Wednesday, May 31, 2006

Condi Rice and Walt Whitman

Today I was listening to Condi Rice being interviewed on a friendly talk radio show and heard her say something along the lines of "Had we but world enough, as Walt Whitman said."

"Had we but world enough and time/This coyness, Lady, were no crime" is the beginning of "To His Coy Mistress" by Andrew Marvell, who died about a century and a half before Whitman was born. There is no good reason why the Secretary of State should have a literary education, but it's odd to see her apparently faking one. If we assume the line was provided by a speech writer, it's odder still that he wouldn't have checked the source of the quote.

All of which reflects one of the many things that bothers me about our educational system. Considerable parts of it appear designed to teach people to pretend to intellectual tastes and knowledge that they do not possess and that there is no good reason why they should possess.

I will now wait for some Whitman enthusiast to find the line echoed somewhere in Whitman, and accuse me of lacking a literary education.

Monday, May 29, 2006

The Death of Copyright, New Art Forms, and World of Warcraft

There are at least three different ways in which the creator of intellectual property can get paid: Legal control over access, technological control over access, uncontrolled access with tie-ins. Copyright law is an example of the first, the Lexis legal database of the second, advertising revenue from radio programs and web pages the third.

Intellectual property in digital form is easy to copy. In a networked world, it is also easy to distribute. It is therefore likely that copyright enforcement will become increasingly difficult. Tie-ins are a good solution for some forms of intellectual property but not for all. That leaves technological protection, ways of selling access to intellectual property without letting the purchaser reproduce it.

There is an important limit to such protection: It only works for forms of I.P. that are not entirely revealed in one use. However strong the encryption on the digital file containing your song, a customer can still tape record it when he plays it—or record the signals his computer is sending to its speaker, thus eliminating the sonic middleman. However well encrypted your novel, I can still, if I really want to, photograph my screen as I read it and run the pictures through OCR software.

There are other forms of I.P. that are not fully revealed in one use. What I get from Lexis or Westlaw is not a download of their database but the answer to a query. I can make a copy for a colleague but it is unlikely to be of much use to him, since he wants answers to different questions than I do. A computer program can be similarly protected, by running it on a webbed server and selling not copies but access.

A movie is fully revealed in one use. But one can imagine movie substitutes that are not. When I first thought of the idea, I was imagining a movie that could be viewed from many different angles, at the user's option. Listen to the bad guys plotting—at the cost of missing whatever else is going on at the same time. Watch the same film again tomorrow, seeing different things. A sufficiently rich version could be both an interesting new art form and a protectable form of intellectual property.

While discussing the idea this weekend with sf author Jerry Pournelle—we were both on a panel at Baycon—it occurred to me that such an artform already existed. Indeed, I am already a customer. World of Warcraft and similar massively multiplayer online games are movie substitutes. Unlike a movie, the game is not fully revealed on one play. You can "film" today's quest—but if you want to do another quest tomorrow you will have to pay Blizzard for the privilege.

As increasing bandwidth makes it more and more difficult to protect movies by either legal or technological means, I expect that we will see more and more of a shift away from conventional movies towards substitutes that, like games, are different each time you play them.

There is, however, a countervailing effect. As it becomes easier and easier to replace actors with computer generated images, the cost of making movies, even quite elaborate movies, will fall. For the net result, stay tuned—for the next decade or so.

Wednesday, May 24, 2006

Amazon as Marketing Data publishes rankings of books; they appear to be based on sales over a fairly short time span, perhaps a day. It occured to me some time ago that it ought to be possible to use that information to measure the effect of reviews coming out, advertising, talk radio interviews, and the like, information that should be useful to publishers trying to sell books.

I am now doing the experiment. Yesterday published a column of mine and included links to both my web site and the book's web site. My ISP provides information on how many hits each of my pages gets, Amazon on how my sales are doing. By looking at those two measures, one showing attention and one sales, and seeing how they were affected by the Forbes column, I can get some idea of to what degree publicity for my non-fiction work helps sell my novel.

So far it looks as though it does. Daily hits on the book web page for the week before the column appeared ranged from 22 to 39. Yesterday—the column appeared at 3 P.M. EST—the page got 83 hits. The effect is small relative to the number of people reading Forbes—they didn't all go to the web page and then order the book, unfortunately—but substantial relative to the level of attention the page usually gets. So far today it has gotten 58 hits.

The results from Amazon are also positive, although my ranking there bounces around so much that it's hard to interpret them. Today's is at least down to five digits, which isn't impressive but is an improvement over yesterday and many past days.

All of which suggests a business opportunity for Amazon, selling daily or hourly data on book sales to publishers interested in improving their marketing. Of course, for all I know, they may already be doing it.

And if any talk radio hosts happen to be reading this, and looking for a guest ... .

Tuesday, May 23, 2006

Planning Too Far Ahead

"There are engineering questions about the massive storage repository proposed for the Nevada desert. Certainty about its ability to keep groundwater supplies safe falls off after about 10,000 years—while the facility needs to function as planned for several hundred thousands of years."

The quote is from an interesting article on global warming and ways of dealing with it in the latest issue of Harvard Magazine. The context is a discussion of problems in storing nuclear waste as one limit to increases in the role of nuclear power.

To me, at least, the idea of worrying about effects more than ten thousand years out is so absurd as to be marginally sane. Nobody alive knows whether our species will still exist in ten thousand years, if it exists if most humans will still live on earth, or if we still live on earth what sort of society, economy and technology we will have. If things do continue more or less along current lines—not, in my view, very likely—ten thousand years of economic growth would give us a society for which a little radioactivity in Nevada groundwater would be a trivial problem. If we assume a 1% annual rate of growth in per capita real income, it takes only about 2300 years to bring the income of the average individual up to the current income of the world.

Worrying about problems ten thousand years out is particularly odd given that nuclear power is being discussed as a way of limiting global warming. Elsewhere in the article, in the context of a time horizon of 100 to 500 years, another source suggests the possibility of sea level rises of over 200 feet. I am reluctant to trust extrapolations that far out as well—but compared to 10,000 years, a hundred years is practically as close as next Thursday. And drowning areas containing a considerable fraction of the population of the globe would be a slightly more serious problem than contamination of the Nevada water table.

Monday, May 22, 2006

Schools, Cameras and Computers

One of my sources of computer information is the web site Macintouch. After the new Mac laptops came out, one reader suggested that the built-in camera would be a deal killer for school purchases, that schools would be unwilling to buy, or have parents buy, a laptop with a camera unless the camera could be disabled.

In the course of the discussion, a couple of explanations for such a policy were offered. One poster wrote that:

"The problem comes from the camera being with every student, all the time. It would become a dominant form of communication and K-12 students, as a group, do not have the mental filters in place to prevent trouble. MySpace proved this. Taking them out lets the kids know that you are concerned about their safety and kids do understand that."

Precisely what is unsafe about taking pictures was not explained. Perhaps I'm missing something, but to me the comment had a distinctly Orwellian tone. Big Brother cares about your safety.

Another poster wrote:

"By providing access to unsupervised video recording technology, a school can possibly open itself up serious legal problems if a child does something beyond the pale, even with the strictest of Acceptable Use Policies in effect."

That one reminds me of the Los Angeles Police Force, which no doubt has a similar attitude to the danger of video recordings of what it is doing. Surely there is something seriously wrong if the best solution to children doing "something beyond the pale" is making sure that no evidence of their doing so survives to reach a court.

Of course, it might be either something wrong with the schools or something wrong with the courts.

Comments? Would anyone involved with K-12 schooling like to give a more detailed explanation of why schools would strongly object to their students having cameras built into their laptops?

Thursday, May 18, 2006

Can Judges be Criminally Negligent?

I have just reread an interesting law case: Davis v. Wyeth Laboratories, Inc., 399 F.2d 121 (9th Cir.(Idaho) Jan 22, 1968), in which the Ninth Circuit found Wyeth liable for the failure to adequately warn of the risk of polio vaccination.

The vaccine itself was judged unavoidably hazardous. The argument hinged on whether, if warned, Davis might reasonably have chosen not to be vaccinated. In answering it, the court wrote: "Thus appellant's risk of contracting the disease without immunization was about as great (or small) as his risk of contracting it from the vaccine. Under these circumstances we cannot agree with appellee that the choice to take the vaccine was clear."

They reached this conclusion by comparing the 0.9 in a million chance of getting polio from the vaccination with the 0.9 in a million annual rate of adult polio from natural causes. Since vaccination provides lifetime protection, the relevant comparison is to lifetime risk, not annual risk. The court thus made a mathematical error of more than an order of magnitude and by so doing set a precedent which discouraged future development of vaccines. While one cannot make any accurate estimate of the cost in lives of doing so, it was surely large.

I presume that a corporation which made an error that a bright high school student would have been ashamed to make, and as a result imposed enormous costs on other people, would suffer serious legal penalties. It is tempting to argue that what is sauce for the corporate goose should also be sauce for the judicial gander.

Tuesday, May 16, 2006

The NSA's Day in Court?

Some time back, I had a post discussing the problem of dealing with illegal acts by government in the context of NSA's apparent violation of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act. The act provides substantial criminal penalties for its violation. But criminal prosecution is controlled by government, in this case the federal government, which can choose not to prosecute crimes it approves of.

The act also provides civil penalties for its violation, but in order to get them you have to show that your phone was tapped in violation of the law—and the NSA has, not surprisingly, declined to make public the list of tapped phones. I suggested a possible way around that problem, but so far nobody I know of has tried it, and it might well not work.

The latest story on arguably illegal acts by the NSA—obtaining information from phone companies in apparent violation of the Communications Act—may provide a solution. If the news stories are correct, it sounds as though all customers of at least two of the major phone companies have claims for damages under the act. While such a suit would not bear directly on the NSA interceptions revealed earlier, it would raise, and hopefully settle, the same legal issues. So far as I can tell, the defense would have to argue either that the Communications Act was implicitly amended by the congressional authorization of the use of force or that Congress cannot restrict the President in his war making activities—the two arguments offered in defense of wiretapping in violation of FISA. If the Court rejects those arguments, as I would hope it would, that raises serious problems for NSA and the Administration.

Monday, May 15, 2006

Product I Would Like To See

I have a page on my web site listing ideas for products. One I haven't put there yet, but that seems obvious, is a PDA with a camera and built in OCR software. Lots of PDA's have cameras that would be adequate for photographing a page of text. The high end ones have respectable processors, even if not up to current desktops and laptops. Think how convenient it would be if you could photograph a page, or part of a page, of a book, and have the PDA turn it into text.

Thursday, May 04, 2006

Politics as Humor

Mencken comments somewhere that Congress is worth its salary as a source of entertainment. Along similar lines, I was amused by the latest trivial twist in immigration rhetoric.

Someone brought out a Spanish language version of The Star Spangled Banner.

President Bush made the obligatory nationalist noises to the effect that it ought to be sung in English.

Someone offered evidence that Bush himself had, in the past, sung The Star Spangled Banner in Spanish, presumably as part of his efforts to woo hispanic voters.

At that point, I think the best thing the White House could say would be nothing at all.

Instead ...

White House spokesman Scott McClellan said the assertion did not ring true to him because, "The president speaks Spanish, but not that well."

Not only do we have a White House spokesman deprecating the abilities of his boss in order to defend against a charge of inconsistency, he is doing it in a fashion that no reasonable person will believe. I don't speak any Spanish at all. But given a little practice and a desire for Hispanic votes I could learn to sing the Star Spangled Banner in Spanish, especially with the help of other singers who did know the language.

At least, I could if I could sing. And they haven't yet denied that Bush can sing.

Wednesday, May 03, 2006

Why Mexico?

It appears that Mexico is about to legalize currently illegal drugs, ranging from marijuana to heroin, for individual possession and use although not for sale. While I am, of course, in favor of legalization–would want it carried further–I remain puzzled about why it is happening. Is Mexico suffering under a sudden attack of sanity or is there something about its current political situation that I am missing?

Tuesday, May 02, 2006

Wanted: Bad Economics

I have an idea for a book, although I'm not sure if I will write it. The title is "Bad Economics." To write it, I make a large collection of examples of economic errors--get rich quick schemes, news stories, political speeches, et. al. Then explain why they are wrong and in the process teach the relevant principles.

Any opinions on whether it would work? If you like the idea, feel free to contribute examples of bad economics, either as comments to this post or as emails to me. And if you happen to find bits of good economics by non-economists with good economic intuition, send them in too--I'm thinking of a short bit at the end of each chapter labelled "Diamonds from the Dungheap."

Doing the Right Thing

Yesterday I was listening to a radio talk show host discuss immigration. He pointed out that a lot of illegal immigrants are hired by home owners to do casual labor. He then asked his listeners to imagine they had a grand piano to move, an illegal would do it for $40, and an American citizen, perhaps the kid next door, for $100. Would the listener save money by hiring the illegal or do the right thing by hiring the citizen?

My response, if I had been able to get through, would have been that I would have done the right thing—by hiring the illegal, who almost certainly has more need for the money than the kid next door.

Unless I missed it, the sole argument that the host offered for his unstated assumption that hiring the kid was obviously the right thing was that hiring the illegal immigrant was illegal. My response would be to ask the host if he ever drove faster than the speed limit and if he tasted wine or beer before he reached the legal drinking age. If his answer to both questions was "no," he is in a very small minority of Americans.

If it was "yes," as I expect it would have been, I would next have asked how he would defend himself against the charge of hypocrisy.

In the America I live in, despite political rhetoric to the contrary, most people believe in obeying laws selectively–ignoring the ones they think are foolish or wicked except when the risk of getting caught makes it more prudent to obey.

When I told the story to my wife, she offered another question to put to the host. It is 1855, the fugitive slave law is the law of the land. Do you help with the underground railway or do you do "the right thing" and turn in any escaped slaves who come your way?