Friday, May 30, 2008

No longer a self-respecting nation

I'm ashamed. The United States held Murat Kurnaz at Guantanamo Bay for four years even though it knew of nothing linking him to terrorism, and the CIA told its German counterpart that it considered his innocence to be proven.

The story is told in a Christian Science Monitor report on Kurnaz's testimony to Congress on Tuesday this week.

This is bad enough, even without the allegations of abuse and torture (see the Washington Post review of Kurnaz's book).

What depresses me almost as much is the lack of "mainstream" news coverage in the US - unlike in Europe, where Kurnaz is apparently a household name. The Kurnaz testimony was on the front-page of the Monitor, but was not reported by (say) NPR, the New York Times, or the Washington Post.

The only silver lining is that Congress is attending to this matter. Even a stalwart Republican and defender of the Guantánamo prison system is reported to have conceded during the hearing that mistakes were made in this case. Regret is no substitute for avoiding shameful behavior in the first place, but it's better than nothing.

Better than regret would be action:
  1. The United States should compensate those it has detained without reasonable cause at Guantanamo and elsewhere. If they end up using the money to attack the US, too bad; this is about our self-respect and morality as a nation, not a calculus of martial efficiency.
  2. The Congress should make it clear through legislation that the US rule of law applies to anybody held by any agent of the US government anywhere, regardless of legal niceties like "Guantanamo is not US soil, so the law does not apply," or "the Pakistanis did it, not us."
  3. The Congress should promulgate clear and uniform rules on interrogation techniques which apply to all agents of the United States; no exemptions for the CIA, special forces, military intelligence etc.

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

XP is dead, long live XP!

I've just had a fascinating experience while buying a laptop. I had been looking at the Lenovo R61, and was encouraged that I had the option to get it with Windows XP, not Vista.

When I switched my attention to the X61 last night, this option wasn't available: I could have the X61 with any version of Windows, as long as it was some shade of Vista. I started agonizing about having to buy the machine with Vista, strip it off, got to retail and buy XP, then reinstall...

Fortunately I checked in with Lenovo sales this morning. (They have a very good IM support.) XP is indeed available, the rep said, via the "Genuine Windows Vista Business downgrade to Windows XP Professional" option. Why didn't I notice it yesterday? Because it was changed last night. According to the rep, "[this] will be happening across all products from Lenovo between now and the 15th".

So much for the end of XP in the retail channel on the 30th of June...

You could say it's a win-win. There’s no price difference between Vista Business and XP Pro, so this customer gets what he wanted, and is happy. And therefore Lenovo is happy.

And Microsoft gets to count a Vista sale (and an XP sale?) even though the customer refused to buy Vista – so Steve Ballmer is happy.

But note the Econ 101 implication: there is no incremental utility going from XP to Vista Business. So what, exactly, was that five year death march all about? My heart goes out to all the Microserfs who poured their souls into Vista.

Thursday, May 15, 2008

Weeds adapt faster than some companies

I've been using the analogy between forests and the internet to develop policy-making principles: see eg my short essay Internet Forestry: A principles approach to governance which is part of the the Publius Project over at the Berkman Center.

One of the questions is whether the very rapid change of the internet doesn't doesn't invalidate the metaphor; biological systems seem to evolve more slowly, at least at the scale of plants and animals. I don't think it does, since the underlying dynamics are the same: both are complex, adaptive, human-managed systems. However, some recent research shows that plants can adapt very rapidly as well.

ScienceNOW magazine reported on 3 March 2008 (Elizabeth Quill, How Weeds Take to Cities, subscription required) that a Mediterranean weed adjusted its reproductive strategy to deal with the challenge of city living in less than 12 years. Population ecologist Pierre-Olivier Cheptou and colleagues found that the plant Crepis sancta adjusted the mix of heavy vs. light seeds very rapidly after sidewalks were built around them. They produced more heavy seeds, which tend to fall on the small grassy patch around the plant, and fewer light one which would waft away and fall on concrete.

Some companies have taken longer than that to adapt to the internet...

Tuesday, May 06, 2008

Spectrum isn't a resource

I’m still struggling to understand what spectrum really is – and to articulate why the question matters. I hope I’m not becoming that whacko who keeps pestering physics professors with his “proof” that general relativity is wrong... Any feedback would be appreciated.

It seems to me that “spectrum” is conceived of in two distinct ways. First, a spectrum allocation is seen as a right to operate radio equipment in a given way, for example centered on a certain frequency band. In this case, “spectrum” isn’t problematic, because the term doesn’t carry any real meaning. It simply connotes electromagnetic radiation. A spectrum allocation confers a bundle of in personam rights, and all that matters is system operation. As Coase said in the 1959 FCC paper, “what is being allocated by the Federal Communications Commission ... is the right to use a piece of equipment to transmit signals in a particular way. Once the question is looked at in this way, it is unnecessary to think in terms of ownership of frequencies or the ether.”

Alternatively, one can think of spectrum as a series of abutting frequency bands, and a spectrum allocation as the right to use of a frequency band. The band is treated as a thing which a person obtains an in rem right to, just as they obtain in rem property rights via things like inventions, apples, and land. Tom Hazlett is a leading proponent of this approach, though the notion of wave lengths, frequencies and spectrum being resources (and thus “things”) is entrenched in US legislative language.

Tom has been persuading me, via Merrill & Smith’s 2001 paper in the Yale L J, that in rem rights are some sense better than in personam rights for thinking about property. However, I’ve struggled to put my finger on what the “thing” is in wireless policy.

To rehearse a metaphor: An owner rents a piece of farm land. (The hunting license analogy is more fun, but the fact that game moves around complicates matters more than this case merits.) The renter obtains permission to perform various behaviors with a bunch of constraints, like boundary lines, planting crops vs. running cattle, providing so much fertilizer, etc. So far, this sounds just like the in personam description of spectrum allocation: the a contract between the owner and the renter is like a license granted by a regulator to a licensee. A wireless transmission is like a renter using the land. The frequency band edges are like land boundaries; they indicate a constraint (underspecified, but I’ll ignore that here) on transmission, ie, system behavior.

Now let’s imagine that the rental contract ends, and no other renter shows up. Nobody performs any actions; no in personam rights are exercised. However, the land is still there – the thing which anchors the owner’s in rem rights persists. This is where the analogy to spectrum breaks down for me. When a system ceases transmission (the renter goes away), nothing remains. The frequencies that indicated band edges are parameters. They parameterize an output (a transmission) not an input (“spectrum”).

Since frequency parameterizes outputs not inputs, what it measures – spectrum – isn’t a resource. Therefore the whole question of ownership of spectrum is moot. As for what the input(s) might be: I’d have to say it’s ingenuity in system design, capital to build infrastructure, and the labor of running the resulting operation.

This by no means precludes an in rem analysis. One simply needs to define another kind of “thing”. This leads me from land to trademark as the guiding metaphor. Intellectual property is intangible, just as wireless operation is, but one can still identify a productive resource. In the case of trademark, it’s a signifier coupled to an interpretative context. The signifier is analogized to transmission, and the context to victims of interference. Trademark infringement is largely in the mind of the customer: are they confused or not by an allegedly infringing mark? Similarly, radio interference is largely in the receiver. Patents work in the same way: the productive resource is an invention coupled to a context of what constitutes novelty, obviousness, and utility.

Ultimately, this leads to a restatement of wireless policy in terms of system operation rather than spectrum (easy), and a reformulation of the rights that are issued along the lines of trademark rather than real estate law (hard).


Coase, R H (1959) "The Federal Communications Commission," Journal of Law and Economics, Vol. 2. (Oct., 1959), pp. 1-40.

Merrill, Thomas W and Henry E Smith (2001) “What Happened to Property in Law and Economics?” The Yale Law Journal, Vol. 111, p. 357