Geneva Conventions. It now explicitly deems persons who have “purposefully and materially supported” hostilities against the United States to be combatants, an unprecedented redefinition of “combatant” that could potentially cover a range of innocent people. Financing and support for terrorist activities are already criminal offenses in the civilian justice system. This definition would pervert any reasonable concept of what a combatant is.
Indeed, there is no requirement that an "enemy combatant" actually be involved in combat, and since no proof is required to apply the label, there is no guarantee that he or she is an "enemy" at all. The bill also sounds subjective, allowing top officials to make up new policies:
Moreover, the provision also gives carte blanche to the Pentagon to call anyone an “unlawful enemy combatant.” All it requires is that the person be deemed an unlawful combatant by a Combatant Status Review Tribunal (the administrative bodies used at Guantánamo) or “another competent tribunal” established under presidential or military authority.

...

...the Secretary of Defense is to be delegated the power to create new rules and procedures if he or she considers the use of their courts-martial equivalents to be impracticable.
The only plus side in this bill is that Bush didn't get all he wanted:
The legislation rejects the Bush administration’s attempt to explicitly rewrite the humane treatment requirements of the Geneva Conventions and to decriminalize all interrogation practices short of torture. On “Face the Nation,” last Sunday, Senator John McCain made clear that practices such as waterboarding, extreme sleep deprivation and induced hypothermia will continue to be war crimes if the legislation is passed.

The bill does, however, narrow the scope of the War Crimes Act; it bars the Geneva Conventions from being invoked in any suit against the U.S. government, gives the president power to interpret “the meaning and application” of the Geneva Conventions, and prohibits the courts from relying on foreign or international law sources in deciding cases involving certain violations of Common Article 3 of the Geneva Conventions.
I wonder if the U.S. is so polarised that Bush supporters completely ignore what the opposition is saying, assuming that it's all lies intended to make Bush look bad. Indeed, some of the rhetoric against Bush goes too far, and maybe that turns people off. For example, maybe the first paragraph of this post goes too far. But after Bush has abused the world so much, it starts getting hard to restrain myself.

Related links:

Monday, October 02, 2006

About DRM

If you are interested in buying music, movies or TV shows online, it's important to know about so-called "Digital Rights Management" (DRM) and how it can affect you.

My best friend ran into trouble with DRM for the first time a few days ago. He was preparing a home movie about our vacation to Los Angeles and Mexico, so he tried to find mexican music online and found some at PureTracks (puretracks.com). Apparently I had done a terrible job teaching him about DRM, because he spent a long time listening to different tracks and then bought three songs--or more accurately, he paid for them. (If you are hip to copyright law, you know the difference.)

Of course, if he knew anything about DRM, he would've known that you can't simply put purchased music in a home movie. Free music, yes, pirated music, certainly--but if you pay for it, no. That's why opponents of DRM call it "Digital Restrictions Management" instead.

PureTracks, for its part, did not warn him of the DRM, or explain what it was, except in fine print. (I bet it also didn't explain, as this review of PureTracks does, that you can only download and listen to the tracks on Windows using Windows Media Player).

What is DRM?

In a nutshell, DRM refers to any technology whose sole purpose is to limit what you can do with digital media; usually it involves encryption. Encryption, in turn, is a mathematics-based method of preventing data from being understood by any piece of software that does not have the decryption key and the decryption algorithm. Only with all three items--the music file, the key and the decryption software--is it possible to listen to the music or do anything else with it, such as put it in a home movie or burn it to an audio CD. Ostensibly, DRM is intended to prevent piracy, but in practice many law-abiding consumers are prevented from exercising their rights.

When you buy music online from services like iTunes or (in our case) PureTracks, they are almost always encrypted with DRM. The decryption keys are always stored separately, often in a secret location, and in a file that may or may not itself be encrypted by a secondary key. The decryption software is tied to the media player; for example, the decryption algorithm for iTunes is built into iTunes, and the decryption algorithm for Windows Media Player is built into Windows Media Player. There is no technical reason for this; it is a business matter: Microsoft and Apple don't want to allow anyone else to use their algorithm.

You see, Apple has a near-monopoly on the business of selling music online, and it maintains this monopoly by having the only service (iTunes) that can put DRM'd music on an iPod. The music labels of the RIAA generally refuse to sell music without DRM; thus, as long as iPod remains the dominant music player (with 88% market share, by one estimate), Apple's monopoly is assured to continue. Microsoft is in a weaker position, and perhaps (just a guess) feels that by licencing their DRM algorithm to Apple, it would weaken their position further. Perhaps neither Apple nor Microsoft can safely reverse-engineer each other's algorithms, since doing so would risk lawsuits thanks to the DMCA and any software patents under which these algorithms are protected. RealNetworks reverse-engineered Apple's DRM, but Apple made a lot of angry noises.

But even if Microsoft and Apple were to licence the DRM algorithm to each other, they wouldn't let just anybody use the algorithms. No doubt anyone that wants to play with Microsoft or Apple would have to pay those companies and agree to strict terms-of-use that might preclude putting DRM'd music in a home movie. So when my friend tries to add his Mexican track to his DVD timeline, the DVD editor will forever respond:
Unable to open file [...]

File is protected by digital rights management (DRM).
DRM prevents you from doing everything that isn't explicitly allowed, which includes a lot of things. DRM is often sold with video, movies and e-books as well, but on the subject of music, the otherwise legal things you cannot do include
  • Making a backup copy of your music, or keeping a copy of your music on two of your own computers--well, actually you can do these things, but only with a method approved by Apple or Microsoft (for example, this page explains the method for iTunes). The naive method of simply making a copy of the files will not work. The scary part for Joe Consumer is that a backup may seem to work: when he makes a copy and plays it on the same computer, the music player may still be able to find the file on the hard drive that contains the decryption key. But when Joe's hard drive fails and he goes to restore the backup on a new one, the key is gone, and the files are worthless.
  • Putting the music on a music player that was not specifically designed and licenced to work with the DRM. For example, you can't put iTunes music on a non-iPod or put Microsoft DRM'd WMA music on any music player that doesn't have the Microsoft label "PlaysForSure".
  • Playing the music in the program you want. For example, if you bought some music from Apple and some WMA files from PureTracks, you would not be able to play both sets of music in the same program. As for me, I prefer to play music in WinAmp.
  • Playing the music in the operating system you want. In particular, neither Apple nor Microsoft provide a player for Linux (e.g. Ubuntu), which is popular among computer professionals and geeks everywhere.
  • Putting the music in a home movie for personal use.
  • Extracting short snippets for fair use purposes.
Escaping DRM

Generally, the only way to accomplish these legal activities is to get around the DRM. There are at least five ways to escape music DRM; the first method is the best way to avoid a slight degradation of the sound quality:
  1. Using a DRM cracking program. For example, for WMA files, there is a program called FairUse4WM that may be able to unlock purchased music. However, we tried it and for some reason it didn't work. By the way, there is reason to suspect that it is illegal to use this program in the U.S., thanks to the widely-hated DMCA.
  2. Microsoft and Apple provide one loophole to get around DRM: the ability to burn audio CDs. Audio tracks on audio CDs cannot contain DRM, so once you have the music on a CD, you can rip the CD to make MP3 files, which also do not contain DRM.
  3. The sound drivers on some Windows computers allow you to directly record what is being played on speakers. In Windows' Volume Control window, choose "Properties" from the "Options" menu and under "Adjust volume for", choose "Recording" and click OK. Now you can adjust the recording controls. I can't tell you what to do exactly because the controls differ from one sound system to another. Anyway, once it is set up, you can record what is playing from another program such as the Sound Recorder in the Start Menu under Programs | Accessories | Entertainment. If you use Sound Recorder, by the way, be aware that it records at an extremely low quality by default. To record at CD quality, select File | Properties, click Convert Now, and choose "CD quality" under "Name", then click OK and OK. You should use a better program for all but the shortest recording tasks; I just don't know what to recommend. By the way, I don't think this method will be possible in Windows Vista because of new "security" measures added to Vista by Microsoft (can someone confirm?)
  4. Use analog recording. For example, connect an audio cable from the speaker output of your computer into the line in of another device.
  5. Use a file-sharing program to get another copy of your music, this time in MP3 format. Remember, MP3 files do not suffer from DRM. This method may be illegal, but it may also be easier than tackling the DRM directly.
Technologies that use DRM (new section)

Entities that use DRM or other forms of content restriction include:
  • Online music stores, including iTunes
  • Online TV and movie stores, including iTunes
  • HD-DVD and Blu-ray, the upcoming high-definition video discs
  • DVDs, which are encrypted with a system called CSS. Although this system is relatively weak, the DMCA makes it illegal to break in the U.S. That's why, in the U.S., you can't buy a program from a store that can extracts parts of a DVD for fair use, or downsamples a DVD for backup on a CD or DVD-R; software that does such things is underground. Home movie DVDs, however, can be made without CSS, and software can legally handle such video.
  • TiVo: TiVo now restricts what you can do with some programming. By the way, TiVo has also used its software patent on a "multimedia time warping system" to reduce competition.
  • Satellite radio: as the result of negotiations with the RIAA, recording is severely restricted on satellite radio. Last time I checked, you cannot move the recordings off the device that did the recording.
Conclusion

DRM is a means of control--a means of taking freedom away from citizens. It can be circumvented, but only with analog methods, the CD-burning loophole, piracy, or tools that are banned under the 1998 United States Digital Millenium Copyright Act (DMCA). Only the CD-burning loophole and the analog methods are still legal (in the U.S.), and the content industries would like to "plug the analog hole" as well. As for CD burning, Microsoft and Apple have the power to limit that ability as they choose.

A lot of people, myself included, boycott DRM. Maybe you should too. But more importantly, tell everyone you know about DRM. Tell them how it can affect them. As an executive at Disney said to the Economist:
"If consumers even know there's a DRM, what it is, and how it works, we've already failed."
In addition, join me in opposing the DMCA, especially its anticircumvention provision, and new anti-consumer proposals such as the broadcast flag, the broadcast treaty, and the U.S.-instigated DMCA lookalike in Australia. The entertainment industry officially spent $55 million on lobbyists in 2005, so the fight is not easy, but without grassroots opposition, it is clear that major content owners will have their way.

But who knows? Maybe this copyfight will be a downhill battle.

Friday, September 22, 2006

WIPO's rediculous broadcasting treaty

For some time now WIPO, an organization whose sole intention seems to be expanding IP monopoly powers worldwide, has been trying to create a "broadcasting treaty" that would create an new set of intellectual property rights for "broadcasters", whether they operate on the airwaves, cable or the internet. These new rights, which are planned to last 50 years from the time of broadcast, appear to be separate from copyright and would operate in parallel to it. Personally, I can't even figure out what exactly WIPO wants to accomplish with these radical new broadcasting rights; it is not only public interest groups that oppose it, but also many large technology companies such as AT&T, Verizon, Sony, Intel, Dell, HP, and more. Of course, I suppose major broadcasters and Hollywood are in favor (if their silence is any clue).

WIPO is an unelected organization consisting of people whom the public knows nothing about, yet it is somehow empowered to write laws that the world has to follow. I find that pretty scary, and the history of their treatymaking is pretty scary too. Admittedly, part of my fear comes from the fact that I don't understand how it works and from whence its power comes. I would like to learn but I haven't found a very good source yet.

I don't see any way for individual citizens to influence WIPO, so all we can do is watch on the sidelines and hope they don't get their way. The EFF is doing what it can, of course, but NGOs don't have any real power and typically aren't allowed to speak at WIPO meetings. As EFF said about a meeting last week:
A large and diverse group of public interest organizations, artists, U.S telecommunications companies, consumer electronics companies, and related industry bodies turned up in force to oppose the current draft. Yet again, non-governmental organizations were not given an opportunity to present statements during the meeting. However, EFF distributed an open letter to WIPO signed by over 200 podcasters and podcasting organizations, together representing thousands of podcasters. The letter expressed podcasters' concerns that the treaty would increase complexity for rights clearance and harm the innovation environment for online communication technologies.
Anyway, I recommend reading EFF's page on the broadcasting treaty.

Saturday, September 16, 2006

AOL's search gaffe: not so bad?

If you haven't heard, somebody at AOL released three months of web search records for roughly 1.5% of U.S. users that use AOL's client software. In the aftermath, AOL officially apologized and followed that up with the firing of three staff members including the Chief Technology Officer. Despite this, criticism of AOL continues, with the EFF leading the complaints.

Now usually I agree completely with the EFF, but in this case I'm not so sure. In the first place, each searcher is associated with a random ID number, so most searchers are impossible to identify--so far as I have seen, only one person has been identified by a third party. In the second place, AOL has been so thoroughly flogged that I don't think they will ever try it again.

And that's my point. Much has been made of the danger of releasing search records--sometimes people search for their own name, or personal info such as their Social Security Number whose presence online they only want to detect, not create. And, of course, there's the chilling effect that could be caused by people's fear that they might be watched. I'm sure there are other reasons too.

But as AOL says, their intention--or the intention of those who were fired, presumably--was to give academic researchers real-world data to analyze, so that researchers could look for patterns in the data and see what sort of thing real users search for. This is interesting stuff, both to provide us with shock-and-awe stories of sickos online (for example, this and this), and to satisfy our curiosity about what other people search for.

The nice thing about the AOL scandal is that none of those whose searches were revealed knew that their queries would be recorded and broadcast. This obviously makes it a serious privacy incursion, but it also ensures that the searches were completely honest, not constrained or biased by privacy worries.

The fact is, this search information can tell us things that we simply cannot learn any other way. So I, for one, will be genuinely interested to see what sort of observations academics will make from this data (if they dare).

But now that this data is available, I guess we don't really need any more. This data is valuable because of its uniqueness, but a second data leak wouldn't have the same novelty. So if some other dumb search engine decides to take a data dump, that's when I'll consider unleashing my wrath.

Ticket cancelled!

My best friend decided to send my blog post about my transit ticket to the Calgary Transit Authority. At first they responded basically by saying "well, you could have bought next month's pass up to ten days in advance" and suggested I should show up in court to plead my case before a judge. Well, personally I don't think I should have to do that--I think it should not be their policy to give fines on the first of the month. I have never been charged with anything before and would not feel comfortable in court... especially since the fact remains that I'm technically guilty of the charge, notwithstanding that it is probably a mistake made by many.

Anyway, to my surprise I got a phone call from a "Transit Constable" who said that the ticket was given in error, and that they were cancelling it. Wow! This is a wonderful surprise. By the way, since getting the ticket I've had my fare checked 3 times, which proves they aren't singling out people who have an expired pass on the 1st of the month.

Friday, September 15, 2006

Wednesday, September 06, 2006

No internet for awhile

My roommate ordered internet from Shaw Cable on their web site over two weeks ago but did not get any response. In total he's spent three hours on the phone with Shaw and Telus, mostly on hold, getting slowly passed around the beurocracy, and has now been told by Shaw that we can have internet next Wednesday, Sept. 13. It's as though the strategy of the two main broadband providers for getting new customers is simply to hope that the other company is even slower!

Tuesday, September 05, 2006

Disappointed about Lessig

Lawrence Lessig is a great man. He fought against the 1998 retroactive copyright extension in the U.S. supreme court, and he has been central in the movement to make copyright law more reasonable.

But I must admit some disappointment that we disagree in some fundamental way, though I'm not sure in what way precisely. As I was reading his book, Free Culture, I noticed that he referred, over and over, to "intellectual property" (IP) as "property". As I've said, I strongly disagree with the conflation of "intellectual" and "physical" property: they are not the same at all. Their properties are hardly related; logic that applies to one rarely applies to the other. I was surprised that he made little distinction between the two. Personally, I use the term "intellectual property" only because English doesn't offer another term. If it were up to me, intellectual property would have its own unique word, "yatterdote" or "tokentine" or "wektution" or something, because it is a unique beast, distinct from any other concept. Our laws, seemingly more and more, conflate the two forms of property; I wasn't expecting Dr. Lessig to contribute to the phenomenon.
...although copyright is a property right of a very special sort, it is a property right. - Free Culture, p.64
Although the text makes it clear that the two kinds of property are different, I am left with the general sense that Dr. Lessig still tends to apply physical-property thinking to IP.

Something I find interesting in the book is his eagerness to condemn "piracy", while leaving the concept of piracy vague.
I believe that "piracy" is wrong,and that the law, properly tuned, should punish "piracy," whether on or off the Internet. (p. 10)
I think this is deliberate; the book explores the idea of piracy and shows through many historical examples that it is not as clear cut as many claim. To the contrary, an entire chapter of examples shows how positive technological and cultural change was facilitated by what some (including Lessig himself, if you read the book literally) called "piracy".

But I have a little problem with his moral solidarity on the matter of commercial piracy:
All across the world, but especially in Asia and Eastern Europe, there are businesses that do nothing but take others people’s copyrighted content,copy it,and sell it—all without the permission of a copyright owner. The recording industry estimates that it loses about $4.6 billion (that works out to one in three CDs sold every year to physical piracy worldwide). The MPAA estimates that it loses $3 billion annually worldwide to piracy.

This is piracy plain and simple. Nothing in the argument of this book, nor in the argument that most people make when talking about the subject of this book, should draw into doubt this simple point: This piracy is wrong. (p. 63)
On the face of it, that statement is hard to disagree with--except for the figures, of course. A great many bloggers have rebuked the MPAA and RIAA for their piracy loss figures, which generally appear to have come from thin air. But I'll give Lessig the benefit of the doubt and assume that these figures are reasonable, since it is their internet piracy figures that are generally considered suspect.

Setting that issue aside, I'm troubled by the way he justifies his statement:
Which is not to say that excuses and justifications couldn’t be made for it. We could, for example, remind ourselves that for the first one hundred years of the American Republic, America did not honor foreign copyrights. We were born, in this sense, a pirate nation. It might therefore seem hypocritical for us to insist so strongly that other developing nations treat as wrong what we, for the first hundred years of our existence, treated as right.

That excuse isn’t terribly strong. Technically, our law did not ban the taking of foreign works. It explicitly limited itself to American works. Thus the American publishers who published foreign works without the permission of foreign authors were not violating any rule. The copy shops in Asia, by contrast, are violating Asian law. Asian law does protect foreign copyrights, and the actions of the copy shops violate that law. So the wrong of piracy that they engage in is not just a moral wrong, but a legal wrong, and not just an internationally legal wrong, but a locally legal wrong as well. True, these local rules have, in effect, been imposed upon these countries. No country can be part of the world economy and choose not to protect copyright internationally. We may have been born a pirate nation, but we will not allow any other nation to have a similar childhood.
Now here's where I say "wait a minute". The professor seems to be saying that the "pirated" book market that existed in the U.S. over a hundred years ago was O.K., because there was no law against it. And whether this is his view or not, it should be noted that many who lived at the time welcomed the pirated book market because it promoted learning as well as giving people broader access to entertainment (remember, books were the tool of choice to entertain oneself at the time.)

Then he says pirates in Asia are doing something unquestionably wrong, morally and legally, because there are laws in Asia against piracy. I'm already starting to disagree, since I don't believe that the law per se dictates what is moral and immoral. That is backwards. Rather, it should be morality that guides the law. But as Lessig admits in the very same paragraph, the local laws in Asia were imposed on them. They were imposed by such treaties as the WTO's TRIPS Agreement. While the individuals who wrote it and backed it may be hard to determine, it was clearly created and imposed by western interests, interests that do not want the people of poorer countries to enjoy the lower prices that gave the United States such a boost more than a century ago. The way international organizations like the WTO impose their power over the laws of eastern and southern countries makes it ironic when Lessig says this:
If a country is to be treated as a sovereign, however, then its laws are its laws regardless of their source. The international law under which these nations live gives them some opportunities to escape the burden of intellectual property law. In my view, more developing nations should take advantage of that opportunity, but when they don’t, then their laws should be respected. And under the laws of these nations, this piracy is wrong. (p. 64)
The irony is that international law can sometimes be a tyrant, bypassing sovereignty. In the case of TRIPS, some people have made a convincing case that it has.

I'm not saying that commercial piracy is ever the right thing to do. I remain uncomfortable with the idea, and I myself would never commit commercial piracy, nor would I knowingly pay a pirate for a commercial work. But I live in Canada, a rich country, and now that I have money, I can generally afford to buy my software at full price. When it comes to poor countries, I am very reluctant to judge them. Lessig is not. Although he says...
Alternatively, we could try to excuse this piracy by noting that in any case, it does no harm to the industry. The Chinese who get access to American CDs at 50 cents a copy are not people who would have bought those American CDs at $15 a copy. So no one really has any less money than they otherwise would have had. (p. 64)
...he later dismisses the argument by saying:
But where the law does not give people the right to take content, it is wrong to take that content even if the wrong does no harm.
And it's here where I must protest most strongly, or where I would protest, if I wasn't confused. What exactly does he mean by "wrong"? I think the word "wrong", used without qualification, suggests a moral wrong. But his argument against poor-people piracy seems to hinge on the law. Is he saying it is morally wrong to do something that hurts no one, if the law prohibits it? Putting it in another context, is it morally wrong to roll a stop sign when there is no one else around? Should God have sharp words for you about it when you get to the pearly gates? Dr. Lessig should have seen that this argument is not strong enough to accept at face value, yet there it is in the text without any further justification. That's what puzzles me, as Dr. Lessig is a lawyer and tends to be more thorough.

Speaking of God, I am reminded that Dr. Lessig is an athiest:
I don’t believe in gods, digital or otherwise.
This in turn makes me wonder how he defines "morally wrong". If it isn't God that dictates what is right and what is wrong, then there must be some other principle guiding the judgement. I don't know what his guiding principle is, but I can tell you mine. If God is set aside, my personal idea of morality is that hurting others is wrong, and benefitting others is good. This principle, in my mind, overrides all others. While Dr. Lessig eagerly condemns the pirate, regardless of the circumstances, I take note that when someone is poor, buying copyrighted works at the price fixed by a rich western corporation may be very difficult. It is often impossible for a poor person to pay full price for every work he wants; indeed, even paying for a few works may require a large sacrifice on his part. As a result I see a moral conflict where Dr. Lessig sees none. While I don't question the idea that artists deserve to get paid, I do have a sense of morality that is apparently opposed to Dr. Lessig. When I see that third world children learn less because they cannot afford textbooks, I see a wrong. Not a wrong against copyright holders, but against the children. I see a wrong committed by copyright interests, whereas Dr. Lessig, in his book, does not.

Many would agree with me here.

The issue of entertainment materials is less clear, because the fact is that no one truly "needs" entertainment to survive. Nevertheless, I am reluctant to condemn CD/DVD pirates, even commercial ones, because I am sure that if they were eradicated, the copyright holders would charge far higher prices, even in very poor countries. This would greatly reduce the amount of materials that poor people could enjoy, even though it would not raise the bottom lines of U.S. corporations or artists or filmmakers very much. Although movies and music are unnecessary for anyone's survival, I think they can make life more fun. If you accept this, then you must wonder why poor people should not be allowed to enjoy what rich people can enjoy, even though it is practical for them to do so. Have they done something wrong? Are we better than them?

I do not think we are better than them, nor do I think that what they have (namely, cheap creative works) should be taken away from them, unless they themselves wish it. But their copyright laws were not designed by them. They were designed by westerners.

Thus, an enticing argument exists that whether pirates are wrong or not, U.S. copyright holders are actually in the wrong by charging excessive prices and attempting to deny poor people access to materials that they could otherwise enjoy. In the context of my central moral principle, they are doing wrong because they effectively hurt the poor, and hurting others is wrong. Now, this argument has cracks in it, but I do think there is some truth in it too.

You might suppose I'm a Robin Hood. But I don't advocate stealing from the rich to give to the poor; I only advocate giving to the poor. You see, where Dr. Lessig sees taking, I see only copying. In my mind, there is a world of difference, and I am disappointed that Dr. Lessig does not properly acknowledge it.

Nevertheless, his book is a great read. It brings to light the ways in which IP laws, corrupted by corporate influence, can harm our freedoms and our culture. It tells interesting stories. It shows us how the legal battles created by today's technology mirror the battles of the past. It shows how today's culture and technology wars are the same as those of the past, and it also shows how today's battles are different. It helps us see that creativity is not an isolated phenomenon--creative people always build on top of the work of others, though our laws don't account for this fact. It teaches the meaning and value of free culture.

Most importantly, I hope that this book will make you realize that more than ever before, it is we of the general public who are on the front lines in today's culture war. Our enemies are large corporations and corrupt politicians. It is we, of the internet generation, who must fight it. If we do not fight the culture war, we will lose it.

By the way, I'm less than 1/3 of the way through the book. I may have more to say later...

http://www.free-culture.cc/freecontent/

Wednesday, August 30, 2006

Dictionary is going down

The dictionary server at qwertie.net, running on my home computer, is going down because my best friend and I are moving. We have to move out tomorrow (Aug. 31) in the morning, and move in Sept. 1, in the afternoon. That means there will be at least two days of downtime. Sorry for any inconvenience. Oh, and also, we don't have an ISP at our new place yet. That could spell trouble... Update (Sept. 5): it's still down. We don't have internet access yet.

Tuesday, August 01, 2006

My first transit ticket

I wouldn't have thought that my first post in so long would be me complaining about a ticket. But I must protest.

This morning a pair of transit cops were waiting at the train station, checking proofs of fare payment. My heart sank as I looked at my watch: I had forgotten it was August 1st, I still had a July bus pass. Now perhaps it's just terrible luck, but I'm suspicious. On my internship ending a year ago, I had been taking the C-train every day for a year (though only for two stops), and I have also taken the C-train about 20 stops every day--but only twice in all that time has my fare been checked: today, and again about two weeks ago.

So they gave me a ticket for $150.

It seems to me like a classic case of fundraising. It's like placing a speed camera at the bottom of a hill to catch speeders, on a straight road, when road conditions are perfect and visibility is ten miles. It's like the ticket my brother was given in Nevada, for rolling a stop sign in the middle of nowheresville.

It may be technically legal, but in my mind it's wrong. When I showed them my July pass, they must have known that statistically, I was a faithfully paying customer. And, of course, I was and am. Almost everyone that has a monthly pass is planning to buy another one, but they pretended not to know that as I questioned them about the matter. I asked one of them repeatedly how many tickets he gave on a typical morning of the first of the month, but he would only tell me how many he gave on a typical day: 6. Well, he was giving out tickets to two people on the train I was on (myself and a young woman who also had a July pass), and if that rate kept up during both rush hours, he would probably give out out at least 50 tickets for the day.

They asked for ID and it took awhile to find a photo in my messy wallet. I explained that I had just moved out and did not have anything with my new address on it in my wallet. I gave them my name, new cell phone number, date of birth (he asked for it twice), and new address, and when I told him I did not know my new postal code, he responded:
"You're only making it worse for yourself."
Jeez! I'm not sure what that meant, but I'm a longtime paying customer, and if I hadn't been feeling sad at that moment, a statement like that would have made me steaming mad. Instead, having taken the ticket, I slowly pushed my bike up the steps--the escalator having been taken offline--rode to the nearest store and bought two books of bus tickets.

I then rode to the edge of an empty parking lot and cried. I'm not entirely sure why.

It's not really about the money, except that as a frugal individual I hate to have a hefty chunk of change taken from me. Perhaps what really made me sad was the principle of the thing. It's just wrong to give tickets to people on the first of the month, when they have a pass from the previous month, especially in the morning. They pretended not to see it, but they know that what they really fined me for is absent mindedness. When I was going to high school, the bus drivers had mercy--heck, this situation seemed to come up at the beginning of almost every month. I have always been and will always be forgetful--and isn't everyone, at least sometimes?

If I see these guys again on the first of the month, assuming I actually have proof of fare, I hope I can gather the courage to give them a piece of my mind. There will be no question who has the moral high ground then. But I'm usually too timid in person.

I saw a movie recently called "Pay it Forward", about a boy who does good deeds for three people and then tells them to "pay it forward", rather than pay it back, to another three people. I wonder if those transit cops ever had this happen to them. Perhaps they've been through this themselves, and they felt it was their chance to "pay it forward" this morning.

Saturday, June 10, 2006

Dictionary Down

My interdictionary project server is down because the primary Windows partition somehow got corrupted (while I was using the computer ... that was an interesting experience.) I sure hope that the database was not being stored on that partition, but I don't remember. Linux is still working and I will hopefully have it back up in the next day or two. Update: The dictionary is back up with a new database. If the server is unreachable, please notify me (qwertie256@yahoo.com).

Tuesday, June 06, 2006

Hacktivism

A couple articles I've seen today make me wonder what it is certain authorities think is so horrible about hacking. Seems like when they catch one--a seemingly rare event--they want to "make an example" of him. Kevin Mitnick is probably the best-known example; he served 5 years in prison, but what did he actually do, and of what was he convicted? From what I've read, not that much. Real-life network hackers aren't like hackers in hollywood movies; for the most part they're just regular people who are far too curious for their own good.

Today I saw this article about Gary McKinnon.
The US government alleges that between February 2001 and March 2002, Mr McKinnon repeatedly hacked into dozens of computers used by the US Army, Navy, Air Force, and Department of Defense.

While Mr McKinnon has admitted that he spent years wandering round military computer networks, he denies that his hacking was ever motivated by anything other than curiosity.
I'm inclined to believe him, since I have a little bit of that spirit myself. Actually, the term "hacker" used to refer specifically to a self-motivated programmer, before hollywood and others appropriated the term to mean "one who breaks into computer networks". Indeed, the word is still used in that sense today in the free software and Linux worlds, and I think the two kinds of hackers are similar kinds of people. But don't confuse hackers with crackers, who are malicious hackers.

And that's the issue I want to bring up: was McKinnon a hacker or a cracker? The law might not make a distinction, but to me it's very important to consider an individual's intentions. If all McKinnon did was snoop around military networks out of curiosity, and never did anything with the knowledge so gained, can he be considered any worse than any of the crackers, spammers, and scammers infesting the internet these days?

Tentatively, this sounds like a minor crime at worst. It seems to me that the real story here is not some guy that pokes his nose where it doesn't belong; rather we should be disturbed that a single individual was able not only to hack into and explore the Army's, Navy's, Air Force's and DoD's networks, but that he was not caught for "years". This is the biggest and by far the most expensive military in the world--and they can't keep people out of their networks? Yeesh.

I saw another hacking story today. Three of the more traditional hackers (programmers) are trying to help people circumvent the great firewall of China.
"Hacking is an important philosophy we need to recover in our society," says Deibert, now the father of four young children, "because so many systems of control are embedded in technology, most of which we're unaware of."The more we take the screws off and understand how things work, the more we'll have citizens in control of their lives and the technological society they live in."
Kudos. I don't see how they could do much against China's censorship regime, but I certainly wish them luck.

Thursday, June 01, 2006

Copy South

I'd read in a book called Information Feudalism about how the intellectual property laws of our rich countries were imposed on poor countries by an international agreement called TRIPS. This treaty, which is required to enter the WTO, hurts those countries without offering anything to them in return.

So, I was interested to hear about Copy South, which discusses the effects of copyright on the third world.
As long-time Philippines activist Roberto Verzola explained at the Copy/South workshop … there are two main competing value systems in the world and, in the current era, “the value system of monopolisation, corporatisation, and privatisation is being imposed on what I think is a better system, a system of sharing.”

From the start, it was clear to many that the TRIPS Agreement would primarily benefit already developed Northern countries far more than those in the global South. It is the multinationals of the North who already own the overwhelming percentage of ... copyright, patents, [and] trademarks; the creation, expansion, and stricter enforcement of ... intellectual property rights overwhelmingly benefits those already owning property.

Ten years have passed since TRIPS became reality ... The more common name for such treaties is ‘free trade agreements’; they follow a hypocritical (and contradictory) agenda of purporting to promote ‘freer trade’ in monopolised goods such as patented pharmaceuticals and Hollywood blockbusters. We ask, “how much ‘free trade’ in Nigerian or Cuban or Chinese films occurs within the US or Europe?” So it will be argued here that TRIPS and its component parts, such as the Berne Convention, have simply reproduced the types of economic inequalities associated with the earliest stages of colonialism and imperialism.

- The Copy/South Dossier

Has it really been that long?

It's been nearly four months since my last post. A lot had been happening in my life and it seemed like no one was reading my blog anyway. The last month of school was very hectic; in the last three weeks, I had so much to do that I withdrew from a course to reduce my workload. There were projects everywhere: the Fourth Year Design Project, the compiler project, the database project and the parallel processing project--this last project was in the course from which I had to withdraw.

In my database class we had to do a database project--a web application with a database back-end. I considered this my opportunity to finally do something I wanted to do.

The Esperanto international auxilliary language (IAL), which I've discussed before, suffers from poor-quality and incomplete English dictionaries, and I felt that a user-editable dictionary could be the solution to that problem. Wikipedia has a sister dictionary project, Wiktionary, but it's inconvenient to use Wiktionary to actually look stuff up, especially when you want a translation dictionary.

So I made qwertie.net. Note:
  • Only the English<=>Esperanto dictionaries contain a significant number of entries.
  • It doesn't work well in Internet Explorer 6; get Firefox.
  • This site might not be up forever.
Qwertie.net used to be an alias for my home page (qwertie.netfirms.com), but now it's an alias for my home computer (66.222.237.211). Anyway, it was my first web application and my second database application. I would sure like to give a piece of my mind to those guys who run the database course, because they didn't teach us squat about how to write web applications or how to interface with a database. They did teach SQL, but even that seemed to be on the sidelines in this course. Anyway, I pulled through with an A, and my three other A's should make up for having dropped out of a course.

I should write some more entries now. I've got a new best friend, a new job, a new home, and new ideas for programs I want to write.

In the meantime, uhm, well, check out my del.icio.us bookmarks. There's lots of programming stuff but also freedom-fighting goodness... or better yet, learn from the EFF about how Big Media is having its way with the U.S. Congress:
"With so many tech mandate proposals and DRM restrictions being introduced, it's all too easy to miss how they fit together. A digital radio mandate here, an analog hole plug there, add in a little HDCP on video outputs for bad measure, and so on -- pretty soon, you've got DRM everywhere, and the whole is far more dangerous than the sum of its parts."

The Battle for Your Digital Media Devices And learn about Digital Video Restrictions

Friday, February 10, 2006

DRM is your friend - Ars

Ars Technica is a great site to read computer news and reviews, and I recently noticed they also have a solid focus on consumer rights. For example, in today's editorial on Digital Restriction Management (DRM), they criticise the MPAA for their silly claim that DRM is good for consumers. The usual claim is that "it stops piracy so that you, the consumer, will continue to enjoy our quality content", but now they've said "...it provides casual, honest users with guidelines for using and consuming content...." ahh, how good of them to "guide" consumers with restrictions that, thanks to the DMCA, are legally binding. With the "broadcast flag" and "analog hole" bills being considered, restrictions on TV and radio may soon be mandatory also, for all manufacturers.

So, I've got their RSS feed bookmarked. Other issues Ars has covered in the last week include IPTV, librarians' concerns that DRM inhibits archiving, Legalization of P2P in france, AOL & Yahoo's paid e-mail plan, the danger and utility of metadata, Blizzard Entertainment's latest heavy-handed behavior, the long tail versus the blockbuster, antitrust complaints over Microsoft Vista, the latest U.S. government plan to amass personal information, and the latest use of a software patent as a cash cow. Indeed, if there's one thing that might turn off the Average Joe or Geek to Ars Technica, it's the sheer amount of information they provide. My only complaint is that there seems to be no easy way to browse old articles.

Thursday, February 09, 2006

My first stitches

Has anyone ever threatened to "rip you a new asshole"? Well, now I know what it's like!

Some time ago I bought a two-foot square mirror from a garage sale. I wasn't using it and Tuesday night it was resting upright against another object in my room. The side of the mirror was sticking out, which sets the stage for my tale.

I had just taken a shower and was nude in my room, standing up. Oblivious to the presence of the mirror, I quickly ducked down, perhaps to pick something up from the floor, and felt a sharp pain in the left buttock. Giving a yelp, I jumped up and onto my bed. I instinctively grabbed my behind and applied pressure, but all I felt was my own skin.

When I twisted around to look at the area, I was expecting to see some kind of scratch, but instead I was greeted with a large gash. I saw it only for a moment; I believe I saw a mix of colors inside the wound--yellow or orange, with dark red streaks. As I watched it, blood began oozing out. It occurred to me that I should put a bandage on it, so I jumped out of bed and looked frantically for my box of band-aids. Finding it after a few seconds, I pulled out a band-aid and it turned out to be one of the tiny ones. At that moment I realized I was bleeding, and blood began dripping on the carpet. I reached in the box and pulled out a regular-size one before coming to my senses: it was too small, and I'd better get out of my room before my carpet was covered in blood.

I grabbed a towel and clumsily held it in front of me as I made my way to my roommates' room. I hadn't explained to them that I was a naturist, and being a Chinese couple, I assumed they would be uncomfortable if I were nude, but I didn't want to get blood stains all over my towel. So I held it in front of me in the dark hallway when my roommate, Micheal, opened his door.

"Turn on the light," I said, since, holding the towel with both hands, I couldn't do it myself.

"What?" he responded.

"Turn...on...the light!"

So he did, and I explained I'd cut myself. His wife Karen came out also and took a look too. I asked for a bandage and he brought a small square gauze-like cloth. It got pretty awkward at that point as I tried to hold the bandage and towel in place at the same time. Soon after I felt a little lightheaded and laid on the floor.

I don't remember exactly how the conversation went, but we discussed what to do. I really wasn't sure. I didn't know if Alberta Health Care would cover getting stitches and whether they were really necessary. The cut was about 5 cm long (4.6 cm, come to measure it) and 1 cm deep; in hindsight, stitches were clearly necessary, but at the time, I thought that Micheal could use a series of band-aids to pull the two sides of the cut together. I was also worried about wait times at the hospital, and my fears were confirmed when I called Foothills. They said I would have to wait "several hours" and suggested I try the clinic on 8th and 8th. I called the clinic, which refused to give me a wait time, only saying it would be faster than the hospital.

Well, Micheal put a bunch of band-aids on it along with that gauzy thing, and we went to the clinic. We arrived around 10:40 or 11:40 (I forget), and there were only about 8 patients waiting ahead of us. Even so, to our amazement, we spent almost 4 hours in the waiting room. This was unusually unpleasant for me, since I was somewhat sitting-impaired.

I could sit, but I couldn't shuffle in my seat without a lot of pain.

Then I was called into a room with a bed and medical equipment, and waited for what seemed like a half hour before the doctor came. In the meantime, the nurse came and removed the bandages, which was certainly worse than the stitching. The operation itself was an interesting experience, though not quite worth the wait. She used local anaesthetic, which is very cool stuff. I hate to think how it would have felt without it.

There are now ten stitches in my bum, which the doctor calls "sutures". I'll have to get them removed in six to nine days.

I had a major assignment I had to finish by 1 PM the next day, and I knew I wouldn't finish it properly by then, because I'd have to sleep in awhile. So I asked to have a doctor's note I could use for sympathy-garnering purposes. Amazingly, I was told I'd have to pay $15 for it. I didn't have to pay for the stiches*, but if I wanted a written record of getting them, it would cost me? Crazy. Do stores charge money for receipts?

So I told them to forget it.

The next day, having slept in by over two hours, I rushed to write a presentable report for my assignment. This went very smoothly overall, but I still arrived 15 minutes late for the class where I was supposed to hand it in. Luckily, however, the teacher was 20 minutes late. Ahh.

Thursday, February 02, 2006

I'm back!

Well, it turns out my motherboard wasn't defective: all Asus P5GD1 motherboards are defective in the same way, and my replacement failed in the same way. Luckily I found a solution and reinstalled Windows. However, I was unable to install Linux. Research suggests it will only be possible if I replace my hard drives with a Serial ATA drive (or buy a different motherboard).

Linux is looking a lot better than it did six years ago when I gave up on using it. I tried a Kubuntu live CD, and was very impressed. It automatically detected my video card and ethernet port, and gave me a friendly introduction to today's Linux. Unfortunately, I can't install it because it can't see the hard drives.

Broadcast flag update

Anyway, the record industry is pushing their greedy agenda again with their latest bill. Ars Technica reports (via EFF) that there's a new bill to force hardware makers to put draconian hardware restrictions in their digital radio receivers. It's not clear to me on first read what exactly the implications are of this bill--I should edit this post later when I figure it out.

Saturday, January 28, 2006

Microsoft's Incompetence

I think it may be time to move to Linux.

Two weeks ago, I turned on my Windows 2000 computer and was greeted by a blue screen saying the "registry could not load the hive (file)". The usual startup modes like Safe Mode and Last Known Good gave the same error, and I was locked out of Windows.

40 hours' work and a new motherboard later, I cannot emphasize enough how moronic Microsoft is. Windows has amazingly little tolerance for failure or hardware changes.

There were at least three showstopping problems I encountered. Firstly, I had a perfectly good Windows 2000 installation on a broken computer; I tried to boot from this hard disk, but got INACCESSIBLE_BOOT_DEVICE error early in the startup process. Some research revealed that Windows keeps only a single hard disk driver installed. Because of this, if you change to a different kind of motherboard, or move a hard drive from one computer to another, Windows 2000 will be unable to access the hard drive from which it was booted. Of course, it would have been extremely easy for the Windows development team to avoid this problem, by loading a generic IDE driver to use as a fallback in case the regular driver doesn't work. By the way, there is a way to install multiple drivers, but it can only be done before changing to a new motherboard. Here you can see Microsoft's unhelpful instructions:
"Although Microsoft does not support this method, you can import or merge the required registry entries, and copy the drivers beforehand to support all IDE controllers that are natively supported by Windows XP."
It never seems to have crossed their minds that "copying the drivers beforehand" might not be possible.

Secondly, Windows 2000 (or XP) offers no command prompt or built-in repair services if something goes wrong. Since the registry appeared to be corrupt, I needed to reach a console in order to attempt to restore an old registry (assuming I had one, which I wouldn't be able to determine without a console). The "Recovery Console" can be used for this purpose, but for some reason my computer could not boot from a CD-ROM (it's a long story). Now, the Recovery Console can be installed on the hard disk (as described here) so booting from the CD is unnecessary, but that is a little known fact (I never even heard of the Recovery Console before my computer broke), and of course it can only be installed before Windows breaks.

The Recovery Console, by the way, is usually fairly useless because it has very little functionality and contains severe restrictions on what you're allowed to do. Arbitrary security restrictions are not welcome when your computer is broken and you have no other recourse. Linux can be used to get around Microsoft's silly restrictions, but even after I convinced CDs to boot, my Linux live CDs were unable to mount themselves.

Thirdly, the Windows 2000 CD has a Repair option, but (surprise!) it refuses to work without an Emergency Repair Disk, and of course, you can't create an ERD floppy unless Windows 2000 is working! This is the ultimate in stupid design because
  1. Most home users like myself don't prepare in advance for Windows to quit working, not least because we don't know how. It requires research, which doesn't feel worthwhile when your system is working fine.
  2. Many people don't have floppy drives (I still do, though.)
  3. Most importantly, the ERD is mostly unnecessary. The ERD contains three small files from your C: drive which the Win2K CD can restore if they turn out to be corrupt. However, if those three files are fine, then there is no need for the ERD. In addition to checking those three files, the repair process checks the system files on your hard disk against the correct version of the files that are on the Windows 2000 CD; this second process has no need for the ERD.
My computer still isn't fixed but I believe I will be able to repair it soon. Good night.