crypto and public policy
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The Paris Riots – Of Root Causes and Public Order

Filed under: General November 5, 2005 @ 3:40 pm

“But if you look at the streets it wasn’t about Rodney King,
It’s bout this fucked up situation and these fucked up police.
It’s about coming up and staying on top
and screamin’ 187 on a mother fuckin’ cop.”
— Lyrics from “April 26, 1992”, by Sublime

A friend gently poked me yesterday to write about the Paris Riots. I’ve lived about half my life in France, and half my life in the US, so this is obviously a topic of involved discussion. To many (and in a way, even to me), these riots came out of nowhere. In retrospect, of course, they’re not entirely surprising. In these riots, and in the government’s response, lies one of the major differences between France and the US. How should one respond to violence? Through the exploration of root causes? Through the swift reestablishment, by extreme force if necessary, of public order?

The Riots

Some wingnuts would like you to believe that the riots are indicative of a massive failure of french socialism, what with the high unemployment, bureaucracy, etc… Yet the LA riots were far more destructive and deadly.

Others are calling this a French Intifada, some massive showdown between secularism and religious extremism. Yet the ridiculous anti-science movement in the US that promotes Intelligent Design, fights against stem cell research, and struggles to keep the Plan B contraceptive off the shelves seems far more effective in its religious extremism.

No, the one who gets it right is Atrios:

France treats its immigrant populations (which include, of course, 2nd and 3rd generation “immigrants”) like shit.

In my experience, that is exactly right. Racism runs deep in French society. I’m often shocked, on my various trips back to France, by the off-the-cuff racist remarks. The unemployment rates within these ethnic minorities is telling: more than twice the national average. Clearly, there’s an education problem, but, just as clearly, there’s discrimination by employers.

The cause of these riots is none other than disenfranchisement. The French have failed to integrate various ethnic minorities because they’ve insisted on maintaining a rigid, French monoculture. As has been well studied, in France, you’re either French quite a few generations back, or an immigrant.

Now the question is: what’s the government to do? And this is where it gets interesting.

The Response

Nicolas Sarkozy, the Minister of the Interior, has unapologetically called the rioters “thugs.” Supposedly, the riots got worse as a result of his comments. Immediately, the Communist and Socialist parties called for Sarkozy’s resignation and for the police to withdraw from troubled areas in order to stop the “provocation.”

This is typical of the French Left ivory-tower elitist reasoning. These people think incredibly carefully about root cause, to the detriment of justice here and now. The Palestinians have suffered greatly, thus their bombing of innocent civilians is understandable. Jose Bove destroys a McDonald’s restaurant, but since he means well, he should not be punished. Young people burn 1200 cars in one night, but since they’re disenfranchised, we should look the other way and hope for the best.

That is the trap of over-intellectualizing the issue. At the end of the day, these disenfranchised people still burned cars, cars that belonged to their equally-poor neighbors. Do these neighbors deserve no protection?

Of course, the US Right Wing is guilty of the opposite crime. It’s all about immediate justice. Shoot first, ask questions later. If you even consider the possible root causes of terrorism (say, for example, the invasion of a sovereign Arab country), you’re a traitor, you’re “with the terrorists.” The terrorists are evil, they are wrong, there can be no logic to their actions. We must kill them all. You’re either with us, or against us.

That is the trap of under-thinking the issue. There are root causes, and there are lessons to learn about how our actions today affect violence, terrorism, and the state of the world 20 years from now.

Interestingly enough, Nicolas Sarkozy is the one politician who’s proposed and implemented a harsh response to the riots while being a long-standing proponent of American-style integration, with programs like affirmative action. This is a man who, it seems, understands that the riots require two reactions: reestablishing public order in the short term, and planning structural solutions for the long term.

There cannot be one without the other. The French Left and the American Right, it seems, have a lot to teach one another.

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Talk About Denial

Filed under: General November 4, 2005 @ 8:13 am

Right about now, CNN’s US homepage features the riots in Paris. Meanwhile, Le Monde’s front page features the secret CIA prisons in eastern Europe. I guess we’re all the same: denial, denial, denial, focus on someone else’s issues.

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It’s the coverup… duh.

Filed under: General October 28, 2005 @ 4:19 pm

So Libby is indicted, and the politicians and pundits are already saying “it’s never the original scandal, it’s the coverup” that gets politicians in trouble. That may well be true, but it misses something truly fundamental about the flow of information from politicians to the public. It assumes that the public learns fairly rapidly about every scandal, either through admission or investigation. I just don’t think that’s the case.

In other words, I suspect most politicians have a number of skeletons in their closet, a number of potential scandals. Do you expect them to admit to all of them? No, of course not. Politicians all have scandals (of varying degrees, of course, some much worse than others), and they all cover them up. Except every now and then, some coverup gets investigated, and the shit hits the fan.

So it’s not surprising that politicians get in trouble for the coverup. Every scandal they have, they’re covering up. A politician that doesn’t cover up a scandal? Now that would be surprising.

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On Evolution and the Moral Compass

Filed under: General October 20, 2005 @ 10:14 am

“If you are nothing but an accident of nature, then nothing you do is dependent on objective truth,” he says. “You can set your own rules. There is no life after death. There are no set moral codes. If you go to bed, and if you die its OK, you’re just another piece of matter bouncing around and you’ll change into something else. That’s why, even if 100 million scientists say we are unplanned, that we’re just purposeless beings in this universe, the general population won’t buy it. And neither will I.”

“What is science, and what is not science, is merely a convention,” he says. “It can be challenged and changed at will by scientists themselves. And scientists are the products of their culture, too.”

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“The French Are The Enemy!”

Filed under: General October 19, 2005 @ 2:01 am

What perfect timing. A few days ago, I claimed that rabid, irrational, anti-French ranting is a good litmus test of crazy extreme right-wingers. Tonight on the Daily Show, Bill O’Reilly (yes, Bill O’Reilly on the Daily Show) says “The French! How can you like the French! They’re the enemy!” And later “What are you, from Marseilles? Oh, yes, geeve mee some more wine!!”

I rest my case.

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La Cigarette

Filed under: Policy October 17, 2005 @ 8:58 am

On days when I’m truly bored, I cruise the conservative blogs.. you know the ones whose sole disagreement with the Bush administration is that Harriet Miers isn’t conservative enough. I’ve found one interesting pattern, which surely many have noticed: a good red flag that a blog is nutty is an unprovoked, instinctive, and consistent ridiculing of France. There was a plot to bomb the Paris subway? That’ll teach the French! It’s quite funny, really. Like a wingnut litmus test.

That said, there are, of course, plenty of good reasons to criticize the French, just as there are plenty of reasons to criticize other nations for their mistakes. The one issue that continued to boggle my mind on my recent trip to Paris is the French’s insane attitude towards smoking. There’s simply no way to evade the second-hand smoke. Though restaurants have mandatory non-smoking sections since 1991, there seems to be either no regulation or enforcement on isolating that non-smoking section in any way: in all likelihood, the non-smoking section is a single table squeezed between two smoking sections.

It’s more than just regulation, too: it’s the fact that so many French people actually smoke (more than 30%). A smoking section is always packed with smokers. For a country that prides itself on a strong, community-focused health system, it’s a bit of a contradiction. After all, there’s a certain amount of irony to sitting at a cafe, discussing the potential ill effects of genetically modified foods, all the while blowing well known carcinogens in everyone’s face.

Finally, there’s some legislative movement towards banning smoking in public spaces. It’s about time.

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An Inspiration, Every Time

Filed under: Policy October 3, 2005 @ 11:27 am

I’m back from a few weeks away, and what better way to start than to witness Hal Abelson – one of the most inspiring speakers I know – give a talk on open architectures for education – a most important topic in today’s world of increasingly intellectual-property-centric world. I’m sitting in a lecture hall, hearing this lecture for the second time, and it’s just as inspiring, just as deep and meaningful as it was the first time.

Go watch it, all 45 minutes of it. It’s worth every second if you care about science, about the creation and dissemination of knowledge.

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Just Give.

Filed under: General September 1, 2005 @ 6:11 pm

In a few weeks, we can discuss Bush’s responsibility, global warming, whether it’s a good idea to live in New Orleans, and all sorts of other long-term issues that will be important to consider.

But for now, give money to help the recovery effort. That’s all.

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And They Say They’re Looking Out for the Artists

Filed under: General August 11, 2005 @ 2:59 am

The record companies always claim that they’re looking out for the artists, just trying to make sure that the little guys get proper compensation for their music. The major flaw in this claim is that no single record company is purely a record company anymore. Most of the record companies have conflicting business interests: they control the distribution channels, or they produce music devices.

For if they were really just record companies, they would be in love with all the new fantastic music delivery channels. Instead, the record companies have to worry about new technology cannibalizing their existing stranglehold on the entire music vertical.

That’s exactly the problem that Sony faces: it’s a record company, but it also produces music players. So when Apple launches iTunes in Japan, Sony Records stalls the agreement to sell on iTunes, and individual artists are forced to break their contract in order to get listed on iTunes.

What record company in its right mind would stall a license deal to sell its music on the online delivery channel that is literally 15 times more successful than the second most successful competitor? A record company with a serious conflict of interest, that’s who.

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Helping Out John Dvorak

Filed under: General July 20, 2005 @ 10:48 am

John Dvorak criticizes Creative Commons, calling it “one of the dumbest initiatives ever put forth by the tech community.” The thing is, just about every complaint John has about Creative Commons is based on erroneous information. Also, John seems very confused. He starts by saying that Creative Commons places more restrictions, and ends his column by saying that Creative Commons “weakens the copyrights you have coming to you.”

Since John begins his article with the question “Will someone explain to me the benefits of [this] trendy system,” sure, John, I’ll help you out and hopefully clarify a few things.

What does Creative Commons offer?

At its core, Creative Commons offers a set of licenses that copyright owners can use when distributing their works. These licenses automatically give users a certain number of rights not granted under default copyright. For example, if I want to allow anyone to redistribute this blog entry, I simply apply a Creative Commons license to it (in fact, you can see the logo at the bottom of the page). If I did nothing, other users would not have the right to redistribute my blog entry in its entirety. With a Creative Commons license, users know that they automatically have permission. There’s no need to ask.

And Creative Commons goes out of its way to make things as simple as possible. On top of the license text, Creative Commons provides a human-readable description of the license, so that mere mortals may understand what’s going on, as well as a machine-readable description of the license, so that our digital computer friends may automatically detect the extra rights that come along with a Creative-Commons-licensed work.

The only thing that’s complicated in this story is copyright law. Creative Commons simply makes ready-to-use licenses that allow copyright owners to share their works on their terms, without hiring an expensive lawyer.

But aren’t there Conditions?

The author of the work may indeed apply certain conditions to the license. For example, you can’t reprint this blog entry without giving me credit. I could have chosen a slightly different Creative Commons license that would give users these same rights, but only when the republication of my blog is for non-commercial purposes.

All of these conditions are at the discretion of the copyright owner, of course.

Ahah, so Dvorak is right: you are killing fair use!

Simply put, no.

Creative Commons is a method of licensing rights that copyright owners control to begin with. For example, fair use does not give you the right to reprint this blog entry in full. That’s why I use a Creative Commons license: to give you, the reader, more rights than fair use.

In fact, Creative Commons is crystal clear on the idea that all existing rights of users are to be respected. Every Creative Commons license deed, which is the page linked from every Creative Commons logo out there on the web, says in bold:

Your fair use and other rights are in no way affected by the above.

So, to be extra clear: if you want to write a parody of my blog, quote a small chunk of it, or otherwise exercise your fair use rights, go for it, and don’t bother giving me credit. I have zero control over that, and the Creative Commons license I use does not, in any way, give me some kind of new control.

When you see a Creative Commons logo, you know that’s giving you extra rights. It’s never something to be worried about.

So, is Creative Commons just a middleman between me and the public domain?


Licensing your work under Creative Commons is not at all the same thing as relinquishing your work to the public domain. With Creative Commons, you still own the copyright. You can continue to license your work in other ways to other people. For example, you might distribute some photos under a non-commercial Creative Commons license for the world to enjoy and share freely, but when a magazine calls you up to use your photo, you can sell them the right to use it commercially.

Creative Commons is a middleground between default copyright and the public domain.

The one thing that might be confusing is that, on the Creative Commons site, we do give people the option to put their work in the public domain. That’s not specific to Creative Commons, and we try to carefully point that out. It’s just that, while you’re at Creative Commons, you might as well be told of your other options.

So, what about all the stuff that Dvorak said?

Most if it is misinformed. Let’s go over some of his statements to summarize:

does absolutely nothing but threaten […] fair use
Completely untrue. Creative Commons could not affect fair use if it tried, and in fact licenses clearly state that they should not be construed in this way. John should have clicked through on at least one of those Creative Commons logos, as his central claim is immediately refuted on the license deed. See for yourself.

before Creative Commons, I could always ask to reuse or mirror something
That’s true, and it still is true. But in a lot of cases, why force people to ask when you can simply declare that certain rights are automatic? A host can declare that redistribution is okay thanks to Creative Commons, and then you don’t even have to ask. Creative Commons is all about lowering the barriers to collaboration. With CC, the only time you need to ask the author for permission is when it really matters to the author.

the wording will say something like “Creative Commons License: Public Domain”
In fact, that is the extremely rare exception rather than the rule. The Prelinger Archives phrases it that way mostly because it’s presenting information straight from a database, and all of their works are either CC-licensed or public-domain. Most Creative Commons logos on the web say “under a Creative Commons license,” which is in fact exactly correct. It’s surprising that John focused on such a small subset of CC-related works. It’s as if his only source was the Prelinger Archives, which are an admitted special case.

they invented Creative Commons to add some artificial paperwork and complexity to the mechanism
This couldn’t be further from the truth. If you’re looking to grant additional rights to your users in order to foster collaboration, your alternatives are Creative Commons or hiring an expensive law firm to write you a custom license. Using Creative Commons involves approximately 5 or 6 mouse clicks followed by copying and pasting some HTML into your web page. The complexity comes from copyright law. Creative Commons is here to simplify and enable sharing.

so, how did John Dvorak get so confused?
Not sure. All of this information is easily available on the Creative Commons web site. Go to Click on “Learn More.” Right there, you have text and animated clips that explain the above points.

In particular, right at the top of that Learn More page, there’s the “Get Creative” video, described as follows:

This short film covers the basics of why we formed, what we do, and how we do it.

And if movies isn’t your thing, there’s the Spectrum of Rights and How it Works comics that describe the same ideas.

John, I hope this helps.