The bureaucratic elite and the Google Review. The story continues…

December 16th, 2011
It’s also a stealth project – ECL was omitted from the Executive Summary that only hurried politicians and the media ever read

The Business Department BiS has launched a copyright consultation, inviting views on the recommendations raised in the "Google Review", as the "Hargreaves Review into IP and Growth" became known.

Hargreaves was tasked with looking for changes in UK IP law that could stimulate economic growth. Ian Hargreaves’ review featured significant input from the IPO, formerly the Patent Office, which was once at the Ministry of Fun, but is now an ideologically supercharged hothouse within BiS. Hargreaves and the bureaucrats faced two significant challenges.

One is that the small and medium-sized businesses that try and create wealth using the patents and copyright systems have a very different view of the "problem" than Google does, or a bureaucrat does. Patents are ruinously expensive for a clever inventor to defend, and many can’t afford to do so. Copyright can’t be cheaply or effectively enforced online – a big problem for the entire supply chain in various sectors from photographers and visual artists, to independent film makers, to labels – to name just a few.

When digital SMEs were actually asked what they thought of the IP landscape, they were quite emphatic. Only 10 per cent thought copyright was unfair, 7 per cent said it stopped them innovating, and only 5 per cent thought the UK copyright regime stopped them innovating. Large majorities of two-thirds or three-quarters thought copyright fair, and encouraged innovation. These figures, by the way, are from a report included in Google’s submission, created at Google’s expense… [pdf].

Over half of SMEs want better enforcement of their rights as inventors and creators. 52 per cent of SMEs said the costs of IP enforcement deterred them from using the system. It might have been expected, therefore, that Hargreaves would focus his time on enlightened enforcement suggestions, making policing cheap to stimulate growth.

But any attempt to enforce IP brings out the Chicken Little crowd, honking furiously that the sky is falling in on them. To enforce copyright online risks destroying the Unicorns’ natural habitat: the cybernetic meadow.

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UltraViolet: Hollywood’s giant digital gamble

December 8th, 2011

Hollywood’s big plan to update the industry for the digital era – UltraViolet – comes to the UK on 26 December, the consortium behind it has revealed. It will be an inauspicious start, represented by just one new movie release, but there’s no mistaking the ambition of the project. Three years in the planning, UV is Hollywood’s attempt to get right what the music business has got woefully wrong, and it isn’t unreasonable to describe it as the biggest shift in thinking in the history of the movie industry.

Since the launch of VCR systems in the mid-1970s, consumers have merely bought a limited licence to watch a movie. New formats have been an excuse for Hollywood to get us to repurchase the content. But digital networks have made a nonsense of that notion, and enabled a huge new range of diverse devices and formats.

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Microsoft’s futurologists virtualise the poor

December 5th, 2011

The poor will still be with us in the future, according to a futuristic video by Microsoft’s Office Labs team – but at least technology will be able to keep our distance from them.
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Malcolm Gladwell, tipping points and Climategate: How a marketing buzzword changed the world

November 30th, 2011

Best-selling author Malcolm Gladwell had a powerful impact on the way climate change was marketed to the public, without even knowing it. Gladwell’s marketing book, published in 2000, embedded the phrase “tipping point” into the public’s imagination, and this in turn was used to raise the urgency of climate change.

It seems ridiculous today, with climate sensitivity models being tuned downwards, natural variability recognised as increasingly important, and climate institutions talking about a period of long-term cooling. Much of the urgency went out of the window after countries failed to agree on a successor to the Kyoto agreement at Copenhagen in 2009, and the costs and taxes of “low carbon” strategies are political poison.

But back in the mid-noughties, it was very different. The idea that the climate was reaching a “tipping point”, and that global temperature would runaway uncontrollably, was rife. It created a sense of urgency that helped pass legislation such as the UK’s Climate Change Act in 2008.

This story emerges from the FOIA2011 archive – the so-called Climategate 2.0 emails released last week. Although it hasn’t had the immediate and dramatic impact of the first leak two years ago, the breadth of social networks uncovered in these emails will keep historians busy for years – and whets the appetite for the 95 per cent of UEA emails still under wraps.

How ideas divide science and us

The idea of climatic tipping points is fascinating for several reasons.


The question of whether ecosystems are inherently stable – or unstable – preoccupied biologists for much of the last century – and was the subject of Adam Curtis’s film The Use and Abuse of Vegetational Concepts, in a BBC series for which I was assistant producer, and which Curtis summarised here. Fashions change, and so do myths. Arthur Tansley, who invented the word “ecosystem”, believed in “the great universal law of equilibrium”, and this was pursued for decades. Today, the idea that ecosystems are delicate and unstable instead dominates.
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The fabulous Muvizu

November 29th, 2011

Digimania Muvizu animation suite

Tech startups that can truly be considered game-changers are rare – especially in Shoreditch. The more hype that the Silicon Roundabout “leisure startup” scene receives, the more painfully apparent it is that the emperor has no clothes – see these comments for example. Which is a pity, for less attention is paid to genuinely creative British tech startups.

I’ve rarely seen something as startling as Muvizu, the PC software from Digimania which allows a seven-year-old to start creating something a lot like Toy Story. The startup emerged from the ashes of the DA Group, which was previously Digital Animations. New investors took over the ashes and had an idea.

Perhaps the 3D power of games engines such as Unreal could be put to make a genuinely easy-to-use, consumer-level animation software. The development team had the chops for this; it was the team behind animated newsreader Anna Nova, for those of you who remember the first dot.com boom. And so Muvizu was unveiled two years ago.

You can get a glimpse of what you can do with it from this video – our sister site Reg Hardware reviewed it recently here.

It’s still a tiny startup in Glasgow, with a core team of half a dozen developers, but since then it has added a clutch of features: you can build your own models and characters, edit timelines, move cameras, create custom textures, and introduce anti-aliasing. Huge libraries of animations and art assets are now available. You can’t import your own characters – but you can customise with textures.

It has notched up 138,000 downloads since August 2010, CEO Vince Ryan tells us. Muvizu took a community approach – and it is a lively place for users to share and swap assets and collaborate. It’s useful for anything from 30 second funnies to in-house training videos.

But with no visible revenue, I was curious to see how Muvizu was paying the rent. Long-term it makes an enviable acquisition target for an Adobe or a Google – but for now it’s looking to collaborate with animation companies, toy-makers or TV companies that want to extend their brand to their fanbase, allowing them to knock together their own stories and content.

A new version is due on 19 December.

New CRU emails: First Impressions

November 23rd, 2011

There was always an element of tragedy in the first “Climategate” emails, as scientists were under pressure to tell a story that the physical evidence couldn’t support – and that the scientists were reluctant to acknowledge in public. The new email archive, already dubbed “Climategate 2.0”, is much larger than the first, and provides an abundance of context for those earlier changes.

One civil servant wrote to Phil Jones in 2009:

“I can’t overstate the HUGE amount of political interest in the project as a message that the Government can give on climate change to help them tell their story. They want the story to be a very strong one and don’t want to be made to look foolish.”

Having elevated global warming to the most dramatic, urgent and over-riding issue of the day, bureaucrats, NGOs, politicians and funding agencies demanded that the scientists must keep the whole bandwagon rolling.

It had become too big to stop.

“The science is being manipulated to put a political spin on it which for all our sakes might not be too clever in the long run,” laments one scientist, Peter Thorne.
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Synthetic renewable oil: what’s not to like?

November 22nd, 2011

Craig Venter

“Rely on the sun and the other eco-friendly things that Mother Earth has given us. We need to stop being dependent on the corrupting effect that is oil now!”

– HuffPost Super User “ProgressivePicon86”

The next energy revolution is coming – and promises the biggest disruption since the industrial revolution.

Today we assume that oil is a finite resource. The “Peak Oil” argument, for example, is not that it runs out, but that conventional sources run down, and it becomes prohibitively expensive. This obliges us to think about re-ordering society. The other assumption is that the exploitation of fossil fuels creates the rapid release of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, changing the climate. Along with this, too, are arguments for re-ordering society. But with the next generations of fuels, these assumptions go out of the window. Policies based on these assumptions lose their relevance and appeal.

This promises a fundamental change in how we think about man, industry and nature. Just as Karl Marx anticipated a future of machines, where manual labour had been replaced by automation, we need new political thinking.

Replacing oil, however, isn’t so simple. The problem is that oil is a terrifically energy-dense material, and useful in many other ways. Entire industries are founded on the byproducts alone, such as fertilisers and plastics. We tend to take this for granted.

But what if oil could be created in your backyard? Or by your children as a school project? What if we thought of oil as a renewable energy? What if it was a low-carbon renewable? With cheap hydrocarbons it becomes just that, and within 15 years much of our oil will be produced this way: it’s simply an open bet on who’ll get there first.
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Oops: Public supports web-blocking in Google-funded poll

November 17th, 2011

Talk about an inconvenient fact. A survey into US attitudes to internet piracy shows strong public support for blocking access to websites guilty of serial copyright infringement. No fewer than 58 per cent support the idea of ISPs blocking the pirate sites, and 36 per cent disagree with this. Of the respondents, 61 per cent want sites like Facebook to take more action to screen for infringing material.

This may not be what the corporate sponsor Google, which benefits from internet piracy and fights enforcement proposals, had in mind when it funded the research. Google is currently leading the opposition to the new SOPA legislation in the US, which obliges service providers to take greater responsibility.

Perhaps, as in Brecht’s poem, Google wishes “to dissolve the people and elect another”, until they get the answer they want.
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“Computers are middle class”: Mark E Smith

November 15th, 2011

Computers are middle class and tweeting is for morons, reckons shout-at-the-bins Northerner Mark E Smith of The Fall, favourite band of the late John Peel.

“I can never understand computers. It’s a very middle-class thing”, Smith tells Mojo magazine in an interview.

Smith also berates people for using online banking and for Web2.0rhea: “You always thought people are daft but you give ’em the benefit of the doubt, but they are as f**king daft as you thought.”

Has he got a point? Well, statistically he’s correct: some 17 million Britons are internet refuseniks – and whenever a new “initiative” flies in from Martha Lane-Fox to put this “right”, we can’t helping thinking that Smith is onto something: a traditional Fabian distaste of the proles.

Lane-Fox, the lastminute.com co-founder who was voted Britain’s most over-rated entrepreneur, is on a personal mission to brighten the lives of people on “horrible council estates” – people who prefer shouting across the street to tweeting and real communities to online communities.

“I don’t think you can be a proper citizen in our society in the future if you’re not online,” reckons Fox.

This is why people own Staffordshire bull terriers. It’s not a lifestyle choice; it’s a necessity.

Source: Mojo interview.

The League of Handicapping Gentlemen

November 9th, 2011

Energy Minister Christopher Huhne has an opinion piece in the The Daily Telegraph today – and it’s really an 800-word explanation of why we need a new Energy Minister. The subject of Huhne’s essay is new, cheap gas.

The article finds the minister on the defensive about shale gas: it’s why he’s taking his argument into print. Huhne doesn’t like this exciting new development, but he doesn’t have the power to kill it. He welcomes it through gritted teeth before explaining how many handicaps could be put in its place: the ownership of the land, the regulatory framework, the planning hurdles, and so on.

(France has bowed to its powerful nuclear lobby by imposing a moratorium on unconventional gas exploration, but since France’s electricity is already so cheap – the cheapest in Europe, in fact – it doesn’t need shale anything like as much as the rest of Europe does.)

Huhne writes that the Coalition’s energy policy is “technology neutral” – a claim guaranteed to invite widespread public ridicule. The UK’s energy policy is anything but “technology neutral”. It’s full of measures created by lobby groups for their respective energy sectors.
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