Wednesday, May 29, 2002

Is it really Hollywood vs Silicon Valley in the IP argument? Claire Tristram calls it a "feud between northern and southern California". I had thought this was a typical media attempt to make news more exciting by dramatizing the conflict and simplifyingthe players. However it really seems like two monoliths facing off.

Hollywood initially tried to work directly with computer and software companies to develop machines that prevent copying of copyright-protected material, or to prevent playing illegally copied material. When the direct approach didn't work well enough, Hollywood lobbied for legislation (Holling's SSSCA bill) to force computer companies to produce copyright-protecting computers.

Who is "Hollywood"? Is it as monolithic as it is made to appear? The most named players are:
  • Michael Eisner (Disney), suggesting that computer companies are making too much money from IP piracy to be serious about fighting it.
  • Jack Valenti, CEO of the Motion Picture Ass'n of America, who predicts catastrophe for Hollywood's products, using words like "cannibalized", saying nobody will invest venture capital in movies if they can be stolen.
  • Peter Chernin, COO of News Corporation (including Fox), testified that "American books, movies,television and music are among our most successful products overseas; but if they cannotbe protected from unlawful copying, their export value would shrink to nothing"... "broadcasters will be forced to come to Congress to ask that a DTV solution be imposed on the CE and IT industries"

On the other side of the debate:
  • Gateway CEO Ted Waitt was asked "Why don't Hollywood and Silicon Valley better understand each other? " He answered "They speak different languages. The entertainment industry always chooses to fight things out through the courts and legislation. Technology people always think there's a business solution."
  • Intel has had several top people come out against SSSCA. Andy Grove said "What's most frustrating is that we've worked with the entertainment industry for six years trying to forge a consensus on copyright technologies, and we've failed to change their ideas."
  • Bill Gates has criticised Disney for resisting new technology

Anybody know of notable exceptions? Hollywood high-ups that oppose Hollings? Computer company CEOs who support the bill? I'd be interested to know.

Tuesday, May 21, 2002

If you haven't seen Jonathan Last's Case for the [Star Wars] Empire, it's very funny. And it's not a bad case either. It's not that Emporer Palpatine is a completely benevolent tyrant, it's that the Republic that preceded it wasn't great either. And the Rebels, most notably Princess Leia, are fighting for a return of the genetically privileged elite to power. They're royalists in the clothes of republican rebels. But of course Lucas was more interested in mythology than reality, and we love Star Wars all the more for that.
Science reporting can suffer from a problem I hadn't even considered: that of citing retracted studies. A study of 235 retracted scientific journal articles showed that these articles were cited 2034 times after being retracted (in addition to being cited before being retracted). Let's hope that study hasn't been retracted.
Now that Title IX is being relaxed, many columnists are wondering if more choice is a good thing. On both sides:What the columnists who oppose any segregation don't mention is that a few boys-only or girls-only schools isn't segregation if the students and their parents have a choice to go to integrated schools instead. Luckily with the boy-vs-girl problem, parents of boys aren't likely to be in a different socio-economic grouping than parents of girls, or to live in different neighbourhoods. So it's misleading or worse to compare same-sex classrooms to the forced segregation of black students in poor inner-city schools.

There's a potential problem promoting choice as well. The problem is that when one segment of a population is allowed free choice, it can lead to lack of choice for another segment. Imagine if separate schooling were so beneficial for boys that all parents chose segregated schools for their boys education. However, if integrated schooling were better for girls, then parents of girls wouldn't be able to choose integrated schools for their girls - no boys would go to integrated schools, leaving them effectively girl-only schools. Well, we're a long way from seeing that happen, in fact we have no evidence that this is likely. And this is the real problem: we have no evidence. A little more flexibility, at least for now, seems like a good way to gather more evidence.

Wednesday, May 15, 2002

The Instant Messaging standards proposal, based on SIP (Session Initiation Protocol) has just gone to IETF (Internet Engineering Task Force) last call, before being made a standard. You're probably not as excited about this as I am, but you might like to know.

What this means is that the same infrastructure that was designed for Internet phones and real-time conferencing, voice and video, will also likely be used for little ol' text messages. There is a drawback: the infrastructure for voice and video is difficult to put in place. The well-known port for SIP is 5060, and any protocol that doesn't use port 80 has trouble getting started because many firewalls block ports by default. On the other hand, there may eventually be an advantage to integrating these protocols because it should lead to better integration of presence information.

Presence information is pretty key to successful instant messaging. It's much easier to know when to pop off a quick text message if you know the person is tuned in. Right now presence information is rather unsophisticated: you can be online and active with your IM client, or away, idle, or completely offline. What this doesn't provide is any awareness of non-IM activity: whether you're on the phone, in a chat room, in a video conference, etc. Current IM clients don't show if you've just stepped out of the office, or if you've allowed your screen to go blank because you're reading a magazine. This is all information you might decide to feed into your presence information for those you allow to know your status, in order to help them decide how best to communicate with you. Integration with some of these other activities at a protocol level isn't necessary to integration in presence information, but I hope it helps.

Tuesday, May 14, 2002

There's a fine line between reality and satire. They've got links to Amnesty International as a possible "terrorist sympathizer group". Read the "most wanted" names most carefully.
Instant Messaging (IM) interoperability has long frustrated me. A bit of history: In 1997-98, I worked directly on IM standards at the Internet Engineering Task Force. Five years later, there has been some progress on standards but little on real interoperability. Clients like Trillian can support the AOL protocol in addition to the MSN protocol, the Yahoo protocol, IRQ's protocol and IRC, but you can imagine how much work it is -- and how frustrating when AOL takes action to block clients like Trillian.

Is there any hope for change? There's no technical reason IM can't be as interoperable as email, it's business reasons that hold implementors back. All the big IM services currently benefit from keeping consumer customers locked in and viewing ads, but business use could be a bigger revenue stream and business customers may encourage interoperability. EDS recently tried to block IM, only to face an uprising from staff using IM software to communicate with customers. You can't block such useful tools; if companies like EDS (and Samsung, and Alcatel) are worried about the security holes created by ad-hoc use of these tools, they must arrange for the service to be available in a secure way instead.

Yahoo, MS and AOL have all paid only lip service to the standards recently. AOL could really turn the situation around as the market leader. MS and Yahoo care most about breaking open AOLs larger user base. A Yahoo VP was recently quoted saying, shamefully, "It's important that interoperability conversations need to take place among the big three... Any other interoperability is secondary".

I'd like to point out a common type of error in the same article: it claims that a potential standard is Session Initiation Protocol (SIP), "Co-authored by Microsoft, Cisco Systems and Dynamicsoft". Ugh. In fact, the co-authors of the SIP standard are people, not companies. The four people worked for an AT&T research institute, Columbia University, CalTech and Lucent at the time. Microsoft, Cisco and Dynamicsoft employees have provided contributions to SIP and its offshoots. It's really lazy of the CNET article author to screw this up so badly when authorship attribution is so easy to look up on the RFC standard sites.

Bad User Interface design is not unique to the Web, and Web UIs are particularly difficult. However, sometimes there's no excuse. A friend reports that his regular DSL payments always result in this message: "If your service has been disrupted for non-payment, it will typically be restored within 20 minutes of payment submittal." It's ambiguous and confusing for the regular DSL service consumer to always see this message if the typical case is non-disrupted service. Why can't the payment center know whether service was disrupted before posting disturbing messages? Or at least provide more information: a Web user interface is an ideal place to put a "click here" message for more information about service disruption.

"All user interfaces must be learned. The only intuitive UI is the nipple" -- quote reported second-hand from Slashdot

Friday, May 10, 2002

Amnesty International is weakening its punches by criticizing Canada (and the US) for human rights abuses, as suggested by Margaret Wente in the Globe and Mail. In contrast to the recent thick report on Canada's "problems", "neither of these groups [Amnesty and Human Rights Watch] has called for an independent inquiry into the cult of suicide bombing, or asked how Jenin became a nest for terrorists -- the place Fatah itself called the capital of the suicide bombers. They have not asked how these things could happen in a camp that has been administered since the start by a UN relief agency. They have deplored the interception of Red Crescent ambulances by Israeli troops, but do not mention that those ambulances are used to smuggle weapons and even fighters."

The organization certainly seems to be losing sight of the bigger picture. The official report asks Canada to deal with Afghanistan a certain way, and to cease to hand [terrorist] detainees over to the US. It criticizes a few proposed Canadian anti-terrorism laws. The report criticizes the Canadian justice system, not for direct abuses, but about how abuses committed elsewhere are treated in Canadian courts. There's an entire section in about Dudley George. Major sections concern membership in international treaties, and corporate investments. The last part is about how many refugees should enter Canada and how easily.

This certainly indicates a problem with focus and credibility. Is the organization now so large and well-funded that it has groups investigating most facets of every country, good or bad? Perhaps 20 years ago the only way to get attention from a Western reader concerning some African massacre was to make the news "local" by criticizing some Western company for association with the massacre. This reasoning would have initiated the groups responsible for watching Canada's record. However, in the long run, the organization can't issue press reports about Sudanese massacres and also about Dudley George and maintain the same kind of attention for each.

Wente's criticism seems to be even harsher: that these organizations have become "blind in one eye". Some groups get a free pass for human rights abuses. Is it their skin colour? Wente doesn't propose what the criteria is to get a free pass, but others have speculated. It could be different standards for different racial groups, anti-Semitism, anti-Americanism, or in part that any group subject to repression or humiliation can't possibly be responsible for its own actions, even suicide bombing. Whatever the case, AI needs to work on its balance.

Wednesday, May 08, 2002

Dan Simon perfectly correctly points out that men who offer to pay on dates are most likely generous, romantic men looking to put their best foot forward and live up to society's expectations. I couldn't agree more. So I have to clarify what I meant below: it's not the generous men I have a problem with. It's not even really the calculating men (those who are out to get certain common services in return). It's the (former?) ubiquity of the custom, that has led individuals into an often inappropriate response pattern such as expecting sex when none is on offer, or expecting financial support when earning power is equal.

Indeed, men are oddly in the position of less power here. A woman can easily refuse to be paid for in part or in full, or refuse the quid pro quo. However, the man is uncomfortably stuck between appearing to be cheap and appearing to want to buy something. Not knowing whether to attempt to be generous or prove his support for equality, the man must search for clues in the words and actions of somebody he probably doesn't know too well yet. He could offend either way. So allow me to say that I'm very sorry, and ladies, let's be frank and clear early on when we prefer to go dutch, and go easy on men who don't know when to pay.

Thomas Friedman worries that the war against terrorism may threaten democracy in Indonesia. Thatcher talked about this possibility soon after 9/11. With Musharraf delaying elections in Pakistan, that becomes another country where democracy is held back possibly by US intervention.

I don't know how true or damning these charges really are. Friedman admits that US financial support for Indonesia has not dropped, and it seems the only intervention is to encourage Indonesia's army to help root out terrorism. In Pakistan, Musharraf may never have intended to allow a return to democracy no matter how the US acts.

Even if the US can't be blamed for hampering democracy, I still feel that US foreign policy must promote democracy rather than simply be neutral. While democracy is not sufficient to stifle all forms of terrorism, increased (and increasingly succesful) democracy worldwide would probably limit attacks on the US by foreign terrorists. If this is the US long-term goal, then US policy needs to support democracy first, then fight terrorism directly. Thankfully, Friedman may be wrong about whether the US government is aware of this: "We believe it is in our national interest to support Pakistan's efforts to develop into a more stable, economically sound, and better-educated society. We have a strong interest in Pakistan's elections in October and in the restoration of democracy within a constitutional framework as another way to foster stability." (US State Department).

Tuesday, May 07, 2002

Almost a third of Americans consider Canada just another state, many mistakenly think Japan and China are their biggest trading partners and most say Britain is their country's best ally, a new poll shows. Got this from the Globe and Mail site, but then was able to find the survey company's release.

The detailed results are cool. I have to wonder about the respondants who thought that Taiwan was the US's largest trading partner, or the ones who thought that Italy was.

There were noticeable gender differences in the results: men were more likely to know that Canada is the US' largest trading partner (67/364, or 18%) than women (41/427 or 10%). Guys also seem more hawkish, as many more (37 or 10%) considered Israel the US's closed friend and ally than women did (9 or 2%). The women were much more likely to say they don't know (56 or 14%) than the men (22 or 6%).

Age and riches matter two. Those perhaps old enough (55+) to remember the last world war were more likely (140/277 or 64%) to see the UK as the US's closed friend and ally, than those under 34 (118/204 or 47%), with the middle age group in the middle. Being well off had the same correlation (richer people prefer Britain?) but that data may not account for the already noted age gap. Or vice versa. Age, riches, and section of the country: none of these seemed to matter whether the largest-trading-partner question was answered correctly.

Monday, May 06, 2002

Trading cards are everywhere! It used to be sports figures. Then it blossomed out into entertainment (movies and TV shows) and games. Now you can find trading card sets of authors, mathematicians, bowlers, rabbis, solar system objects, hot-air balloons, bible stories, infectious diseases, military figures, psychedelic republicans, regular people, and even Postmodern Theorists. Now that's postmodern. And in the ultimate demonstration of recursive collectible madness, I present Beanie Baby Trading Cards.
I found an article on ZNet today epitomizing some of the things I complained about just yesterday. This article claims that in the French elections, 'The impression of a "far right upsurge" was largely an illusion.' However, the article shows no evidence this isn't wishful thinking.

The article even has a boner on voting systems, claiming "French presidential elections are vastly more democratic than the American system" and yet "even the best system can produce a fluke". One could argue that the French presidential elections are less democratic, because this time the system produced a candidate in the second round that 80% of voters didn't want. Why is Le Pen's showing a "fluke", when surely, if a similar thing happened in the US, it would be evidence of a rotten system?

I agree with Ann Marlowe that the tradition of expecting men to pay for the woman's dinner is not harmless. "As long as we construe gender as being about the flow of funds from men to women, in some deep but inescapable way all women are prostitutes, and all men are johns." A female friend of mine had extremely high expectations for the first date: the man should pick her up, select a good restaurant, pay for dinner, and then arrange and pay for some evening entertainment (at least a movie). Although she was gorgeous and devastatingly intelligent and did not have a shortage of men willing to go through this selection process, she did not meet the kind of men she deserved, and I've always thought her date requirements had something to do with it.

Sunday, May 05, 2002

Still on the subject of the French presidential election, why is it that nobody takes this opportunity to make fun of the French voting system, the way countless pundits did in the 2000 American presidential election? Back then, the Electoral College was criticized, and approval voting and instant run-off preference voting were both chic alternatives. But it should be clear from an honest examination of elections that all voting systems are to some extent subject to either strategic voting or spoiler candidates (and if examples aren't enough, there's proof). For example, if enough extreme left-wing voters honestly selected their preferred candidate in the first round rather than Jospin, this could have caused Jospin to get fewer votes than Le Pen even if Jospin would be preferred to Le Pen head-to-head. We can discuss better voting systems, but there is no clear winner. How ironic.
It seems popular to explain away votes for right-wing candidates, as if there could be no rational popular support for these candidates. This has been seen recently with Le Pen, a few years ago with Austria's Haider, and even with some moderate right-wing candidates in various countries. The denial takes different forms. With Le Pen, it was said that a "protest vote" (a vote against Chirac, not for Le Pen) accounts for his apparent popularity in the first round. Face reality -- an even larger 5.8 million voters in the second round wanted Le Pen to win. His popularity among those voters is not apparent, it's real.

Instead, why not ask if the apparent popularity of Chirac is due to comparison with Le Pen? A quote from a man among the crowds outside after the election indicates he was there not to celebrate Chirac's win, but for "l'occasion d'évacuer la colère d'avoir été obligé de voter Chirac" (ref). My rough translation: he was there to have an opportunity to release his anger at having been obliged to vote for Chirac.

Wednesday, May 01, 2002

The Internet is for Everyone, according to Vint Cerf, past chairman and president of the Internet Society. Designers of Internet standards such as protocols (like myself) are exhorted to keep a number of lofty goals in mind: to design an affordable infrastructure, to allow growth, to increase accessibility, to keep it simple, to protect privacy, to combat abuse. (The most controversial advice is to keep the Internet free from regulation. This has sparked much discussion on Internet standards mailing lists, mostly on intellectual property regulation). Does it reassure you or scare you that designers of Internet protocols take idealistic goals into consideration? For me it's some of each -- I've seen poor protocols that suffered from too much idealism (Internet Relay Chat was designed with an anarchic ideal, and therefore securely authenticating users is not allowed).
Politicians are more prone than most to abusing numbers, often in the same ways I complain about in mainstream science reporting. Nader does that this week in Slate's Breakfast Table.

Nader: 10 percent of health-care costs goes down the drain due to billing fraud and abuse. This year, 10 percent will amount to about $130 billion dollars.

$130 billion sounds like a lot, huh? But the number abuse here is in presenting private medicine abuse costs alone, without comparing to public abuse costs for a program like Medicare. Improper payment costs for Medicare range from 7% in 1998 to 14% in 1996 (ref), and this doesn't count the fraud prevention costs (1143 employees plus 375 FBI agents, ref). Thus, Nader's fraud issue is even worse than irrelevant -- fraud is likely to be more expensive in the public system than the private.

Most of the discussion of the increased costs of fraud and abuse in health services can be found in extreme right wing or libertarian diatribes (see here, here and here). It's too bad that the discussion is so marginalized, because I realize I can't rant about Nader without sounding like I'm on the other end of the spectrum completely. I could support socialized medicine but not for the reasons given by Nader.

Science reporting isn't only poor in mainstream media, it's also poor in Scientific American, according to Instapundit Glenn Reynolds and many of his discriminating readers. They make the points that (1) SciAm reports technology or social issues relating to technology far more often than actual science, (2) SciAm is now authored almost exclusively by journalists rather than scientists, and (3) it has a rather extreme green political bias. Although I don't subscribe to SciAm, the few issues I've seen in the last decade support the Instapundit critique, and their reaction to Lomborg's book definitely does.

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