For Earth Day this year I decided I was going to try to make a real change by commuting to work under my own power instead of using my car. I’ve been riding a wave of endorphin high as my body goes through the shock of experiencing exercise again for the first time in a long while. I can feel the winter doldrums lifting , and I asked myself: when was the last time I did something that makes a positive change in my life?
If you’re a programmer/gamer geek and looking for a gripping book that you won’t be able to put down then look no further than Halting State. I’ve been on a Stross kick for the past few months, having read Accelerando, Glass House and Iron Sunrise. Halting State is easily his most engaging book I’ve read so far.
It takes place in the near future where ubiquitous computing has started to take hold via mobile phone networks. This is a future where online roleplaying games and live action roleplaying games are an international past time (as we already can see happening now with the gaming industry being a bigger industry than the movie industry). The story starts off in with a bank robbery by a band of Orcs in a virtual world — a band robbery that should not have been possible because of the digital cryptography keys involved.
As much as I enjoy video games and fantasy settings, the book thankfully takes place mostly in the real world — although in the age of ubiquitous computing and common place augmented reality, who is to say what is real? It reminded me of War Games meets Cryptonomicon and World of Warcraft. Stross manages to get all the geeky elements right, and I’m not just saying that because my player character in my weekly table-top campaign is a were-bearbarian.
I don’t want to give away any spoilers, but this is a wonderful whodunit, and if this is what Charles Stross has in store for us in the future then I’m going to have to make more room on my shelf.
Favorite quote: “It’s TCP/IP over AD&D!”
Credits to Fred for introducing me to Everything Bad is Good for You: How Pop Culture is Making Us Smarter. The thesis behind the book is simple: if you look at the popular media culture over time it is becoming more and more complex. There have always been avant garde examples that wove complex stories but over time the same techniques are used in mainstream pop culture. IE: It is becoming common place to produce tv shows and movies that require multiple watchings to fully digest.
The book notes that this is in deep contrast to the old mantra of television programming where you wanted to go for the least offensive programming possible to avoid loosing market share. Johnson posits that one of the causes for change is before we didn’t have the ability to easily rewatch a tv show or movie to catch something we might have missed on first viewing.
Johnson also notes that the decline in reading books isn’t as bad as many people make it out to be because we have so much more access to written content via the Internet and more importantly people are writing more than ever before. I thought this was a good counter argument; when I look at the online presence of myself and my friends most of them are doing some form of content creation instead of passive content consumption.
The one area where I felt the book fell weak was in proving that more complex content is making us smarter. Intuitively I agree with the hypothesis, but the only proof offered was how IQ scores have been increasing in the average to above average segment of the population, but IQ scores haven’t been increasing for the ultra-smart people. It makes sense because the complexity of pop culture might be enough to increase problem solving skills in the average person but wouldn’t be enough to increase skills in the exceptionally above average.
I recommend reading this book after reading Made to Stick because Everything Bad is Good for You is a perfect example of how to convey an idea that will stay with the reader. The only downside is that some of the pop culture examples are already getting long in the tooth and I already agreed with the hypothesis without needing that much evidence. It might make for a more interesting read if it challenged your perceptions.
What Other People Have to Say
Fair Use, Copyright and Digital Rights
There is a grassroots movement to make July 11th an International Fair Use Day where we all celebrate our rights to copy content in a fair manner (i.e.: backing up software/movies, quoting other sources). Copyright laws have reached the point where they stifle innovation and prevent use from standing on the shoulders of giants. Fair use of copyright is very different from piracy; copyright laws should protect the rights of the content creator but also protect the rights of the end user. Fair use is about achieving balance between the two different interests.
Copyright discussion and technology often go hand-in-hand because advances in technology make it easier and easier to cheaply reproduce what was originally hard to reproduce. Striking a balance between producers and consumers is very important. If nothing was profitable then nothing then there would be less innovation, but on the flip side what if producers held complete control over how and when their works could be used? Can you imagine a world where you weren’t legally allowed to re-sell or buy used books, CDs or DVDs? Can you imagine a world without libraries?
(photo by jbonnain)
July 11th is a great choice for the date because it is also the birthday of Canada’s own digital rights super-hero Michael Geist. Happy birthday, Michael. If you aren’t familiar with his work, then I recommend starting with a series of articles called “30 Days of DRM” that are enlightening to say the least. Another Canadian digital rights super-hero is Cory Doctorow, a science-fiction author and co-editor of the famous BoingBoing weblog.
Last night I finished reading Cory Doctorow’s new collection of short stories, Overclocked, and I was very surprised at how much I enjoyed it. I’ve read two of his other books, Eastern Standard Tribe and Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom, and found them disappointing although full of interesting ideas. Overclocked succeeds where the others failed for me because the short narrative allows for a focus on the ideas without feeling that the characters are neglected.
Common Themes in Overclocked
Cory deals with information warfare, robotic sentience, inequalities between first and third world countries and the next level of copyright infringement – when we have 3d printers that can replicate any goods. So much of our current consumer laws are based on the concept of scarcity. We’ve already entered a post-scarcity economy when it comes to entertainment goods that can be reproduced digitally. 3D printing already exists, what kind of world do we want to live in when anything — even food, clothing and electronics — can be reproduced with minimum cost and effort?
The Stories from Overclocked
All of the short stories in Overclocked are already freely available online from other sources. You can check them out by following these links.
Printcrime – the real outcome of a society where copying has been made illegal.
When Sysadmins Ruled the Earth – when a biological agent wipes out humanity the only people left standing are the sysadmins who were protecting the network in clean rooms.
Anda’s Game – a young girl learns about goldfarming and world wide inequality thanks to World of Warcraft.
I, Robot – Asimov meets Orwell in a mash-up of 1984 and I, Robot where government controlled restrictions on technology have created wars with countries that don’t follow the same restrictions.
I, Row-Boat – a sentient row boat with free will explores the nature of consciousness in a post-human society.
After the Siege – A city goes from utopia to a cesspool of human misery when other countries attack them for illegally copying the goods they need to survive.
People are calling the Digg user revolt the “Internet story of the year.” The Digg community fixated on the 32-bit encryption key for HD-DVDs protests against the site owners giving in to potential censorship requests by HD-DVD producers (who are also advertisers on the site) and censoring stories that published the key. You can read more coverage (and screenshots) at Mathew Ingram, Deep Jive Interests or TechCrunch. I first heard the story break at Paris Lemon. WinExtra might have the best post about this.
What role, if any, should Digg play in this? The comments could be a place for great discussions on the story, but usually they degrade into the musings of lunatics. When do comments stop being free speech and start being serious threats? These are the questions.
I spend a lot of time surfing information feeds and I see how ideas form and spread from one person to another. We are in the information age and experiencing information explosion. Push button publishing has lead to ever increasing content. The librarians of the future have their job cut out for them — but that’s okay because the physical storage space for all this data continues to shrink.
The bigger question is how do you keep it accessible? Digital Rights Management (DRM) is one side of the problem — ensuring that anything locked by copyright will be unreadable in 10 years time. The other side of the problem is technological obsolescence. Even if you use open standards they are continually evolving. At the moment I can play MP3s on my computer, iPod, home stereo, car, and gaming console. What about 50 years from now?
Do you own a record player? What about a cassette tape player?
This is great for content producers because they can keep selling you the same thing over and over again. But what about when the data isn’t a consumer good? If there isn’t any money to be made from converting data to the new format du jour then it will be abandoned. Look at this New York Times Best Seller list from the 1940s to 2000s. I haven’t heard of most of the books or authors that were published before I was born. And that was before we hit the Information Age. Good luck finding those books at a bookstore.
Copyright legislation ensures that by the time a published work is freely available for copying it is almost guaranteed there will no longer be an audience who is interested in copying it. More and more content is available in digital format, but by the time it can be legally copied that format can’t be read. Do you have software that can read a WordPerfect [wiki] document ?
Old video games see new light because of virtualization and emulators. But these are the exceptions that prove the rule. At least with stone tablets you could still read them thousands years later. CD-ROMs can become unreadable after as little as two years [wiki] under normal usage conditions. Even if they are physically accessible the chances of being able to read the content 50 years from now is next to nil. When was the last time you bought a computer with a 3.5 inch drive?
Content is disposable and the chance that something you create will be read, watched, or listened to years from now are next to nothing unless it continues to remain commercially viable from generation to generation. Even if you created something that could stand the test of time there are too many new voices producing too many new things. The best of the best is a needle in the haystack and the haystack keeps getting bigger.
 And I am unfairly picking on WordPerfect. It is still a commercially available product, just one that few people use.
(this is a follow-up to the Great Firewall of Canada)
spyblog.org.uk notes how “systems like British Telecom’s CleanFeed are inherently vulnerable to reverse engineering attacks, which can reveal the list of censored websites”. While I doubt the technique mentioned in the paper still works, it does give more technical information about CleanFeed than I’ve seen anywhere else.
Dr. Richard Clayton’s paper
Michael Geist has thrown in his support with Cybertip on the issue:
More importantly, while some may suggest that this opens the door to other blocking – hate content, defamatory content or copyright infringement to name three – there is a crucial difference with child pornography that should prevent a similar approach. While those forms of content may raise legal issues, in the case of child pornography, it is illegal to even access the content. That is a crucial difference since under current law there are no valid free speech arguments for either disseminating child pornography nor for seeking the right to access it. Given that difference, the right of appeal, and the active involvement of cybertip.ca, the arrival of Project Cleanfeed in Canada looks like a good news story that merits close monitoring.
The title of this article is, of course, a reference to the Internet censorship that is rampant in China.
Mark Goldberg pointed me to the press release of “Project Cleanfeed Canada”. Canadian carriers Bell Aliant, Bell Canada, MTS Allstream, Rogers, SaskTel, Shaw, TELUS, and Videotron have all opted in to a blacklist provided by Cybertip.ca, the Canadian tip-line against child exploitation. Mark is an advocate of putting censorship in place against websites that would be deemed illegal by Canadian Law (such as those promoting hate speech or sexually exploiting children).
I first came across Mark’s website when he was filing an application requesting the CRTC to authorize Canadian carriers to block internet content. I morally support blocking hate speech and child porn (who wouldn’t?), but the idea of having a national blacklist sends shivers down my spine. I would always prefer that illegal websites be shutdown rather than putting into power national filters that have the potential to be abused. I’m a pessimist, I believe that any form of censorship will eventually be abused despite its good intentions.
Nart Villeneuve has an excellent article that sums up my fear of government sponsored filters: