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16 Aug 15:21

Is There A Conspiracy Among Legacy Media Companies To Push A False Narrative About Big Tech?

by Mike Masnick

Over the last few months we've witnessed a veritable flood of misleading to simply false articles about internet companies showing up in mainstream sources. There were misleading articles in Vox and the Washington Post. And then, just recently, we saw not one but two NY Times pieces that went out of their way to misrepresent the law. And, then of course, there's the Wall Street Journal that has been misrepresenting Section 230 for ages. To date, the only one of these publications to run a serious correction (and to continue to help debunking misrepresentations) is the smallest of those listed above: Vox, who did some research and published a big mea culpa.

This has gotten many in the tech industry to begin to wonder. It's one thing for (cross aisle) grandstanding politicians like Ted Cruz, Josh Hawley, Nancy Pelosi, and Richard Blumenthal to totally misrepresent the law. But when the mainstream media is doing so on a regular basis -- it's causing a lot of talk behind the scenes about whether this is a coordinated hit. Some, like the excellent reporter Anna Wiener, recently more or less dismissed this theory as being "mostly... a facile argument," though I think she mixes up two separate issues. First, it is absolutely true that many startup founders don't know how to deal with the press well, and get personally offended by bad press coverage. And, for those entrepreneurs: fuck 'em. They should grow up and learn what the press actually does, when done right -- which includes researching and debunking nonsense (and there's a ton of nonsense in Silicon Valley).

But, that's a separate issue from whether or not there's a coordinated campaign to undermine the foundations of the internet by a few larger, legacy industries who have failed to adapt to a changing time. Indeed, we saw significant evidence of Hollywood's top lobbyists working behind the scenes (though, it occasionally slipped out publicly) to push for FOSTA, the first bill that significantly undermined Section 230.

And there's plenty more evidence of legacy industries -- mainly legacy media and entertainment companies -- plotting to take down internet companies by making use of the news. Remember, during the Sony Pictures hack, that MPAA emails were leaked, revealing "Project Goliath," which was specifically a plan to damage Google through any means necessary -- and that included using a smear campaign placed in the Wall Street Journal and on the Today Show. In an email sent to an official in Mississippi Attorney General Jim Hood's office by then MPAA "director of external state government affairs" official (and former ICE official) Brian Cohen, Cohen admits the "proposed plan" is to place an anti-Google smear campaign:

If that image is not showing up, the text comes from a larger strategic plan between the MPAA and various state Attorneys' General, and includes this:

Media: We want to make sure that the media is at the NAAG meeting. We propose working with MPAA (Vans), Comcast, and NewsCorp (Bill Guidera) to see about working with a PR firm to create an attack on Google (and others who are resisting AG efforts to address online piracy). This PR firm can be funded through a nonprofit dedicated to IP issues. The "live buys" should be available for the media to see, followed by a segment the next day on the Today Show (David green can help with this). After the Today Show segment, you want to have a large investor of Google (George can help us determine that) come forward and say that Google needs to change its behavior/demand reform. Next, you want NewsCorp to develop and place an editorial in the WSJ emphasizing that Google's stock will lose value in the face of a sustained attack by AGs and noting some of the possible causes of action we have developed.

So, sure, while it may seem "facile" for some to argue that legacy media firms are out to get big internet companies with trumped up claims in their own media properties, there's very real evidence of a conspiracy to do literally that. Not so facile.

And there's more where that comes from. In Wired's giant profile last year of the "troubles" inside Facebook, it is made clear that Rupert Murdoch used his ability to damage the company via the editorial pages of the WSJ as part of a negotiating strategy:

Zuckerberg traveled to Sun Valley, Idaho, for an annual conference hosted by billionaire Herb Allen, where moguls in short sleeves and sunglasses cavort and make plans to buy each other’s companies. But Rupert Murdoch broke the mood in a meeting that took place inside his villa. According to numerous accounts of the conversation, Murdoch and Robert Thomson, the CEO of News Corp, explained to Zuckerberg that they had long been unhappy with Facebook and Google. The two tech giants had taken nearly the entire digital ad market and become an existential threat to serious journalism. According to people familiar with the conversation, the two News Corp leaders accused Facebook of making dramatic changes to its core algorithm without adequately consulting its media partners, wreaking havoc according to Zuckerberg’s whims. If Facebook didn’t start offering a better deal to the publishing industry, Thomson and Murdoch conveyed in stark terms, Zuckerberg could expect News Corp executives to become much more public in their denunciations and much more open in their lobbying. They had helped to make things very hard for Google in Europe. And they could do the same for Facebook in the US.

.... Inside Facebook, executives believed Murdoch might use his papers and TV stations to amplify critiques of the company. News Corp says that was not at all the case; the company threatened to deploy executives, but not its journalists.

Zuckerberg had reason to take the meeting especially seriously, according to a former Facebook executive, because he had firsthand knowledge of Murdoch’s skill in the dark arts. Back in 2007, Facebook had come under criticism from 49 state attorneys general for failing to protect young Facebook users from sexual predators and inappropriate content. Concerned parents had written to Connecticut attorney general Richard Blumenthal, who opened an investigation, and to The New York Times, which published a story. But according to a former Facebook executive in a position to know, the company believed that many of the Facebook accounts and the predatory behavior the letters referenced were fakes, traceable to News Corp lawyers or others working for Murdoch, who owned Facebook’s biggest competitor, MySpace. “We traced the creation of the Facebook accounts to IP addresses at the Apple store a block away from the MySpace offices in Santa Monica,” the executive says. “Facebook then traced interactions with those accounts to News Corp lawyers. When it comes to Facebook, Murdoch has been playing every angle he can for a long time.” (Both News Corp and its spinoff 21st Century Fox declined to comment.)

Got that? Facebook actually traced fake accounts, that were handed to long-grandstanding anti-internet crusader Richard Blumenthal (then a state AG, now a Senator) back to News Corp. And Murdoch strongly implied to Facebook execs that he needed to get a better deal from them or his publications, such as the WSJ, would put out hit pieces.

So, yes, there are legitimate points of concern to raise about big internet companies. I'm not one to normally believe in cynical conspiracy theories, but it's not at all crazy to think that the recent onslaught in major media properties may not be coming from the most ethically sound place. After all, if Hollywood has plotted in the past to do exactly that, why would anyone expect them to have given up those underhanded games?

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06 Sep 04:13

Too hard to translate soup

by Victor Mair

From a menu in a restaurant in Oxford, Ohio:

What gives?  The rest of the translations of the soup dishes on this menu are not bad (fairly standard).  What happened with the last one?

David Costa, who sent in the photograph, explains:

When I asked the waiter what the last item was, he couldn’t describe it either. He just hemmed and hawed, gesticulated a lot and kept saying it included ‘flower’ (or ‘flour’?). I asked him to just translate the Chinese name and that didn’t work either. Ideas?

Google Translate offers "Home-cooked soup", which doesn't account for the main ingredient.  Bing Microsoft Translator has "Homemade pimple Soup", which is decidedly unappetizing.  Baidu Fanyi gives "Dough Drop and Assorted Vegetable Soup", which ignores the first part of the name and adds "Assorted Vegetable".

The problem is with gēda 疙瘩, which is one of those very cool, two syllable Sinitic words, neither of whose syllables means anything by itself (i.e., not only is it a disyllabic lexeme, it is also a disyllabic morpheme).  Furthermore, gēda 疙瘩 is highly polysemous, with the following meanings:  "pimple; knot; swelling on the skin; lump; nodule; blotch; a knot in one's body or heart (–> hangup; problem; preoccupation)".

I remember when my mother-in-law first made this soup and served it to the family, I almost didn't want to eat it because the name sounded as though it meant "zit soup" (it also looked fairly ghastly).  Note that both of the constituent sinographs of this word have as their semantic classifier the "sickness" radical, Kangxi number 104:  疒, pronounced chuáng or nè.  Usually, if you see a character with this semantophore, you know it's bad news, because it has to do with illness and malignancy.

When I encounter Sinitic words of this nature — lexically and morphemically disyllabic — especially if they have variant writings, in this case 疙垯, 疙墶, I tend to think that they may have arisen through dimidiation (perhaps of a consonant cluster) or other type of phonological expansion and that they may reflect a non-Sinititic background.  For those who might wish to pursue the origins of gēda (Pekingese variant gāda) 疙瘩, the following topolectal pronunciations may be useful:

Cantonese (Jyutping): gat6 daap3
Min Nan (POJ): kit-tap
Wu (Wiktionary): keq taq (T4)

One of my favorite Chinese expressions derived from gēda 疙瘩 is jīpí gēda 雞皮疙瘩/鸡皮疙瘩 ("goosebumps; goose pimples"), which I often experience when describing something deeply moving, eerie, or transcendent.

What the Chinese for the last item on the menu says is this:

jiācháng gēda tāng


home-cooked / home-style dough drop soup

You make it by mixing flour (that's what the waiter was trying to tell David) and water into a runny paste, then dropping it glob by glob, blob by blob into a pot of boiling water.  It's a kind of quick and dirty way to make pasta.

It's not "too hard to translate" after all, once you get over the gēda 疙瘩 ("hangup") of thinking that something that is supposedly edible also has pustular connotations.

21 Apr 21:14

How Twitter Suspended The Account Of One Of Our Commenters... For Offending Himself?

by Mike Masnick

If you spend any time at all in Techdirt's comments, you should be familiar with That Anonymous Coward. He's a prolific and regular commenter (with strong opinions). He also spends a lot of time on Twitter. Well, at least until a week or so ago when Twitter suspended his account. It's no secret that Twitter has been getting a lot of pressure from people to be more proactive in shutting down and cutting off certain accounts. There are even a bunch of people who claim that Twitter should suspend the President's account -- though we think that would be a really bad idea.

As we've pointed out in the past, people who demand that sites shut down and suspend accounts often don't realize how difficult it is to do this at scale and not fuck up over and over again. Indeed, we have plenty of stories about sites having trouble figuring out what content is really problematic. Indeed, frequently these stories show that the targets of trolls and abusers are the ones who end up suspended.

You can read TAC's open letter to Jack Dorsey, which also includes an account of what happened. In short, over a year ago, TAC responded to something Ken "Popehat" White had tweeted, and referred to himself -- a gay man -- as "a faggot." Obviously, many people consider this word offensive. But it's quite obvious from how it was used here that this was a situation of someone using the word to refer to himself and to reclaim the slur.

Twitter then demanded that he delete the tweet and "verify" his phone number. TAC refused both requests. First, it was silly to delete the tweet because it's clearly not "hateful content" given the context. Second, as someone who's whole point is being "Anonymous" giving up his phone number doesn't make much sense. And, as he notes in his open letter, people have tried to sue him in the past. There's a reason he stays pseudononymous:

Why do I have to supply a cell phone number to get back on the platform? I've been a user for 5 years and have never used a cell phone to access your service. I am a nym, but I am an established nym. I own the identity & amazingly there are several hundred people following my nym. I interact with the famous & infamous, they tweet back to me sometimes. I survived a few lawsuits trying to get my real name from platforms, because I called Copyright Trolls extortionists... they were offended & tried to silence me with fear of lawsuits. I'm still a nym, they've been indicted by the feds. There are other Copyright Trolls who dislike me, so staying a nym is in my best interest.

TAC also points out the general inconsistencies in Twitter's enforcement, noting that other slurs are not policed, and even the slur that caused his account to be shut down (over a year after he used it) did not lead to other accounts facing the same issues.

Incredibly, TAC points out that he appealed the suspension... and Twitter trust and safety rejected the appeal. It was only on the second appeal -- and seven days later -- that Twitter recognized its mistake and restored his account.

Now, some may be quick to blame Twitter for this mess, but it again seems worth pointing out what an impossible situation this is. Platforms like Twitter are under tremendous pressure to moderate out "bad" content. But people have very little understanding of two important things: (1) the scale at which these platforms operate, and (2) how difficult it is to determine what's "bad" -- especially without full context. The only way to handle reports and complaints at scale is to either automate the process, hire a ton of people, or both. And no matter which choice you make, serious mistakes are going to be made. AI is notoriously bad at understanding context. People are under pressure to go through a lot of content very quickly to make quick judgments -- which also doesn't bode well for understanding context.

So, once again, we should be pretty careful what we ask for when we demand that sites be quicker about shutting down and suspending accounts. You might be surprised who actually has their accounts shut down. That's not to say sites should never suspend accounts, but the rush to pressure companies into doing so represents a fundamental misunderstanding of how such demands will be handled. TAC's week-long forced sabbatical is just a small example of those unintended consequences.

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21 Apr 21:11

Gaming Masculinity. Trolls, Fake Geeks, and the Gendered Battle for Online Culture

by Regine

Gaming Masculinity. Trolls, Fake Geeks, and the Gendered Battle for Online Culture, by Megan Condis, an Assistant Professor in the English Department at Stephen F. Austin State University in Nacogdoches, Texas.

On amazon USA and UK.

Publisher University of Iowa Press writes: In 2016, a female videogame programmer and a female journalist were harassed viciously by anonymous male online users in what became known as GamerGate. Male gamers threatened to rape and kill both women, and the news soon made international headlines, exposing the level of abuse that many women and minorities face when participating in the predominantly male online culture.

Gaming Masculinity explains how the term “gamer” has been constructed in the popular imagination by a core group of male online users in an attempt to shore up an embattled form of geeky masculinity. This latest form of toxicity comes at a moment of upheaval in gaming culture, as women, people of color, and LGBTQ individuals demand broader access and representation online. Paying close attention to the online practices of trolling and making memes, author Megan Condis demonstrates that, despite the supposedly disembodied nature of life online, performances of masculinity are still afforded privileged status in gamer culture. Even worse, she finds that these competing discourses are not just relegated to the gaming world but are creating rifts within the culture at large, as witnessed by the direct links between the GamerGate movement and the recent rise of the alt-right during the last presidential election.

Condis asks what this moment can teach us about the performative, collaborative, and sometimes combative ways that American culture enacts race, gender, and sexuality. She concludes by encouraging designers and those who work in the tech industry to think about how their work might have, purposefully or not, been developed in ways that are marked by gender.

As Condis reminds us in her book, the early adopter of internet technology had envisioned the web as an equal opportunity environment. According to them, we’d soon leave our bodies, our prejudices behind and embodiment as a marker of identity would entirely fade away.

Anita Sarkeesian was vilified when she launched a kickstarter project to shoot a series of videos criticising the portrayal of women in video game. The trolling campaign launched against her culminated in the game Beat Up Anita Sarkeesian

Alas, these utopian dreams have not yet come to pass and discrimination based on gender, sexual orientation and race is still rife in the digital landscape. This is particularly true in the virtual world of gaming. Too many gamers still believe that you can’t be a real gamer if you’re not a straight white man. Today however, more and more women are making their way into the gaming culture. The female “invasion” of the gaming space (as well as the presence of anyone deviating from the caucasian heterosexual standard) threatens their privileges and identity. Gamers retort by professing their disdain for anything considered feminine or gay. This makes for a highly toxic environment where overt sexual objectification of women is regarded as a ‘normal part of the culture’, where homophobic epithets are thrown at one another and where rape is used as a metaphor for dominance in the game.

The book Gaming Masculinity examines how gender politics are filtered through and produced by the logic of video games, in both expected and unexpected ways. It explores how gamers are trolling and segregating anyone who doesn’t conform to their idea of what a gamer should be but it also reveals how female and queer gamers are fighting back to obtain a space and a legitimacy in gaming, how they create countermemes that decry sexism in geek culture, how they hack into their favourite online role-playing games to include gay and lesbian relationships and how they turn on its head the assumption that video games can only be profitable if they appeal exclusively to straight white guys.

The discussion around gender and sexual preferences in gaming is an important one not just because gaming is a growing industry but also because the logic of gaming is seeping into other arenas: politics, online dating, education, interaction, activism, etc. In the last chapter of her book, Condis draws parallels between the toxic masculinity of gamer culture and the politics of the alt-right. She explains how #GamerGate taught the Trump, the Milo Yiannopoulos, the populists and the far-right advocates of this world how to troll, hack the political game and muddy the waters when mainstream media accused them of racism and sexism.

The book is also a call to developers to design more inclusive contents and safer environments for women, queer, people of colour, disabled people or other unacknowledged groups.

To show his young daughter that girls can be the hero too, Mike Hoye hacked into The Legend of Zelda: Wind Waker and changed its main character from male to female

Duy Nguyen hacked Harvest Moon: Friends of Mineral Town to enable same-sex relationships

I’m not a gamer and, like most of you, i know male gamers who are neither sexist nor homophobic. Yet, i found this book fascinating because of the way it transcends gaming and virtual world and shows us the impact that online behaviour can have on ‘real’ life (and vice-versa, of course.)

Gaming Masculinity is a very dense book. It is packed with case studies, observations and reflections but it also suggests paths to undertake if we want improve gaming culture. It’s also very entertaining. I highly recommend you get your hands on a copy!

Related book review: Algorithms of Oppression. How Search Engines Reinforce Racism.

Image on the homepage via Kotaku.

21 Apr 20:52

Democratic National Committee's Lawsuit Against Russians, Wikileaks And Various Trump Associates Full Of Legally Nutty Arguments

by Mike Masnick

This morning I saw a lot of excitement and happiness from folks who greatly dislike President Trump over the fact that the Democratic National Committee had filed a giant lawsuit against Russia, the GRU, Guccifier 2, Wikileaks, Julian Assange, the Trump campaign, Donald Trump Jr., Jared Kushner, Paul Manafort, Roger Stone and a few other names you might recognize if you've followed the whole Trump / Russia soap opera over the past year and a half. My first reaction was that this was unlikely to be the kind of thing we'd cover on Techdirt, because it seemed like a typical political thing. But, then I looked at the actual complaint and it's basically a laundry list of the laws that we regularly talk about (especially about how they're abused in litigation). Seriously, look at the complaint. There's a CFAA claim, an SCA claim, a DMCA claim, a "Trade Secrets Act" claim... and everyone's favorite: a RICO claim.

Most of the time when we see these laws used, they're indications of pretty weak lawsuits, and going through this one, that definitely seems to be the case here. Indeed, some of the claims made by the DNC here are so outrageous that they would effectively make some fairly basic reporting illegal. One would have hoped that the DNC wouldn't seek to set a precedent that reporting on leaked documents is against the law -- especially given how reliant the DNC now is on leaks being reported on in their effort to bring down the existing president. I'm not going to go through the whole lawsuit, but let's touch on a few of the more nutty claims here.

The crux of the complaint is that these groups / individuals worked together in a conspiracy to leak DNC emails and documents. And, there's little doubt at this point that the Russians were behind the hack and leak of the documents, and that Wikileaks published them. Similarly there's little doubt that the Trump campaign was happy about these things, and that a few Trump-connected people had some contacts with some Russians. Does that add up to a conspiracy? My gut reaction is to always rely on Ken "Popehat" White's IT'S NOT RICO, DAMMIT line, but I'll leave that analysis to folks who are more familiar with RICO.

But let's look at parts we are familiar with, starting with the DMCA claim, since that's the one that caught my eye first. A DMCA claim? What the hell does copyright have to do with any of this? Well...

Plaintiff's computer networks and files contained information subject to protection under the copyright laws of the United States, including campaign strategy documents and opposition research that were illegally accessed without authorization by Russia and the GRU.

Access to copyrighted material contained on Plaintiff's computer networks and email was controlled by technological measures, including measures restricting remote access, firewalls, and measures restricting acess to users with valid credentials and passwords.

In violation of 17 U.S.C. § 1201(a), Russia, the GRU, and GRU Operative #1 circumvented these technological protection measures by stealing credentials from authorized users, condcting a "password dump" to unlawfully obtain passwords to the system controlling access to the DNC's domain, and installing malware on Plaintiff's computer systems.

Holy shit. This is the DNC trying to use DMCA 1201 as a mini-CFAA. They're not supposed to do that. 1201 is the anti-circumvention part of the DMCA and is supposed to be about stopping people from hacking around DRM to free copyright-covered material. Of course, 1201 has been used in all sorts of other ways -- like trying to stop the sale of printer cartridges and garage door openers -- but this seems like a real stretch. Russia hacking into the DNC had literally nothing to do with copyright or DRM. Squeezing a copyright claim in here is just silly and could set an awful precedent about using 1201 as an alternate CFAA (we'll get to the CFAA claims in a moment). If this holds, nearly any computer break-in to copy content would also lead to DMCA claims. That's just silly.

Onto the CFAA part. As we've noted over the years, the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act is quite frequently abused. Written in response to the movie War Games to target "hacking," the law has been used for basically any "this person did something we dislike on a computer" type issues. It's been dubbed "the law that sticks" because in absence of any other claims that one always sticks because of how broad it is.

At least this case does involve actual hacking. I mean, someone hacked into the DNC's network, so it actually feels (amazingly) that this may be one case where the CFAA claims are legit. Those claims are just targeting the Russians, who were the only ones who actually hacked the DNC. So, I'm actually fine with those claims. Other than the fact that they're useless. It's not like the Russian Federation or the GRU is going to show up in court to defend this. And they're certainly not going to agree to discovery. I doubt they'll acknowledge the lawsuit at all, frankly. So... reasonable claims, impossible target.

Then there's the Stored Communications Act (SCA), which is a part of ECPA, the Electronic Communications Privacy Act, which we've written about a ton and it does have lots of its own problems. These claims are also just against Russia, the GRU and Guccifer 2.0, and like the DMCA claims appear to be highly repetitive with the CFAA claims. Instead of just unauthorized access, it's now unauthorized access... to communications.

It's then when we get into the trade secrets part where things get... much more problematic. These claims are brought against not just the Russians, but also Wikileaks and Julian Assange. Even if you absolutely hate and / or distrust Assange, these claims are incredibly problematic against Wikileaks.

Defendants Russia, the GRU, GRU Operative #1, WikiLeaks, and Assange disclosed Plaintiff's trade secrets without consent, on multiple dates, discussed herein, knowing or having reason to know that trade secrets were acquired by improper means.

If that violates the law, then the law is unconstitutional. The press regularly publishes trade secrets that may have been acquired by improper means by others and handed to the press (as is the case with this content being handed to Wikileaks). Saying that merely disclosing the information is a violation of the law raises serious First Amendment issues for the press.

I mean, what's to stop President Trump from using the very same argument against the press for revealing, say, his tax returns? Or reports about business deals gone bad, or the details of secretive contracts? These could all be considered "trade secrets" and if the press can't publish them that would be a huge, huge problem.

In a later claim (under DC's specific trade secrets laws), the claims are extended to all defendants, which again raises serious First Amendment issues. Donald Trump Jr. may be a jerk, but it's not a violation of trade secrets if someone handed him secret DNC docs and he tweeted them or emailed them around.

There are also claims under Virginia's version of the CFAA. The claims against the Russians may make sense, but the complaint also makes claims against everyone else by claiming they "knowingly aided, abetted, encouraged, induced, instigated, contributed to and assisted Russia." Those seem like fairly extreme claims for many of the defendants, and again feel like the DNC very, very broadly interpreting a law to go way beyond what it should cover.

As noted above, there are some potentially legit claims in here around Russia hacking into the DNC's network (though, again, it's a useless defendant). But some of these other claims seem like incredible stretches, twisting laws like the DMCA for ridiculous purposes. And the trade secret claims against the non-Russians is highly suspect and almost certainly not a reasonable interpretation of the law under the First Amendment.

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07 Apr 23:16

Insane genius crafts a secret, 500-plus-tweet tribute to Avril Lavigne

by William Hughes

It seemed simple enough, at first: A fairly innocuous post from Twitter user @brainmage—a.k.a. comic and voice actor Guy Kelly—asking users to read through his social media timeline, noting the first word of every tweet. It might not have even made sense at first; it’s not like, “Hey,” “Hey,” “You,” and “You”…


17 May 15:10

Les Miserables and the Future of Publishing

by Jonathan Band

David Bellos’s new book about Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables demonstrates the degree to which the Internet has changed the role of the publishing industry in the dissemination of literature. The Novel of the Century: The Extraordinary Adventure of “Les Miserables,” has been favorably reviewed in the New York Times and the Washington Post, among other publications.

Bellos, a professor of comparative literature at Princeton University, describes the enormous efforts of the publisher, Albert Lacroix, to bring the 1,500-page novel to press in 1862. Victor Hugo wrote the novel while in exile on the island of Guernsey in the English Channel, so Lacroix had to arrange for the rapid transportation of thousands of pages of proofs and corrections by ship and coach between Brussels and Guernsey to meet the publication deadline. More significantly, Lacroix borrowed large sums from the Oppenheim bank to purchase the 22 tons of lead he needed to print the novel on steam-powered presses.

The Internet has substantially diminished these costs. A 21st century author can transmit her drafts instantaneously to her editor via email. Digital technology has cut the cost of printing by eliminating the need for typesetting, and printing costs can be avoided altogether through electronic publishing. Indeed, the Internet allows the author to bypass the publisher completely and reach a global audience through platforms such as Amazon or even her own website. These platforms increasingly offer print-on-demand options for consumers still interested in physical books.

Although digital technology has not diminished the creative energy necessary to write a novel (Hugo wrote Les Miserables over 16 years, with several interruptions), it has eased some aspects of the creative process. An author can conduct much of the research necessary for historical fiction from her laptop computer using Wikipedia, the Digital Public Library of America, and other online resources. Further, the ability to compose on the computer avoids the need to convert the handwritten manuscript into a usable form. Hugo’s mistress Juliette spent months transcribing Hugo’s manuscript, with its many scribbled corrections and notes, into a clean copy for Lacroix.

Just as the history of Les Miserables shows how much publishing has changed over the past two decades, it also demonstrates that the challenge of infringement, often presented as a new problem created by digital networks, also existed 150 years ago. A pirated Belgian edition of the novel appeared several weeks before the scheduled publication date in April 1862. Similarly, an infringing version of the English translation appeared in Richmond, Virginia, where the Union’s copyright laws did not apply during the Civil War. All references to slavery were omitted from this infringing Confederate version, which became so popular that General Robert E. Lee’s soldiers referred to themselves as “Lee’s miserables.”

Notwithstanding this infringement, Hugo profited handsomely from Les Miserables. Lacroix paid him $2.5 million in today’s dollars for the French publication rights for just eight years. Nonetheless, Hugo’s frustration with the difficulty in securing and enforcing rights in foreign jurisdictions led to his presiding over the 1878 International Literary Congress in Paris, which gave impetus to adoption of the Berne Convention in 1886. According to Peter Baldwin in Copyright Wars, however, Hugo was among the few authors advocating for a short copyright term.

The publishing industry has always managed to overcome the risk of increased infringement brought about by new technologies, including the photocopier and the Internet. It likely will have far greater difficulty contending with the impending obsolescence of its business model. Unless traditional publishers find new ways to provide value for authors, authors will increasingly conclude that these publishers are unnecessary intermediaries.

The post Les Miserables and the Future of Publishing appeared first on Disruptive Competition Project.

21 Apr 20:12

Techdirt Reading List: Moral Panics And The Copyright Wars

by Mike Masnick
We're back again with another in our weekly reading list posts of books we think our community will find interesting and thought provoking. Once again, buying the book via the Amazon links in this story also helps support Techdirt.

Congress appears to be gearing up to really look at copyright reform again, and so it probably shouldn't be a huge surprise that we're starting to see a ramp up of crazy hyperbole about how horrible infringing is, how it's destroying millions of jobs and billions in revenue. These claims seem to get even more ridiculous whenever legislation is on the line. I may do a post about some of the more recent whining about all of this, but for this week's reading list post, I thought it might be good to point people to Bill Patry's excellent Moral Panics and the Copyright Wars. Patry has been involved in the copyright world for decades, working on copyright issues in Congress and with the Copyright Office -- and also in private practice as a lawyer. He's written a massive treatise on copyright law called Patry on Copyright as well as a treatise focusing just on fair use -- both of which are frequently cited in legal decisions. He now works for Google -- which causes some people to try to dismiss what he says as biased. But with his background, knowledge and experience, you'd be foolish to do so.

Patry used to run an excellent blog, discussing various copyright topics, but unfortunately gave it up a few years ago, after he felt some of the copyright debates got too heated. Either way Moral Panics and the Copyright Wars is a worthwhile read (or reread, if you haven't read it in a few years), and I highly recommend it for people observing just how the propaganda campaign for stricter copyright laws is shaping up. Patry goes back and explores just how the legacy players have long twisted language to make arguments around copyright that have little basis in reality, but which sound good to policymakers (and to the press). Since that is undoubtedly happening again, it's important to understand its history to be aware of attempts to manipulate the debate yet again.

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12 Apr 22:46

Why Doesn't The Anti-Encryption Bill List Any Penalties?

by Mike Masnick
We've already written a bit about the technologically ignorant bill from Senators Richard Burr and Dianne Feinstein that basically outlaws any encryption system that doesn't include backdoors for law enforcement. However, there are still some points in the bill that have left some folks scratching their heads. In particular, the lack of any penalty at all has some commenters wondering what the bill actually does. The bill both says that it doesn't "require or prohibit any specific design or operating system," but at the same time does require that anyone offering or supporting any kind of encryption be able to pass along unencrypted versions of the communication to law enforcement when presented with a legitimate court order or warrant (so not just a warrant...). As Orin Kerr noted, the bill mandates assistance, rather than using the more typical requirement of "reasonable" assistance.

Instead, the bill is explicit that if you receive an order, you have to hand over the unencrypted data. The law specifically reads: "a covered entity that receives a court order from a government for information or data shall provide such information or data to such government in an intelligible format; or provide such technical assistance as is necessary to obtain such information or data in an intelligible format or to achieve the purpose of the court order." No best efforts. No reasonable assistance in the face of situations where that can't be done. The bill requires that you provide unencrypted data. Or else.

Or else... what? The bill includes absolutely nothing on the penalties for failing to comply. This has led some on Twitter (including a guy I've been discussing it with who deletes all his tweets after tweeting them or I'd post them here...) to argue that the bill actually promotes encryption, since if a company can't provide unencrypted data, then the law has no impact. That's not true however. First of all, both Burr and Feinstein have been going on and on about demanding backdoors and whining about encryption for a long time. There's no way they wrote a bill that would support stronger encryption. Second, all of the rest of the language in the bill includes various statements like "shall provide" and other items that leave no wiggle room at all. Providing any kind of encryption without providing a backdoor for law enforcement would violate this law.

So... why the lack of penalties? There are a few theories floating around. (1) This is still a draft of the bill. Those penalties will be added in later, after everyone's fought over the rest of the bill. Leaving out the penalties at this stage lets Feinstein and Burr focus the fight. (2) The bill will allow courts to claim that any company not providing such unencrypted text is in contempt and issue increasingly large fines that make it practically impossible to be a business in the US without providing backdoors to encryption and basically demolishing everyone's security. Neither option is appealing.

This bill is bad in so many ways and no one's focusing on the punishment part because it's not even in the bill yet -- but make no mistake -- if this bill passes, there will be punishment (potentially severe punishment) for any company that wants to use actual encryption.

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02 Nov 22:00

Democrats Screw Over Larry Lessig To Keep Him Out Of The Debates; Forces Lessig To Drop His Campaign

by Mike Masnick
Ever since Larry Lessig announced his campaign for the Presidency a few months ago, we noted that it wasn't just a long shot, but seemed more like a gimmick to get the (very real) issue of political corruption into the debates. I like Larry quite a bit and support many of his efforts, but this one did seem kind of crazy. I'm glad that he's willing to take on crazy ideas to see if they'll work, because that's how real change eventually comes about, but the whole thing did seem a bit quixotic. That said, the last thing I expected was that the Democratic Party would be so scared of him as to flat out lie and change the rules to keep his ideas from reaching the public. Yet, that's what it did, and because of that, Lessig has dropped his campaign for the Presidency. You can see the video of him explaining this decision below: An article from one of his advisers, Steve Jarding, explains the situation in more detail. We already knew that the Democratic Party had tried to keep him out of the debates by not "officially" welcoming him to the race -- as it had done with candidates like Jim Webb and Lincoln Chaffee who had raised less money and were polling lower than Lessig. And many polling operations hadn't included Lessig in their polls because they relied on the DNC's official welcome to start polling.

In response, Lessig had dropped his original gimmicky promise to resign the Presidency after getting campaign finance reform through Congress. Based on that, it was expected that the DNC would recognize his campaign. In the meantime, more polling operations started putting Lessig in their polls, and he was polling over 1% -- which was the threshold that the DNC had clearly told Lessig's campaign was necessary to cross to get into the debates. In fact, Lessig's campaign had specifically asked and gotten confirmation on the rules:

The DNC's rules for candidate participation in their debates were pretty straightforward--or so we thought. In August, before the Lessig campaign began, DNC Chair, Debbie Wasserman-Schultz, announced the standards for being included in the debates. As she described the rule, a candidate had to have 1 percent in three DNC sanctioned national polls, "in the six weeks prior to the debate."

Hitting 1 percent would not be easy, but it was possible. And indeed, at the end of August already one national polling firm, PPP, found Lessig at 1 percent nationally.

Yet, about this time, Lessig's campaign manager received a troubling email from the DNC, suggesting the debate participation standards were different. The email included a memo that stated that the three polls had to be "at least six weeks prior to the" debate--contradicting what Wasserman-Schultz had said that they could be "in the six weeks prior to the debate." To try to clear up the contradiction, I arranged a call with the DNC. On that call, the DNC political director confirmed to me the rule was as the Chair had stated it--three polls finding 1 percent "in the six weeks prior to the debate."

But... then the rules magically changed, despite the fact that it shows that the previous debate wouldn't have allowed some candidates if the DNC had followed the same rules:

And indeed, that is precisely the rule that was applied in the first debate. As CNN specified in a late September memo, to qualify a candidate had to poll at 1 percent in the "polls released between August 1, 2015 and October 10, 2015." The first debate was October 12.

So, we believed we had our guidelines. And as such, we worked hard--and spent our campaign's resources--to meet this clarified goal. It wasn't easy, as most of the national polls didn't even include Lessig's name. But then a week ago, a Monmouth poll of Democrats nationally found him at the qualifying percentage. Then an NBC poll found the same. HuffPost Pollster now lists three polls at 1%. Since the Monmouth poll, no poll that included Lessig's name found him with anything less than 1%.

The new rules, which seem solely designed to block Lessig out:

Late last week, the DNC again changed the rules for participation in the debates. Just at the point that it seemed Lessig was about to get in, the DNC has shut the door.

We were informed of this change in a phone call late last week that I had with the DNC political director. During that call, I was told that the DNC participation standard for the debates was for a candidate to be at one percent in three polls conducted, "six weeks prior to the debate"--not the clarified rule cited earlier by Wasserman-Shultz and the DNC political director that a candidate had to be at one percent in three polls conducted "in the six weeks prior to the debate." To further make the point, the political director confirmed the new rule in a follow-up email to me.

Under this new rule, Lessig obviously cannot qualify for the November 14 debate. He would have had to qualify four weeks ago! Under this new rule, all the work--and expense--of the past four weeks has been for naught. The door has been shut. By DNC mandate, Larry Lessig won't be participating in the Democratic Party debates.

This seems pretty fucked up. Yes, politics is a nasty business, but let's face it: Lessig had no chance to win, but could have had a real impact on the campaigns and what followed by participating in the debates. And he did everything by the rules... and still got fucked over for it.

If Debbie Wasserman-Shultz and the Democratic National Party wanted to do a job highlighting just how corrupt the process is, they just did a great job.

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26 Oct 17:44

AcaWiki non-summary

by Mike Linksvayer

Six years ago I helped launch AcaWiki, a site based on Semantic MediaWiki (software for which I had very high expectations, mostly transferred to Wikidata) for summarizing academic research.

A substantial community failed to materialize. I’ve probably been the only semi-consistent contributor over its entire six years. The best contributions have come from Jodi Schneider, who summarized a bunch of papers related to her research on the semantic web and online discourse, Benjamin Mako Hill, who summarized his PhD qualification exam readings, and Nate Matias who did the same and added a bunch of summaries related to online harassment. Students of an archaeology course taught by Ben Marwick summarized many papers as part of the class. Thank you Jodi, Mako, Nate, Ben, and a bunch of people who have each contributed one or a few summaries.

I’m not going to try to enumerate the deficiencies of AcaWiki here. They boil down to lack of time dedicated to outreach and to improving the site, and zero effort to raise funds to support such work, following a small startup grant obtained by AcaWiki’s founder Neeru Paharia, who has since been busy earning a doctorate and becoming a professor. With Neeru I’ve been the organization’s other long-term director so bear responsibility for this lack of effort. In retrospect dedicating more time to AcaWiki these last years at a cost to non-collaborative activity (e.g., this blog) would have been wise. I haven’t moved to take the other obvious course of shutting down the site, because I still believe something like it is badly needed, not least by me, as I wrote in 2009:

This could be seen as an end-run around access and copyright restrictions (the Open Access movement has made tremendous progress though there is still much to be done), but AcaWiki is a very partial solution to that problem — sometimes an article summary (assuming AcaWiki has one) would be enough, though often a researcher would still need access to the full paper (and the full dataset, but that’s another battle).

More interesting to me is the potential for AcaWiki summaries to increase the impact of research by making it more accessible in another way — comprehensible to non-specialists and approachable by non-speedreaders. I read a fair number of academic papers and many more get left on my reading queue unread. A “human readable” distillation of the key points of articles (abstracts typically convey next to nothing or are filled with jargon) would really let me ingest more.

This has held true even given AcaWiki’s tiny size to date: I regularly look back at summaries I’ve written to remember what I’ve read, and wish I summarized much more of what I’ve read, because most of it I’ve almost totally forgotten! I recommend summarizing papers even though it is hard.

Much harder still and more valuable are literature reviews. These were envisioned to be a part of AcaWiki, but I now think that every Wikipedia article should effectively be a literature review (and more). A year ago I blogged about an example of Wikipedia article as literature review led by James Heilman. Earlier this year Heilman wrote a call to action around a genre of literature review, Open Access to a High-Quality, Impartial, Point-of-Care Medical Summary Would Save Lives: Why Does It Not Exist? (which of course I summarized on AcaWiki). I have a partially written commentary on this piece but for now I can only urge you to read Heilman, or start with and improve my summary.

This brings me to one of my excuses for not dedicating more time to AcaWiki: hope that it would be superseded by a project directly under the Wikimedia umbrella, benefiting from that organization’s and movement’s scale. But, I’ve done almost nothing to make this happen, either. I imagine the current effort that could lead in that direction is WikiProject Open Signalling OA-ness, as I’ve noted at the top of a page on AcaWiki listing similar projects. By far the best project on the list is Journalist’s Resource, also launched in 2009, with vastly greater resources. The projects listed so far as “similar” must only the tip of an iceberg of efforts to summarize academic research, for it’s widely recognized (yes, citation needed; I just created a placeholder on AcaWiki for gathering these) that summarization in various forms is valuable and much more is needed.

If this hasn’t been enough of a ramble already, I’ll close with miscellaneous notes about and unsorted to-dos AcaWiki:

  • Very brief summaries, perhaps 140 character or not much longer, would be useful complements to longer summaries. It would be easy to add a short summary field to AcaWiki.
  • For summaries of articles which are themselves freely licensed, it might be useful to include the author’s abstract in AcaWiki. Again, it would be easy to add a field.
  • There’s lots of research on automated summarization, some of it producing open source tools. These could be applied to initialize summaries, either for human summaries, or en masse bot summary creation.
  • I have added a field for an article’s Wikidata identifier. AcaWiki is one of a handful of sites potentially using Wikidata for authority control. There will be many more. But it’d be far more useful to do something with that identifier, most obviously to ingest article metadata from Wikidata and create Wikidata items/push metadata to Wikidata where items corresponding to summarized articles do not exist. I’ve not yet seriously looked into how much of this can be currently accomplished using Wikibase Client.
  • Last month there was debate about a program giving some Wikipedia contributors gratis access to closed academic journals. Does this program help improve Wikipedia as a free resource, or promote non-free literature? It must do some of both; which is the bigger impact on long-term free knowledge outcomes probably depends on one’s perspective. My bias is that improving and promoting free resources is vastly more important than suppressing non-free ones. But I also think that free academic summaries could help in both respects. For Wikipedia readers, a reference with an immediately available summary would be more useful than one without. The summary would also reduce the need to access the original non-free article. AcaWiki in its current state is inadequate, but perhaps the the debate ought motivate more work on free academic summaries, here or elsewhere.
  • Has any closed access publisher freed only article abstracts (including a free license; abstracts are almost always gratis access)? This would be useful to a site like AcaWiki at the least, especially if abstracts were more consistently useful.
  • Should the scope of AcaWiki be explicitly expanded to include summarizing material that is somehow academic but is not in the form of a peer-reviewed paper published in an academic journal? Some of the summaries I’ve contributed are for books or grey literature.
  • Periodically it’s been suggested to change the default license for AcaWiki summaries from CC-BY to CC-BY-SA. I should add updated thoughts at the link.
  • Some time ago in order to put a stop to the creation of spam accounts, I enabled the ConfirmAccount extension, which forces users who want to contribute to fill out an account request form. I admit this is hugely annoying. I have done zero research into it, but I would love to have an extension which auto-enables account creation based on some external authentication and reputation, e.g., Wikimedia wiki accounts or even users followed/subscribed to/endorsed by existing AcaWiki users on other sites, e.g., social networks.
  • Upgrade site to https when Let’s Encrypt becomes generally available. Alternatively, see if it is possible to move hosting (currently a $10/month Digital Ocean VPS) to Miraheze, which mandates https.
  • I intended to write an update on AcaWiki for Open Access Week (October 19-25). I only realized after beginning that AcaWiki was recently 6 years old.
  • I’m going to ping the people who have contributed to AcaWiki so far to look at this post and provide feedback. What would it take for them to feel good about recommending others do what they’ve done, e.g., summarizing PhD or research program readers, or assigning contributing or improving AcaWiki summaries to their classes? Or if something else entirely should be done to push forward free summarization of academic literature, what is that something?
  • For some time Fabricatorz did a bit of work on and hosted AcaWiki. From my email correspondence I see that Bassel Khartabil did some of that. As I’ve blogged before (1, 2, 3), Bassel has been detained by the Syrian government since 2012. Recently he has gone missing and presumably is in grave danger. Props to his Frabricatorz and many other friends who have done more to raise awareness of Bassel’s plight than I would have imagined possible when writing those previous posts. See for info and links, and spread the word. I’ll add a note about #freebassel to the AcaWiki home page (which badly needs a general revamp) shortly.

If any of this interests you, get in touch or merely watch for updates on the acawiki-general mailing list, AcaWiki on, Twitter, or Facebook, or blog comments below, or the AcaWiki site.

16 Oct 18:36

Call Of Duty Tries To Pull An Orson Welles And Gets Backlash Instead Of Panic

by Timothy Geigner

There are just so many ways to get marketing stunts wrong, particularly in an era where these stunts and their effects can go viral so quickly. You can stage a protest against your own product, for instance. Or maybe you can pimp your cartoon show in such a way that a major city calls out the bomb squads. Or, hey, why not just fake having an entire office building taken hostage to celebrate the release of a new bit of technology? Pretty dumb, right?

Well, how about as dumb as trying to remake the infamous (and probably massively apocryphal) radio broadcast of H.G. Wells' The War of the Worlds by yanking the stunt into modernity using Twitter instead of radio?

Call of Duty’s attempt to merge the futuristic fiction of its latest game, Black Ops 3, with rapid-fire Twitter marketing has met with some criticism - enough to warrant an apology from the game’s campaign director, Jason Blundell.

“I personally am very sorry for anyone who looked at it and got the wrong idea because it genuinely wasn’t meant that way,” Blundell tells IGN.

Blundell is referring to a briefly staged takeover of the Call of Duty Twitter account on 29 September, during which the channel’s name was changed to "Current Events Aggregate." The account tweeted several out-of-place stories, seemingly plucked from a news source in the near future - the same future proposed by Call of Duty: Black Ops 3. It wasn’t until the reports suggested a terrorist attack in Singapore that followers criticized the stunt as lacking in context and being in poor taste. Several outlets, including the BBC, reported on the social backlash.
It seems that there was nothing like the widespread panic to this stunt as the legend of the broadcast of The War of the Worlds entailed, but still, what were they thinking? There are enough world events centering around terrorist attacks in enough parts of the world that are so often reported on Twitter before other sources that they had to realize that some percentage of readers would think that this renamed Twitter handle was reporting on real-world events. Even once the name was changed back, quick-scrollers would likely only see the headline first, and possibly react to it as though it were real news.

BREAKING NEWS: Unconfirmed reports are coming in of an explosion on the North bank of the Singapore Marina.

— Call of Duty (@CallofDuty) September 29, 2015

Is this cruel? No. Hell no. Was it dumb? Absolutely. Marketing doesn't occur in a vacuum, after all, and part of the point of this marketing stunt is that the Call of Duty franchise strives for a certain kind of gritty realism, dealing with topics of terrorism and war. Tone-deaf marketing atempts that might misinform are more likely than not to end in apologies, as did happen in this case. And for what benefit?

“It was done on our channel, and it was to talk about the fiction of the world, says Blundell. ”I think we were as shocked as everybody else when it started blowing up, because essentially we were teeing up ready for a story beat.” Blundell also distances himself from involvement in the marketing, saying “it was absolutely not done for any kind of attention in any way.”
That just doesn't pass the smell test, unfortunately. You don't devise Twitter marketing stunts and then get surprised when they get attention. Probably best at this point to make it a bit easier to identify the fiction in the "story beat," I think.

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16 Oct 05:55

How Bad Copyright Law Makes Us Less Safe... And How Regulators Have It All Backwards

by Mike Masnick
For quite some time we've pointed out how problematic Section 1201 of the DMCA is. That's the part of the law that says it's copyright infringement to simply circumvent any kind of "technological protection measure" even if the reasons for doing so are perfectly legal and have nothing to do with infringement at all. And, of course, we now have the big "1201 Triennial Review" results that are about to come out. That's the system that was put in place because even Congress realized just how stupid Section 1201 was and how much innovation and research it would limit -- so it created a weird sort of safety valve. Every three years, the Copyright Office and the Librarian of Congress would work together to come up with classes of technology that are magically "exempted" from the law. Now, normally, you'd think that if you have to come up with exemptions, there's probably something wrong with the law that needs to be fixed, but that's not the way this worked.

The latest triennial review results are about to come out, and a lot of people are focused on it -- in part because of current events. As you may recall, earlier this year, we wrote about one of the exemption requests in particular: over whether or not you can tinker with the software in your car. GM was fighting against this, and we were shocked to then see the EPA side with GM (!?!?) on this issue, claiming that it's a perfectly reasonable use of copyright law to stop tinkering with cars on the off chance that some of that tinkering might lead to changing emissions to illegal levels.

Of course, just a few weeks later, we discovered that VW had been playing games with its software to avoid emissions tests and pollute the world at a much greater rate than is legal (or healthy). Many people have pointed out that, if the software wasn't all locked up, it seems likely that people would have discovered this problem much earlier. The latest to weigh in on this is Senator Ron Wyden, in a WSJ op-ed, where he explains how the EPA has this whole thing completely backwards:
This year the Environmental Protection Agency submitted comments to the Copyright Office requesting that no exemptions should be granted for car owners or researchers to access and modify the software in their vehicles. The EPA says you shouldn’t be allowed to tinker with your car because it might increase emissions from your tailpipe.

This would block any researcher who would study software in automobiles to make them safer or more environmentally friendly. This summer, security researchers demonstrated that a hacker could take over a Jeep’s systems—GPS, transmission and brakes, among others—over the Internet. This could lead to crashes and even sabotage. In this case at least, Chrysler recalled 1.4 million vehicles to patch that vulnerability, which otherwise could have gone unnoticed.

The obstacle thrown up against access to copyrighted software makes it more difficult for researchers and engineers to find similar problems in the future. Volkswagen’s falsified emissions reports were discovered by independent testing—yet the source of the problem was in the automobile’s software. Independent researchers might have found the problem sooner if not for the threat of lawsuits brought by the company under the DMCA.

In short, while the EPA is worried about individuals potentially violating the Clean Air Act or other regulations, it should be worried about the companies that are actually doing so.
And it's not just the EPA. As Wyden notes, the FDA is doing something similar, which may be even more dangerous:
The Food and Drug Administration also is getting in on the copyright game. It is telling the Copyright Office that modifying software in medical devices, and then providing them to patients without FDA approval, could put people in danger. But the distribution of untested devices is already illegal. Copyright law should not prevent researchers from taking a look at the software and thinking about how to make devices more effective and safer.
Wyden (along with Rep. Jared Polis) introduced a bill earlier this year to try to deal with this on a permanent basis, rather than through this ridiculous triennial review process. Of course, if the TPP is approved, it may be more difficult to actually make such a change.

But, really, the fact that the FDA and the EPA are making these arguments is a real sign of just how broken our copyright law is and how little many regulators understand innovation, technology and intellectual property. The EPA and the FDA come from a world of "permission-only innovation." They are both focused solely on setting up laws that "prevent bad stuff" usually through setting up testing regimes. But those regimes can be gamed -- and they don't seem to recognize that by allowing permissionless innovation to happen, it also opens up worlds of useful research and beneficial innovations, both of which could do a lot more to prevent the kinds of harm that the EPA and the FDA think they're preventing by opposing these exemptions.

There's a fundamental misunderstanding of the nature of innovation in this setup -- where regulators think that the unknown must be "dangerous" and should be prevented until proven okay. But, as history has shown, such a setup only opens up all sorts of games that the big knowledgeable players can use to dance around those regulations, and no real way for outsiders to call them on it (or to create better alternatives). Permissionless innovation is not just a slogan, it's incredibly effective -- and misusing copyright law to prevent it, out of the fear that something bad might possibly happen, without recognizing all the good that is much more likely to come from it, is really dangerous. We're only just learning that now because of what's finally come out in the news about VW, but getting rid of the stupid anti-circumvention clause in the DMCA would go a long way towards actually fixing this mess, rather than relying on bureaucrats whose defacto response is to say "don't do that."

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13 Oct 18:16

For Patent Trolls, Location Is Everything

by Elliot Harmon

This is the year for patent reform. Let’s put an end to forum shopping.

There’s a bill on the U.S. Senate floor that would make it more difficult for patent trolls to pressure innovators with unfair infringement lawsuits. But there’s a key provision missing. Without that provision, we think that the bill’s reforms would not be as effective as they could be.

The PATENT Act (Protecting American Talent and Entrepreneurship Act) would take some big steps to fix patent litigation. It would require patent owners to provide more in-depth information about the alleged infringement at the time when they file suit (it’s a common patent troll tactic to waste defendants’ time and money with unclear allegations). It would make it more difficult for trolls to target end users. When the court rules against a troll, it would allow the court to more easily require the troll to pay the defendants’ legal fees. We’ve written about the PATENT Act before, and we think it’s a promising development.

What’s missing? Venue reform.

Why does venue matter?

Under current law, a patent owner can usually file suit in any district in which the defendant does business. The federal circuit has ruled that for the purposes of determining where a patent case is heard, a business is considered active in any state in which its products or services are available. For many patent defendants, that means that a troll can sue them for infringement in any district in the U.S., regardless of where they’re based or conduct the bulk of their business.

To understand why that’s a problem, look no further than the Eastern District of Texas. In the past 16 years, the Eastern District has become increasingly attractive to patent trolls as a venue for patent infringement suits. In the first half of 2015, nearly half of the nation’s patent lawsuits were filed there.

Earlier this year, we reported that some Eastern District of Texas judges had instituted rules that seemingly contradict federal procedural law. For example, the federal rules allow a defendant to file a “motion for summary judgment,” arguing that the plaintiff cannot win given the undisputed facts of the case. This process is meant to be quicker and more efficient than trial and can discourage patent owners from filing blatantly absurd infringement suits.

But some judges in the Eastern District require defendants to ask for permission to file a motion for summary judgment, with no assurance that the court will give that permission. As for defendants that are granted permission to file a motion for summary judgment, those motions are successful only 18% of the time (the national average is 31%).

Another way the Eastern District favors patent owners is with discovery rules. Discovery is the process whereby litigants request information and documents from each other that will be relevant to the case. Discovery is often very expensive for defendants in patent infringement cases; it’s one of several factors that can make patent litigation much more costly for the defendant than for the plaintiff.

It’s particularly problematic in the Eastern District, where judges require parties to turn over a lot of information without being asked and to do so very early on in the litigation. That increases costs on defendants (who are usually the ones with lots of documents, especially when the patent owner is a non-practicing entity) and helps patent owners push for a settlement.

The upshot is clear: if you’re a patent troll, file your infringement suits in the Eastern District of Texas. They’ll be expensive for defendants, and that expense will give you ample leverage to pressure for a settlement. If they do go to a trial, you’ll have an elevated chance of winning.

Venue reform strengthens other patent reform measures

We think it’s crucial that a comprehensive patent reform package includes venue reform. In fact, its absence in the PATENT Act arguably weakens other provisions in the bill.

As we mentioned above, one of the key changes the bill would make is allowing courts to force plaintiffs to pay defendants’ legal costs for unreasonable infringement suits (fee shifting). But it’s important to keep in mind that judges will have considerable discretion when deciding whether to award fees.

Given the Eastern District of Texas’ track record, it may be less likely to grant defendants’ motions for attorney fees than other districts. The district appears to have denied all motions for fees in recent months, though the data set is very small. Since fee shifting is largely within the judge’s discretion, it will give plaintiffs even more incentive to sue in the most plaintiff-friendly jurisdictions.

It’s not about Texas

It would be a mistake to think that venue reform is just about Texas. It’s not. If the Eastern District changed its rules, other districts might take its place. And therein lies the real problem: as long as plaintiffs can file patent lawsuits anywhere, defendants’ rights will only be as strong as the weakest link.

Allowing plaintiffs to sue in any district unavoidably creates a market for forum selling. In that market, the plaintiff has all of the buying power. Any rule changes, biases, or precedents that benefit the plaintiff (or even appear to benefit the plaintiff) will be rewarded; any that don’t will be punished. As Daniel Klerman and Greg Reilly put it, “When plaintiffs have wide choice of forum, such judges have incentives to make the law more pro-plaintiff, because plaintiffs choose the court with the most pro-plaintiff law and procedures.”

Even if no court went out of its way to favor patent owners, their ability to shop for a forum would still be inherently advantageous. It’s unavoidable that patterns emerge among courts, both in their procedures and in their rulings. Predictable patterns in judges' perspectives aren’t necessarily a bad thing, but forum shopping lets plaintiffs exploit them.

It’s not too late

The Innovation Act is currently on the floor in the U.S. House of Representatives. EFF endorses both bills, while recognizing that each one has its strengths and weaknesses, but one thing that the Innovation Act gets right is venue reform.

Under the Innovation Act, venue for patent litigation would be limited to districts where it makes sense; for example, where the defendant’s principle place of business is, or where the patent owner has a working, manufacturing facility. We believe that that simple provision is an essential bedrock that will significantly strengthen the final patent reform package.

This is the year for patent reform. If you care about innovators’ rights, contact your representative, contact your senators, and let them know that patent reform is important to you. Tell them it’s crucial that venue reform makes it into the final bill.

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15 Sep 04:40

Important Win for Fair Use in ‘Dancing Baby’ Lawsuit

by Rebecca Jeschke
Appeals Court Affirms That Copyright Owners Must Consider Fair Use in Online Takedowns

San Francisco – A federal appeals court in San Francisco today affirmed that copyright holders must consider whether a use of material is fair before sending a takedown notice. The ruling came in Lenz v. Universal, often called the “dancing baby” lawsuit.

The Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) represents Stephanie Lenz, who—back in 2007—posted a 29-second video to YouTube of her children dancing in her kitchen. The Prince song “Let’s Go Crazy” was playing on a stereo in the background of the short clip. Universal Music Group sent YouTube a notice under the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA), claiming that the family video infringed the copyright in Prince’s song. EFF sued Universal on Lenz’s behalf, arguing that Universal abused the DMCA by improperly targeting a lawful fair use.

Today, the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit ruled that copyright holders like Universal must consider fair use before trying to remove content from the Internet. It also rejected Universal’s claim that a victim of takedown abuse cannot vindicate her rights if she cannot show actual monetary loss.

“Today’s ruling sends a strong message that copyright law does not authorize thoughtless censorship of lawful speech,” said EFF Legal Director Corynne McSherry. “We’re pleased that the court recognized that ignoring fair use rights makes content holders liable for damages.”

Today’s ruling in the Lenz case comes at a critical time. Heated political campaigns—like the current presidential primaries—have historically led to a rash of copyright takedown abuse. Criticism of politicians often includes short clips of campaign appearances in order to make arguments to viewers, and broadcast networks, candidates, and other copyright holders have sometimes misused copyright law in order to remove the criticism from the Internet.

“The decision made by the appeals court today has ramifications far beyond Ms. Lenz’s rights to share her video with family and friends,” said McSherry. “We will all watch a lot of online video and analysis of presidential candidates in the months to come, and this ruling will help make sure that information remains uncensored.”

Keker & Van Nest LLP serves as co-counsel on Lenz v. Universal.

For the full decision from the Ninth Circuit:

For more on this case:

Media Relations Director and Digital Rights Analyst

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15 Sep 04:40

The consultants you should ignore

by Jeff Brooks

Have you met one of these consultants?

  • The guy who tells you to throw everything you have into "Twitter fundraising," but he only has 800 followers on Twitter, and has never transacted any business of any kind on Twitter.
  • The switch everything to mobile right now guy. Who communicates with you by email and phone.
  • The guy (yes, they're pretty much always guys) who says donors will be transacting in Bitcoin within the next couple of years, and you need to start switching over to the digital currency. What does he charge for his help? Well, it's in dollars, not Bitcoins, that's for sure.

As the Good Book says, Turn and flee!

Or, as Michael Hyatt's blog advises at The kind of people you should never take advice from: "Never take advice from people who aren't getting the results you want to experience."

You can't turn around without bumping into someone trying to sell you a shiny object. Most of those shiny objects are going to be a waste of time and money. A few will do something useful, promising, or even great.

One way to tell the difference?

See if the consultant who's selling is making it work already.

Don't be the guinea pig for someone's speculation. (And don't be the victim of an outright con job.)

See results before you buy!

03 Sep 15:36

Speech that Enables Speech: China Takes Aim at Its Coders

by Danny O'Brien

The maintainer of GoAgent, one of China's more popular censorship circumvention tools emptied out the project's main source code repositories on Tuesday. Phus Lu, the developer, renamed the repository’s description to “Everything that has a beginning has an end”. Phus Lu’s Twitter account's historywas also deleted, except for a single tweet that linked to a Chinese translation of Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s “Live Not By Lies”. That essay was originally published in 1974 on the day of the Russian dissident’s arrest for treason.

We can guess what caused Phus Lu to erase over four years’ work on an extremely popular program from the brief comments of another Chinese anti-censorship programmer, Clowwindy. Clowwindy was the chief developer of ShadowSocks, another tool that circumvented the Great Firewall of China by creating an encrypted tunnel between a simple server and a portable client. Clowwindy also deleted his or her Github repositories last week. In a comment on the now empty Github archive Clowwindy wrote in English:

Two days ago the police came to me and wanted me to stop working on this. Today they asked me to delete all the code from Github. I have no choice but to obey.

The author deleted that comment too shortly afterwards.

Github, the host for both repositories, reported a DDoS attack on the days between these two incidents. While Github has not commented on the source of the current attack, the evidence strongly suggests that a previous DDoS against Github in March was conducted by the Chinese government to pressure the company to remove the repositories of two other anti-censorship programs.

The Chinese government’s control of the Internet passes through regular waves of enhanced repression, often tied to a significant political event or protest. Many commentators have connected a current wave of media and Internet crackdowns to a forthcoming military parade commemorating World War II in Beijing on September 3.

But even as a peak moment in a temporary spate of repression, the intimidation of GoAgent and ShadowSock’s creators represents a continuing escalation by the authorities against technologists.

Chinese law has long forbidden the selling of telecommunication services that bypass the Great Firewall of China, as well as the creation or distribution of “harmful information”. Until recently, however, the authorities have not targeted the authors of non-commercial circumvention software, nor its users. Human Rights in China, a Chinese rights advocacy and research organization, told EFF that, based on its preliminary review, VPNs and circumvention software is not specifically prohibited under Chinese law. While the state interferes with people's ability to use such software, it has not outlawed the software itself.

In November, Phus Lu wrote a public declaration to clarify this point. In the statement, he stated that he has received no money to develop GoAgent, provided no circumvention service, nor asserted any political view.

Phus Lu’s caution at that time was prompted by the police questioning of another technologist, Xu Dong, a supporter of the Hong Kong opposition Umbrella Movement who was detained in the same month for “picking quarrels and creating disturbances”. According to the Washington-based blog China Change, Xu Dong, who goes by the nym Onionhacker online, had also been working on censorship circumvention code. During his detention he was told by the police that he had committed “crimes of developing software to help Chinese Internet users scale the Great Fire Wall of China.”

Even if it's unclear what law Xu Dong had broken, if any, in November, the legal and political climate has grown even more aggressively anti-Internet since then. A new National Security Law came into effect on July 1 , which provides the authorities with a wide remit to oversee “internet information technology produces and services” that impact national security (Art. 59), as well as maintain “network sovereignty” (Art. 25). It seems that is already being interpreted to include the creators of circumvention software. A sweeping bill on cyber-security is also in the works.

The targeting of software developers by China is a new and worrying trend, but one that we’re seeing occur around the world. Authorities everywhere are realising that one way to sabotage free expression is to intimidate those who build the tools that enable that speech.

Technologists like Phus Lu, Clowwindy and Xu Dong are now facing the same political scrutiny and intimidation in authoritarian regimes as independent writers, publishers, poets or journalists did in Solzhenitsyn’s time. Code is speech: and using police intimidation to compel these creators to delete their code repositories is as serious a violation of human rights law as compelling a writer to burn his or her own books.

It’s also as ultimately futile: while the Chinese authorities have chosen to target and disrupt two centralised stores of code, thousand of forked copies of the same software exist—both on other accounts on Github and in private copies around the Net. ShadowSocks and GoAgent represent hours of creative work for their authors, but the principle behind them is reproducible by many other coders. The Great Firewall may be growing more sophisticated in detecting and blocking new circumvention systems, but even as it does so, so new code blossoms.

Meanwhile the intimidation of programmers remains a violation of the human rights of the coder—and a blow to the rights of everyone who relies on their creativity to exercise their own rights.

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03 Sep 15:34

Translating Alice.

by languagehat

Andrea Appleton at reports on a new publication:

Middle Welsh and Manx, Lingwa de Planeta and Latgalian. In its 150-year history, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland has been translated into every major language and numerous minor ones, including many that are extinct or invented. Only some religious texts and a few other children’s books—including The Little Prince by French writer Antoine de Saint-Exupéry—reportedly rival Alice for sheer number of linguistic variations.

But the real wonder is that any Alice translations exist at all. Penned in 1865 by English scholar Charles Lutwidge Dodgson, aka Lewis Carroll, the book’s delight in wordplay and cultural parodies makes it a torment for translators.

How do you write about the Mouse’s tale without losing the all-important pun on “tail”? Some languages, like the Aboriginal tongue Pitjantjatjara, don’t even use puns. What about when a character takes an idiom literally? [...]

A massive new work, Alice in a World of Wonderlands, devotes three volumes to exploring such questions. Published by Oak Knoll Press, the books include essays by 251 writers analyzing the beloved children’s book in 174 languages. The essays are scholarly but peppered with anecdotes illuminating the peculiarities of language and culture as they relate to Carroll’s book. [...]

Language and typography scholar Michael Everson says the novel’s inherent difficulty is part of its appeal. “The Alice challenge seems to be one that people like because it’s really fun,” he says. “Wracking your brains to resurrect a pun that works in your language even though it shouldn’t, that sort of thing.” For instance, an early Gujarati translator managed to capture the tail/tale pun for readers of that western Indian tongue. When someone talks incessantly, it is often conveyed through the Gujarati phrase poonchadoo nathee dekhatun, which means “no end in sight”—allowing the translator to play on poonchadee, the word for “tail”, with poonchadoo.

I love the Gujarati example, and there are other goodies at the link (“In the Swahili edition, the Hatter wears a fez and the dormouse is a bush baby”). It’s amazing how clever people can be at coming up with corresponding wordplay. And I should note that the article doesn’t mention one of the more famous and successful versions, Nabokov’s Аня в Стране Чудес.

02 Sep 17:51

Why Shouldn't Copyright Be Infinite?

by Maira Sutton

The following is a guest post from Eric Crampton, Head of Research at the New Zealand Initiative, who previously served as Lecturer and Senior Lecturer in Economics at the Department of Economics & Finance at the University of Canterbury.

Australia National University’s Dr. George Barker suggested that New Zealand could do well by strengthening its copyright legislation. He warned against the fair dealing exceptions that have crept into the law and asked, “Why not have copyright law like property law—i.e. it lasts forever?” 

That is a good question. And it is an important one as New Zealand and other countries consider extending the term of copyright under the Trans-Pacific Partnership agreement. Current New Zealand law maintains copyright in written and artistic works for 50 years after the death of the writer. Copyright in film and sound recordings is shorter, lasting 50 years from the works being first made available. While the text of the TPP is not yet public, it appears that the agreement would extend copyright’s duration to 70 years from the death of the creator.

So why shouldn’t copyright be infinite?

Five years ago, Larrikin Music, who bought the rights to an old Australian folk song, sued Men At Work for including an 11-note flute sequence from it in their 80s-hit, “Down Under”. Where Men At Work had intended homage in its celebration of all things Australian, Larrikin, and the law, saw copyright infringement. 

But does that really go far enough? If an 11-note sequence counts as infringement, how much do modern artists owe Pachelbel’s descendants? The four-chord sequence making up the core of his Canon in D has been repeated in dozens, if not hundreds, of subsequent songs. Should evidence produced by Australia’s Axis of Awesome be used in copyright lawsuits by anyone who can document that, ten generations back, Johann Pachelbel was a great-great-grandfather? It seems absurd.

Even from the perspective of a profit-seeking artist, copyright is a double-edged sword. Stronger copyright both increases the rewards from having produced a piece of work and increases the cost of creating new works.

Too weak of copyright can mean that too few works are created, although artists have gotten far better at working out alternative ways of earning a living when, regardless of the letter of copyright law, enforcement has become difficult. Further, at standard time discounting rates, a 20-year extension to copyright’s term might provide only about a two percent increase in the value of any earned royalties. It is not particularly plausible that many new works would come into existence because of that slight increase.

On the other side, too strong of copyright can surely kill new creation. Artistic works feed off each other. New works build on older traditions, reinterpreting old folk tales and old folk tunes for new generations. The Brothers Grimm collected and published older folk tales like Cinderella and Sleeping Beauty in the 1800s. In the 1900s, Walt Disney brought those stories to life in a new form. In the 2000s, well, it is hard for new innovation to occur because copyright law, at least in the United States, has frozen the usage of most important works produced since 1923. An extension of copyright’s duration does far more to reward those who own the rights to existing works than it does to encourage new creation.

But, ultimately, why should copyright be limited? Because current creators draw on a global commons in their artistic creations, and future generations of artists deserve a commons too.


If you're Kiwi, ask your trade negotiator to stand firm and oppose the U.S. copyright term extension proposal in the TPP:

On our TPP's Copyright Trap page we link to more articles about how the threat of copyright term extension under the TPP impacts users around the world.

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02 Sep 17:49

New Report: “Open Budget Data: Mapping the Landscape”

by Jonathan Gray

We’re pleased to announce a new report, “Open Budget Data: Mapping the Landscape” undertaken as a collaboration between Open Knowledge, the Global Initiative for Financial Transparency and the Digital Methods Initiative at the University of Amsterdam.

The report offers an unprecedented empirical mapping and analysis of the emerging issue of open budget data, which has appeared as ideals from the open data movement have begun to gain traction amongst advocates and practitioners of financial transparency.

In the report we chart the definitions, best practices, actors, issues and initiatives associated with the emerging issue of open budget data in different forms of digital media.

In doing so, our objective is to enable practitioners – in particular civil society organisations, intergovernmental organisations, governments, multilaterals and funders – to navigate this developing field and to identify trends, gaps and opportunities for supporting it.

How public money is collected and distributed is one of the most pressing political questions of our time, influencing the health, well-being and prospects of billions of people. Decisions about fiscal policy affect everyone-determining everything from the resourcing of essential public services, to the capacity of public institutions to take action on global challenges such as poverty, inequality or climate change.

Digital technologies have the potential to transform the way that information about public money is organised, circulated and utilised in society, which in turn could shape the character of public debate, democratic engagement, governmental accountability and public participation in decision-making about public funds. Data could play a vital role in tackling the democratic deficit in fiscal policy and in supporting better outcomes for citizens.

The report includes the following recommendations:

  1. CSOs, IGOs, multilaterals and governments should undertake further work to identify, engage with and map the interests of a broader range of civil society actors whose work might benefit from open fiscal data, in order to inform data release priorities and data standards work. Stronger feedback loops should be established between the contexts of data production and its various contexts of usage in civil society – particularly in journalism and in advocacy.

  2. Governments, IGOs and funders should support pilot projects undertaken by CSOs and/or media organisations in order to further explore the role of data in the democratisation of fiscal policy – especially in relation to areas which appear to have been comparatively under-explored in this field, such as tax distribution and tax base erosion, or tracking money through from revenues to results.

  3. Governments should work to make data “citizen readable” as well as “machine readable”, and should take steps to ensure that information about flows of public money and the institutional processes around them are accessible to non-specialist audiences – including through documentation, media, events and guidance materials. This is a critical step towards the greater democratisation and accountability of fiscal policy.

  4. Further research should be undertaken to explore the potential implications and impacts of opening up information about public finance which is currently not routinely disclosed, such as more detailed data about tax revenues – as well as measures needed to protect the personal privacy of individuals.

  5. CSOs, IGOs, multilaterals and governments should work together to promote and adopt consistent definitions of open budget data, open spending data and open fiscal data in order to establish the legal and technical openness of public information about public money as a global norm in financial transparency.

30 Apr 15:11

The particularity of white supremacy

by Adam Kotsko

A common defensive move against critiques of the white power structure is to retreat into abstraction. Yes, it’s a shame that blacks are at such a disadvantage in white societies, but in every society, the majority places the minority at a disadvantage. If tables were turned, we’re assured, blacks would treat whites exactly the same way. The abstraction seamlessly gives way to naturalization: the way whites are behaving is a natural constant based on the very nature of human power relationships. We can all think of related examples: for instance, “many societies have had slavery,” a claim that attempts to defuse any argument that white enslavement of blacks was especially morally opprobrious — I mean, the ancient Greeks did it too!

In reality, though, white supremacy is a historically specific reality. It arose at a particular moment in history, growing out of a particular constellation of political and religious institutions, technological and economic developments, and time- and culture-bound ideologies. The very basis of white self-identification — the concept of race — was historically unique, as was the racial hierarchy by which whites legitimized the subordination of all other groups. Domination had been practiced before, but never in this precise form.

Similarly, it is true that various societies in the past have had slavery, but there were many factors in the white enslavement of blacks that were unique — and uniquely destructive. Race-based chattel slavery for life had never before been seen. The capture of slaves had never before been so systematic and regularized, much less carried out on such a large scale for such a long time. The absolute lack of any enforceable rights, particularly galling in the context of a society supposedly founded on principles of liberty and equality, was also a historical novelty compared to many familiar forms of slavery. One could even make the argument that to use the same word for the mainstream practice of Israelite, Greek, and Roman slavery and for modern slavery is misleading.

Why is this relevant? Because it renders the claim that the new boss will be just like the old boss almost completely indefensible. If another group or coalition of groups establishes dominance over whites, it will have arisen in conditions very different from those under which white supremacy originated. One of those new conditions will be the experience of having been a subaltern group (or groups) in the white racial hierarchy — a condition which their social position will give them a much more realistic view of than is typically accessible for those who have undergone mainstream white socialization processes. Given that these new rulers will be human beings, one can reasonably hope that they will not, at least as a rule, want to simply “turn the tables” and impose a condition they know to be dehumanizing and destructive on others. (Personal vengeance is a human impulse, too, but the entire basis for civil society is to restrain its pursuit.) Examples from individual countries, such as South Africa, tend to support this conclusion.

Indeed, the white supremacist order is so uniquely bad from a broad historical perspective that it seems reasonable to hope that its successor regime — should such a thing arise before our rulers completely destroy the material conditions of human life, which I am not entirely hopeful of — would be less bad, simply on the basis of statistical probability.

Filed under: race
05 Apr 16:54

What if the Iranians are people too?

by Adam Kotsko

I can’t claim to be an expert on the internal politics of Iran, but my meager efforts are surely better than the active anti-knowledge that is spreading around the Iran nuclear deal. I’ve ranted on Twitter a bit, and I thought I’d write down some longer-form thoughts here, in no particular order.

It was rational for Iran to seek a nuclear deterrent. The US had already toppled a democratically-elected Iranian government and replaced it with an autocrat. They were able to regain their independence, and since then they have been treated as a total pariah. Two neighboring countries were subsequently invaded by the US simultaneously, after the US had declared Iran to be part of the “Axis of Evil.” They could also see that the US helped to overthrow the government of Libya after Libya had given up its nuclear ambitions and become a “good citizen” in the “international community.” It would be insane for a country in that position not to seek the ultimate weapons trump card to prevent an invasion, because an invasion is literally the worst thing that can happen to a country.

Iran is not going to commit national suicide to destroy Israel. Everyone knows Israel has a nuclear deterrent. The very fact that Iran was seeking a nuclear deterrent shows them to be rational actors, and so we have to conclude that they would also be rationally deterred by a nuclear deterrent.

Negotiating an end to the nuclear program was also rational. Creating a nuclear bomb takes a long time and is difficult to hide. It was becoming increasingly clear that Iran could not get across the nuclear finish line before their very efforts to deter a future invasion directly caused a present invasion. Hence, quite rationally, they sat down to negotiate with the most reasonable US president they were likely to get. It’s also in their interest to quite unambiguously comply with the agreement, because again, they are rational people who care about their country and don’t want to see it overrun and destroyed.

It is legitimate for a country to seek to influence events in its own region. People act as though Iranian influence in the Middle East is some nefarious and illegitimate agenda all rational people should oppose. In reality, Iran is in the Middle East. It is actually physically located there. It would be ridiculous for it not to seek to influence events that directly impinge upon it in physically contiguous countries. What’s more, Iran is a relatively rich and powerful country with a long history of taking a leadership role in what is, just to review, its own part of the world.

Colonialism is a terrible historical evil. We in the West are inclined to view the 20th Century as the story of overcoming the two great evils of Nazism and Communism, but everyone else would add a third item to that list: colonialism. Resentment toward colonialism is especially great in the Middle East given that the US continually meddles in their affairs, usually in hugely destructive ways, and given that the Middle East includes the most recently-established settler colony, which is itself backed up by the meddling imperial power. We’re always on the lookout for the next Hitler, but in the Middle East, they don’t have to be vigilant against one of the great 20th century evils because it is constantly ongoing. And the US is responsible for maintaining that situation!

“Anti-American rhetoric” is thus not some kind of randomly chosen prejudice, but an understandable response to the US’s ongoing actions. Anti-Semitism is obviously more unfortunate as a reaction, but we should understand its context in colonialism and not imagine that it’s “religious” which makes it magically determinative of all their actions in a way that defies reason (hence their supposed willingness to commit national suicide). In reality, the only leader in history who was willing to risk national suicide to kill all the Jews was a Western leader named Adolf Hitler, whose rise was enabled by the bungling and vindictiveness of other Western leaders in very specific historical circumstances that are absolutely nothing like anything that is even remotely happening in the Middle East right now, you fucking ignorant fucks.

So yeah.

Filed under: politics
05 Apr 16:50

To be between

by decagna
A review of Ed Steck's 'The Garden'

“To be between is to entirely flatten oneself in the encircling material.” The Garden by Ed Steck is between on several fronts. It’s between language as communication with people and language as binary code propelling computers. It is between data logs and codex. It is between the archetype of a garden (a space of paradise, innocence, and unspoiled beauty) and a virtual garden (a space defined by surveillance, a series of algorithms and geo-fence).

read more

05 Apr 16:41


by Victor Mair

A month ago, we studied the enigma of "Anti-mouth-bowls" (3/1/15).  It was Jan Söhlke who had sent me a photograph of what were labeled "Anti-Mund-Schuessel" ("anti-mouth-bowl").  He mentioned that the same Viennese shop had other bowls with equally mystifying names and promised to go back and take pictures of them.  Jan has now delivered on his promise by sending the following photographs:


German translation of the Chinese:  "Anti-Rand Schuessel"

English translation of the German:  "anti-edge / rim bowl"

Chinese:  fǎnkǒu wǎn 反口碗

English translation of the Chinese:  "bowl with everted rim; flare-rimmed bowl"

Notes:  Is the German trying to say "bowl without an edge / rim"?  Could there be such a thing?


German translation:  "Anti-Bowl"

English translation of the German:  "anti-bowl"

Chinese:  fǎnkǒu wǎn 反口碗

English translation of the Chinese:  "bowl with everted rim; flare-rimmed bowl"

Notes:  This sounds like something from Nietzsche's kitchen or a particle physicist's laboratory.  Very mysterious.  Is the bowl meant to prevent something?  What is the bowl against?


German translation:  "Fashion Plattenspieler"

English translation of the German:  "fashion turntable"

Chinese:  shíshàng zhuǎnjiǎo pán 时尚转角盘

English translation of the Chinese:  "fashionably undulating plate"

Notes:  The German comes from Google Translate.  The Chinese word for "turntable" is zhuǎnpán 转盘.  The literal translation of zhuǎnjiǎo pán 转角盘 would be something like "plate with corners that turn".  So far as I know, "fashion" is not a German word; the German equivalent would be "Mode".

From Jan:

As for "Platte", there are two relevant meanings in this context and it isn't that straightforward: A "Teller" (plate in English) is the dish you put in front of you and it serves as the last station from which food goes to the mouth. The thing in the picture looks like a "Teller" to me. Then, there is German "Platte", the etymological relative to English plate. A "Platte" would hold a dish in the middle of the table (as in "Schlachteplatte", butcher's plate). In my mental lexicon it would be something much larger which would never be used as a "Teller", where a "Teller" could occasionally fulfill the duties of a "Platte".

The other meaning of "Platte" is "record" (think vinyl, 33 rpm). Here "Platte" is short for "Langspielplatte" (long playing plate). Thus, a record player is a "Plattenspieler".

4. (the type of bowl in the previous post)

German translation:  "Anti-Mund-Schuessel"

English translation of the German:  "anti-mouth-bowl"

Chinese:  fǎnkǒu wǎn 反口碗

English translation of the Chinese:  "bowl with everted rim; flare-rimmed bowl"

Notes:  The first two bowls in this post and the bowl in the previous post all have the same name in Chinese:  fǎnkǒu wǎn 反口碗 ("bowl with everted rim; flare-rimmed bowl").  They also have the same shape.  Their only difference is in size, and consequently in price.  How could the translator(s) come up with three such dissimilar German translations?

1. "Anti-Rand Schuessel"

2. "Anti-Bowl"

4. "Anti-Mund-Schuessel"

All of this reminds me somewhat of IKEA naming practices, which we have addressed before on Language Log:

However, this shop in Vienna has an entirely different, and much more haphazard, system, one given to generating conundrums.

24 Mar 16:04

Notes toward an overanalysis of a failed sci-fi spin-off

by Adam Kotsko

I’ve been using Gerry Canavan’s Star Trek CFP as an excuse for “researching” the red-headed stepchildren of the franchise: Enterprise and The Animated Series. I began by rewatching Enterprise over the last couple months, a process that is coming to completion. Over the course of this rewatch, I shared with the members of the Daystrom Institute a wide range of theories and assessments — again, justifying this as “research,” to see how the fan community responds to my ideas. This morning, I wrote up my definitive assessment of the final season, so hopefully my obsessive Enterprise redditing is at an end. Hence I compile some highlights here for those who are interested in my hermeneutical approach to an unpopular and mostly forgotten Star Trek spin-off.

  • In which I consider how Enterprise might reframe certain events and themes from the original series.
  • In which I make the daring claim that the Borg episode does not cause a continuity error and indeed is necessary to preserve continuity.
  • In which I debunk of a popular fan theory that the show caused an alternate timeline.
  • In which I cautiously reassess the concept behind the series finale and argue that it was in principle a cool idea that should have been used more frequently in earlier seasons.
  • In which I stake out the claim that the first two seasons were actually the best, contrary to most fans.
  • In which I ask what it was like to watch the season 3 Xindi arc in real time, prompting a Post of the Week-winning comment relating a time when the online fan community collaboratively invented a made-up episode in the course of “critiquing” and “defending” it.
  • In which I wonder aloud whether the Temporal Cold War could provide the grounds for an in-universe explanation of the existence of the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.
  • In which I argue that Enterprise and The Animated Series are the most systematic instances of world-building within the Star Trek franchise.
  • In which I investigate the possible influence of MacGyver and X-Files on Enterprise.
  • In which I reveal that the reboot films draw to a surprising degree on Enterprise.
  • In which I put forth the episode “Hatchery” as exemplary of Enterprise‘s particular strengths as a series.
  • In which I issue a scathing critique of the Orion Slave Girls episode.
  • In which I assess the final season, contradicting the widely-accepted fan opinion that it is among the best of the series.

As they say, look up on my works, ye mighty, and despair.

Filed under: blog posts, Star Trek
14 Feb 19:15

Book review: A Theory of the Drone

by Regine
In a unique take on a subject that has grabbed headlines and is consuming billions of taxpayer dollars each year, philosopher Grégoire Chamayou applies the lens of philosophy to our understanding of how drones are changing our world. For the first time in history, a state has claimed the right to wage war across a mobile battlefield that potentially spans the globe. Remote-control flying weapons, he argues, take us well beyond even George W. Bush's justification for the war on terror continue
14 Feb 19:13

Colorado cuisine inspiration

by Mark Liberman

I'm in Paris for a few days, and walking a few hundred meters to dinner with friends last night I happened to pass a couple of indications of the influence of American culture on vernacular food in France. One was a small sandwich shop offering "hod dogs", and another was this illuminated sign on the side of a bus-stop shelter:

It's interesting that the advertisement's version of the French stereotype of American food is centered on Colorado Springs:

14 Feb 19:09

The problem of persuasion in the Qur’an

by Adam Kotsko

As my class slowly works its way through the Meccan revelations, we have arrived in the large group of surahs that recount the missions of the prophets. It is striking how consistent the pattern is. God judges a city or nation’s behavior to be beyond the pale and sends a prophet from among that group to warn them to change their ways. They scoff at the message, being unable to take seriously the idea that God could send a mere human messenger from their tribe. Ultimately, they are destroyed. The exact nature of the sin varies, but the outcome (with the exception of Jonah) does not.

Western ideology inclines us to see these passages as evidence of the violence of Islam, but what stands out to me is the extended meditations on the problem of persuasion. God clearly wants the people to be sincerely convinced by the sheer moral plausibility of the prophets’ message. Being persuaded by miraculous signs or converting under duress (as Pharaoh attempts to do in one passage) does not “count” — hence the claim that Muhammad’s only miracle is the message itself, the very clarity, persuasiveness, and beauty of the Qur’an.

I think that it’s in this context that we should understand the Qur’an’s approach to the infamous “hardening of Pharaoh’s heart.” This happens whenever God’s miraculous signs prompt Pharaoh to go along with Moses’ demands. In these cases, he is on the verge of doing the right thing for the wrong reasons — he is not intrinsically convinced of Moses’ message, but is only acting out of fear. Hence God isn’t constraining his will so much as returning it to its natural course.

To explain why people are usually not convinced, the Qur’an doesn’t need to resort to any extraordinary metaphysical explanations like the doctrine of original sin. It relies on characteristics of humanity that we are all familiar with: laziness, forgetfulness, thoughtlessness, stubbornness, pride… The role of Iblis/Satan is to prey on those weaknesses, but he is not consistently mentioned — in principle, we’re fully capable of screwing everything up all on our own. And if we weren’t, if there weren’t something in us that resists correction, then the persuasion wouldn’t be sincere when it does happen. It’s as though the only way to stack the decks in favor of sincere persuasion is to stack the decks against it.

Filed under: Islam
22 Nov 18:00

Thanksgiving: Late Autumn Light (A Mixtape)

by Satisfied '75
A late November feast of folk, rock, and country sounds, much of it gospel-tinged, all of it burnished in afternoon light. Expect occasional flurries, scattered leaves, and warm ovens. Foil-wrapped casserole dishes and those gold-brown canisters that Folger’s Crystals used to come in. Drunken uncles and grandma’s gravy. Cranberry as a condiment, cold turkey for […]
22 Nov 17:57

Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation to require CC BY for all grant-funded research

by Timothy Vollmer
Elliot Harmon

This is a big thing.

Philanthropic foundations fund the creation of scholarly research, education and training materials, and rich data with the public good in mind. Creative Commons has long advocated for foundations to add open license requirements to their grants. Releasing grant-funded content under permissive open licenses means that materials may be more easily shared and re-used by the public, and combined with other resources that are also published under open licenses.

Yesterday the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation announced it is adopting an open access policy for grant-funded research. The policy “enables the unrestricted access and reuse of all peer-reviewed published research funded, in whole or in part, by the foundation, including any underlying data sets.” Grant funded research and data must be published under the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 license (CC BY). The policy applies to all foundation program areas and takes effect January 1, 2015.

Here are more details from the Foundation’s Open Access Policy:

  1. Publications Are Discoverable and Accessible Online. Publications will be deposited in a specified repository(s) with proper tagging of metadata.
  2. Publication Will Be On “Open Access” Terms. All publications shall be published under the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 Generic License (CC BY 4.0) or an equivalent license. This will permit all users of the publication to copy and redistribute the material in any medium or format and transform and build upon the material, including for any purpose (including commercial) without further permission or fees being required.
  3. Foundation Will Pay Necessary Fees. The foundation would pay reasonable fees required by a publisher to effect publication on these terms.
  4. Publications Will Be Accessible and Open Immediately. All publications shall be available immediately upon their publication, without any embargo period. An embargo period is the period during which the publisher will require a subscription or the payment of a fee to gain access to the publication. We are, however, providing a transition period of up to two years from the effective date of the policy (or until January 1, 2017). During the transition period, the foundation will allow publications in journals that provide up to a 12-month embargo period.
  5. Data Underlying Published Research Results Will Be Accessible and Open Immediately. The foundation will require that data underlying the published research results be immediately accessible and open. This too is subject to the transition period and a 12-month embargo may be applied.

Trevor Mundel, President of Global Health at the foundation, said that Gates “put[s] a high priority not only on the research necessary to deliver the next important drug or vaccine, but also on the collection and sharing of data so other scientists and health experts can benefit from this knowledge.”

Congratulations to the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation on adopting a default open licensing policy for its grant-funded research. This terrific announcement follows a similar move by the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, who recently extended their CC BY licensing policy from the Open Educational Resources grants to now apply foundation-wide for all project-based grant funds.

Regarding deposit and sharing of data, the Gates Foundation might consider permitting grantees to utilize the CC0 Public Domain Dedication, which allows authors to dedicate data to the public domain by waiving all rights to the data worldwide under copyright law. CC0 is widely used to provide barrier-free re-use to data.

We’ve updated the information we’ve been tracking on foundation intellectual property policies to reflect the new agreement from Gates, and continue to urge other philanthropic foundations to adopt open policies for grant-funded research and projects.