Saturday, March 26, 2011

Weekly News Stash

There have been a large number of blog posts and news stories over the last week that I found interesting, but I didn't have time to blog on each of them individually. Instead, here are the highlights. I've probably missed a bunch of relevant stuff, so please feel free to point them out in the comments.

Libya and Wikileaks

Tom Watson (MP for Bromwich West) posted on his blog to assert that the UN and allied intervention in the Libyan insurgency (or uprising or civil war, depending on your perspective) constitutes "the first Wikileaks war".

Understandably, this development blows the minds of liberals who have stoically supported WikiLeaks as an innovative new international information movement that would almost certainly deflate the interventionist and imperialist tendencies of the big western powers… the smartest pro-transparency analysts have always realized that the revelations the U.S. cables represented would almost certainly lead to unforeseen consequences, if not armed conflict.

I'm not sure I entirely agree that one can entirely lay the blame for the situation at the door of Wikileaks. I believe that the rise of social networking (especially Twitter and Facebook) as well as citizen journalism via blogging and video sharing sites such as YouTube have played as much as an enabling role — or perhaps even more so.

In related news, Bradley Manning, the US serviceman accused of being responsible for the leaking of large amouts of classified US embassy cables (among other materials) has now been incarcerated in solitary confinement and and subjected to routine psychological torture for over 300 days. Whether or not you consider him a criminal and deserving of punishment, I believe that "no-touch torture" is still torture, torture is barbaric and should never occur in a country that considers itself civilised, and that Bradley's rights both to a speedy trial and to be considered innocent until proven guilty have both been brutally violated. Loz Kaye, leader of the Pirate Party UK, gave a very well received speech on the subject at last Sunday's protest outside the US Embassy in Grosvenor Square.

Engagement with the Liberal Democrats

Loz also was recently invited to take part in a panel session on "Who controls the Internet?" at the Liberal Democrat party conference, and subsequently contributed a blog post on the Pirate Party perspective to the Lib Dem Voice blog.

Both his article and the comments are worth a read. In particular, they demonstrate that even within the Lib Dems, opinion is heavily divided on the issues of Internet governance and intellectual property policy and enforcementt. A microcosm of this, of course, can be seen in Parliament; contrast the behaviour Lord Clement-Jones in the Lords and Julian Huppert, MP for Cambridge, in the Commons.

In academia

There have been several interesting news stories from academic research in the last week.

Firstly, a paper from Joel Waldfogel, an economist at the University of Minnesota. He carried out some research into claims by the recording industry that copyright infringement was stopping new music or new artists coming to market, and published a paper on his results, whimsically entitled "Bye, Bye, Miss American Pie?" Not only was he unable to find any evidence that the rise of Napster and peer-to-peer filesharing have resulted in an impact on either, but he also found that there has been a significant shift from the major labels to independent labels in the releasing of new music. (More coverage from Michael Geist, TorrentFreak and Techdirt).

The 1709 blog reported on a talk given by Professor Paul Heald entitled "Do bad things happen when works fall into the public domain?". In particular he debunked both the assertion that falling into the public domain will lead to underusage of works, and that it will result in the devaluation of works. I note that he's published on the subject, and I'm going to try to get hold of his papers, as they sound like they will be interesting reading.

From the London School of Economics there came a highly critical report on the deservedly-maligned Digital Economy Act 2010, called "Creative Destruction and Copyright Protection." In particular, it has this to say:

The DEA gets the balance between copyright enforcement and innovation wrong. The use of peer-to-peer technology should be encouraged to promote innovative applications. Focusing on efforts to suppress the use of technological advances and to protect out-of-date business models will stifle innovation in this industry.

Another article critical of the DEA has been published by William Dutton at the University of Oxford. Called "Aiming at Copyright Infringers and Hitting the Digital Economy", it argues strongly that the Act will not only not achieve its stated objectives, but will in fact have several negative effects. The article actually mentions the Pirate movement, and quotes from the PPUK manifesto!

It's nice to see academia providing some objective criticism of the oft-repeated claims of the copyright industries — claims which so far no independent research has been able to substantiate or reproduce, despite how often they crop up.

In the courts

The High Court hearings for the judicial review of the aforementioned Digital Economy Act are currently taking place. They started last Wednesday, and are expected to conclude sometime next week. Will Tovey has posted some commentary on the Pirate Party UK blog. Summary: no matter what the outcome, the result is almost certain to be appealed, and it's quite likely to go all the way to the European Court of Justice, meaning that we could be looking at a couple of years before the final outcome is decided.

The big headline his week is that a selection of record labels are suing the company behind the Limewire filesharing software for a total of 75 trillion US dollars (to be precise, $ 7.5x1013) in statutory damages. To put that into perspective, the GDP of the entire world is only $75.5 trillion, and the global money supply is only approx. $50 trillion. It would therefore be accurate to say that Limewire is being sued for all the money in the world. I consider this excellent evidence for the fact that the statutes are wrong. This Slashdot comment was the best take on the ridiculous situation that I've read so far.

Now how in the hell does that promote "progress of the arts and sciences"? Answer: it doesn't, it is simply a way for a "leecher class" to make eternal checks off locking up the entire culture of a race. How many works have already been lost simply because nobody could legally make a copy and the copyright holders couldn't figure out a way to "monetize the IP" and just let it rot?

That's it for this week. Hopefully next week there won't be quite so many items that I'm desperate to share with the world!

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Survey on "Open Standards in the Public Sector"

The Cabinet Office is currently carrying out a survey on "Open Standards in the Public Sector". The widespread use of open standards in government would be a major step forward for the UK, both in terms of stimulating innovation in the IT sector by lowering barriers for entry in the public sector, and in terms of ensuring that everybody is able to use and interact with UK government online services without being required to use a particular software platform or limited set of platforms.

Two areas of the survey were of particular interest to me: the opening section on defining what exactly an "open standard" is, and the section on standards that are being evaluated for computer workstations. The survey, however, covers a huge array of areas for possible standardisation in IT (for example, content syndication, e-voting, web services and VoIP), and there's lots of scope for people with domain-specific knowledge to contribute on the areas that they're most familiar with.

I encourage everyone who is interested in seeing increased adoption of open standards in governmental IT procurement to take part in this survey — and in particular, to encourage the UK to standardise on PDF and OpenDocument rather than Microsoft's bought-and-paid-for non-standard, Office "Open" XML.

What is an open standard?

The survey outlines five conditions for an open standard that the government proposes:

1. Open standards are standards which result from and are maintained through an open, independent process.

Open standards need not necessarily result from an open and independent process -- as a classic example, the Internet Protocol and Transmission Control Protocol (TCP/IP) on which the Internet is based were developed behind closed doors by a small working group at Stanford in the early 1970s. However, I would agree that the success of TCP/IP as an open standard has very much depended on the fact that it has been maintained by an open and independent organisation (the IETF).

2. Open standards are standards which are approved by a recognised specification or standardisation organisation, for example W3C or ISO or equivalent.

There are two sources of concern with this condition. Firstly, it is unclear who maintains the list of "recognised" specification or standardisation organisations, nor how such an organisation can become "standardised", and greater clarity would be appreciated. Secondly, the ISO in particular operates extremely slowly, and waiting for ISO standardisation of an already-widely-used open standard may well hamper flexibility and responsiveness in government procurement. However, in principle this condition seems a sensible one.

3. Open standards are standards which are thoroughly documented and publicly available at zero or low cost.

This is an essential condition. If a standard's documentation cannot be be easily and inexpensively obtained, it provides a serious barrier to individuals, small companies and community organisations that wish to implement and use that standard.

4. Open standards are standards which have intellectual property made irrevocably available on a royalty free basis.

This condition is important in order to avoid the risk that corporations with intellectual property interests in a standard wait until the standard has widespread adoption before introducing or substantially increasing royalties.

5. Open standards are standards which as a whole can be implemented and shared under different development approaches and on a number of platforms.

This is the key condition, and cuts to the heart of the reason open standards are needed. Some standards organisations require at least two independent, full implementations of a standard to exist before adopting the standard, and I would commend this approach to the Government.

Standards for computer workstations

Many of the standards listed in this section of the survey are sadly nothing of sort were not open, and many of them weren't standards either. Highlights that I particularly enjoyed included:

  • The presence of .doc, .xls and .ppt files as a "standard", and inclusion of Microsoft's Office Open XML, which is hardly "open".
  • HTML as an document format for presentations and spreadsheet data.
  • A section on video/animation formats that included no open standards whatsoever, and included .swf files (neither open nor standardised) twice.
  • It was heartening, however, to see Open Document Format listed, along with Unicode and UCS (although why Unicode isn't already mandatory is beyond me).

Thursday, March 17, 2011

Beef shin hotpot

The cheesecake I described in my last blog post was absolutely delicious!

I enjoy eating beef, but the most well-known cuts are quite expensive. Shin is a less-commonly used cut (you probably won't find it in Sainsbury's), but is still delicious in stews and hotpots as long as you cook it correctly! Ask for it at the butcher or at a farmers' market. Here's a shin hotpot I enjoy making — this recipe serves 4-6.

  • 450 g shin of beef, boned and diced
  • 2 tbsp sherry vinegar
  • 1 tbsp plain flour
  • 6 pork sausages
  • 450 g potatoes
  • 1 dessert (eating) apple
  • 2 tomatoes
  • 1 onion
  • 450 ml beef stock

Put the beef and vinegar in a bowl, and cover with clingfilm. Marinate for an hour, stirring occasionally. This softens and tenderises the meat.

Pre-heat the oven to 160 °C. Thinly slice the potatoes, apple, tomatoes and onion, and cut the sausages into chunks.

Drain the beef, and (optionally) pat it dry with paper towels. Toss the sausage and beef pieces in the flour.

In a large casserole dish, start building the hotpot with layers of sliced vegetables and meat:

  1. 1/3 of the potatoes
  2. 1/2 of the apple, tomato, and onion
  3. 1/2 of the sausages and beef
  4. 1/3 of the potatoes
  5. The rest of the apple, tomato and onion
  6. The rest of the meat
  7. A top layer of potatoes (make sure you keep enough back from the previous layers to cover the casserole fully!

Give the dish a little shake to help the casserole settle, and add the stock (it should come about halfway up the casserole).

Cover and cook in the oven for 2 1/2 hours. For the last 10-15 minutes, take the lid off and turn the oven up to 200 °C to allow the top layer of potatoes to crisp up.

Serve in bowls, with plenty of the stock. Leftovers keep really well in the fridge!