I use this blog as a soap box to preach (ahem... to talk :-) about subjects that interest me.

Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Copyright, Copyleft, and Copywrong

The Free Software Foundation (FSF) founded by Richard Stallman about three decades ago is based on the idea that software users should be able to collaborate with each other. Proprietary software, with its restrictions imposed by its copyright holders, makes that impossible. Users should be able to run the software, study it, modify it, and redistribute it.

To provide an alternative to the proprietary versions of the Unix operating system, Stallman started the GNU project, which, together with Linus Torvalds’ Linux kernel, resulted in what everybody today calls the Linux operating system (which should actually be called GNU/Linux, but few bother).

GNU/Linux (I do bother) is a great achievement, and thousands of developers have contributed to its success by extending it, maintaining, and adding to it useful applications.

FSF software is free for everyone to use, adapt, and redistribute, but only as long as the modified or repackaged software remains free. To achieve this, the software is licensed with what is called a copyleft, of which the standard GNU licence is a particular version.

Stallman is an extremely intelligent person, an inspired speaker, and totally dedicated to the free software movement. His ideas are contagious, and he has my admiration, but the fact that he believes in what he says, or even that many believe in what he says, doesn’t automatically mean that what he says is right for you and me.

Like with every social or political movement, there are, broadly speaking, two types of people who favour the free software movement: the true believers and the opportunists.

The true believers deserve our respect. They put a lot of effort into developing software to see it “fly”. Their reward is to know that thousands or millions of people around the world use what they have developed. They keep learning and love to discuss the intricacies of their products with like-minded people.

The opportunists are those who are against proprietary software because they like to get as much as possible for free. On the basis of what I have learnt about human nature, I wouldn’t be surprised to discover that, unfortunately, they are the vast majority.

By misusing the ideals of the FSF, they can take the high moral ground and portray themselves as people who fight the rich and allegedly corrupt multinationals (e.g., Microsoft and Apple). What better excuse is there for obtaining pirated copies of proprietary programs than an act of civil justice?

Allow me to be sceptical about moral choices that benefit the person who takes them.

Where do you stop? Everybody knows that the government is corrupt. Why should we then pay taxes? And the supermarkets exploit the farmers and make too much profit on what they sell. Isn’t then justified to “appropriate” stuff from their shelves? In Italy, in the early 1970s, when one third of the population voted for the Communist party, we even had a term for it: proletarian shopping (i.e., spesa proletaria).

Give me a break!

Do these abuses invalidate the FSF ideals? Of course not, but millions and millions of people have found in it a justification for stealing. And, perhaps not surprisingly, the idea of free software has contributed to the concept of “free everything”. The prevailing culture today is that it is OK to “share” some songs, even if “sharing” has become a euphemism for downloading hundred of songs for free. And scripts, books, and films are sometimes available for download within days of their release.

But make no mistake: downloading illegal copies of any copyrighted material is stealing.

In 2007 I published an IT book with a list price of US$40, but Amazon sells it for about US$26 in printed form and for less than USD$18 as an eBook. For prices that I consider moderate, you get almost 450 pages of very specialised material. And yet, you can download free pirated or scanned copies of the book from several websites.

Whom are we kidding? Those who deprive authors like me of a couple of dollars of royalties per copy are not heroic people who fight their quixotic battle against the multinationals. They are thieves.

The downloading of pirated music is to a large extent to blame for the current crisis affecting the music industry, and the publishing industry is next.

Few authors, musicians, actors, and directors make a living from their artistic endeavours, and even fewer become rich. Piracy is an additional unnecessary hurdle that emerging artists, developers, and small independent publishers need to overcome.

And, just that I am at it, not only do I think that copyright is perfectly justified and should be enforced. I also think that it shouldn’t expire.

If you build a house or a company, you can pass it on to your heirs in perpetuity. Once your heirs will have paid the necessary taxes, fees, succession taxes, and what have you, they will own the physical results of your work. Marx said that property is theft, but Communism didn’t work, did it?

The same happens with less tangible goods, like shares, bonds, and plain old cash.

But if you invest your time and effort in producing intellectual property, your heirs will lose all their rights 70 years after your death. Now, 70 years seem a long period of time, but can you imagine applying the same to a farm or to a factory, or even to a painting or a sculpture? Can you imagine that one day some government official will knock on the door of your great-grandchildren and evict them from the house you have built because it is no longer theirs? I don’t think so.

In which way is intellectual property different from brick and mortar? Isn’t a fundamental doctrine of Economics that higher risk should be rewarded with higher yield? And what is more risky than writing a book?

You might resent the fact that a book keeps generating royalties long after the author is dead, without the need for any additional effort. But wait a minute! What about the dividends you get from shares and the interests you get from bank deposits? Isn’t it the same?

Most books stop selling after a few years. Books in print and being sold longer than 70 years after the author’s death are rare exceptions. Therefore, an unlimited copyright would only make a difference for the few “classics”. And for those, to reiterate my point, why shouldn’t the heirs benefit from them?

There is also another aspect to consider: when a copyright is extinguished, it is not just the royalties that disappear. The copyright holder loses any control he previously had. This means that anybody will be entitled to re-publish the book (or the song) with any alteration he might like to make! That seems completely preposterous. A dictator might decide to adapt a text to support his ideas. In fact there is a never-ending debate about whether the spelling of some old text should be adapted to “freshen up” centuries-old books.

Now, I know that the Constitution of the United States states that copyright should expire but, as Mark Twain once suggested, why not setting it to a million years? That would be constitutional, wouldn’t it?

Wednesday, July 4, 2012

Science, the Scientific Method, and Hard SF

Non-scientists find it difficult to comprehend that scientific theories cannot ever be completely proved. No theory is ever “final”, but with the passing of time, as new experiments and refined measurements keep verifying it, a theory becomes the foundation upon which scientists can build new theories. As a scientist, you can believe in the validity of a theory and, provisionally, do as if it were completely certain, while knowing in the back of your mind that a new fact discovered tomorrow might not fit into it. When that happens, especially with well established theories, the obvious reaction is to find a way of extending the theory to include the new fact.

In a sense, a theory that has worked well in many cases cannot ever be disproved. You just need to know when it can be applied. For example, Newtonian Mechanics is perfectly correct in your everyday life. You don’t need to be concerned with relativistic or quantum effects when catching a bus!

Consider the Theory of Evolution. The bigots (according to Wikipedia, a bigot is a person obstinately or intolerantly devoted to his or her own opinions and prejudices) who push for Intelligent Design to be taught in schools have no idea of what a scientific theory is, and have no qualms in proposing their beliefs as an alternative to Darwinian Evolution. They insist on the word “theory” associated with Evolution without realising that, by doing so, they only show their scientific ignorance. After so many decades, Darwinian Evolution has survived every criticism thrown at it, and every new discovery in Molecular Biology keeps confirming its validity. Therefore, even if tomorrow somebody discovered something that doesn’t fit into it, it will not change the fact that the Theory of Evolution by Natural Selection applies to us, the dinosaurs, the amoebas, and the rest of species that populate earth.

One problem is that many (perhaps most) people find it difficult to cope with uncertainty. They “need” to believe in something, to be certain that it is true. Dare I say that the less intelligent people are, the more they depend on certainties? It makes sense, because it is easier to deal with simple choices than having to evaluate complex factors and cope with fuzzy ideas. Then, everything becomes black or white, without shades of grey; stereotypes drive your behaviour; and a priest, speaking on behalf of a God who is by definition unprovable, tells you what is right or wrong. How easy is that?

Another debate that only shows scientific ignorance is the one about climate change. Even the question “do you believe in it?” is nonsensical, because it is not a matter of belief at all. Changes have been measured and the influence of humanity is clear. But even if it were not, it would still remain a stupid debate, because, regardless of how much humanity contributes to them, climate changes are going to cause us problems soon.

We have been cutting forests, burning in decades what took millions of years to put into the ground, using up natural resources as if they were unlimited, and creating substances that don’t exist in nature. You can bet your ass that sooner or later you will have to pay the bill for all that. The only questions are when, how high the price, and in what currency. If the earth climate reaches a tipping point, like the stopping of the Gulf Stream, just to mention a possible one, we are going to regret to have wasted so much time debating whether computer models are credible or what influence the Sun spots have on our temperature.

The effects of science and technology have become pervasive in our modern world. Science is too important to be considered a subject of choice. We should teach the scientific method in all schools. Physics should become a compulsory subject, beside literature and languages. It would automatically resolve many of the senseless debates that afflict us today.

I wouldn’t be surprised if the huge technological development in computing had a deleterious effect on understanding science. The reason is that films and computer games show what is physically impossible as if it were real. Already the battering that Bruce Willies, Silvester Stallone, and Arnold Schwarzenegger could endure in their action movies of some years ago was superhuman. But today’s Computer Generated Images (CGI) completely remove the boundaries between reality and fantasy. The children that grow up with these images think that everything is possible.

Many years ago, when Wile E. Coyote ran past the edge of the cliff and looked down suspended in mid air before falling, he was violating the laws of Physics. But he was clearly a cartoon character. It was funny to see him precisely because he and the Roadrunner were unrealistic.

Compared with the fantastic worlds we see on the screen today, our real world is unexciting. Some people respond to these stimuli by seeking the thrills of extreme sports. Many others just look for “more”: more exciting, more entertaining, more extreme, more fantastic, ... It doesn’t surprise me that Science Fiction has become a minor component of what we call Speculative Fiction.

SpecF is used to collectively indicate Fantasy, Horror, and SF, but you only need to go to a bookshop to see that the SpecF shelves are full of extremely thick books about dragons, elves, wizards, vampires, zombies, and people with supernatural powers.

Not much SF around these days, and even less of what I call “Hard Science Fiction” (HSF). That is, a work of fiction that relies for its existence on scientific or technological facts.

When Jules Verne in 1865 wrote “De la Terre à la Lune” (From the Earth to the Moon), he got it wrong: you cannot use a mass of expanding gas to propel a payload into space and, in any case, the initial acceleration would kill you. But Verne gave birth to the idea of reaching into space with technological means rather than, say, being transported on the wings of an angel.

It is not necessary for a HSF story to be consistent with all scientific knowledge we currently have. For example, you can hypothesise that one day we will discover a way of breaking the speed of light barrier. Although this contradicts Relativity, it is conceivable that one day we will formulate a more general theory that admits superluminal speed under specific circumstances not considered in Relativity, exactly as Relativity generalises Newtonian Mechanics without invalidate it.

Sometimes, a HSF story speculates on possible consequences of what we already know. Some other times, it relies on a new discovery to trigger a chain of events. But, in any case, it remains consistent to its premises.

Arthur C. Clarke, one of the greatest HSF authors of all times, formulated three laws to help people predict the future:

1.  When a distinguished but elderly scientist states that something is possible, he is almost certainly right. When he states that something is impossible, he is very probably wrong.

2.  The only way of discovering the limits of the possible is to venture a little way past them into the impossible.

3.  Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.

The difference between Clarke’s third law and the magic found in so many books sold today is that the magic Clarke refers to is perceived, not real. If somebody of even just a couple of hundred years ago could visit today’s world, would see spells and charms where there are none.

I am a Trekker, a convinced Star Trek fan. Gene Roddenberry’s stories rely on three things that, when Star Trek was first aired, were considered impossible: warp drive, transporters, and artificial gravity. They were “tricks” to make the stories possible. Without superluminal speed, travel between the stars would have taken many years, too long for 45-minute episodes; transporters made landing onto alien worlds easy, as always shuttling forth and back would have been bothersome and time consuming; and artificial gravity was necessary for two reasons: a film with people constantly floating around would have been annoying to say the least, and the acceleration of a starship would have killed the crew.

I don’t remember who said that in a good HSF story, you can ask the reader to believe something that is considered impossible, but only once. And yet, although Star Trek expected from us to suspend disbelief more than once, those stories inspired real astronauts and scientists, and it is no longer clear that faster than light travel will remain impossible forever.

Without HSF, where would future generations of scientists find their inspirations? Who would tell them stories about all those impossible things they can aim for?