Wednesday, February 15, 2012

In which Kevin Drum walks in wearing clown shoes, a clown nose, and a floppy wig, and is taken seriously

So Kevin Drum wrote something ridiculous about copy protection, and Tim Lee and others (see the comment thread) have tried to write thoughtful responses. But this is superfluous. Drum's original post is ignorant, arrogant, and insulting. Drum lazily handwaves away the multi-decades-long failed boondoggle of technological copyright enforcement, and the combined opinions of practically all subject matter experts who are not directly employed by the publishing oligopolies. He does not attempt to refute the evidence; in fact he does not even engage with it. Along the way he manages to sneak in some snide insults for the people who made general-purpose computers (like the one he is typing on) the incredible instruments of human creativity that they are today. What makes anyone think that a mere presentation of further evidence and argument are going to sway him?

Scientifically, the proposition that technological copyright enforcement can dramatically reduce infringement without severe and costly restrictions on liberty is in the same ballpark as climate change denial and cures for homosexuality. I could explain the implications of the Church-Turing thesis very patiently, in very small words, but frankly it strikes me as rather like reading aloud to a student who's not only too lazy to read the book, but too lazy to crack open the Cliffs Notes.

And I would add that this whole business looks very different when (as is the case for many in Silicon Valley) people in your extended social network have had startups or products crushed by errant IP law. Furthermore consider that countless engineer-years have been wasted dreaming up and implementing fruitless schemes like DVD CSS; however they were financially compensated, those are real and concrete wasted human lives. (Counting that production as economic output is rather like a broken windows fallacy in which the window never gets fixed, but the guy who broke the window gets paid.) The publishing oligopolies demand the satisfaction of their fantasies, and engineers pay the price in sweat and tears. Against all this, consider the extremely weak empirical evidence for large-scale harms from digital copyright infringement.

Drum strikes me as the moral equivalent of a priest reassuring his lord that the farmers ought to be all-too-happy to be taxed a few more bushels of grain to burn to the sky gods. Of course it costs him nothing to utter those words, so he can afford to be unbelievably cavalier. But this type of behavior should not command our respect.

Sunday, February 05, 2012

Desktop environments: get out of my way

Increasingly the applications you use — yes, you, sitting there, not some rhetorical "you" — can be broken into two categories:

  1. Lightweight stuff where you just want to minimize your maintenance costs. You don't particularly care whether you learn every keyboard shortcut; you just want it to be simple and cheap and available wherever you go.
  2. Heavyweight applications where you do hardcore work. You are an expert operator of these applications and any minimal loss of functionality annoys you.

The categories that these fall into differ from person to person. For a programmer, category (1) might include a photo editor and category (2) might include your text editor. For a graphic artist, these might be reversed.

Desktop environment developers have developed this arrogant idea that they can impose "human interface guidelines" on the user to make their user experience simpler, more consistent, etc. This is an illusion, because category (1) applications will eventually all be on the web, and category (2) applications have never obeyed any platform's human interface guidelines (HIG), and they never will.

Maya 3D laughs at your pathetic HIG, Microsoft. Emacs laughs at your pathetic HIG, Ubuntu. Photoshop laughs at your pathetic HIG, Apple. (For that matter, your own software usually laughs at your HIG, Apple.) When you spend all day doing hardcore work inside an application, you don't give a fuck if it's inconsistent with everything else you do, because the gains from having that app work exactly the way you want far outweigh the loss from having it be slightly inconsistent with your MP3 player and your PDF viewer. For category (2) applications, the homogenizing influence of the HIG makes about as much sense as having a carpenter install exactly the same grip on a hammer, a power drill, and a jigsaw.

As for web applications, the web laughs at all platforms' HIGs. And anyway it's more important that they be consistent among web browsers than that they be consistent with the conventions of the host platform. Unless you're one of those douchey people who carries their iPad everywhere in a little murse non-murse device that makes you feel acceptably masculine, you're going to check your email using some other device sometimes.

So what we basically need from desktop developers is to get the fuck out of the way. Integrate really well with the web browser, and also give the user the most efficient, unobtrusive way possible to switch between type (2) applications.