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Samizdata, derived from Samizdat /n. - a system of clandestine publication of banned literature in the USSR [Russ.,= self-publishing house]

Giving away value disrupts the state

Gervase Markham, who blogs at Hacking for Christ, works for the Mozilla Foundation, a non-profit “dedicated to promoting choice and innovation on the internet”. He writes about his recent encounter with a UK Trading Standards officer:

They had encountered businesses which were selling copies of Firefox, and wanted to confirm that this was in violation of our licence agreements before taking action against them.

I wrote back, politely explaining the principles of copyleft – that the software was free, both as in speech and as in price, and that people copying and redistributing it was a feature, not a bug. I said that selling verbatim copies of Firefox on physical media was absolutely fine with us, and we would like her to return any confiscated CDs and allow us to continue with our plan for world domination (or words to that effect).

Many people would find the official’s reaction to that surprising; but they do not call them disruptive technologies for nothing. The woman replied:

“If Mozilla permit the sale of copied versions of its software, it makes it virtually impossible for us, from a practical point of view, to enforce UK anti-piracy legislation, as it is difficult for us to give general advice to businesses over what is/is not permitted.”

As Carlo at Techdirt writes:

It’s unclear exactly what role the Mozilla Foundation plays in enforcing the UK’s anti-piracy laws, or exactly why they shouldn’t be allowed to license their software however they want, just to make things easier for some civil servants. If nothing else, it merely indicates how deeply ingrained people’s preconceived notions about software “piracy” are. And it’s disappointing that a government officer whose job it is to enforce copyrights can’t seem to get their head around the idea that there is another way to license software than how most entrenched developers and companies handle it.

Disappointing? Yes. Surprising? Not really.

Crossposted from the Engagement Alliance

The buck never stops

I recently read Philip K Howard’s The Death of Common Sense: How Law is Suffocating America. It is an infuriating look at how politicians have legislated responsibility and judgement out of consideration when coming up with ever more exact, non-sensical laws. Even Mother Teresa could not get a break from our bureaucratic nightmare:

In the winter of 1988, Mother Teresa’s nuns of the Missionaries of Charity walked through the snow in New York’s South Bronx in their saris and sandals looking for abandoned buildings to convert into homeless shelters. They found two, which New York offered them at $1 each. The nuns set aside $670,000 for the reconstruction, then, for a year-and-a-half, they went from hearing room to hearing room seeking approval for the project.

Providence, however, was no match for law. New York’s building code requires a lift in all new or renovated multiple-storey buildings of his type. Installing a lift would add upwards of $130,000 to the cost. Mother Teresa didn’t want to devote that much money to something that wouldn’t really help the poor. But the nuns were told the law couldn’t be waived even if a lift made no sense.

The plan for the shelter was abandoned. In a polite letter to the city, the nuns noted that the episode “served to educate us about the law and its many complexities.”

What the law required offends common sense. After all, there are probably over 100,000 walk-up blocks of flats in New York. But the law, aspiring to the perfect abode, dictates a model home or no home.

The book is full of examples like this one, each one showing exactly how critical thinking and common sense have been regulated out of laws in favour of precision. And, as Howard puts it, the more precise the rule, the less sensible the law.

America’s modern legal system has achieved the worst of all worlds: a system of regulation that goes too far —while it also does too little. A number of years ago, two workers were asphyxiated in a Kansas meat-packing plant while checking on a giant vat of animal blood. OSHA did virtually nothing. Stretched thin giving out citations for improper railing height, OSHA re-inspected a plant that had admittedly “deplorable” conditions only once in eight years.

Then three more workers died —at the same plant. The government response? A nationwide rule requiring atmospheric testing devices in confined work spaces, though many of them have had no previous problems. Most such legal dictates are stacked on top of the prior year’s laws and rules, the result is a mammoth legal edifice: federal statutes and rules now total about 100 million words. The US Federal Register, a daily report of new and proposed regulations, increased from l5,000 pages in the final year of John Kennedy’s presidency in 1963 to over 68,000 pages in the second year of Bill Clinton’s.

The second chapter of Howard’s book is entitled The Buck Never Stops. This phrase is what came to mind as soon as I heard all of the responsibility-dodging going on in Louisiana in the wake of Hurricane Katrina’s destruction. And it would make the perfect title for this interview with the mayor of New Orleans, Ray Nagin, in which he expresses his frustration at the lack of action taken by authorities at all levels, and their failure to give him any power to act now. Some bites from Nagin’s outburst:

Now, I will tell you this — and I give the president some credit on this — he sent one John Wayne dude down here that can get some stuff done, and his name is [Lt.] Gen. [Russel] Honore. And he came off the doggone chopper, and he started cussing and people started moving. And he’s getting some stuff done. They ought to give that guy — if they don’t want to give it to me, give him full authority to get the job done, and we can save some people.

…[D]id the tsunami victims request? Did it go through a formal process to request?

…But we authorized $8 billion to go to Iraq lickety-quick. After 9/11, we gave the president unprecedented powers lickety-quick to take care of New York and other places.

Now, you mean to tell me that a place where most of your oil is coming through, a place that is so unique when you mention New Orleans anywhere around the world, everybody’s eyes light up — you mean to tell me that a place where you probably have thousands of people that have died and thousands more that are dying every day, that we can’t figure out a way to authorize the resources that we need? Come on, man.

The emphasis on process is mine. By using this word, Nagin has pinpointed the problem with American law. Sure, we need due process in our justice system, and in other areas where we do not wish the government to use (blatant) coercion against its citizens. But there are other instances – fixing a leak in a levee on an urgent basis, for instance – in which procedure more often than not gets in the way of a sensible result. In Howard’s words:

[M]odern process barely distinguishes among the vast range of government acts, and has thrown its cloak over every decision. Ordinary decisions are subject to rigid formalities taken as seriously as the due process protection in a criminal trial. The actual goals of government are treated like a distant vision, displaced by an almost religious preoccupation with procedural conformity.

…Individual initiative in government has shriveled up and lies dormant. Process has, indeed, rendered initiative unlawful…Irregularities are dangerous, someone might argue; these procedures serve important practical purposes, like preventing fraud and getting the best price, and it would be unwise to permit exceptions. But serving practicality, as anyone within ten miles of a government contract knows, is the last thing these procedures do. Their inefficiency…is legendary. Fraud, notwithstanding all the procedural layers, happens all the time.

…Orthodoxy, not practicality, is the foundation of process. Its demons are corruption and favoritism, but the creed of this orthodoxy is a perfect uniformity. Only if all things are done the same way can government be fair. Sameness, everywhere for everybody, is the operating instruction of modern government…But concepts like equality and consistency are absolute; they have no logical stopping point; there is no place where they say, “Oh, I certainly didn’t mean that a broken lawnmower should be treated as a federal case,” or, “The Chicago commissioner shouldn’t worry about bidding procedures with the river only a few feet above the leak.”

Where do you draw the line? No one wants to take that risk, so the line is never drawn. Shuffling to the rhythms of process, answering any potential complaint with one more procedure, becomes what government does.

I may be preaching to the choir here, but surely most of us have a strong sense of the government’s ineffectiveness, do we not? Which is why I find it so strange and irritating that so many people in Louisiana believed that the state would save them. It would be a nice thing to believe, a comforting thing to believe, but when push comes to shove, do you really believe that this group of responsibility-dodging, procedure-obsessed egotists would save you? Would you entrust them with your life, the lives of your family, your home? Only cognitive dissonance would allow for such a positive conclusion.

At some point, the wishful thinking of those in danger should have disappeared in favour of reason. For many, it did. For too many others, it did not. If anything positive is to come out of this tragedy, I hope it is a wide awakening across America and other countries that the state is not your friend.

Cross-posted to JackieDanicki.com

“Things are terrible, but politicians are wonderful”

Not a direct quote, but it pretty much sums up the comments from a Louisiana politician in this interview with Anderson Cooper (wmv file). Cooper, quite rightly, calls her on her bull – but not nearly as harshly as he should have. (Again, trying to perpetuate the objectivity myth is doing our media no favours here.)

By many accounts, thousands of people are dead. The survivors are, in their thousands, newly homeless. By many accounts, some survivors are being raped and beaten, and many of them are starving and dying of thirst, their corpses being eaten by rats in the streets of America. Yet all this politician can tell us is how wonderful her fellow politicians are. If you do not think statism is a sickness of the mind, watch this video.

Link via Bitchypoo

Stop digging, Guardianistas

In its childish, impenitent comment (login: grauniad@stereo.lu, password: grauniad) – so dreadful that it seems no one on the Guardian staff wished to have the byline attributed to them – on having to sack a terror-supporting reporter, the newspaper attempts to portray blogger Scott Burgess as a disgruntled, rejected applicant for its trainee program. Burgess is the man who broke the story of Dilpazier Aslam’s background, and instead of being thankful to him for helping to rid their newspaper of a cancer, the Guardian is instead trying to damage his credibility.

Except, of course, that the Guardian is fudging on this one. And they know they are doing it in full view of the network that brought about Aslam’s downfall in the first place. Have they learned nothing?

First, check out the first instance on his blog where Burgess mentions applying for the Guardian’s trainee program. On June 1, 2004, he wrote:

Regular readers may be interested to know that I am applying for this job. As I’ll almost certainly be hired, readers are advised to quickly inform me of any competing employment opportunities they’d like me to consider.

Perhaps the Guardian’s journalists do not do irony, and so took this comment by Burgess at face value. But they had another chance to catch the joke, two days later, when Burgess submitted his application:

… I thought that perhaps my responses to these two consecutive questions might raise a chuckle:

“What would you add to The Guardian newsroom?”

Ideological balance and accurate research.

“Please describe issues of the moment in Britain and the world that most interest you. Why?”

…As an American living in Britain, I can’t help but also be interested in the way in which Americans, their society and their government are perceived – not only in Britain, but throughout Europe. While many of the negative opinions expressed by Europeans are no doubt valid, others seem to be based on crude stereotyping of the sort that is rightly condemned when applied to other national, ethnic or religious groups. I’d like to help bring some balance to the way Britain and the rest of Europe view my compatriots, not only through my writing, but also by presenting myself as an intelligent, articulate, and non-obese example.

Burgess ends his post with the question: When do you suppose they’ll be getting back to me? The answer seems to be: When you expose their wrongdoing, via an attempted smear on their website.

It will come as no surprise to anyone with a realistic view of how the media operate that the Guardian is in this instance less interested in the truth and more interested in limiting the damage to its own credibility. It is surprising and discouraging to see a media entity which claims to ‘get the blogosphere’ indulge in such shameless dishonesty, knowing full well that the evidence of the truth is public, permanent, searchable, and so easily passed along this network.

If the Guardian is as committed to the truth as it claims to be – more, as it is supposed to be – it will issue a correction and clarification of its disgraceful comments about Scott Burgess.

“Damn you for pointing out the truth.”

The Guardian has finally got rid of the anti-Semitic, terror-endorsing Dilpazier Aslam from its staff. But that does not stop them from pouting about having to do so (login: grauniad@stereo.lu, password: grauniad).

Links via Marcus at Harry’s Place

Hope in a jar, foolishness in spades

As you can see from the photo, below, that I snapped at London’s Fenwick department store yesterday, the hype of supposed miracle wrinkle potion Creme de la Mer is not letting up. And why would it, when there are women like the one who told the Sunday Telegraph’s Elizabeth Day that she spends £850 per week – that’s $1700 US – on the cream so that she can rub it over her whole body?

window dressing for dummies

This is, clearly, madness. But what is even more mad is that people are so gullible. People tell themselves that if it did not work, the government would not let it be sold. Yet another instance of people relying on the state to do the critical thinking they should be doing for themselves. Sure, all that is lost in this case is a lot of cash, but it never stops frightening me that people are so eager to give up responsibility for their own choices. Of course, cosmetics are not the only area of peoples’ lives where they actually want to be freed from engaging their brains, but it is the one that concerns us here.

Day’s article tells us that the British Advertising Standards Authority – the main body that is supposed to “protect” consumers from cosmetic products (in the US, that’s the Food and Drug Administration) – last week “heavily criticised” cosmetics firm Estée Lauder for:

suggesting that it could “melt away the fatty look of cellulite” when, in fact, the ASA said that the company had not proved the product’s efficacy at removing cellulite.

But reducing the appearance of something and actually removing it are two different things. The fact is that – as beauty editor Kathleen Baird-Murray writes in How to Be Beautiful:

Many ordinary moisturisers will puff up the skin temporarily enough to ‘diminish the appearance of fine lines,’ so to prove that they are more effective than ordinary moisturisers, many anti-ageing creams will have undergone comparative testing. In other words, they will improve skin texture more than most, but they don’t actually claim to remove wrinkles for ever – it’s we who assume this because we’re paying a lot of money…

Further, the Advertising Standards Authority holds that if a cream causes actual physiological changes to the skin – such as real, permanent removal of wrinkles – then it is medicine and needs to be regulated as such.

One sad claim in Day’s article comes from a London PR person, Barbara Dodds, who says:

When one cream doesn’t work, I move on to another one in case that does. I probably spend about £100 a month on various products. I live in hope that the next one is actually going to get rid of my cellulite or my wrinkles and increase my self-esteem – but it never does.

In which case, Barbara Dodds is a fool, and it is up to her to curb her reckless and ridiculous buying habits. I am all for shouting it from the rooftops if a product does not work, but a lowering of expectations is clearly in order for far too many women. Fine, spend £850 per week on Creme de la Mer, but don’t come crying to the nanny state when it doesn’t turn you into Heidi Klum.

Cross-posted from beauty blog Jack & Hill

Dress code: Pyjamas optional

Kamal Aboukhater, producer of the independent film Blowing Smoke (full disclosure: he is a tBBC client), has put an invitation out to readers of the movie’s blog to come to a special screening of the film on April 21 in Los Angeles.

I think this is a first of its kind invitation from a film producer via movie blog – very exciting stuff. Blowing Smoke is a provocative film – the New York Post’s Richard Johnson called it “the most politically incorrect movie ever made” – and well worth checking out. Definitely not for the easily offended or faint of heart, though.

Digital killed the broadcast star

Saturday night’s American Cinema Foundation panel at the American Film Institute in LA, moderated by media critic Cathy Seipp, was fascinating on several levels.

The theme of the event was “Mass market, smart content,” and featured four TV writers/producers/directors: Paul Feig (creator and executive producer: “Freaks & Geeks;” director: “Arrested Development;” director and writer, the feature film “I Am David;” author: “Kick Me: Adventures In Adolescence” and the upcoming “Superstud: How I Became a 24-Year-Old Virgin”), Scott Kaufer (executive producer: “Boston Legal;” writer: “Gilmore Girls,” “Chris Isaak Show,” “Murphy Brown”), Rob Long (co-creator and excecutive producer: “Men, Women & Dogs,” “Love & Money,” “George & Leo;” executive producer: “Cheers”) and Tim Minear (executive produer: “The Inside,” “Wonderfalls,” “Angel,” “Firefly”). Together, they tackled the issue of how successful television writers manage to keep their distinct viewpoints when writing for the mass market.

I believe wholeheartedly that there is no such thing as ‘the mainstream,’ and that the mass market is dead, and being replaced by a mass of niches. I also believe that the mass media is not being destroyed, merely altered radically, and individuals are being liberated from the mass by the unprecedented choice of personal relevance that (thanks to things like blogs, mp3s, TV on DVD, podcasting, and TiVo) they have today – and that choice of personal relevance is increasing exponentially at a rapid rate. So the topic of the panel was extremely appealing to me as a total geek on the social ramifications of emergent technology tip.

I guess I forgot that these guys write some funny stuff, and that they were going to make me laugh – which they did, in a big way. Some of my favourite exchanges and lines:

CATHY SEIPP: How do you react to people who say they never watch TV?
TIM MINEAR: I run them over with my Mercedes.

SCOTT KAUFER: After seeing [the movie] JFK, I thought, “Why don’t I make a movie called Oliver Stone, and just invent shit?
ROB LONG: What would you have to invent?!
PAUL FEIG: That he’s nice, he’s respectful of women…

TIM MINEAR (on not being allowed to have a serial killer character use the word retard): The network thought the serial killer was being awfully insensitive.

I did not want to hit the guys over the head with the beliefs I laid out above, so I asked them if they thought that TV series on DVD (which they all seemed to agree was the best thing to happen to TV in a long time, even if the lack of leadership in the Writers’ Guild means that they get screwed out of decent earnings, receiving only 2 or 4 pennies per DVD sale), TiVo, and that greater choice of personal relevance is going to affect what they do in any significant way. Every panel member had something to say about that, but the most interesting answer came from Paul Feig, who said that the bottom line is that the show that draws the most advertising revenue wins, and it will always be that way.

Except I am sure that it will not always be that way, and that the advances in emergent technologies and the rebirth of niche will bring about that dramatic shift a lot sooner than we may think. The business model of broadcast must change if it is not to die (and with only 12 per cent of US viewers getting their TV via antenna these days anyway, ripping it down is not a bad idea). As viewers (read: customers) get used to having that personal choice of relevance, they will throw their attention (read: value) to the places where they can get it: cable, satellite, and the internet. And if you think advertisers will not pick up on that and move their ad spend accordingly, I have some stock in broadcast that I would just love to sell you.

The kicker being, I do not believe that advertising revenue is going to be the bread and butter of TV on cable, satellite, and the internet. Sure, there will be ads in the world as long as there are lazy, clueless companies who believe in “just in case” marketing. But the costs of that kind of marketing are rising, the effectiveness declining, and profits down as a result.

Which brings us to my point: This drive to niche dovetails very nicely with the need of companies to put customers at the beginning of the value chain instead of at the end of it. The increasing emphasis on the individual also means a move from push marketing to engagement marketing. So instead of wasting a great deal of money on a TV ad, a company can spend a fraction of that on, say, developing great blogs to provide value and engage the niche they are targetting. (They can throw some podcasts up there while they are at it.)

So here is the question I really wish I had asked the panel: Ten years from now, who exactly is going to be spending the kind of money on network TV ads that they need to maintain this broken system? And if that money isn’t there, will you be running over non-TV-watching freaks with your Kia instead of your Mercedes?

Gimme an F…Gimme a U…

If you were annoyed at the support being shown for state regulation of fashion modelling, check out what they want to do to cheerleading.

Texas Representative Al Edwards wants state funding of schools to be cut for those schools that knowingly permit “sexually suggestive” cheerleading performances. Because everyone knows how hard it is for a bunch of jailbait dancing around in mini-skirts and showing their underwear to be “sexually suggestive,” right? According to Edwards:

It’s just too sexually oriented, you know, the way they’re shaking their behinds and going on, breaking it down…And then we say to them, ‘don’t get involved in sex unless it’s marriage or love, it’s dangerous out there’ and yet the teachers and directors are helping them go through those kind of gyrations.

That the state should not be instructing any children when it comes to sex, marriage, and love in the first place would no doubt never occur to this politician. More discouraging is the reaction from constituents.

J.M. Farias, owner of Austin Cheer Factory, said cheerleading aficionados would welcome the law. Cheering competitions, he said, penalize for suggestive movements or any vulgarity.


“I don’t think this law would really shake the industry at all. In fact, it would give parents a better feeling, mostly dads and boyfriends, too,” Farias said.

Gosh, if making dads and boyfriends feel better isn’t a good excuse to create more laws, what is?

Heroin chic is better than statist chic

Over the span of international and domestic flights covering some 11,000 miles in the past fortnight, I have spent a lot of time reading magazines. I tried to limit myself to fluff – gossip and pictures of celebrities wearing ugly clothes – because reading about wrong-headed business ideas and even more wrong-headed political ideas really is not my idea of a fun way to spend several hours in a confined space where screaming at the top of one’s lungs is frowned upon.

Alas, alas. I avoided idiocy but the idiocy sure did find me, and in Cosmopolitan magazine of all places. Okay, no surprise there: Cosmo articles telling women to wear animal prints if they want to make a guy attracted to them are hardly the height of intellect and good sense (or taste). But at least I could kick back with some mindless articles about makeup and men and not worry about being hit over the head with loopy politics.

Or so I thought.

An Israeli fashion photographer – coming from an industry that is surely the great unsung incubator of brilliant legislation – wants the Knesset to put a law on the books that would make it illegal to use women as fashion models if they are not deemed “healthy” enough by the government. The aim is to produce:

legislation insisting all models undergo an examination by a Government nutritionist. Those deemed healthy would get a licence while any who were too thin would be given nutritional advice and a two-month deadline to put on weight or be barred.

All this is based on BMI (body mass index), which is not a reliable way of determining health anyway. Even if it was, such a law would not magically make the population healthy. But junk science being accepted as gospel is hardly a shock. What did surprise me is that 53 per cent of polled Cosmo readers said that the US should introduce similar legislation of fashion photography.

In short: I would have been less enraged if I had watched a Michael Moore “documentary” festival on the plane. Thinking about it, though, I wonder how long it would be before such legislation would make any image of someone deemed unhealthy fall into the realm of the banned and illegal. The upside of that would be no more pictures of Michael Moore in our faces, but the price for such a benefit seems a bit steep.

Samizdata quote of the day

I was tired of being poor.
-Paul Rutherford, a sales associate at Fry’s Electronics in Burbank, California, when I asked what prompted him to emigrate from the UK to the US

Culture shock

From the box of crackers I had for breakfast this morning:

Organic Tamari Flax Signature Series Crackers are the perfect accent to those tasty dips and canapes you love to eat. The organic brown flax seeds, defatted flax flour, salt reduced Tamari sauce from organic soybeans, and lightly roasted organic soy bean oil add that special something that keeps you coming back for more…Entertaining should be delicious and guilt free!

Yep, Perry and I are definitely not in Kansas (or London) anymore. We even bought some Tom’s of Maine all natural, organic toothpaste yesterday. But the weather is so much better here in LA than in London, we can tolerate the tree-hugging hippy crap…For now.