The Pebble and the Avalanche

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Current Revolutions in Business and Technology

by Dr. Moshe Yudkowsky,

author of The Pebble and The Avalanche: How Taking Things Apart Creates Revolutions


Thu, 2006-Sep-28, 13:45

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Why the Next Generation of TV Should Fail

Cory Doctrow has a brilliant article on why the next generation of DVDs ("HD" and "Blu-ray") are bad for the consumer and bad for the media companies. Bad for the consumer, because the media companies continue to extend their control over your TV viewing habits; his argument about why its bad for the media companies is less convincing.

His explanation of the origins of high-definition TV is priceless:

The NAB [National Association of Broadcasters] panicked -- there's nothing a corporate welfare bum hates more than an end to its government handouts. So the broadcasters cast about for an excuse, any excuse, to continue to hold onto our valuable radio spectrum while doing nothing much with it.
And once they came up with hi-def TV as an excuse, and the FCC handed the broadcasters even more spectrum, they proceeded to absolutely nothing with the spectrum for another twenty years:
The broadcasters approach spectrum like a dragon approaches gold: it is something to be hoarded and jealously guarded, but they're not much interested in using it. So they took all that high-def spectrum and built a nest of it, rested their ponderous, scaly bellies on it, and never lit it up.

Doctrow points out something that I've mentioned before — according to the Blu-ray and HD-DVD specs, the media companies can disable your equipment by remote control:

The new HD technologies include anti-user nasties like "renewability" -- the ability to remotely disable some or all of the device's features without your permission. If someone, somewhere, figures out how to use your DVD burner to make copies of Hollywood movies, they can switch off *everyone's* burner, punishing a limitless number of innocents to get at a few guilty parties.
I've mentioned this ability of the media companies — or a hacker — to turn your expensive TV equipment into a pile of useless junk as a reason not to bother spending any money on the next-generation equipment. On further reflection, it occurs to me that when, e.g., Sony (the most likely culprit in my opinion) does this for the first time, they'll open themselves up to a massive class-action lawsuit as lawyers argue over whether Sony properly warned purchasers and whether they have a legal right to disable someone else's equipment. Still, the best move a consumer can make is to sit on his hands and not purchase HD-DVD or Blu-ray.

Tue, 2006-Apr-04, 19:54

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The Patriot Act and Non-Terrorist Prosecutions

People sometimes ask if there's ever any downside to disaggregation; I usually answer that the downside tends to be quite rare. But here's an example: once a law is passed, the intent of the lawmakers no longer matters, and prosecutors will use the powers a law grants them any way they can.

Although it's far outside my usual scope, let me explain a bit further. One of the problems with the US's RICO (Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act) statute is that prosecutors seized on the broad powers of the act and applied them to a wide range of ordinary criminal activities. When the USA Act, which became part of the Patriot Act, passed in the wake of the opening attack of the Global Terrorist War, many people (myself included) worried about when (not how, but when) prosecutors would seize on the provisions of the act and apply them to non-terrorist prosecutions.

Tuesday's Wall Street Journal had a front-page article about the prosecution of a man accused of stealing baby food [I believe that no registration is required to view this particular link]. The article attempts to make a case that the prosecution's expansive use of FISA wiretaps, which are permitted under the Patriot Act, were unwarranted.

I think the article fails to make an air-tight case for abuse of FISA under the USA Patriot Act. On the inside pages of the article we learn that the person who was convicted of theft using information collected under the Act worshiped at the same mosque as one of the September 11th hijackers — perhaps there was something to trigger the government's interest after all. Because the prosecution did not reveal the entire contents of surveillance audio recordings, there's no evidence of actual prosecutor misconduct. The article was indeed balanced, but certainly there must be cases where the government's conduct under the Act was truly egregious.

The print edition had a table that compared non-FISA surveillance with FISA surveillance, but it isn't in the online edition. I've reproduced it here:

Ordinary Warrent FISA
Requirement to obtain Probable Cause to believe person engaged in a crime Probably cause person is agent of a foreign power
Purpose Limited to investigating crimes Can mix intelligence-gathering and criminal investigation
Scope Limited to crime-related conversations Unlimited
Duration Basic limit of 30 days; with extensions, average of 43 days Typically at least 90 days for US citizens
Notice All targets receive notice after intercept ends Notice almost never required unless criminal charges result
Opportunity to challenge All targets can attack validity of warrant Targets haven't been able to learn basis for warrants
Opportunity to review evidence Defense usually receives copies of intercepts Classified

You'll note that some of the differences between ordinary wiretaps and FISA wiretaps are inevitable consequences of a tool designed to gather intelligence against foreign agents; for that matter, even the somewhat lax FISA restrictions against government action may be too restrictive in a time of war. But the net result can easily be a surveillance operation against US citizens, carried out under the guise of FISA, and who is to gainsay the prosecutors? Disaggregation of the USA Patriot Act from true acts of terrorism leaves the Act open to abuse by prosecutors, and that's a bad idea.

Tue, 2006-Mar-14, 09:30

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In Twenty Years, No Beef

Twenty years from now, beef may be impossible to find because no one can afford to sell it. The legal profession provides valuable services to society, but unfortunately there's a segment involved in manufacturing: they manufacture legal theories that result in lawsuits, and I predict those lawsuits will close the beef business.

One of the most interesting techniques to manufacture lawsuits is to break the connection between the product that produces harm and the actual manufacturer of that product. As a recent example of this long-term trend, paint manufacturers in Rhode Island lost a lawsuit filed against them. The plantiffs didn't have to prove a connection between any particular home, the damage caused by paint in that home, and the individual manufacturer; the plantiffs simply had to prove that the manufacturer sold lead paint in the past.

How does this appply to beef? It's quite straightforward. Another cow infected with mad-cow disease was discovered recently in the US, which brings the total number discovered to three. I think it's inevitable that human will show symptoms of BCE in the next twenty years — and then all hell will break loose. Lawyers will alledge harm not just to that one individual, but to all persons who ate beef in the US (e.g., "anxiety"). And they won't have to prove that some individual butcher, middleman, or farm sold the beef; they'll sue the industry as a whole. The resulting settlements could easily shut down the entire cattle industry, especially since "activist" groups who are opposed to beef production will likely use the disease as an excuse to file lawsuits against small farmers.

Can this be stopped? Certainly, with a moderate amount of legal reform. Will it be stopped? So far all attempts to reform the lawsuit industry have failed...