Thursday, December 23, 2004

A Simplistic view of Law & Society

In these days when furious debates are being held in the realm of copyright law (besides some people making loads of money!), I thought I'll put some thoughts into what it is all about. But before thinking about copyright law, I thought of putting what I understand of 'law' to be. So, I started with the question -
"What is law?"

Rather than define it first, I tried to create some hypothetical situations and then try to come to a definition. So I started with it's uses.

So, then, when are laws required? Assuming there is one person in a clearing in a forest. Are laws required for him? Nope.

Now assuming that clearing becomes a village of ten people. Are laws required now? Let's also assume that the basic tenet of this village is to survive with everyone's prosperity in mind. If everyone knows everyone else and understand each other's responsibilites and roles and the overal tenet of the village, are laws required? I should think not. If one person in the group decides to dominate the others in the group, the rest of the group can gang up against this person and explain to him that either he goes by the basic tenet of the village or he will be executed! So in a case where intentional malice is involved we can say that a law is not required. How about the case when malice is unintentional? Say one of the villagers is felling a tree for firewood and for some reason this falls on someone else's hut! If the person's action is truly unintentional then he would try to make amends in whatever form possible to ensure the survival of his fellow villager.

Now, over time, this village becomes a town of ten thousand people. People don't know each other anymore beyond their immediate neighbours. Therefore a representative government is required to ensure that the basic tenet is again followed among everyone. So now the tenet is pasted in big, bold letters everywhere and a new group of people created to oversee that people follow this tenet. A law and law enforcers have appeared.

So, what is a law, then? As a one line definition, I came to-
"Law is the common sense of the collective"

There are a couple of points here which I think is important.
First. Common sense, as common sense should be, is applied according to the scenario and situation. As an example, we all know that stepping onto a busy road is dangerous and may even be considered illegal, but if there's a child stranded in the middle, we'd throw caution to the winds and try to help the kid out. So, common sense to a large extent holds true in most situations, but we should always be open to change it if circumstances demands it.

Second, besides the situation or cicumstance, 'time' is not considered AT ALL in this statement. This is very, very crucial. In essence, whenever a law is created, it is assumed to apply FOREVER! This obviously goes against the grain of common sense! Therefore, law can and should change according to both time and place.

At this point, I remembered a famous quotation by Jean Jacques Rousseau -
"Man is born free, but everywhere he is in chains."

Are laws the only constraints that apply to individuals in a society? That's a negative again. Culture and society place additional constraints on each individual. Similar to going through a formal process of changing laws, when it comes to culture, conflicts arise between generations, when old mores are questioned and new ones introduced. By and large, social and cultural constraints go a long way before law needs to step in. When time is taken into account, this also means that the older the culture the more constraints exist, and the more time it takes for that particular society to adapt to new circumstances. Conversely, a society with a relatively younger culture will need to have more laws to ensure it's society running smoothly.

Going back to the original question "What is law?", we can say that law is using your common sense in a way which will ensure the good of the society as a whole.

The situation changes subtlely when organisations form. Organisations, by virtue of their definition, is a group unto its own. Although, it is formed by individuals it can still be considered for all extents and purposes as an entity trying to survive in society. A sub-society in a society, if you will. In most cases, organisations have the same goals as societies, to survive by providing the best for it's members. Usually, organisations have their own sets of rules and standards. These are called policies. Most of the time, the company's policies are more explicit than cultural, social and legal norms. Additionally, these policies are usually more rigid than norms as these are what define what the company is!

Now, there is a type of organisation called a corporation. A corporation's goals are vastly differnet from that of a society, or even that of an organisation. A corporation's goals are to grow bigger constantly. In other words, survival is not the most important issue, growth is. And for that growth to continue, it becomes important for more and more people of the society to use the corporation's produce. In other words, the sole aim of the corporation is to reduce choice for society. The reduction of choice can seem dangerous but need not necessarily be so. Society also provides similar situations - driving on a particular side of the road is an example. If all roads could be made one-ways, it would no doubt save all the head-on collisions!

However, unlike in the case of society where the reduction of choice results in the good of all of society, a corporation tries to reduce choice in society for the good of the few who own the corporation. Even when a corporation is publicly traded, the people at the helm make far more than each of those individuals who own small pieces of it. This distinction is extremely important.

So what happens when all the members of the society are consumers for the corporation? The corporation cannot grow any further! This creates a dilemma! Because if the corporation cannot grow, it's basic tenet is threatened! Additionally, over time as circumstances change, the corporation has a tougher and tougher time in retaining it's identity as it's policies go slowly out of date! Whereas in a society, changes can happen only incrementally; in a corporation, changes can only be disruptive.

In an ideal scenario these two have to be balanced in a civilisation. That is because, although a society's aim is to improve the well being of it's members, the only way it can do this is by encouraging corporation as these are the entitities which are primarily involved in the creation and distribution of large scale goods and services. This is because although creation happens in an individual mind, to give that idea shape and form, an organisation is required which would divided the labour. To ensure that the organisation succeeds in it's endeavour, it has to become a corporation.

Society, by it's basic tenet, realises that a corporation taking it over would result in its dying as it will become unadaptable to new circumstances. Therefore, the only way that a society can prevent this is by having laws in limiting the corporation's prowess. Conversely, the only way a corporation can continue growing is by gaining control over society. And the only way it can do this is by gaining control over it's laws! Since laws are "common sense of the collective", it becomes imperative to change that common sense! In most cases, this is called 'marketing'! Please note, 'marketing' is in quotes! I distinguish this from ordinary word of mouth which I would think to be as true marketing as these are honest opinions of users, rather than fabrications, however honest, of a paid agency.

Getting back to law, it becomes imperative for a corporation to change the law to suit itself. There are two ways of doing this. Control the rulers or by brainwashing the society. Both of these inevitably are short term visions. Over a longer period of time, there are sufficient advances made both in the physical, mental and social realm for either of these choices to succeed forever.

However, when that happens, there is always a revolution. In thinking, in action.

Update: Was reading an article on Slashdot called Copyright Issues in the Mainstream, and came across this in the comments -
No one has any natural right to any possession. Fundamentally, my property is defined by what I can either take and hide, or take and defend by any force I have available.

Government, via "social contract", creates and protects property rights and acts as the sanctioned force used to enforce those rights. The question then becomes, "what defines property, what defines fairness, and what limits and enpowers those rights?"

And that's why there's any argument at all. All the players in the intellectual property game have different and sometimes opposed ideas of roles, rights, and responsibilities. Fairness begins to boil down to "fair to who?", with the answer becoming "whoever can influence government to protect their interest best".

Explicitly, copyright was used to create and protect possession of the intellectual expression of a creator's ideas to allow those creators to profit for a short time by creating artificial scarcity and temporary monopoly. (Ideas and their expressed artifacts, uncaged, tend to flow around and multiply without regard to their creators' wishes to make a buck by them.) This was explicitly intended as incentive to publish, to share with culture the product of a creator's mind. The consumer's "right" to that creator's creation were deliberately circumscribed during the copyright time period. After that, the creation escapes into public domain.

Now, however, the rights of creators (or more specifically, the rights of those media corporate entities who co-opt the creators and wield their rights by proxy) have placed their profit rights well beyond the reasonable scope of incentive and, as you say, into the realm of perpetual monopoly, at the expense of the society which was intended as the primary beneficiary.

Sad, truly sad.

Saturday, October 30, 2004

Alternative Transport Solutions

According to the third BRIC (Brazil, Russia, India, China) report from investment banking firm Goldman Sachs, India is projected to have the largest number of cars in the world, 611 million to be precise, by 2050. A number of people have been very happy by this report. But personally, it saddened me a great deal.

Let me go over my points in sequence with respect to different transportation solutions.

Intra-city Transport
There are two main reasons for owning cars. First is the convenience of mobility being under one's control. And second is the car as a status symbol. I'll address only the first one as the second is just marketing.

The first reason cannot be denied and as more and more people can afford it, they will chose a mode of transport that gives them the most freedom. However, there are a number of factors in this which are not individual. The existence of roads and other infrastructure is a major reason. If these are not present, no amount of marketing will convince people to buy cars. And this factor is not individual; instead it is the government's decision. So that's a crucial one.

India is at a stage where it can create new and innovative solutions to the personal transport problem because we have not gone too far ahead in terms of cars like America has. Additionally, India being more a socialist democracy than a capitalist one, the corporations do not have the powers that they weild in America. Because of both of these reasons I think that India is in a unique position to create a solution which will be better than what the first world countries have found.

The third reason for looking into an innovative solution is the extent the problem of traffic management exists currently. The present infrastructure cannot cope with the amount of traffic increasing on an almost daily basis. From the way it is going in India, infrastructure is barely managing to meet current needs let alone future trends.

One solution is to improve the public transportation system. But besides having better buses and autorikshaw services, I think some form of innovative personal transportation system will help India in the longer run way, way more.

In the cities, some form of public rail system can be devised onto which personal modules can travel. That way once you're on this rail system in your personal module, you don't need to a) drive and b) control your module. Your module travels at a predetermined speed, and the rail acts as the direction controller. Only when you're nearing your destination, need you take control and 'drive off' the rail.

This way, both traffic jams as well as pollution (due to stop & go traffic), can be avoided. At the same time, people's desire of having a car for both mobility and status symbol can be satisfied!

Additionally, incentivising bicycles and providing separate cycling tracks will go a long way too! Also, how come adding a flywheel to a bicycle hasn't yet caught on? I'm sure it's complex, but not insurmountable.


Inter-City Transport
This is to a large extent is being solved by both airlines and trains. However, the need for road transport will remain, as this is the only option for accessing smaller cities and towns. I think the best solution for this something akin to the Blade Runner concept would be ideal. I just hope and pray that this solution will become way more prevalent than it is currently.

I wrote a blog about solutions that currently exist in long distance transport earlier.


Additionally, this is one concept that can be re-utilised for cargo as well. This can add to the currently existing rail network. Currently, in India, cargo transport over roads is increasing by leaps and bounds. This would be a good solution especially if the passenger and cargo modules are interchangeable.

Yes, all this will require a lot of guts from the government's perspective to implement. But I'm sure some kind of a pilot can be managed. And once the success of this is made clear, it would go a long way in terms of the environment.


Rural Transport
I think this is where the maximum amount of innovation can take place. However, the maximum amount of hurdles also exists here, starting again from infrastructure down to costs associated with alternative solutions. One of the most interesting solutions that I've seen is providing pneumatic tires to bullock carts, which not only makes the ride far less bumpy (if less romantic!), but also utilise the bullocks energy more effectively.

Here again, I wonder why a flywheel concept hasn't caught on. I think that would be very useful here.

The biggest advantage with rural transport is that speed is not as big a criteria as it is in urban situations. I think this is one factor that hasn't been made use of well enough.


A Flywheel to which makes use of gravity!
Coming to think of it, I wonder why the flywheel hasn't been used more effectively in all transportation systems. I mean, they are used but why don't they take advantage of gravity when they can?

For example, if I was driving a car downhill, why isn't the potential energy getting fed back into a flywheel. Even the hybrid cars don't utilise this idea. Only the braking energy is fed back into batteries.


Maybe some kind of a modular flywheel concept needs to be evolved. Anybody know of any?


Of course, all these things will take tremendous amounts of will power and initiative both from the private and public sector. And most importantly, from the government as well as each and every Indian.

But as one of my most favourite saying goes -
"The impossible just takes a little longer".


Update

I wrote the blog on 'Alternative Transportation Solutions' on 30th of October and today I see this article where Toyota is proposing the same thing! It's called the 'Intelligent Multimode Transport System'

(Maybe I should stop this blog!! There are eyes everywhere-e-e-e-e!!!)


via We-Make-Money-Not-Art

Update 2

Came across an excellent article in WorldChanging called Redesigning Transportation. WorldChanging reports on an article called "Three Key Developments for Surface Transportation" by Bruce McHenry, a technology entrepreneur.

His Powerpoint presentation which talks about costs associated in a rail based transportation system is extremely enlightening.

Update 3

Roland Piquepaille (my favourite 'edge of tech' blogger) has an article on Autonomous Vehicles titled "Will Our Cars Become Our Chauffeurs?"

Friday, August 27, 2004

The future of Music (and all other media)

The RIAA and Justice department are back at it again. Trying to catch people, no school children!, who have been downloading music files illegally!

I wonder how long this ridiculous state of affairs will continue.

Currently, if I have to play a music file which I've (ahem!) converted from my legally bought CD anywhere at any time, I have to do a number of things. I have to keep the file on my computer. I have to copy it on an MP3 player which I can carry around. I will also probably have to broadcast it on internet radio if I want to hear my music from another PC connected to the internet (the one in Hawaii, of course!!). And finally, I have to save it on another device as a backup!!

That's really too much of a pain.

These are "Why not"s which I think will ease that pain forever.... and not only for me!

Why not have all my music on a central server? And then I can hear it from any PC on the internet anywhere, right? Even the one in Hawaii! I pay a nominal charge to the chap maintaining the server for the space he provides me.

To take it another level higher, I'm sure that the same chap will be playing the same file to other listeners as well, right? So, do I really have to buy that song? Why don't I pay him some nominal (and I mean very, very nominal!) charge each time I play that song?

Let's notch it up one more. Why don't listeners with similar tastes in music share their playlists through this ISP. Or rather I choose to listen to another playlist which I think is close to my taste. Why can't the chap maintaining the server (yup, the same guy!) create a web site like musicplasma from where I can pick up lists?

And then why can't industries who own all this media, say Sony or Time Warner, put all their media on the internet so that my server guy can serve me that too? BBC has already started putting their stuff out there (going back all the way to 1934!), so why can't the rest of the industry do the same?

And with the current trend in wireless connectivity increasing, I think it shouldn't be too long before every device has an IP address! So I should be able to hear 'my music' on my handheld (phone, PDA, watch, whatever!) as long as I'm in a wi-fi hot spot.

Finally, all this can be beamed by Digital Audio Broadcasting (DAB), which promises higher quality on smaller devices, and I'm sure they'll get smaller as time goes on. By the way, the same thing can also be done with video, and guess what it's called! And if my lists get more clicks then I get a credit! Why not? After all, we listen to different radio stations for their selections. So whoever is hosting my list has more users to gain, right? I think that would open a new economic niche!

Of course, this would require a whole lot of initiatives from a whole lot of different industries, and yes, it would require visionaries, in the ISPs, in the content providers, in the music & movie industry. And please, please it would really require better websites!

And my final question - Why doesn't the RIAA and all these other chaps stop chasing people around and do some real work? According to me, the 'Recording Industry Association of America' should be ultimately responsible for giving the users of their products the best experience possible out there.

Or did I get that last one wrong?!!

Friday, August 20, 2004

What's after Bittorrent?

You know bittorrent, right? It's the way to download huge files using P2P connections. Recently, Microsoft tried to use the torrent concept to distribute it's huge SP2 patch. The concept behind bittorrent is one which is very appealing to me because it's very, very democratic! Let me explain a little more about bittorrent and it will become self explanatory.

First, to use Bittorrent, you need a bittorrent client. The one I like best is called Azareus. Bittorrent uses what are called 'torrent files'. This is basically the what has the details of the whole file that you want to download. Since this file is usually about a few tens of kilobytes in size, it hardly takes any time. Once you've got the torrent file, you point your bittorrent client to this torrent file and then the client takes over. It contacts everyone who has bits of this huge file and requests them for it.

A nice and short Bittorrent tutorial can be found here.

The difference between bittorrent and other P2P clients is that bittorrent splits the file into many pieces and then downloads the different pieces from different nodes. And the file gets aggregated locally. Unlike other P2P clients where once you've made contact with another node which has the same file, the client tries to download the entire file from that node. So in their case, the speed of download depends upon that node's upload bandwidth and your download bandwidth. Bittorrent conveniently bypasses this bottleneck!

The democratic part about bittorrent is that as soon as it gets one piece it immediately shares it with everyone else as well! That speeds the overall download!!

Now, once I got the concept, I got thinking. Usually, bittorrent is getting used currently only for downloading pirated movies and software. But maybe it can be put to better use!

And here's the earth shattering idea! All those websites are files, right? HTML files, but files nonetheless. And a file is a file, right? So, why not use the same bittorrent concept to them as well? Take any of the login pages, for example. Yahoo, Hotmail, even Google or Rediff. Why do I have to download the file from San Francisco, or wherever the server is placed. Why don't I download it from my neighbour who checked his mail a couple of hours ago?

And since HTML pages have the date and time when they were created, say if I want to check the news at BBC as of this morning, instead of like, right now, I shouldn't have to go all the way to the BBC server. I should be able to get whoever has downloaded the page since this morning, who's geographically closer to me and who's online. And if there are many people online, I can get the different bits from everyone and my page will load even faster!!

What do you think, should I patent this idea? I don't have a goddamn clue about the technology behind all this, so I'm clueless as Dr. Watson after a murder.

Any Sherlocks out there?

Saturday, July 24, 2004

Dual Mode Transport

You know, although India is getting all these great roads now, which are really a pleasure to drive on, but I still feel that our rail service, despite having one of the largest number of reachable destinations as well as having the one of the longest amount of tracks in the world, is one of the most under-utilised resources of our country.

Of course, improving the rail systems will itself help a great deal. The whole logistics of sending a package from say, Bangalore to Delhi by rail, is such a headache, that it's simply easier and safer to pay more and transport it by road. But there are other impacts of the high amount of road transportation that happnes in India. One of the biggest being increased dependency on oil. Per kilometer, it is more expensive to transport goods by road than rail. Besides the fact that there is much more environmental damage involved. And this is not even considering other facts like increased probability of accidents on the roads and more garbage being littered in the countryside.

Why doesn't Indian Railways provide a container service, for example? Just like what is available for road transport. What about an online tracking service of goods? What about assured deliveries? I'm sure this can be achieved, especially in the metropolises.

That is as far as the goods side goes. What about people? We all know that state transport buses are the most dangerous animals on the roads! Is there an alternative possible? I came across this dual-mode transport vehicle, which not only runs on the road but also on the rails! I think this would be ideal for India. Even if the train does not have a major stop in one of the smaller towns, it would be possible to connect those towns by rail!

Check it out...

Dual Mode Transport

Alternative Trasportation Systems


Mathematics in Real World Applications!

Mathematics? In the real world? Well, besides at the groceries, sometimes its good to see interesting applications of mathematics outside the calculations of salaries and income tax!

I came across this website where they have proposed a new form of traffic management system at an intersection. The writeup is technical, as is the downloadable PDF document. But what is interesting are the simulations. They are all java applets. The 'Traffic Light' simulation is the one which happens every day. The 'Reservation System' is the crux of this whole paper that is published. It suggests that cars interact with the intersection in reserving a time during which it will pass the intersection and correspondingly adjusts it's speed. The idea is to use GPS, in-car navigation systems to decrease traffic congestion. This way, traffic lights are gotten rid off altogether. Once you've seen the simulation of 'Traffic Light', the simulation of the 'Reservation System' is really enlightening!

And don't forget the simulations are idealised! They don't consider a number of factors. But all the same, they are interesting to watch!

I was still wondering if a low cost alternative is possible.

Thursday, July 22, 2004

Is Technology Evolution?

Ever since the invention of the wheel, smelting of iron before that and the discovery of fire even before, it has been assumed that all that has been created are external and therefore outside us. These discoveries and inventions certainly help in making life easy, but it is in no way an indispensable part of life, like life wouldn’t survive without it.

To a very large extent that is true, whatever creations of human engineering we’ve enjoyed have just been comforts. But there is something happening of late which I foresee to be a precursor of a more fundamental change. After years of beating our heads against the inert chemicals of nature, iron, copper, steel, silicon, we’ve finally come to a point where we’re creating things which are not just enhancements of what happens in nature but something totally different. This is not just one change bur numerous small things that are happening around us. I would say that this is as fundamental a change as bipedal locomotion or the opposable thumb. And of course, it’s happening in the realm of software.

Over the years, manufacturing and global economy and trade have also come into this area. But to a very, very large extent, we really don’t consider them as a fundamental change in terms of evolution of humanity on a day-to-day basis. We might be involved in it completely but it still doesn’t strike us that without it, humanity wouldn’t survive. We see it more as a complexification of the numerous systems in place and live it down as something which has to be endured. And with the advent of computers, our documents, presentations, and maybe our customer service phone calls have improved, but really, it doesn’t go much beyond that, does it? We spend ours in front of silicon and glass boxes, but still don’t consider them fundamentally a part of us.

It all started when I downloaded 'Brain', a plugin for Winamp, that ubiquitous software for PCs which plays all kind of music and video files.

What ‘Brain’ does is it just sits quietly in the system tray and watches your music playing habits. What music you play, how often, which ones you skip through, which ones you fast-forward. And based upon all this data it draws it’s conclusions of your likes and dislikes. The actual lightning strikes when you’ve had enough of playing your music collection by choosing through them and select ‘brainplay’. Once the ‘brain’ takes over, it plays according to what it understands of your music preference! And not in the order of ‘most played’ or ‘most popular’ and all those combinations! It plays random files, even those that you haven’t played before but guesses that you might like it!! And believe me, in all this time, it doesn’t seem to have made any mistakes on my system! 'Brain' comes with it's own audio player, and it's called Synapse, obviously!

The other software I came across is something called ‘Blinkx’. This is a downloadable search tool, which when you use to search, gives results not only from the internet and news / blog feeds, but also from your local drive! The interesting thing about this? It doesn’t search by ‘keywords’ or specific terms but by ‘ideas’ and ‘concepts’. And instead of throwing up one file which contains what you’re looking for, it gives all the files which it thinks you might be interested in! I discovered long, lost documents which I knew I had saved, but had forgotten the names of! And not just that, when you’re using ‘Microsoft Word’ or ‘Internet Explorer’ as soon as you select a word or a phrase, it automatically scans the web, the local drive, newsfeeds and blogs to give a set of results if you’re interested in having a look! You don’t have to put terms in a search box, you get online information from everywhere as you type! So from now on, I don’t have to think about organizing my documents any more! I can throw anything anywhere & ‘Blinkx’ will find it for me!

Both of these softwares, don’t work from the word go. They sit quietly and watch what you do. They keep track of what you’ve done. And based upon all this data actually end up providing to you something that is not only meaningful, but also intelligent!

Why I say that these two softwares are indications of something fundamental is because all these ages, that engineering and communications have primarily achieved is number crunching, whether it comes to speed or distance. We can make more widgets and send them anywhere, both much faster than what would have been possible otherwise humanly. But now, suddenly, I see information that could only be given by another human! To observe, to draw conclusions from and to suggest associations which we didn’t know existed!

Finally, finally, we’ve created something greater than us. Finally, the whole, meaning computers and us, is becoming more than the sum of its parts.

And this is surely a jump in evolution, don’t you think?