29 November 2005

Is the Internet a Place?

've been struck by this question a few times, lately.

First there was this article, which I already praised, insisting that the internet is not a separate place, and that activities carried on using the internet are still subject to (in this instance) the tax laws of an actual geographical place.

Then there was this piece from Eric Raymond, insisting that the internet is a place.

Now there is this article by Doc Searls, "How to Keep the Carriers from Flushing the Net down the Tubes". He points out:

To the carriers and their regulators, the Net isn't a world, a frontier, a marketplace or a commons. To them, the Net is a collection of pipes.

(in fact, these two are backwards: The esr piece is a reply to the Searls piece. I read them in reverse order).

In the background, there is Lawrence Lessig's deep and subtle reasoning about the relationships between "cyberspace" and the real world, which I have referred to before.

Read the rest of this article...

27 November 2005

Elements and Attributes and CSS

VoIP technically sucks: trying to fake a switched circuit connection with packet switching is inherently inefficient.

However, if 99% of the data on the network is well suited to packet switching, putting the rest of the data on the same platform is much more sensible than having a whole separate network just for 1%. I don't know if voice traffic is as low as 1% of total traffic over the world's data network, but if it isn't yet it soon will be. VoIP is therefore the only sensible way to carry voice traffic.

That was just a demonstration.

99% of the web page data you are reading is marked-up text: words you want to read, along with markup describing how different bits of the text should be presented. HTML is a decent format for that, and XHTML is much better - more logical, easier to parse, more extensible.

The other 1% (the element) is document-level metadata - not stuff you're meant to read. XHTML is a poor format for that, but it's only 1%, and it's better to use an inappropriate format than add a separate format into the same document for 1% of the content. So we put up with <meta name="generator" content="blogger"/> despite it's clunkiness.

XML is designed for marked-up-text formats like XHTML. At a pinch, it can be used for other things (like document-level metadata), but it's fairly crap. So when Tim Bray says:

Today I observe empirically that people who write markup languages like having elements and attributes, and I feel nervous about telling people what they should and shouldn't like. Also, I have one argument by example that I think is incredibly powerful, a show-stopper:

<a href="http://www.w3.org/">the W3C</a>

This just seems like an elegantly simple and expressive way to encode an anchored one-way hyperlink, and I would resent any syntax that forced me to write it differently.

He's arguing against "use the best general-purpose format for everything", and in favour of "use a suitable special-purpose format for the job at hand, like XML for marked-up text".

A special prize to those who noticed that my XHTML <head> example was just plain wrong. 90% of the head of this document is not XML at all - a document with a completely different syntax is embedded in the XML. Blogger and the W3C have decided that XML is so inappropriate that it shouldn't be used for this data, even at the cost of needing two parsers to parse one document.

To paraphrase Tim Bray,
writing body{margin:0px;
padding:0px;background:#f6f6f6;color:#000000;font-family:"Trebuchet MS",Trebuchet,Verdana,Sans-Serif;} just seems like an elegantly simple and expressive way to encode complex structured information, and I would resent any syntax that forced me to write about 1K of XML to do the same thing.

26 November 2005

Deborah Davis

Saw this on boingboing:

Deborah Davis in Denver, Colorado is being prosecuted for refusing to show ID on a bus.

The case is complicated by the status of the bus, which while available to the public is run by a Federal government office complex, and runs through that complex.

But leaving that aside, what is interesting is that she was always OK when she said she didn't have ID, she was arrested (on a later occasion) when she said she had some but wasn't going to show it.

The US, like the UK, doesn't have a compulsory ID card. That means she was practically OK claiming not to be carrying ID - the problem came when she (bravely, and admirably) made an issue of it by admitting she happened to be carrying ID, but refusing to produce it.

This story is the perfect answer to the "we already have so many IDs, what difference does one more make" argument. It is the difference between "I am not carrying ID" and "I won't show you my ID", which the police in this case, typically, considered so important.

(Of course, technically the government claim that the ID cards they are introducing will not be made compulsory. If you believe that...)


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16 November 2005

Copyright trespass suits

The BPI has brought more civil actions against uploaders of music to peer-to-peer networks in Britain.

Once again, this is a plea not to complain. As I said last time, the practical intellectual property debate is over whether the scope of copyright and patent law should be increased in the light of new technologies. The Right Answer is that it should not. It might be that without such expansion of copyright, certain business models will cease to be sustainable on a large scale. Whether that is the case, and whether different business models can flourish, remain to be seen.

As these matters unfold, copyright owners will attempt to apply existing laws in defense of existing business models. To the extent that this attempt succeeds, there will be less reason to extend those laws, and, most importantly, less justification for restricting the manufacture, sale and use of ordinary general-purpose tools that can be used for copying, modifying and distributing digital information. If widespread unauthorised distribution of copyrighted material can be substantially prevented by bringing civil suits against the people who do it, then the copyright owners' problems are solved with the least impact on everyone else.

If these legal actions are not effective in protecting the copyright owners' business models, then the real battle will follow. Showing respect for the law as it stands, and for the copyright owners' attempts to employ it, is a solid foundation from which one can make principled objections to copyright expansion. "I want free stuff" is not.

Does information want to be free? If I say so, I mean that restricting copying and distribution of digital data is likely to be very difficult. It means that copying is likely to continue despite these suits. It does not, by itself, make a moral argument. You could say, in the same way, that petrol wants to be on fire, but it's not an excuse to get the matches out.

Beyond what I called the "practical intellectual property debate", there is questioning over whether copyrights and patents are a good thing at all, and whether their scope should be reduced. Some good arguments have been made, but they don't really amount to a criticism of the BPI for seeking to protect the legal rights they hold, and have traditionally held. If their program of protecting their business model is entirely unsuccessful, that might strengthen the argument for changing the legal status of information entirely, at the same time as it strengthens the arguments for creating new IP law powers. I think it's an entirely separate argument.

Vanishing Countryside

I still haven't, as I promised, addressed in detail the CPRE's latest "overcrowded Britain" nonsense, but here's a very very simple refutation:

Google Local

The tiny dark blob dead centre of the map is Birmingham.

Remember, by 2035, "The countryside is all but over". Except for nearly all of it, which you can only see from the air, because, er, no-one lives there.

See also this economics piece, by Robin Hanson at Marginal Revolution, on the positive externalities of urban expansion.
We also neglect the benefits we provide others when choosing to live at the edge of the populated area, versus living in an unpopulated area... Local governments are in a position to reduce this externality, but they seem to mostly make matters worse. Minimum lot sizes, maximum building heights, maximum densities, and barriers to development at the populated edge are far more common than their opposites.

10 November 2005

Bill Thompson

In looking at news coverage of the Sony story, I saw a piece by Bill Thompson, a technology analyst for BBC. His insight into issues seems to be consistently good. I was particularly impressed by this piece on eBay and tax, where he makes the seemingly obvious but often ignored point:
The internet is not a separate space, but part of the real world.
Politicians have to get to grips with this

He has a blog, but the good stuff seems to be copies of his BBC articles.

Warning about dodgy sources of music

I am aware that some people download music files from the internet. I don't do this myself, because of the time and hassle, and the risk of getting something other than what I wanted.

I may have to rethink this attitude, however. It is now official - buying music legitimately from the copyright owners can install trojan horses and spyware on your computer, potentially resulting in crashes and other malfunctioning. Much safer to get an MP3.

I already have a CD that I can play at work only because I made a copy of it at home - the original will not play on my work PC because of its copy protection. It's now getting worse.

A few jobs back we bought a copy of Rational Rose - we never used it because we couldn't get past the copy protection. It sat on a shelf for years. No repeat business there.

Illegal rip-off software, music and DVD is generally of higher quality than the legal stuff. A free MP3 is worth more than an iTunes download or an original CD, because it's compatible with more hardware. A hacked game is worth more than the legal copy, because you don't have to fuss with the license key.

They never learn.