February 5, 2023

Lawrence Lessig, Unmasked

We’re watching this week’s episode of West Wing. On the TV screen, Professor Lawrence Lessig starts talking. “I know that voice,” exclaims my wife. “It’s The Hacker!”

On West Wing, Lessig was played not by Himself but by the actor Christopher Lloyd. One of Lloyd’s other roles is on Cyberchase, an animated PBS Kids show, as the voice of an arch-villain known only as The Hacker. Here’s a picture and description of The Hacker, from the Cyberchase website:

The cosmology of Cyberchase cries out for cultural analysis. The Hacker is locked in an endless struggle for supremacy against Motherboard, the benign Mother-Goddess of cyberspace, who appears to ordinary humans only by teleconference. In each episode, The Hacker, with help from his henchrobots, unleashes a dastardly plot (e.g., releasing a virus, letting bugs invade the database library, or draining Motherboard’s life-giving liquid coolant) to overthrow Motherboard and unleash chaos on all of cyberspace. A group of multicultural kids must solve some kind of mathematical puzzle to foil the Hacker’s otherwise-foolproof plan.

Come to think of it, there are those who see Lessig in much the same way, as the evil genius who will destroy cyberspace with his Free Culture plot, replacing the benign content-rich cyberworld of Mother MPAA with a content-free dystopia of uncontrolled filesharing. It’s up to those feisty kids at the DRM companies to figure out some fancy cryptographic math that will foil his evil plan.

Look carefully at the picture above – the Hacker appears to be wearing Lessig’s trademark black jeans. Coincidence? I think not.

I guess that makes most of us henchrobots.

The Big-Head Principle

Over the next few days, Americans will be asking themselves which candidate has what it takes to be president, or at least which one has what it takes to win the election. To answer this question, we must first determine exactly what it does take. Based on personal observation, I think I may know.

Bill Clinton is the only U.S. president I have seen up close. He walked about ten feet from me in the Princeton graduation procession a few years ago. And I couldn’t help noticing that he had a really big head. When I say this, I don’t mean he was very smart, and I don’t mean he had an inflated opinion of himself – though both of those things may well be true. I mean, quite literally, that his head was considerably larger than average for a man of his size. So much so that his head size is the one and only thing I remember about my near-encounter with him. Perhaps having a large head helps one to succeed in politics.

If you think about it, we are often drawn to big-headed creatures. Mickey Mouse. Frankenstein’s monster. Barney the dinosaur. Bart Simpson. Mister Potato Head. Spongebob Squarepants. What is it about big-heads that makes us want to watch them?

Perhaps the explanation is that babies have disproportionately large heads, and we are genetically programmed to like babies. Or perhaps large heads can better show sympathetic emotion.

In any case, head size is clearly an important factor in politics, a factor we can use to divine a hidden law of American politics – the candidate with the bigger head usually wins. Call it the Big-Head Principle.

Which candidate has the bigger head in this election? Video coverage shows the candidates shaking hands after the debates. Looking at the two men side by side, in the same shot, it’s clear that John Kerry has the bigger head.

Being nonpartisan, we will not endorse a candidate; but we can make a prediction. According to the Big-Head Principle, John Kerry will be the next president of the United States.

Apple Threatens Real

Pay attention now, ’cause this story gets kinda complicated.

See, Apple had this product called iPod that lets you listen to music. That sounds like a good idea. But Apple thought it would be better if the iPod could do less. So their engineers pulled a bunch of all-nighters to make sure that the iPod couldn’t play just any music a customer might have laying around. They called this DRM. I think that stands for Don’t Replay Music.

Now Apple had a competitor called Real. And Real was unhappy that Apple had made its product less useful. So Real’s engineers pulled a bunch of all-nighters, so that they could make Apple’s product better. They could’ve spent that time making their own product better, but that would have been a waste after all of the time they had already spent making their own product worse by making it do DRM too.

You still with me? Good.

Okay, so Apple was mighty ticked off that Real had made Apple’s product better, without even getting permission or anything. So Apple cried foul. Apple was shocked ‘n’ saddened that Real was trying to improve Apple’s product, like those hacker guys are always doing. So Apple drew a line in the sand, and swore to make its own product worse again.

I don’t know about you, but I find this all very confusing. I guess I just don’t have a head for business.

The Landsburg Amendment

Can this be a coincidence?

This week, Congress prepares to vote on the Pirate Act, which would impose severe penalties for online copyright infringers and redirect the Department of Justice toward copyright enforcement and away from any other insignificant law enforcement problems facing the U.S. In the same week, Steven Landsburg advocates the death penalty for online criminals.

Perhaps Landsburg has the solution to the P2P problem as well. Imposing the death penalty on P2P infringers only makes sense, according to Landsburg’s ironclad reasoning. See, executing somebody (even an innocent person) only imposes $10 million of harm; and if that deters even 0.5% of the $4 billion in estimated annual piracy losses, an execution save $20 million and is a good deal for everybody. To believe otherwise is simply irrational.

It’s not too late to amend the Pirate Act.

[Note to any overly clueless readers: This is a joke. Proportionate penalties for copyright infringement are fine with me. Killing P2P users, no.]

In the News Today

Avi Rubin Joins Diebold (via Avi Rubin)
RIAA Sues Google; Internet Doomed (via James Grimmelmann)
Valenti Condemns Avian P2P (via me)
EFF buys Department of Justice (also note: Valenti To Join EFF Board) (via EFF)
Omniscience Protocol Specification Published (via Scott Bradner)
Duke Buys the Public Domain (via ibiblio)
Google Staffing Lunar Office (via Google)
WalMart Buys Record Company (via Ernest Miller)
EZBake Oven For Your PC (via ThinkGeek)