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[Whoops! Hiatus. Life in the way AGAIN. I’ll be finishing the WorldCon thing off… but other stuff will be interspersed.]

Very much the kind of panel one pays to see: smart people with very different views (and starting points) having informed, entertaining conversation.

Interesting tidbits:

  • Doctorow said Disney’s copyright in Steamboat Willie, and therefore Mickey Mouse (who is the reason copyright periods keep getting extended – basically whenever he looks like going public domain money swirls around and when it settles copyright lasts another 10-20 years), is apparently technically invalid because something was done incorrectly at the time! To make matters even more infuriating/interesting, the exact same loophole was exploited by Disney in order to rip off the estate of the guy who created Bambi – a typical example of large corporations using the law both ways.
  • Someone (can’t remember who, sorry) rebutted the standard-license-fee-no-permissions-required model of licensing (a la sheet music) by talking about how the greater ease of access meant that there was effectively little to no practical need to get licensing permission ahead of time, and people conflate something being accessible without a license and not needing to pay for one at all. But this was always the case – a trained muso would know how to transcribe a tune.
  • Doctorow discussed the resistance felt by some recording artists to the shift back to a more performance-based income stream in historical terms – as he has elsewhere – talking about how when recording first came in, musicians (who were live performers at the time) complained that they would be reduced to bureaucratic functionaries playing in a room somewhere. Now some artists are complaining that they are not spectacles and shouldn’t have to caper on demand for pay. There’s a meme hack here, however: Even in the studio, artists still have to perform to make their music, and so they simply sell “tickets” not to a live gig but to their next recording, or studio session, or whatever. I know that there’s a fundamental difference between playing a crowd and recording, but the basic economic fact is the same: you need a certain number of subscribers to make a performance worthwhile, whether it’s a couple of hours with bright lights or months in a room. It removes the speculative element of being able to make a recording and sell the finished work – which means the first works are free until you get enough supporters – but that’s almost always the case anyway.
  • French copyright law apparently gives artists perpetual, inalienable rights in a work – including some say over how it is displayed – apparently to the point that when a statue was removed from a foyer because the owners didn’t like it there, the artist sued them to make them put it back – and won! Interesting to me because the moral rights of the artist have always been the ones I’ve intuitively supported most – though never to that sort of mad extreme.
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Not a lot to say about this – most of it was rehashing all the myriad ways that privacy is almost a matter now of hoping people choose not to look too hard, especially as regards any interactions with the network. (And also the dangers of getting mixed up with other people who share your markers – name, address etc.)

The key issue, which was skirted around but never squarely addressed, was that privacy is heavily linked with questions of power differentials. The discussion of how modern privacy was a bit of a joke when you had servants around all the time (though you didn’t, in fact; but certainly the more general point stood, that you just had to assume that there were people who knew stuff about you and trust them not to share it) hinged on this point: the only way to enforce aristocratic privacy was the terrible power the upper class had over their inferiors. But it didn’t actually go there, nor to the critical point that any imbalance of power is exacerbated by differences in knowledge about each other. This is true both as a simple, passive translation of knowledge to power, with oppressors having the apparatus and disposable attention-hours to apply close observation and analysis that the oppressed usually cannot afford – something already seen in East Germany’s Stasi and the accompanying informant network – but more insidiously as an active incentive for corrupt people, those seeking power over their fellows, to find their way into the apparatus of surveillance. This isn’t limited solely to surveillance of course – but because surveillance is not directly harmful in and of itself (though it becomes so merely by being known, let alone by being applied) it is easier to rationalise.

Hope this is clear – doing the last-minute rush before sleep again!

Key points:

  • Simply reducing emissions is not enough; “if you’ve dug yourself into a hole, you don’t just stop digging, you need a ladder”. I.e. we need to reduce greenhouse gas content of the atmosphere and/or reduce global temperature.
  • Waiting for the biosphere to reabsorb the carbon liberated over the past centuries is a matter of further centuries. We need to take counteraction to break the positive feedback loop we are already seeing.
  • Two proposed fixes: dumping crop waste to the ocean floor rather than letting it biodegrade and release carbon back into the stratosphere; and releasing aerosolised sulfur into the atmosphere, initially above the Arctic for testing purposes, in order to reflect solar energy back into space.

Greg Benford is a very smart guy, and I was impressed by his presentation and the ingenuity and efficiency of the two key ameliorative techniques he presented. Many of my reservations were addressed. (Doesn’t dumping crop waste sequester elements other than carbon? Turns out that the particular waste types he’s proposing dumping, particularly corn stalks, don’t have much else in their composition. Doesn’t transporting the waste create more emissions? Not if you use river transport, which efficiently lets gravity do most of the work. Won’t there be effects on seabed biospheres? They’re studying it but it looks like there is little long-term harm. Doesn’t pumping sulfur into the atmosphere increase the risk of toxic/acid rain? Yes, and over decades the pH of the ocean will change, but there are other measures to counteract that… and the breathing space we get will enable us to concentrate on finding other tech to fix the core problem.)

However there are still a hell of a lot of questions there was no time to ask. How much will stratospheric sulfur precipitate, and what effect will that have on ice melt rates? (Is it like salt, which accelerates melting? That would be my assumption.) Are the metal frames which held the bales of sequestered crop waste in the study necessary every time? If not, does their absence change anything?

He was also far, far too acquiescent in the existing economic models that are precisely to blame for the problem. He kept talking about what is “affordable”; one of the key jobs for scientists, in my view, is to debunk the economic models that hold that minerals in the ground and – particularly – trees in a forest have no economic value until they are ripped out and injected into the human production chain. It’s the same mentality that makes a heart attack a hundred-thousand dollar boost to the economy – all that surgery, medication and equipment, isn’t it awesome how much money has to be found! The way to get the infrastructure we need to fix the problem is to ensure that the costs of inaction are accurately included. It isn’t that long ago that economists were seriously, unironically writing that they couldn’t see how a global temperature rise of even several degrees would have any major effect on industry, other than maybe increasing aircon bills in factories a bit, and agriculture would just have to shift specialities to the new climatic realities for their regions, but that wasn’t a big deal, people change crops all the time. Trying to muster resources to deal with the new realities in such a twisted framework is unnecessarily hard work, if it’s possible at all.

I’m also sick of the internal jockeying for who gets to be the heroes in this. Yes, engineering solutions will be indispensible to dealing with the problem. So will political and economic reform to reduce energy waste and excess emissions; there is no way around that either. As I think I mentioned in a post yesterday, greenies are usually pretty OK with technology having some part in dealing with the problem, though they do exhibit a certain wariness about further large-scale interventions. But given the history of humanity’s dealings with the environment, that’s kind of understandable, and unless confronted with absolute intransigence, I regard that as proper scientific scepticism. I’ve yet to see the equivalent of the claims I’ve seen here, that it’s “an engineering problem” (with overtones of that being the only significant part of the problem). I’m not saying that kind of crap never happens – I’m not exactly a central figure in these debates so I’m sure I’ve missed that sort of stuff – but either way it’s not like we can afford to be neglecting any avenue of attack on a problem of this scale and complexity. That means we need mutual encouragement and support, and joint action against the human systems that caused and sustain the problem, not territorial pissing contests. (Excuse the fused metaphor but I think the blend is not inappropriate… aside from the urinary element.)

Full title: Fortress of solitude or our last best hope? The role of libraries in fostering YA spec fic

An interesting discussion, particularly for SF fans – it was reported that young adults are requesting exclusively speculative fiction in a place like Sunshine, and in some cases are using it to upgrade their reading level by some years. My grave doubts about the quality of YA speculative reading were not exactly allayed by the news that science fiction was only a fraction of the market and fantasy & particularly paranormal romance (Twilight) were the bulk of the reading, though; what does it say about the state of manhood in the West that the dominant metaphor for male-female relationships is features men who are lifeless, monstrous parasites with violent appetites?

The big takeaway was finding the balance between the shift to a more communal quality to library spaces generally, and the opportunities that creates to facilitate the socialisation of the quiet reading-focused kids with each other and into their wider peer groups, and protecting the possibility of just sitting and reading, of the private and solitary time that fosters reflection and individual growth.

My own question, which I didn’t get the chance to ask, was how games integrate into this; to my mind, a good game (especially a good co-operative game) is a chance to combine thoughtful engagement with social interplay. If you’ll pardon the pun. There will be more on this, but I need to get the stuff from the Con out of my head quickly and get to sleep for tomorrow.

OK, got to get to bed for tomorrow’s sessions, but the thing that struck me from this session was that there are a lot of false divisions that need to be overcome.

There was one bloke – didn’t catch his name, but he was coming from the science end, and talked about the influence of science fiction on encouraging people into careers in the sciences – who basically slagged off “greenies” and accused them of being incredibly selfish people who thought hugging trees would make everything OK and who ignored science. I have never once met someone who seriously advocated hugging a tree, and I know rather a lot of greenies, all of whom got interested in the topic precisely because of the science. I know there are people out there who match the stereotype, but it’s completely irrelevant and kind of destructive. I suspect it comes from the opposition to things like genetic engineering of food crops; but everyone I know who opposes it does so on historically-informed scientific grounds, by which I mean that they are conscious of how radical human intervention in complex systems can completely derail them – has done so in the past, for instance the ways the Green Revolution of the 70s has directly contributed to degradation of crop soil – and so they are not gung-ho optimistic about how right it’ll all be.

Another example was the tension between human rights and the pressing need for sweeping changes in human systems; reconciling the need to re-engineer our lifestyles with people’s freedoms is a toughie. But in fact the tension isn’t an opposition; human rights violations will only increase as environmental change takes place and competition over resources grows, while ignoring human rights while creating change will only lead to conflict that will slow change at best and (if it grows violent) lead to tremendous destruction.

Another union of contrasts is the solution: science and literature. As pointed out in the session, both require imagination, exploration and publication; and they offer a chance to show how the world might work in sustainable ways. I actually think we need to go beyond that, to try to imagine new forms of heroism and new kinds of solution. Too often heroism is defined as the quality of a particular individual or small group of individuals, whereas what we require here is co-operation on a truly epic scale, of the kind that won World Wars. And the solution here is not only new technologies, but the wisdom to accept voluntary austerities and restraints before they become scarcity and constraint; in other words, not the single stroke that saves the world, but the steadfast, ongoing will to hold ourselves within limits set by reason rather than blindly bloating out to the boundaries of a capacity we know extends well into self-destruction.

It’s possible. It just needs to be imagined loudly enough.

…is becoming one of the central themes of my economic thought.

In my previous post I argued that what we’re calling economic “growth” is largely not maturation or development, but mostly bloat.

For years now, I’ve been calling 4WDs (SUVs, to Americans) “bloatmobiles”, for their ridiculous carbon footprint, the way their puffed-up shapes block the sightlines whether moving or parked, the increased risk of death and injury they pose both to their own passengers and (by a factor of about 5) to other road users, the absurd tax subsidies they get to their price because of the fiction that they’re “trucks” and therefore automatically work vehicles, and the deliberate marketing of overinflated ego that has been used to sell them. I never minded them when the only people using them actually needed them…

I digress. I may even rant. My point:

Bloat is unhealthy expansion. Its applicability to a huge number of aspects of modern life, especially the economic/environmental, is obvious. Spread the meme.

[As seen on graffiti alongside the light rail.]

…Actually, although I agree with the underlying sentiment, no.

Growth is ideally supposed to be an approximation of the prosperity of a nation. And prosperity can continually increase, as technology improves. What’s finite is the raw materials and the capacity of the biosphere (us included) to survive the byproducts (and sometimes products) we’re creating. If we were completely recycling everything we created, including neutralising harmful compounds and reintegrating them back into our production cycles, there is no reason we couldn’t continue to grow indefinitely.

What we can’t continue to do indefinitely is expand our environmental footprint. Or, if you prefer, bloat. The word “growth”, with its connotations of maturation and health, is too important to surrender to the econocrats. (Mind you, it has also come to have connotations of cancer… so, you know, it’s not a single-edged sword either way.)

This all suggests an interesting idea – that when calculating growth, extraction of raw materials should actually be deducted from the total. To the extent that we’ve had to increase our demand and throw things away, we haven’t improved our capacity to use the resources available, we’ve just cheated and used more resources. If we’re measuring growth in economic efficiency, our impact on the natural world should surely decline.

So this is the big thing I’ve been working on. I looked at ways to commercialise it, but even if I did the plan is that it would go open-source and community-controlled eventually anyway, and I really don’t want to spend the time it would take on that kind of bureaucracy for an idea that is a way-to-publish, not something publishable in and of itself. (I.e. I want more time for actual writing and design.) So I’m just putting it out there to see whether the idea takes off.

Essentially, I have a fictional setting that I’ve used for various personal projects, and I want to share it in such a way that it becomes part of the cultural commons without precluding the possibility of making a buck from it under existing economic systems. I couldn’t find an existing way to do that, so I invented one.

Another idea spawned by my OpenWorld work – basically the idea here is that you might write a song or a short story, whatever – and be comfortable with people sampling, writing sequels and so on, but not with them just publishing your work elsewhere, as you may want to sell it.

I’m aware that there are many creators who’ve had success selling stuff even though it is freely available, and in this day and age that’s pretty much the case for any creator really; but it’s certainly a license I’d consider myself.

On March 19th I posted about the idea of a non-political Creative Commons license. Talking about it with various people since, it’s clear it won’t work, and lends itself to some serious abuses in more totalitarian jurisdictions.

BUT I stand by my point that what appeals to me most about the NC license is not the chance to insist on payment for the right to use the work in commercial derivatives, but the right to block certain corporations from using my material to advance their agendas, and that I would like a way to do the same with other, non-commercial groups.

So could we make a Non-Promotional license work? I.e. you are free to use this work to produce further work which is primarily creative or educational in purpose, but if the derivative work is primarily aimed at promoting some external objective, such as encouraging buying a particular product, voting a particular way, or adopting a given set of values, you need my permission again.

Problems: distinguishing between education and advocacy can sometimes be difficult. Even creative speech can have a very distinct agenda. The increasing encroachment of marketing into what would traditionally fall under the aegis of art (eg product placement) can mean that even the most easily excluded agenda, sales of a product, is hard to exclude completely. I’d have no problem with the license simply prohibiting use of the CC-NP material in a derivative that contains product placement, though…

Need to think about it more.

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