law and politics

  • In an ideal world, the existence of this aggressively stupid law would open more eyes to how many avenues for tyranny were opened by the 1998 passage of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act. But in our world, people will probably just hope that the law won’t be enforced. (Derek Khanna, who wrote the linked piece and is currently famous for proposing sensible copyright-law reforms and then getting fired, has been absolutely crushing the technology-policy front lately.)

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Just the same old show on my radio

February 10th, 2005  |  Tags: ,  |  Leave a comment

I generally don’t listen to commercial radio, but Andrea likes some of the music on “Triple-M,” a station we have in town. We both find the morning show unbelievably vapid, though. One gets the sense that “Zach and Kitty,” the hosts, are just as stupid as any other commercial radio morning show personalities, but — unlike their peers — are about as aggressive as refrigerated mayonnaise and roughly as interestin. I know this because the gym in which I used to work out played the “Triple-M” morning show every day. This imposed a rigid structure on my workout:

I could start to bench-press upon hearing another “daring” joke involving the word “whoopee;” I could move on to the treadmill when they read another fawning, unctuous letter from a listener who was SO HAPPY that their station ACTUALLY PLAYED obscure music by that edgy, hip Dave Matthews Band; and I could hit the showers when they started reading “zany” news items, glossing them with irrelevant and poorly-thought-out commentary.

This morning, Andrea gave me a ride in to the office. I turned the radio to the Unbelievably Vapid Hour with Zach and Kitty. After yapping at each other about how EXCITING it was that Sting would be gracing the Kohl Center with his presence sometime (and OMG TICKETS GO ON SALE THIS WEEK!!!), they moved on to their “zany” news item. Apparently, many people are angry about an “American Girl” story that makes Chicago’s Pilsen neighborhood appear undesirable; Mattel has not backed down and is using words like “censorship.”

For future reference: If someone other than the government does it, it’s not censorship. That’s just how these things work.

In the book, the girl’s family moves from Pilsen to the suburbs; the girl’s mother claims that this is necessary because that part of the city is “no place to grow up.” This is really a non-story, and it’s not that funny; therefore, it fails on both the “substantial” and “zany” counts. Why are they wasting my time reading it when they could be playing some morose R.E.M. song for the fiftieth time? Cue the asinine editorializing:

Zach said: “Well, obviously I’d be happier about this if they had moved to Wisconsin.” [ed.: ?]

Kitty then started to say something smart: “Are we just saying that it’s OK to censor* somebody just because they say something bad about the inner city?” Wow. I’m amazed. Are we actually admitting that unpopular speech shouldn’t be intimidated out of the public sphere by the most organized groups of thin-skinned lackwits? Unfortunately, apparently we are not. Kitty continued: “I mean, let’s clean up the inner city and then there won’t be anything bad to say about it.”

Andrea and I instantly started laughing. She wondered if Kitty planned to show up in some rough neighborhood with a broom and dustpan; I pictured a busload of Madison West High National Honor Society members heading south on I-90, singing the latest from Hootie and the Blowfish together. What on earth could it mean to “clean up” the inner city?

Since I don’t hold myself to the same standards as radio personalities, I’ll use an amusing anecdote as an excuse to dive into a tangentially-related screed.

Read the rest of this entry »

Tirades and semantic nonsense

November 2nd, 2004  |  Tags:  |  9 Comments

Madison lawprof and “swing voter” Ann Althouse gets some angry feedback w.r.t. her comments in the NYT about how Kerry lost her vote. Amusingly, her correspondent refers to her as supporting an “unapologetically crypto-fascist” agenda. Independently of any political content, this ascription raises serious questions.

Since “crypto-” means “hidden,” what exactly is an “unapologetically crypto-fascist” agenda? Is it one that isn’t sorry for being fascist? That doesn’t make a lot of sense, since presumably an unapologetic fascist wouldn’t seek to hide her agenda. Perhaps the correspondent means that the espouser of such an agenda is morally neutral about fascism but is not particularly sorry about hiding her fascism. While I’m sure that there are a few closeted fascists who experience profound guilt at not making their convictions public, this hardly seems like a useful category either.

Could it be that penning frothy political tirades causes otherwise intelligent people to utter semantic nonsense? (Never mind the infelicity of adding a Greek prefix to a Latin-derived root!) Or is it more likely that people who are likely to fire off ill-considered nasty e-mails are less likely to have a solid command of language in the first place?

Remix and genre

October 29th, 2004  |  Tags: ,  |  1 Comment

I’ve discovered the Public Radio Exchange recently, which is some kind of digital distribution site connecting independent radio producers to radio stations. The upshot is that you can listen to a wide variety of pieces online; they also have a “podcast.” I listened to the first half of this piece on the “remix” movement. There wasn’t a lot in there that someone who’s familiar with the electronic music scene, the EFF, or Lawrence Lessig’s “free culture” project wouldn’t already know about, but it was a nicely-done piece.

The excerpt started by talking about DJ Danger Mouse’s fantastic “Gray Album” Beatles/Jay-Z mashup (download it if you haven’t!) and ended by observing some old antique-dealing duffers’ reactions to a show of New England antiques that had been “remixed” (presumably into statements against Western hegemony) by design students.

I really find the word “remix” grating if it’s applied to some medium other than music, but it appears to be here to stay.

The broadcast was most interesting, though, in the middle, in which a classics professor from Rice discussed the cento, a genre in which a new poem is made by taking arbitrary lines from other old poems and rearranging them. As far as I can tell from a cursory googling, the cento lives on today as a marginal genre for hacks, a cutesy pub stunt for puffed-up nerds, or a rhetorical technique for certain rarely-photographed opinion columnists. This prof, however, focused on the cento of the late Roman empire. He gave an example of a poet named Ausonius, who rearranged lines from Virgil into a passage that was racier than da Ponte’s Don Giovanni libretto. Pretty cool.

city-wide 802.11 vs. pointless light rail?

September 1st, 2004  |  Tags:  |  Leave a comment

Ann Althouse makes an amusing juxtaposition between the proposal to provide city-wide wireless access to Philadelphia (which is getting a lot of press this morning) and the far-more-expensive, far-less-useful light rail that has been proposed for Madison.

In my second year of graduate school, I got some advice that transformed the way I thought about research. In retrospect, the advice should have been totally obvious. However, I was bright-eyed and excited about a lot of things, including system extensibility and safe languages, and I was proposing a class project that involved both of these. The conversation that led to the advice went a bit like this:

W: So, these French fellows have figured out how to link OCaml programs into the Linux kernel.

Prof: And?

W: Well, OCaml is a safe language.

Prof: And?

W: Well, I could use it to develop an interpreter for a safe kernel extension language, and my implementation would be provably free of type errors! [ed. note: this was the “money” point, in my estimation — shows what I knew!]

Prof: OK, that’s a solution. What’s your problem?

What sort of fool would propose a solution without an associated problem? Clearly, the elected sort would. There are perhaps “problems” and semi-“problems” in Madison that could be well-solved by rail (transportation to the airport, to Milwaukee, or to Chicago); unfortunately, the proposed system merely duplicates existing bus routes (albeit extending some to Middleton) and invades an eminently walkable downtown with superfluous, on-street “train” cars.

Sure, eyes brighten when talk about “getting people off the roads” begins to echo around. However, a solution is only as compelling as the magnitude of the (specific) problem.

A quick thought on the Hollywood dead horse

July 24th, 2004  |  Tags: ,  |  Leave a comment

Smarter people than I have devoted a lot of ink, bits, and vocal activity to the copyright, technological, and civil-liberties issues raised by the entertainment industry’s habit of purchasingaggressively lobbying for additional laws whenever the spectre of a challenged business model appears somewhere on the horizon. (Indeed, one might say that more people have written about this than I have.) To clarify my position: I am not a defender of so-called “media piracy.” Rather, I believe that copyright infringement should be a crime. However, the proper response to crime — even to widespread crime — is to enforce existing laws, not to introduce additional ones (such as the DMCA or the proposed SSSCA/CBDPTA and INDUCE acts), especially when the additional laws have the side effects of criminalizing legitimate activity (such as fair use and computer systems research). I am also inclined to agree with those (like Lawrence Lessig) who argue that the current copyright terms are effectively unlimited, and thus borderline-constituitional at best.

With that out of the way, here’s the quick thought: I was listening to a public-radio show about I, Robot and robots in general last night. As one might expect, the discussion was mildly interesting but rather dismal in terms of depth and engagement: as two examples, it seemed that the essence of “autonomy” was unclear to the host and guests, and the controversial concept of “substrate independence” (in the context of consciousness/intelligence) was implicitly assumed by all participants. However, what got me thinking was the host’s introduction, in which he contrasted Asimov’s vision of robots as virtuous, logical servants with Hollywood’s robots (and technology in general), which are malicious, destructive, or (at the very best) golems that are on a collision course with tragedy.

I realized that I couldn’t think of any movie that portrayed technology in an essentially positive light. I then briefly wondered why the entertainment industry would take such a consistently, thoroughly Luddite stance, before realizing that there’s no question there: Why wouldn’t an industry whose chief lobbyist once compared the VCR to the Boston Strangler take every possible opportunity to produce anti-technology propaganda? From within the current, well-documented Hollywood mindset, what could possibly be good about any technology that isn’t narrowly focused to extract as many dollars out of every copyrighted work as possible? I guess I don’t know a lot about Asimov, but if I put Hollywood’s protectionist dystopia up against, say, John Gilmore’s idealist view of the technological future (read through to the end), I know which one I’d rather be inhabiting in twenty years.


In other news, Logic Express is very nice. The learning curve isn’t as steep as I’d feared, although it does take some getting used to. Obviously, there are a lot of features I haven’t touched yet. I’m looking forward to getting into it some more, but my impending prelim is putting a pinch on nonessential activities. I may still post a quick track soon if I come up with something presentable.

The U.S. Department of Homeland Security: Making the world safe for Mendelssohn

May 7th, 2004  |  Tags: ,  |  Leave a comment

I was glancing over the willbenton.com web statistics this morning, as I usually do when I’m too tired to yet respond to the deluge of morning e-mail. One visitor’s host name in particular stood out like a sore thumb: “xxx.dhs.gov” (I’ve redacted the hostname to protect the innocent). I did what anyone would do in this situation: I panicked. What could Tom Ridge possibly want with my website?

Could it be my post identifying rhetorical alliances between left-wing activists and radical Islam? Did the G-men (“-persons?”) want to know whether my neighborhood is really a hotbed of anarcho-syndicalism? Does the DHS employ disenfranchised confessional Lutherans? programming-language nerds? former classmates of mine? In fear, trembling, and morbid curiosity, I resolved to do what I am rarely willing to do: look at my server’s actual access log.

The real explanation, of course, is far more innocuous; the query was for my iTunes library and the referrer was a “Yahoo!” search for FELIX MENDELSSOHN OPUS 64 WAV. For those of you keeping score, that’s Mendelssohn’s Violin Concerto, and yes, the search string was in all caps.

I love Mendelssohn, and I love his Violin Concerto. (It makes me think of Andrea, whom I also love; she has played it.) Finally, I love America, so I am making an offer: If the Department of Homeland Security employee who was looking for some Mendelssohn to listen to so early on a May morning contacts me and can prove his or her identity (by contacting me from the same computer as visited the site earlier), I will give him or her a gift certificate to the iTunes Music Store, in an amount suitable for legally purchasing some music by the greatest Lutheran composer of the 19th century. (I also recommend the Reformation Symphony, especially the first and fourth movements.)

I’m currently listening to Act 3 Scene 1: Am Jordan Sankt Johannes stand from the album “Wagner – Die Meistersinger von N�rnberg (Karajan, Dresdener Staatskapelle)” by Herbert von Karajan & Staatskapelle Dresden

Your neighbors’ dirty secrets (er, if you live in the US)

March 18th, 2004  |  Tags:  |  Leave a comment

Fundrace.org has this extremely cool political contribution search engine that will let you see which of your neighbors are giving money to which presidential candidates. To this, my mother says: “it’s nice to see that our neighbors have so much disposable income.”

“Disposable, indeed,” I say.

I was fairly unsurprised by the political-donation demographics of my parents’ neighborhood. I had no idea, though, that my neighborhood was composed solely of such hard-core syndicalists and falangists. Hopefully, Otto doesn’t play with any dogs that espouse such fringe views. That could dramatically lower the quality of our dinner-table conversation if the little fellow decides he’s in favor of either Spanish-style fascism or of the violent overthrow of the machinery of capitalism. It was bad enough when he discovered that he liked to eat butter.

I’m currently listening to K466 in A Minor (orig. F Minor) Andante Moderato from the album “Scarlatti 15 – Sonatas for Two Guitars” by Domenico Scarlatti

Reconstructing Germany

November 18th, 2003  |  Tags:  |  Leave a comment

Here is a transcript of Allen Dulles’ remarks to the Council on Foreign Relations on 3 December 1945. I heard Gideon Rose of Foreign Affairs magazine discussing this on “All Things Considered” last night. An interesting segment, if you didn’t hear it, and certainly an interesting read given its parallels to current foreign policy situations.

Egyptian “antics”

November 15th, 2003  |  Tags:  |  Leave a comment

Here is an absurd dispatch, via MEMRI, about an Egyptian lawyer who plans to sue “the Jews” for gold stolen during the Exodus, plus interest. I guess the first (but certainly not only) question this raises is: assuming this goes to trial (ha ha) and is successful, how are these Arab “Egyptians” planning to un-genocide the Copts, in order to give them their gold back?

HIPAA insanity

November 6th, 2003  |  Tags:  |  Leave a comment

Today, I went to get glasses, because my old ones had a hairline crack which caused them to not fit and thus to fall off my face, shattering. I was mildly irritated by having to give up my old ones (I’d had them for four or five years, and I liked them a lot), and by having to write off most of my morning (since Thursday is one of my more productive days), and by the prospect of dealing with my HMO’s eye clinic, which would require me to drive across town (illegally) without glasses and then drive back across town to the mall to get frames. I dodged the last bullet by ponying up the ducats for an eye exam in the local “speedy glasses emporium”. (This may be obvious, but please do note that adding the eye exam basically obliterates your chances of getting out of there “in about an hour”.)

I signed in in the optometrist’s office and was asked to sign a HIPAA-mandated privacy notice. Since I follow technology law and listen to civil liberties cranks a bit, I’d heard about this even before I’d ever signed one. As a hypochondriac survivor of myriad chronic diseases, I’ve spent a lot of time in doctors’ offices, and this was about the seventieth one of these I’d filled out. I thought that was a little silly, though. I mean, how sensitive can my optometrist’s records be? I can see the headline now: Local Man Denied Job; Some Speculate Revelation Of Blinking Too Much In Glaucoma Tester To Blame. Argh. Absurd.

Even worse, though, was the fact that, before they would fit me for frames, the LensCrafters employee made me sign another privacy notice! (The outfit that performs the eye exams is an independent corporation, in a symbiotic relationship with LensCrafters like plankton and baleen whales, or something.) Holy crap, what does anyone have to worry about getting revealed by the person who sells them glasses? I mean, aren’t you doing the whole procedure in public, well within earshot of potentially dozens of civilians who could reveal your choice of FeatherWates ™ lenses over more-economical plastic? I mean, when the machinery of capitalism is — inevitably — overthrown by the workers, sir, you and your FeatherWates ™ will be the first against the wall. Are you more likely to get pulled over driving at night if the cops can find out that you didn’t spring for the $70 anti-glare coating? Where on earth is the privacy concern in what transpires in a LensCrafters?

Liberalism’s religion problem

August 31st, 2003  |  Tags:  |  1 Comment

My grandfather referred me to this First Things article; it neatly explores what’s right and wrong with liberal democracy, at least in terms of its capacity to coexist with religion and policies informed by religion (or anything motivated by absolutes independent of utilitarian mobthink). A choice quote:

The what we want of contemporary liberal theory is the exercise of our freedom of choice, or, more properly, our freedoms of choice. Modern liberalism shares its ideological foundations with free–market capitalism, because both envision human beings as bundles of preferences. The role of the liberal state (like the role of the market) is to create spaces in which the maximum number of preferences can be pursued, with the minimum amount of interference with the pursuit by others of their own preferences. In contemporary partisan politics (not to be confused with liberal theory), all sides have surrendered to this ideology. The fact that Republicans seem to think the preferences that matter most are economic and the Democrats seem to think the preferences that matter most are sexual and reproductive should not blind us to the simple truth that both parties are up to the same mischief: in real America today, as in the hypothetical America of liberal theory, it is the individual, unconnected to any sense of self–restraint, who matters most.

I suppose that summarizes why I find it fairly easy to find exponents of both major parties equally distasteful.