Note to Police: Please Don’t Shoot

I have always felt fairly confident walking around, unarmed (except for my killer Kung Fu grip), not having done anything illegal, that I wouldn’t be shot by the police. My naivety has been embarrassing.

The NYPD killed an unarmed man on his wedding day and shot two of his friends this past weekend (article here), shooting fifty times. Oh yeah, and they were drinking – apparently cops are allowed to drink on duty. Great.

Then there’s this delightful video: Watch an unarmed protester get shot by the police (rubber bullets this time), and then watch the police brag about it.

And finally, thanks to my coworker T for sending me this story: Blowing Up Scientific Equipment in the Name of Security. I think the headline is pretty self-explanatory, don’t you?

Anyway, it’s good to be able to write about this while I still can


I’m Feeling Ontological

I just read this great essay by Clay Shirky: Ontology is Overrated (via Minding the Planet). The basic thrust of the essay is that certain things (like the web) simply don’t break up into fixed categories. Citing Google versus Yahoo as an example:

Yahoo, faced with the possibility that they could organize things with no physical constraints, added the shelf back. They couldn’t imagine organization without the constraints of the shelf, so they added it back. It is perfectly possible for any number of links to be in any number of places in a hierarchy, or in many hierarchies, or in no hierarchy at all. But Yahoo decided to privilege one way of organizing links over all others, because they wanted to make assertions about what is “real.”

One reason Google was adopted so quickly when it came along is that Google understood there is no shelf, and that there is no file system. Google can decide what goes with what after hearing from the user, rather than trying to predict in advance what it is you need to know.

As he points out elsewhere in the article, trying to figure out whether the “Books” category should be a subcategory of “Entertainment” or “Arts” is simply a waste of time – both categories are arbitrary anyway. What Google realized is that what you need to look for is associations, which will emerge from the various links throughout the World Wide Web. Instead of trying to arbitrarily define “Books”, simply see what comes up when you search for “books”. Let the searcher decide if they’re interested in “Entertainment” or “Arts” by adding search terms. Google might end up discovering that certain words keep popping up when searching for books, and suggest them as alternatives: “Perhaps you’d like to search for ‘novels’?” Compare this to Yahoo’s need to constantly second-guess what those associations might be, and subsequently being constrained by those guesses.

What it comes down to is a “top-down” approach versus a “bottom-up” approach:

Top-down approaches emphasise planning and a complete understanding of the system. It is inherent that no coding can begin until a sufficient level of detail has been reached in the design of at least some part of the system. This, however, delays testing of the ultimate functional units of a system until significant design is complete. Bottom-up emphasizes coding and early testing, which can begin as soon as the first module has been specified. This approach, however, runs the risk that modules may be coded without having a clear idea of how they link to other parts of the system, and that such linking may not be as easy as first thought. Re-usability of code is one of the main benefits of the bottom-up approach.

Yahoo decided that they would impose order on the web by defining themselves as the “top”. Google simply stepped back and let the web emerge as it truly is, and ironically, by doing so, ended up truly on top.


p.s. This debate (and the results) also mirrors the different approaches taken in command economies (such as socialism) versus market economies.

The Lion ‘Leet

The Daily Mail has this incredible story about “super-lions”:

In a remote corner of Africa, an extraordinary evolutionary tale is unfolding, uncovered by the actor Jeremy Irons and an award-winning documentary team…

“There is an unusual pride of lions stalking these swamps,” he says. “They are cats that live in water and hunt a single herd of Cape buffalo. Evolution favours predators that can hunt a range of prey. But these lions are defying that trend by becoming specialists. These huge lions are adapting and breeding in isolation on an island in a river that goes nowhere.”

[T]he island has become a unique, ecological experiment. In order to exist without the customary spectrum of weaker African prey like zebra, giraffe and impala, the Duba lions have had to develop distinct strategies in order to trap the single available food source.

It’s evolution gone wild[er]!


Suing Borat

It’s starting to look like that, as funny as he is, Sacha Baron Cohen is kind of an asshole. According to the AP, impoverished Romanian villagers were tricked (like everyone else in Borat, to be fair) into all sorts of antics, led to believe that they were participating in a documentary

Residents and local officials in [Glod,] the scruffy hamlet 140 kilometers (85 miles) northwest of Bucharest said Tuesday they were horrified and humiliated to learn their abject poverty and simple ways are ridiculed in a movie now raking in millions at box offices worldwide.

“We thought they came here to help us – not mock us,” said Dana Luca, 40, sweeping a manure-stained street lined with shabby homes of crumbling brick and corrugated iron sheeting.

“We haven’t got anything here. We haven’t got running water. We can’t even bathe,” she said. “We are poor people, but we are still people.”

[Their reprsentative] accused the producers of paying locals just 10 or 15 lei (US$3.30 – US$5.50), misleading the village into thinking the movie would be a documentary, refusing to sign proper filming contracts and enticing easily exploited peasants into performing crass acts.

In response, Borat suggested that the blame lies with “the Jew”, which, um, happens to be the case here. Thanks, Sacha.

(via Table of Malcontents)


Table of Malcontents Is Cranky…

We here at Table of Malcontents don’t want you to kill yourself, unless you’re one of the people who writes comments like “This is news HOW?”, “I liked this site better when it was about singing cat videos” or ” Hip writing in the name of factual errors. Another example of why Wired is not worth the effort to read.”

All this and more for a simple link to a Suicide Letter Wizard…


p.s. To be fair, most of the commenters on ToM appear to be 14 years old.
p.p.s. I liked Table of Malcontents better when it was about videos of cats falling off couches (although I can’t say I remember when that was).

Censorship, East and West

Last week this scary article was posted on Slashdot:

Edis Krad writes, “An elderly Japanese bar manager and performer has been arrested for playing copyrighted songs on his harmonica. From the article: ‘Investigators accuse Toyoda of illegally performing 33 songs such as the Beatles’ songs “Here, There and Everywhere” and “Yesterday,” whose copyrights are managed by the Japanese Society for Rights of Authors, Composers and Publishers. He allegedly performed the songs on the harmonica with a female pianist at the bar he operated between August and September this year.’ This is for all those kids who are learning chords on their guitars — be ready to pay fees for practicing ‘Smoke On The Water.’ This story seems to be legit, though it reads like an Onion piece. It’s only being reported in the Mainichi Daily News via MSN.

Very scary – the idea that someone can be sent to prison for playing the harmonica is beyond absurd. And then there’s this Slashdot story from Friday:

jamie writes, “On ‘Larry King Live’ Wednesday night, Bill Maher said many of ‘the people who really run the underpinnings of the Republican Party are gay… Ken Mehlman, OK, there’s one I think people have talked about. I don’t think he’s denied it.’ When CNN re-aired the interview, the mention of Mehlman was edited out with no indication anything was missing. When a minute-long video of the original vs. censored clips was posted on YouTube, a DMCA takedown removed it (the original poster plans to resubmit a shorter clip he hopes will qualify as fair use — good luck, since the DMCA doesn’t recognize fair use). Relatedly, the Washington Post today was caught silently editing its published stories to make them less informative. Unnamed GOP officials are also saying that Mehlman will step down from his post when his term ends in January.”

These are supposed to be news institutions, for crying out loud. The Washington Post in particular should be ashamed. This is the paper that took down Nixon, and now, according to Glenn Greenwald’s site (linked in quote above), is censoring the fact that Bush admitted to lying right before last week’s election. Greenwald sums it up precisely:

Why did The Washington Post delete the passage in its own article detailing how the President misled reporters when he answered their questions about Rumsfeld? Presidents simply do not have the right to lie to Americans about important matters of public concern, particularly before a major election. If we don’t embrace and enforce that standard, what standard exists? And if newspapers like the Post are too afraid to detail dishonest statements that come from our highest political officials — to the point where they publish such revelations only to then surreptitiously delete them — what possible purpose do journalists serve?

This is a very scary trend: in the East, overzealous copyright enforcers throwing old men in jail for playing the harmonica, and in the West, timid journalists too cowed to report what the president actually said in public (after all, who needs censorship when you have self-censorship)?


p.s. In a story related to the Japan one, there’s this (also Slashdot):

jginspace writes “A 17-year-old from Singapore is is facing three years’ jailtime for accessing his neighbor’s wireless network. His neighbor complained and now the unfortunate Tan Jia Luo is facing charges under the computer misuse act and is scheduled to appear in court on Wednesday.”

Three years for slowing down someone’s internet connection? Of course it’s stealing, and wrong, but we’re talking about a kid, and at most a few hundred dollars worth of damage (probably much, much less). Japan and Singapore just went a few notches down on my list of places to visit (of course, Singapore is notorious for its draconian punishments)…

NASA Makes Waves

Table of Malcontents has a cool video of waves being created in a floating sphere of water.


Bush Uses Reverse-Reverse Psychology

If there’s anything that will keep Democrats home today, it’s this: “Let your voice be heard, Bush tells voters“.

“We live in a free society and our government is only as good as the willingness of our people to participate,” Mr. Bush said, with his wife, Laura, at his side and an “I voted” sticker on the lapel of his brown suede jacket. “Therefore, no matter what your party affiliation or if you don’t have a party affiliation, do your duty, cast your ballot and let your voice be heard.”

Don’t listen to him! He’s evil! Stay home today, dammit!


In Case You Didn’t Hate The RIAA Enough…

Now Wired News reports that, thanks to a decision by the U.S. Copyright Register, the RIAA can get away with giving songwriters only a few cents per song for ringtones since “ringtones aren’t songs”, a loophole in copyright law. From the article: “The RIAA wanted to be able to distribute ringtones without securing new licenses from songwriters, who technically own the composition.” This strikes me as morally (if not legally) equivalent to piracy – a bunch of hucksters making money off of something they didn’t create without paying for it.

As the RIAA itself says:

The pirate’s credo is still the same–why pay for it when it’s so easy to steal? The credo is as wrong as it ever was. Stealing is still illegal, unethical, and all too frequent in today’s digital age.

Even worse? Piracy and hypocrisy. The RIAA’s got plenty of both to go around.

Fortunately, there’s a good chance the RIAA will be dead in the water in a few years. From their About page:

Its mission is to foster a business and legal climate that supports and promotes our members’ creative and financial vitality. Its members are the record companies that comprise the most vibrant national music industry in the world.

The environment they’re supporting is draconian, paranoid, and anything but creative – artists today are faced with even more restrictions than consumers are. As this new ringtones ripoff demonstrates, artists are in for a raw deal when they sign with “the majors”. And aspiring artists have far more options (MySpace is just the tip of the iceberg) today to distribute their music. So much for fostering creativity. I just can’t resist paraphrasing Star Wars here: the tighter they squeeze, the more artists will slip through their fingers. It’s just not worth it for an artist today to sign away half of their profits to a record company just for distribution (another 30% goes to marketing, and recording costs come out of what’s left). And once the artists are gone, there’s not much keeping the RIAA afloat, is there?


p.s. I like how the RIAA refer to themselves on their website as “it”.
p.p.s. From an earlier Wired article: “Peter Jenner, manager of Billy Bragg, The Clash, Disposable Heroes, Ian Dury, Pink Floyd, and T.Rex, thinks labels are broken and that the days of DRM are numbered.”

Corporate Privacy?

Wired is running an article that, to my mind, highlights a lot of the backwards thinking in government today. The lede says it all:

The government wants to respect the privacy of corporations who sell dangerous vehicles and keep data about defects under wraps.

One of my big pet peeves is how corporations have usurped a lot of the language of Libertarianism to apply to them, often at the expense of individuals who truly deserve those rights. In this case, the government (specifically The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration) seems to subscribe to the notion that a corporation has a right to privacy, even when it comes to information that can endanger human life. Says who? I agree that, in order to keep a healthy economy running (and to stay globally competitive), we need to give corporations a certain amount of freedom to operate. But we need to remember that corporations are there to serve society, not the other way around. If they break this contract, the government should have the right to take action. Individuals often need to be protected from society (in the form of government) – that is why we have the Bill of Rights (and other quaint conventions). But a corporation can’t be persecuted, tortured, or imprisoned, let alone unjustly, and as long as the money keeps coming in, it can’t “die”, unless its charter is revoked. The worst thing that can happen if unjust action is taken against a corporation is that a lot of people lose their jobs.

The point is that the government needs to go back to being human-centric, as opposed to corporate-centric. Corporations are, for better or for worse, an important part of everyone’s lives, but they have their place. It’s time to remind our government that that place is not above that of living, breathing human beings.