Category: Technology and Regulation

Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic has taken another step forward with the announcement of an agreement with the State of New Mexico:

Virgin Galactic, the British company created by entrepreneur Richard Branson to send tourists into space, and New Mexico announced an agreement Tuesday for the state to build a $225 million spaceport. Virgin Galactic also revealed that up to 38,000 people from 126 countries have paid a deposit for a seat on one of its manned commercial flights, including a core group of 100 “founders” who have paid the initial $200,000 cost of a flight upfront. Virgin Galactic is planning to begin flights in late 2008 or early 2009.

It all sounds very cool, although one might quibble with New Mexico’s decision to use taxpayer funds to build a spaceport for Mr. Branson.

Nevertheless, the preliminary details of the plan sound pretty cool:

Virgin Galactic said it had chosen New Mexico as the site for its headquarters because of its steady climate, free airspace, low population density and high altitude. All those factors can significantly reduce the cost of the space flight program.

The spaceport, to be located some 25 miles south of the town of Truth or Consequences, will be constructed 90 percent underground, with just the runway and supporting structures above ground.

An underground spaceport? Near a town called Truth or Consequences? It’s like something out of James Bond…

Richard Branson, circa 2018?

Update: Come to think of it, there may be a slight resemblance there… (more…)

I wrote previously about the result of the recent world information summit that resulted in ICANN’s continuing governance over Internet domain registration worldwide. Fast Company Now provides us a link to the letter from Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice and Secretary of Commerce Carlos M. Gutierrez that may have precipitated the détente. Among the salient features of the letter:

  • The contention that “support for the present structures for Internet governance is vital. These structures have proven to be a reliable foundation for the robust growth of the Internet we have seen over the course of the last decade.” If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.

  • “Burdensome, bureaucratic oversight” (read UN involvement) “is out of place in an Internet structure that has worked so well for many around the globe.”
  • An emphasis on non-governmental solutions: “The history of the Internet’s extraordinary growth and adaptation, based on private-sector innovation and investment, offers compelling arguments against burdening the network with a new intergovernmental structure for oversight. It also suggests that a new intergovernmental structure would most likely become an obstacle to global Internet access for all our citizens.”

The tone of the letter is rather unyielding (principled, perhaps?) in the face of complaints against ICANN (and implicitly American) dominance over Internet administration. I find the arguments rather compelling, especially given that ICANN seems to be responsive to global concerns.

For example, a new Internet domain for the European Union opened up this past Wednesday. This will allow interested parties to register with the new “.eu” suffix instead of having to choose from country-specific codes, such as “.uk” or “.fr”, or other generic options, “.com” and “.net”.

So ICANN is listening to the EU, even if the push for the new domain isn’t a grassroots campaign. The question is whether Europeans actually desire a “.eu” domain name: “Some business groups are uncertain how popular it will be. Europeans have an EU flag, an EU passport and an EU anthem but many have a lukewarm attitude to European integration —as French and Dutch ‘no’ votes to a new constitution showed this year.” I don’t think a “.na” (North America) domain would be that popular for Canadians and Americans, for instance.

I wonder what’s on C-SPAN tonite.

An interesting piece today by George Will, outlining what he calls a new government entitlement program that is being batted around the House and Senate: $990 million (according to the House) or $3 billion (according to the Senate) to subsidize digital converters for television sets. The idea is that by 2009, analog transmission will be a thing of the past, and even though most households by that time will already have digital televisions, our beneficient leaders consider it their responsibility to ensure us that no one is left out in the analog cold. Apparently, the question of personal initiative in this matter is not an issue.

…today’s up-to-date conservatism does not stand idly by expecting people to actually pursue happiness on their own…Given that the transition to digital has been under way for almost a decade, why should those who have adjusted be compelled to pay money to those who have chosen not to adjust?

But leaving the questions of inititative and subsidies aside–whether or not the government ought to be spending money to, in effect, make consumer decisions for us–what makes Congress think this particular sector of the market–televisions–has anything to do with their legislative responsibilities? Who am I, a faithful taxpayer, paying to sit around and write up these plans? Then again, the primary tool of Orwell’s Big Brother was the television screen.

So if these plans pass, twenty-five years after 1984 we can rest assured that Big Brother will be safeguarding all our entertainment needs. Unless, like one scholar around the corner from me at Acton, you hope to be rid of your television by that time anyway.

Blog author: jballor
Friday, December 2, 2005

As much as I would love to have the choice to pick what channels I pay for and receive over cable individually, I think Arnold Kling is right: The FCC shouldn’t force cable companies to offer that option. He says, “With some phone companies threatening to get into the TV business through their fiber-optic cables, this point may become moot. It could be that in a competitive market, unbundling will occur naturally. There is absolutely no reason for the FCC to inject itself into cable TV pricing in this way.”

I think there is a good chance that the delivery of information to homes in the US will be opened up in radical new ways in the coming years, which will only increase competition in these types of areas, similar to what is happening with VOIP and cell phones with respect to telephone landlines. If TV over the internet becomes a reality, and I can get internet access through my power lines, cable companies will be forced to make their services more customer-friendly.

It’s a strange quirk, for example, that I get ESPN2 but not any other ESPN channel. I’d love to be able to add ESPN, but I’m not willing to pay the price for the next highest bundle package to get it. In fact, the only reason I have cable TV right now is because it actually costs me less to have than not to, given that I pay for broadband internet access over the cable lines. Signing up for the $13 a month basic cable gets me a $15 a month discount on the internet access. What a deal!

A key barrier to economic growth in the developing world is reliable access to the global information network: the Internet. A UN-sponsored study, “Information Economy Report 2005″ by the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development, (PDF) shows that one of the features of the digital divide between the developing and the developed world has to do with the cost of high-bandwidth Internet access. The report says “that the smaller, low-income Internet markets in developing countries, particularly in Africa, have been unable to attract sufficient investment in infrastructure, which – combined with lack of competition – results in bandwidth cost that can be up to 100 times higher than in developed countries.”

We’re not dealing here with simply the lack of hardware and software, as the UN’s One Laptop Per Child (OLPC) program might lead you to believe. Incidentally, the solution proposed by OLPC to the problem of the cost of Internet connectivity is to create mini-networks of OLPC users: “What about connectivity? Aren’t telecommunications services expensive in the developing world? When these machines pop out of the box, they will make a mesh network of their own, peer-to-peer. This is something initially developed at MIT and the Media Lab. We are also exploring ways to connect them to the backbone of the Internet at very low cost.”

It’s precisely this problem of connecting to the “backbone of the Internet at very low cost” that is the major issue. The problem has to do with the strength of developing world economies in general, infrastructure issues in particular, and a host of other related complexities. This is not a simple lack of materials. You need a robust and healthy economy to support the kinds of investments and development costs associated with these kinds of infrastructure concerns.

For some irony on the situation of the developing world moving into the digital age, check out the “back-to-paper movement” in the developed world.

HT: International Civic Engagement

Alan Anderson of the Sydney Morning Herald notes that Ronald Reagan’s joke about the Government’s view of the economy has become United Nations policy toward the internet. The Belmont Club blog notes that placing control of the Web into the hands of UN regulators will have far reaching negative consequences:

The United Nations: Working hard to create a less free and less useful internet!

One of the reasons the Internet has been so successful is that it has so far escaped the restraints of Filipino judges, Tunisian government officials and United Nations bureaucrats. Addresses which are published onto the root servers can be resolved and their content displayed, subject to the restrictions of their publishers. The United States, by refusing to regulate the Internet, has occupied the position of an information central banker maintaining the coin of the realm. If lower court Filipino judges and assorted bureaucrats get their way, the pathways of the Internet will be subject to bureaucratic gatekeeping, conducted in the name of “governance”. But the proper word would be debasement.

The moment the free flow of packets over the Internet is no longer substantially guaranteed, it will cease to be trusted. Companies which are building businesses worth billions over the Internet protocols would stop if they knew a relative of the Tunisian President had to be placated for commerce to continue. Applications such email, instant messaging, searches, e-commerce, online banking, virtual medicine — to name a few — would be at the mercy of bureaucratic caprice, not just in the United States, but in every swamp and backwater imaginable. In the end, governing the Internet, especially in the United Nations sense, might be indistinguishable from destroying it. But one can see how that would appeal to those who yearn for bad, bad old days.

Blog author: abradley
Wednesday, November 23, 2005

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

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
Friday, November 18, 2005

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: abradley
Thursday, November 17, 2005

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.