On what can and what cannot be said

(or – The Prince of California)

People disagree with a passion on what can and what cannot be said. Or what should and should not be said. Hardly anybody takes the extremist position in this discussion that all speech should be outlawed, or that all speech should be free.

For instance, I am generally of the opinion that speech should be free, but I am also vehemently against spam. Not that I begrudge others to speak, but I feel that spammers abuse my initial willingness to listen to any message. Spammers get me fuming with rage almost every day, which can hardly be healthy.

Yet spammers only take to extremes what is otherwise a useful way of piggy-backing on the way humans engage in a dialogue. They very effectively tunnel our attention and our own speech. They bleat out their message, and only allow our credit cards to talk back for us.

When a spammer sends me a pornographic image (and assuming for a second that my e-mail set-up is like that of most people, i.e. I will get to see the porn), the image enters my consciousness. Short of forgetting it, I can not erase that image from my mind, or from my world view. Porn does not bother me much, but it does bother others.

When an artist or anybody else publishes a film, or stars in a published film, the film and the likeness of the artist enters my consciousness. Yet through copyright and portrait right, the makers can forbid me to include these images, that may have been forced upon me, in my own speech.

Should people be able to push speech onto you? If all dialogue is sabotaged, free speech becomes moot. Generally, I agree with “If you don’t want to see the program, switch the channel”. But how far can you take such a principle? Should I stop using e-mail just because of spam? How many channels do I need to have available to me to start feeling that I am not impeded in my choice of dialogue?

Wikipedia has a rule on choosing your login name. As somebody writes on the site: “According to our username policy, inflammatory, deliberately confusing, and other inappropriate usernames are not allowed.” What would be an inappropriate username? Since Wikipedia is largely edited by Americans, the policy in practice means that names of a sexual nature are not allowed. What is appropriate speech to be pushed upon others, depends on the culture of those speaking and those listening.

The past few weeks a couple of cases have come to light in which the discussion about forcing people to listen and forbidding them to speak was prominent. In Irak, a US civilian was beheaded. Should these images be shown on TV? Once shown, should further dissemination be forbidden?

In Argentina, the stolen video tape recording of the Dutch crown prince, his wife and their baby daughter was shown on TV. The cat was out of the bag, yet the Dutch office for suppressing or rewriting news about the royal family (euphemistically called the Rijksvoorlichtingsdienst, State Information Service) wants to have the Dutch TV station and Dutch websites that also showed these images criminally prosecuted.

Meanwhile, in the USA, in California, there is a new governor. Arnold Schwarzenegger is a famous film actor. As such, his likeness is a product that can be licensed, bought and sold. This is arguably a right he has, both a legal and a moral one. However, since his highly successful movie career, making him a public figure, he has also become a political public figure.

In the debate about what can be said and what cannot be said, Americans generally understand that making fun of a political public figure is allowed. Freedom of speech would be impeded too much if you forbade that. The fact that not everybody agrees with a political figure and what he stands for, to the point that they are willing to mock him, makes it important that reproduction of his likeness be not forbidden.

Yet this is exactly what the Schwarzenegger estate tries to do. Referring to the financial worth of the likeness of Schwarzenegger the actor, it tries to clamp down on those who make light of Schwarzenegger the politician. Perhaps, those who make dolls of Arnold Schwarzenegger do so because the politician is known best as an actor. But should such motivations lead to censorship of political speech? (When the governor tries to shut you up, that’s called censorship.)

As to what should and should not be said: if you don’t want to see the following graphical depiction of a naked actor-turned-governor, or the colourful language with which it is accompanied, just don’t click here. I thought it was appropriate how somebody who coasted to his political position on his fame as an actor alone, without ever stating his political opinions, finally gets caught with his pants down on the issue of free speech. The author of the parody must be forgiven his literal turn of mind.

You know you are deep-cleaning when …

You know you are deep-cleaning when your vacuuming leaves holes in the carpet.

(Apparently, when installing or fixing the stove in my appartement, years ago, somebody spilt a few drops of solder. The hot solder burnt itself through the carpet. When vacuuming rather forcefully, I removed the solidified drops, leaving tiny holes. Ah, what an exciting life I lead…)

No BRAIN, no gain

The BREIN foundation (a self-appointed protector of copyright interests, although they prefer to claim to protect the holders) has lost a case against an MP3 search engine, http://zoekmp3.nl/.

IANAL, but this does seem an interesting case. As far as I can tell, the court agrees with most of the arguments internet users typically use. It concludes that linking is merely a form of referencing, and that the search engine has sufficient lawful purposes to be deemed legal itself.

Here is the decision. Christiaan Alberdingk Thijm was the lawyer who helped Zoekmp3 win the case; he’s the same guy who helped Kazaa win on appeal (but by then they had already fled the country).

More information at Digital Media Europe.

BREIN is appealing the decision.

Book review: Defensive Design for the Web

Defensive Design for the Web deals with preventing common interface design mistakes on e-commerce websites. It shows real world examples of websites getting it wrong and other websites getting it right. By presenting these examples side by side, the reader immediately gets to see why something works (or why it does not).

Read the rest of this review at evolt.org.

Rocket man to the rescue

George Bush, president of the USA, announced plans for going to Mars (if only—unfortunately, he meant ‘as a people’, not him personally), and immediately all the other space agencies either dusted off their Mars faring plans or figured ‘now is the time to announce our own secret plans’, or started adapting the goals of vehicles in development.

For instance, the Russians have announced a new space shuttle, called the Kliper. Apparently, this one is much more cost-effective than the Buran, the 1980s Soviet shuttle that was as much a replica of the US shuttle as possible, and just as expensive.

But at least the Russians had a working shuttle in the 1980s. This week’s announcement of the first test landing of a scale model of a European space shuttle called Phoenix raised a few smiles here and there. Ah, the Europeans want to play too…

Why is it that we are dusting off 30 and 40 year old technology to take us to the moon again? Part of that I am willing to believe, is because a lot of knowledge has been lost over the past thirty to forty years. We simply don’t know anymore how to put a man on the moon.

But surely, we have progressed since then too, have we not? This is something I am missing from today’s proposals: the word ‘today’. Here’s a wild conspiracy theory that I came up with all by myself: it’s hard to get into space, because if it would be easy, the military potential would be enormous. You could take off on the other side of the planet and strike the Pentagon in two hours.

And that brings us back to the European Space Shuttle. This is not just a glider, like the space shuttle, but also a rocket that is supposed to be launched by a supersonic plane. The Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft has got a beautiful site explaining how horizontal take-off works. The technology used is mostly known today: rails, ramjets, rockets. And equally important, this is today’s technology, not yesterday’s.

Sony: biting its own hand that feeds it

An interesting observation by Cory Doctorow: Sony is eating the poison pill it created itself. The inventor of amongst others the walkman is now a tiny player in the market of personal audio.

The reason? Since they became both a hardware manufacturer and a publisher, the needs of their small publishing branch has continuously outweighed those of their huge hardware branch. Where Apple and Creative Labs could become big by allowing MP3s to be played from their devices, Sony tries to push its unwanted, digital rights restricted formats.

The same thing is happening in the ebooks market; Sony’s Librie looks like a great device, but if Philips brings out a machine that will display works without restrictions, the Dutch company will win.

The traffic warden

In the old days (I can easily say that, it was not more than two years ago), if people were needed to control the traffic, they used to let the police do that. The way I figured it, these officers had had two hours of training and were then ready for the big, bad world of traffic control.

And it worked.

Today, the city of Amsterdam employs traffic wardens, and I have no doubt in my mind that they have had a six month worker reintegration course, of which two solid months controlling trafic.

And it fails.

For some reason, the traffic warden new style has to shake her ass in front of her colleagues, while not paying any attention to the actual traffic. Or the traffic warden new style has to chat with his buddies, while blocking all traffic. Or three of them have to chat on the bike path, for whatever reason, forcing me to stop or bike onto the tramway.

Some ten years ago the government introduced some sort of modern slavery, called Melkert’s jobs, after the minister whose bright idea it was. (Yes, that sounds like Melkor.) The idea being that people on welfare who haven’t had a job in a long time, get easy jobs in order to get them used to working again. You cannot refuse, because you’ll lose your welfare, and once you’re in, you’re stuck.

There are two types of people that I have met that get these jobs. First, there are the highly talented, who through some bad breaks have been unemployed too long. Melkert’s jobs are often used for institutions who don’t have the money to apply for real personnel. I know of at least one person who got middle-management type responsibilities (and who was good at it!), and who still only got welfare level pay.

And then there are the people who really should not be given any type of responsibility, and who society would better sponsor to stay out of the workforce. My guess is that these traffic wardens belong to the latter group. The only reason I can see why they would get to regulate traffic is that as soon as I see one of them, I tend to be extra careful in traffic.


I would like to thank the animal…

Giving thanks, as in holding still for a moment and being grateful for what you have got, is not a European tradition. In my youth, Christmas (cleansed from all commercial and Christian notions) served that purpose partially. I wish we still had such a tradition.

I would like to thank the animal that provided me with a few happy moments yesterday: the herring that was wrapped in a roll and covered in onion bits. When I eat chicken, I often also have such moments of gratitude for the animal. Is that weird?

Issues surrounding copyrights

From the view of the citizen

Should creators be rewarded? Depends
Should creators be acknowledged? Yes
Should publishers be rewarded? Depends
Should sharing be encouraged? Yes
Should culture be preserved? Yes

From the view of the creator

Should creators be rewarded? Yes
Should creators be acknowledged? Yes
Should publishers be rewarded? Yes
Should sharing be encouraged? Yes
Should culture be preserved? Yes

From the view of the Big American Publisher

Should creators be rewarded? Depends
Should creators be acknowledged? Depends
Should publishers be rewarded? Yes
Should sharing be encouraged? No
Should culture be preserved? No

The European politician’s conclusion: “We will do anything the Big American Publisher tells us to do.”

It is curious that European politicians tell us with one face (the one that grants subsidies for culture) that culture is not a product, and with the other (the one that says everything American publishers tell it to say) that it is.

An explanation of some of these points: I think that the average citizen, as a citizen, believes that people should be awarded fairly for work they do. The ‘depends’ refers to the measure of fairness.

With ‘big American publisher’ I mean the companies that belong to the top five earners in their field in the US. These companies have a lot of clout in Europe, and even if our politicians do not listen to them, the politicians’ actions are no different from if they did.

The Big Evil Publishers believe that sharing and preservation not only threaten their income stream, but also their power base. They will favour any political measure that destroys cultural heritage and sharing.

The acknowledgement of creators is part of their moral rights in Europe. If somebody publishes something I have written, I have the right to be recognized as the author. If somebody butchers what I have written, I have the right to distance myself from these edits. I know from personal experience that some publishers don’t think so (regardless of what the law says—if I want to earn money with my works, I will have to jump through the publishers’ hoops).

If I were a famous artiste, my name would suddenly become a useful brand, and then publishers would actually want to use my name; hence ‘depends’.