In Which I Reveal My Lego Fetish

My Lego fetish is not sexual — I promise.

Lego was one of my favourite toys as a child, and I still enjoy it to this day. Compared to other Lego aficionados out there, my appreciation is pretty insignificant. Nevertheless, I was totally blown away by the awesomeness of this Lego creation by Nathan Todd. (Be sure to look at some of the different views — the detail is fantastic.)

Entrance to the Caves, by Nathan Todd

Check out Star Trek — The Motion Picture (Pon Farr Edition)

I came across this video today, which needs to be listened to to be enjoyed, but should not, perhaps, be listened to at work or in another public space. (There are no inappropriate visuals, so in public with headphones is perfectly okay.)

I think this can be enjoyed even if you don’t know much about Star Trek.

Star Trek: The Motion Picture (Pon Farr Edition) from Darth Mojo on Vimeo.

Can We Stop a Canadian Copyright Disaster?

Unlike some of my friends, I rarely take any kind of significant interest in politics. I do a bit of research around elections to figure out who to vote for, and then generally leave matters to attend to themselves.

There is, however, one area of politics and law that is of great interest to me, and that is where it interacts with technology. Generally, Canada has had a fairly sensible approach to law and technology, but this may be changing due to pressure from the United States.

Michael Geist is a law professor at the University of Ottawa, where he holds the Canada Research Chair of Internet and E-commerce Law.  Recently, he published this article, which suggests that the government may try to push through some rather disastrous reforms to Canadian copyright law without any public consultation at all, despite the outcry prompted by previous attempts.  This rather irritated me, so I actually followed the article’s suggestion, and wrote to Industry Minister Jim Prentice, Prime Minister Harper, and my local MP Bob Rae.  A version of that letter is included here.

I am writing this letter to express my grave concern over reports that new copyright reforms are going to be pushed through the House of Commons.  While (arguably) there is need for some degree of copyright reform, I am troubled by talk that the proposed reforms will mimic the draconian and useless elements of the United States copyright law, especially their Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA), which has largely been a disaster and subject to much systematic abuse.

More specifically, however, I am deeply concerned by one particular element: anti-circumvention legislation.  However, I should first perhaps give a little background about myself, to give my arguments a degree of context.

I am currently a PhD Candidate in Computer Engineering at the University of Toronto.  During this degree, I have taken a course in Computer Security, and prior to this degree, my Masters degree at Memorial University of Newfoundland focussed on Cryptography and Security.  Thus, I have a deep understanding of the technological protection measures that might be covered under anti-circumvention legislation.

As an engineer (as well as an aspiring writer), intellectual property is my lifeblood.  I have great respect for copyright laws and the need for them, but not in the form suggested by the US DMCA.  Canada should be a leader in following fair copyright principles, as outlined by Michael Geist online.

But rather than simply rehash others’ arguments about the need to balance consumer rights against creator rights and corporate rights, I will instead share my own views (informed by my engineering education) on why anti-circumvention legislation is not only undesirable but potentially dangerous.

The gist of anti-circumvention legislation is that any circumvention of technological protection measures (TPMs) put in place by a content provider is a crime, as is sharing information on how to circumvent such measures.  This is deeply problematic.

From a purely academic point of view and speaking as a former security researcher, this means that no one is allowed to even try to circumvent TPMs, which is not conducive to making sure that such measures actually work.  It is a fundamental principle of security research that there is no “security through obscurity” – something is only secure if it is secure even when everything is known about it.  Thus, anti-circumvention legislation can have a chilling effect on legitimate scientific research.

Of course, TPMs are inherently flawed – giving people content secured with TPMs while also giving them the ability to view the content (however limited that ability may be) means that TPMs can never be secure.  No one has yet developed a TPM that can’t be circumvented, which is why corporations are pushing for anti-circumvention legislation, but this simply leads us to more pressing concerns about consumer rights and the law.

The purported purpose of using TPMs is to stop people from doing illegal things with the protected content.  As a side effect, it often also stops people doing legal things with the content that they own.  (For example, if I buy music from the iTunes music store, it will not work as-is on my RCA mp3 player, even though that would be a perfectly reasonable thing to do with a digital copy of music I own, and is indeed the purpose of buying a digital copy.)

Of course, as I mentioned above, no one has actually produced a TPM that works completely.  They cannot stop illegal uses of the content.  Hence, the industry pushes to make circumventing the TPMs illegal.  This defies logic in two ways.  First, anyone circumventing a TPM to use the content illegally is, well, already doing something illegal – anti-circumvention legislation is not going to deter that, nor is it necessary to make an already-illegal act a crime.  Secondly, it makes circumventing TPMs for legitimate reasons illegal, criminalizing people for using content they own in a legal manner.

So, ultimately, TPMs do not stop illegal use of material, and anti-circumvention legislation only tries to make something already illegal illegal, as well as make something legal illegal.  It will criminalize consumers for using content they paid for in a manner consistent with and allowable under all reasonable interpretations of copyright law – including some of the proposed amendments and exemptions rumoured to be in the forthcoming legislation.

This is also problematic from a consumer rights view, as it gives the content producers control over how people use and access their purchases.  This is not only inconsistent with established views on what purchasing a song, or a book, or a movie actually means, but also introduces a whole host of problems.

Already there are numerous cases where content providers have arbitrarily decided to stop supporting a particular TPM, and thus left consumers with protected content unable to view it, such as the man who could no longer watch his Major League Baseball downloads.  Even if he breaks the TPM to watch the content he purchased legally, under anti-circumvention legislation he will still be committing an illegal act.  Even companies as large as Microsoft cannot be guaranteed to support their TPMs, and as older approaches are abandoned, users who paid for legal content are left out in the cold.

More recently, we have seen examples of NBC in the United States using a TPM (a broadcast flag) to prevent TV viewers from performing time-shifting and other legal activities.  The FCC attempt to make such a rule mandatory was defeated three years ago, but NBC and Microsoft have voluntarily implemented it anyway, and now it will be illegal for viewers to circumvent that flag to use content in ways they are explicitly allowed.

Of course, this is potentially just the tip of the iceberg, and illustrates how anti-circumvention legislation takes control of content they’ve purchased out of the consumers’ hands and puts it squarely in the hands of corporate interests.  Let us consider the ramifications of this as we look to the future.

Imagine that you record a home movie of your children, and decide to edit it in a program on a Windows computer.  Imagine that program automatically saves your edited video in a protected format.  Now imagine that you want to share the video with someone who uses a Mac or a Linux computer, one without a Microsoft-supported video player.  Even though you own the content, even though you created the content, it would be illegal for you to circumvent the TPM to share your video.

This, of course, could be extended to any kind of document you create, or whose data you own: business documents, medical records, the Great Canadian Novel you’re writing.  Enacting anti-circumvention legislation would give corporate interests the ability to lock you into their product with the use of TPMs, by making such circumvention illegal.

Now, one might argue that you can legislate against these scenarios, put in exceptions for certain other matters, or simply not enforce the law in such cases.  But a law meant to be selectively enforced isn’t much of a law, so isn’t it ultimately easier to not put anti-circumvention legislation into effect in the first place?  If it doesn’t stop illegal activity such as piracy (which, to reiterate, is already illegal), and it does make a multitude of legal activities suddenly illegal, and if it gives control of consumer-purchased content to corporations, wouldn’t it be better to avoid it entirely?

The only people who can argue at all for anti-circumvention legislation are large corporate interests, and that is simply because it gives them the legal tools needed to enforce a monopoly and hold their customers’ content hostage.

Now, there are a multitude of other concerns with any copyright reform, ranging from the chilling effect of takedown notices to online sites (which can “accidentally” be sent out to take down non-infringing but disagreeable content) to overly aggressive punitive damages for non-commercial infringement.

Thus, I urge to you flat-out reject any anti-circumvention legislation that is in the works, and to give serious and meaningful thought to and get public consultation on these other important copyright issues, in order to ensure Canada’s path forward is a bright an open one.

As you may have gathered from my lengthy missive, this sort of copyright reform is an issue I take great interest in.  Out of necessity, this letter was a little glib and a touch alarmist, but I plan to elaborate on these issues in future posts.  However, in the meantime, I encourage everyone to follow the suggestions in Geist’s article and contact the Industry Minister, the Prime Minister, and your local MP to express your desire for extensive and thorough public consultation on any and all proposed copyright reforms for Canada.

Woo hoo! Site upgrade!

So, I updated my WordPress installation from the default 2.0.something that came with my hosting account to the latest 2.5.1.  Now the back end administrative stuff is all swanky.

So, um, yeah.  That’s really all I’ve noticed so far, as it’s late, and I’ve just finished the install.  But, in celebration, I’m switching to a new theme, at least for a few days.

What’s that, you say?  Shouldn’t I be working on a short story, or revising my novel, or *gasp* doing my research?  Or even just writing some actual content for this site?

Why, yes, yes I should.  Is it any wonder I have decided to fiddle around with the site?

My First Novel, Round 2

I have decided that I will attempt to have a second draft of my novel that I wrote for NaNoWriMo competed by July 13th.  That is two months from now, which, depending on which writers you listen to, is a reasonable timeline.  (Admittedly, however, they may be starting with a better first draft, but, hey, there’s no teacher like experience….)

In order to facilitate my rewriting, I am going to have to actually read the novel that I wrote.  To that end, last night I printed off a copy.  I printed it single spaced and double sided, and consequently it actually looked rather unimpressive.  I imagine that when I finish my rewrites, I’ll at least double space before sending copies to my first readers.  If I ever submit it for publication somewhere, naturally I’ll follow standard manuscript format.  But for normal readers, I can’t imagine that being the preferred format for reading, so I may spin things a little more nicely.

(Dicking around with the format is a nice way to feel like you’re working on it, when really you’re not.)

Anyway, I’ll post here every couple of weeks with updates on my rewrite and editing progress.

Thoughts on Iron Man (The Movie, Not the Comic)

Marvel’s Iron Man movie opened last Friday, and I happened to see it then. I’ll give you a short review up front: it’s a really good superhero movie, and you should go see it if that’s the sort of thing you like.

The Iron Man character is from what I consider a second-tier of superheroes — heroes that are popular and well-known in the comics world, but not necessarily by the general public. The first-tier heroes are icons — Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, the Flash, Captain America, Spider-Man, the Incredible Hulk — almost everyone will have heard of these heroes, even if they’ve never read the comics.

I don’t bring this up to lower your opinion of a movie based on Iron Man. He is, after all, in good company — I consider the X-Men second tier as well, and they had a couple of good movies. (However, let us not speak of the Punisher, Daredevil, or Elektra.) And being a first-tier character does nothing to ensure a good movie or TV show, either. (See all of the above, at some point in their history.)

I bring this up because… well, actually, I don’t have a good reason. I thought my observation of this was kind of clever, but it doesn’t really lend itself to an immediate application in this review. A good writer would cut out the preceding paragraphs after realizing this, but I’m more concerned with filling the entry, so they stay.

Oh! Wait, I did, in fact, have a point I was trying to make, and it is this: you don’t need to know anything about Iron Man to see this movie — it starts you from scratch and lays out everything for you. Furthermore, while I’m sure some people saw Spider-Man or Batman movies for the novelty of seeing a familiar character on the big screen, you don’t need that for this movie. Iron Man is worth seeing because it’s a good science-fictiony action movie, that just happens to be based on a comic book property.

Anyway, the general premise of Iron Man (the movie, the comic, the character, whatever) is that Tony Stark, a billionaire weapons designer and playboy, gets captured by terrorists and realizes the suffering his inventions have caused. When they demand that he build them a weapon, he secretly creates a suit of powered armour that allows him to overpower his captors and escape. As a changed man, he goes on to become a superhero.

The movie, however, focuses mostly on Tony as a character, rather than Iron Man as a hero. There are a few gratuitous show-off scenes, but they’re actually character-based, and there is no hero montage where he goes around fighting generic crime. All of the action grows out of his personal demons and character flaws, in a movie that is exceedingly well-paced and well-acted. And — quite surprisingly for a movie about a guy in power armour — there’s nothing that is exceedingly over the top: nothing that threatens to destroy the city, or the world, no insane villains. The characters and their respective motivations drive the plot, and it works really well.

Part of this comes from the strength of the cast. Robert Downey Jr. plays Stark, and enough comments have been made in other media about the parallels between the actor and character that I won’t do the same. Gwyneth Paltrow ably plays his assistant Pepper Potts, who never quite ends up as the love interest or the damsel in distress, which is actually rather refreshing. Terrence Howard and Jeff Bridges also put in solid performances, in what may be one of the best-cast superhero movies I’ve seen.

So, the take-away from all of this rambling is that Iron Man is a good superhero movie — possibly the best of the recent crop — and it’s a pretty good action movie in its own right, as well. If you like either of these things, see it.

Little Brother Toronto Book Launch

Cory Doctorowwriter, blogger, and electronic rights activist — launched his latest novel Little Brother to a packed crowd at the Merril Collection in Toronto on the evening of Thursday, 01 May 2008. Conveniently, I was among that crowd, otherwise this would be a very short blog post.

Oddly enough, I first became familiar with Doctorow through a book on writing science fiction that he co-authored with Karl Schroeder nearly ten years ago. (I have a shelf full of writing books — I know they can’t teach me how to write, but I find it interesting to see the process other writers use, and to steal parts of their process to merge into my own. Reading such books also inspires me to get off my ass and write… for a while, at least.) Perhaps odder still, I haven’t actually read any of his novels to date, though I have enjoyed some of his short fiction.

My interest in Doctorow’s work has, to date, been mostly on the political side of things — specifically, his advocacy for electronic freedom. Through his posts on Boing Boing, and articles elsewhere, he put a spotlight on our electronic rights and freedoms, and the significance of that hit me as I worked on my Master’s research in cryptography. All of these things came together and birthed in me the sole political interest I have, in that mishmash of consumer rights, intellectual property, academic freedom, privacy, and electronic rights and freedoms. (I’m not even sure what to call it, as you can tell, but rest assured I’ll be writing more about it in the future.)

So, perhaps it’s fitting that the first Doctorow novel I’ve picked up is Little Brother, which is about many of those things. He described it as “1984 fan fiction” — the premise is that a bunch of teenagers use their technical knowhow to fight back against an oppressive government that goes too far in demonizing its own citizens all in the name of “security”. It’s being marketed as a Young Adult novel, and has some high praise from a lot of prominent authors adorning its cover. Hopefully I’ll get to read it soon myself, and see if all the praise is justified.What I can talk a bit more about now is the launch itself.

As I mentioned, it was rather packed. I arrived just as it was close to starting, and already the seats were mostly filled and people were standing around. The wonderful Bakka-Phoenix Books were there to sell copies, and apparently there were snacks too, though they were lost amid the sea of bodies.

Cory started the event by taking a few questions to warm up and let latecomers trickle in. Perhaps not surprisingly, most of the questions seemed to be focussed on his activism rather than his writing, although for this book they are nearly the same subject. His answers were natural and well-spoken, which I suppose is also unsurprising given that such work had been his job for several years.

He then treated us to a reading of a chapter from the novel. (The same chapter is podcast here.) There were some laughs, some over-the-top deliveries, and enough action to make we want to move this book up in my “To Read” pile. He took some more questions at the end, and then there was signing of books. Having other things to do, I left after getting mine signed, but there was a long line behind me, and lots of people hanging out. By my estimation, it was a very successful launch, and another great event in the series on Foresight: Speculative Fiction in Canada.

Thoughts on The Forbidden Kingdom

Apparently, I had a lot of rage. But I’m better now. I think I can talk about The Forbidden Kingdom without feeling compelled to destroy all that is in sight. At least, so long as I save frequently.

As I’ve previously mentioned, The Forbidden Kingdom is a movie starring both Jackie Chan and Jet Li. The prospect of these two most excellent martial arts action stars in the same movie was exhilarating, but it also meant there was a lot of room for disappointment. Often, it’s best to go into these sorts of movies with low expectations — it’s always better to be pleasantly surprised. And so I had given this warning to my friends that I invited to come with me: while the movie may not be good, it might just be awesome.

Oddly enough, the movie ended up somewhere in between, for me. Ignoring the silliness inherent in all action movies (note that they are distinct from war movies), it presented a reasonably entertaining plot, some good action sequences, and some interesting characters. Most everything was well done. The only drawback is that few scenes actually really stood out — there was nothing so memorable, say, as Jackie Chan’s fight against the Axe Gang in The Legend of Drunken Master.

But I digress. What follows may be a little spoilery, so read on at your own risk.
The movie is framed by sequences set in modern-day America, where a forgettable nerdy white teenager fixated on kung fu movies gets into trouble, finds an ancient staff, and ends up whisked back in time to ancient China, where, with a bit of concentration, he finds he can magically speak Chinese. Sadly, he has not magically learned kung fu, and when people try to kill him to get the magic staff, he is rescued by Jackie Chan as Lu Yan, a traveling scholar and master of drunken boxing (among other fighting styles).

After they get away, Chan delivers a lump of exposition, explaining that the staff belongs to the Monkey King, who was tricked into giving it up by the evil Jade Warlord and subsequently turned to stone. According to prophecy, the Seeker (a.k.a. the kid whose name I don’t remember) must return the staff to the Monkey King. Once the audience understands what is going on, minions of the warlord attack again, and their escape is aided by Golden Sparrow, a beautiful and deadly young woman yearning for vengeance against the Jade Warlord.

So they set out on their quest, and the kid begins to learn kung fu. Soon they encounter Jet Li’s character, The Silent Monk, who steals the staff. Chan and Li get into a fight that is really the highlight of the movie, displaying their unique strengths in a well-choreographed fight scene, until (of course) they realize that it was all a misunderstanding, and decide to team up to fight the Jade Warlord.

(As mentioned in this review, one can’t help get the feeling that this fight scene — and perhaps the whole movie — would have been better if it were made 20 years ago. As amazing as Chan and Li are, they’re no longer spring chickens, and though the fight scene was excellent, there weren’t really any moments of “Oh my God I can’t believe a human being actually did that!”, unlike some of their older films.)

Now that Chan and Li are together, we get the inevitable training montage for the kid. This, too, is a highlight of the movie (albeit a brief one), and is perhaps one of the best training sequences ever. The movie progresses as they are chased by one very cool super villain, encounter some tragedy, and eventually confront the Jade Warlord.

The final fight is good, but perhaps loses some impact as too much is going on. You get a bunch of good guys fighting a bunch of bad guys, and while the Silent Monk, Lu Yan, and Golden Sparrow each fight a major villain, because their fights are interspersed with each other, it serves to lower the overall tension of the climactic battle. Once the Monkey King (also played by Jet Li) is freed, the outcome of the battle is effectively resolved, except for the kid ending up as the one defeating the Jade Warlord — through dumb luck, of course, rather than skill.

The kid eventually ends up back in his own time, and uses his new-found mastery of kung fu to kick ass, take names, and totally score with the hot chick played by the same actress as the hot chick he didn’t score with in ancient China. The end.

(I know I’m dumping on the kid a lot, but he — IMDB tells me it was Michael Angarano — wasn’t actually that bad. He did okay with what he had to work with, and nicely faded out of the way in scenes with Chan and Li, since that’s who everyone was there to see. In fact, the whole framing device could largely be ignored — the movie is what happens in ancient China, and the modern day stuff is irrelevant. The role of the kid who wanted to get home could have just as easily been some kid in ancient China who found the staff and got in over his head. So again, that aspect of the movie isn’t as bad as it could have been.)

So, ultimately, I rather liked the movie. It wasn’t as awesome as I’d hoped, but it was much better than I had feared it would be. It was a well-done fantasy martial arts adventure in mythic China. And it did get me thinking that, say, a buddy cop movie with Chan and Li would be awesome. Alas, if I only had the power to make it happen.