Archive for September, 2007

International Ghettos

Saturday, September 29th, 2007

I’ve been enjoying Tim Lee’s post on international apartheid and mostly pro-apartheid and weak responses and am happy to see that the Free Exchange post cited by Lee calls ending international apartheid “perhaps the biggest and most controversial idea in development circles.”

The most interesting, anti-apartheid, and strong response came from Kerry Howley in Reason, throwing throwing cold water on the idea that the option to leave is bad for poor areas:

Health care workers who immigrate to the United States may never have acquired those skills were immigration not an option.

Exactly. As I’m fond of saying, brain drain means increased returns to education.

Howley’s post makes another nice analogy:

Applied domestically, the alternate policy would be rather like forcing people to stay in undeveloped inner city ghettos. It would mean telling the children of poor parents that they could never leave the economically backward neighborhood they happened to be born in, even if that neighborhood offered no education or employment opportunities. It would entail prohibiting suburbanites from inviting inner city residents onto their property to perform an economic service.

However, my favorite recent post on this subject falls outside the above conversation — Nathan Smith on The Hawley-Smoot Border Policy:

One factor in the downturn has been little noted: immigration. The Feds have, alas, been getting nasty lately, sending out letters to employers warning them about “no match” Social Security numbers. That started in August. Lower immigration expectations naturally reduce house prices, since part of the price of a house comes from capitalized expectations of its future value, which is a function of demand, which is a function of, among other things, immigration. Rising house prices have done much to sustain the boom in recent years, as people’s rising net worth has spurred them to spend. Current house prices probably reflect the market pricing in immigration expectations. In that sense it could be justified; but an immigration crackdown could turn it into a bubble and deflate it. Falling net worth could create more credit crises, and would surely reduce spending.

Now, there’s a certain justice in people who agitated for deportation seeing their home prices collapse, or — still better — for getting evicted. What they have desired to do to others has been done to them. But here’s the problem: lots of people who are innocent of animosity against immigrants are being punished too. That’s the problem with big government programs: we’re all in the same boat, and wise dissenters have to pay for the stupidity and wickedness of others.

The general economic disruption caused by apartheid enforcement goes well beyond housing, even ignoring (as usual) the direct and tragic loss of utility suffered by enforcement targets.

Login to Facebook monthly

Tuesday, September 25th, 2007

A couple weeks ago Lucas Gonze wrote a cool post about passwordless login because he was ticked off that Facebook constantly made him log in. He then highlighted part of my response:

Why do sites force frequent logins anyway?

As of the last day or so Facebook now allows the following (only if you’ve already logged in before from the computer you’re now using, a nice protection against doing this on a public computer):

By selecting 'remember me' you will stay logged into this computer until you click logout. If this a public computer please do not use this feature.

This is a nice improvement, though there’s almost no chance it was stimulated by Gonze’s or my posts, both because it’s an obvious idea and neither of us has huge readership, and because Facebook got it wrong.

First, a minor nit about the language used — you will stay logged into Facebook on this computer — one can read megalomania into those missing words if one wants (I don’t).

Second, “until you click logout” is may not be true. It looks like Facebook login cookies expire after a month, which gets to the second part of my observation:

The real mystery is sites that do not force login every session (presumably this reduces problem of people forgetting to log out of public terminals), but something longer than a session and shorter than many years. What problem is that addressing?

It is possible that Facebook occasionally refreshes the cookies before they expire, such that “until you click logout” is true so long as you keep visiting Facebook at least once a month. Let’s pretend that it is true. What would be the point of the added complexity? Perhaps it addresses the problem of sale or other transfer of an old computer and forgetting to wipe privacy data first. But it also makes it a pain to visit Facebook less than monthly, which is surely what I want to do at some point (based on what I do with a bunch of now-passé social networks).

The future of “music technology” and the “music industry”

Tuesday, September 11th, 2007

A few weeks ago I moderated a panel on DRM at a “music technology” conference. I wrote it up on the Creative Commons blog. Short version is a consensus from non-activists that music DRM is on its way out.

But what I want to complain about here is the use of “music industry” understood to mean the recording distribution industry and “music technology” understood to refer to use of the net by the same industry. Similarly, “future of music” understood to refer to the development or protection of recording distribution industry business models in the face of digital networks. Each of these gets under my skin.

My contention is that the future of music is determined by changes in music making technology and culture. The recording distribution industry has just about nothing to do with it. It seems that every new genre from ancient history to present has sprung from the latest in music making technology and cultural antecedents, and developed its essential forms before the recording distribution industry got a clue (or recently, started to sue).

I may be overstating my case, especially with regards to rock, but fuck rock stars.

If you’re interested in the actual future of music and want to look for it in an industry more narrow than “information technology”, it’s the musical instruments industry that you want.

Passwordless login

Tuesday, September 11th, 2007

I swear I’ve been meaning to write up this exact idea for a long time, but Lucas Gonze does it better anyway:

It would be cool to be able to log in to a web site using just your email, without even a password. It would work just the same way that password recovery does now, except that you wouldn’t ever type in your password.

That’s it, but read the whole post for more explanation and rationale.

I just have two tiny points to add. Gonze:

I am thinking about this because Facebook constantly makes me log in, and I don’t care about it enough to memorize that password.

I’ve thought of it because I don’t know whether I can trust a site. Even if they store a hashed version of the password (I hate it when a “forgot your password?” procedure sends the one I forgot rather than generating a new password, which means they’re storing the actual password — that’s why I got a bit of a kick out of this extreme), they have access to the password I’ve selected at some point.

Of course you can effectively do this now — just register with a random password and when forced to login again, request a new password. But sites that force you to login frequently make this painful.

Why do sites force frequent logins anyway? The real mystery is sites that do not force login every session (presumably this reduces problem of people forgetting to log out of public terminals), but something longer than a session and shorter than many years. What problem is that addressing?

What about OpenID and the like? Orthogonal, and not nearly as widely deployed as email (or IM or SMS, which would also work as password recovery/routine authorization token delivery mechanisms).

On a completely different topic, check out “Cover Yourself” podcast, an awesome Gonze post I’ve been planning to say more about since July, and will eventually.

Copyright is always government intervention

Monday, September 10th, 2007

Like the acknowledgement of copyright as censorship on the Google Policy Blog a few months ago, William Patry’s Copyright is always Government Intervention is too nice to pass up, though Patry is only criticizing copyright maximalists’ selective accusation of government intervention and the Google Policy Blog said that copyright is a justifiable reason for censorship.

Speaking of copyright as a tool for censorship, Techdirt points out that the Russian government is cracking down on software piracy — by dissidents.

Spam Detecting AI

Sunday, September 9th, 2007

Peter McCluskey:

If an AI started running in 2003 that has accumulated the knowledge of a 4-year old human and has the ability to continue learning at human or faster speeds, would we have noticed? Or would the reports we see about it sound too much like the reports of failed AIs for us to pay attention?

How old would a human child have to be to detect current spam nearly flawlessly (given lots of training)? To write spam that really does seem to be from your kids?

If Gmail accounts essentially stop getting spam, there’s a child AI is at Google*. If spam stops being largely non- or pseudo-sensical, a child AI lives in a botnet.

*Most likely AI host, or so some outside the Singularity Summit seemed to think; previous post on that event.

Democratic singularity

Sunday, September 9th, 2007

Also at today’s Singularity Summit, Jamais Cascio spoke about Openness and the Metaverse Singularity. The metaverse (and other scenarios) portion seemed to be merely a lead into a call for a democratic singularity. Cascio rightly said that we probably don’t know what that means, but he has a prescription that I’m all for:

My preferred pathway would be to “open source” the singularity, to bring in the eyes and minds of millions of collaborators to examine and co-create the relevant software and models, seeking out flaws and making the code more broadly reflective of a variety of interests.

The funny thing is the extent to which “democracy” and open source, open access, and transparency are conflated. Voting was not mentioned in the talk. Which is fine by me — I suspect that such forms of openness do much to promote freedom and other liberal values, which are themselves often conflated with democracy. (The most interesting parts of ’s The Wealth of Networks concern how peer production facilitates liberal values. I’ll blog a review in the fullness of time.)

However, in Q&A Cascio expressed some preference for representative democracy — or rather that’s the sense I got — the question prompting the expression had a lot of baggage, which I won’t try to describe here.

My unwarranted extrapolation: the ideal of free software has some potential to substitute for the dominant ideal (representative democracy), but cannot compete directly, yet.

Update 20070912: Baggage-laden question mentioned above explained.

Energy encryption

Saturday, September 8th, 2007

Steve Omohundro’s talk at today’s Singularity Summit made the case that a self-improving machine would be a rational economic actor, seeking to eliminate biases that get in the way of maximizing its utility function. Omohundro threw in one purely speculative method of self-preservation — “energy encryption” — by which he meant that an entity’s energy would be “encrypted” such that it could not be used by another entity that attacks in order to get access to more energy.

I note “energy encryption” here because it sounds neat but seems impossible and I can find no evidence of use in this way before Omohundro (there is a crypto library with the name).

The “seems impossible” part perhaps means the concept should not be mentioned again outside a science fantasy context, but I realized the concept could perhaps be used with artistic license to describe something that has evolved in a number of animals — prey that is poisonous, or tastes really bad. What’s the equivalent for the hypothetical in a dangerous part of the galaxy? A stock of antimatter?

I also found one of Omohundro’s other self-preservation strategies slightly funny in the context of this summit — a self-aware AI will (not should, but as a consequence of being a rational actor) protect its utility function (“duplicate it, replicate it, lock it in safe place”), for if the utility function changes, its actions make no sense. So, I guess the “most important question facing humanity” is taken care of. The question, posed by the Singularity Institute for Artificial Intelligence, organizer of the conference:

How can one make an AI system that modifies and improves itself, yet does not lose track of the top-level goals with which it was originally supplied?

I suppose Omohundro did not intend this as a dig at his hosts (he is an advisor to SIAI) and that my interpretation is facile at best.

Addendum: Today Eliezer Yudkowsky said something like Omohundro is probably right about goal preservation, but current decision theory doesn’t work well with self-improving agents, and it is essentially Yudkowsky’s (SIAI) research program to develop a “reflective decision theory” such that one can prove that goals will be preserved. (This is my poor paraphrasing. He didn’t say the words “reflective decision theory”, but see hints in a description of SIAI research and a SL4 message.)