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Archive for February, 2013

Well, At Least We’ve Put a Man on the Moon

There’s a lot of stuff happened in the world last week. And much of it made me mad. I have found that perhaps a lot of people I have to share this all with maybe aren’t interested. So I put it on my blog. Then no one has to listen to it and I can still pretend I’m sharing with someone.

Informed High-Level Officials

Send in the Space Marines

Amazon Reminds Us How It Really Is

We Live in a World Where This is Real

All of this just makes me grateful humanity has been able to put a man on the moon. I mean, that’s pretty much the most awesome thing humanity has ever done. It makes it so I don’t lose every last particle of hope for humanity. And it means that just maybe one day there will be a way to escape.

We Live In A World Where This Is Real

Beware. In this story, which I’ve pulled from the news and is real and true, you will find the foundation for just about every stereotype for certain classes of people. I want to note that I’m not saying that these stereotypes are justified for application to their respective categories, just that there, apparently, is an example of a case where a person fits that stereotype perfectly.

I’m not linking to the stories, but you can find them easily enough by using your Google-fu. Just remember that Kai uses a lot of bad words, so stay away from recordings of interviews with him.

This story is about Kai. Kai is a scraggy-faced, blondie homeless surfer. His accent and mannerisms match those of surfers exactly, dudes, and he has no last name. Just Kai. Kai, “straight out of dog town,” was hitch hiking along in Cali when he was picked up by a person.

The person was a little disturbing. He confessed to having raped a fourteen-year-old in the Caribbean. But then it turns out that this was ok… because this driver was really Jesus so he could do anything he wanted.

So far, we have typical surfer dude being picked up by cliché crazy person.

Crazy driver turns out to take his memes another step too far by noticing a black utility worker and demonstrating how he could do anything he wants by running his truck into the man, pinning him. (He is now cliché racist crazy Jesus pervert.)

People, because most of us have feelings and empathy, rushed to help the injured man, but crazy driver gets out and tries to keep them all away.

And even though he apparently wasn’t bothered enough by the driver being a self-admitted rapist to ask him to pull over, or, for that matter, bothered enough that the driver thought himself Jesus (I guess homeless surfer bums have a higher tolerance for unusual personalities?) Kai decided he had enough and had to intervene when crazy man violently grabbed and held onto one would-be helper.

Kai got out of the car and pulled his hatchet from his bag.

And that pretty much completes our stereotypes. Yes, the hitchhiker was carrying an ax! Kai is not only a cliché surfer bum, he’s a cliché hitchhiker.

Kai pounded the crazy man with the hatchet (“Smash! Smash! Sa-mash!” in his own words), and both driver and crash victim were taken to the hospital with non-life threatening injuries. At least Kai didn’t use the blade of the hatchet, so he’s not a sociopathic homeless hitchhiker — as far as we know, anyway.

Yes, we live in a world where that isn’t just an urban legend.

Amazon Reminds Us How It Really Is

Lest we think Amazon is a scrupulous company, they decided us to keep us on the straight track with that one by acquiring a patent to sell used e-books.

This is another one of those things where I wonder if words should fail me. Unfortunately, I talk far too much for that to ever happen. Used. E-books. As in, electronic books. As in… I’m not even sure how to explain that any further.

On the whole other people seem to be as flabbergasted as me. John Scalzi weighed in (twice) on this. But he’s hardly the only one. Here’s another. And another. I can’t see a way that this can ultimately end up an honest way to do business. It practically screams “anti-competitive practice,” and repeats it over and over, like your neighbor’s dog keeping you up all night.

The idea supposedly has parallels to how you loan books from kindle to kindle. While the e-book is “on loan” the owner can’t access it. This process simply takes the license and says you can never use it again. The maximum number of licenses is the number of licenses purchased at full price. Amazon resells that license again and again.

What’s so bad about that? Well, I’ll skip over the trivially easy copying problem (no this isn’t the same as used games – no one is trying to sell a “used” copy of a downloaded game. Used games are purchased on the original physical media). One big problem I see is that there is no mechanism in place to keep Amazon honest. There’s no DRM breakthroughs and no new technology. Amazon has always had an incredibly opaque accounting process. It’s next to impossible to figure out anything with them. They are also pretty unresponsive to any user complaints. I have no confidence that this theoretical maximum number of licenses is going to actually correspond to any first time purchases.

In addition, I think this will destroy any profit the publisher or the author will make. I can get around feeling bad for the publisher, to a certain extent — though it’s pretty clear that, despite the very low quality of the huge majority of self-published books on the Kindle marketplace, Amazon thinks that the contributions publishers make to the development of a book product isn’t worth much (a thought that is very erroneous). Amazon’s goal has long been to eliminate publishers from the process. In some ways that’s liberating, and maybe publishers need to adopt a new model, but Amazon isn’t doing anything to replace the value that publishers — with their editing, proofing, formatting, and art direction — add to a book.

However, I can’t get around how much this is going to hurt authors. Amazon isn’t going to compensate authors at all for these resells. And combined with the lack of accountability, it’s going to hurt those authors. Which, in the long run, is going to hurt readers too. If it’s less lucrative to write books (and remember this applies to self-published as well as industry published books), then less books will be written. The quality will also drop. If Amazon were to exercise this patent, it would be a huge detriment to the production of quality literature.

All in all, this looks to me like another attempt by Amazon to make the price of books cheaper than the market currently settles at. Which makes Amazon more profitable, but hurts every single other person in the process.

Send in the Space Marines

Games Workshop makes a game. Actually, they make several games, one of which is the well-imagines Warhammer Fantasy RPG, which I will never play because of decisions they’ve made about another of their games: Warhammer 40,000.

Warhammer 40k is a table-top miniatures wargame that is set in the far future. The armies include space orks, space elves, and space marines. Games Workshop has a trademark on the term “space marine” as regards to games (a trademark which I think is on iffy foundations). And because of that when they recently started publishing ebooks set in the Warhammer 40k universe, they decided their trademark extends over pretty much any industry and goods throughout all space and time.

They chose to attempt to enforce this trademark recently by sending amazon a DMCA notice about Spots the Space Marine by M.C.A. Hogarth.

Note: I’ve never read this particular book. Or any prose by Hogarth, but I have been reading The Three Jaguars which I have found to be creative and imaginative. But this isn’t about Hogarth’s creative abilities or talent, it’s about her rights.

Amazon, as nearly all third parties do when served a DMCA notice, promptly yanked the Kindle edition of the book from their virtual shelves. This highlights what is troubling about the DMCA, and which would be terrifying about SOPA and PIPA. The third parties act first. The oft-times legitimate person whose content is threatened by such notices have no chance to defend themselves. The third party has no requirements to do any research or questioning about the content-revocation (it really shouldn’t be their burden anyway). And so the person serving the DMCA has an excellent tool to be an intellectual property bully.

And that’s exactly what happened here.

More specific than the tweets to your right, it’s easy to see that “space marines” has appeared in literature for more than eighty years. “Captain Brink and the Space Marines” by Bob Olson, published by Amazing Stories in 1932 is an obvious early example.

So pretty much Games Workshop’s claim about a trademark is a load of crap. Fortunately, the Internet was on Hogarth’s side. There were a rash of Twitter accounts changing their display names to involve the phrase Space Marines. Games Workshop banned a bunch. Famous geek celebrities spoke out on Hogarth’s side, including author John Scalzi and Cory Doctorow. And freedom of speech crusaders Popehat and the Electronic Freedom Foundation helped her get a platform and seek for legal assistance.

After a few days, Amazon restored the book to the store. Which is the solution that I believe they should have done. It was the only honest thing, once they had enough attention. So on the whole this story had a happy ending (assuming Games Workshop doesn’t take it to court. The problem is most stories like this don’t necessarily get that happy ending. Often the victims of intellectual property don’t get a voice. They don’t get famous people repeating their stories.

And sometimes, even when they do, the bully has too much money. If it goes to court, the bully can afford to litigate eternally. They can pay the lawyer, and the victim can’t — even with the hope of getting compensated for the court costs that doesn’t happen for a long time. In the mean time the victim is ruined. There’s a plethora of problems manifest in this case. There’s a need to reform litigation procedures; there’s a need to reform copyright laws to reflect creative needs and encourage innovation.

Fortunately, Amazon decided to do the right thing in this case.

Informed, High-Level Officials

NBC released a memo from the Department of Justice that is supposed to convince (supposedly) rational people that there’s a working justification for the executive branch’s policy of killing it’s own citizens without all that pesky “due process” hippy crap.

I’ll point out that what’s making me angry is not the actions of NBC or their journalists, but the contents of the memo. In case you couldn’t tell.

The memo is probably longer than most want to read. The summary is that, basically, if an “informed, high-level” official decides that an individual poses an “imminent” threat of violence, and that it’s “infeasible,” and that “the operation would be carried out in a manner consistent with applicable law of war principles,” then the president is allowed to obliterate that individual, along with anyone or anything in the vicinity. As The Onion puts it: “It’s important for the government to be able to murder me and any of my friends or family members whenever they please for reputed national security reasons.”

There’s so many problems with this. While the memo says this is about “senior” operators in al-Qa’ida, being a leader in that organization is not listed as a requirement. Nor, in fact, is being in al-Qa’ida at all. For that matter, neither is being a terrorist, or even a criminal, or even a suspect of having committed a crime. While we’re pointing out what’s not in the memo, it’s worth noting that the memo says this is about citizens in foreign territory, that isn’t listed as a requirement either.

This memo also fails to define “high-level” or “informed.” I guarantee that they play fast and loose with that.

What makes me so sure? Maybe you think I’m picking nits. Let me encourage you to rethink that perception. Why? The next part is a huge focus of the memo. So let me step back and approach this logically.

The memo says this person needs to pose an “imminent” threat. Naturally, as human beings who are at least semi-fluent in a language, we make assumptions that words mean something. Or at least that words signify something that means something. In this particular instance, we can make the assumption that “imminent” means “close at hand” or “happening in the very near future” or “not long now.”

Except, we can’t assume that.

This memo says we need to take a “broader” approach to what “imminent” means. Near as I can tell, the only thing the memo actually says is that “imminent” means… nothing. In stead of “near” future it means “some time” in the future, maybe. It spends pages talking about how there’s all kinds of non-specific modifiers to the immediacy required for a threat to be “imminent.”

I want to be speechless because of this. Unfortunately there’s too much presidential precedent. George W. Bush had no idea that the English language was used in the U.S. and instead spoke a mash of almost English words along with whatever sounds random neurons firing in his brain came up with. Half of me thinks he was an idiot for this. But considering how successful he was at gathering unprecedented power to his office in spite of hundreds of years of Constitutional freedoms, the other half of me thinks this was a calculated ploy to make us all think he was an idiot and therefore non-threatening. But Bush’s unrestrained molestation of the English language isn’t all I think of. His predecessor questioned the meaning of the word “is” with a straight face in a court of law — and even used the word in his question about it.

Sorry, Chomsky, American politics doesn’t care about any of your work. We’re just going to go ahead and go with words don’t signify anything at all, even if they used to.

Likewise with “infeasible.” The document takes less time stripping this word to nothing, but it does come up with a conclusion that “infeasible” means “not super easy.” I’m going to start using this word when my wife asks me to take out the trash, since I know have legal precedent to get out of doing something because I don’t want to make the best effort so I can’t be bothered.

As for being consistent with established laws of war, well, that almost makes me giggle. Because as a nation, we have a pretty terrible track record on this.

The memo is also careful to say that such an attack doesn’t contradict illegal search and seizure or due process because, reasons. Actually, that’s not accurate. It leaves out the “because, reasons” part. It doesn’t even pretend there’s a “because” involved with this. It doesn’t violate due process because we decided so.

So, given this, my understanding of what the DoJ thinks of this whole killing U.S. citizens is this:

If an executive-level official in specific parts of the executive branch, say, Secretary of State, or Defense, or even Education, maybe? Heck, we might as well even accept the word of Bob down in shipping for HUD – he’s been learning English for at least three weeks now. Anyway, if some guy says another dude is going to try to kill people in the U.S. soon, or maybe damage something, or possibly scuff his shoes on a monument, or else he’s going to eventually, or he talked about it once, or maybe he looked like he was going to do it, or else the guy is bored and just wants to blow someone up for kicks. If the guy says that about the dude, and it’s not possible, or practical, or I just got up to get a beer from the fridge and organizing a mission to capture the dude is just too difficult and I can’t be bothered. If the guy says that about the dude, and it’s hard to catch the dude, and we give a passing nod to the idea that the international community generally frowns on the indiscriminate killing of… anyone — well then we can blow him up along with the whole city he’s in.

Or to reduce it to it’s simplest verbage, the legal conditions for killing a U.S. citizen boil down to “Kinda feel like blowing a dude up.”

If you don’t trust me to analyze this (and who would?), you can see some commentary by persons with more expert legal expertise.