Chad Perrin: SOB

30 June 2007

weblog attention, motivation, and underlying meaning

Filed under: Cognition,Metalog — apotheon @ 08:00

As Sterling pointed out today, Quasi Fictional featured me today. Quasi Fictional is an interesting cross-section of the motivations of weblog authors across a wide range of interest areas. The posts in this series are profiles of the subjects’ reasons for writing their weblogs that are written by the subjects themselves, which of course leads to some (often predictable) trends in the sort of description of weblogging activities presented for each person.

While it can be an entertaining diversion to speculate about what people are downplaying, talking up, and misrepresenting due to a certain amount of self-blindness (myself included) when they talk about themselves, the first question that occurs to me is “How are we chosen for a profile at Quasi Fictional?” Obviously (or, at least, it’s obvious if you’ve looked around Quasi Fictional a bit), Diogenes (the Quasi Fictional author/editor) takes submissions openly, but also obviously (since I received an invitation) some people are specifically asked to contribute — and it’s the reasons for these invitations that interest me. When the invitation to write a profile for contribution came to me so hot on the heels of my receipt of the Thinking Blogger Award, of course there was a moment where I considered that the editor of Quasi Fictional might be following the progress of the Thinking Blogger Award. I suspect, however, that there’s some other mechanism behind the choice. I might ask Diogenes personally, but really, that requires opening an email client. Who has that kind of time (he asked facetiously)?

I admit to a bit of laziness. When asked to contribute a piece about myself to Quasi Fictional’s Fine Art of Blogging series of profiles, I was asked to post it here at SOB and submit it in a Microsoft Word document. I pointed out, in a response, that I do not have (nor want) Microsoft Office installed on a computer here (and the fact that I use FreeBSD as my primary OS is part of the reason for that), and have already posted on the subject in the past. I directed Diogenese to my post the introvert blogger, which I thought was somewhat more interesting than my previous weblog whys/wherefores. Apparently, that was sufficient for the needs of Quasi Fictional, because it is the text that now adorns a post there. That disclaimer out of the way, I hope you learn something about the parts of my personality that come to the fore when I’ve been drinking sake in celebration of my imminent birthday.

The day before one’s birthday, in the wee hours of the morning, hammered on good rice wine, is sure to produce something (relatively) interesting. At least, that seems to me the intuitive assumption to make. For timing and circumstances, that seems an excellent example of the sort of thing that could bring one’s baggage and subconscious issues to the surface. I wonder, to an outsider, what that SOB entry seemed to say about me — aside from the direct meaning of the statements made.

how microframeworks happen: three reasons I’m building one

Filed under: Geek,Liberty — apotheon @ 05:10

I’ve bitten off a big old chunk of side project, again. This time, I’m working on Copyfree, something of a cross between the Free Software Foundation’s What is Copyleft? essay and Free Software Definition, the OSI’s Open Source Definition and list of “approved” open source licenses, and the Creative Commons Frequently Asked Questions page. There’s a bit of similarity to the OpenBSD Copyright Policy page thrown in there for good measure, too.

I threw together a quick placeholder page with some information about what Copyfree is all about, and let the people who were aware of the idea at its earliest stages of conception (before I even knew for sure there’d be a website or that I’d be using the term for anything) know that it was there. I did so with a single-page index file so that I wouldn’t be locked into a particular choice of back-end technology by incoming links, should someone discover it and start linking to it. If, for instance, I had started out using static XHTML pages with the .html filename extension with multiple pages on the site, and people started linking to the various pages, I would then — when I settled on a back-end technology, say for instance SSI+Perl/CGI with .shtml filename extensions — have the problem of either maintaining a redundant set of legacy static pages (or redirects) or breaking incoming links. The answer was simple: don’t create anything at first other than an index page, and only refer to it by the site root URL, because all that’s needed to access the one and only page is the domain name (copyfree.org).

I had a fire lit under me last night when Sterling linked to Copyfree (see the “people who use it” link) at Chip’s Quips. The content on the placeholder page at least doubled in volume, I set up a Subversion repository, I thought about the options for back-end technology in earnest, and started experimenting with writing the back end for the site. The latter two comma separated values in that sentence manifested as follows:

I started fiddling around with options. Right off the bat, I rejected the notion of a content management system — I have very specific needs for Copyfree that in no way fit into the approach of any CMS I’ve ever seen, to say nothing of the fact that I wanted the option for a more unique, customizable appearance to the site. I very briefly considered constructing the site with PHP, but really, I’m trying to stop mistreating myself like that. I briefly considered eRuby for PHP-like markup-embedded Ruby, and even more briefly considered Rails (as briefly as “Rails? Nah, that’d be overkill for this!”). I then “settled” on Perl/CGI, with SSI to embed script output in pages with URLs using the .shtml filename extension (and without “cgi-bin” in them). I decided that, doing this, the only smart way to do it was to use CGI.pm (aka the Perl::CGI module) to generate valid markup. Alas, I haven’t used CGI.pm in quite a while, and needed to refresh my knowledge of it. After puttering around, grousing inwardly about the ugly, bolted-on Frankenstein’s monster OOP syntax in Perl 5, I started to rethink that assessment of the use of CGI.pm as “smart”. (Granted, Perl’s OOP features blow PHP’s out of the water, but it’s not difficult to outdo that POOHP*.) I had already constructed an exact duplicate of the index page of the site using CGI.pm to generate markup, at this point, and was about to embed it in a sane URL using a simple SSI statement, and was pretty much over my initial enthusiasm for refamiliarizing myself with the module. At this point, there was only one other option open to me:

I could create my own microframework (and no, I don’t mean the .NET Micro Framework) as I go. Sure, it’s sorta “reinventing the wheel”, because there are tons of frameworks out there already — but most of them are kinda huge, and would require as much familiarity with their inner workings as CGI.pm even if I wanted to use them. Worse yet, most of them aren’t readily available in a form that fits into a shared hosting account’s restrictions, and of those that are, one is CGI.pm and another is basically just a collection of core PHP functions with a few unified function-collections. There’s that PHP microframework I already created a while ago (and keep changing every time I use it), but again, I don’t want to punish myself like that this time around.

End result: I came back to eRuby. That’s what I’m working on now, though I may end up discarding that for SSI+Ruby/CGI (but without the woefully out-of-date Ruby CGI module) by the time the Ruby-based microframework is complete enough to actually migrate the live site to it. Either way, I’m building formatting functions and planning the data model. I’m building a microframework in Ruby.

So, to sum it all up, this microframework is happening for the following reasons:

  1. PHP is hurty (for anything more complex than duplicating SSI functionality).
  2. Ruby is fun (and provides excellent OOP capabilities).
  3. I’m too damned lazy to refamiliarize myself with CGI.pm this week.

It’s even possible that this microframework will one day have a tidy enough codebase to bother offering it as a publicly available alternative to PHP for (extremely) simple website development — all under a Copyfree license, of course.

Frankly, I’ll pretty much consider it subject to the terms of a Copyfree license anyway, except that I’m unlikely to share it as a whole with the world unless and until it’s no longer an embarrassment to display. License terms only really come into play when someone can actually see the licensed work, after all.

Just for the heck of it, I’ll share a single method that I’ve already written (it’ll probably need tweaking for edge-cases, but it works for now):

def fixfullstops(passage)
  passage.gsub(/  /, '  ')
end

There are about half a dozen others, and there have been about half a dozen that I’ve written and thrown away, in the course of a couple hours’ worth of playing around. I wrote that particular method right after I decided to stop screwing about, and start taking a more systematic approach to planning the development effort, but before I actually started employing a more systematic approach. Whee, fun.

(note: you may find some of the acronyms/abbreviations on this page instructive)

(edit: * POOHP is a term first publicly coined in a guest blog post by Sterling of Chip’s Quips, and first privately coined by him before that in IMs.)

28 June 2007

responses to objections to some statements on copyright law

Filed under: Liberty — apotheon @ 11:12

The following is in answer to the points brought up by reader SLR in answer to my previous post, “a quick primer on theft and copyright”. I only separated this from the collection of comments there and chose to make a new post of it because it grew so long and, I think, is worth presenting more visibly — if only because it addresses reasonable questions directed at my statements, coming from the perspective of long familiarity and even comfort with our current system of copyright law. In other words, I think these are ideas and implications in need of answer.

I’ve reordered things a touch to make my points in what I hope is a more effective manner.

Thanks to a little cutie called “economy of scale,” music copyrights are probably worth more to a copyright accumulating corporation than they are to the innovator.

Economies of scale in the music industry are rapidly becoming a thing of the past, thanks in large part to the growing prevalence of the Internet and the greater natural distributability of market forces therein. It’s all well and good, then, to make the argument that copyright had its time, and was more valuable than it is now, to the music industry — but that assumes that without copyright all else would have been equal. I think it more likely that there would have been greater innovation in matters tangential to the actual production of music itself, as musicians desired greater economic value from their works. How much sooner might we have had the technological equivalent of the CD burner — so cheap to own and use that it almost makes a music distribution channel of anyone with a few thousand dollars in his pocket — if musicians actually needed it to reach a wide audience? What of the advancement of communications networks? How about business model innovations? Artificial scarcity imposes opportunity costs as well as the apparent benefits many believe justify it in the case of copyright, as it eliminates motivation for improving on the means of gaining economic benefit from musical works. At worst for the argument against copyright, that pendulum swings both ways.

The innovators need to start demanding that the copyright accumulators pay what the rights are worth.

That strikes me as effectively impossible. The only way to break the stranglehold the record labels have on conditions of copyright ownership in the record industry is to break the dependence upon them — which means not demanding value for value, but finding a way to jettison the record labels as they currently exist from the business of music distribution entirely. So much for economies of scale.

From my PoV, the likely fraudsters are the agents who say, “This is a standard contract” (true, beside the point) under the guise of and under the professional obligation to seek good contracts for the artists. I wonder if it’s possible to apply the pressures of “fiduciary responsibility” to an agent.

The fact that an agent may also be culpable in no way excuses the record industry corporations. The more people you get involved in an act of fraud, the more people are to blame, typically — and the fact that more people are to blame in no way diffuses the blame or reduces it in any instance. Unethicality is a bottomless well of which anyone may sip, with none the less refreshed for the fact that anyone else partakes.

Record labels don’t just provide effectively unreadable contracts: they provide contracts deliberately designed to take as much from the artist as possible while giving as little back as possible. There’s a point beyond which one is no longer “just trying to get a good deal”, and that’s the point beyond which one gives an impression that rewards will be granted that will not, if one gets one’s way, ever be available. Promising the world and delivering a printout from Google Earth is hardly honest dealing, and the fact it’s all in the contract is hardly justification for those who don’t understand what they’re getting into or have already gotten into it and feel they have no other option than to take whatever scraps they’re offered — regardless of whether an agent gives it the nod. That just makes the agent complicit. It doesn’t hand off the blame for the moral equivalent of debtor’s prison without the implied initial debt.

That aside, the wickedness of the record label doesn’t change the fact that they have been assigned copyrights, or publishing privileges (usually the former, because of the misery of music-industry contracts). I don’t think “stealing” is the right word for what happens when somebody ignores a copyright, but… ignoring the copyright owners copyrights is wordy. (ItCOC?)

I was a touch sloppy in how I referred to the artist as being “robbed” by the record label. I do not mean that (s)he is literally the victim of theft. It was an ironic point — that theft actually does not occur and, even if it did, the record label is the only one actually getting something valuable from the artist effectively at gunpoint. I suppose it’s kind of a dirty rhetorical trick: point out that the emotional investment in the idea that the artist is the victim of “theft” at the consumer’s hand is incorrect no matter how you look at it, with the intention of putting the reader in a position to stop thinking about that aspect of it and start thinking about the matter of whether theft has occurred at all.

It sounds totally disgusting to say it, but giving money to the record label helps to buy your artist better treatment from the label. Is that the way it should be? Probably not…

Not only does that not strike me as “the way it should be”, but it also is only true in a vacuum — and we all know nothing truly exists in a vacuum (at least within our range of experience). Paying the label only provably buys the artist better treatment in comparison with other artists. There are arguments as strong for the notion that even the artists who generate the most revenue are no objectively better off than the most valuable artists might be without the record labels at all.

So, to get down to my personal stance, I believe that copyrights do, generally (which is to say, not necessarily as they are now), have a positive effect on innovation, because without copyrights, innovation is an economic public good where the whole world is “the public.”

One of the problems with the “public good” (and that’s a perfectly valid economic term in this context, so there’s really no need to explain it) argument here is that it assumes copyright law ultimately leads to greater public accessibility to innovative works. Completely aside from the possibility that the pure, unadulterated motivation to create may be improved by copyright law (which I find wholly without supporting evidence — it’s an intuitive argument, not a logical one, largely debunked by the successes of open source software development and pre-copyright history), there’s also the problem that it is assumed that once created these copyright-motivated works then contribute more value to the general pool than would otherwise exist. This is an obvious assumption, but not necessarily an accurate one: copyright law, in fact, specifically limits distributability, as its entire motivational justification is dependent upon a state of artificial scarcity, and introduces a greater opportunity for force to be employed to prevent the potential immortality of original works.

Furthermore, reducing the span of copyright may also have the unintended consequence of decreasing economic motivation for creating certain types of original works: the environment of artificial scarcity fostered by copyright would then be optimized for works that are most valuable when acquired rapidly, which seems to me to imply technical application and secondary economic benefit. For copyright measured in a period of five years, I could imagine the fiction publishing industry all but drying up as publishers focus their efforts on works that go “stale” such as programming texts. Granted, this would bring the situation closer to a complete lack of copyright law for works of fiction in some regards, as the economic motivators would be more structurally similar to conditions of a lack of coercive power in distribution privilege, but in contrast and competition with other, more lucrative writing markets it may suffer more than it would in a copyright-less world — and, to the extent it didn’t, that would only debunk the entire economic argument for copyright motivating greater innovation.

Finally, nothing in the economic motivation argument in any way suggests it is ethical to impose artificial scarcity on a “product” that exists wholly within the mind, that can only be regulated in the form of its representation — and if it could actually be regulated in its (nontangible) substance would introduce far more troubling ethical aspects to the entire set of circumstances. Do you really want copyright law to regulate the manner in which you derive benefit from reading a book, to in effect regulate the contents of your mind, the processes of your brain’s operation? That, unfortunately, is the final consequence of copyright law in the face of inevitable technological advancement.

When in doubt, let economic principles apply naturally — distorting them with the externalities of such unnatural impositions as artificial scarcity is just asking for trouble.

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All original content Copyright Chad Perrin: Distributed under the terms of the Open Works License