Thursday, October 29, 2009

Worst reason ever to restrict a .com

As reported in the consumer and trade press this past week,,, and have engaged in a price war in the pre-sale of new hardcover bestsellers, including books from John Grisham, Stephen King, Barbara Kingsolver, Sarah Palin, and James Patterson. These books typically retail for between $25 and $35. As of writing of this letter, all three competitors are selling these and other titles for between $8.98 and $9.00.

That's what the American Booksellers Association claims is going to harm American citizens. Somehow, to me, low book prices sound like a huge success, not just for the companies involved, but for all reading people.

HT Overlawyered

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

FCC to regulate the Internet after all?

While network neutrality is a good goal, I don't see how to achieve it by turning the Internet into a totalitarian domain. It would be like achieving free speech by having the FCC constantly monitoring everyone. Unfortunately, the FCC is moving to do just this.

Part of my curiosity is exactly how the FCC has the jurisdiction to do this. The last I heard, network neutrality was voted down in Congress. Did it come up again with no one noticing, or is the FCC just reaching again? If I had known that legislation had come back to life I would have taken part in the debate.

Separately, the reason the FCC has chosen is just as weak as any of the others that have been put forward:
FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski said the rules are needed to ensure that broadband subscribers can access all legal Web sites and services, including Internet calling applications and video sites that compete with the broadband companies' core businesses.

Let's count the problems:

  1. Web sites are vitally interested in letting customers get to them. There are powerful forces in play already that will prevent that from happening. Skype is doing rather well, without the FCC's help. It's not even an American company!
  2. This problem hasn't happened before.
  3. Very powerful companies have tried. AOL, Prodigy, Compuserve, and MSN all tried to limit their users' access to the general Internet, and their customers simply left.
  4. There are credible attempts to divide up the Internet today, but the FCC isn't addressing them. Think of walled gardens like Facebook or Apple's iTunes. The FCC is fighting the last decade's battle.

Legal systems are very complicated programs run by millions of devious agents. If they are to do what we want from them, they have to be simple and straighforward, and even then, we might not get what we tried for.

Sunday, October 25, 2009

Geocities to be archived

Scott and his Archive Team are working to rescue GeoCities by downloading as much of its content as possible — which they estimate to be around ten terabytes. These historians recognize GeoCities as having played a critical role in the development of the Internet.

Neat! HT to James Robertson.

By the way, this bit of history is news to me:
...GeoCities' free hosting space became the home for thousands of sites built around thematically oriented "neighborhoods": conservation, fashion, military, sports, finance, travel, and more.

I had no idea about GeoCities' effort to try and organize these sites into neighborhoods. That interesting idea certainly didn't work out. The way things have gone has stuck with the way the WWW was originally envisioned: structure is induced by the links. Locales are simply cliques of sites that heavily interlink with each other, much like fields of knowledge are induced by authors who read each other and heavily refer to each other. There is a place for making that structure explicit, but it's already well enough handled by giant clearing-house blogs that try to link to every relevant site in an area. There's nothing much left for the self-slotted neighborhoods idea to help.

Again, kudos to the Archive Team for archiving Geocities. Researchers will have a good time in the future looking at these early web sites.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Misunderstanding what "exempt" means

One of the more absurd parts of the current way universities approach ethics review of research is the concept of "exempt". Many projects are categorically considered "exempt" from review because they are so obviously not a risk to humans that there is no need for review. For example, if all you are doing is taking a survey, your research is exempt. If all you do is examine test results in a classroom and draw inferences, your research is exempt.

Nonetheless, it's recommended that universities require review even for research that is exempt from review (emphasis mine):
The regulations do not specify who at an institution may determine that research is exempt under 45 CFR 46.101(b). However, OHRP recommends that, because of the potential for conflict of interest, investigators not be given the authority to make an independent determination that human subjects research is exempt.

This is extraordinary paranoia if taken literally. The non-exempt categories are bad enough. The exempt categories are easy to understand and have even more minimal risks. It's not like someone is going to misjudge whether their project is just giving out surveys when in fact it also involves injecting drugs into the students.

Further, some amount of personal judgment is an unavoidable part of any system of law or regulation. Even if every project is reviewed, who is to interpret the conclusions of the review rulings? Either the researcher has to interpret the rulings, or they need someone to make a further ruling on how to interpret the rulings. Assuming research actually happens, this recursion must cease and the researcher must eventually follow through with turning on a light switch or tying their shoes without directly getting review.

Additionally, how many researchers really comply? For example, looking at test results to draw conclusions about your students is exempt, which therefore means you are supposed to get it reviewed by your IRB. How many people really do this, though? In practice, requiring review of exempt research turns it even more into a system of selection enforcement -- a system that will essentially favor the higher-clout researchers over the lower-clout ones.

The saddest part of all this to me is that there is no one standing up for the advancement of knowledge. The higher-clout researchers have no problems with the extra regulations because they can just ask the reviewers to pass them. This makes it thus a benefit to them, because they can leave competing researchers to be tangled in the cobwebs. Where, in all of this, is anyone that is interested in real learning? I don't see it, and I'm not even sure where would be a good place to start. The inmates are running the asylum.

HT the Institutional Review Blog

Thursday, October 15, 2009

FTC to go after bloggers

The FCC is planning to start cracking down on bloggers who endorse a product without disclosing any interests they have in the product. The Citizen Media Law Project has a good analysis of the FCC's precise plans.

I have some more basic questions about this terrible development. Let me describe the main three.

First, shouldn't a question like this be decided in Congress? We aren't talking about the fine details of what the FCC will go after, but a major new category of speech they are going to limit. I would think such an issue should be decided in Congress. Has that already happened and I simply missed it? Where was the debate? The public consideration?

Second, what is really so special about the Internet version of these activities? I asked the same question about the Communications Decency Act, and I never found a satisfactory answer. Yes, it's terrible to mistreat children, but why do we need new law just because you do it over the Internet? Likewise, we have a carefully developed system for dealing with false advertisement and libel. What precisely should be different about these acts when they involve the Internet?

That raises the third issue. Why do we want a third party, the FCC, to bring these cases? It's a wonderful check on legal abuse when part of the burden of a case is to prove that the accuser has been personally harmed by the accused. It eliminates many frivolous cases, and it allows for meaningful settlements to be worked out. To contrast, if the FCC is supposedly standing up for the public, it's hard for them to make a fair settlement, because they don't really know what the amorphous public would settle for if they were actually asked.

For cases of libel, it seems utterly obvious that the entity who should bring the case is the one who was wrongly discredited by the speech in question. For any other party to do so is pure nosiness. For cases where an advertiser didn't disclose their financial incentives, I grant it's hard to identify who precisely is harmed and should bring the case. For that very reason, however, I don't see the appeal of that sort of law. If no identifiable person is harmed, then let the speakers speak. People who are shills for some corporation will see their reputation discredited rapidly without needing the cops sicked on them.

Overall, it's a historical oddity that the FTC has been allowed to police the content of communication. That's normally not allowed in the U.S., due to the First Amendment, but the FCC argued that broadcast is different because it is pervasive. It was a weak argument to begin with, but it's simply absurd for the Internet and for cable television. Nonetheless, organizations strive to survive, so now we see the FTC trying to maintain this branch of their activity as new forms of communication come out.

We shouldn't allow it. The FTC is supposed to report to the people, via our Congress. I hope Congress decides to exercise their oversight. We shouldn't let our speech rights erode just because the FTC wants something to do with their resources.

Sunday, October 11, 2009

One place you need Java source code rather than Java byte code

For the most part, Java tools work with byte code, not source code. If you dynamically load code in Java, it's byte code you will load. If you write a debugger for Java, the unit of single stepping will be the byte code. When a web browser downloads Java code to run, it downloads a "jar" of byte code. If you optimize Java code, you optimize from jars of byte code to better jars of byte code. If you run Findbugs to find errors in your code, you'll be running it across byte code.

So why not the Google Web Toolkit? One simple reason: GWT emits optimized JavaScript code. Byte code adds two challenges that aren't present for Java source code, yet it doesn't have the interop benefits that people hope for from byte code.

The first problem is that byte code has jumps rather than structured loops. If GWT reads from byte code, it would have to find a way to translate these to JavaScript, which has structured loops but does not have a general jumping instruction. This would be a game of trying to infer loops where possible, and then designing a general-case solution for the remaining cases. It would be a lot of work, and the output would suffer.

The second problem is that byte code does not include nesting expressions. Each byte code does one operation on one set of inputs, and then execution proceeds to the next operation. If this is translated directly to JavaScript, then the result would be long chains of tiny statements like "a = foo(); b = Bar(); c = a + b". It would be a lot of work to translate these back to efficient, nesting expressions like "c = foo() + bar()". Until that work got to a certain sophistication, GWT's output would suffer.

Finally, one must ask what the benefit would be. Certainly it would not be possible to run non-Java languages in this way. For the most part, such languages have at least one construct that doesn't map directly to byte code. In most cases, that mapping uses reflection in some way, and GWT doesn't even support reflection. To support such languages via byte code, GWT would have to reverse engineer what those byte codes came from.

Once you reach the point of reverse engineering the low-level format to infer what was intended in the high-level format, every engineer must ask if we couldn't simply use a higher-level format to begin with.

Monday, October 5, 2009

Comments on old articles

I don't think it is terribly helpful to comment on very old articles. I like blogs with comments because they keep the author honest and because they provide relevant pointers to other readers of the blog. Comments on new articles work well for that. Comments on old articles, however, aren't seen by regular readers of the blog. They are only seen by the blog author and by the other people who commented on the same article. That goal is better served by plain old email.

As such, I am going to reject comments on articles more than a month old, as a matter of policy. I would like to make that automatic, but I don't see how in Blogger's settings. Does anyone know how? For now, I'll just do it manually.

My apologies to people whose comments are dropped by this policy. I do read them, and I take them as a suggestion on what to write about.

Friday, October 2, 2009

Science versus activism

The theories of scientific progress I have read involve attacking theories mercilessly and keeping the simplest ones that stand up. Thus, the rationale for ejecting Mitchell Taylor from the Polar Bear Specialist Group (PBSG) is detrimental to science:

I do believe, as do many PBSG members, that for the sake of polar bear conservation, views that run counter to human induced climate change are extremely unhelpful. [...] I too was not surprised by the members not endorsing an invitation.

Gee, I would think that, for the sake of polar bear conservation, it is important to learn the truth.

On further reading, however, I'm not sure the PBSG is a scientific organization. From skimming their web site, they sounds more like a U.N. committee or an activist group. Such groups try to organize action, not to learn.