Saturday, May 20, 2006

Rules for Google Reporting

Google Maps has discovered Australia: and the press gave a vivid illustration of the rules Australian media follow when reporting on Google.

First and foremost, the Prime Directive is "go soft". Google is surrounded by a skepticism-removal field, Australian media can't get rid of that bit of cultural cringe which says "Australia needs to be noticed", and put together, the end result is a welter of "Google noticed Australia!" stories which ignore the quality of the maps themselves.

Google's Australian maps are really awful.

It hasn't bothered with searchability beyond the grossest features. So I can search for Sydney but not Penrith or Parramatta or Chatswood or Brisbane.

The maps are occasionally years out of date, so that a major freeway near my home is shown following its intended route instead of its real route.

Strangely, the accuracy of the maps is different in adjoining sections, so while Lilyfield Road carries a years-out-of-date one-way diversion, Olympic Park is accurate and the Metro Light Rail is shown.

The corresponding satellite images don't correspond all that well with the maps, because they show a different point in time. Hence Darling Park is in the satellite photo, but with the map superimposed it clearly can't exist because the Western Distributor runs right through it.

And the interface is flaky, so that "hybrid" only works properly if you start with the map. Start with the satellite photo, and hybrid doesn't always draw the map overlay.

And so on. The whole thing is an appalling mish-mash that looks like it was knocked together for no particular reason other than to generate some positive downunder publicity.

What's embarrassing is not that Google has slapped lipstick on a pig and called it product, but that the Australian press acted just as Google knew it would act: like a toadying retainer to a medieval lord, thanking Google for showering grace upon this insignificant backwater.

The whole thing is out of the half-bakery. But Google's media objective of "attract no evil publicity" has remained intact, courtesy of fans-with-typewriters.

Monday, May 15, 2006

Thought is not property

"Patents and copyrights are the legal implementation of the base of all property rights: a man's right to the product of his mind."
So wrote Ayn Rand, a deity of libertarian thought.
Her cry has been taken up by "intellectual property" lobbyists the world over (example
), but most particularly in America, where Rand is still considered to be a great philosophical thinker.
Rand was wrong, and it's important to understand why.
The sole "product of mind" is thought. Everything else made by humans needs "mind and muscle", so to speak: there is an action following thought which results in the expression of that thought.
The thought itself, however, is not property. The mind is mine, but the nature of property makes it inapplicable to mind.
I'm going to avoid the very abstract parts of this discussion. Much of the debate over intellectual property (from one side) focuses on "exhaustability" and "exclusivity". That is, that when I own this hammer, you can't use this hammer; and because there's a finite supply of hammers, my ownership changes your position. A debate focussing on these characteristics ends up in a quagmire, so I ignore it.
Instead, let's look at two other aspects of property: evidence, and enforcement. I can provide evidence that I bought the hammer and therefore I own it; and on its theft, I can appeal to an authority to enforce my ownership of the hammer.
Exclusivity and exhaustability are abstract economic concepts; evidence and enforcement are more concrete. More to the point, evidence and enforcement don't have to take economics into account. The bottom of the matter is that I own the hammer, not that there are plenty of other hammers around to own; and that the state agrees that I own it, and agrees that my right of ownership can be backed by the law.
Ownership of thought, divorced from effort, cannot be owned: ownership cannot be established by any reasonable evidence, and a claim of ownership is unenforceable.
Until someone sets pen to paper, or finger to keyboard, or tool to timber, the thought has no expression. I can be the first person to make a polished-maple space shuttle, but I cannot ever reasonably claim to be the only person to have thought of making a polished-maple space shuttle.
Copyright and patent protect not the thought, but the first expression of the thought. Until the thought has been published, it has no protection, for very good reason: there's no way to prove primacy (that you thought of it first), and there's no way to enforce exclusivity (to stop somebody else thinking of it).
Back to Ayn Rand. As I said, the product of the mind is thought. But what if, as Rand asserted, thought were to be treated as property?
The only body either enabled or empowered to enforce the evidentiary or enforceability basis of property is the state.
In other words, to make thought into property is to invite the state to police the contents of the mind.
As far as I can tell, only the most oppressive state mechanisms in history have ever attempted that: the policing of thought, for whatever reason, is the extreme end of totalitarian behaviour.
Thought is private, but not property.