Category: emergent chaos

3D-printed guns and the crypto wars

So there’s a working set of plans for the “Liberator.” It’s a working firearm you can print on a 3d printer. You can no longer get the files from the authors, whose site states: “DEFCAD files are being removed from public access at the request of the US Department of Defense Trade Controls.
Until further notice, the United States government claims control of the information.” Cue Streisand Effect.

My understanding is that the censorship order was issued under the ITARs, the “International Traffic in Arms Regulations.” Cory Doctorow has said “Impact litigation — where good precedents overturn bad rules — is greatly assisted by good facts and good defendants. I would much rather the Internet-as-library question be ruled on in a less emotionally overheated realm than DIY guns.” I think that’s reasonable, but recall that Shaw claimed that all progress depends on the unreasonable man.

Doctorow also refers to Bernstein, who did good work, but his lawsuit was the last nail in ITARs applying to crypto, not the first. (ITARs still do apply to crypto, but in ways that allow both open source and commercial software to ship strong crypto, which wasn’t the case in the 90s.) Me, I see lots of evidence that gun control doesn’t work any better than alcohol control or marijuana control. And I think that the regulatory response by the DoD is silly. (One can argue that the law gives them no choice, but I don’t believe that to be the case.)

So the right step was demonstrated for crypto nearly 20 years ago by Phil Karn. He filed a pair of “Commodity Jurisdiction Requests.” One for Applied Cryptography, a book, and one for a floppy disk containing the source code.

The State Department ruled that even though the book itself is “in the public domain” and hence outside their jurisdiction, a floppy disk containing the exact same source code as printed in the book is a “munition” requiring a license to export. It’s old news that the US Government believes only Americans (and maybe a few Canadians) can write C code, but now they have apparently decided that foreigners can’t type either!

In the past three years I have taken my case to all three branches of the federal government. Here is the full case history in the Executive and Judicial branches, including all my correspondence with the US State Department, the Bureau of Export Administration (BXA) in the Commerce Department, the US District Court for the District of Columbia, and the Court of Appeals for the DC Circuit.

I believe the analogy is obvious. The DefCad files are 2mb zipped, and the STL files can be opened with a variety of software. Unfortunately, STL looks to be a binary format, and it’s not clear to me after a few minutes of searching if there’s a trivially printed text format. But that’s a very low hurdle.

As Doctorow implied, reasonableness on all sides would be nice to have. But at home printing isn’t going to go away, and censorship orders are not a productive step forward.

[Previously here: “What Should a Printer Print?“]

Gamifying Driving

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…the new points system rates the driver’s ability to pilot the MINI with a sporty yet steady hand. Praise is given to particularly sprightly sprints, precise gear changes, controlled braking, smooth cornering and U-turns executed at well-judged speeds. For example, the system awards maximum Experience Points for upshifts carried out within the ideal rev range and in less than 1.2 seconds. Super-slick gear changes prompt a “Perfect change up” message on the on-board monitor, while a “Breathtaking U-turn” and a masterful touch with the anchors (“Well-balanced braking”) are similarly recognised with top marks and positive, MINI-style feedback.

For more, see “MINI Connected Adds Driving Excitement Analyser.”

Now, driving is the most dangerous thing most of us do on a regular basis. Most Americans don’t get any supplemental driving instruction after they turn 17. So maybe there’s actually something to be said for a system that incents people to drive better.

I can’t see any possible issues with a game pushing people towards things that are undesirable in the real world. I mean, I’m sure that before suggesting a U-turn, the game will use the car’s adaptive cruise control radar to see what’s around, even if the car doesn’t have one.

Can Science Improvise?

My friend Raquell Holmes is doing some really interesting work at using improv to unlock creativity. There’s some really interesting ties between the use of games and the use of improv to get people to approach problems in a new light, and I’m bummed that I won’t be able to make this event:

Monday Dec 17th – 7:15 to 9:15pm
835 Market Street, Rm. 619, Downtown San Francisco State University Campus

Register at
In advance- $15 At the Door- $20

What happens when you combine the playfulness of improvisation with
the rigor of science? The Life Performance Coaching Center which
leads people from all walks of life in a performance-based approach to
human development is pleased to host Dr. Raquell M. Holmes founder of
improvscience. Holmes has been bringing the discoveries in human
development and performance to researchers and educators in many areas
of science including biology and computing sciences.

In this exploration for scientists and those interested in creativity
and development, participants are introduced to what the
improvisational arts bring to science. Learning to build with the
contributions of others and see opportunities for improvisational
conversation helps us to take risks and discover new ways of seeing
each other and our work.

Come and play as we break down the social barriers that can inhibit
creativity, exploration and discovery.

Helen Abel, LCSW, has worked with people to develop their lives for
over 30 years as a social worker, therapist and coach. She is on the
staff of the Life Performance Coaching Center where she leads the
popular Playground series {link if available} where people learn how
to use their capacity to create, perform and play. As a life coach she
helps people access these same skills to develop creative and new
kinds of conversations with their friends, family and colleagues.

Dr. Raquell Holmes is Director of Outreach, Recruitment and Retention
at the Center for Cell Analysis and Modeling at University of
Connecticut Health Center. She helps biologists to incorporate
computing and computational resources into their teaching and
research. Community building and improvisational theater are explicit
components of the majority of her National Science Foundation funded
projects. She founded improvscience to provide scientists with
opportunities to develop skills in leadership, collaboration and
innovation. Since its inception improvscience has worked with over a
thousand professionals in Science, Technology, Engineering and
Mathematics education and research.

Regulations and Their Emergent Effects

There’s a fascinating story in the New York Times, “Profits on Carbon Credits Drive Output of a Harmful Gas“:

[W]here the United Nations envisioned environmental reform, some manufacturers of gases used in air-conditioning and refrigeration saw a lucrative business opportunity.

They quickly figured out that they could earn one carbon credit by eliminating one ton of carbon dioxide, but could earn more than 11,000 credits by simply destroying a ton of an obscure waste gas normally released in the manufacturing of a widely used coolant gas. That is because that byproduct has a huge global warming effect. The credits could be sold on international markets, earning tens of millions of dollars a year.

That incentive has driven plants in the developing world not only to increase production of the coolant gas but also to keep it high — a huge problem because the coolant itself contributes to global warming and depletes the ozone layer.

Writing good regulation to achieve exactly the effects that you want is a hard problem. It’s not hard in the “throw some smart people” at it sense, but hard in the sense that you’re generally going to have to make hard tradeoffs around behavior like this. Simple regulations will fail to capture nuance, but as the regulation becomes more complex, you end up with more nooks and crannies full of strange outcomes.

We as people and as a society need to think about how much of this we want. If we want to regulate with a fine-toothed comb, then we’re going to see strange things like this. If we want to regulate more broadly, we’ll likely end up with some egregious failures and frauds like Enron or the mortgage crisis. But those failures are entirely predictable: companies occasionally fake their books, and bankers will consistently sell as much risk as they can to the biggest sucker. For example, Bush administration’s TARP program or Seattle taking on $200 million in risk from a hedge fund manager who wants to build a new sports stadium. At least that risk isn’t hidden in some bizarre emergent effect of the regulation.

That aside, long, complex regulations are always going to produce emergent and chaotic effects. That matters for us in security because as we look at the new laws that are proposed, we should look to see not only their intended effects, but judge if their complexity itself is a risk.

I’m sure there’s other emergent effects which I’m missing.

Washington State Frees Liquor Sales: some quick thoughts

I hate to let an increase in liberty go by without a little celebration.

For the past 78 years, Washington State has had a set of (effectively) state-operated liquor stores, with identical pricing and inventory. Today, that system is gone, replaced by private liquor sales. The law was overturned by a ballot initiative, heavily backed by Costco.

This is an interesting experiment in letting a little chaos emerge. Unfortunately, it’s not really a transition to a free market, since there are all sorts of licensing restrictions on who may trade in the demon rum. However, there will initially be about 5 times as many legal retailers as were previously present.

The transition is going to be messy. There’s lots of licensed retailers who haven’t obtained inventory. There’s a thousand people who were voted out of their jobs. Change is often messy.

After the transition, I expect prices will be roughly the same because of taxes and fees. What I expect will be much better is the selection and variety, especially of locally produced products from folks like Oola and Pacific Distillery. Many of those businesses were seriously inhibited by the complex and chummy system that was present.

I also expect surprise and look forward to it.

So raise a toast to the slow unwinding of a very silly system of prohibition.

Please Kickstart Elevation of Privilege

Jan-Tilo Kirchhoff asked on Twitter for a printer (ideally in Germany) to print up some Elevation of Privilege card sets. Deb Richardson then suggested Kickstarter.

I wanted to comment, but this doesn’t fit in a tweet, so I’ll do it here.

I would be totally excited for someone to Kickstarter production of Elevation of Privilege. Letting other people make it, and make money on it, was an explicit goal of the Creative Commons license (CC-BY-3.0) that we selected when we released the game.

So why don’t I just set up a Kickstarter? In short, I think it’s a caesar’s wife issue. I think there’s a risk that it looks bad for me to decide to release things that Microsoft paid me to do, and then make money off of them.

Now, that impacts me. It doesn’t impact anyone else. I would be totally excited for someone else to go make some cards and sell them. I would promote such a thing, and help people find whatever lovely capitalist is doing it. I would be happy to support a Kickstarter campaign, and would be willing to donate some of my time and energy with things like signing decks, doing a training sessions, or whatnot. I even have some joker cards that you could produce as a special bonus item.

So, if you think Elevation of Privilege is cool, please, go take advantage of the license we released it under, and go make money with it.

[Update: I don’t have exact numbers, but have seen quotes for quantities around 5,000 decks, production might be around $2-3 a deck. At smaller quantities, you might end up around $5-7 a deck. YMMV. So a Kickstarter in the range of $5-10K would probably be workable, although you’d certainly want to think about shipping and handling costs.]

Kind of Copyrighted

This Week in Law is a fascinating podcast on technology law issues, although I’m way behind on listening. Recently, I was listening to Episode #124, and they had a discussion of Kind of Bloop, “An 8-Bit Tribute to Miles Davis’ Kind of Blue.” There was a lawsuit against artist Andy Baio, which he discusses in “Kind of Screwed.” There’s been a lot of discussion of the fair use elements of the case (for example, see “Kind of Bamboozled: Why ‘Kind of Bloop’ is Not a Fair Use“). But what I’d really like to talk about is (what I understand to be) a clear element of copyright law that is fundamental to this case, and that is compulsory mechanical licensing.

In TWIL podcast, there’s a great deal of discussion of should Baio have approached the photographer for a license or not. He did approach the copyright holders for Kind of Blue, who were “kind” enough to give him a license. They gave him a license for the music, but he didn’t need to approach them. Copyright law gives anyone the right to record a cover, and as a result, there is a flourishing and vibrant world of cover music, including great podcasts like Coverville, and arists like Nouvelle Vague, who do amazing bossa-nova style covers of punk. (Don’t miss their cover of Too Drunk to Fuck.) And you can listen to that because they don’t have to approach the copyright holder for permission. Maybe they would get it, maybe not. But their ability to borrow from other artists and build on their work is a matter of settled law.

I’m surprised this difference didn’t come up in the discussion, because it seems to me to be kind of important.

It’s kind of important because it’s a great example of how apparently minor variations in a law can dramatically change what we see in the world. It’s also a great example of how constraining rules like mechanical licensing can encourage creativity by moving a discussion from “allow/deny” to “under what circumstances can a copyright holder use the courts to forbid a copy.” If we had mechanical licensing for all copyrighted materials, Napster might still be around and successful.

The Pre-K underground?

Not my headline, but the New York Times:

Beyond the effort was the challenge of getting different families to work together. When matters as personal as education, values and children are at stake, intense emotions are sure to follow, whether the issue is snacks (organic or not?), paint (machine washable?) or what religious holidays, if any, to acknowledge. Oh, and in many cases, forming a co-op school is illegal, because getting the required permits and passing background checks can be so prohibitively expensive and time-consuming that most co-ops simply don’t. (“The Pre-K Underground“, The New York Times, December 16)

Read the whole thing, and then give some thought to how effectively those policies, combined with the drug war, are de-legitimizing governments, and convincing people that to live their lives involves avoiding government rules. Eventually, even legitimate and necessary functions of government like courts will fall apart.

Think I’m exaggerating?

“There’s a fairly stringent code and byzantine process for getting certified and code-compliant,” said City Councilman Brad Lander, a Democrat from Brooklyn, whose office held a meeting over the summer for any co-ops interested in pooling their resources and securing permits. “Some are genuinely for the safety of kids, and some are more debatable.”

There’s a city councilman driving doubt over the system. What does that do to the legitimacy? What happens to the social contract?

Will the war on coop kindergardens join the war on drugs?

Slow Thoughts on Occupy Seattle

Corporate ThievesI headed down to Occupy Seattle before a recent vacation, and have been mulling a bit on what I saw, because the lack of a coherent message or leadership or press make it easy to project our own opinions or simply mis-understand what the “Occupy” protests mean, and I wanted to avoid making that mistake. I think I saw two big themes there: an anti-war theme, and a combination of anti-capitalism and anti-corporatism. I think the second is more interesting, because it’s a combination of views, some of which I support, and others I think are somewhat foolish.

I think capitalism is a good thing. I’ve taken a salary from (venture) capitalists who were able to pay me because they captured “surplus value” from startups, and ploughed some of that profit back into more startups. I use the Marixst term of “surplus value” because I understand the Marxist critique, have lived it, and still think it’s a better system than all those others that have been tried from time to time. (I also think that Marx’s critique of capitalism is excellent, and even more so in light of the poorness of his suggested fixes.) The accumulation of capital in private hands greatly expands the range of entrepreneurship, allowing new products and services to emerge. And for those new products to succeed, they need to serve needs better than what preceded them. So we all benefit to a degree from the capital that accumulates in the hands of investors (even with the costs of creative destruction and externalities.)

At the same time, I think that there’s an emergent system of what we might call corporatism that I think is incompatible with a free society, and is in fact incompatible with free markets. By a free market, I mean one in which people contract with each other and with companies, and the court system enforces fair and predictable limits on those contracts. Fair limits might include that the parties came to a genuine meeting of the minds before exchanging value, that contracts are severable (so no indentured servitude or slavery), that interpretation favors the party that received the contract (rather than the drafter), and that neither party engaged in deceit in advertising their services.

Corporatism, at its heart, involves twisting the free market via government intervention in a number of ways:

  • Lobbying for rules that allow the company to exclude competition. See, for example, AT&T’s gradual re-monopolization of the phone system.
  • Manipulations of the contract system in ways which prevent fair redress. These include mandatory binding arbitration, prohibition of class action suits, clauses that allow the contract to remain in force even if the drafter puts in many clauses which shock the conscience of a court.
  • Un-knowable systems (in particular, the American credit system) in which companies work together to ensure that you do what they demand, even if it’s wrong, because if you don’t, they will destroy your ability to contract with anyone else on fair terms.
  • Convincing the government to take all the downside risk and none of the upside of the banking crisis, and then failing to prosecute those who enriched themselves via a game they knew full well was rigged.

Corporatism comes from the discovery that rules and meta-rules (the rules that are used to set the rules) are manipulatable. Of course, this is nothing new:

“People of the same trade seldom meet together, even for merriment and diversion, but the conversation ends in a conspiracy against the public, or in some contrivance to raise prices. It is impossible indeed to prevent such meetings, by any law which either could be executed, or would be consistent with liberty and justice.” (Smith, “The Wealth of Nations.”

There were a good number of frankly anti-capitalist signs and groups at Occupy Seattle. It’s a free country, they’re entitled to their opinion, and I can disagree.

But they were not the only signs. I saw lots of signs which seemed to take aim at the unaccountable: the bankers, the corporations (“I won’t believe that corporations are people until Texas executes one”). And I think that responses to currently unaccountable corporatism is going to be one of the key outcomes of the Occupy Movement.