Over the last few months, I wrote two letters to NZ members of parliament, one about the proposed review of the science of climate change, the second concerning the s92a amendment to the NZ Copyright Act. On Wednesday, I got responses to both. Here’s my comments:

Climate Change

The letter concerning climate change was sent to John Key and responded to by Nick Smith, Minister for Climate Change Issues. I’ve posted it here if you want to take a look. There are a few things I want to highlight:

  • Concerning the science and uncertainty associated with various estimates, he says “I do not believe this uncertainty justifies taking no action“. I’m cynical enough not to assume that they’ll treat it as a priority or that they’ll take measures as strong or sincere as I’d like, but it’s nice when the discussion moves on from whether we should do something to what we should do.
  • He weasels around the intent of the review of the Emissions Trading Scheme. He says they’ve rejected ACT’s calls for a full review of the science, but says they want to “identify the central/benchmark projections that are being used as the motivation for international agreements to combat climate change“. That sounds to me like they still want to review the science, but they don’t want to admit that. Since the point of reviewing the science (again) is really just to delay and obfuscate, it’s hard to see how this is really any different.
  • I’m pleased to see it acknowledged that green technologies represent an opportunity for NZ rather than a threat. I perceive National as being primarily about benefiting themselves and their corporate sponsors and so, getting them to recognize that there’s some way in which they could benefit seems to me to be a key step in getting them to do something. That said, I’ve got no idea what policies they might enact to realize this benefit without dropping their normal slash and burn approach to governance; setting up seed investment and technology grants in areas of importance like this is so passe and left wing – hardly something that fits the National Party profile.

s92a – Copyright

The letter concerning s92a went to my local MP, Lianne Dalziel. It got forwarded to Clare Curran, Labour’s Spokesperson for Communication and IT, who sent me this response. I wasn’t terribly satisfied. It completely failed to address the threat posed by guilt by accusation to a democracy, let alone the impact on individuals, or the potential for abuse of such policies and the potential chilling effects on fair use. Instead, it talked about “unreasonable burden[s] on internet service providers“. I’m certain that they can take care of themselves.

Isn’t the idea of democratic government that it’s for the people? Isn’t Labour NZ’s main center left party? How does turning this from a significant issue of freedom of expression, cultural development and longevity, and corporatism serve the people? The problem with Section 92a is not that it places a burden on telecommunications providers, but that it provides a mechanism by which powerful entities (such as content publishers and any other corporation) can oppress individuals who publish content that they disagree with. You might think we’re just talking about music piracy, and that this will never be seriously abused, and you’d be wrong – look at the host of abuses of the DMCA in the US. Sure, there’s definitely a place for copyright protection measures, but some balance is definitely in order, and the issue of piracy is a lot more complex than that of simple theft.

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Yesterday’s Astronomy Picture of the Day was particularly awesome. I mean, APOD is usually awesome every day, but yesterday’s was particularly awesome, being a photo of Saturn, showing four of its moons in the foreground, all large enough that you could get some idea of their relative size and, in the case of Titan, colour. Cool, huh?

I find that astronomical pics are often hard to put into perspective. Supernova remnants look cool and majestic, but looking at them, it’s almost impossible to appreciate how truly vast they are, and how much energy was released in their creation. To describe astronomical objects, we have to use either units or numbers that are on a completely different level to what we’re built to comprehend. For example, a light year is about 10E12 kilometres, and a solar mass is 2E30kg, a number so large that there’s no commonly used word to describe it (though, apparently, nonillion is the correct term).

This isn’t some great insight, it’s just something that leaves me in awe of the universe and makes life’s petty concerns seem so, well, petty. So, I like anything that helps me appreciate that scale, and this photo, by showing Saturn’s moons in context, does just that. Other examples include looking out the plane window over Wellington to see the Marlborough Sounds, Golden Bay, and the Southern Alps laid out in panorama, and that photo of Phoenix drifting in to land on the surface of Mars from May last year. Some people use God and religion to give themselves perspective. Space, among other things, does that for me.

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Four dudes with electrodes wired to their faces, muscles stimulated in time to music..

Only in Japan..

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From Baldassare Castiglione‘s Book of the Courtier.

Simply, sprezzaturra is the ability to appear to succeed without effort, to have “an easy facility in accomplishing difficult actions which hides the conscious effort that went into them” or to appear ‘artfully artless’.

It’s the art of appearing extremely capable, of hiding the effort behind one’s actions and achievements, and never letting on that you might be anything less than supremely confident. It’s something we all strive for in some domain, be it effortless creating culinary masterpieces, dancing a perfect tango, or walking a tightrope. I wouldn’t go so far as to say that it’s the main reason all of us spend effort learning skills, particularly ones that aren’t of practical use, but I do think it’s intrinsically human to get a certain thrill whenever you apply effort, succeed, and have someone say “Oh, you make it look so easy..”

via a TED talk by Virginia Postrel on glamour.

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Check out this rather impressive imagining of virtual world construction in a fully tangible VR / AR environment.

The interface used is quite cool and inspirational, but there’s a lot of funky interface videos out there, and the basic idea of creating worlds from within isn’t new; Snow Crash has this sort of thing, and, to some extent, it’s a logical extension and extrapolation of Wayne Piekarski’s PhD work in using AR to build 3D models on the world around us. That said, it’s a very polished imagining of this idea, and well worth the watch.

What I really liked, though, is the emotional context in which this is placed – the film’s not just a cool interface concept, but rather an example of how virtual worlds and technology might be able to provide emotional support of a sort. Effectively, the protagonist is creating worlds to embody and relive his memories. Once, our memories were limited to shared stories, then writing, then photos, then video – it seems logical that, if 3D environments and simulated experiences could be captured, then these too would be something that we collect, file away for posterity, and maybe share with our friends.

Imagine if, instead of showing wedding photos to friends who couldn’t make it, you could compellingly simulate the experience of being there.

found via Long Now

Why do I blog this?
I’ve always loved world building, and the idea of being able to easily create and experience worlds excites me. To really be compelling, though one would need to be able to create believable simulated people and animals to populate the world; as it is, the world in this video seems somewhat lonely.

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You might have heard about the recent kerfuffle over the Facebook terms of service. If you didn’t, this brief summary from Rocketboom will get you up to speed.

Mostly, it was about whether or not you could revoke their license to use and distribute your material by deleting your account. Their argument was that they couldn’t practically delete material from their backups and, if you’d sent things to someone else, they weren’t willing to delete that material if you deleted your account. These aren’t unreasonable concerns, but their approach was to require perpetual licenses for all material and all uses. The change was far broader than needed to achieve those goals – more nuance was required in their terms. After lots of wailing and gnashing of teeth, Facebook withdrew their initial set of changes, then, a few days ago, released a re-written set of terms that appear to be much less contentious. In particular, they explicitly state ‘People should own their information’. Hear, hear.

But, that’s not the point of this post. I’m interested in the fact that they’ve chosen to release two documents; one a high-level statement of principles, the other a statement of user rights and responsibilities. Compared to the old terms, which were legalistic and dense, these documents are quite readable. This, I applaud.

It’s not entirely clear, however, which one of them represents the real terms and conditions. Which is legally binding? If there’s a conflict, which takes priority? If they’re not binding, then where are the real terms of service? Most likely, the statement of user rights and responsibilities is meant to be the binding terms and conditions.

Generally, I really like the idea of providing a human-readable license alongside a legally rigorous version, because no one really ever reads terms of service, even though they should, and at least part of the reason is that they’re generally impenetrable. If the relationship between the two is clear and there are no incongruities, then great! Of course, language often isn’t that precise, and you can see how problems might arise.

A great example of this approach is in the Creative Commons license. When they were launched, much was said about licenses being written ‘legal code’ in that we have trained engineers and machines to read and use them, being lawyers and courts respectively. Let’s run with this, and see how a few concepts from software can be applied.

Software design are just common ways of thinking and solving particular problems that crop up again and again in various contexts. They might be abstract, and pertain to the way code is written (such as the decorator and singleton patterns), or they might be more concrete features that are applied such as, for example, common interface widgets like menus, scroll bars, and drop down boxes. In some form, design patterns probably appear in everything that people design. However, in software, these patterns are explicitly sought for, studied and re-applied. I’m not aware of this being a common practice in law, but I would expect the benefits of clarity, scalability, and re-usability that this brings to software engineering would be really useful in legal engineering.

Like software, legal systems can become horribly complex. In software, a major means of reducing this complexity is to employ modularity – problems are defeated by dividing and conquering. Where possible, software consists not of a single monolith of tightly coupled code, but of hierarchically organized components that interact cohesively. Benefits of this approach are a reduction in complexity, re-usability and portability of parts, and conceptual tools for analyzing and engineering models of complex systems. Various coding paradigms exist, the best known of which is object oriented programming; aspect-oriented programming and programming by contract are other paradigms that facilitate modularity. In law, there’s obviously some modularity (law is broken down into individual acts and codes, which are broken into articles, sections, clauses and so forth). Unlike well-engineered software, however, these components are strictly hierarchical and cannot be taken out of context.

Wrappers are an example of a pattern that allows software engineers to insulate themselves from the idiosyncracies of a messy component, a third-party driver, or a piece of hardware. Basically, an engineer writes a piece of code that knows all about how to handle the mess, then presents a nice clean interface that other engineers can work with without having to learn about the details of the mess themselves. Imagine if, instead of having to read all of the messy details of a complex license, you could just inquire, through a simple, well-defined interface, if certain conditions were true.

Before any of this makes sense, it’s important to consider the difference between informal language (that which we use every day), and formal language, where the meaning of all symbols and elements is defined within a particular lexicon, much as all software languages are. That is, legal writing needs to follow formal rules. One obvious problem here is that is required to be able to address pretty much any conceivable situation; this is effectively impossible to do with formal language, as you quickly end up with self-referentiality (which then allows self-contradiction a la the Epimenides paradox). If you don’t believe me, read Hofstadter’s ‘Gödel, Escher, Bach’ first, then argue with me. To overcome this problem, then, we need to have some way of insulating the parts that can be modeled formally (effectively, the parts that are most clear and logic) from the parts that cannot (effectively, everything that’s subjective in some way). The wrapper pattern mentioned above allows for this – tokens can be used to represent subjective elements; these tokens are treated as simple propositions within the formal part of the system, then spat out at the end. Incidentally, this is how propositional logic, and almost all written reasoning works. However, lest I make this sound easy, I should mention that while, hypothetically, this is possible, it’s unclear whether or not the resulting system of formal law and subjective tokens are workable.

If, hypothetically, enough of the mechanics of law could be formalized in such a way that it can be treated computationally, all sorts of things become possible. Firstly, there no longer needs be a legal priesthood whose job it is to parse the complexities of legal argument and language and explain this to the masses – this can be by software, and learned systematically. Imagine if legal code could be translated through some filter into a human-readable form. Imagine if you could query, using a well-defined interface whether a body of law has certain properties, or if certain activities are true. Imagine if law was extensible and modular. Imagine if the legal system was simple, accessible, and thin enough that legal disputes could be resolved in a matter of seconds rather than years, through software interfaces rather than the courts.

I don’t know which parts of this are actually plausible, or if it’s even possible. However, it t would make damned interesting research project for someone. I wonder if someone’s already tried..

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Posted in Mind & Society, Software & The Net, The Future | 1 Comment »

Got 10-20 minutes free? Play “Neverending Light“. The games starts with you and your character taking a tour through a cave system full of stalagtites, stalagmites, and awesome voice acting. Needless to say, things go horribly wrong.

Part 1 of an ongoing series.

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