Category: Public Policy

Blog author: abradley
Wednesday, November 23, 2005
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The newest phase in the fight for digital/intellectual property rights involves the recent Digital Rights Management software from Sony. Apparently, Sony’s “protected” audio CDs have been installing a “rootkit” onto your computer, and opening up your computer to yet more malicious software on the Internet (as if it isn’t bad enough already without a Sony rootkit). There are a couple of things I want to say about this – first, a short description of exactly what the problem is; and secondly, a look at the ethical/moral implications of this situation. (All you Computer Science professors out there: this is a very good case study if you are teaching a class on Software Ethics.)

So, what exactly happened? Sony, along with many other music companies, has been brainstorming up ways to prevent people from copying audio CDs. This is mostly a reaction to the Napster phenomenon from the turn of the millennium, but also to continued audio piracy. Sony’s solution to the problem has been the sale of protected CDs that put software on a device that identifies the CD as legitimate and allows playback. The software that Sony CDs have been installing onto computers around the world is flawed and has opened up countless computers to new trojans and other malicious software. Sony has since released patches that “remove” the flawed code, although the updated software seems to be equally flawed.

What are the ethical implications? First, and foremost, Sony has been installing software on computers without the informed consent or knowledge of its general user base. While this is bad enough, Sony has been installing a “rootkit” onto your computer – a program that has administrative access to everything on your computer, and hides certain files. Even granting Sony the benefit of the doubt, this is simply poor decision-making and poor programming. To make matters worse, they’ve used allegedly plagiarized code. Sony, as a leader among their competition, should be excelling in all of these areas using honest, open, and transparent means. A company such as Sony should be at the forefront of developing software and/or hardware that is easy to use, SAFE, and effective, not software that is deceptive and dangerous.

One more thing to say before I’m done venting… In response to RIAA president Cary Sherman’s following statement at a recent press conference:

“The problem with the SonyBMG situation is that the technology they used contained a security vulnerability of which they were unaware. They have apologized for their mistake, ceased manufacture of CDs with that technology, and pulled CDs with that technology from store shelves. Seems very responsible to me. How many times that software applications created the same problem? Lots. I wonder whether they’ve taken as aggressive steps as SonyBMG has when those vulnerabilities were discovered, or did they just post a patch on the Internet?”

People generally know that software that they install may contain bugs, and there is a user end license agreement that specifies the terms of those situations. An audio CD that you want to listen to is not equatable to general software installation.

Blog author: jballor
Tuesday, November 22, 2005
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Check out this Marketplace story about real money being spent in the virtual world. The commodities of online gaming have real-world value to people, to the extent that a virtual island can cost upwards of $26,000 in the world of Project Entropia.

This leads me to ask with the Matrix’s Morpheus: ‘What is “real”? How do you define “real”? If you’re talking about what you can feel, what you can smell, what you can taste and see, then “real” is simply electrical signals intepreted by your brain…’

Thus the power of imagination makes the virtual world seem real. And perhaps for some lonely souls, even more real than the “real” world.

Theologian John Baillie writes, “I have long been of the opinion that the part played by the imagination in the soul’s dealings with God, though it has always been understood by those skilled in the practice of the Christian cure of souls, has never been given proper place in Christian theology which has too much been ruled by intellectualistic preconceptions.” But perhaps there’s some good reason why the imagination has been so treated.

It is precisely the imaginative element of human thinking that is so often used to create idols in our own image. John Calvin writes, “But as to my statement that some erroneously slip into superstition, I do not mean by this that their ingenuousness should free them from blame. For the blindness under which they labor is almost always mixed with proud vanity and obstinacy. Indeed, vanity joined with pride can be detected in the fact that, in seeking God, miserable men do not rise above themselves as they should, but measure him by the yardstick of their own carnal stupidity, and neglect sound investigation; thus out of curiosity they fly off into empty speculations.” There is no doubt that human creativity and ingenuity is a gift of God. But at the same time, these are fallen gifts, which are the source of much error, corrupt and fallible conceptions.

What might Morpheus say about the man who died after playing video games for 50 hours straight?

Morpheus: ‘Your mind makes it real, Neo. If you’re killed in the Matrix, you die here…. The body cannot live without the mind.’

Blog author: jballor
Monday, November 21, 2005
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This month’s Esquire magazine is the annual “Genius” issue (with Bill Clinton as the coverboy, which might seem strange until you realize that the word “genius” is related to the words “genii” and “jinn,” which in mythology were often negative spiritual beings, “commonly believed to be responsible for diseases and for the manias of some lunatics”).

Speaking about the trouble with working through and for bureaucratic governments in his article “What I Did on My Summer Vacation: I Went to Africa,” (subscription required) Jeffrey Sachs, director of both the Earth Institute at Columbia University and the UN Millennium Project: “Officialdom the world over is pretty slow moving, pretty impractical, and pretty darn frustrating in many ways, so even when the proof of these concepts is clear, actually getting things done is not so easy.”

So when Sachs sees problems all over the world, he’s rightly frustrated by the governmental inability to deal with the issues. Through his hands-on experience, Sachs has learned to appreciate the necessary and decisive role private charity plays. He says with respect to the poverty, suffering, and death in developing countries,

It’s not very satisfactory to see this and not act. And so in the last couple of years I’ve started to talk about these problems with business leaders and philanthropists, and over and over again I’ve heard the same response: Don’t wait for the government. I’ll help you. So what kind of accidentally dawned on us was that we could just go ahead and get these concepts proven on the ground. And that’s what we are doing. And many philanthropists have come forward now and said, We’ll give you some backing; show us what you can do.

This is exactly the element that poverty advocate and U2 frontman Bono called for in a recent interview. “We need the marketing firepower,” he said. “We have the churches, the students, the rock stars, the movie stars, the cowboys. What we need now is corporate America.”

Sachs goes on to describe how the idea for Millennium Villages came about, through the interaction of field experts and donors: “…that’s how the Millennium Villages concept was born. The scientists said, Let’s move. The philanthropists said, Let’s move. A year ago we went and met with the community in Kenya and talked to people there about it. And they said, Let’s move!”

Sachs goes on to lay out the foundation for the UN Millenium Development Goals (MDGs), which emphasize both public and private sector engagement, but at over a 2:1 ratio of public over private. He writes of a meeting to find out what it would take to get developing countries out of poverty, “They said the public sector will do some and the private sector needs to do some, and that it should be about a seventy-thirty split. So that’s where the seventy cents came from. And that was adopted by the General Assembly of the UN in 1970.”

It’s unfortunate that the sensitivity that Sachs has at the beginning of the article to the unresponsiveness and corruption of government doesn’t lead him to primarily emphasize private rather than public aid. It’s appropriate to call governments to task for not living up to their pledges, the United States especially. But that finger-wagging shouldn’t take away from the “Let’s move, don’t wait for government” approach. That’s essentially my complaint with the church infatuation with the MDG’s…they tend to overemphasize the role of government and deemphasize personal and private giving.

Blog author: jballor
Friday, November 18, 2005
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To expand the “scientist” as “priest” metaphor a bit, you may find it interesting to read what Herman Bavinck has to say on the fundamental place of “faith” with respect to all kinds of knowledge, including not only religious but also scientific:

Believing in general is a very common way in which people gain knowledge and certainty. In all areas of life we start by believing. Our natural inclination is to believe. It is only acquired knowledge and experience that teach us skepticism. Faith is the foundation of society and the basis of science. Ultimately all certainty is rooted in faith.

A little later he writes:

Clement of Alexandria in many places uses πιστις to denote all immediate knowledge and certainty and then says that there is no science without belief, that the first principles, including, for example, the existence of God, are believed, not proven. Especially Augustine highlighted the significance of belief for society and science. Those who do not believe, he says, never arrive at knowledge: “Unless you have believed you will not understand.” Belief is the foundation and bond uniting the whole of human society.

The point essentially is that all of us, scientist, pastor, gardener, or surfer, have presuppositions, first principles or principia that are by definition that “on which all proofs ultimately rest, [and] are not themselves susceptible of being proven: they are certain only by and to faith. Proofs, therefore, are compelling only to those who agree with us in accepting those principles. ‘There is no point in arguing against a person who rejects the first principles’ (Contra principia negantem non est disputandum).”

This final Latin phrase that Bavinck quotes, incidentally, is often traced back to Aristotle’s Rhetoric, but also appears in a form in the Summa Theologica of Thomas Aquinas: quod inferiores scientiae nec probant sua principia, nec contra negantem principia disputant, or “the inferior sciences neither prove their principles nor dispute with those who deny them” (ST 1.1.8).

As a brief aside, there is no relationship between the Greek word for faith (πιστις, or pistis) and epistemology as a “theory of knowledge,” which instead comes from Greek words meaning “to stand over.”

Blog author: jballor
Friday, November 18, 2005
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Let me quickly respond to this week’s Acton Commentary:

While I agree in broad strokes with Dr. Larrivee’s analysis of the questionable assumptions of the fair trade movement, with respect to coffee in particular, I don’t agree that the problem is “low productivity in the countries in which farmers live.” I have previously argued that the source of the issue is in fact too much coffee, so that the market is saturated and cannot sustain high prices given the declining worldwide demand.

Dr. Larrivee later rightly observes that the fair trade system contributes to a situation which “would expand the supply until the price farmers receive dropped back to the subsistence level.” I think, in fact, this has already happened in the case of coffee, and the fair trade movement simply exacerbates the problem.

You can read more about my take on the situation here.

Blog author: jballor
Friday, November 18, 2005
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Among the ways the UN’s World Food Programme (WFP) is going about attempting to raise public awareness of hunger issues is the use of “celebrity” athelete spokesmen. Paul Tergat, who won this year’s New York City Marathon, was a recipient of WFP aid when he was growing up in Kenya. Listen to a Morning Edition story on Tergat and the WFP here. Tergat is specifially the pitchman for the WFP’s Race Against Hunger project, targeted at about 300 million schoolchildren globally.

This, of course, is just one of the various WFP publicity efforts, which also include the production of a free downloadable video game, “Food Force.” A review of WFP’s “Food Force” is available here.

Of course, the UN isn’t the only game in town. Feed The Children is an international, nonprofit, Christian aid group “that delivers food, medicine, clothing and other necessities to individuals, children and families who lack these essentials due to famine, war, poverty or natural disaster.” A key part of Feed The Children’s effort is the push for sustainability: “A key goal is to help needy families move past needing help and into becoming self-sufficient members of their community. Through long-term, self-help development programs funded by grants and by our Child Sponsorship partners, tens of thousands of families in countries around the world have increased their ability to be self-sufficient by learning and applying new, marketable skills.”

Blog author: jspalink
Thursday, November 17, 2005
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Dante seems upset about being reduced to a text message.

A British mobile phone company has hired a professor of literature to write up short quotations from various masterpieces. The goal is to help make “great literature more accessible” by offering short, truncated, text messages to students via cell phones. A Reuters story quoted the company:

“We are confident that our version of ‘text’ books will genuinely help thousands of students remember key plots and quotes, and raise up educational standards rather than decrease levels of literacy,” the company, Dot Mobile, said in a press release.

Call me old-fashioned, but last time I checked, the point of studying literature was not to memorize certain key quotations, or even plot lines. That is coincidental. The point of studying literature, and especially the classics, is to learn the mastery of language, to understand linguistic intent, and to appreciate poetry and prose. To tout a product that truncates and reduces literature to a few short lines cut up and abbreviated, and to call this a method of raising “educational standards” and increasing “literacy” is quite disappointing.

Imagine studying Dante’s Inferno, and having it summarized by a few text messages. “Dante lost N wOd” => “Dante+Virgil go N heL” => “D+V paS thrU heL.” There you go students – there’s the Inferno! Basic plot (minus every line of allegory, poetry, and metaphor).

While I do see the value of short and succinct mnemonic devices to help a student remember a plot or quotation for a test, literature really does exist so that we may read it, especially the masterpieces.

Some books are to be tasted, others to be swallowed, and some few to be chewed and digested: that is, some books are to be read only in parts, others to be read, but not curiously, and some few to be read wholly, and with diligence and attention.

Sir Francis Bacon
English author, courtier, & philosopher (1561 – 1626)

Blog author: abradley
Thursday, November 17, 2005
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At the the UN net summit in Tunis, MIT’s Nicholas Negroponte has showcased his hundred dollar computer. The small, durable, lime colored, rubber-encased laptop is powered by a handcrank, and is designed to make technology more accessible to poor children in countries around the world.

If I may speak of ‘trickle-down’ technology, this is the perfect example. This announcement–an announcement of a tool to help poor countries–may not be the best time to note the virtues of richer ones; and I am not trying to steal the UN’s thunder. But there will be those who, like the BBC, will hail this as a great opportunity to narrow “the technology gap between rich and poor.” Indeed it will. But I would like to note that without this gap–one created by the entrepreneurial minds that invented laptop technology to begin with–there would be no laptops for impoverished children. A necessary precurser to this act of charity (in the traditional sense of self-giving love) is the development of the product. And this development takes place best in the free society.

Here at Acton, it is commonly noted that “you have to create wealth before you can distribute it.” The same goes with the creation of our technology, a particular type of wealth. In order to develop those tools which help us all better combat poverty, disease, and other physical ills, we must have the freedom to enact our creative initiative to create those tools. This means entrepreneurship. Which often means capital. Which commonly means people in suits with briefcases that sometimes vote Republican. But by the time we get to this point, many people are crying “oppression!” as if businessman and tyrant meant the same thing.

The point it this: narrowing the technology gap does not mean bringing society back to some default position. We don’t all go back to the equality of zero. Some have the good fortune or the grace to find themselves with particular tools or means. In freedom, some of these people cultivate these gifts, creating something to make other people’s lives better. The space of time where some have this product and other do not–this is not ipso facto a time of injustice (although injustice can come about in these circumstances). It is as often a time where the good work of entrepreneurs is trickling down to touch everyone. And do not be put off by the phrase “trickle down” as if it implies the inherent superiority of the entrepreneurs; it doesn’t. What trickles down is often that which raises men up. Perhaps we can call it grace.

Blog author: jballor
Thursday, November 17, 2005
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Thomas Lessl, Associate Professor in the Department of Speech Communication at the University of Georgia, talks about the “priestly voice” of science. He argues that “scientific culture has responded to the pressures of patronage by trying to construct a priestly ethos — by suggesting that it is the singular mediator of knowledge, or at least of whatever knowledge has real value, and should therefore enjoy a commensurate authority. If it could get the public to believe this, its power would vastly increase.”

Lessl makes an important point about the effect of this on popular perceptions of science: “The priestly character of scientific rhetoric has to do with the need to identify science with the most essential human values by making it a world view — by creating a public culture based in scientism. The best known example of this approach to scientific communication in recent memory would be that taken by Carl Sagan. Perhaps more successfully than any other popular writer of the last century, except perhaps H. G. Wells, Sagan was able create the sense that history has a scientific destiny.”

Read the rest of the interview with Dr. Lessl here.

Economist John Larrivee looks at the logic underlying the fair trade coffee movement and applies it to beer and baked goods. It doesn’t quite make sense. Larrivee points out that “the question is not the difference between what different parties to the production get paid, but rather who adds value, how much, and where.”

Read the full commentary here.