“I’m so bored. I hate my life.” - Britney Spears

Das Langweilige ist interessant geworden, weil das Interessante angefangen hat langweilig zu werden. – Thomas Mann

"Never for money/always for love" - The Talking Heads

Saturday, March 02, 2002

Remora

We've all seen thieves, in movies, confer, engage, succeed, and then ironically flame out. The Thomas Crown Affair. Sexy Beast.To Catch a Thief. Rikki. We've all seen the movie in which the older, experienced thief engineers the heist of a lifetime, the impossible steal. The maximum flash plan, the camera at his glamorous or weary heel, here he is, coordinating his greedy but colorful crew, their various prison nourished talents. We all know that the heist itself will form around moments of near discovery, the cop who knocks on the door, the non-descript, whistling museum guard making an unexpected round. From Hollywood bandits lets segue to Hollywood banditry, because we can see the movie leap off the screen this week in Washington D.C. The script calls for boosting the commons, as unguarded as any lamely secured art treasure. Like Egyptian grave robbers in the hungrier dynasties, these thieves of the common have already made their depredations into a growth industry, and emptied out many of our monuments. Unlike Egyptian grave robbers, though, the dynamic is just the opposite: take living treasure and steal it for the tomb. The vaults of the record industries, the film industries, the publishing industries. Target is the copy right law. Like all intellectual property laws, copy right law was originally set up to guarantee a monopoly for that length of time necessary to allow the creator of an object -- originally the creator of a book -- to benefit from it. It was not a grant of property. And nothing was to be construed, from copy right, that impeded the fair use of the book for, say, parody. The age of reasonable use is over. Right now, a tedious committee hearing, lead by the Senator from Disney, Ernest Hollings, is showcasing Hollywood's scavenger hunt for spoils from the Net. Here's the NYT story about the latest Mission Impossible: Stealing your brain:

"Senator Ernest F. Hollings, the South Carolina Democrat who is the committee's chairman, called the hearing because of concerns in Congress about the slow adoption of digital television and broadband Internet connections. One reason that has often been cited for the faltering technology is the lack of mainstream entertainment to be found on it.

But until strong anti-piracy measures are in place, Mr. Eisner and others in his business have argued, the movie industry has little incentive to release its library of films in digital form.

In ongoing discussions with the technology and consumer electronics industry, the Hollywood studios have been promoting a project that would embed a "flag," or watermark in every piece of digital video content."

Computers, digital video recorders and other devices would then be designed to play the material only if they detected the presence of the markers."

And what does the ever pliant Hollings propose?

"The senators on the committee appeared quite receptive to that idea. Senator Hollings has circulated a draft of a proposed bill that would require computer and device makers to install anti-copying technology designated by the government if the companies cannot arrive at a standard on their own. "

Is this incredible or what? Yes, in a time when the Heimat is threatened by who knows who, we have to start getting pre-emptive -- so we pre-empt the crime before it happens. Only kidding! They aren't going to be locking Enron execs and politicians in jail before they're caught doing something -- the more's the pity. No, we have to pre-empt anything that threatens Disney Uber Alles. This is the kind of legislation that is cake to Hollings sponsors. Imagine the outcry if this venal crime against the intellect were translated into another venue. Imagine the Guv proposing to put little devises in your car to keep you from speeding. Cardiac arrest would spread from Detroit outward, and we'd see that legislation whisked away in a heartbeat. Hollywood, ah, that is a different story. If Hollywood had had its say, there would be no VCR in your home entertainment center, citoyen. Its usurpation of your rights is in line with its usual greedy mindset. But this time, the environment is much worse.

Limited Inc interviewed Larry Lessig last week. The story is in the Chronicle http://www.auschron.com/. Lessig's last book, The Future of Ideas, should be read by anybody who cares about the Net. In it, Lessig talks about the innovation commons. Let me quote from the Chronicle:

"AC: There's a phrase, "tragedy of the commons," which you discuss in Freedom of Ideas. Could you explain that?

LL: The idea is that if some resource is left open to the public, individuals will maximize their use of it until it is used up. So we have to control our access to it. This isn't true, however, of all commons. Take the English language. Because you speak it doesn't mean you take those words from somebody else. The Internet is an "innovation commons." Everyone is free to modify and adapt things on the Net, and anybody can get access to those innovations, because there isn't a limit to growth. "

Lessig claims (in Future of Ideas -- read that book!), and Limited Inc gives this claim a lot of credit, that the division between the State and Private Enterprise mistakenly categorizes a whole division of network goods, like bandwidth and code. I'd probably add genes and tissues. These goods are open source goods -- they can be exploited by all, modified by all, passively received by all, because it is in the nature of such goods to be indefinitely available.

But these goods are being contractualized, citoyens! even as we sleep. Sleep is easy, given the maunderings of such as Hollings, but sleep is dangerous. Remember the fuss, last year, about embryo stem cell research? The fuss was about whether the government would fund it. The fuss should have been about who owns it -- for, amazingly, stem cell "lines" have been patented. A story in Darwin magazine last summer correctly points out how crazy our bloated patent system has gotten:

"...the University of Wisconsin, which was awarded the patent on the human embryonic stem cell this past March, now finds itself in the uncomfortable position of having more power than it can handle�or at least handle gracefully.

The human stem cell patent is a hot potato, because while the science described within offers hope, the patent itself grants the power to quash that hope. It doesn�t help matters that the Wisconsin Alumni Research Foundation (WARF), an independent not-for-profit corporation that manages patents for the university, has already granted many stem cell rights to Geron, a California biotech company that helped to fund the research. Today, anyone hoping to use the cells for research in this country may also have to come to terms not only with the university, but also with Geron, a for-profit player with a keen incentive to discourage competition."

Limited Inc's faithful readers will remember that back in August, when we started this insane enterprise, we began by attacking the idea that the right/left divide is defined by an attitude towards the state. No, we said, it is defined by an attitude towards contract -- a much different thing. So that the right wants the state to remove itself from, say, allocating resources, but intrude itself into enforcing private monopoly power. When the sphere of everyday life is invaded by state power on behalf of the state, freedom necessarily dwindles to zero. But the same is true when the sphere of everyday life becomes completely contractualized. Private power than uses the state to abridge freedom, heading us to that same zero horizon. Time to wake up, and hang a few patent officials from the streetlamps.

Friday, March 01, 2002

Remora

A group at MIT has come up with a little robot reporter. It is based on the design of one of those nifty machines NASA uses to explore Mars, the kind they always used to diagram in the National Geographics of my youth, except that this little baby has more RAM. And since there is, reportedly, intelligent life on Earth, communication between the robot and its base will be quicker:


"One example of how designing for Intraplanetary exploration is significantly simpler than Interplanetary systems is that information travels much faster from one side of the Earth to another than it does between planets. It can take minutes for radio information to travel from Mars to Earth, which is too long if the message is "I'm rolling towards the edge of a cliff!" Lag time in our system is expected to be less than 1000 milliseconds. Likewise, lifting a payload into orbit is incredibly expensive, and serves as perhaps the largest single constraint in the design of space bound vehicles. For instance, the original Space Shuttle had only 36K words of fixed memory, and 2K words of erasable memory! Our system can use a conventional laptop with many gigabytes of storage, able to handle digital video and audio recording, as well as the control and communications programs."

Whoever invented this thing certainly knows how journalism works. How many journalists have silently cried out, "I'm rolling towards the edge of a cliff!" as they skewed their perspective to that freedom friendly, free enterprise friendly, America friendly ideology of the base, aka Megagiant media corporation, for which they work as gravediggers of the truth, merely in order to enjoy the fruits of the earth on a credit card. For instance, take the whole of the Fox News staff. If only someone out there could recieve their little distressed frequencies! But alas, non-robotic reporters, like lemmings, roll off the edges of cliffs with regularity, and have to live with their shameful prosperity in sorrow and ulcers. Perhaps MIT can do something about that, next.



Thursday, February 28, 2002

Remora

The mentally unstable bovine has rather slipped from the popular consciousness, now that we have real diseases, like anthrax, to worry about. So was it all simply fun and games, the hecatombs of beef? Shall we crank up the Peggy Lee? Is that all there is?


In Salon, there's a report on a report by the GAO, which says, inevitably, that :

"Mad cow disease could slip into the country and infect cattle herds because of weaknesses in import controls and lax enforcement of animal feed rules, congressional investigators warned Tuesday."

This report is a little screwy. The search for BSE in this country has been, shall we say, lackadaisical. In fact, cows that are down aren't routinely inspected for BSE. We know that American minks and deer have a BSE like disease, and that it is becoming endemic. Nodowners is a good site to start with if you want to get a jump on the next plague. They have a report on down cattle and the incidence of other animal spongiform encephalopathies.

They also have a report about the downed cattle bill:

"UPDATE! For the first time since the Humane Slaughter Act was enacted in the 1950's, farm animal protection legislation has passed both the United States House or Representatives and the United States Senate. This legislation, which prohibits the marketing and dragging of downed animals at stockyards and requires these incapacitated animals to be humanely euthanized, has now been included in both the House and Senate Farm Bills.The Senate Farm Bill was passed on February 13th, 2002 and includes a downed animal provision that was championed by Senators Patrick Leahy (D-VT) and Daniel Akaka (D-HI). This provision is nearly identical to the downed animal legislation which passed the U.S. House of Representatives on October 5th, 2001 as part of the House Farm Bill. In the House, the downed animal measure was championed by Representatives Gary Ackerman (D-NY) and Amo Houghton (R-NY) in a floor amendment."

So don't say that the house and senate has never done anything for ya. All it took them was four crucial years, since the first reports of BSE in Britain.

Wednesday, February 27, 2002

Remora

As blood is to the mosquito, the vampire bat, the tick, the tse-tse fly, so is idiocy to Limited Inc. Naturally - yes, obviously, like your most predictable carpers, with the kind of grim satisfaction at all our most cherished, worst prejudices being realized exhibited by some harridan in a suburban subdivision, watching hubby come home from a drunk - we recommend that our readers go to the NYT article reporting the testimony of stockmarket analysts to the US Senate's investigation of Enron. The grafs that put us into a delirium of bloodlust are these:

"Eleven of 16 analysts who followed Enron were still rating it as a ``buy'' or ``strong buy'' as late as Nov. 8, two weeks after the Securities and Exchange Commission announced it had opened an inquiry into the company's accounting.

"``I did not own Enron stock,'' testified Anatol Feygin, a senior analyst at J.P. Morgan Securities Inc. ``I have complete freedom with respect to the recommendations that I make concerning any (stock) and my compensation is not tied to the recommendations that I make. ... I have never received any compensation in any form from any company that I analyze, including Enron.''

The analysts defense is that they are the stupidest people on earth. Because even slightly less stupid people, say some touched boy in a tribe that haven't developed a complete base ten counting system, can tell that an enterprise that goes from 90 to 2, whether the decline is measured in goats and chickens or dollars, is a losing enterprise. But Anatol Feygin, apparently, needs more information to make that kind of decision. Feygin is a veritable scientist.

Ah, but Limited Inc is just being cynical. Surely there is a reason, some reason, that we just don't understand, which justifies the Feygins of the world receiving compensations a thousand fold over your average MacDonald's burger flipper. There must be a class that explains this in some economics department. We don't understand economics, is what it is.


Tuesday, February 26, 2002

Remora

Limited Inc, like Ronald Reagan, has a repertoire of anecdotes we go back to obsessively. One of them is that penicillin was not patented by Ernst Chain, Howard Florey and Edward Abraham, the Oxford scientists who took Alexander Fleming's discovery, purified it, and made it medically useful.

What can and can't be patented is one of the burning questions of our time -- but it burns, admittedly, far beneath the average consciousness, which doesn't know a patent from a property right, and doesn't know the smell of smoke from the fire that produced it. Unfortunately, the conservatives are winning this argument by default -- there are very few voices crying out against the extension of monopoly, which is what a patent is, or the public/private partnerships that routinely rip the public off, for private benefit.

In Tom Paine, Stephen Jones publishes an article that illustrates the rip off. Since the article is about wheat seeds, there will be readers out there who will balk. But wheat seeds are important! (the hysterical man with the red face shouted). Here's the essential two grafs:

"What is wrong with universities working hand in glove with corporations to develop our food crops and getting a return on investment? One of the main issues is the ownership itself. Who owns wheat, for example? The food grain was first domesticated over 10,000 years ago in the Middle East. It is not native to this country and we would not be growing it here if we did not receive the help and genetic materials from farmers and public breeders worldwide.

A second issue is the restricted flow of information. Because of developing ownership issues, most international breeders are no longer willing to share material. This is hurting research. Now, many of the products researched by publicly-funded scientists in public labs are being developed under confidentiality agreements and with strict limitations on publication. Some 50 percent of public breeders said they had been hindered in seeking exchanges of genetic material, according to a 1999 University of Wisconsin poll. Twenty-five percent reported having difficulty in graduate student training and research because of this limited access."

Limited Inc has said this before, and will say it again: the difference between political factions does not have to do with the state. Although the right habitually oozes about the magic of the marketplace, what the right really wants is a completely contractualized world -- which requires an unheard of extension of state granted monopolies. The right wants to squeeze out the commons. The soviet variety of the left wanted the same thing -- wanted to identify the commons with the state. It is this commonality of goals that makes the ideal world of the right look so much like the real world of the soviet left. In both, social cost -- and with it an honest perception of the commons -- is locked in a closet. But social cost is the ideological ghost that will haunt our banquets of gene altered wheat seed -- believe us, reader.




Sunday, February 24, 2002

Dope

Reader, go to the WP magazine section and read the very sad story of the "cheating scandal" in Silver Springs, Maryland. Last year, a teacher in the Silver Springs International school, a rather miraculous school in Montgomery County distinguished for using tried and true progressive methods, was 'released' for having used the questions from some inane comprehensive test before giving the test, thus breaching the 'security' of the test. Never mind that the test had no security, that copies of it float around throughout the system. Any excuse to liquidate an alternative. This is the slogan of all sclerotic bureaucracies.

Silver Springs was one of those miracles that prove that all the aims and goals of the progressive agenda are not dead, but come up, spontaneously, scattered about, seeding the future. The principle, Renee Brimfield, was trained at the Sorbonne, and came to the school, which had a considerable ethnic mix, and an income level below the D.C. average, determined to really teach her kids. Classes mixed ability levels. In the cafeteria, students were assigned seats -- "because, Brimfield said, they might segregate themselves by race and class elsewhere, but not in her lunchroom." It was an island, and islands get targetted for bombing practice. Destruction came from the Montgomery Superintendent of Education, who did not appreciate Brimfield not getting with the program -- which program consists of giving children inane tests, teaching to the tests, and in general doing the yeoman's work of distracting children, from the age of seven to the age of eighteen, from anything resembling culture.

The sad thing is, the story of compulsory, obsessive standard testing is dialectically ingenious. Who opposes it? Not the poor. For many poor schools, it is the only plan there is, the only way children are guaranteed some education. WP's Michael Sokolove does an admirable job of complicating our response to the whole testing gestalt. The devil in the testing complex, according to Sokolove, is that the more standardized tests "are used as a single measure to make sweeping judgments -- the more high-stakes they become -- the less reliable they are. Teachers and principals who operate under the threat that their school will be "reconstituted," that their career or some monetary reward hangs in the balance, or even that they will be shamed when their school's test results are disclosed to the public, will find a way to make scores go up. "

But if, like Limited Inc, one longs for the historically annointed proletariat to rise up, workers all, and join the fight against testing -- well, that isn't the vector from which resistance comes. There's a dialectical irony here:

"The public debate over standardized testing is largely an argument about how best to lift up poor children -- and, not far below the surface, an argument over whether efforts on behalf of poor children will slow the progress of higher-achieving, wealthier students. That is why protests against testing have come mainly from parents in affluent communities who fear that testing and test prep will take time away from more enriching, challenging class work. Advocates for poor children, on the other hand, often view standardized tests as a kind of backstop, a guarantee that lower-achieving schools and children won't be invisible. But Rye says no parents at Silver Spring International were calling for greater emphasis on tests. "We had only been there a year and a half," she says. "We were just starting to get scores."
Opposition to Brimfield early on came from some well-to-do parents. Ellie Hamburger, a pediatrician, was among those who initially spoke out against the school's decision to mix students of all abilities except in foreign language and math classes. "I was won over," she says. "The kids had their assumptions challenged."

And so it ends, the Englightenment dream. The idea in the eighteenth century was that affluence would lead to virtue. When, in the preface to Major Barbara, Shaw says that poverty is the only vice, he is summarizing the trend of ideas from Jefferson through Mill to, really, the early twentieth century socialists. As so often in Shaw, one feels he is writing a platitude with a lightning bolt -- but what a lightning bolt!

"In the millionaire Undershaft I have represented a man who has become intellectually and spiritually as well as practically conscious of the irresistible natural truth which we all abhor and repudiate: to wit, that the greatest of evils and the worst of crimes is poverty, and that our first duty -- a duty to which every other consideration should be sacrificed -- is not to be poor. "Poor but honest," "the respectable poor," and such phrases are as intolerable and as immoral as "drumken but amiable," "fraudulent but a good afterdinner speaker," "splendidly criminal," or the like. Security, the chief pretence of civilization, cannot exist where the worst of dangers, the danger of poverty, hangs over everyone's head, and where the alleged protection of our persons from violence is only an accidental result of the existence of a police force whose real business is to force the poor man to see his children starve whilst idle people overfeed pet dogs with the money that might feed and clothe them.
"

Robert Stone once said that Shaw invented fascism in Major Barbara. It is easy to see that the logic of viewing poverty as a security issue, which is not far from the bourgeois perception of the working class as the dangerous class, can run pretty far to the right. But Shaw did have hold of a basic social fact. The reason for according the monopoly of violence to the state remains that of forcing the poor man to see his children fed on cheap sugars and fats; to see his children arrested and hauled off, in large numbers, for having the entrepeneurial sense of our founding fathers, to wit, making money in intoxicants -- with the caveat that the rum upon which the good New England merchants depended was more criminal, insofar as it was whipped out of the skins of kidnapped Africans, while we know that the narco-peasantry is relatively well paid for their labors; to see all that, without the power of lifting his hand against the system, whilst idle people's children get to learn art appreciation in really good schools, from which they will go on to even better schools, from whence to get jobs in politics and the media that are wholly taken up with debasing the American mind with every possible superstition, fad, and slogan.

Education, as Americans practice it, is a sad sign that the miserable grip of four thousand years of scarcity, with the fear mongering it breeds, has not been loosened, even though the scarcity itself, from food to warmth, has been practically abolished. Matthew Arnold, not my favorite Victorian sage by a long shot, still had it right about that in which culture consists:

"...culture may with advantage continue to uphold steadily its ideal of human perfection; that this is an inward spiritual activity, having for its characters increased sweetness, increased light, increased life, increased sympathy."

We, however, have opted, in Arnold's terminology, for Anarchy... an anarchy of standardized tests. Meanwhile, at that moment in history where we can actually move from the Victorian sentimentality of sweetness and light to a real increase of life and sympathy, what do we do? We give our kids no. 2 pencils and four choices for each question, no talking, you have thirty minutes to complete the test, if you complete the test before thirty minutes do not go to the next test, check your answers and remain quiet, remain quiet, remain quiet...