29 May 2008

The danger of "Trusted Computing" and DRM

Microsoft and Intel's much-feared "Trusted Computing" initiative seems to not have gotten off the ground, but smaller-scale efforts have become much more common in the last few years. Manufacturers can now regulate after-market behavior with chips and cryptography, which can create much more specific and onerous burdens than the old tools: licenses, contracts, and mechanical design. These restrictions are making their way into music, videos, phones, printers, cars, you name it.

In a 2002 New York Times column, economist Hal Varian argued that these techniques cause prices to go up in uncompetitive markets. But, more insidiously, they stifle innovation, as demonstrated by the following example (among others). In an effort to make more money selling ink cartridge, some printer manufactuerers have added chips to ink cartridges preventing operation if the cartridge has been refilled by a third party.

A hot area of computer-chip research design involves taking off-the-shelf inkjet printers, loading the cartridges with magnetic ink and squirting integrated circuits onto metalized plastic. That technology may revolutionize integrated circuit production — but it definitely requires using products in ways the manufacturer didn't intend.


That sort of thing will be simply impossible if digital rights management becomes commonplace.

These measures create many roadblocks for experimentation. The real shame is that by doing so they make innovation a lot less attractive for all but the most powerful people and organizations, those who can pay their way around such restrictions before even starting. Total control of inventions by their manufacturers may be the death knell for the legend of the inventor in the garage.

28 May 2008

Interview with Chris DiBona about Google's use of free software

Between releasing products like GWT, Gears, and Android, and patching other products like Linux, Chris DiBona estimates that

...we're releasing about a million lines of code a year from the company.

CNet interview with Chris DiBona

24 May 2008

The Star, by Arthur C. Clarke

The Star is a great short story by Arthur C. Clarke.

The setting is totally futuristic, but the character and his questions are very familiar...

Muhammad Yunus and Grameen Bank

I just finished reading Banker to the Poor by Muhammad Yunus. He tells the story of how he founded Grameen Bank (roughly translated, "village bank"), which makes small loans to the poor without requiring collateral. (This is known as microcredit and loans are typically less than USD $100.) As a result of loans from Grameen Bank and similar organizations in other countries, tens of millions of families have escaped poverty for good.

In Yunus's native country of Bangladesh, many poor people were virtually in a state of slavery because, just in order to acquire raw materials for their craft or seeds for planting, they were forced to take out loans at shockingly high interest rates. The moneylenders effectly captured all the profit, making it impossible for the borrowers to escape poverty. Grameen Bank has empowered its borrowers by lending them just enough to allow them to break out of this cycle. In fact, most borrowers are women who had previously been entrusted with little or no financial responsibility. Borrowers quickly become financially self-sufficient; most are able to expand their enterprises, taking out larger and larger loans each year.

Part of Grameen's signature is that it requires prospective borrowers to form small groups. Group members help each other stay focused and provide insurance when calamity strikes.

Grameen Bank's success has been remarkable. The repayment rate tops 98%. The poor are so desperate, Yunus says, that given this one chance to pull themselves up, they are just not going to let it slip away.

The mindset behind this program runs completely counter to prevailing wisdom in the United States. In the US, we assume that to make poor people self-sufficient we need to give them training or an education, so that they can get a wage-paying job. Meanwhile, anyone who starts a venture needs huge amounts of capital, enough that we need to keep them on a leash by telling them how to run their business. So it is, to me, unsurprising that Grameen Bank's idea— providing small loans and advising, but not managing, borrowers— started not in the US but in a country like Bangladesh, where most people are self-employed. But the success of microcredit even in prosperous nations such as the US shows that the entrepreneurial spirit is common, and not just in Bangladesh.

Banker to the Poor is not just the story of Grameen Bank but also a critique of mainstream economic thinking and institutions. Yunus objects that even though the standard economic axioms promise certain kinds of global maxima, the objectives that are maximized are deeply flawed. Why should we consider increases in total production or wealth to be important if it is entirely possible (or indeed, common) that most of the prosperity is seen by the richest few? According to Yunus, it is this misguided focus that has distracted us from the things that could actually help us eliminate poverty.

Yunus believes that with self-sustaining institutions like Grameen Bank which are chartered to help the poor, we could relegate poverty to the history books. Coming from most people, this would be idealistic fluff. But on the strength of Grameen Bank's success, I am ready to take Yunus's word for it.

Yunus tells a great story, and I am well on my way into his next book, Creating a World Without Poverty.

13 May 2008

Social networking uselessness

After a recent order from campusfood.com:

Perhaps I am unusual in not generally dying to tell my friends about what I ordered for dinner.

11 May 2008

Speed Racer

I watched Speed Racer on opening night. Although the reviews have been uniformly bad, I (and all of my housemates) had a lot of fun.

My sentiment is best summarized by this reviewer:

Speed Racer may very well give your brain diabetes, and I state that as compliment.

The plot is pretty predictable (evil megalomaniac with henchmen, unlikely alliance of good guys, various plot twists) but fairly well done, and the characters are enjoyable to watch.

The visuals, however, are stunning. From the studio logos all the way through the closing credits, Speed Racer contains contains gratuitous amounts of color and motion. It's gripping and fluid and, yes, beautiful. The Wachowskis have apparently figured out exactly how to turn on the pleasure centers in human brains, which is pretty remarkable. What more could you ask for from a movie?

Opportunities in Russia

Aleh Tsyvinski and Sergei Guriev, "Moving Beyond Putinomics":

According to a recent survey, a majority of Russians believes that acquiring wealth requires criminal activity and political connections. Only 20% believe that talent matters.

These sorts of beliefs tend to be self-fulfilling.