20110331

Interpretation of a Common Proverb




Though it's definitely not that simple.


Bits of Intellectual Property II

I was reading "What Color are the Bits?", an in depth discussion of the interplay between information theory and copyright law. I like this discussion, with one exception.

The authors reference an interesting thought experiment. If I take a copyrighted file, x-or it with a public domain file to produce gibberish, is that gibberish still copyrighted? Their argument is that a Lawyer would say "yes of course, those bits still came from someones intellectual property", and a computer scientist would say "no, now its just nonsense".

Why the confusion ?

These two differing opinions arise because each party is considering different pieces of information. When we scramble the bits of a copyrighted file, we might render the file itself meaningless. However, not all the information is contained within the file. We must also consider the information needed to de-code the file. The scrambled file, along with the string "This file can be decoded by x-oring it with the file found at www.foo.bar/baz57", constitutes an encoding of the original, copyrighted work. Without the knowledge of how to decode the x-ored file, it appears to be gibberish. However, with just a few more bits we can reconstruct the original copyrighted work.

This may sound familiar. The x-or example is really an example of encryption. In this case, the decryption password is a reference to the public-domain file that can be used to recover the original copyrighted work. I believe common sense dictates that encrypting a copyrighted work does not strip it of its copyrighted status, although the bits (encoding) may change significantly. The Lawyers are correct, provided that the decryption scheme is distributed in a way that can be associated with the x-ored file.

This logic also applies to the illegal numbers. These are numbers which, if represented in binary, correspond to information that it is illegal to posses. People, myself included, have gotten terribly excited about this. How can a number be illegal ? This must mean our entire legal system is bankrupt.

No. These numbers are only illegal if you know how to use them.

For instance, this prime is perfectly innocuous, unless, of course, you mention that "it unzips via the gzip algorithm into the c source for a program that breaks DVD encryption". That last piece of information is crucial. It is, in fact, the ( number, how_to_use ) pair that is in violation. Neither on its own has any meaning.

We do not consume, directly, series of zeros and ones from our computers. To ascribe meaning to these sequences of bits, we define procedures for turning these bits into something more familiar. For example, the ASCII standard defines how to turn a sequence of 8-bit chunks into the text you're reading now. The mp3 codex defines how to turn a series of bits into an audible sound file. Information is always paired with a decoding algorithm to convert it into something meaningful to humans. This concept captured by file extensions : we, or at least our computers, know to interpret 'foo.mp3' differently from 'foo.txt' or 'foo.doc'. All of these tricks to disguise copyrighted or illegal information are just clever re-encoding.

Since it is impossible to outlaw sequences of bits, it follows that to stop distribution of copyrighted or illegal information, you must simply dissociated the (information,encoding) pair. Both the information and the encoding scheme have legitimate uses on their own, but together they represent the infringing file. Some legal definitions more true to information theory might look like :

"An (information,encoding) pair A is considered to infringe upon an existing copyrighted (information,encoding) pair B if and only if the decoding of A would be considered infringing on the decoding of B."

and

"For a given illegal or copyrighted (information,encoding), it is unlawful to distribute (information) and (encoding) in such a way that through expressed or implied means, the (information,encoding) pair can be reconstructed".

I'm not sure what the implications of this are, if any.


20110329

Limitless Review

The potential implications of human enhancement is one of the main reasons why I’m at CSPO, so I was excited and a little worried when the trailer for Limitless appeared. Would Hollywood do justice to the topic, or would they make yet another trite cautionary tale?

Limitless follows one Eddie Morra, a hapless failure at the age of 35, unable to write, living in a squalid Chinatown walk-up, and recently broken up. A chance encounter with his ex-brother-in-law introduces Eddie to NZT, a drug which improves intelligence. From there, he is catapulted into a whirlwind of conspiracies and violence as he tries to stay one step ahead of his own mistakes.

The theme of the movie come out most clearly in two dialogs, one with Robert De Niro’s financier, who says “Your powers are a gift, they are not earned, and you are careless with your powers.” The second comes from Eddie’s girlfriend, when she finds out that his remarkable transformation in the past few months is due to NZT, “How do I know what’s you, and what’s the drug?” These are two common critiques of human enhancement, and psychopharmaceuticals in general; that they are a false path to knowledge which should be gained through hard work, and that they alter people in ways that damage their humanity. Neither of these critiques is particularly valid. Even when pressed, bioconservatives cannot specify what it is about human beings that enhancement threatens. Francis Fukuyama takes an entire book to weakly claim the existence of his ‘Factor X’ that defines humanity, to give one example.

This is not the position I hold to. Rather than try and defend a non-existent line between treatment and enhancement, it is better to note that human beings are continually enhancing their abilities through education and technology. We invent cars to extend our legs, books to extend our minds, and teach our children so they can benefit from our mistakes. Rather than view enhancement as a danger in and of itself, it is better to analyze the features of a particular enhancement for its risks.

By that metric, Limitless’s NZT would obviously fail. It is addictive, and leads to brain damage and death. The effects of NZT, increased alertness, pattern recognition, and focus, are certainly impressive, and impressively conveyed through camera effects in the film, but are by no means worth risking serious health problems. But let’s assume the health problems of NZT are solved, which they seem to be by the end of the film. Beyond its effects on intelligence, does NZT have any effect on morality?

Eddie Morra is not a bad person, but he’s not a particularly good person either, and his plan could be described as “1) Get rich, 2) Get powerful, 3) ???”. He’s a likeable enough jerk, with enough charisma to counteract his complete lack of actual values or goals beyond immediate pleasure. In that, the continued short-sightedness of Eddie’s planning throughout the movie is a commentary on America, and how best and brightest go into finance, law, and politics rather than the practical arts. The Russian loan-shark is a terrifying figure on NZT, but he was already a criminal psychopath. What a good person, not under duress, would do with their new powers is unknown.

NZT does certainly inspire a kind of paranoid egomania. Those who can survive the effects of the drug make one of their first priorities stamping out everyone else who might be using it, or who might pose a threat to their own wealth and power. Eddie Morra is not the first, and certainly not the last, of a series of chemically enhanced wunderkinds who shake the world of Limitless. This point is one the film makes effectively; it is the secrecy and limited access surrounding NZT that cognitive enhancement so dangerous. But would a more open system of enhancement lead to a better world, or deeper and deeper levels of Machiavellian scheming? That question remains unanswered.

Cognitive enhancement is not good or bad, but it is powerful, and like all instruments of power, it should be introduced with careful consideration. Information is not knowledge, and it certainly isn’t the wisdom to know what should aim for in life. But compared to who already populates the halls of power: the ambitious, the deceptive, and those who measure lives in dollars, is Eddie Morra so much worse? He gets everything he wants, and he doesn’t even have to drink much blood to do it.

(And a note for my friends who criticize the scientific accuracy of NZT: “It lets you access 100% of your brain.” That claim is made only by a completely unreliable drug dealer who lied five second previously. The only scene that makes no sense whatsoever is the one where… well, I won’t spoil it.)


20110325

Technological Citizenship

In this post, I will advance an explanation of the differences between law and technology, and how ordinary people can reclaim control over their lives through what I refer to as “technological citizenship.”

The modern liberal state is defined by the rule of law, a fair and evenhanded treatment of all people according to clear rules. The most basic laws are constitutional, those that define the relationship between the parts of government, and government and the citizens. In democracies, and particularly in America, the Constitution has been carefully designed to allow for citizenship and participation in the law-making process. The Federalist papers debated and discovered how abstract principles like liberty and justice could be translated into the concrete institutions of policy, and despite occasional hiccups, and one major war, their framework endures today.

But laws are only half the story. The world is also full of technologies, and as Langdon Winner points out in The Whale and the Reactor, our technological constitution, the core systems for providing food, shelter, power, mobility, etc are not nearly as well-designed as the law. While the Constitution and the law grew through a process of considered debate and democratic input, technologies have accreted over time into centralized bureaucratic systems, operating according to a depersonalizing logic of efficient markets. For Langdon Winner, the power and omnipresence of these technological systems is a grave threat to democracy and liberty, as society become dependent on entities which are essentially autonomous from public control.

The democratic person is a political citizen, taking an active role in the process of governance by becoming informed on the issues, voting, communicating with their representatives and their neighbors. Our ideal of democracy remains ancient Athens (albiet with an updated version of who counts as a citizen), where every citizen participated equally in government, and positions were rotated regularly. The technological person is a consumer, and the end goal of technology is the 'utilitization' of everything, technologies becoming absolutely reliable, simple, and omnipresent. The more advanced a technology is, the fewer buttons, access panels, and failure modes it has; compare an early computer like ENIAC to an iPad. The best realized vision of this phenomenon is E.M. Forester's “The Machine Stops”, where planetary civilization is controlled by an immense computer system that is beyond the understanding of its inhabitants.

Now, reverse these roles. A political consumer is an unthinking, uncritical clod who unquestioningly obeys the dictates of The Party, whatever The Party might be. Political consumers are poison to democracy. But what is the technological citizen? By analogy, the technological citizen is somebody who takes an active stance towards technology, who is informed about the features and full scope of a given device or system, is prepared to think critically about the implications of that technology, and is not afraid to transform, adopt, or abandon technologies as alternatives become available. My friends at HeatSync Labs are great examples of technological citizens, actively experimenting with and adapting emerging technologies, and their lives have certainly been made richer through their close understanding of technology.

The challenge is therefore encouraging this new mode of technological citizenship. This will not be easy, citizenship demands deep, continuous engagement, (and political citizenship is on the decline in this country as well). And more and more technologies are becoming utilities, slick services that non-specialists can't even view, let alone think critically about. But conversely, with the internet, the cost of gaining expert technical knowledge is falling. As devices become smarter, making it easier to communicate with and analyze them should become a priority, such as a SmartGrid technology that tracks home energy usage room by room, device by device. Finally, education is a vital part of citizenship, and technological toys that are just visible enough should be developed to teach relevant skills, like computer programming, design and architecture, and ecosystems thinking. Personally, I've always been disappointed that Lego Mindstorms came out just after I lost interest in Lego; it would have made me a much better engineer. While developing technological citizenship is not easy, technological citizens will find it far easier to adapt and live in the future, and as partisan politics becomes increasing rancorous and alienating, technological citizenship may provide a new space for civic action and social development.


20110315

A Space for Secular Ethics

Many of our most deeply held beliefs, the core principles that underlie our actions, are simply arational. The problem for a pluralistic society is incorporating diverse beliefs without oppressing any minorities; having a conversation that involves ethics on a deep level, without get caught up in a circular debate over definitions and principles. One field that focuses on these issues is religious ethics, and I recently had the pleasure of meeting Dr Charles Camosy, a professor of Christian Ethics at Fordham University.

Camosy defines the fundamental of his field as follows:

Faith is the personal relationship with one's source of irreducible concern.
Religion is the pursuit of faith in a community.
Religious ethics is ethics in a religious community.

Camosy uses the word 'faith' in a somewhat nonstandard way, for him, faith and belief are not necessarily linked. Faiths can take many forms, from the usual religious traditions, to New Age mysticism, to more modern abstracts like Science, Money, Nation, Celebrity, etc. Everybody has some “source of irreducible concern”, whether it be a dogma, a question, or an ambition. There is no such thing as truly secular ethics, merely ethics which have been informed by non-deistic traditions.

I agree with Dr. Camosy definition of faith, and with much of his reasoning, but as a practical matter, his formulation does not provide guidance for what we should do when faiths conflict. Take as an example a community which is half Catholic and half Jewish (Dr Camosy is Catholic, and I'm Jewish, hence the choices.) These faiths have many similarities in the broadest sense of their rules and rituals, despite having deeply different sources of authority and tradition. This community, together, must make a simple decision: when are the stores going to close? Friday night for Shabbas, or Sunday morning for Mass.

It's one thing to say that what matters is that there is a holy day, and not when it is, but I doubt either side would be willing to compromise. Picking a holy day based on a vote might be democratic, but any decision will be against the will of half the population. Having both Friday and and Sunday off is a needless duplication of effort. Having every individual attend services when they want does nothing for those who are employed by a member of the other religion. What the law requires is more than allowing the validity of both holy days, it also requires that the right of another to their holy day be respected, even if it is not your own. This analogy is highly simplified, but it carries over to other areas where religion impacts public policy, such as prayer in schools or abortion.

In articulating this solution, we've created a space for ethics that is neither Catholic or Jewish, a third path that is secular ethics. But is secular ethics merely the commonalities between our mutually incommensurable faiths. No, the secular sphere has a single over-riding principle: Nobody should be denied the right to follow their faith, nor should they be forced to follow a faith other than their own.

This is easy for me to say, because I'm a secularist and don't believe strongly in any specific version of a higher truth. There is what we can touch and see, and everything else is argument. However, as the other authors of this blog are going to be quick to point out, this does not hold for everybody. A fanatic, somebody who believes that one faith is superior, or that other faith are lies, won't respect the faiths of others. A person can be both faithful and secular, but a person cannot be secular and fanatic.

Fanaticism comes in many guises, from the overt theology of the Islamic Revolution and the Taliban, to the only marginally softer forms practiced by American evangelicals and some hard-line atheists. The problem, for a secular society, is defending secularism from fanatic while not becoming fanatics ourselves. Where does the right to one's belief that the embryo is a person become the quest to deny reproductive choice to others? Where does respect for local traditions become the implicit support of female genital mutilation?

Secularism is no easy path, but I believe it is better than any dogma because it demands the continual re-examining of our own beliefs, justifications, and desired futures. Attempts by political actors on either side to lock in their preference for all eternity through constitutional and infrastructural measure should be avoided. Rather, aim for flexibility, compromise, and what is best the in the eternal now. After all, we all have to live in the present.


20110307

Future Tech #3

Midterms are really hammering me, but for now, enjoy this shiny infographic about future technology.

Keeping track of all the shiny new emerging technologies coming out is no easy task, fortunately for those us who aren't professional futurists, Michell Zappa has created this handy inforgraphic. Technologies are grouped in clusters of similarity, and the further away from the center, the longer the time horizon. Pretty cool.


20110301

Educating a Neurodiverse Population

One of the major perks of going to school is getting to see amazing speakers, like Temple Grandin. Temple Grandin is famous for her humane and efficient designs for livestock handling systems, her advocacy for autism, and for having autism herself. She is a provocative and charismatic speaker, coming from a place of deep experience and concern (Really, just watch her TED talk).

Temple's major issue is the cultivation of all the different types of minds. While she describes herself as autistic, more precisely, she has a "photorealistic visual mind" and "sensory sensitivity" What this means is that she is unable to generalize, when she thinks of say, a church steeple, she doesn't think of a generic steeple, but rather Westminster Abby, Notre Dame, the church near where she grew up, etc. Similarly, she is exceptionally sensitive to sudden changes in light and noise. She credits her visual mind with her talents in design. She literally walks the course the cows travel, and notices patches of light and shadow, or moving chains, that most people would ignore.

Temple is advocate of four different types of mind: visual, pattern, verbal, and auditory. Visual minds are detail oriented as described above, pattern minds are good at discerning patterns and mathematical sequences, verbal minds have great facility with language, auditory minds are good with sound, time, small cues.

Where the rubber meets the road as it were, is in our school system, which really privileges verbal ability above all else. Reading and writing are the core faculties of the classroom, and most math is simply the rote performance of a calculating algorithm. There's little room for other types of minds to grow, and with cuts to shop and arts classes, even fewer ways for different types of intelligence to express themselves. By failing to acknowledge the strengths of a large portion of the population, the school system greats frustration with education.

A second side of Grandin is her belief that autism exists on a clear spectrum, from non-verbal epileptic to socially awkward computer scientist. Now, some recent papers by Katherine P Beals I've read for one of my classes describe describe autism as disorder where the sufferer has difficult seeing other people as intention beings, that is to say people with their own internal desires and states of mind. That, combined with verbal disabilities, can make raising an autistic child incredibly hard. Modern thought has fortunately abandoned the "refrigerator mother" origin of autism, which inaccurately and unfairly blamed poor parenting, but current treatments are very non-specific. They mostly involve spending large amounts of time with the child, trying to get them to develop some kind of interpersonal model. But as Beals describes, this is literally the hardest thing for an autistic child to do. What she, and Temple Grandin suggest, is instead playing to a child's strengths, and letting them build skills in visual representation, or mathematics, or working with animals, and from there progress to the more difficult talents of verbal ability and intentional modelling.

Now, I'm the policy guy here, not the neuro guy. As far as I know, the science of autism is "it's complicated, very very complicated." But is there any scientific basis to Grandin's theory of multiple kinds of mind, or is this merely a useful heuristic on top of more fundamental neural phenomenon?