The Future of Ideas

Posted by Brian Mon, 31 May 2010 19:01:00 GMT

The Future of Ideas: The Fate of the Commons in a Connected World
By Lawrence Lessig

“Technology, tied to law, now promises almost perfect control over content and its distribution. And it is this perfect control that threatens to undermine the potential for innovation that the Internet promises.” - Lawrence Lessig

In our cultures rush towards the salvation of the unfettered free market promised by the right we often lose sight of a couple of key points. First, one of the key pillars of that free market espoused by the right is a system of intellectual property law that itself is brought into being through government regulation. They preach that this system of patents, copyrights, and trademarks is absolutely essential to ensure that inventors and artists have incentive to create. Second, the biggest driving force behind the economic growth of the past fifteen years comes from a resource that purposely avoided using the patent system. As Lessig reminds us in *The Future of Ideas” “the core of the internet was… code built outside the proprietary model.”

If you are interested in the balance that must be found between proprietary ownership and the commons on the Internet then this book is for you. Lessig guides the reader along the founding design principles of the net and how business is seeking to subvert those principles today in order to gain control of what has been an open network to this point. What is meant by “open” though? It goes to the idea of net neutrality which is currently being hotly debated by the FCC, which is seeking to preserve it, and large media companies and ISPs, who wish to abolish it. Net neutrality simply states that all content flowing across the network must be treated equally. For example, Comcast owns the largest cable TV system in the country and also supplies internet to millions. In order to protect its cable monopoly Comcast may want to limit internet video traffic across its network, effectively using their monopoly in old media to stop new competitors from emerging. An explicit system of net neutrality would legally prevent this.

Lessig also proposes sweeping reforms of the copyright system. Currently our system of limited copyright protection for the promotion of the arts and sciences has been perverted by large media. The Copyright Term Extension Act extends copyright in many instances to over 100 years. This does nothing to encourage production of new works of art, instead working to strengthen current monopolies by preventing anything from ever entering the public domain. In The Future of Ideas he proposes a 5 year copyright that can be renewed up to 15 times. This is still a longer term than I would like (Lessig has since modified his stance to support even shorter terms).

The topic Lessig takes on is vast and one the vast majority of the public never thinks about, something that large media companies use in their favor. If you are interested in tackling the subject yourself this is an excellent place to start.

Lessig practices what he preaches as well. You can download The Future of Ideas for free here.

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Guns, Germs, and Steel

Posted by Brian Sun, 16 May 2010 03:29:00 GMT

Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies
By Jared Diamond


I first heard about this book in spring 2005 when I took an American military history class in college and the professor showed the documentary based off of this book in class. It didn’t have much to do with the rest of the course, but he felt that Jared Diamond’s work was important enough to show anyways. The book lingered on my To Read list ever since, but I finally got to it. It was well worth it.

In Guns, Germs, and Steel Jared Diamond sets out to explain why one culture dominates another without resorting to the usual racist arguments. The Wikipedia page goes into sufficient detail so I won’t dwell on the specifics. What I do want to discuss is the skills that Diamond possesses that allowed him to write such a wide ranging book and what can be extrapolated from that.

Most of the last century saw a dramatic increase in scientific specialization. The sheer amount of information coming in as scientific advancement progressed at an ever increasing rate simply requires it. For the most part, if you want to carve yourself a name among a scientific community you need to specialize. A biochemist specializing in a single bacteria is common in that field. This has come at the expense of being able to synthesize information across many different fields though. A towering figure the likes of Newton is impossible today. In Newton’s time it was possible for him to keep abreast of most scientific discoveries of the day, regardless of what field we would today categorize them in. The need for these figures has not diminished though. They are needed more than ever and that to me is what makes Diamond so special. During his career he has been active in Physiology, Biophysics, Ornithology, Environmentalism, Ecology, Geology, Evolutionary Biology, and Anthropology. For a researcher today to move across so many fields is incredible and it is this diversity that gives him the unique lens to write such a comprehensive book in such a convincing fashion.

A couple of other thoughts. I have heard some rumblings about the length of the book by those who feel it was a magazine article extended to 400 pages. While he can be repetitive, with a subject this large I would prefer the author to be repetitive and thorough, looking at the problem from many different angles, instead of glossing over too much. I felt that Diamond walked the line very well with regards to length. It would have been easy to have such a large topic grow to 1000 pages. In doing so he avoided many of the problems found in The Greatest Benefit to Mankind, which devolves into an overwhelming catalog of facts.

Finally, it was hard for me to read this without thinking of Isaac Asimov’s *Foundation” series, specifically his concept of psychohistory, which he used to predict the collective actions of very large groups of people. Diamond does not go nearly that far, but reading anything about large sweeps of history that attempts to give an explanatory model makes me think of Asimov. And anything that makes me think of Asimov is a must read.

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Batch Modify 0.5.0 Released

Posted by Brian Sun, 16 May 2010 03:08:00 GMT

On May 13 I released a new version (0.5.0) of the Trac Batch Modify Plugin. This version adds better support for keyword separators (you can now use any non-alphanumeric character) and the ability to perform a batch modify without changing the last modified time. This is most useful if you are using this plugin in conjunction with the Trac Unread Plugin. Thanks to daltonmatos for this patch.

This is also the first release with separate versions for Trac 0.11 and 0.12. This was necessary to support the last modified time feature. Trac 0.12 changes timestamps to POSIX microseconds from POSIX seconds.

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