Wednesday, May 24, 2006

Bipartisan Solidarity in Response to FBI Raids

Don't know how many of you heard about the FBI raid on Democratic Congressman William J. Jefferson's office. This has never happened before; Congressmen accused of taking bribes are indicted, not searched. In response, the Republican and Democratic leaders of the House issued a joint statement. It's about fucking time these idiots put down politics to fight overextension of the Executive branch.

In a rush tonight, full story can be found here. More in a couple of days.

Tuesday, May 23, 2006

Virtual Resident Sues for Real Profits

The first suit over virtual real estate has been filed in Pennsylvania. The case of Bragg v. Linden Research concerns a purchase of land in Second Life (SL) at an extraordinarily low price by manipulating an online auction. As a citizen of Second Life, I think this is intriguing. One of the extremely cool steps that Linden has taken (and one of the reasons I pay for an account with benefits rather than simply using the free accounts) is that the things I create belong to me. They are my copyright, my patent, my property. Further, Linden dollars, or L$ as they are more commonly known inworld, have a worth of about $1/L$300, so when this guy's account was suspended for a real estate deal, he lost access to a lot of inworld property that has realworld value. He claims damages in excess of $8,000, which is not unrealistic given the amount of property he owned.

Joshua Fairfield, a specialist in internet law at Indiana University, thinks this case is unlikely to set major precedent in the area of online property because the arguments will likely revolve around whether Bragg violated the user agreement. Since that agreement constitutes a contract, any breach would entitle Linden to suspend his account, realworld value or not. I'm cautious about picking sides just yet due to the lack of information available on this case, but irrespective of the legal issues involved, my first instinct here is to side with Bragg. Sure, he took advantage of a security hole in Linden's auction system to bid on properties with no minimum and no competition, but the appropriate measure is to rescind the land deal and impose some smaller sanction, not to summarily ban someone so heavily invested in the SL world.

Bragg, from what I understand, made a substantial amount of money from his activities inworld, and though I don't know the extent of his involvement, I do know that there are some people who make their RL living entirely on SL. I understand the magnitude of having so much effort simply taken away because I own land, create content, and buy and sell virtual objects myself. The economy of Second Life, if it is to be a successful virtual economy, must not be subject to the whims of Linden; those who work and play there must have legally protected rights.

Is the right way to do that through the courts? Probably not, at least not yet. The owners of such virtual worlds should not all be legally required to handle their residents in the same way at this vital stage in the development of the technology. The goal of Linden's project, however, is a stable virtual world which mirrors the real one, and by unilaterally banning people for infractions like this, they undermine confidence in the stability of the gameworld and access to the things one creates and theoretically owns.

Creating something good enough to sell on SL takes a while. The object creation system is very intuitive and easy to use, but the precision of the work demands a very large investment of time and patience. Further, creating objects that do something rather than simply looking pretty requires a knowledge of LSL, the Linden Scripting Language. For people like me with a limited background in programming, the learning curve can be pretty steep. The amount of time I've spent learning to use the SL system and creating objects is not something I take lightly, and I only use SL for fun. If I made real money doing what I do, I would be furious. Mad enough to sue, in fact. What Linden needs to do is give its users assurances not only that the content they create belongs to them but that they will have access to it except in cases of extreme misbehavior. A fradulent land deal can be solved with sanctions and a rescision of the contract of sale, and Linden would do well to remember its citizens are watching.

Addendum: Thoughts On Re-Reading the 6,300-Word SL License

Some of the provisions Linden has made are good common sense, like the insistence that Linden Dollars are "not redeemable for monetary value from Linden Lab." Other provisions, though helpful for corporate autonomy in regulating the SL world, are going to have to give way for virtual economies to truly take off. Example: "Linden Lab has the absolute right to manage, regulate, control, modify and/or eliminate such Currency as it sees fit in its sole discretion, and that Linden Lab will have no liability to you based on its exercise of such right." In fact, the term "sole discretion" shows up in the agreement fifteen times. This is like the U.S. government telling you, "Our money is the only way you can pay for things in America, but we can give or take away money on a whim." Linden further reserves the right to regulate the currency exchange in any way they like. Would you invest in a country like that?

Here's the real kicker, though, and the thing that convinces me Bragg is going to go down in flames:

"Linden Lab has the right at any time for any reason or no reason to suspend or terminate your Account, terminate this Agreement.... In the event that Linden Lab suspends or terminates your Account or this Agreement, you understand and agree that you shall receive no refund or exchange for any unused time on a subscription, any license or subscription fees, any content or data associated with your Account, or for anything else." [Emphasis added]

So, even though you own the content you create, Linden reserves the right to deny you access to it or even to delete it. "But Q!" you say. "This is intellectual property, not subject to the vagaries of physical property. Shouldn't you just regularly back up what you create so that it will be available to you if you should ever lose access to your account?" And to you I say YES! But you CAN'T! You cannot so much as save to your hard drive a texture file that's embedded in an SL object, let alone save the form of the object itself. No, once Linden takes your account, everything you built inworld is just gone.

But they don't reserve the right to keep it, just the right to destroy it. In fact, they expressly limit their use of user-created content to marketing, debugging, and support. When you consider that Geocities owns everything their users have written and posted there, this is a pretty big deal.


Mr. Bragg has been kind enough to agree to an interview. I'll let you know what I find out.

Three Cheers for Geek Media

WIRED magazine has posted the full text of AT&T whistle-blower Mark Klein's report on their illegal cooperation with the NSA's data mining program. In a statement about their reasons for doing so, WIRED said that both their own analyses and those of outside experts suggest there is no reason for this information to be kept secret. It poses no threat to AT&T's business, either from hackers or competitors. The judge in the case prohibited only the EFF from disseminating the information, and he specifical denied AT&T's request to prohibit Klein himself from spreading the information. The magazine has joined other news organizations, including the Associated Press and the LA Times, in petitioning for intervention in the case, which would give them access to the documents the court has deemed protected.

In other news, I just ran across a bit of the exact text of BellSouth's carefully-worded denial. Misleading headlines have screamed "BELLSOUTH DENIES INVOLVEMENT IN NSA WIRETAPPING SCHEME." That's wrong.

"We have no contract with the NSA and we have not turned over any customer information to the NSA." What does this mean? Why, precisely what it says! Of course BellSouth didn't form an official contract with the National Security Agency to spy on American phone calls. That would be madness from the outset. And of course BellSouth isn't providing customer information. All they're providing is phone records, detached from names! The NSA has to use a reverse phone directory themselves to find out who the customers actually are.

Teenage Bloggers Beware

A school district in Illinois is forcing students to sign a pledge stating that the school has the right to comb their blogs and MySpace accounts for signs of unacceptable activity. In the event that an underage kid writes about how drunk he got last night, he'll be treated as though he showed up to school drunk. Where the hell are the parents on this, and what the fuck happened to privacy?
Read the story here.

Sunday, May 21, 2006

Least Trusted American Minority

Here's a story for you. Who do people trust less than Jews, African-Americans, Muslims, or homosexuals? Atheists! Why? Good question. The survey specifically said that people felt these groups didn't "shar[e] their vision of American society." The leader of the study, Penny Edgell, called the plight of atheists "a glaring exception to the rule of increasing social tolerance over the last 30 years." I'm reminded of a line from Family Guy: "It doesn't matter what race we are. What's important is that we're all the same religion."

Frankly, though, as an atheist I find it insulting to have atheism be classified as a religion. The premise of this study, that atheists are a cohesive group, is just absurd. Atheists agree on one thing: no god. From there, it's anything goes. I've met professed atheists who still believe in animism or some greater cosmic harmony inherent in the structure of the universe itself, music without musician. Me, I call that transcendentalist bullshit. I'm a metaphysical materialist, and I don't believe in, well, anything.

I consider my ideology to be freedom from dogma, not another form of it. Susceptibility to information imparted at a young age is built into the human animal, but religion is no longer useful or necessary as the basis for an ethical code of conduct. The contradictions of the standard western Judeo-ChrIslamic model are all too apparent to one who is willing to engage in simple logical analysis, completely aside from the flaws in their accounts of biohistory and cosmogony made obvious by modern knowledge. This is not a matter of competing mythologies; this is deeper than that. At issue is whether one will believe what one is told or what one can see.

So am I saying animists and Raelians aren't atheists? No, they follow the basic premise: no god. What I am saying is that they're ignorant douchebags trapped in exactly the same sort of mythohistorical narrative used by all major religions. Believing humanity was seeded by an extremely advanced alien species is no better than believing god blew on some dirt and there was man; neither has the slightest shred of credibility.

The reason atheism is the most distrusted premise for developing a systematic interpretation of reality is because it sets off the heretic alarm in every religion. Christians can say that Buddhists have an instinctive connection with the peace of god, a Hindu will simply smile and tell you that you will learn more about the Atman in your next life, and Muslims actually are commanded against waging war on the other Abrahamic religions (Judaism and Christianity) in the Koran.

Atheists? Fuck 'em. Unconvertible, contrary bastards without the willingness to develop the doublethink necessary to adhere to any major religion. Kill the heretics/infidels/pagans/whatever. Because atheists reject the basic "invisible superman" theory of nearly all religions, they are in turn rejected as a self-defense mechanism. Remember, religions evolve just like organisms, and those that do not encourage conversion when possible, insulation if necessary, and murder if they can get away with it will fall prey to more ruthless codes. A xenophobia reflex is useful in a religion, and atheists set off all of them.

Note: If the link to the article above doesn't work, try this mirror.

Saturday, May 20, 2006


This is easily the funniest comment I've seen on the creation/evolution controversy yet.

Tuesday, May 16, 2006

PS3 is $600?!

Okay, I promise not to let my video gaming habit take over the blog in the face of the upcoming Console Wars, but GOD DAMN, what was Sony thinking? I just saw this story at MSNBC about the the price of the PS3. You know, I can afford $599 for a high-end gaming machine, but I ain't gonna pay it. The console comes with high-speed internet capability, wireless connectivity, and a 60 GB hard drive. What the fuck, I already own a computer! I don't want you to tack $200 onto the price of your VIDEO GAME CONSOLE for this unnecessary crap. Give me the option of a peripheral if I want to play online instead of charging an extra $50 on the console and then another $25 a month for your online gaming service! What's wrong with using USB memory keys as data storage instead of a hard drive that costs another $75? What if I don't want to use the wireless card in my VIDEO GAMING CONSOLE to turn on my computer or control the fridge of the future or set my alarm clock?

This is just waaaay too ambitious. I won't pay a cent over $450, and it'll take so long for the console to drop to that price that it probably won't even be worth it for the Bluray player. ***SIGH*** I guess I'm stuck with my PS2 for a while yet, cause god knows I'm not coughing up more than $50 for an X-Box 360!

Sunday, May 14, 2006

USA Today Breaks Newest Wiregate Revelations

This was the story I wanted to write so badly I spent 12 hours tracking down, correcting, and posting more than 50 newspaper columns in a brand spanking new blog. Exactly one month after I published this story based on information I found at the Electronic Frontier Foundation, USA Today broke the same story on their site, adding Verizon and my very own BellSouth to the list of offenders. One of the things that story glosses over, however, is the fact that the NSA was also tracking AT&T customers' internet use, including a list of specific web addresses accessed. I wouldnt be surprised to find out they were doing the same thing with Bellsouth and Verizon.

I called BellSouth to complain about this the day I found out; call me crazy, but it seems like a little customer outcry is in order. The poor girl who answered the phone of course knew nothing about it, so I asked to speak to her manager. 45 minutes and two botched transfers later, I finally got a nice, patronizing management type. I told him I objected in the strongest possible terms to BellSouth's illegal cooperation with unauthorized surveillance of American citizens, that I was seeking an alternate phone carrier immediately, and that I have every intention of joining the inevitable class action law suit against them. He would, of course, neither confirm nor deny anything, and when I told him I was recording our discussion, he said "I'm sorry, I can't continue this conversation" and hung up.

One class action suit has already been filed by the EFF on behalf of AT&T customers. The U.S. government, as expected, is invoking the state secrets privilege; they have filed a Statement of Interest in an attempt to get the case dismissed on grounds of national security. In light of the stggering amount of media coverage this betrayal of the public trust has generated, claiming that it's a secret seems a laughable defense. To my knowledge, there have been no suits filed against Verizon or AT&T; please drop me a line if you know anything about either of these.

Kudos to Qwest Communications, though! When the NSA approached them about the program, CEO Joe Nacchio asked the company's legal department to request a court order. The NSA refused on the grounds that they weren't sure they could get one! Needless to say, Qwest is up there on my list of alternate telecommunications carriers.

The NSA swears up and down that they don't actually eavesdrop on the conversations themselves, merely tracking every call made to and from a specific number, but given that in November they said that the government doesn't engage in warrantless surveillance, then in December we were being assured that they were only listening to phone calls where at least one party was outside of the United States, and then in February they claimed that purely domestic calls were fair game only where one party was suspected of terrorism, I don't believe a word of it. Be sure to say hi to the NSA when you call Mom today.

The EFF has set up a site to help you contact your Congressperson about the program. Here are a couple more stories about Uncle Sam's other underhanded attempts to create Big Brother:
Court Upholds Warrantless Cell Phone Tracking
Government-Mandated Tracking Systems Installed in Millions of Printers and Copiers

I'll keep you posted.

Saturday, May 13, 2006

Proof That EVERYONE Was On Drugs In The 60s

Okay, I figure my first actual post should be something stupid like you normally see on blogs. I had heard this, but never seen it. Just remember, he wasn't famous then. You'd have done it for the chicken feed they offered too, and you would have smiled just like Spock.

Ladies and Gentlemen, the Ballad of Bilbo Baggins by Leonard Nimoy:

Addendum: Fraggle asked, "Was this intended for 60s television in North America, being as Tolkien was not published until 1976 in the United States?"

Hmm, interestingly I see has had to take it down because someone complained that it was a copyright violation. Luckily for me, Google is hosting this copy and I just embedded their code in my site. I've discovered that the copyright on this is indeed 1968, but the video is apparently from Nimoy's guest spot on a show called Malibu U. This particular episode aired July 28, 1967. I found a site here citing the first date of American publication of The Fellowship of the Ring in October of 1954, and this Wikipedia site places the first American Publishing of The Hobbit in 1938. Don't know if it was popular by the 60s, but apparently somebody had heard of it.

Brief Explanation

My name is J. Aaron Brown, and I do not trust those who run my government. The willingness of the American people to believe lies which directly contradict widely available evidence simply because they spill from the mouth of a government official nauseates me. The propaganda war is succeeding, and it is time to fight back.

Everything antedating this post is an archive of the work I've done over the past two and a half years for two different student papers, The Current Sauce at Northwestern State University (1/04 - 5/05) and The Signal here at Georgia State University (9/05 - Present). Unfortunately, I sometimes find the word limits and the weekly format a bit restricting. Solution? Blog! I'll also continue to update this page with my weekly column when the paper starts again in the fall. The post dates on all columns should be the same as the date of publication.

So here are my thoughts on the future of the republic. Read, discuss, and complain as needed. Comments and e-mails welcome! Informed discourse is the soul of liberty.

All material here is copyright J. Aaron Brown, 2004-2006. Please seek permission to re-publish; it will almost certainly be given.