Archive for the ‘issues’ Category

we assume that you said yes

March 7th, 2010

It seems I'm late to the party. I read the call to arms on Ars Technica this morning (a site I like a lot, I have to say, although I don't really visit much), and I immediately felt like I should have some reaction to it. I've made a pass or two over the topic in the past, and so I felt hooked in. But nothing came to mind with immediate effect. So I put it away until I saw Brian's shot heard around the world on Planet Larry. And that's when it finally hit me what this whole thing is about.

Ars Technica is bending over backwards not to make The Big Accusation, namely "if you skip the ads you are stealing". And yet they still try to guilt trip you saying "well gosh, our business is on the line here, y'know?".

I don't know where Al Gore is, but there is a highly Inconvenient Truth here. And it is this: publishers are working from the assumption that the viewer has implicitly agreed to make them money without ever agreeing to it. This is why the Ars Technica article has to do that weird dance around the issue where they're not calling you a cheat, but then they are, but then they're not etc. Because if they did just come out and say it, they couldn't look themselves in the mirror, because they have more self respect than certain muppets.

Ars Technica couldn't live with themselves if they actually came out and said: Dear viewer, when we built this site we made the assumption that you would help us pay for it by looking at our ads. We never ran this by you, but we take it for granted that you have accepted this deal. Now we expect you to honor it.

There are others who are not so "modest", like the entertainment industry claiming billions in damages based on sales they would have had if the people who downloaded stuff had paid for it. Here again, the assumption is that the consumer agreed to pay for something, and then refused. So who's being cheated? The publisher!

But the viewer agreed to no such thing.

a filter for life

November 5th, 2009

There was a movement within the Norwegian education system at one point to emphasize the goal that kids in school should be critical. More than that, it should be the goal of the education system to teach us to be read critically. Don't take everything you hear as gospel. This was back when I was still in junior high, so a good 15 years back. I don't know if this theme is still current today, but at the very least it made a good pass through the common consciousness at one point.

So why did this come about? Well, in the early 90s television was privatized. There had been cable tv for a number of years already, but in 1992 the channel TV2, the first commercial tv station to broadcast nationally, alongside the state broadcaster NRK, was launched. Effectively, television was let go from under the control of the rather insular NRK and freed to be driven by commercial profit. Naturally, TV2 in short order proceeded to import all of the popular culture, chiefly American, that has informed our lives. Another characteristic of TV2, quite unlike NRK -- the absolute sterility of any form of even mild intellectualism. (Aside from NRK which may have as much as 2-3 weekly hours of programming suited to the more discerning viewer, provided the topic is up your street.)

Another big development in the mid and late 90s, of course -- wide access to the internet. Here again is a brand new medium with immense amounts of information and culture "beamed" right into our homes.

I feel it was these two developments that formed the impetus behind this fashion within the education system. All of a sudden students would be writing essays using web pages for sources that, believe it or not, were just incorrect. :eek: Oh noes, something has to be done! And so it began. The internet is not trustworthy. You can't believe everything you read. The deeper reasoning behind this is the question of motive. More important than what they are saying; why are they saying it? Back in my junior high days we received the dumbed down version (as, actually, with everything in junior high). The question was framed in terms of sources. This source is reliable, because it's Encyclopedia Britannica. This source is not, because it's a web page, or I heard it on tv. Never mind who gets to decide what is reliable and why.

Of course, the truth, as your astute self would have figured out by now, is that nothing is in and of itself trustworthy. It's not just when you go online that you find garbage. There's just as much garbage in books, in what your teachers tell you, in what your parents tell you, and above all in what your peers tell you. You need to be critical of all this stuff, not just of those crazy people on the internet.

I'm inadvertently rehashing Jürgen's argument here. I read his entry and didn't give it any more thought, but perhaps my subconsciousness has been chewing on it ever since? Thanks, Jürgen.

Naturally, some people are just malicious, but that is not the main problem. Even if you do have a piece of insight that you honestly believe is beneficial to someone, there are still a lot of things that can go wrong:

  1. You're plain mistaken.
  2. It works for you, but it doesn't work for everyone.
  3. Even though you have the right idea, you fail to communicate it effectively.

The last one is particularly unfortunate. How many times has someone told you that they've just this discovered this new thing and it's everything they needed, and then you say "but I told you that already a long time ago!". Well, I guess you didn't tell me in the words that I needed to hear in order to absorb the information, or in order to be convinced.

Parental advice, of course, is susceptible to the same flaw as those self help books. I'm sure you've seen some of those around, the basic premise is always the same -- some person has figured out how to do something and wants to tell everyone. The problem is that just because it worked for him, doesn't mean it will work for you. Especially when you hear it from a secondary source (a relative comes up and says "I read this amazing book, it changed my life, all you have to do is.."). But it's not science. At best it "sorta works a lot of the time, kind of".

So over time you develop a filter. "This person is not worth listening to on these topics, this book is written by someone who has no idea what he's talking about, this website is usually reliable on these issues". Now everything depends on that filter of yours. You may find one day that you bought into some utter nonsense, or that you discarded good insight.

on the flaws of universal standards

February 5th, 2009

We are accustomed to ethical systems where rules apply universally to everyone. Such systems are everywhere: the legal system of every country, road regulations, the rules of just about every social organization. Universal rules are the only practical solution to the problem of anarchy in most cases. They are also based on the assumption that the greatest order and justice will be achieved through universality.


To see why this is a flawed assumption you need look no further than the classic teen movie about the kid who gets bullied. The standard response from the authorities is always the same one: "report it to us, we will fix the problem". So they sit down the bully for a talking to, and of course it changes nothing because the intervention is too light, it has no effect on him. Why doesn't it? Because the bully [in the movie] is a lot more self confident than the average kid, so an intervention that would have taken effect on most kids doesn't make a dent in him. The guiding principle is that the an action has a universal appropriate response associated with it.

Parents discover the same thing. The ideal model is that all their kids get the same treatment and play by the same rules. No preference for one over the other. But the reality is that kids are different, and they need different stimuli. A kid who's thick skinned won't respond to a light reprimand, whereas a sensitive kid will be overwhelmed by the same harsh beat down that would have been appropriate for his robust sibling. One size does not fit all.

Most clearcut of all are monetary incentives. If one guy gets pulled over for speeding in a beat up old car worth 1000 bucks and another guy gets caught in a 100,000 sports car, should they pay the same fine? In the interest of fairness, yes. But if you're trying to prevent speeding, then each should get a fine that will be high enough to set a sufficient incentive. If you make them both pay 100 then the guy in the sports car doesn't even notice it and let's get real, people don't buy sports cars out of a strong dedication to the speed limit.

Universal rules are in a sense the least bad solution. And people intuitively accept them, because even as they feel judged harshly they can take solace in the fact that everyone gets the same treatment for the same infraction. But that doesn't mean universality promotes that most harmony. Sometimes people even act out in protest against being treated as replaceable cogs in a machine, and all it takes to pacify them is a little individual attention.

Academic performance

Another area where universal standards rule is academic testing. The idea is that if you give every student the same test then you can determine how well each person has absorbed the same material. Of course, what you end up measuring in part is test taking aptitude. But there is a more serious problem with this. Ideally, what you would like to measure is not so much knowledge of this specific material, which may be obsolete a few years down the road. Instead, what a potential employer would be interested in is learning aptitude. And taking it one step further, perhaps even the aptitude to learn how to learn.

To clarify this point, suppose you are taking a class on discrete mathematics. It's entirely possible that you won't ever find a use for this knowledge in your professional life, so to determine your knowledge of discrete math isn't particularly interesting. What's more interesting is to have some metric of how successful your learning process was. So if you knew all the material beforehand, you would score a zero. And if you think about it, that is a far more just way to measure performance. A student with no relevant background would get credit for the work he had to put in to compensate for his deficit.

the Swedish Pirate Party

June 17th, 2008

Rick Falkvinge of the Swedish Pirate Party gives a talk at google. It's one of the best talks about free culture and "intellectual property" I've seen. I also learned that the Norwegian Liberal Party (Venstre) has adopted the same stance on free culture, bravo!

If you have reservations about the implications of copyright reform, go watch this talk, he gets all these questions from the audience.

The soundbite from Falkvinge's talk for all you 24hour news media addicts:

Copyright, while written into law that it's supposed to be for the benefit of the author, never was. It was for the benefit of the distributors.

our climate control sucks

June 13th, 2008

We are so preoccupied with weather in our society. Even though we spend most of the day inside buildings, people will actually say that a day is good or bad just based on weather. "Nice day today, eh?" Apparently those little intervals we spend traveling between the house and the office, the office and the market, the market and home, are disproportionately important to our well being in contrast to all those hours we spend on the inside. And we pay so much attention to weather and climate that it can actually determine how we feel about the day as a whole.

And yet we pay so little attention to the climate on the inside. Isn't that a paradox?

When you go into a factory and look at some of their big machinery, they have these gauges on them that show you all sorts of information about the conditions in various critical parts of the system. It's fairly important to know that the temperature is such, the pressure is in some acceptable range, the concentration of some chemical doesn't exceed this; either because the machinery itself can't handle it (eg. nuclear reactor), or because the product on the inside will get ruined if you don't keep these factors under control.

We do this for our products, but we don't do it for ourselves. It's plain to see that the climate in our rooms is more important to our well being than the weather outside, since that's where we spend most of our time. And yet there's no weather forecast for this. We don't know anything about the climate in our homes. We complain about the climate in certain parts of the world, "oh that place is horrible to live in", and just the same there are buildings with an internal climate that is just as unbearable.

And then we talk about education, and health, and productivity. Does anyone see a problem here? Do you think you can be productive at your job if you're standing in the rain, freezing your ass off? No one would expect that from you. And yet you go into the office, where it's too hot, the air is stale because the ventilation stinks, it's noisy, there's so much ambient light that you have to squint to look at the monitor, the chair doesn't have proper support for your back, and the desk is so small your elbows are hanging off the edge of it (less common now with lcd monitors). And this isn't supposed to affect your productivity at all, right?

I cannot begin to quantify the number of days or half days that were ruined for me because the inside climate was bad. I used to hate summer that brought a large number of sunny days while I was sitting in school. Half the time when the sun was up it was either in my eyes or producing glare on the blackboard, either of which meant I had to sit there squinting. Even if the curtains were drawn the sun obviously moves on an axis, so soon enough they wouldn't be in the right place anymore.

And then people say things like "boy, kids are so frail these days. They don't get enough exercise." Yes, that's part of it, no doubt. The other part is spending their days in rooms with a bad climate and non-existent ergonomics. And I know, because I was getting enough exercise, and that didn't magically eliminate the problems of climate.


So where do we start? We need to figure out what kind of climate we're living in. When someone is getting a headache from spending 2 hours in a room with so much ambient light that they can't comfortably see, we need to go from "there's something wrong with you" to "this climate sucks, let's fix it". The first step towards fixing is knowing what the problem is. Right now we don't know a damn thing. The only thing we have is thermometers. Imagine if the workers at a nuclear power plant only had one of those hand held thermometers and the guy was trying to "hold it close enough" to the opening so he could get a decent reading on it. That's where we are now.

We need to figure out what the relevant environmental factors are and how to measure them. Don't expect to have an ideal climate out of that, it could turn out to be expensive. But how do we know what it's going to cost since we know nothing? Step one is to be able to measure properties of the climate that impact us. Step two is to figure out how various people are affected by these properties, and which. Step three is to connect these two bits of information to the extent we are able and willing to make the effort.

Climate control right now is an art. There are people who have figured out how to tune the climate, "do a little bit of this. Okay, a little more. There, good." But it's an art, inexact and experience based, full of "maybe this will help". We need to make it not a science, but a commodity. Just as you know that the temperature in your refrigerator is supposed to be between 0 and 4 degrees, we should be able to say the same about our home climate. "My ambient light is x on average, y at peak, I need to fix it." And then teach it in schools, right along with "you should eat this, not that". It's just as important.