Libby Beaty Memorial Fund

Last June, Libby Beaty, the Executive Director of the National Association of Telecommunications Officers and Advisers (NATOA) passed away. Libby was a tireless fighter for local government and the public interest, and someone I was pleased to regard as a friend and frequent ally at the FCC.

NATOA has now set up an education fund for her two children, Jonathan and Nicolas. To quote from the announcement:

Contributions to the fund can be mailed to the Libby Beaty Memorial Education Fund, c/o NATOA, 2121 Eisenhower Avenue, Suite 401, Alexandria, VA 22314. Checks should be made payable to the “Libby Beaty Memorial Education Fund” (please DO NOT make checks payable to NATOA) and we thank you for your support and donations, in remembrance of Libby and all that she embodied as NATOA’s Executive Director.

I hope that everyone who follows this field and wants to honor the memory of a worthy advocate for an important cause, will consider making a contribution.

Stay tuned . . .

Now Associated Press Has A Plan So Cunning Even They Don't Know How It Works. (Updated)

It seems every now and then I see some company or organization that finds itself challenged by the fact that the internet gives people lots of interesting alternatives and thus upsets traditional business models. This prompts said company to flail around for a bit, denouncing how piracy or whatever is unfairly destroying it, then announcing some stunning new proposal or plan that lashes out at this supposed piracy. Usually, since the problem is not “piracy” but “competition,” this plan makes no sense whatsoever.

As I noted previously, the newspaper industry generally is flailing around and proposing all kinds of foolish things rather than figuring out how to adapt and thrive in new market realities where people and advertisers have a very different set of choices and the days of 20% profit margins are gone. The Associated Press is the latest organization to jump off the deep end. AP believes that by setting up a “beacon” system for its content it can require everyone “stealing” its content to pay royalty fees.

There are several problems with this scheme. First, the article does not make clear whether it tries to cover linking as “using content” for free. I’m not sure that it could, nor does it make sense given their theory of “piracy.” If I link to an AP story, I haven’t copied anything and clicking the link actually brings people to the content — the desired result from AP’s perspective. Nor can the AP prevent me from describing an AP story even without a link. Heck, many of my local radio stations do this with my local newspapers, simply summarizing articles with an attribution. So if the object is to prevent people from linking to AP articles, or discussing AP articles (the “free ride” that so incenses the traditional news media and its defenders), this proposal really doesn’t seem likely to help.

The AP can prevent wholesale copying of its articles where the amount copies exceeds fair use. But, as the article linked to above points out, the AP already uses software to do this. The new system may make it easier to license AP works (a result I would heartily support — AP should use technology to make it easier to monetize its content with license fees for reprints), but the description seems to go well beyond that. Either I am dramatically underestimating the number of websites that reproduce significant amounts of AP content over and above linking and simple descriptions of stories (which is certainly possible), or the technology dramatically lowers the transaction cost of licensing content and thus makes collection of license fees easier, or this fails to strike at the real root of the problem — people have lots more options for news.

Ultimately, it is this last point that has me scratching my head about how the AP expects this to work. If the AP locks up its content, I can find lots of other news content. True, AP might be “better” — although modern reporting leaves me dubious. But the ability to access, debate and discuss news far outweighs any marginal superiority in quality AP can claim over other outlets (which include many traditional news outlets with high quality reporting) that provide accessibility.

There is a delightful historic irony here, in that AP was to some extent the product of the last revolution in telecommunications. Ubiquitous telegraph service made it possible for small news organizations to have the same reporter resources as larger operations by sharing costs among their members and leveraging local reporters. Finally, papers in small towns and on the frontier could run the same stories as the NY Times or the London Telegraph, reporting news from around the world thanks to a global communications network. Larger papers, which had traditionally held a huge advantage from their superior ability to send reporters to distant sources of news and receive faster reports, found they had to join the AP themselves or risk missing important stories covered by the AP’s superior network of on the ground reporters already present as news developed.

AP should learn from its own past and adapt to the future, rather than trying to fight the future and cling to the past. AP and other news media need to work on how to leverage the advantages of a global communications network that allows for distribution of news reporting resources rather than chasing phantom “pirate” gold.

Stay tuned . . . .

Update: This article in Columbia Journalism Review clarifies that the intent is to go after those who are doing wholesale copying, rather than those linking or quoting. As I said above, good for them. I hope that the program in question actually provides some data on how widespread this practice really is. Given the tools that already exist to find direct copying, I’m not sure how this new beaconing adds value.

Could NTIA Please Put ICANN Out of Its Misery Before It Embarasses Itself Further.

I mostly follow the ICANN follies from sentimental reasons. Can it really be more than ten years ago when naive Clintonistas conspired with engineers trying to insulate themselves from politics and a slew of bullies from the intellectual property mafia to create what has become a runaway warning to the world about what happens when you have the power to tax and absolutely no oversight? Why, I can remember when ICANN was a modest little operation with a handful of employees and a budget of under $5 million — and we wondered then what they needed all that money for. What is it now? Oh yes, the FY 2009 Budget was $60.7M. Schweet!

ICANN generally trundles along by being insanely technical, insanely boring, insanely complicated, and never doing anything so outrageous that people get rid of it — primarily because no one can agree on what would replace it. Not that ICANN hasn’t had a few close calls, especially back at the World Summit on Information Society. But, just when ICANN appears about to win itself the global governance equivalent of a Darwin Award, hijinks ensue, ICANN eats a little crow, we All Learn A Valuable Lesson In Life, and we start all over again back where we were next season.

In other words, ICANN is kinda like cross between a bad TV sitcom and a reality show. But like so many TV shows with a small-but-devoted fan base, ICANN now finds itself on the bubble waiting to find out if it will be renewed. Sadly, there are signs that ICANN has definitely jumped the shark. And no, I don’t mean the “new kid on the block” addition Rod Beckstrom to boost ratings. I mean recycling the same tired plot line of ICANN staff and Business & IP constituencies trying to limit the ability of the Non-commercial User Constituency (NCUC) to “cause trouble” — especially those meddling civil society do-gooders Milton Mueller and Robin Gross. Season after season, we get to see the same accusations that NCUC is “divisive,” or “not representative” or other code words for “Goddam it! Get those $#@! civil society groups out of our club house!!!!”

More on why NTIA ought to consider canceling this circus once and for all below . . . .

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Why Do People Hate “Free” So Much?

Watching Chris Anderson on Colbert last night gives me an excuse to write this little blog entry about Chris Anderson’s Free: The Future of A Radical Price. Certainly it has stirred up debate, as such notions should. But a number of Anderson’s critics seem positively affronted that anyone could make an argument in favor of “free” as a business model. They react as if Anderson were a cross between an evil genius out to destroy the capitalist system, a charlatan peddling snake oil to the gullible, and an ignorant posseur worthy only of contempt. Mind you, that’s always life in the blogosphere to some degree, but is it really that crazy?

Happily, Tim Lee over at Technology Liberation Front has already written a cogent defense of Anderson’s actual argument. “Free” doesn’t mean everything free everywhere all the time, but it does mean that folks need to rethink traditional business models in light of changing technology and user expectations. Using free to either collect something of value to someone else (such as personal information or an audience) and/or taking the opportunity to “up sell” a premium service (or, as Anderson explained to Colbert, “Fremium”) has worked for many people and businesses.

Indeed, let me go one further on the crazy meter for you. Back at the beginning of the century, someone came up with an even crazier business model than “free.” Looking at new technology, this ignorant young pup adopted the business model of “pay other people to take my stuff.” Now what dumb ass thinks that you could make a living investing lots of money in creating a product, then actually paying people to take it from you. What a moron, right?

The fellow in question was William Paley, who built the CBS network on the model of paying affiliates to take programming. Paley deduced that he could charge advertisers more than enough money to cover the cost of program production and affiliate fees if he could offer advertisers a big enough audience. Meanwhile, a few hours north in New York City, a number of electronics companies (RCA, Westinghouse, and General Electric) were developing a model around cheap content to sell advertising and radios.

So all I am saying, is give free a chance.

Stay tuned . . .

On the Cultural Significance of “The Cultural Significance of Free Software” : Part one: my review of the book.

In a manner remarkably similar to how my homologue John Compton Sundman was approached by the obscure editors from the Society for Analytical Engines to edit the entries of the inaugural Hofstadter Prize for Machine-Written Narrative (as chronicled in Cheap Complex Devices), I was approached, some five months ago, by the book review editor of the journal “Science as Culture” to write a review of Two Bits: The Cultural Significance of Free Software by Christopher M. Kelty. I agreed to write the review for free. (Why? Because I’m a monkey/amateur –just ask Harlan Ellison).

I think the book, despite its various shortcomings, is good; important, even. It raises significant issues that bear upon (yes, I know how hyperbolic this sounds) whether democracy and the ideals of pan-human equality have any future.

My draft review appears below. At some point, presumably, a version of this review, perhaps considerably revised, will appear in Science as Culture

Funny issues arose regarding copyrights and copylefts of the review itself. I’ll write more about them in a second post.

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Support Low Power Radio: Call Your Representative Today!

Low Power FM is a non-commercial service authorized by the FCC in 2000. the National Association of Broadcasters and, to its eternal shame, National Public Radio lobbied Congress immediately thereafter to kill this potential competitor. While not successful in killing the service, the incumbents did manage to get the “Radio Broadcasting Preservation Act of 2000” passed, which severely limited the number of available LPFM licenses. You can get some more background and links at this old blog post of mine.

Today, July 19, 2009, the Prometheus Radio Project is asking everyone who cares about encouraging local, non-commercial radio — as well as anyone who cares about greater opportunities for folks to use the electronic media, to take part in a day of action. Please call your Representative and ask him or her to support the Local Community Radio Act of 2009, which would repeal the RBPA and restore the original rules to LPFM. This would create hundreds of new opportunities for local communities to once again enjoy locally-produced non-commercial radio programming. giving a very different perspective on life, news, art, and entertainment.

Details here.

Stay tuned . . . .

Brief Update on Wireless Microphones: Where Mike Marcus and I Disagree

As Mike Marcus pointed out in the comments on my previous wireless microphone piece and on his blog, he and I disagree on the advisability of allowing prisons to jam cell phone communication.

Let me begin by saying that Mike has both tremendous engineering chops as well as a thorough understanding of the FCC and the politics therein. He worked there for some ungodly amount of time in the Office of Engineering and Technology, and was a critical force in pushing the 1989 rule changes to Part 15 that made the unlicensed revolution possible. His comments are not to be taken lightly here.

Where Mike and I disagree is not so much on the primary data but on how much weight to assign things. This is not uncommon in the messy world of policy, and is why even people generally aligned with one another can disagree strongly on important matters of policy (and why I hate the tendency for people to start calling each other nasty personal names over such disagreements). That’s why it’s important to see where and how we disagree.

In addition to his blog post, Mike also consulted for the state correction facilities on their Petition for Rulemaking (“Prison jamming Petition” or “PJP”). Read through that and his blog post and we come up with the following:

1) We both agree this is a hard engineering problem. Whereas I am more skeptical (based on the folks I’ve talked to) that this can be done in a way that is effective, affordable, and without interference, Mike thinks it is possible for some prison environments. I stress this last because, as the PJP points out, even the most optimistic projection for the current level of technology makes it doubtful this will work in detention facilities in high-density population areas.

2) Which brings us to major point of disagreement #2, how much will this really help and is the trade off worth the risk. Mike readily acknowledges that this is no “magic bullet” that would solve the security problems. The question is whether it does enough to be worth taking the risk of interference and the risk that jammers will proliferate. I think no, Mike thinks yes. Part of the reason I think this is a bad idea is because my experience with bright line rules tells me that where you have so many people interested in cell phone jamming it is inevitable that whatever protections are put in place will be whittled away over time. In addition, in a messy field like engineering, we disagree a lot about how easy/hard it would be to neutralize jamming, a critical question on the cost/benefit analysis.

3) Finally, we both agree that the wireless industry needs to step up to the plate and work with detention authorities to make solutions other than jamming affordable for for prisons, and that the FCC needs to address the problem of charges for prison calls made under proper supervision.

I expect Mike’s well reasoned and narrow disagreement will be manipulated by those who want to exploit this for their own profit (yes, I’m looking at you CellAntenna). That’s unfortunate. I hope that the wireless industry and correction facilities can work together to develop real solutions to the problem of contraband cell phone use before Congress pushes through legislation that would do more for CellAntenna’s bottom line than it would for prison security.

Stay tuned . . . .


I was pleasantly surprised to find the opening remarks on Judge Sotamayor’s confirmation hearing so interesting.

Senator Feingold explicitly referenced Barrack Obama (a constitutional law scholar as well as President) in acknowledging that the Supreme Court decides cases where the precedent and wording of written law is not clear. That’s its job. There could be no mechanical execution of a prewritten umpire or referee program. Such cases are decided by values.

Senator Graham explicitly acknowledged that this is the case and that he wasn’t sure how he felt about that. After all, he imagined Judge Sotomayor’s values were different from his own. The question then was whether he should try to impose his values or interpret those of the electorate.

I was proud of both of these men and my country’s institutions. And….

They all collectively ducked. Kept their heads down. Dodged it. Wimped out.

I think we’re due for a discussion, as today’s obituaries of Walter Cronkite made apparent. Every one contains claims of absolute objectivity and authority, while also citing Cronkite’s commentary in February 1968 that America cannot win the Vietnam War. President Johnson himself said it was a major influence on his subsequent actions.

How we relate values and the quest for objectivity is much debated in journalism today, but the industry is in turmoil and I do not yet see a consensus emerging. (An objective set of values on the issue?!) I share Senator Graham’s ambivalence. For example, I think George Will and Rush Limbaugh are equally hypocritical in their underlying views, but only Will is hypocritical in the pretension to rational thought in his presentation. I’m equivocal about which I fear more: Which is more evil? Which is more undermining to my culture and institutions? I admire the English stereotype of acting properly while leaving so much unsaid, but I consistently favor knowledge and transparent discussion over style, brevity, or unrecognized deceipt and ignorance. Cronkite explicitly alerted viewers that his conclusions were subjective. I share his values. But does that make it right? The same commentary left objectivity to the “referees of history.” The question is vital throughout the economy and government. By not taking this historic opportunity to discuss this reality — by elected leaders in open hearing — we leave it be mulled over or not by individual judges and bureaucrats and businessmen and media personalities. Decisions are still made on values, but it remains taboo to discuss and judge the context and consequences of how it happens.

Attention Geeks: Free books!

(Brief commercial announcement here. Y’all regular Wetmachine readers can skip it).

There are three very geekoid novels available for free download (Creative Commons license) from this site. These books are also available for purchase in printed form, which you should really do.

Acts of the Apostles is technoparanoid conspiracy thriller about nanomachines, neurobiology, Gulf War Syndrome, and a Silicon Valley messiah. Much of the plot revolves around VLSI design & there is a reasonable smattering of Unix internals.

Epub & Kindle & other ebook versions here.

Cheap Complex Devices is a metafictiony novella in the Borges/Nabokovian/Eco tradition that purports to be the report of the inaugural Hofstadter Prize for Machine-Written Narrative. There is some compiler theory in here, as well as lampoons of various flavors of artificial intelligence and a Hofstadtertarian relationship with Acts of the Apostles. Also some jokes having to do with APL & Donald Knuth.

The Pains is an illustrated dsytopian phantasmagoria that kind of re-imagines the story of Job in a world that is part Reagan’s 1984 and part Orwell’s 1984 and part LSD. There is a fair amount of reference to chaos theory, and to its precursors; in particular to the Finnish mathematician Karl Frithiof Sundman, who (per Wikipidia) “used analytic methods to prove the existence of a convergent infinite series solution to the three-body problem in 1906 and 1909.”

Search engines can help you find many dozens of reviews of these books. Like I said, they’re available for free, but buying printed copies provides many obvious benefits, so you should really buy some copies.

Technopunk cyberpunk dystopian “Neal Stephenson” “Philip K. Dick” technothriller

Below the fold: handy-dandy links to reviews, etc

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