Saturday, May 29, 2010

How The U.S. Government Killed The Safest Car Ever Built

Click the title for something fascinating.

Rethinking copyright

What if there were "replicators" with which you could make any object at minimal expense? Someone responding to a Slashdot article seemed to think this would be a bad thing:
And once everyone had a replicator - everyone would replicate the newest, coolest, best car. [...] And all of the advancement and innovation that we've seen since the first car and now would grind to a halt.
Others pointed out how flawed this is:
Since you can duplicate everything, including food and shelter, the whole idea of working to survive goes out the window. If such a device existed, you would be free to do whatever you please with your time. For many, this would be designing amazing cars. For others it would be building amazing cars. Everyone has a hobby, and a replicator would enable everyone to pursue their hobbies; hobbies that are often out of reach of the average person today.
But really the topic of the article was copyright, so I made the following argument.

Reality disagrees with you. Almost everybody now has a replicator--of bits and bytes. Yet somehow the companies that make brand new songs, software, movies and TV shows stay in business while continuing to make major profits. The biggest stars still make millions of dollars per year, and Big Content spends as much on blockbuster films as ever. The cable companies manage to get upwards of $600 per year from typical customers, and for all that money you still have to put up with 15 minutes of ads per hour and you still don't get to watch shows on-demand.

Somehow, people are still willing to pay for things they could copy for free. Partly this is because of Big Content's success in lobbying for powerful laws in their favor, and in using those laws to shut down networks and individuals that share files. Partly it may be that sheeple actually do believe ads that compare copying a song to stealing a car (it's frustrating how many people think this way!) For me, it is sense that those who make the best movies and music deserve to get paid, and I pay for those works that I like (provided that the price is reasonable and the DRM is not excessive).

Our society greatly benefits from the fact that people do not steal from a supermarket just because they can avoid getting caught. Recently I read about an incident where the staff of a grocery store were missing, but customers generally left money to pay for their purchases. That people are generally good means less resources must be wasted on security and prisons (which themselves produce nothing useful), people are less afraid of other people, and people less often have the unpleasant experience of being robbed.

Because people are generally good, they are willing to pay for copyrighted works even though copying them (unlike stealing physical objects) technically does not hurt anyone. Generally good people (GGP) know that these things must be paid for or they will not be produced in the first place. It's a principle we all understand, except perhaps Big Content, who assume their customers are criminals. And so, we the GGP have some willingness to do our part by paying for copyrighted works, just as we are willing to pay taxes and do occasional volunteer work and give a bit to charity and not steal from the supermarket.

Big Content, however, does not want merely to have enough money to pay for a healthy music and film market--they always want to increase profits if possible, regardless of what they get now. Consider how much smaller the market for films was in 1960: the world population was only 3 billion and American films would probably have had a very small market beyond North America. Did the movie companies ever complain then that there were not enough humans available to buy copies? Today the potential market is nearly 7 billion and the actual market is probably several times larger than it was in 1960, yet film companies complain very loudly if, say, 1/6 of that market (China) is not paying them enough. Do they really need the money? Of course not: if money was tight they would simply scale back movie budgets, just as budgets were necessarily small in 1960. Certainly low-income pirates in no way prevent them from making movies, and the actual movie budgets of today prove that they are doing very well for themselves. Even if you took away the entire third world market, the would still have a good billion potential customers left.

But in copyright markets, the cost of "buying" a work has almost nothing to do with covering the cost of production: a movie DVD that costs $10 may be for something expected to take a heavy loss like Waterworld, or for something that has already made billions of dollars in profit like Star Wars, and certainly doesn't "need" more. Likewise, their rhetoric about people losing their livelihoods from "piracy" does not necessarily bear any resemblance to their actual financial health. Maybe copying is a serious threat, maybe not, but their rhetoric is always the same regardless of the truth.

Big Content, unlike generally good people, have no sense of fairness. While sometimes they take losses, the potential for "jackpots" like Star Wars means they would surely oppose anything to make copyright more fair, like limiting copyright to 28 years, or that takes advantage of humans' natural goodness (like removing DRM and repealing the DMCA, or my personal favorite, a more radical rethinking of copyright that would let citizens buy the right to copy works for free, paying some minimum amount yearly for this privilege based on income level).

I am tired of this stubborn belief that restricting our civil liberties (specifically, the personal right to copy) is the only way to ensure new works are created. I am also tired of the argument that Big Content "deserves" every penny it makes and that people don't "deserve" the freedom to copy. "Deserves" is a moral judgement. Big Content doesn't use morality to make business decisions or to decide what laws they will lobby for. Big Content doesn't use morality to select prices. Big Content doesn't use morality to select DRM schemes. Why should the rest of us, therefore, make a moral judgment that they "deserve" the profit they get from us?

...That was what I posted. But let me add something.

Copyright is not a right

The most common and annoying perceptual error people make with copyright is that they consider it a "right" - like the right to life, the right of free speech, or the right to move freely throughout the country. Copyright, however, is the exact opposite of these important rights. Normal rights prevent certain parties (especially the government) from doing bad things to you--no matter who "you" are. Normal rights limit the amount of control others have over you. For the most part, they allow you to be left alone. Copyright, however, is not a right to copy; rather, it is the right for an "owner" to prevent other people from copying. To prevent you from copying. In an age where copying is as natural as eating or sleeping, it prevents you, the commoner, from being left alone.

Some authors will claim they have the "right" to make money from their work and that this justifies ever-expanding copyright law. Wrong. You only have the right to try to make money. Laws that help you make money are provided by the government, and they should not be considered rights, any more than subsidies on corn or government science grants. And if you ask me, the 300-year-old copyright model is just plain wrong for the modern age. Copyright itself doesn't grant you the "right" to make money, only the power (if you have the lawyers for it!) to restrict copying, and this only helps you make money in a roundabout way: typically, you prevent all copies except the ones you make, then charge money for those. This system sucks because it denies money to authors of some of the most valuable works society produces: open source software.

Open source software provides tons of value to society precisely because it is copied so freely, yet copyright provides no money whatsoever to authors of said software. While free software refutes the claim that "no one would make music/video/software if they weren't paid", the fact is that without monetary benefit, the free software ecosystem usually produces software of lower quality than commercial rivals (with a few exceptions such as Firefox, or cases where commercial software is of low quality due to niche status or a monopoly market). Open source is a better model of software development, but because there is usually no funding for extensive testing or documentation and, since free software authors must have a "day job" to make money, free software gets much less time put into it than it needs. If the government provided some way for these authors to be paid for their work, open source might well explode in quantity and quality. I, for one, would give up my $44K-a-year job doing closed source, if I could do open source software of my choosing at minimum wage.

Intellectual property is imaginary property. I wish I could persuade society that copyright is neither the only nor the best system to pay authors for their work. But the ones who benefit most from copyright are the same people involved in writing copyright and related laws, evangelizing it (you've seen the anti-piracy ads), and thrusting it upon the world through international treaties. Supporters of true freedom--real rights--have no such financial or political clout, and so our ideas are censored by glut.

Thursday, May 27, 2010

Dreams as simulations

Now that I drive to work, sometimes I wonder: what if an emergency happens? A car hits me from behind, or someone changes into my lane... this never happens, so how can I be prepared for it? Are my dreams helping out?

For centuries people people have wondered about the meaning of dreams. Some time ago I decided that the likely primary purpose of dreaming is to train us for potential future situations: a sort of virtual reality where the brain creates a random situation, we react to it in the dream state, and then the brain attempts to predict the outcome. By doing this every night, we learn, while asleep, how to react to waking situations before they ever happen.

This article I just found lends credence to my pet theory. Of course, it is widely reported that we learn better if we sleep after studying. So perhaps dreams also exist to give the brain a chance to examine what has recently happened, and make better sense of it.

Sunday, May 02, 2010

Peter Watts

Several months ago, sci-fi writer Peter Watts was assaulted by US border patrol guards. He was then charged with assaulting a federal officer, who claimed that Peter choked him. Apparently there was a video of the event that (along with a witness) proved the choking claim was false.

Peter Watts' blog is kind of a mess and so far I haven't been able to find the information I was looking for (such as: was the whole thing captured on video or was the car out-of-frame? did he give the guards his keys at some point before the altercation?), but the jist of the story is: while attempting to return to Canada, US border guards began to search his car without telling him. Upon noticing that they were doing something, he got out of his car and asked what they were doing. The guard didn't answer, but instead told him to get back in the car. He made the mistake of repeating his question, at which point one or more border guards punched him in the face and sprayed mace in his nose. Apparently he was outside his car for just 10-12 seconds, but nevertheless was convicted with a felony for failing to obey the instruction.

Like the Iraq story I wrote about in my last post, what we have here is a clear case of abuse of power. And like the last story, the most shocking thing to me is not so much that somebody abused their power (a common failing among people with power), but rather what the consequences were for that abuse. Instead of the guards being fired, fined, or reprimanded for their behavior, the government not only protected the perpetrators, but formally charged the victim with a felony for being a few seconds too slow. Just as amazing, the jury found that the law was on the government's side, and they had to convict (see "DVD Extras" link below).

Doesn't this lack of consequences lead directly to more abuse of power? Spare the rod, spoil the adult, you might say.

And as with the Iraq incident, I fear that cases like this happen more often than we know. A relatively well-known individual with media-savvy friends like Peter Watts can make the news (even if the news doesn't care to talk to him). But for every Peter Watts there may be hundred ordinary joes seriously mistreated by people with power, who don't have enough connections to get their story heard.

While writing about the Iraq incident I read all the high-rated comments at Slashdot, some of which were very interesting, such as Mondorescue's comments about rules of engagement, and insightful quotables like "the difference between a murderer and a soldier is that a murderer wants to kill".

Likewise there are some good comments on the Peter Watts case, so I'll quote them if you don't mind.
"This law includes offenses ranging from assault and battery to simply standing too close to an officer..."

"Standing too close to an officer" is a crime? OK, that's about the walking definition of a bad law.

What was Watts' crime? He asked the officers what they were doing.

He didn't strike anyone. He didn't kick anyone. According to the record he didn't even use harsh language. Apparently our law enforcement community has become so vicious and cowardly they'll beat people bloody just for looking at them wrong.

Peter Watts is a geek scifi writer. Judging from his photos, he weighs about 160. My wife could smack him around. He's about as threatening as a tuna sandwich.

I recently took a defensive driving course (because my insurance offered me a sizeable discount for doing so) and they pointed out that in the little book given for drivers for the written test, it explicitly states that should you be pulled over, at no time should you exit your vehicle unless instructed to do so by the officer. There really is no excuse.

Then you are an idiot. You don't understand why it's in there. It was never for the protection of the police. It was for your own protection. Think about it (I know, hard for you). You pull over on the right side of the road. Your door is on the left. You open it, and you are standing out in traffic. Safety is the one and only one reason that rule was ever started. However, since then, they've asserted that to be "normal" behavior and any abnormal behavior at all is dangerous. So now, it's an issue, not because of the police's safety, but for your own for not playing in traffic, and for your own because it will be seen as unusual behavior. There's nothing aggressive about getting out of the car. There was never an issue about it being bad for cops when the recommendation was created.

[....] -AK Marc

I visited the US and drove around as a tourist once, got stopped by the police and did what folk in the UK do - I got out of the car to wait by the side of it to show the police that I wasn't going to do a runner. I didn't know that you sit inside the car until the police come to you in the USA, nobody told me this when I got my tourist visa stamped at immigration or when I picked up the hire car.

Things escalated very fast and I found myself surrounding by two or three police cars with people shouting stuff and pointing guns at me. Very scary when you're not quite sure why this is all happening. Fair play to the police officers, after a couple of minutes of me putting my hands in the air and shouting "Sorry, I am a tourist, I don't know what I've done" things calmed down to the point that we could have a chat and sort things out pleasantly (we all shook hands at the end of it and the cops pointed out where a local hotel was, my mission of the moment).

Not sure what the answer is, should foreign nationals have to read the local written driving test / read the handbooks before being allowed to drive a car in another country?
(Does an official handbook even exist that says you can't get out of the car when pulled over?)
A jury found him guilty of felony non-compliance, so he must have done more than just stepped out of his car.

Actually, from the reports, that's EXACTLY what he did, and the judge basically cut him loose for it.

he did so at border patrol, which by definition carries a higher risk for officers,

I am so sick of hearing this. Cowardice is no excuse for brutality. I grew up military. Come to one of my family dinners and let the Vietnam veterans in my family explain what a dangerous job is.

Looking at the Department of Labor statistics, being a cop is a VERY safe job. You know who gets killed on the job more often than police officers? Construction workers. Cab drivers. Fast food workers. Hotel clerks.

Hop over to the forums on "" and listen to the boys on blue in their own words for a while. They'll tell you quite openly they feel absolutely no obligation to put themselves in harm's way for the "sheeple," and they proudly proclaim "I AM GOING HOME TONIGHT" no matter how many receptionists and secretaries have to die to make that happen.

I spent some time with the State Fire Association. Seems like everyone last one of those guys is missing an eye, ear or finger, and has a quietly proud story of how they traded that part of their body for some stranger's kid. I stand in awe of their dedication, sacrifice and courage.

The institutional cowardice and crutality of law enforcement stands in stark contrast.
- jeko
(I don't entirely agree with this comment but I love the one-liner: Cowardice is no excuse for brutality! Mind you, I'm not sure it's fair to say that bullies are cowards. If somebody might be a threat so you beat them up just in case--to guarantee your own safety by hurting an innocent--that's cowardice. Hurting someone because you're a bully--that's just evil.)


Perspective anecdote: one of my personal "unknown heroes" is a highway cop who stood there calmly listening to this frustrated motorist he pulled over deliver this obscene tirade of vitriol. He just asked questions, wrote the ticket, and let the guy vent. No shouting, no arrest for disorderly conduct, no mace, no "he tripped in the car and hit his face on the steering wheel", nothing. Totally kept his cool. You could have balanced tigers on his cool. So when I read of situations like this, where a guard flies off the handle and beats the crap out of a tourist for daring to ask what the problem is, I know one bad cop doesn't mean all bad cops - I've seen the proof otherwise.

When an officer of the law resorts to the use of violence (and I mean bloody violence, not some wrestling lock or whatever) on a non-violent "offender" (regardless of any verbal aggressiveness), I consider that officer has failed in his duty. But what truly disturbs me is not that it inevitably happens - we're all human - but that it can be excused and abetted when it happens so blatantly. When the testimonies of those guards present not only don't match but contradict, when the guy laying on the ground covered in mace and his own blood gets dragged through the courts and convicted of a felony, when the officer who put him there does not even get an official reprimand let alone arrested himself... it has gone way past one officer losing his temper and making a mistake.
- Sabriel



The fault with the statements above is that they equate police officers with DHS guards. Despite having been on the wrong side of the law many times, I do believe that the vast majority of police officers are honest folks who foster good relations with their citizens and have honest intent(the only bad publicity seems to come from Los Angeles, with its officers up against crotch-grabbers [] and coked-up madmen using babies for human shields []). I also agree that they're not out to cause trouble because they want to go home to their families without any bullshit.

However - DHS guards are not police officers. They are glorified security guards gone mad with the power they attained in the wake of 9/11. The vast majority of them face no danger, and the last one to be shot to death(since the '80's) passed under mysterious circumstances with his gun stolen, an obvious cover-up. [....]

- Ethanol-fueled

but what trained officers are supposed to do is expect the subject to do the worst possible thing...

No. Not even soldiers are trained to do that. Civilian law enforcement is trained to use good judgement. It is more important to know when NOT to shoot than it is to know when TO shoot. Keep running Mad Max fantasies through your head like anyone who COULD pull a gun WILL pull a gun, and you end up shooting a kid for no good reason like one ex-officer I personally know.

If you haven't been in a situation where a person wants to argue with cops and then for some unknown reason pulls out a gun,

Here's another nonsense argument I'm sick of. Since you're pressing the point, yes, I have been shot at. No, it's not pleasant at all. No, the fear that someone MIGHT take a shot at you is no excuse for beating civilians bloody. -jeko

All this reminds me of this interesting 40-minute educational video: 10 Rules for Dealing with Police. Stay safe out there!