Cory Doctorow of the EFF at the Open University

Just got back from a visit to England, where I saw Boing Boing blogger Cory Doctorow give a lively speech at the Open University. The OU crowd actively encouraged everyone to surf the web and twitter responses and questions during the speech:

When Cory Doctorow talked at the Open University today, the audience in the room was supplemented by a more widespread group who were watching the live webcast. Throughout his talk, the extended audience was discussing, reacting to, reporting and referencing what was said. By the end of the session, Cory was responding to a question that had been passed by a group of students to their tutor, who had Twittered it to someone in the room, who asked the question of Cory and then Twittered the answer back down the line.

Doctorow, former European Affairs point-man for the Electronic Frontier Foundation, spoke on the topic of whether the information revolution would make us slaves or masters. He's a fluent public speaker, who weaved in references to science fiction writers (he writes SF himself) — and even Chekhov! I'd never heard Doctorow speak before, so for those of you who also haven't, here are a few themes he touched on:

  • Technology can free us! It can be used to evade regulations in repressive societies. Cellphone networks can spontaneously organize protests, national firewalls can be breached, secret documents can be leaked online.
  • Technology can enslave us! Britain's eerily comprehensive CCTV network records your every move, laws allow authorities to "ghost" the hard-drives of anyone whom they suspect of wrongdoing, and RFID identity badges pose a host of dangers.
  • It's important to understand these dangers aren't just from wholesale government repression — many supposedly secure identity cards or RFID badges can be hacked and falsified by evildoers.
  • Governments shouldn't be able to gather vast secret databases of information, for two main reasons. First, government employees will always give in to the temptation to snoop around in them for private / illicit purposes. Second, the state is always slower and dumber than hackers, so " top secret" databases can and will be breached by third parties.
  • The private sector also wants to encroach on your ability to use your devices as you wish. Top-heavy networks of lobbyists and government officials are designing new, intrusive regimes of "digital rights management" even as we speak. To them, every new way you can use digital media is a "right" that they want to figure out how to charge for.
  • Although these policy meetings are technically open to the public, there are huge barriers to learning what's really going on. Legal changes that dramatically affect your ability to use your DVD player, for instance, are often cloaked in such thick layers of legalese/bureaucratese that ordinary citizens are completely unaware they've happened.
  • That's where bloggers come in! Doctorow told an amusing story of showing up at a European conference (g) of the World Intellectual Property Organization and basically derailing it by "decoding" the delegates' bureaucratese via live-blogging, exposing hidden agendas and conflicts that eventually derailed the agreement the conference was supposed to produce.
  • To the inevitable question of how artists are supposed to make money, Doctorow said cheap, low-entry-cost digital media are destroying the $300 million movie and blockbuster CD, and that's a good thing. There's plenty of music out there and plenty of experimentation going on. New media and piracy pose a danger to the blockbuster model of media production, but that model's outdated, and the new media themselves create a whole host of new experimental opportunities.

The speech was being webcast live, so I'm sure a copy of it is saved somewhere. Doctorow skipped around a bit and used lots of charmingly nerdy expressions like "I've blown my buffer," but did hold your attention. He radiated a cheerful optimism about the promise of technology, and about the ability of citizens to fight back against its more sinister uses. I'm not really sure I share quite so much optimism. I also thought Doctorow's comments about the future of media were a bit breezy. Doctorow and the sort of people he hangs around with probably don't care much about mainstream music and movies, but there are plenty of people who do, and who want to see the business model that generates movies they like survive.

Overall, though, the speech was thought-provoking. Lots of the questions were twittered in. One day I'll have to sit down and learn what this "twitter" thing all the kids are talking about is…

Is Europe Still in Denial?

Here's an interview with Simon Johnson, former chief economist of the IMF, in which he claims Europe is still "in denial" (4:55) about the extent of the looming financial crisis:

In the New York Times, Johnson says:

"It’s one big trans-Atlantic money market out there, and these banks lend money to each other all the time," said Simon Johnson, another veteran of the monetary fund who is a now a professor at the Sloan School of Management at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. "Deutsche Bank and UBS and Goldman Sachs and Citi are all intertwined."

For Mr. Johnson and other students of financial history, the latest developments in Europe — especially in Austria, whose banking industry is heavily exposed to its Eastern neighbors — raise eerie parallels with the 1930s. Mr. Johnson notes that it was the failure of a Viennese bank, Creditanstalt, in 1931 that was a turning point in what became the Great Depression.

And in other news, Britain's Telegraph newspaper reported: "according to a confidential Brussels document," European banks are sitting on on 16.3 trillion in toxic assets (mainly from Eastern Europe). The Telegraph then apparently removed the specific figure in later online editions: 

The Telegraph released this information including the 16.3 trillion pound figure only to have second thoughts about it for some undisclosed reason. They then changed the article without changing the URL title and also without this sleight of hand escaping readers. The original article title made its way onto Digg and into the mainstream consciousness.

I don't have much to add here, I just thought I'd pass this along.

Prisons and Punishment in the U.S. and Europe

Warning: this post is slightly wonkish. John Pfaff, a professor at Fordham Law School, lists some myths about prison growth in the United States:

Myth No. 4: In the past three decades, we've newly diverged from the rest of the world on punishment. Given that our incarceration rate before the mid-1970s is one-seventh the rate of today, it is easy to think that we're suddenly acting like outliers. But the fact is that American views on punishment have been harsher than Europe's since the birth of this country (although politicians may overestimate the extent to which they must be tough on crime to win elections). More strikingly, if we look back historically at the lockup rate for mental hospitals as well as prisons, we have only just now returned to the combined rates for both kinds of incarceration in the 1950s. In other words, we're not locking up a greater percentage of the population so much as locking people up in prisons rather than mental hospitals. Viewed through this lens, what seems remarkable is not the current era of mass incarceration but the 1960s and '70s, during which we emptied the hospitals without filling the prisons. Any reform agenda that does not acknowledge the ingrained nature of our punitive impulses will surely fail.

His prescription for reform:

…We need to stop admitting many minor offenders, even if they're serving only short sentences. We need to focus less on high-profile drug statutes and more on the ways small-fry drug convictions cause later crimes to result in longer sentences. Once we start admitting fewer people to prison, we should shift money from prisons to police. If this seems like tinkering, rather than a sweeping fix, that's because it is. See Myth No. 4: Reformers shouldn't waste their breath trying to turn us into Europe.

I'm always interested in comparative criminal-justice — in fact, I'm writing a book about it now. I have two observations about Pfaff's comparisons of the U.S. and Europe. He's right that European attitudes toward crime seem to be somewhat less punitive than American attitudes. But they're not much less punitive. Europeans have "ingrained punitive impulses" too. You need only read a few issues of a tabloid like Bild in Germany to determine that there are millions of ordinary citizens who would love to see much stricter punishment of criminals.

But what Pfaff downplays is the huge gap in incarceration in the U.S. and Europe since the 1980s. Briefly put, the incarceration rate in most European societies has inched up or remained steady since the early 1980s (depending on the country), but has exploded in the U.S. That is a huge difference in policy outcomes. The main difference between the U.S. and Europe, and one that I find curiously under-studied (hence my book), is that average European voters — unlike their American counterparts — have almost no influence over their nations' criminal-justice policies. 

Let me state a general case. In the UK and almost every European nation, serious crime is always regulated by one nationwide penal code. These penal codes were written by commissions of experts (law professors, criminologists, sociologists). They are updated relatively rarely, and then only by the national legislature. When the legislature does want to update the penal code, it will usually turn to a similar commission of experts for advice. Thus, penal code reforms are infrequent, incremental, and subject to expert screening and approval, whether formal or informal.

In the U.S., by contrast, criminal lawmaking is done on a state-by-state basis, and politicians are directly responsive to the public's desire for harsher punishment. After a string of robberies, a state legislator will draft a law doubling prison sentences for robbery, and then immediately introduce it onto the floor of the state legislature (since American criminal law is made on a state-by-state basis). If the law gets the approval of 51% of the other legislators, it's part of the penal code. There will be no expert commission, in fact, the legislator will usually not even bother to consult a law professor. In many states, citizens can directly enact criminal laws by popular referendum.

I know, I know — many European politicians grandstand with tough-on-crime rhetoric. But if you carefully examine the actual changes in the law that follow the rhetoric, they either never happen, or they consist of minor tinkering around the edges of th existing legal framework. Europe has gotten somewhat more punitive recently, but has not seen the kind of drastic, Draconian laws that the U.S. has enacted.

To sum up: the big difference between the U.S. and Europe is not what average voters think about crime and punishment, but rather how much direct influence he or she has over the government's penal policies. In the U.S., they often have quite a bit; in Europe, they have almost none.

“Tastes Like the Rising Sun of Anatolia”

A quick bleg for my beloved readers: last night, a bunch of friends were discussing a movie, made in Turkey in the mid-1980s, which depicts a Turkish guy who "steals" a German police uniform and goes around pretending to be a cop. At one point, he's offered a drink of raki, a Turkish anise schnapps. He tastes it, and says: "Ahh. It tastes like the rising sun of Anatolia."

I have been advised in no uncertain terms to watch this movie, but none of my friends could remember its name. Little help?

Foreign Books in the U.S.

Aviya Kushner on the fate of translations of foreign authors in the U.S.:

To be fair, it is not the worst of times for literary translation in America. Publishers of works in translation say that since 9/11, more Americans are worried about the cost of isolation, and it is easier to attract funding and media attention. The National Endowment for the Arts has expanded funding for translation fellowships, and more universities are offering translation courses. Publishing houses devoted to translation and new translation imprints are on the rise. In 2005, PEN launched its World Voices Festival, an annual affair in New York that showcases international writers, and independent booksellers began a project called Reading the World, committing to display 25 books of literature in translation during the month of June. The organization Words Without Borders, which translates, publishes, and promotes international literature through its online magazine and other channels, was established in 2003.

Still, the road ahead probably won’t be easy, for translators or their publishers. As the demand for translations in the United States is still low, smaller publishers often struggle to break even. Typical sales of 2,000 to 3,000 copies simply don’t cover the costs of securing rights, printing, salaries, translator fees, and overhead. Universities, foundations, and foreign governments often help to fund the publication of books in translation, in the absence of thousands of readers willing to pay $15 to $25 for a translated book. Translators’ fees remain paltry, and most American translators have a day ­job—­professor, journalist, or even novelist. Saul Bellow, after all, translated the Isaac Bashevis Singer story “Gimpel the Fool” into English in 1953, lending Singer instant literary credibility in the English-reading world.

Three Names Bad

The German government's power to regulate the names of its citizens has been a topic on this blog so many times, I'm thinking of giving it its own category.

Germany's Federal Constitutional Court will soon decide whether Germans are allowed to have three hyphenated last names. The case involves a lawyer and a dentist. The male lawyer already has a double name, which the woman wants to take on. However, she also wants to keep her own name in the mix, since she runs her dental practice under her own name.

The problem for the couple is that according to a 1994 law, Germans are generally allowed to have a maximum of two hyphenated last names. The couple's lawyer claims that the ban on having more than two last names violates the German Basic Law's protection of marriage and family, among other provisions. Germany's SPD Justice Minister, Birgitte Zypries, defends the ban (g) arguing that without it, people could string together 'unlimited' chains of last names. Names are about more than "self-realization," she says — they're also necessary for identification and record-keeping.

The last (priceless) paragraph points us to yet another cultural difference between Northern and Latin Europe:

Zuck [the couple's lawyer] pointed to the practice in other European countries — especially in Portugal, the country with the longest chains of names. There, the long names cause no problems. The plantiff, an attorney from Munich, was married to an Italian woman who — despite already having four last names — took on his double-name as well. The six-part name chain was accepted by the Italian authorities.

I have to say, I'm on the side of the couple here. My response to Zypries' point about unlimited last names is…so what? I would presume that anyone who would do this would have a pretty good reason to do it, as the couple in the lawsuit seem to have. It's probably a pain in the neck to have a lot of last names, so I have a hard time imagining anyone doing it just for fun.

Am I missing something here?  

German Word of the Week: Lichterloh


The one nice thing you can say about forest fires is that they bring mention of one of my favorite German words, lichterloh. Lichterloh is an adverb almost always used in conjunction with the verb "burn," and indicates that something is completely consumed in flames.

Lichterloh is one of those odd orphan words with few relatives in its language — something like 'disgruntled' in English. Lichter means 'lights,' which would seem to have something to do with fire, but nobody is really sure where the rare suffix 'loh' comes from, except that it may be a color. And lichterloh is not only exotic, but easy on the ears. The 'ch' in the middle is the special German 'ch', a breathy consonant is located about halfway between the English 'h' and 'ch,' and you can savor the long 'oh' at the end.

Sensible Canadians

Via Kevin Drum, Fareed Zakaria praises Canadian policy as more sensible than both the U.S. and Europe:

So what accounts for the genius of the Canadians? Common sense. Over the past 15 years, as the United States and Europe loosened regulations on their financial industries, the Canadians refused to follow suit, seeing the old rules as useful shock absorbers. Canadian banks are typically leveraged at 18 to 1—compared with U.S. banks at 26 to 1 and European banks at a frightening 61 to 1. Partly this reflects Canada’s more risk-averse business culture, but it is also a product of old-fashioned rules on banking.

Canada has also been shielded from the worst aspects of this crisis because its housing prices have not fluctuated as wildly as those in the United States. Home prices are down 25 percent in the United States, but only half as much in Canada. Why? Well, the Canadian tax code does not provide the massive incentive for overconsumption that the U.S. code does: interest on your mortgage isn’t deductible up north.

Duck Drivers Die Like Men

The very simple Citroën 2CV (g) is affectionately called "The Duck" in German. This website, "the alleged car," compiles much mockery honor and integrity of the "deux chevaux" (and other, similar jalopies). But the duck's German fans aren't intimidated by the skeptics:

Entenfahrer sterben wie Maenner

The script at the top reads: "Screw airbags — screw anti-lock-brakes. 'Duck' drivers die like men!"  Which, as it happens, you could sing to the tune of 'Elton John's Sad Songs Say so Much', if you were so inclined.

Darwin and the Acrid Fluid

I heard this anecdote today in German on a show (Zeitzeichen) dedicated to Darwin on his birthday, and thought it was too nice not to pass on:

“One day, on tearing off some old bark, I saw two rare beetles, and seized one in each hand; then I saw a third and new kind, which I could not bear to lose, so that I popped the one which I held in my right hand into my mouth. Alas! it ejected some intensely acrid fluid, which burnt my tongue so that I was forced to spit the beetle out, which was lost, as was the third one.”

Catholics and Evolution

If plenty of Austrians doubt evolution, you probably can’t lay that at the feet of the Catholic Church, since the Church generally has no problem with evolution, as the Archbishop of Westminster notes in a newspaper column called In praise of Darwin:

If we see [science and religion] as fundamentally opposed – science endangering and undermining faith, or faith obstructing knowledge – then distortions are produced on both sides. For example, some Christians argue for “Young Earth Creationism” or Intelligent Design as an alternative to evolutionary theory. Creationism is the belief that the biblical stories of Creation as described in the Book of Genesis are literally true.

Is genuine Christianity obliged to adopt any of these positions? No, it is not. Belief in creation is not equivalent to any one of them. It is a mistake to treat the theology of creation in the Book of Genesis as a scientific textbook.