Chimps beat humans at game theory

In Chimpanzee choice rates in competitive games match equilibrium game theory predictions, a paper in Nature by Colin Camerer and colleagues, researchers document the astounding performance of chimpanzees in classic game-theory experiments -- a performance that's substantially superior to humans who play the same games:

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Handbook to figure out what's in the public domain


Jennifer Urban sez, "I'm happy to say that the Samuelson Clinic at Berkeley has just released a handbook to help folks research whether older items (pre-1978) are still under copyright in the U.S., or are in the public domain." This is probably the most esoteric question that normal people from all walks of life have to answer routinely; the Samuelson Clinic has really done an important public service here.

Interestingly the project originated with the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee Legacy Project, "a nonprofit organization run by civil rights movement veterans that is creating a digital archive of historical materials."

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Colbert viewers learned more about super PACs than news-junkies


In Stephen Colbert's Civics Lesson: How Colbert Super PAC Taught Viewers About Campaign Finance in Mass Communication and Society [paywalled], a study by researchers at the Annenberg Public Policy Center of the University of Pennsylvania, scholars surveyed people whose knowledge of campaign finance issues came from watching The Colbert Report's segments on super PACs. They concluded that, when compared to people who learned about campaign finance from traditional news sources (as opposed to a satirical program), Colbert viewers had a better grasp of the issues, thanks to the satirical structure and the use of narrative. The study specifically calls out the traditional reporterly convention of the "inverted pyramid" as a poor way to capture interest and convey nuance to an audience.

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Critical thinking vs education: Teaching kids math without "correct" answers


Brooke Powers assigned her middle-school math class a probability exercise with no single correct answer and was monumentally frustrated by her kids' inability to accept the idea of a problem without a canonical solution. After a long and productive wrangle with her kids about how critical thinking works and why divergent problem-solving is much more important than mechanically calculating an answer that you could just get out of a computer, she salvaged the exercise and made something genuinely wonderful out of it.

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Distribution of letters in parts of English words


Prooffreader graphed the distribution of letters towards the beginning, middle and end of English words, using a variety of corpora, finding both some obvious truths and some surprising ones. As soon as I saw this, I began to think of the ways that you could use it to design word games -- everything from improved Boggle dice to automated Hangman strategies to altogether new games.

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You should try the 1913 Webster's, seriously


James Somers thinks you should switch to the Websters 1913 dictionary, and he cites John McPhee's composition method of looking up synonyms for problematic words as the key to his peerless prose style. Somers makes a great case for the romance of historical dictionaries, but for my money (literally -- I spent a fortune on this one), the hands-down best reference for synonyms and historical language reference is the Historical Thesaurus of the Oxford English Dictionary, whose magnificence cannot be overstated.

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Privacy vs network effects


Respected cryptographer and security researcher Ross Anderson has a fascinating new paper, Privacy versus government surveillance: where network effects meet public choice [PDF], which explores the "privacy economics" of mass surveillance, pointing out the largely overlooked impact of "network effects" on the reality of who spies, who is spied upon, and under what circumstances.

My first big point is that all the three factors which lead to monopoly – network effects, low marginal costs and technical lock-in – are present and growing in the national-intelligence nexus itself. The Snowden papers show that neutrals like Sweden and India are heavily involved in information sharing with the NSA, even though they have tried for years to pretend otherwise. A non-aligned country such as India used to be happy to buy warplanes from Russia; nowadays it still does, but it shares intelligence with the NSA rather then the FSB. If you have a choice of joining a big spy network like America's or a small one like Russia's then it's like choosing whether to write software for the PC or the Mac back in the 1990s. It may be partly an ideological choice, but the economics can often be stronger than the ideology.

Second, modern warfare, like the software industry, has seen the bulk of its costs turn from variable costs into fixed costs. In medieval times, warfare was almost entirely a matter of manpower, and society was organised appropriately; as well as rent or produce, tenants owed their feudal lord forty days’ service in peacetime, and sixty days during a war. Barons held their land from the king in return for an oath of fealty, and a duty to provide a certain size of force on demand; priests and scholars paid a tax in lieu of service, so that a mercenary could be hired in their place. But advancing technology brought steady industrialisation. When the UK and the USA attacked Germany in 1944, we did not send millions of men to Europe, as in the first world war, but a combat force of a couple of hundred thousand troops – though with thousands of tanks and backed by larger numbers of men in support roles in tens of thousands of aircraft and ships. Nowadays the transition from labour to capital has gone still further: to kill a foreign leader, we could get a drone fire a missile that costs $30,000. But that's backed by colossal investment – the firms whose data are tapped by PRISM have a combined market capitalisation of over $1 trillion.

Third is the technical lock-in, which operates at a number of levels. First, there are lock-in effects in the underlying industries, where (for example) Cisco dominates the router market: those countries that have tried to build US-free information infrastructures (China) or even just government information infrastructures (Russia, Germany) find it’s expensive. China went to the trouble of sponsoring an indigenous vendor, Huawei, but it’s unclear how much separation that buys them because of the common code shared by router vendors: a vulnerability discovered in one firm’s products may affect another. Thus the UK government lets BT buy Huawei routers for all but its network’s most sensitive parts (the backbone and the lawful-intercept functions). Second, technical lock-in affects the equipment used by the intelligence agencies themselves, and is in fact promoted by the agencies via ETSI standards for functions such as lawful intercept.

Just as these three factors led to the IBM network dominating the mainframe age, the Intel/Microsoft network dominating the PC age, and Facebook dominating the social networking scene, so they push strongly towards global surveillance becoming a single connected ecosystem.

Privacy versus government surveillance: where network effects meet public choice (via Schneier)

(Image: Friendwheel, Steve Jurvetson, CC-BY)

Visualizing inspiring quotes about privacy


Kevin writes, "With the Privacy is a right project I try to visualize the global privacy debate by using quotes on the subject and turn them into large (in real life) visuals. I started out with key figures in this debate (such as Edward Snowden, Kirsty Hughes and even Cory Doctorow) but now everyone can react and share their view on the subject by submitting a quote on the site. Any inspiring quote will then be turned into art by me. Some of the visuals will be part of my graduation exposition (25th - 29th of June) for the Willem de Kooning Rotterdam University of Applied Sciences in Rotterdam, the Netherlands."

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Science fiction and the law: free speech, censorship, privacy and surveillance


In Do Androids Dream of Electric Free Speech? Visions of the Future of Copyright, Privacy, and the First Amendment in Science Fiction , a paper from Communicaton Law and Policy by Texas Christian University's Daxton "Chip" Stewart, we're treated to a wide-ranging overview of the free speech, copyright, privacy and surveillance legal issues raised in science fiction from Frankenstein to my own books. Stewart's paper insightfully weaves together everyone from Ernest Cline to Isaac Asimov and closely analyzes the way that science fictional thought-experiments can inform legal discussions, in a fashion reminiscent of the excellent Law of Superheros.

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U of Saskatchewan fires tenured dean for speaking out against cuts

A reader writes, "Robert Buckingham, dean of the School of Public Health at the University of Saskatchewan since 2009, was fired last Wednesday for critical comments about the university's restructuring plans. When he showed up for work Wednesday morning, two campus security guards escorted him off campus. The university not only fired him as dean, but also stripped Buckingham of his tenured faculty position. The termination letter signed by Provost and VP Academic Brett Fairbairn said that by speaking out against the school's restructuring plans, Buckingham had 'demonstrated egregious conduct and insubordination' and was in breach of contract."

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How advocacy beat ACTA in Europe


James Losey writes, "After the defeat of SOPA and PIPA in the United States attention turned to the Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement in Europe. Like SOPA and PIPA, ACTA raised concerns that excessive measure to enforce copyright online would limit freedom of expression online. And while the approval by European Parliament once seemed inevitable, protests across Europe and advocacy by civil society lead to Parliament rejecting the Agreement in July 2012. But the protest, while highly visible, represented only a portion of the networked advocacy against ACTA in Europe."

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Clapper's ban on talking about leaks makes life difficult for crypto profs with cleared students

When James Clapper banned intelligence agency employees from discussing or acknowledging the existence of leaked docs (including the Snowden docs), he made life very hard for university professors like Matt Blaze, a security expert whose classes often have students with security clearance.

My own books -- which deal with leaks like these -- are taught at West Point at a course whose instructors include a member of US Cyber Command. I imagine a rule like this would make future inclusion on the curriculum difficult, if not impossible.

The business/markets case for limits to copyright


You'll remember Derek Khanna as the Republican House staffer who got fired for writing a paper that used careful objective research to argue for scaling back copyright. Now, Khanna is a volunteer fellow at R Street, where he's expanded on his early work with a paper called Guarding Against Abuse: Restoring Constitutional Copyright [PDF], which tackles the question of copyright terms from a market-economics approach, citing everyone from Hayek to Posner to the American Conservative Union.

There are lots of critiques of copyright term and scope from the left, but this is not a left-right issue. Khanna is a rigorous thinker, a clear writer, and someone who shows that whether you're coming at the question from a business/markets perspective or one of free speech and social benefit, limits on copyright make objective sense.

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Obesity driven by overconsumption of protein-mimicking carbs and fats


In an editorial for Nature, Stephen J. Simpson (academic director of University of Sydney's Charles Perkins Centre) and David Raubenheimer (Leonard P. Ullman chair in nutritional ecology and nutrition theme leader at the Charles Perkins Centre) argue that the obesity epidemic isn't caused by sedentary lifestyles, but by overconsumption, because our appetite control systems are "fooled or subverted" by carbohydrates and fats that mimic proteins.

The ersatz proteins are much cheaper than the real thing, and have also made their way into the feed of livestock and pets. The authors state that "the range of processed food becoming available is evolving faster than our appetite control systems," and argue that the historic shortage of sugars caused us to evolve appetite systems that are bad at judging when we've had enough of them.

These arguments echo many of those raised in The End of Overeating (recently featured in a This Day in Blogging History post), in which former FDA commissioner and MD David A Kessler tries to understand how industrial food science has produced food that is exquisitely engineered to cause overeating and constant cravings.

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Canada in decline

The Harper regime has dealt blow after blow to the values Canada holds dear: environmental responsibility, humanitarianism, fairness, transparency, and pluralism. But when you see it all laid out in one devastating indictment, it's still jarring. The fact that this indictment appears in a sober-sided journal like The Lancet only makes the barbs sink deeper. O, Canada. Cory 23