Cyber-environment

March 23, 2005

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Code and Other Laws of Cyberspace is a book by Lawrence Lessig, published in 1999. The revisions for the forthcoming second edition are being done publicly online at codebook.jot.com, with the enjoyable byproduct that I can read it for free.

It is one of those books which is superb despite being wrong. (Roger Penrose’s The Emperor’s New Mind is another). I will come back to it later, but there is one amusing metaphor, where the “Year 2000 problem” is described (in 1999, remember) as a code-based environmental disaster.

It’s not clear, with hindsight, whether the “Y2K Problem” was (a) an over-hyped prophecy of doom, in response to which much money and effort was wasted, or (b) a genuine threat that was averted at the last moment at great cost.

My own professional experience, before Y2K and since, has been on systems that went wrong fairly frequently for all sorts of reasons, and were always fixed quickly, often by me. Of the dozens of production fixes I performed in the year 2000, only one of them was the result of a “Y2K” problem. The main (telecoms billing) system I worked on at the time was supposed to be replaced by a “Y2K compliant” one, but that project failed and the non-compliant system carried on without problems. I shouldn’t really generalise from my experience to the whole industry, however, and I leave the question open.

The parallels with, say, Global Warming are numerous. It may well turn out to be a lot of fuss about nothing. Even if it’s real, it might be most efficient to deal with the problems as they occur, rather than invest trillions in trying to prevent them in advance. A whole industry has emerged just to talk about it, and no organisation is allowed to omit paying lip-service, with varying degrees of insincerity, to the need to act.

Of course, analogies never prove anything. All this does is demonstrate a certain pattern of behaviour, which comes naturally to a human race raised on flood myths and the like. It doesn’t mean the doom-mongers must be wrong, but at least it goes some way to refuting the “10,000 lemmings can’t be wrong” part of the argument.


Pharmaceutical future

March 22, 2005

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In the days of vinyl records, the record companies both recorded and manufactured the records. Both these steps were difficult, and there were no IP problems, as anyone attempting to set up a record manufacturing plant to make “pirate” records would be easily found.

That security was weakened by cassette tapes and destroyed by MP3 players. Now anyone can “manufacture” copies of music recordings, on a large scale or a small scale.

The pharmaceutical industry resembles vinyl records. The largest costs for the drug companies are in design and testing, but the manufacturing costs are high enough to protect their patents.

Imagine that a “generic synthesiser” were developed. I have in mind a general-purpose programmable chemical plant. If you want to produce, say, asprin, you put in some basic feedstocks, feed it a program, it churns away like a bread machine, and out comes your asprin. (or cocaine, or whatever…)

Is this feasable? I would say it’s inevitable, though I couldn’t say whether it would be closer to 2015 or 2100. Twenty years after appearing in the laboratories, it will be in your kitchen.

Once that process gets going, pharmaceuticals becomes a “pure IP” business like software or music. Development and testing (and marketing) of new drugs will still be expensive, but once a drug is on the market, it only takes one “hacker” to write the program and I can download it and synthesise the drug in my kitchen. (Or, in earlier stages, in my University Chem lab).

Think about the effects of this device: It will revolutionise medicine. It will improve many other areas of life, opening up possibilities that are hard to imagine. But it will make drug development very difficult to fund, but technically easier to do, and it will make narcotics prohibition impossible.

Attempts will be made to restrict the distribution or capabilities of the devices, but without a mass market, it will not be developed quickly enough. It is likely to be built of components that will be used throughout manufacturing industry, and the only way to restrict capabilities will be at the “programmer” component, which can be replicated with general-purpose computing equipment.

Of course by that time, the software/music/film issues will be worked out — either with a police state like this, or with a new model of development — so we will have more clues to the solution of the new problem (which, it is to be remembered is not primarily a problem, but a new world of opportunities).

Related items:
IP Confusion
Software Patents


The #1 neoconservative

March 22, 2005

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If the term “Neoconservative” means anything, it refers to a centre-leftist who moves to embrace a more centre-right stance on economic policy, while retaining the desire to improve the world through foreign policy.

The appointment of Paul Wolfowitz to head the World Bank has attracted media attention to him, but to me, the politician who most perfectly exhibits neoconservatism is that ex-leftist Tony Blair.

He (more than his predecessor) is the man who took privatisation on from where Lady Thatcher left off (though in a Reagan/Bush way, without actually cutting government spending).

He is also the man who talked Clinton into attacking Yugoslavia in the name of human rights (and with an obvious byproduct of spreading Western politics at least into Slovenia and Croatia). For all we know, he is the man who talked George W Bush into attacking Iraq. Blair might not have needed to do much persuading, but if he had needed to, he would have given it his best shot.

And yet there are still those who seem to think that Britain is fighting this war “for America”. They ask what Blair has got “in exchange for British troops in Iraq”.

Tony Blair got a huge amount in exchange: he got American troops in Iraq.


IP Confusion

March 22, 2005

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This is expanded from a comment I left in response to this TCS article emphasising the importance of Intellectual Property to the US economy.

Britain is also a large “producer” of IP, so I don’t see a problem in dealing with the article from here on its own terms (apart from the baseball analogy; in these parts, hitting the batter with the ball is just good bowling).

Duane Freese makes points that are reasonable in themselves, but he avoids all the difficult questions.

Intellectual Property is very difficult to enforce. In a rich, orderly society like the USA or the UK, it is possible to act against sellers of unauthorised copies. It has not been possible to act against “private” breaches, such as an unauthorised public performance of a music cd at a party. Such activities have long been tolerated, despite being technical IP breaches, because the losses were low and enforcement was not practical. Another class of breach — users copying music or early computer games to tapes — was more frowned on, but still escaped legal enforcement.

Two developments have changed the situation: widespread digital hardware has made private copying easier and better, while globalisation has increased the significance of overseas jurisdictions where different enforcement policies are in use.

The domestic question is not whether authorities should attempt to enforce existing IP laws. Some people are questioning whether we should have IP at all, but that is not really a mainstream argument. The issue is that the authorities are not able to effectively enforce IP laws in all cases, and the scale of breaches that are outside the enforcable areas is growing. To reduce the volume of breaches of IP, it would be necesary to expand the reach of enforcement further into the private arena than has ever been the case in the past. This involves unprecedented police powers and loss of personal privacy, and vast government expense. This is the issue over which the “Copyfight” is being waged.

The foreign question is over countries which, through choice or necessity, take a different stance than that of the big IP producers as to what breaches of IP law can practically be acted against. Freese says should be punished for it. But for a country like Russia, where the authorities have their hands full just trying to collect taxes, imposing an IP enforcement regime like that being demanded by Freese is not remotely possible.

Finally, the breadth of IP law is such that it cannot be treated purely with generalities. The patent system is failing as patent offices and courts are unable to scale up to handle present rates of innovation. Third-world production of drugs also raises questions which deserve to be dealt with specifically. Remember that IP law has never been about absolutes (hence the time limits on copyrights and patents), but has always been subject to cost-benefit analyses that vary from one area of innovation to another.


Punishment in Context

March 20, 2005

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I didn’t closely follow the fuss kicked up by Eugene Volokh’s praise for Iran publicly hanging a serial killer, which seems to have ended in a good deal of intelligent analysis all round.

One of the most interesting arguments is that judicial punishment, in addition to its more obvious purposes, performs the useful function of restoring the self-esteem and public status of the victims, which would be damaged by their wrongs going unavenged.

What I didn’t see discussed was that this also applies to the judicial system and the state itself. A state which lets crimes go unpunished or nearly so loses respect in the eyes of its people — and not only those who are considering crimes themselves.

What constitutes sufficient punishment depends on the character of the culture itself. In a culture where violent death (legal or illegal) is commonplace, a state that won’t even kill people is likely to be seen as ineffectual — even if it is actually quite effective at detecting and deterring crimes. On the other hand, in a society that is free of violence, an execution penalty would make the state seem backward, rather than strong.

In some circumstances then, it might be necessary for a state to use penalties such as Iran does, just to assert its authority.

If one accepts this argument it means that he should be cautious about applying the standards of humane punishment appropriate to his society, to other countries. I am happy living in a country without the death penalty, but I’m not sure it’s reasonable to attempt to insist that other countries do the same. The USA is seen, both here and there, as a more violent place. (This may well be an inaccurate view, but for these purposes the perception is probably more important than the reality). Is their retention of the death penalty a rejection of civilised standards, or a rational response to conditions?

There are caveats: the influence would presumably work both ways — while a society conditioned to violence might demand violent punishments, an abandonment of those punishments might delegitimise violence within the society. Furthermore, I think our governments have more status and authority than is good for us, and reducing that might be preferable. But neither of those really apply to states where violence is deeply ingrained, and where the state is in danger of disintegrating altogether.


Protest Votes and Fringe Parties

March 20, 2005

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A few ideas to bring together on dealing with a first-past-the-post electoral system.

Assuming you’re not one of the few lucky people who have a major party that
shares your policies, you have several choices:

  • Ignore politics (most popular option by a long, long way)
  • Vote for the party nearest your views and count that as enough
  • Vote tactically against the party furthest from your views and count that as enough
  • Spoil your ballot in an attempt to show disaffection
  • Vote for the major party most likely to change the voting system
  • Join the party nearest your views and try to move it in your direction
  • Support a minor party in the hope it will become a major party
  • Support a minor party in the hope it will affect the policies of the major party.

I would have thought the above list was exhaustive, but a new tactic has been introduced:

  • Vote tactically against the major party you’re closest to in the hope of affecting its policies

The first five are working with the parties as they are — either making the best of what’s
offered or attempting to change the voting system.

The next three attempt to change the political shape within the same system.

The only recent UK example of a minor party getting anywhere near becoming major is the SDP, which was formed by disaffected Labour MPs in the 1980s, won a few seats and eventually merged with the Liberal Party to form the current Liberal Democratic Party. The last new major party before that was the Labour Party.

click here for the rest of the article…


TV Fun

March 20, 2005

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Dave of The Policeman’s Blog has a go at Inspector Lynley, and suggests an outline for a gritty, realistic drama surrounding the police officer responsible for filling in MG6e forms, and his “struggles with the photocopier”.

From time to time, in response to a perceived over-representation of police and hospital personnel on our screens, some creative type comes up with a drama series set among teachers, or Probation officers, or something, which is massively boring and only lasts one series. The useful thing about the police is that there is a well-understood “fictional police” setting which can be the background to a drama, which is more interesting than the same thing. If you pick some random profession, the only background you can use is the tedious real thing.

Where's the Pork?

March 18, 2005

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Fascinating interview with Oona King MP in the Evening Standard.

See her last comment, referring to the threat to her seat from Respect candidate George Galloway:

“He can bluff and bluster as much as he wants,” she says. “At the end of the day [if he is voted in] he will never persuade the Treasury to spend an extra ten pence in Tower Hamlets because he has no influence at all. And that worries many local people.”

We are familiar with the idea — “pork-barrel politics” as they call it in the States — that the role of an elected representative is to bring government money to their constituency (although a different term would be more suitable to King’s 55,000 Bangladeshi constituents).

This goes beyond that. She is implying that a Labour Government would punish the voters of Bethnal Green for not voting Labour.

This is not a particular criticsim of Oona King, who is gaining a reputation for saying things better left unsaid. There are, after all, better reasons for voting against George Galloway than the government’s blackmail. The blackmail is the effect of a centralised state controlling 40% of the economy. (In this country, even money spent by local authorities is mainly effectively controlled by Westminster).

We have only one vote for the government of this country. If we use up our vote in an attempt to influence the redistribution of wealth, we have no vote left with which to express our views about war, freedom, security, or the ever-vexed issue of school dress codes. That itself is a reason for separation of economy and state.


Bypassing grassroots

March 17, 2005

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Labour elite join pre-election rush for safe seats — Guardian

41 sitting Labour MPs are standing down at the next election. No big deal. 14 of the 41 have made the announcements too late for their constituency Labour parties to carry out their own selection procedures — with the result that the national party gets to pick the shortlist. The implication is that most of the 14 have delayed their announcement deliberately to move this power from local parties to the national party.

I can’t see how this would not be resented by Labour party branch members. For the Labour Party to repeatedly pull this stunt on them, either they must put up with it, or the national Party doesn’t care whether they put up with it or not. Either way, the situation indicates a great decrease in the significance of the Labour Party’s rank and file membership.

There is an inevitable, and universal, tension between party leadership and part grass-roots. The leadership want to get elected, and are willing to compromise their platform in order to gain power. The activists are also in favour of winning elections, but are likely to be much less willing to move to the political centre. A strong grass-roots organisation forcing the party away from the centre is an electoral liability.

Historically, the importance of the party membership has been in campaigning and fundraising. These tasks have been diminished by the rise of television and corporatism — if the party leadership can talk directly to the electorate, with money taken from industry (or, one day, state funds), the grass roots lose their traditional role.

The mass party is still essential in another role — one that used to be done so well that it wasn’t noticed, but is becoming difficult for modern diminished parties to fulfill. The party leadership is drawn from the rank and file. The Labour Party is still just about able to lay hands on sufficient high-calibre individuals to fill the front bench, and this is now proving one of its key advantages over the Opposition. Blair, Brown, Straw, Blunkett — whatever their faults, these are intelligent people, capable of managing underlings and gaining respect.

That generation, however, joined the Labour Party in the 1970s, when selecting candidates and electing the NEC made the party membership more important, and presumably made membership of the party more fulfilling.

It may be that the old route — party member to councillor (or trade union official) to MP to senior figure — might be replaced by a career path that winds through the party headquarters: researcher, media advisor, policy advisor, whatever. It seems unlikely that this could provide as large a pool of potential candidates to draw on as did the constituency committees of old. What is the Labour leader of 2020 doing today?


Computons


The Economist:

Electricity is sold by the kilowatt-hour. Now a researcher has proposed that computing power be sold by the computon

If a 500MW power station could only be built by putting fifty thousand small 10kW generators in racks, with expensive complicated machinery to try to keep as many as possible fueled and running at once, then I don’t think the concept of an electricity grid would ever have caught on. But that’s what a “computing” power station looks like.

There are some slight economies of scale to computer hardware, mainly in management overhead, but compared to the cost of putting your own computer at the other end of a wide area network, they’re negligible.

The amazing thing is that this idea keeps cropping up, year after year, despite the fact that the basic technology just does not exist. Maybe it will one day, although currently it’s moving in the other direction.




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