Category Archives: Technology and Society

Value Freedom of Speech? Donate to Wikipedia

Just in case you haven’t been on the Internet in the last month, SOPA and PIPA are two laws that were working their way through the US legislature that would have brought sweeping powers to pretty much anybody to block sites on the Internet that they asserted were guilty of copyright infringement. These laws would have made the US into an Internet censorship regime that— even according to the backers of the law!— would be on par with Syria or China. You can read more about SOPA and PIPA here at the EFF and here at Wikipedia. They are now on hold (but, sadly, not dead), and the lion’s share of the credit for that belongs to Wikipedia. If you care about this (and as somebody currently reading something on the Internet not produced under the aegis of a large media company, you really should!), you should consider donating to Wikipedia. Some may credit Google with part of getting this message across to Congress, and doubtless Google deserves some credit. However, it was Wikipedia that went fully dark, and it was immediately after that event on Jan. 18 that Congress stepped back. What’s more, Google is doing just fine; they have a gigantic revenue from their advertising business. Wikipedia is much more dependent on donations. After you’re done donating to Wikipedia, also consider donating to The Electronic Frontier Foundation.

I just donated $100 myself. That’s not very much. Indeed, I’m sure that I have received a lot more than $100 worth of value out of Wikipedia in the last decade. But, every little bit counts.

Defenders of SOPA and PIPA say that fears of the law have been overblown. However, if misinformation about the law has been spread, it’s by the backers themselves. Their claims of “lost American jobs” have not been supported, and there is evidence that they overestimate the “lost revenue” to piracy by at least an order of magnitude. What’s more, while the backers disingenuously state that the laws are directed against “rogue foreign websites” and not against legitimate US users of the Internet, already we see copyright laws routinely abused to take down legitimate content on the web— if not through the full mechanism of the law, through the threat of legal action. See the repository of information at chillingeffects.org for huge numbers of stories about this. It would be absurd to believe that tools like SOPA and PIPA, which would make this kind of squelching of the expression of soembody you don’t like that much easier, would not only be abused more. For those who argue that intellectual property needs stronger protections: right now there is indeed an imbalance between laws that allow for copyright enforcement and freedom of expression, and that imbalance does not favor freedom of expression!

People like me were howling (well, tweeting, with the occasional signed petition or letter to a legislator) in rage about SOPA and PIPA at the end of last year, but Congress was by and large ignoring it. They had their Hollywood lobbyists telling them that it was all necessary… whether that was necessary for the “survival of American competitiveness”, or whether it was just necessary for the re-election of legislators is not clear. Certainly the latter; in public they said the former, but my cynicism grows every day. (Indeed, very recently the head of the MPAA more or less admitted in public that he expects lawmakers to provide him with legislation he demands in exchange for his organization’s campaign donations.) Indeed, Congress celebrated their ignorance about the Internet and completely refused to pay any attention to Internet experts telling them about the technical and security problems that SOPA and PIPA would bring. (Never mind fundamental issues of freedom of expression… which somehow doesn’t seem to be a legitimate thing to bring up in the face of concerns about “jobs”, “the economy”, or “terrorism” any more.) I believe that the perception in Congress was that most of the public weren’t really all that aware of copyright issues, and didn’t care that much; indeed, they said that it was a “vocal minority” arguing against it. They evidently believed that just giving Big Media the laws that they wanted was a great way to secure a source of campaign funding without doing something that might torque off the general public. (“Oops!”)

It was only after great public outcry, spurred on by the Wikipedia blackout (and several other sites) on January 18, that Congress woke up and changed its tune. It’s ironic that the MPAA has accused Wikipedia of “abusing its power”. Evidently Wikipedia is supposed to purchase legislation directly, the way that the MPAA does. Informing the public of what’s going on so that they will realize that if they care at all about freedom, they need to make their voice heard, is somehow an abuse of power. If that’s not an indication that large congressional campaign donors have completely warped the standard process of how laws are made in the USA, I don’t know what is. (To read more about how bad the routine corruption in the USA is as a result of large campaign contributors having primary access to lawmakers, and the pipeline of legislators and their staffers getting cushy lobbying jobs after helping organizations get the laws they want, check out the Rootstrikers website. Also, although I have not read this yet myself, it’s probably worth reading Lawrence Lessig’s book Republic, Lost.)

Donate to Wikipedia. Better, remember that SOPA and PIPA have just slowed down, not stopped. It’s going to take vigilance to prevent them from passing later. It’s likely that next time Congress and Big Content try to get them through, they’ll do it in a more stealthy manner. It may well be attached to a routine appropriations bill, much as the reprehensible “infinite detention” clause was recently attached to a routine defense appropriations bill (passed by Congress and signed by the President). The fight is far from over, even if we came out ahead in the latest skirmish.

Indeed, next time you’re about to buy a big-studio Hollywood DVD or go to a big-studio Hollywood movie, pause and think. Realize that the myopic leadership of the MPAA (the same group that decades ago fought tooth and nail against the VCR, fighting against their own interests as they would profit greatly from the new market that home video players would bring) is going to keep trying to push draconian laws limiting freedom of speech on the Internet in the name of “protecting intellectual property”. Ask yourself if the value you will get out of that DVD or watching that movie really is worth more than the value you get out of Wikipedia. Ask yourself if you want to indirectly support an organization that is fighting to maintain a 20th century model where broadcast expression was practically subject to a small number of gatekeepers (only then it was practically, and now it would be legally), or if you would rather directly support an organization that has made an amazing (if imperfect) crowd-sourced knowledge repository available to the world for fully free access (in every sense of the word “free”). Then, consider not buying the DVD or going to the movie, and instead donating the money to Wikipedia.

SpotOn3D a bigger menace to virtual worlds than we realized

Not much of a surprise, given that their CEO is a patent attorney, but SpotOn3D is actively pissing all over the virtual world space, trying to claim proprietary rights on lots of ideas for doing things in virtual worlds. As I mentioned in a previous post, software patents are bullshit, and are also a threat. They stifle innovation, because ideas— often broad ideas that are obvious extensions of what already exists— are given government monopolies. Even if the patent would be overturned in court, the mere threat of patent litigation is enough to deter small companies or individuals, who can’t afford to defend themselves, from doing things. At best, they pay protection money to the patent bully defending it; at worst, competitors can be stopped from competing (as Apple is often trying to do with Android-based phones).

It turns out that SpotOn3D has applied for five patents already, and intends to apply for many more.

That makes SpotOn3D at the moment one of the greatest threats to the future development of an interoperable future metaverse. Yes, Tessa Kinny-Johnson may get all teary about being attacked and think that she’s not being appreciated for the development that her company is doing, but make no mistake. Software patents, in a business and software ecosystem dominated by Linden Lab (hardly a corporate behemoth themselves), are a greater danger than they are anywhere else— and they get in the way of innovation everywhere. As such, it doesn’t matter how emotional she gets, she needs to understand that her company is being actively destructive to the development of virtual worlds. More importantly, the community as a whole needs to understand that SpotOn3D is destructive, and Kinny-Johnson and others there need to realize the community understands that.

If they’re going to be patent trolls, if they’re effectively going to try to play the roll of SCO to Linux (who, thankfully, didn’t do much, but then again Linux was already a juggernaut when they showed up), then we’re going to have to call them out in the open as the bad actors that they are. We cannot allow them to hide behind claims of innovation and development, when what they’re really doing is trying to acquire solitary rights of refusal and taxation on innovation and development in the virtual world domain.

I call on all users to boycott SpotOn3D. Don’t give that grid an audience so that it’s worth it for people to buy regions there. I call on all people with regions to move their regions to other grids; look for a grid that provides service, or a grid that’s not supporting a company that’s trying to grab rights of refusal for future virtual world development. And, I call on the developers and other non-lawyer employees of SpotOn3D to go get a job with an ethical company. The OpenSim community cannot afford to allow the patent minefield to grow. That, however, is what SpotOn3D is actively doing. The degree to which they are a menace cannot be over-emphasized. They need to be rejected by the community. We need them to go out of business as soon as possible before they can apply for more patents that we’ll be forced to deal with for the next two decades. What’s more, other companies who might be considering the same sort of “build our investment portfolio” kind of behavior must see that our community will not tolerate this behavior from companies. SpotOn3D must be seen to suffer, and soon, so that other virtual world companies will hesitate before joining the patent fracas.

“Galaxies in Collision” : public online talk today at 10:00AM PDT

As of this writing, in just over an hour I’ll be giving a talk in Second Life on the topic “Galaxies in Collision”.

Second Life is an online virtual world. Basic accounts in Second Life are free. I regularly give these talks as a part of MICA, the Meta-Institution of Computational Astronomy. Most Saturday mornings at 10AM pacific time (17:00 UT if we’re during Daylight Savings), MICA has a public outreach astronomy talk. (However, like many academic institutions, we tend to slow down and get spotty over the summer.)

This talk will be at the MICA Large Amphitheater.

The problem with lawyer-driven society in a nutshell

This post on Boing-Boing includes the following quote that summarizes the pathological extreme of lawyer-driven society, a pathological extreme that we see too often in our current society:

The reason given was that the potential liabilities involved haven’t been settled by a definitive SCOTUS ruling. Which is absolutely true, of course. Just as it is true that the risk of exploring the pyramids hasn’t been conclusively settled until we’ve proven that we won’t be attacked there by golden unicorns.

In my (admittedly limited) observations, corporate lawyers (which, I believe, represent the vast majority of legal work out there— far more than Perry Mason style courtroom lawyering) exist to do two things.

The first thing they do is try to write contracts and other similar things that grab absolutely as much control for their employer as possible. When dealing with other corporations, they have to battle other lawyers, but when dealing with individuals who can’t afford their own phalanx of lawyers, they usually write egregious things like “Terms of Service” on software and severance agreements that include terms nobody who believes in the principles of the United States should agree to, but that we all agree to as a matter of course all the time just because it’s become standard operating procedure.

The second, less sinister but just as harmful, thing that they do is sit around and play paranoid. They think of where their company might get into legal trouble, where there might be liabilities, and then they advise their company on policies that will hopefully avert any such potential liabilities. Here, they’re doing their job; they’re telling companies what could go wrong. The problem is, just as with our reaction to fears of terrorism, in our society we tend to hear about these things going wrong, and squeeze off all sorts of expression and creativity out of paranoia. Or, if sometimes those things do really go wrong, seemingly undermining my calling them “paranoia”, they don’t really evaluate the cost of the downsides of policies that stop that thing from going wrong again.

Yeah, lots of the things lots of us do, and lots of the things it would be really neat for companies to do, could potentially expose them to all sorts of liabilities. And, yeah, it’s useful to have lawyers around to tell them what the laws really are (since, alas, we live in a society where it takes years of training to understand the laws) and where things might go wrong. But then, sometimes, you have to be willing to take risks. Sometimes, you have to say, yeah, there’s no case law that says we’ll be safe if we do that, but let’s try it anyway because the potential benefits could be great.

Too often, though, we don’t do that.

Kind of odd for me as a not-risk-taker to be saying this, but I’ve seen this happen enough times that it just makes me sad that we’ve taken what should be a service— the advice of lawyers about the state of the law— and have turned it into a gigantic ballast that prevents us from flying.

Living La Vida Ludic

I was at SLCC a couple of weeks ago. One thing I noticed was that most of the most interesting and exciting stuff going on was related to education. Some of that was self-filtering– that’s where I went– but there’s no denying there was quite an education buzz.

One of my favorite talks was given by Barry Joseph of Global Kids, and was entitled Why second Life Can’t Tip: the Power and Perils of Living La Vida Ludic. I suspect that the whole not-tipping business was in the title to get people to want to come to the talk, but I have to admit that I found that part of the talk less interesting, and perhaps even borderline irrelevant.

However, the concept of La Vida Ludic is something that really grabbed me, partly because I hadn’t seen it layed out clearly and definitively before… yet, in the concepts, I recognized something in the way that I live my life.

Briefly speaking, “ludic” is derived from a latin (I think) word for games. As such, “La Vida Ludic” is the “game life”, or “playing at life.” Barry Joseph talks about how in our culture, we tend to have a very strict separation between work and play. One great example he gave was elemetary school. There’s a place for work– the classroom– and a place for play– recess. If you try to play in the work context, you get in trouble (he showed an image of a kid sitting in the corner wearing a dunce cap). Likewise, if you try to work in the play context, you also get in trouble (other kids harass for being a nerd and bringing boring work stuff into the play environment).

He went on to describe Global Kids’ way of educating kids leaning heavily on work in Second Life, and showed how a lot of the activites they do have serious mixing of work and play… and yet, because of that mixing, the learning may perhaps be stronger than it would have if we were too serious to be willing to include play in it.

I think I have long lived, or tried to live, my life with the philosophy that my work should feel like play. This is why I majored in physics when I was in college; I was going to major in engineering, but physics was just more fun to me. As I became a professional astronomer, I also picked up a hobby as an amateur astronomer. (I didn’t do any telescope observing before my last couple years of college, and only got my amateur telescope after graduating from college.) I’ve always wanted to be doing something that I enjoyed doing, so that at least some fraction of my work would feel like play. (I know it’s inevitable that some of work won’t… but, then again, some of my play (hobbies, etc.) feels like drudgery too!))

One of the reasons moving to Linden as a system engineer was appealing to me was that sometimes I would use adminstering my machines and writing code as a way of procrastinating “real work” when I was an astronomer. Mind you, this was still real work, as it was stuff that needed to be done, but I was more of a computer nerd than one really needs to be as an astronomer. Just as I enjoyed playing with data, as I enjoyed playing with the science in my classes and going on stage to teach, I also enjoyed playing around with computers.

A few months ago, I was at a “MoonLab” meeting in-world (“MoonLab” being the “lab” where those of us who are remote work). Some people were saying how they’ve set aside specific workspace in their homes– some computers dedicated to working, and when they’re at that computer, they’re “at work”. They have other comptuers they play with. To me, this has always seemed unnatural. First of all, maintaining all those extra computers seems like a lot of effort, not to mention costing space. But, beyond that, it just seems unnatural to me.

I’ve long mixed work and play, in my mind, with my time, and in my approach to life. And, it feels more human, more natural, to me to do it this way. When I’ve heard IT policies that strictly prohibit personal use of work comptuers, I think, are these people in touch with real people? I was told that once at LBNL, you weren’t allowed to make even local personal calls from desk phones; you had to go out to a payphone. Hello? Not only is that dehumanizing, it’s inefficient (people spend more time making their local calls). (When I was there, LBNL had a more human personal use policy for comptuers– do as thou wilt as long as (a) you don’t do anything naughty (e.g. porn), and (b) you don’t put an undue load on LBNL resources.) On the flip side, before I moved the Supernova Cosmology Project database from a very creaky and problematic flat file system to a PostGreSQL database, I installed and played with PostGreSQL on my machine at home to understand how it worked. I’ve done data reduction and work on my own computers. To force myself to keep it all separate would be especially hard now that I work from home, but was unnatural even when I worked at LBNL or Vanderbilt.

In Joseph’s talk, he talked about how doing things in Second Life naturally leads to a Ludic life. After all, Second Life does use technology that you primarily see only in a gaming environment. Many people are still under the misapprehension that Second Life is in fact a game. But even though it’s not, there’s no doubt that there are playful aspects to it. I sometimes go around as a dinosaur…. Sometime soon I’ll post some photos I’ve taken here of work meetings, and the morphologies with which people show up to those meetings.

The sad thing is, our culture and legal system is fundamentally hostile to the ludic life. I suppose I could write some fraction of my computer, laptop, office space, etc., off of my taxes, but I never will do so… for to do so legally, I would have to strictly use it for work and not also play, and that would put more of a damper on my lifestyle than any tax break I would get would be worth. I got into trouble because the first time I did a play in-world, I billed myself as Prospero Linden– figuring that since we’re all encouraged to be in-world and interact in-world, this could only be good press. Besides, it was just me doing stuff. But, alas, I got reprimanded for that, because it’s a work account and when I’m using it I’m representing the lab. And they’re right; the business could be held responsible for things I do in that form… but, unfortunately, it also means that one has to keep one’s work and one’s play separate.

Signing digital documents : technology transitions that don’t make sense

My wife had knee surgery today.  (All went well.  She’s now in recovery.)  As we were in admission, we went through various things with the hospital worker.  At some points along the line, my wife had to sign some documents.  One was permission to treat and to tell our insurance about it.  Another was notification of having received a “Patient’s Rights” document.  Another was some Medicare form or another.

Rather than doing everything on paper, the signatures were all kept in documents on the computer.  And, here’s how they were done : there was one of those little “signature” widgets that you may have seen in stores where you can swipe your credit card, only here there was just the screen for the signature.   The woman, facing us and looking at her monitor (which we could not see), would ask my wife to sign something, and say, “OK, you’re signing now to say that you received this document,” or some such.

If you sit back and think about this, none of this makes any sense at all.

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