Category: Technology and Regulation

Google recently announced that it has purchased the Trendalyzer software from Gapminder, a Swedish non-profit (HT: Slashdot). Trendalyzer is the brain-child of professor Hans Rosling, who was lecturing on international development “when it struck him that statistics were an underexploited resource, often presented in an incomprehensible fashion. To solve the problem he developed – along with his son – a new kind of software.”

One interesting aspect of this purchase is that the software’s inventor won’t profit from its sale, since it was run under the auspices of a non-profit and was financed by public money. “It’s not an operating business that was sold, just the software and a web site. Although I would gladly accept that kind of money,” said Rosling.

To see the software in action, see the video of a lecture given by Rosling in February of 2006. Don’t just pay attention to the software, however. Rosling has some pretty important observations about how the West views the “developing” world.


Blog author: jballor
posted by on Monday, March 19, 2007

The nearly decade-long battle between the European Union and Microsoft took another turn earlier this month, as the EU Commission offered a fresh threat to Microsoft: Submit to our demands or face stiff new penalties. The item at issue is an aspect of the 2004 ruling against Microsoft, in which “the Commission fined Microsoft and ordered it to provide its competitors with information allowing them to develop workgroup server software interoperable Windows desktop operating system.”

That ruling is still under appeal in a Luxembourg court, but the Commission is pushing Microsoft to comply with the original terms of the decision before that appeal is resolved. The EU has given Microsoft until the beginning of April to comply.

The crux of the Commission’s argument is that the interoperability information that Microsoft holds is not sufficiently innovative to be protected as intellectual property, and therefore should be released free-of-charge to competitors. But as Ronald A. Cass rightly asks, “how can such critical information, which is not readily discovered by others, also be deemed obvious and of limited value?”

The fact that Microsoft has licensed Quest Software under its European Work Group Server Protocol Program shows that there is value in the information, such that according to Quest the agreement will allow it “to expand upon its innovative interoperability solutions for customers working across heterogeneous server environments, such as UNIX and Linux.”

Jim Prendergast, executive director of Americans for Technology Leadership, responded to the EU Commission’s threats by saying, “These actions are a de facto trade barrier for American companies who must continue to meet a higher standard of regulation across Europe.”

Again, Cass notes that the decision of the Commission’s antitrust office, headed by Neelie Kroes, “suggests that trade secrets (information that is not disclosed and not patented) are by definition without innovative content — and therefore unworthy of any significant fee.”

A WSJ editorial concurs and criticizes this move because it arrogates the authority of determining the validity of patents in addition to all its other claimed powers: “Brussels no longer acts as merely prosecutor, judge, jury and executioner in antitrust cases; it now claims the power to assess the worth of patents, too.”

What are some of the potential motivations for the EU Commission to take such steps? They are numerous. A giant corporation can be easily seen as a source of significant cash. The fines levied by the EU Commission could total more than $1 billion.

Then there is the perennial government instinct to expand the scope of its own powers. The Commission apprently bristles at any restriction of its authority.

Cass intimates that there is a larger trade issue at work. That is, EU officials want to put American companies at a competitive disadvantage by erecting “a de facto trade barrier.”

But there may be another aspect to this. Many EU governments are adopting open-source operating systems as cost-cutting moves. So, for instance, France announced late in 2006 that it would be moving from Microsoft to Linux (they recently decided on the Ubuntu distribution). The French government “believes it can save money using open-source software, despite the near-term costs of switching from Microsoft systems and retraining all employees.”

But those cost-savings could be hampered by Microsoft charging licensing fees for server interoperability. Novell has even noted that given the whole structure of licenses, fees, and costs associated with open-source software, “Microsoft is cheaper than Linux.”

Could the EU Commission be taking such an active role in reducing the costs of running Linux in order to reduce the costs paid by the constituent governments? That seems like a major potential conflict of interest and gives good reason to question the objectivity of the Commission in these cases. And if this is the case, it falls to the EU courts to uphold the integrity and objectivity of the rule of law in deciding Microsoft’s appeal.

According to published reports, China is planning on adding new censorship regulations covering blogs and webcasts (HT).

President Hu Jintao says the government needs to take these steps to “purify” the Internet, leading to “a more healthy and active Internet environment,” according to the Xinhua news agency.

Estimates put the number of Internet police manning the “Great Firewall of China” at 30,000-40,000. To see if those cops are looking at a particular website, test it at GreatFirewallOfChina.org.

You can also check out more details about the global spread of Internet censorship, “practised by about two dozen countries and applied to a far wider range of online information and applications,” in this FT story, “Web censorship spreading globally.” China is described as one of 10 “pervasive blockers,” and it seems that countries that are new to the censorship racket are “learning from experienced practitioners such as China and benefiting from technological improvements.”

Update: Apparently not having learned its lesson from the China debacle, which Sergey Brin called “a net negative,” this from Slashdot: “Google Aids Indian Government Censorship.”

Have you heard about Logos Bible Software? Here’s a bit about the founding of the company from the February NewsWire update (and on their blog here): “A couple of young Microsoft programmers with their entire careers of high-pay and lucrative Microsoft stock options ahead of them, dropped everything to join a partner and risk it all on pursuing their dream.”

The story continues: “They weren’t satisfied with using their skills to help businessmen have access to the latest and greatest in technology just so they could be more productive or do better in business…

They wanted more.

They wanted to use those same skills to help God’s people in every walk of life have better access to the treasures of God’s Word.

They wanted to use the latest and greatest in technology to create tools for taking people deeper into Bible study than they ever thought possible.”

Logos Bible Software is the tool of choice for many seminaries, including my own school, Calvin Theological Seminary. I continue to be impressed with the range and quality of the products offered by Logos. There clearly is a commitment to providing research tools that are relevant and highly powerful, tailored to theologians, pastors, and laypersons alike.

I’m especially a fan of their pre-pub system, which allows users to express interest in future products and get them at a discount, while giving the company an idea of the viability of a particular offering. For instance, check out pre-pub offering of the full 14 volumes of Karl Barth’s Church Dogmatics. They’re now doing for Barth’s Dogmatics what they’ve done previously for Pannenberg’s Systematic Theology, Luther’s Works, and Hodge’s Systematic Theology.

And now, Logos Bible Software has been named a finalist for the prestigious “Consumer Product of the Year” award given by the WSA, a technology and trade organization. The latest iteration of Logos’ premiere software, Logos Bible Software 3, is up for the award.

If you’re not familiar with Logos, check them out. To be sure, there are some other useful (and less costly) options out there, such as the Christian Classics Ethereal Library. But the entrepreneurial, innovative spirit and the God-centered commitment of the folks at Logos have combined to create a research tool well worth consideration.

If you are familiar with Logos, you can voice your support by voting for Logos Bible Software as the “Community’s Choice” winner at the WSA (it will be up to the official judges to award the “Consumer Product of the Year” honor).

If you would like to show your support, simply create an account and vote for Logos Bible Software.

You will have to create an account here.

Next, vote for Logos Bible Software here.

Last month Rep. Chris Smith (R-NJ) reintroduced legislation from the previous Congress, this time as the Global Online Freedom Act of 2007, or GOFA (HT: Slashdot). According to the commentary on Slashdot, “GOFA would create a U.S.-government-designated list of ‘Internet restricting countries’ and would in most cases prohibit U.S.-based companies from censoring content or turning over users’ information to the governments of those countries.”

This law directly affects the situation of companies like Yahoo!, Google, and MSN who have been pretty roundly criticized for their practices in markets like China. Awhile back I discussed the complexity of these kinds of situations, attempting to recast the discussion within the context of this question: “What is the best way to move China toward economic, political, and religious freedom?”

Rep. Smith has repeated the oft-heard criticisms: “By helping dictators stifle free speech and spy on dissidents, American IT companies are putting profits before principles.” The Slashdot commentary notes that the major impact of the legislation is not likely to come in the area of censorship of Internet sites, but rather “where the law could make a difference is in the prohibition against turning over users’ personal data to law enforcement in censoring countries.” The piece also outlines why U.S. Internet companies might actually endorse such regulation, since it would give them bargaining power in negotiations with oppressive regimes.

Meanwhile, Google exec Sergey Brin has admitted that their policy of censoring web searches in accord with the demands of the Chinese government was ‘a net negative’ for their business, given the critical reaction from Western consumers and damage to the company’s reputation (HT: Slashdot).

Of course, given Google’s massive profit in 2006, including a fourth quarter near-tripling, the company can probably handle some short term negatives. And there’s speculation that Google’s growth may be a little too “hot” and so perhaps the fallout from Google’s practices in China, a net negative as it may be in itself, has done the company some good. After all, Google has now got a toehold in a hugely developing market.

Still, foreign companies have not been hugely successful so far in competition with domestic Internet companies in China, “partly because of regulatory restrictions that favor homegrown companies, but also because foreign companies often do not understand China’s Internet market, which is geared primarily to entertainment and mobile phones.”

What is clear is that the rise of economic freedom in China presents a multi-faceted challenge to the West to show how economic, religious, and political freedom are interwoven. Calvin College has received a $2 million grant from the Templeton Foundation to educate Chinese scholars about “how philosophy, science, morality, economics and religious belief have interacted in the West.”

Other efforts are trying to include concerns about religious freedom within the broader context of human rights. The U.S. Commission on Religious Freedom is advocating that the U.S. government use the economic leverage represented by the Olympic Games, which come to China in 2008, to “pressure Beijing into reforming” its human rights practices (HT: ENI).

Joseph Loconte, senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center, writes in an extended essay in the current issue of Christianity Today, that “evangelicals could lobby for the creation of a U.S. Commission on Human Rights, in the same way they rallied in the 1990s for a U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom.”

Perhaps adoption of the GOFA would be one small step in showing China just how the West views the relationship between freedom in various spheres of human activity.

Following up on my musings about the potential for the PlayStation 3 to position itself as the “family friendly” next-gen gaming system because of its on-board Blu-ray drive, it looks like Blu-ray is closing the gap on HD-DVD (HT: Slashdot):

VideoScan’s numbers indicate that during the seven days between Jan 7 and Jan 14, Blu-ray managed to close the gap of total discs sold since inception with HD DVD by over seven percentage points, suggesting that if the current trend continues, the two formats could be at disc sales parity within weeks.

And in news that might make the PS3 even more competitive, a senior exec at Sony said that “further slashing prices may be in store for the just-launched video game machine” (HT: Slashdot).

But the latest development is rather more disappointing. An enterprising and tenacious pornographer has found a way around Sony’s adult content ban by finding a Blu-ray replicator willing to copy their discs.

Blog author: jballor
posted by on Tuesday, January 30, 2007

“ICANN Reviews Revoking Outdated Suffixes” (HT: Slashdot).

From the piece, “The Soviet Union’s ‘.su’ is the leading candidate for deletion.” A Google search turns up about 3 million sites with the .su suffix.

How exactly did the Soviet Union get a domain suffix? The Soviet Union collapsed in 1991 and wasn’t yet highly commercialized. But it seems that the administrative record for the .su suffix was created just in time, on September 19, 1990, a little over a year before the formal dissolution of the union on December 8, 1991.

Blog author: jballor
posted by on Thursday, January 25, 2007

They say that technology drives culture (HT: Zondervan>To The Point).

But what drives technology? Many believe that pornography is the driving force behind adoption of particular technologies. Thus, says Slate television critic Troy Patterson, “Watching YouTube is far closer to consuming Internet pornography than staring at the television. … But then, all media culture has an increasingly pornographic feel, doesn’t it?”

Let’s look at some actual cases where this claim has been made (HT: Slashdot). In a recent TG Daily article reflecting on CES 2007, Aaron McKenna writes,

Quite famously in the war between Betamax and VHS the latter won especially because the adult industry preferred it. If you’ve been around long enough, you probably remember that the very early home video rental stores were primarily responsible for driving Betamax out of the market. And those stores carried almost exclusively pornographic content.

Thus, the fact that pornographers preferred VHS rather than Betamax assured VHS of being the dominant home video technology.

Many are applying this argument to the current battle between Blu-ray and HD-DVD formats. These competitors want to bring high-definition content to the home theater on DVDs. The drives are expensive and the technology is new, so are we in a comparable position to the relationship between VHS and Betamax decades ago?

McKenna did a straw poll at AEE and “got the strange feeling that HD DVD has won the format war already, at least in the porn industry.” Meanwhile, Sony has announced that it will not allow XXX rated content in Blu-ray format. So in this case, it might not be so much pornographers choosing HD-DVD but rather Blu-ray excluding pornographers.

But a recent piece in Electronic Gaming Monthly (“Blue Steal: Is Blu-ray winning the high-def disc jam?” by Marc Camron, February 2007, 34-35) describes another aspect of the DVD format war: gaming. Michael Pachter, a Wedbush Morgan Securities Analyst, points out that the new PlayStation 3 comes with a Blu-ray drive included. Its main competitor, the Xbox 360, is compatible with an add-on HD-DVD drive that runs about $200.

“Blu-ray is in a better position because more people are interest in purchasing a PS3 than in purchasing a stand-alone HD-DVD player,” says Pachter. “That interest will continue for several years. That means that the studios will see a Blu-ray installed base much larger than the HD-DVD installed base, and they will ultimately be compelled to make the best economic decision, which is to support Blu-ray.”

At the time Camron wrote his piece, the news hadn’t dropped yet about Sony’s ban of adult-rated content. But even so the Blu-ray has something going for it that Betamax didn’t: the PS3, which can now be marketed as the family-friendly gaming system because it’s Blu-ray drive won’t have hi-def DVD adult content.

We now know what format pornographers prefer. But the question remains, which one will parents prefer?

Blog author: jballor
posted by on Thursday, January 11, 2007

A part of the pornification of culture is the pornification of technology.

G4TV, a cable network owned by Comcast Corp., has been covering the Consumer Electronics Show (CES) from Las Vegas this week and kicks off prime time special coverage tonight at 9pm ET. Of course, hip new gadgets like the iPhone (which actually was debuted at Macworld 2007) aren’t enough to appeal to “the male 18-34 audience and their fascination with video games, the Internet, broadband, technology, comics and animation.”

What’s missing from that list of interest? Porn, of course. That’s where the Adult Entertainment Expo (AEE) comes in, serendipitously timed to match up with CES. G4TV is advertising dual coverage of both CES and AEE as “two days of gadgets and girls.”

But as one commenter in a G4 forum notes, “You know, there are female gamers/sci-fi fans too. Like, people who prefer to be thought of as more than pieces of sexy sex meat.”

She continues,

But, silly me, why should G4 care if women like games, right? So much easier to play to stereotypes and make commercials about how men need ‘balance’ (like tech and ‘sex’ (meaning, clearly, scantily clad skinny white women) equals ‘balance’). Yay for G4! Who cares about women!

Poo to your advertisements and your stupid anti-girl sex shows. I guess I’ll need to start looking elsewhere for my gaming and sci-fi needs.

You go, girl.

Of course, the ubiquity of pornography on the Internet is the stuff of legend (although often of the urban variety). While pornographic websites on the web are estimated to do over $2.5 billion in business annually and about one-quarter of web searches are porn related, a recent government study has found that 1% of Internet sites are porn-related (other estimates have put the range at 10% or higher).

Even so, 20 percent of men and 13 percent of women admit accessing porn at work. This has led some, such as PJ Doland (HT: Slashdot), to entertain the idea of a NSFW (“not safe for work”) HTML attribute or tag that could be added to questionable content. Doland writes:

This isn’t about censorship. It is about making us all less likely to accidentally click on a[n objectionable] link when our boss is standing behind us. It is also about making us feel more comfortable posting possibly objectionable content by giving visitors a means of easily filtering that content.

An idea like this has the potential to achieve through voluntary measures what the proponents of the .xxx domain extension had hoped to accomplish by segregating explicit material from the rest of the web by an obvious marker.

Some church groups opposed the idea of a .xxx domain because they thought it would lend credibility to Internet pornography, and ICANN temporarily shelved the idea (although it may be revived).

Christian philosopher Albert Borgmann has written that “underneath the surface of technological liberty and prosperity there is a sense of captivity and deprivation.”

Augustine described the relationship between desire and deprivation in his Confessions this way:

The truth is that disordered lust springs from a perverted will; when lust is pandered to, a habit is formed; when habit is not checked, it hardens into compulsion. These were like interlinking rings forming what I have described as a chain, and my harsh servitude used it to keep me under duress (8.5.10).

It would be hard to imagine something on the Internet that contributes as much to this binding of the will to sin than pornography, making the work of groups like the XXXChurch (who are covering the AEE in their own way) all the more pressing.

Blog author: jballor
posted by on Thursday, January 4, 2007

From today’s WaPo:

About 25 percent of the technology and engineering companies launched in the past decade had at least one foreign-born founder, according to a study released yesterday that throws new information into the debate over foreign workers who arrive in the United States on specialty visas.

Scott McNealy, chairman and co-founder of Sun Microsystems, “is among the advocates for an expanded visa program, writing editorials, calling members of Congress and supporting political action committees.”

He asks a pretty good question, I think: “Why would you have any arbitrary number on smart people?”