The Squirrels Are Watching

Buy Tort Bunnies Schwag

Posted in Fact and Law, Scribbles by andrewfong on March 26, 2010

There are now not one but two places where you can buy Tort Bunnies stuff.

T-Shirt: I shock your conscience. I shock it hard.

Zazzle has been around for a while. Selection is pretty good and given that I wanted to make posters and not deal with CafePress’s premium shop nonsense, that didn’t leave very many alternatives. The value t-shirt option is very cheap, but apart from that, things get very expensive, very quick IMHO. You’re welcome to pay more if you want though — I am charging a percentage-based royalty after all.

MySoti is a newer print-on-demand site. The prices for their American Apparel branded shirts are cheaper than the same at Zazzle’s. Also, word on the Internet is that their print quality is better than Zazzle’s, but they have a rather long turn-around time. Their FAQ says not to call them until after 28 days. The selection is a bit more limited too, hence, why I currently only have three shirt designs up here.

Anyhow, I’m going to wait for feedback and some sample merchandise before passing further judgment. For now, you’re welcome to try your luck buying from either supplier.

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Tort Bunnies is Now Accessible to the Blind

Posted in Code and Tech, Fact and Law by andrewfong on March 24, 2010

Tort Bunnies is now accessible to the visually impaired and anyone else using a screen reader, or at very least, a little less annoying to navigate than before. For those not in the know, the blind can use software that reads web-content aloud to navigate the web. Naturally, this breaks down with certain graphical elements, like web-comic images. I’ve had transcripts of all the comics hidden on the site for a while now for search engines to index, but they weren’t all that inviting to people using screen readers. Some issues that I’ve fixed:

  • The transcript used to include things like “—–” to separate panels of the comic. Screen-readers, however, read this as “dash dash dash dash dash,” which I imagine gets really annoying over time. That’s been replaced with the phrase “next panel.”
  • The transcripts were not clearly marked, and in order to get there, a screen reader would have to jump past the image, notes, and all sorts of markup before getting to the transcript. There is a now a hidden link near the beginning of the page that allows screen-readers to jump straight to the transcript.
  • The alt text and title text were mixed up. They’re separated now.

There are still minor things here and there that might annoy people using screen-readers of course. For example, I use the « and » symbols in a few places as “arrows” pointing left and right. Some screen readers will not read them as arrows however, but as “left double angle bracket” and “right double angle bracket.” I know that might be annoying, but I’m fan of how they look and given that they’re frequently used (see, e.g., Gmail), I think the burden here should actually be on the makers of screen-readers to come up a better textual description of that symbol.
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Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission

Posted in Fact and Law by andrewfong on January 22, 2010

Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission apparently lifted the ban on corporations spending money in support of a candidate. I haven’t read the decision yet, but I have some general thoughts on free speech versus campaign finance reform generally.

On one hand, we don’t limit political speech. It runs contrary to the first amendment. You might say that corporations warrant a special exception, but there’s a lot of “potentially political” speech out there that I think should be protected. The second Star Wars prequel, V for Vendetta, V the TV show, and Avatar all could be construed as not-so-subtle attacks on certain politicians and parties, yet all of these were creative works by corporations worthy of first amendment protection (well, maybe not Attack of the Clones, but the rest are pretty good).

On the other hand, we really don’t want the wealthy being able to buy influence with large contributions. So what do we do?

Traditionally, the way to counter speech you don’t like is to speak up yourself. In the past, it was pretty hard because there was only so much airtime on TV or pages in print media. Today however, it’s really a lot easier. The costs of putting your own 30-second campaign ad on YouTube are trivial. Tools like Digg and Reddit make it easy for people-driven movements to raise awareness or draw attention to your YouTube clip without any of them spending a penny (well, maybe they have to pay for Internet access, but you get the idea).

The reason you can buy influence with money is that speech, the kind that reach large numbers of people, is expensive. As the cost of speech goes down, the influence of wealth does as well.

Yes, today, you’ll probably reach a larger audience with a TV ad than you will with your YouTube clip. That’s likely to change in the next decade or so however. TV (as we know it) will die, and it should die.

So rather than griping about the decision, perhaps activists should spend more time trying to increase broadband access.

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Stop Using Tiananmen Square as a Censorship Test

Posted in Fact and Law by andrewfong on January 13, 2010

I commented on Robert Scoble’s blog in response to Serkan Toto’s use of search results for “Tiananmen Square” on Google.com vs. “天安门广场” on Google.cn to illustrate that some filtering was still up. He’s right, filtering is still up as of now, but that’s a bad search query to illustrate your point. I complained about this earlier with Nicholas Kristof too, and I think this sort of thing illustrates how our preconceived notions about the People’s Republic of China color our view of events there.

I’ve reposted the relevant bits of my comment on Scoble’s blog below:

[U]sing Tiananmen Square as a test query is misleading. Of course “天安门广场” is going to return images of, you know, the actual square! Here are the search results for “天安门广场” in Google.com, which is US-based and uncensored:

http://bit.ly/7C8EsD

Huh, not much there — but this time you can’t blame censorship for it.

Why? Well, English speakers are very likely to associate Tiananmen with the 1989 crackdown, so Google’s search algorithm associates the term “Tiananmen” with images of the tank guy.

On the other hand, for mainland Chinese, “天安门广场” has a meaning outside of the 1989 crackdown. It’s a place, and one that’s smack dab in the middle of Beijing. When someone in China mentions “天安门广场”, they’re probably using it in the context of “there’s a street vendor near the northwest corner of Tiananmen Square selling kites,” not “never forget the people killed here 21 years ago.” Most people on the Internet use it for boring everyday stuff, not to foment dissent over an event a lot of “netizens” are too young to remember. Google’s algorithm picks up on this kind of thing and organically ranks things related directly to the location itself over things related to the one incident that English speakers associate Tiananmen with.

“天安门广场 1989” and “Tiananmen 1989” are probably much better terms for proving your point.

That said, you’re right that Google.cn hasn’t implemented all or some of the de-censoring yet. You can tell, because on the bottom of the search results on Google.cn, you see “据当地法律法规和政策,部分搜索结果未予显示。”

That is, “According to local laws, regulations and policies, some search results are not shown.”

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Google Thinking Twice About China

Posted in Fact and Law by andrewfong on January 12, 2010

Technically, Google is simply saying it’ll “reconsider” its operations in China, but this could be huge.

http://googleblog.blogspot.com/2010/01/new-approach-to-china.html

What I’m interested in how you even handle this whole cyber-warfare issue. Hackers are trying to screw around with your network. This is normally a criminal problem. Yet what if the hackers are sanctioned, either directly or indirectly, by the Chinese government? Is this now a national security issue? Do certain laws go out the door and other ones come in? Whatever we choose, how do you reconcile your choice with how we handle terrorism?

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Copyright Assert Truthy

Posted in Code and Tech, Fact and Law by andrewfong on December 19, 2009

I was poking around in the newly open-sourced Etherpad code, and came across this tidbit.

/**
 * Copyright 2009 Google Inc.
 *
 * Licensed under the Apache License, Version 2.0 (the "License");
 * you may not use this file except in compliance with the License.
 * You may obtain a copy of the License at
 *
 *      http://www.apache.org/licenses/LICENSE-2.0
 *
 * Unless required by applicable law or agreed to in writing, software
 * distributed under the License is distributed on an "AS-IS" BASIS,
 * WITHOUT WARRANTIES OR CONDITIONS OF ANY KIND, either express or implied.
 * See the License for the specific language governing permissions and
 * limitations under the License.
 */

function assertTruthy(x) {
  if (!x) {
    throw new Error("assertTruthy failure: "+x);
  }
}

That’s trunk/etherpad/src/etherpad/testing/testutils.js by the way. So anyhow, as much as I appreciate that is licensed under the Apache License, is “assertTruthy” really creative enough to be worthy of a copyright?

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Proposal: A Public Domain Fund

Posted in Fact and Law by andrewfong on December 17, 2009

Quick idea

Google and various other Silicon Valley entities should create a Public Domain fund. Basic idea is that you submit some creative work (a song, image, etc.) and through the magic of up-down voting, the top X entries win some Y dollars. Only catch is that if you take money from the fund, your work must now be in the public domain.

Rationale

A large number of people and groups depend on there being a robust public domain (or at least things easily redistributable via Creative Commons) — from lip dubs to remixes to fan fiction to mere inspiration, a substantial amount of creative expression takes the form of a derivative work. Whenever I feel the need to Photoshop (or GIMP) something together, I often spend a lot of time on Google Image Search or Flickr looking for source material. I imagine I’m not alone. Much of the derivative work out there gets by on fair use, but there’s definitely a good chunk of it doesn’t (or hovers in some gray area).

Furthermore, obtaining licensing and permissions from the original right holders is a tremendous hassle. There’re legal documents to be signed, dollars to be transferred, and hours to be wasted while you wait for someone to respond to your e-mail. Furthermore, the market value for a lot of these mash-ups is uncertain and probably not worth any licensing fee. More often than not, I’d bet that the creators of derivative works do one of two things: (1) give up on the current project or (2) use the source material without permission.

These derivative work creators would benefit from a large body of public domain works available for use. Now I’m not saying there isn’t already stuff out there. I certainly am usually able to find what I need given enough time, but it’d definitely make things a lot easier if public domain / less restrictive licensing were the norm. A Public Domain Fund would provide an economic incentive for creators to use less restrictive licensing.

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Bing Censoring in China?

Posted in Fact and Law by andrewfong on November 22, 2009

Nicholas Kristof recently put up an article about Bing censoring simplified (mainland) Chinese searches. All of the major search players do this of course, but what’s new is that the censoring happens when if you’re searching from a U.S. IP address (as opposed to within China itself).

Kristof uses Tiananmen (天安门) as his search term, but I think that’s a little ambiguous. Tiananmen Square has a history that stretches well before 1989 (trivia of the day: the 1989 incident was not the first Tiananmen Square incident) and as a popular tourist location, it’s plausible that Bing’s algorithm would turn up lots of friendly-Tianamen-is-a-nice-place-to-visit results.

So let’s try the name of a certain evil cult outlawed in China.

For comparison, here’re the Google results:

Google has 7,490,000 results and Bing has 0? Now that’s implausible.

Interesting notes:

  • Today’s Bing background is of Potola Palace in Tibet, the former home of the Dalai Lama.
  • Google includes traditional Chinese character results in search results using simplified Chinese characters (see the last item in the screenshot above).

What’s the right length of time for copyright and patents?

Posted in Fact and Law by andrewfong on November 14, 2009

One of my issues with copyrights and patents are setup is how arbitrary their length is. Copyrights lasts for your entire life + 70 years. A patent lasts for 20 years. That seems odd to me. The end result of billions of dollars worth of product development can be under protection for a shorter amount of time than some doodle you scribbled on a napkin one afternoon.

Ideally, the length of time a copyright or patent lasts should be tied to market behavior by producers. I’m not sure how’d you make this work, but as a starting point, the market value of a copyrights or patent should correspond roughly to your sunk costs in producing the relevant intellectual property. One you account for those, I feel the law shouldn’t offer any additional protection. You are of course, entitled to try to earn a profit, but your profits should come not from a monopoly but from making a better product than your competitors — and I mean competitors in a very narrow sense. For example, I’d like to choose between book publishers based on factors like the quality of the paper or which ones offer digital copies, as opposed to which one of them managed to snag the exclusive rights to a book first.

I really can’t justify sunk costs as a barometer of the ideal value of a copyright over say, sunk costs + 20%, but it seems to jive from from the standpoint of putting the original content producer on a level playing field with the copycats. If anyone has thoughts on this, I’d be interested in hearing them.

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Gun Manufacturer Liability

Posted in Fact and Law by andrewfong on October 29, 2009

In Torts yesterday, we started on strict products liability. At some point, we touched on the liability of gun manufacturers for the costs of crimes committed with guns. This naturally started up a shitstorm.

First, let’s assume that there is in fact a legitimate public interest in ordinary citizens being able to buy a gun (if there weren’t, then we would be discussing banning guns period, not strict products liability). Given that legitimate interest, my initial reaction was that holding gun manufacturers liable for gun crimes would be horribly unfair. It’d be the equivalent of holdng auto-manufacturers liable for hit and runs. After talking to my modmate Sam though, I think, from an economic efficiency and loss distribution perspective at least, it’s an interesting proposition.

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