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The Enemy is US

Richard Stallman, on technology and freedom:
“The Soviet Union employed a range of methods to stamp out forbidden copying. First, they had guards standing by to watch what you copied. Second, those who they caught were punished harshly, imprisoned for years or sent to Siberia. Third, to help catch people, they asked for informers. Fourth, they used collective responsibility: ?You! You?re going to watch that group! If I catch any of them doing forbidden copying you?re going to prison.? Fifth, propaganda from childhood, to convince people that only a vicious enemy of the people would ever do forbidden copying.

The US today is using all of these methods. Guards on copying equipment: the DMCA opens up the path for robot guards in your computer. Harsh punishments: ten years ago, in the US, if you made copies and handed them out to your neighbours to be helpful that was not a crime. Now it?s a felony. You could be put in prison for years
for sharing published information with your neighbours. In the UK, an MP has proposed a sentence of ten years for unauthorised sharing. “

Pot and Kettles: Tom Brokaw’s TV “expose” about the obscenely high salary of corporate execs was last night. Maybe I’m just being fussy. Somebody should make a rule that only reporters who are NOT making multimillion dollar salaries should narrate such pieces. I say “narrate” because it’s unclear how much of the prep work was done by NBC interns and how much by Brokaw himself.

Slashdot reports that Joseph Biden is sponsoring a bill making it illegal for you to traffic files without a proper watermark. It’s understandable why content industries would encourage device makers to include copy-protection, but why do we need a law for this? The music industry should offer Digital Rights Management(DRM)-friendly mp3 files for a third of the cost of a no DRM music CD. That and special promotions could do a lot to get DRM devices in the hands of consumers. The government doesn’t need to be involved in this initiative at all.

I probably oppose the bill (I haven’t really looked at the details), but having a central watermark authority is not as insidious as it might seem. The entity that validates SSL certificates of authority haven’t amassed any diabolical power (I realize we’re talking about apples and ostriches here). As long as individuals have the ability to watermark original material easily and cheaply, it’s hard to complain. Of course, there’s fair use, but actually I suppose a DRM-enabled device could be empowered to create an open source digital sample for classwork and online reviews. Oh wait, somebody could combine these digital samples into a single piece and circumvent the whole system. Still, it seems feasible for DRM’s to offer fair use sampling in the future. But any DRM scheme involving governmental coercion seems unlikely to work.

Writer Burning Bird wrote a farewell note explaining why she is stopping her weblog. I’ve written about the problems with weblogs in my June 13 “Death of Weblogs” post, so I’m not exactly surprised. But a week later, lo and behold, she’s posting more “remarks” on the same URL with the caveat that “this isn’t really a weblog anymore.” Silly woman! It reminds me of a time I said a long goodbye to a friend at school (thinking it would be the last time we would see each other), and lo and behold, we run into each other at a gas station 5 minutes later. So am I saying that DRM is a good idea and artists should lock up their content with industry tools? No. Indeed, it would seem that content creators who keep their content free will gain wider distribution than copy-protected works.

Lately I’ve been finding information about open source LMS’s. Well, open source hacks haven’t yet discovered the booming field of learning management systems. It’s not too late to build your own! I’ve found a simple zope LMS, a php lms and a big academic project (the MIT’s Open Knowledge Initiative , which defines an architectural framework for learning management systems). A list of online learning lms’ doesn’t mention any open source projects.

Documentation strategies: I have been following gentoo’s excellent installation instructions. Although the directions are perfectly clear, they are in fact somewhat difficult to follow. More importantly, the documentation forgets to describe what will happen if you perform the step correctly. Just as students need to be tested on what they know, users need some way to verify that they have performed some task correctly. Or else, users (like me) will complain about missing a step. In this case, I performed all the steps, but never realized that one of the steps I performed actually accomplished nothing. (Actually, Linux/Unix is partly responsible with its cryptic command line responses). Without ways for readers of user documentation to test for success, readers will have no idea what constitutes normal system behavior.

From my Asiafirst weblog: Frank Yu’s email newsletter provides news about Asia and technology. I prefer the content in the daily email to what actually is on the site.

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